by Pat Branyan
Dahna periodically convinces me that we’re too old (by that, she means me especially) to keep up with the physical demands of our 20 acre Comanche place and that we need to sell it and move. Out of Texas in particular. I love our place, and Texas, so I periodically convince myself that I’m still in the prime of life at 74 in spite of the evidence lying all around. Regardless, back we went to L.C. to check it out again, for the second time.
Previously we had considered re-retiring to Grants Pass, Oregon and then we looked at Grand Junction, Colorado. We visited both at some length and they seemed fine, but once we got back home they retreated further and further into the backs of our minds until “poof,” they were gone like our short term memory. Las Cruces was different though.
First of all it was perfect. It has a population of a little more than 100,000 and sits just 42 miles down the road from El Paso (Texas!) where everything in the world is available, pandemic permitting, especially good health care, stores and all that. Don’t forget the sunshiny skies and clean desert air, plus plenty of lumber yards for me to amble around in and nostalgically sniff up the ambience of the sharp pine and fir resins wafting about.
The Mexican food is good even if it is not Tex-Mex which, of course, is the absolute best along with Texas hamburgers, chili and barbecue and Gulf shrimp and Lone Star beer plus Toni Price and Port Aransas which is just 30 miles from where I’m sitting right now. Even shorter as the seagull flies. And City Marina where we tied S/V Alchemy up 20 years ago on our Gulf hops from Kemah to Port A. Wait. I’m leaving Texas?
One of the very best things we were looking forward to on the trip was visiting with two sets of new friends, L.C. residents Frank and Paul and the native Texas duo, James and Susan. Since all four of them are terrific people it was a “can’t miss” thing, like shooting fish in a barrel. We automatically had a great time with all of them.
The experience of visiting a new city really is much better in the company of friends, and new friends are best since they’re not sick of your crap yet. The real estate issue was a different story, however, even though it wasn’t the town’s fault at all.
When not hanging out with our friends, we did drive-bys around the town and outskirts looking at various properties that were in our price range. After awhile, I asked Dahna, “Where’s all the good stuff like we saw last time?”
She said, “I think the stuff we could afford back in April is out of our price range now. Big time. Maybe we could buy a vacant lot and pitch a tent.”
“Yeah,” I said, “we could probably afford a pretty big tent too, like the one you made a while back. Two bedroom at least!”
She thought of that great tent and the 70 pounds of heavy canvas duck she drug through her mom’s tough Singer sewing machine back in Huntsville in the 1970s. “Maybe I shouldn’t have cut it up into tarps,” she mused quietly.
“We got a lot of use out of those tarps,” I reminded her. “Covered a lot of lumber piles and all our stuff moving to Oklahoma.”
“That damn trailer. Like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’,” she fumed. “Don’t remind me of moving to Oklahoma!” She shook her head.
“Okla…” She shook her finger at me.
You’ve read all about it in the digital “papers,” and we knew about it too. But, the wild real estate price increases we see today happened practically overnight in a lot of places. We thought the lead-up to the housing bust in 2008 was surreal even though we profited from it, but that particular horror took the evil geniuses on Wall Street a good decade long in order to create that particular Frankenstein.
It’s not hard imagining them high on cocaine rubbing their hands and cackling like Mr. Burns while they looked down on their marks below in the street scurrying around like ants from a kicked anthill.
But the thing now killing us poor villagers doesn’t meet the strict definition of “IT’S ALIVE!!” Nope. While not strictly a dead thing either, a lethal virus can spread more havoc than any greedy manmade thing. That’s especially true when the deadly pathogen is lovingly nurtured by the avatar of moronic solipsism who first fleeces, then kills, his own cult followers for personal gain or sadistic pleasure or whatever the hell it is that drives a maniac like that. Montgomery Burns would sit in awe … stunned, mouth agape.
I suppose I really shouldn’t bitch and moan about zooming house prices in Las Cruces since they’re only a small product, comparatively speaking, of this terrible disease that’s on track to kill more than a million of us idiot Americans. That’s the main thing, I’ll admit. I also admit my little concerns can be really petty, and that’s not even my worst feature.
Besides, Blackstone and Zillow, among other pillagers, are spending billions buying up properties too for some galactically evil purpose, and I don’t even want to think about that. It’s not just Californians bailing out and invading the rest of the country with oodles of cash from selling their million dollar 2 bedroom, 1 bath bungalows.
Well, skipping way ahead to our second to last full day in L.C. we ran into Frank on our way to the Main Street Market Day, a biweekly event, lined with booth after booth of fresh produce and homemade arts and crafts. He moseyed along with us for awhile, pointing out a few things about the place, then went on his separate way to the Pagan Festival nearby.
I’m not sure his being a Catholic vegan explains that, but I damn sure wasn’t asking because there’s a lot more to Frank than that. I wish we’d gone with him, but we had an appointment to meet a realtor a little later who was recommended by friends of his and Paul’s. We met their friends earlier in the week at Becks, a good coffee shop catty-corner to our casita, and Paul too for the first time in person.
There wasn’t much in the booths for us or presents for friends, but I bought a plain leather belt from an old Army veteran transplanted from Kentucky of all places. We had a good time trading hilarious war stories, which is a real thing, while he trimmed the belt’s tongue down to fit something a little smaller than a hippo.
By now we’d reached the end of the booths and were right on time to meet with with the realtor, whose office was just behind the vet’s leather booth. From driving around, we knew something big had changed in the area price-wise, but the realtor gave the news to us “good and hard” to borrow from Mencken.
He said he’d been selling houses hand over fist without even showing them in person, just by giving the eager buyers virtual tours. The real kicker was when he told us that the simple median price, at the moment, was $375,000! I could see the digits spinning up in my head like the National Debt Clock in New York City.
Las Cruces is a nice town, and it has a lot going for young families and for old retirees like us as well. But $375,000? I really don’t think of L.C. as a garden spot, and where I come from that’s a lot of money for a house I might have bought for a little more than half that a year ago. Expecting to fix it up some too.
Of course, prices like that are happening all over, and it’s probably true that my own place is now “worth” a lot more than it should be. It’s true worth, speaking strictly for myself, is in the serene way I feel living there, mostly in my underwear. But, I’m not the only one who lives there and that matters. A lot.
Well, it might all be relative, but the volatility we’re seeing today scares the crap out of me because I’m not all that brave when it comes to money. I’ve learned from experience that money’s a slippery thing and easy to lose, sliding right through your grubby fingers. Dahna’s even less brave about money. Or, as she’d put it, “More sensible.” We needed to get our minds on something else for awhile, that’s for sure.
On our last day, after meeting up with Paul and Frank, we strolled together through a downtown celebration of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos which runs sort of parallel to Halloween in the formerly United States. The dress, as you might expect, was on the Gothic, Morticia side with the women and girls wearing most of the costumes and ghoulish makeup. Most of the guys stuck with t-shirts and ball caps, naturally.
The kids were racing around practically between our legs and giving their parents fits keeping up. In spite of the dark theme of the street party, it was a cheery thing with bright southwestern sunshine beaming down on all of us. Sauntering along in fine company with Frank and Paul, they showed us the sights while providing the history of some of the buildings like the Rio Grande Theatre. It was restored in 2005 and features runs of classic film series and live performances. A cultural center of the town.
Down the block a little way is the humongous used bookstore, COAS Books, spreading its labyrinthine aisles over two storeys. Dahna inhaled the rich essence of over 500,000 old books and started to sneeze in her mask. I had to get her out of there fast before she made a histamine mess and caused a COVID stampede. Thank God for Kindles and clean desert air! Frank and Paul went their separate way by then after inviting us to their house for drinks later.
Toward the end of the roped off street was a long line of kids with their parents that terminated into a booth that was backed up by squad cars. Inside a couple of beefy cops handed out candy to the kids in orderly fashion. We didn’t think about it much at the time, but those cops were busy protecting the kids from our own two big bags of fun-size Butterfingers we bought to pass out later that night.
No trick or treaters showed up at our little BnB casita on the park though. Not one single kid darkened our tiny porch. Fortunately, we love Butterfingers ourselves but are a little wistful for the country we once lived in. At least big parts of it.
We used to love Halloween almost as much as Christmas when we were kids. Greg and I would rub charcoal on our arms and faces and go as hobos complete with bindles of rags on sticks over our shoulders. We’d run wild that night dodging the grabby big kids, and we’d extort a good haul of candy in no time, house by house, filling a big paper grocery sack full to ripping. Then we’d eat ourselves sick before bed. Pure joy and kid bliss ’til it hurts like it should.
Well, back to pondering our future. Knowing that discretion is the better part of valor, we’re thinking of sitting tight until the foul plumes of the plague dissipate some and maybe just try to appreciate the nice, safe place we already have for awhile.
I was on the phone to my friend James the other day, and we were talking about this among other things. He and Susan live not far from us in a lovely home he built in central Texas some time ago. He was summing up a list of our Texas region’s advantages over L,C. in the succinct way that he puts things. “Grass,” he said firmly at the last.
There ain’t much grass in the desert of Las Cruces to be sure. Plenty of dirt and gravel and dust all right. The prospect of continuing drought that climate change is right now gripping the area with bodes ill for what little grass remains there now. The lack of water worries Frank too after living there for decades. Worries us.
When James hung up I told Dahna what he said and she got the point the same way I did. “Yeah,” she said. “Grass. That really is an important thing to consider. And for Sacha too.” Less mowing though. A lot less, but even so … Grass. James was right. Grass can stand for some key things about a place, and so can the lack of it.
I’ve only known James for maybe six months, and I’ve already come to appreciate the benefit of his thinking on a variety of subjects. One reason possibly stems from the fact that he was an only child like I was. Good parents are helpful to be sure, but solitary kids like us don’t have the gritty back and forth with brothers and sisters to help us grow up. We have to do that pretty much on our own, hit or miss.
I remember years of sitting alone in my room for hours on end imagining all sorts of things with not a single interruption. I learned how not to be bored just by thinking further and further out there about whatever rolled through my little head in that quiet room, a sanctuary for daydreams. Finally, bored with myself, I would read anything lying around. Got used to it early, then couldn’t stop.
I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but when you have to figure out things a bit more on your own, you might develop a unique way of looking at things, and that’s what James has. And when he speaks, I turn down the racket in my head to listen to him. Listening is his speciality, by training and by nature, and I hope to learn more about the things he’s found out. I’ll have to listen in to get it, like in class.
James is married to my oldest friend, Susan, who’s normal in the best possible way except around a deck of cards. That’s where she breaks bad. You’re sitting there at the table, finally with the hand you’ve been waiting for all night, just about to grab the brass ring. She’ll chirp out a little, “Oh!” Then she’ll take a hexed-up hand of hearts and diamonds with maybe a few clubs, lay it down, and treat you to a stiletto-sharp little coup de grâce to the belly.
Then, with a look of motherly concern, she’ll kindly pat your hand as the blood drains from your face and pools on the floor. You look over at James and he gives you a shrug with a smile, a little lifeline of empathy just before you go down.
I love how she says, “We’re not cutthroat card players like some of our friends.” She says that a lot.
She’s my oldest friend because we shared a few bucolic days together all the way back in 1962 as teenagers. She was the good Catholic girl who, kindly, was wasting her time on this callow kid, namely me. Partly by teaching me how to dance, no mean feat. Unfortunately, I’m no longer in touch with anyone else from the time before I met her and, frankly, I miss a lot of them.
So, that makes her my oldest friend though we’ve been out of touch for nearly 60 (!) years. Both she and James have lots of friendships older than those I’ve kept. I admire people who go to the trouble of maintaining their old connections, and I wish like hell I had done a better job of it.
I knew some pretty great dudes back when I was a kid. I still do, but I wish I had grown older while still hanging out with a few of my childhood buddies. Shoot, even with some of those smart girls who sat up front. Cooties and all.
Susan, playing a long shot, found us a few months ago on the internet as described in my previous post, “The Davis Mountains” and the rest is recent history. I think it’s a great story, and you might take a look if you care about these kind of things in your own life. Taking care to take care of your old friends is a thing she and James would tell you to do—straight out. Call your old pals before it’s too late.
Anyway, the four of us have overcome the sad verity of how hard it is for older people to make new friends, and we’re enjoying each others’ company more and more. At least Dahna and I sure are enjoying theirs.
Right before we made this second trip to Las Cruces, they left for a road trip through the Southwest to some of the big desert parks and then down to Tucson to visit old friends that live there, a town of fine cactus gardens and the extraordinary Linda Ronstadt.
From there, happily, they stopped in L.C. for a couple of days to hang out with us awhile before driving home. On the first full day they were with us we took them down to the old historic town of Mesilla abutting L.C. to its southwest.
We walked around the town’s pretty but slightly touristy plaza looking for gifts and, heading back to the car, stopped at the lovely little church at the end, Basilica San de Albino. Susan wanted to light a candle for her parents. Her beloved father recently passed away at 99, and her mom before, and so we other three and Sacha waited outside in the shade for her.
When she came out a little while later we moved on, driving out to Dripping Springs Natural Area east of town to poke around in the desert. The desert pokes back hard and, being what it is, good sense led us primarily to the terrific visitors center. I stayed outside with Sacha trying to keep her out of the spikier plants and away from the toothier critters while she peed on everything else. James puffed on one of his deliciously fragrant cigarillos while Dahna and Susan were inside nosing around.
When my turn came, Dahna took Sacha’s leash and I went inside alone. I started getting more and more into the geology, artifacts, history, and so on about the area until the N-95 mask I was wearing made my nose run. My snuffling started to scare the masked lone ranger manning the place, so I got out of there pretty quick and we drove back to our rented casita.
This little jaunt replaced a much better plan for that afternoon that I stupidly cancelled because of a bullshit concern about the weather involving Sacha. We all wanted to drive over to Silver City, and that’s what we should have done because it’s a beautiful little town out in the mountains and everybody really wanted to see it! But no. My own personal dumbassery (that I won’t go into due to length) ruled the day.
So, now James and Susan get to wait who knows how long to see it for themselves. That’s my only regret of the whole trip, but it’s a big one. Dahna and I drove out there after meeting the realtor later that week which makes me feel even worse about the whole sorry thing. The moral of the story is, Go see Silver City. Anyway, we took some photos of the handsome, whitewashed adobe university for Allan and a panorama of the little city from a rutted, all wheel drive climb up to a hill with a tiny chapel on top .
The night before that fiasco we all watched the Houston Astros play the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the World Series. Most people hate the Astros because they got caught cheating and seeing them back on top chagrinned the hell out of just about everybody. But, we’re from Texas, so we rooted hard for those lovable scamps.
Dahna and Susan sat together on the casita’s broken down loveseat that caved to the middle. They clung to the armrests to keep from tumbling into each others’ laps, which I’d pay to see. James and I pulled up kitchen chairs behind them and watched the game looking over their heads. It’s a tiny casita after all.
We ran our own quiet commentary while our wives whooped or groaned with groaning dominating because the Astros sure weren’t.
At one point when the game got tense at a critical point, Susan jumped up and hid in the hall, fingers crossed, to keep from jinxing the ‘Stros by shielding them from her witchy presence. I laughed and James smiled. But, I know exactly what she was doing. In spite of trying to pass myself off as Mr. Rational Science Guy, I actually have all sorts of little superstitious tics that would destroy the space-time continuum if I revealed them. So, I get it.
In spite of Susan’s efforts, the Astros, by not capitalizing on the break she gave them, lost the game to thunderous cheers heard ‘round the world. But not in our little casita. They did win the game the next night, and we all celebrated by going out to eat at Dennys, a place where consistency matters late at night. It was a lot of fun watching the games with those guys, and the food was good enough. Café fare.
They left for home the next day but first spent one last night at the Lodge in the Davis Mountains, a favorite place of theirs and ours. We missed a chance to introduce them to our other new friends, Frank and Paul, and that’s a shame. These guys built a wonderful “smart” solar house that almost pays them to live in it.
It’s close by our casita, and we got to see it for the first time on this, our second visit to L.C. We sat at the big plumbed island that separates the sleek kitchen from the spacious and open living and dining area while our hosts prepared drinks and a variety of nifty snacks that we were hard pressed not to grab and gobble in the Branyan manner.
Dahna remembered the beautiful dining set from a picture they sent to us months ago, and she zeroed in on it almost immediately. Frank noticed and told us that Paul made the table and chairs some years ago in his spare time when he worked for awhile in a furniture shop. They’re functional things of pure beauty far surpassing our own woodworking skills, I’m embarrassed to say.
We made a fair living for seven years back in the 1980s lathe turning high end lamps from assemblies of exotic and native woods. They were quite nice, expensive with a nine coat high lacquer finish. But, they were not in the same league as Paul’s work. He was modest about the dining set, but its art and craftsmanship spoke eloquently for itself and for its maker.
The table and chairs were indicative of their design for the home itself. A kind of clean beauty and function fitting in with the desert where they live. The lines are simple and clutter is nonexistent, not allowed by house rule. Function is at the forefront of the room design, and the things they contain, but it doesn’t drive them to severity. Everything needed is there in this small house, but it lives bigger, for one thing, because what’s not needed isn’t there.
We were very comfortable in that smart, engineered house, one carefully thought through by its owners and the builder, also carefully chosen for his own ability to contribute good ideas to the project. Modern though it is, the house fits perfectly in its old adobe neighborhood, blending in architecturally and with beautifully xeriscaped grounds that any Tucson cactus garden, or desert for that matter, would aspire to.
Frank found the correctly-oriented lot while riding his bike through the old neighborhood, and that was essential for the active and, especially, the passive solar applications that make the house so efficient. Paul said he doesn’t think they’ll ever recover the cost of the installation, but imagine getting paid by the power company each month for the energy you produce. Frank and Paul don’t have to imagine it.
If you’re considering a cold move to a new town, you can warm it up a little by being lucky enough to meet somebody like Paul and Frank to give you an intelligent perspective before you jump. They laid it out objectively, the pros and cons of Las Cruces with no buffing either way. A city they know well. We remain deeply in their debt for all the help they’ve given to us.
There’s a good bit more about Frank and Paul in a previous piece I wrote for this blog, “Las Cruces Checks All Of The Boxes.” They’re another good reason to move there along with all the others when it becomes necessary to sell the Comanche place. Like us, they’re more than a little taken aback by the dramatic escalation in property values, not to mention the general craziness running rampant through today’s America.
Nevertheless, Paul makes one hell of a margarita, and that helps a lot.
Driving home, Dahna and I agreed that Las Cruces, at the very least, still checks most of the boxes. It isn’t disappearing into the foggy mind-void of old cootery like the other towns we considered. If we move there, maybe we can convince Rocky and Elaine to leave the ice and smoke of Montana and join us. Elaine lived there once and liked it, I think. Might be a hard sell though.They have a really nice place, and you can get attached to something like that.
But, I want to talk to James some more, and being closer to him and Susan works just fine too. So, what to do? While we’re here, maybe at least we can figure out how to beat them at cards just once. Yeah, that’ll happen! Well, I suppose it could. Really though it’ll probably go for me and Dahna like it did for Dory Previn in “The Game.”
I watch the game …
The chips are down …
I know I cannot win …
ALRIGHT God damn it!
Deal me in.
And there’s all our other friends here we care so much for and love dearly. Allan and Becky and kids Matthew and Michael. There’s my bestie Lorey and husband Ron and David and Donna and Jack and Patty flying low in her new white Outback XT (turbo!) and Sally and Betty and DeNita and my Trumper pal Ray across the road with all his guns and me with mine that we shoot together and trade now and then while strictly avoiding politics as if our close friendship depends on it, clinging for dear life.
He’ll come over and we’ll sit on our respective golf carts parked side by side talking for hours, worlds apart but close still somehow. He’s finally vaccinated now thanks to his LVN wife, another sensible Susan, who harangued the big dope no end. So, now he’s allowed back in the house again to rib Dahna at will from the barstool while manfully absorbing her fierce counterblows. Very entertaining.
And there’s the ancient and magnificent Burkett pecan tree I’m killing with my ardent, but jinxed, love. I would sorely miss it too even though it’s nearly dead now. It’s my favorite of them all with its four huge limbs that once radiated out from its massive trunk, twisting upward like a scary delight from Sleepy Hollow.
But over the last few years it’s lost three of them, one by one, broken down to the ground. Only one limb is left to make me almost cry when I dare look. Maybe if I stood in the hall with my eyes closed and fingers crossed it would live and get strong again.
Like our young master plumber Cody. He just took 15 steps on his own in rehab after spending two months in the ICU in San Antonio with COVID-19.
So, there’s a little hope for us all. Oh, here comes Omicron.