Caballo Lake, New Mexico
In the desert of New Mexico, a few miles outside of the university town of Las Cruces, there is a border/immigration checkpoint. You show your ID or papers to the officer there and he waves you on to sample the delights of the New Mexican countryside,which, tell the truth, doesn't vary much at this point from those on the Texas side because the whole of the desert Southwest is the product of the same subsidence of the same prehistoric Permian sea millions of years ago. But whatever. This is a normally painless, quick process. On this hot afternoon of September 2, 2012, on the tail-end of a long Labor Day weekend, though, things were a bit different. The young border officer took an unwanted interest in me.
"Where are you going, sir?" he barked, as he examined my green card. By the looks of him, he was Mexican-American who seemed like a jock barely out of high school.
"I am going to Silver City," I answered truthfully. I could have said "Albuquerque", and that was that, but my answer provoked his perplexity.
"Silver City? How are you going to get there?"
I had never been to Silver City. The only thing I knew about the place was that the infamous Billy the Kid used to hang out there. Also I had seen signage on the highway on the way to Truth and Consequences pointing out the way to Silver City and the Gila Cliffs. The latter intrigued me the most. This was the site of the Mogollon people's cave dwellings built hundreds of years ago into the sides of volcanic cliffs which were themselves millions of years old. Nobody I talked with in El Paso had ever been there. Such wonders close at hand (relatively speaking) and the good people of my acquaintance think Las Vegas is still the better place to go to! My plan was to follow the directions on Highway 25 and get there by nightfall.
I didn't reckon with the border officer, who either was truly clueless or was just tired of waving people on and wanted a little action. I seemed a good mark, because I was neither an Anglo nor a Mexican. Maybe the fact of being camped out under a shed in the middle of nowhere in all that heat can affect the brain, know what I mean?
"Why?" I replied. " How do I get to Silver City from here?" I was as perplexed about his perplexity as he was about my answer.
He seemed to bristle, in that unmistakable Homeland Security mode.
"No sir," he barked again," YOU tell me. How do you get to Silver City from here?"
Evidently he thought I was on the wrong highway. Instead of offering help by correcting my error, as any official who wants people to go on and gamble at the Hard Rock hotel in Albuquerque or watch opera in Santa Fe would do, he seemed to think I had some explaining to do. Did I look like a drug mule from Juarez to him? I hoped not!
I was glad I had printed out my Google itinerary on an old-fashioned piece of paper. I grabbed it and showed it to him.
He looked at the paper.
"I have the directions right here from Google," I said. The use of the term never ceases to amaze me, even in this somewhat sketchy moment.
"Oh, so you're going via Hatch," he observed.
Hatch is the self-proclaimed chile capital of the USA.I didn't know how long that was going to last, seeing that cheaper chiles from Mexico and China were now eating away at its monopoly.
"No, I'm not going to Hatch. I'm actually going to the Gila Cliffs."
I had the impression that he didn't know what I was talking about.
He knotted his eyebrow. I was thinking: Boy, this is taking a while. What will those people stewing in their cars behind me think? Another officer and a dog had been roaming the vehicles. Thank goodness the canine didn't salivate on my trunk.
"So I see you're taking Highway 26," he proclaimed. This was the back route through the Gila National Forest, up through the mountains. A longer route, but, from what I read, a scenic one.
"Yes," I agreed with him, trying to project an air of assurance. In truth, I had no idea where I was going. I just trusted the signs on the highway to point me in the right direction.
He gave me back my paper and huffed:
"But you know can take Highway 1-10 to Silver City, didn't you?"
I smiled sheepishly. I didn't absolutely know, actually, but I replied:
"I know, I know, but I've seen the signs on the way to Albuquerque and..."
He waved me on and pounced on the next driver behind me.
And that was that. I was in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment.
People describe the Southwest desert as "hot and flat as a pancake.."
Some parts, maybe, like the Continental Divide, but not here. The highway undulates gently in the harsh terrain. Plus there are all those beetling, jagged, treeless mountains all around you.
What I realized was that it was getting late. I had wanted to set off in the morning, but I had to play for Filipino Mass at St. Francis Xavier at 1:30 in the afternoon. and there was Filipino food afterwards. So here I was, belly full of artery-clogging food, much too late in the afternoon, driving my rented Chevy LT,. This Chevy, which I rented from Alamo, was a small nice gas-efficient brand new car that purred like a cat eager to pounce on the hot tarmac. I always rent a car when driving through the desert. Driving a used car would be suicide. A car breaking down in the middle of (again) nowhere is not a fun thing to see, and I'd seen a few of those.
It was now seven in the evening, and although the sun was still in the sky, it was going down fast and soon it would be dark. I had an inkling that I was still more than a hundred miles from the Gila Cliffs, let alone Silver City. I had to set up tent while there was still light.
I saw a sign on Highway 25 that said: "Caballo Lake State Park". Where there was a state park, there must be a camping site. I decided to swing for it and found myself on a side road which led to a booth manned by a kind-faced woman who looked like a retired school teacher.
"Can I camp out here?" I asked/
"Sure can!" she replied cheerfully.
I paid the camping fee of $8. She suggested that I go to Percha Flats, right beside the lake.
"There's too many people beside the river," she said. "It's the long weekend."
Indeed it was. The Labor Day weekend that stretches to Monday. Much beloved by workers. Not so, by capitalists like, uhm Mitt Romney?
She told me to backtrack and turn left on the paved road that said "Caballo Lake State Park" and ask directions from another booth. An elderly woman was riding a scooter ahead of me. I followed her patiently on the no-passing road. She then sidled to the extreme right of the road. Taking that as a cue to let me pass, I did so. When I arrived at the booth, I could see her mouth yammering. She didn't look pleased. I played innocent and took a tour of the park beside the river. This was the runoff from the Caballo lake, which was itself, a dammed-up portion of the river. The park was crowded with tents and RV's. Families and children bustled and shrieked. Grills smoked with sizzling offerings. Boomboxes blared Mexican music. Not a peaceful place to camp out. I must be in the wrong place, I thought.
By asking around, I determined that I was in the wrong place indeed. It turned out that I had to go back up the road then turn off down into a dirt side road and on into the lake side. I did so, and found myself in a primitive campsite with a few caravans parked beside the lake. This was a quieter tent site, with far less people because, as far as I could tell, there were no toilets or bathrooms in the immediate vicinity.
"Perfect!" I thought. I eased my car through the gravel road past cows pasturing among the scraggly bushes. I thought I'd pitch my tent on a space between twoRV trailers. There were people here, but they seemed like the sporty types.
And then calamity struck. When I eased my Chevy into the shore, my car, which was no four-wheeler, hit soft sand. The wheels sank into the ground . It tried to back out. That only made things worse. The wheels spun deeper into the earth. WTF?? I thought. I'm...we're..stuck.
The young men on the beach looked up from their beers and stared at me quizzically, if not in amusement.
I proceeded to dig the sand out with my bare hands from under the wheels. Boy, I thought, this was turning out to be one of THOSE camping trips. I had the idea of placing rocks and stones under the wheels so they could get traction. This was a moment when I wished my nephews back in the Philippines were here to help me, as they were handy with car emergencies of all types.
I was spared the ordeal of having to dig out my car by myself when the young men on the beach came up. One of them asked me:"Can we help?"
Boy, I thought, can you?
"Sure," I replied relieved.
Another guy on a big SUV not too far away yelled out: "Hey! I could chain you up!"
Could you? Please?
The young men talked Spanish among themselves. Another guy was coming up with a shovel.
"Do you see this happen often out here?" I asked one of the men.
"Sometime," he said. He was a Latino.
"Let's just lift the car up," one young man suggested.
And so they did. I placed the car in reverse, careful not to put it into DRIVE as they lifted the front bumper of my puny Chevy. The wheels gained traction again as gratitude suffused my entire being.
"America!" I thought. "I love you!"
I waved at the guys and cried: "Gracias!"
They smiled indulgently at me. They must have thought: "What a stupid oriental!'
"I'm going back up the hill," I declared.
I retraced the gravel road and went up a bluff that overlooked the lake. There was no soft sand here. The only other occupants of the bluff was a trailer and an SUV.
"Good!" I thought. At least I would have company, and who knows, some spare barbequed ribs and beer.
I pitched my tent facing the lake. I could see a giant bonfire on the shore across Caballo Lake and heard disco music thudding through the air.
It became dark. The moon rose up from behind the dark mountains and cast a silver light on the lake waters. After a while, the music stopped, and all was peace and quiet.
Moonlight shone through the roof of my tent as I slept on that first night of my roadtrip, beside Caballo Lake, New Mexico.
The next morning I woke up with the dawn. The trailer had been dark all through the night. Nobody had stirred in it. No barbeque. No sound. No nothing. I went to examine it. The door was open. A lounge chair sat empty with no human on it. Nobody seemed home. Both trailer and SUV were, to all intents and purposes, abandoned.
Who would leave a trailer and SUV out here, out on this bluff, with doors open and unattended on this, the quintessential American holiday? I wondered.
It was just as well that I was leaving that morning for the Gila Cliffs.
After doing some stretching in front of the Caballo mountains and admiring the colors of the dawn, I took down my tent and went back to the riverside campground to have a proper shower and a breakfast beside the Rio Grande.
It was a lovely morning, full of birdsong, in contrast to the cacophony of the day before. Many people had packed up and left. I enjoyed a tin of sardines, a bollillo ( the Mexican version of French bread), raisins and Powerade.
It was a breakfast as grand as on any cruise ship or 5-star hotel.
(Next blogpost: The Gila Cliffs)