Escape the Urban Travelogue: An Unlovable Land

13 Nov

I spent the last week alternating between freezing and cooking on a table of high desert in a corner of New Mexico, just north of El Paso and the big bend of the Rio Grande. The northernmost finger of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert, this is a land of yuccas and scrubs, crusted-over mud that devolves into baby powder at the least disturbance, a tableau painted almost entirely from a palette of various browns and tans. There are only three exceptions to this uniform dirty smear: the deep sky above, two weeks of wet spring that brings the desert to bloom, and the mountains shimmering in the distance, blue during the blinding sunny days, purple when backlit from a dusty blown orange sunset.

This mile high landscape is beautiful like the bleached skeletons that litter the dessicated wadis. Beautiful like a chiseled slab of granite split from the relentless wind alone. Beautiful like a coyote howl heard from a mesa miles away, not a single obstruction to attenuate the sound between.

If this land is lovely, it is also unlovable. Not even the most hardened denizen can love a home that is constantly trying to kill. Tolkien’s elves and hobbits fell in love with whispering trees, rolling grassy hills and well-tilled earth, not spiny ground cactus, parched ridgelines and caliche dust flowing through your fingers like a powdery hourglass. Here your cheeks aren’t rosy from a nip in the air, but from a competition between the sun and wind to see which can deliver the more lasting burn. In New York, our “in-between places” naturally fill in with forest and vine and horsetails. Out in the high desert, the same places gather drifts of dirt in the open, and plastic trash in the cities.

If this land is not loved, that does not mean it is not respected, or admired, or pined for even. Having lived in eastern New Mexico for several years, I can confidently say that residents who bore their home any affection loved not their land but what it represented. Loved what the open landscape stood for. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-sufficiency. A pride in having been toughened by the clime, still standing tall like a dried yucca stalk, unbroken though etched and scarred by the wind and sun. The signs of past hardships are everywhere; the road I drove everyday between draws and low gullies appeared on our map as an old stagecoach tract, the squared and cut paving stones, now cracked, still lining the wheel ruts.

Back home now on grey wet Grand Island, my boots are still impregnated with dust, my neck is looks like parched beef jerky, and my wide horizons are shrunk again by the enveloping canopy.

7 Responses to “Escape the Urban Travelogue: An Unlovable Land”

  1. RaChaCha November 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    Wow, those are outstanding pix of a very alien landscape — when you see all that “nothing” around you, it’s clear you and Toto are not in WNY anymore.

    The only thing remotely familiar about this is the phrase “The northernmost finger” — which in WNY is a common traffic signal 😉

    I’m also amazed at the work that must have gone into “paving” a stagecoach track with cut stone — any chance you have some closeups of that–?

  2. Eliz November 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Great descriptions here, Brian!

  3. Brian Castner November 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    I was hoping the one picture of the gravel road would show it, but it doesn’t. The cut stones are only on the steeper inclines to form stairs. The rock naturally juts out there anyway, but it has been obviously lined, layered and stacked to help the coach wheels rachet up.

  4. STEEL November 14, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    I did a short climb in Red Rock near LV last November ( and by short I mean very short) in my city slicker clothes prior to heading to the airport.  It was the coldest meanest environment I ever experienced.  Buffalo’s horrizontal snow takes a distant second fiddle to the Las Vegas horrizontal sleet. Though very different than your description here my brief encounter with the desert was very very moving.

  5. AIA Professional Standards Commission November 14, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    An architect who can’t spell “horizontal”?!! Are you on the level???

  6. STEEL November 16, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    not spelling something in correctly is not the same as not knowing how to spell it. That being said architects are notoriously bad spellers

  7. STEEL November 16, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    Not spelling something correctly, that is.

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