As we left Las Vegas, New Mexico, we turned straight eastward and climbed up onto a high plain. For the first time I began to feel our passage through the southwestern desert. The Rocky Mountains were receding behind us, though we would see them for many days and still catch glimpses of them in the distance in the weeks ahead. We had arrived at the top of what would have been a giant mesa had nature carved it out with a bit more definition millions of years ago.
A man stopped his Winnebago camper along the road. He had a horse trailer on the back with 2 horses in it. Gizmo and the horses whinnied at each other. He said his name was A. Kelly Pruitt, and that he was a cowboy artist. He seemed in no hurry, so I tied Gizmo to the side of the trailer and Kelly gave him some grain. We sat and talked for about an hour. He had lots of wonderful paintings that he had done, and a bunch of great old cowboy horse gear in his camper. He asked me if he could take some pictures of me on Gizmo, to use as studies, and I said sure. Was a nice break, visiting with him.
We traveled along a little-used two lane road that headed straight toward Texas and took us across an enormous flat prairie that was covered in grama and buffalo grass, with some bluestem and others competing with the cholla and rabbit weed against the wind and draught. It felt as if we had set sail on a great brown ocean beneath pastel blue skies that spread to the horizon in all directions and disappeared behind the great mountains behind us. I could see a windmill for many miles before we got to it, and they dotted the landscape here and there. No trees were to be seen, except those that were planted on purpose for shade next to the few ranch houses in the distance.
The land reminded me somewhat of the Painted Desert, though it lacked the striking buttes and mesas that had surrounded us there. Instead, the Sangre de Cristo mountains lay behind us to the west—the tailbone of the Rockies—and the land began to give way to a flat plain in front of us, with a chain of rugged hills doing its best to block our trail to the headwaters of the Canadian River. But it still felt big and open. Once we had climbed up onto the great plateau, we lost sight of Las Vegas and of anything else that tied us to civilization. Save for a ranch house and barn here and there, it was empty, open country.
I watched a coyote stalk and kill a rabbit today. We were cutting across some foothills and were camped at the edge of a large draw, up near the tree line. I was reading a paperback and looked up to see a big, healthy looking coyote trotting across the meadow below. His coat was shiny and he was fat and looked like he was having a good year. He stopped, then began to move slowly. His eyes were focused on something ahead. I couldn’t see what it was. After a minute or so he broke into a run and I saw a cottontail leap from a bush just in front of him. After a few twists and turns he landed on the rabbit and killed it. Then he trotted back the way he had come, the dead rabbit flopping in his mouth. For some reason, the whole scene had a certain elegance to it and I felt as though I had witnessed something special.
On our third day out on this flatland, we camped at a windmill with a metal water tank and a small wooden creep feeder nearby. The mill was an old Dempster ten-footer that sat on a thirty-two foot, four-legged tower. Most water pumpers in these parts were made by the Aermotor Company, so this Dempster, while not exactly uncommon, created a unique silhouette against the New Mexico sky as it spun with the wind. The mill’s wheel and tail both creaked and groaned in the wind as its sucker rod slapped against the guides with every stroke, a small bit of water leaking from the stuffing box as it pumped water into the tank at two or three gallons a minute. It was a reassuring sound to me, one that will always be connected with survival. A windmill means water, and water means life.
The grass in this part of the country had been overgrazed until there wasn’t much left but dirt, so Gizmo didn’t have a lot to eat. There was some tall green rye grass growing around the shady side of the water trough, so I staked him to the windmill where he could reach the grass and the water. I made a crude camp, then took a bath in the trough. It was big enough to swim in, so I floated on my back, naked, looking up at the wispy clouds forming in the afternoon sky. The water was icy cold but refreshing after several hot days of trail dust and sweat. I washed my clothes and hung them on the windmill tower to dry, which they did in a few minutes in the dry New Mexico sun. I sat and read for a while then noticed a storm front moving toward us from the northwest. It was miles off, but it was very black and threatening. I could see lightning hitting the ground as it grew closer, and I quickly rounded up all my gear and moved it to the creep feeder.
Creep feeders are used for feeding calves, and sometimes for horse foals that are still nursing. They are too small for the mother to fit into, but big enough to allow a foal or a calf through the opening. They allow the rancher or horse breeder to feed supplements to the young ones without their mothers taking it instead. Creep feeders are constructed in various ways, sometimes just some fence panels strung together with a small opening and some, like this one, built of wood with a tin roof and railing around it, high enough for a calf to walk under, but too low for a mother cow to pass beneath. I crawled into the wooden feeder and dragged my saddle and all my gear under its small roof as it started to rain. I ducked back out and headed to fetch Gizmo as the rain began to pour down in earnest. It arrived suddenly, with a vengeance, much sooner than I had expected. The lightning exploded when it hit the windmill tower where Gizmo was picketed. I was knocked off my feet as the light rain turned to a downpour within seconds. I watched as he jumped around, staked to the metal tower, and I jumped to my feet and ran to him. As I reached him and took ahold of his halter I rubbed his nose and talked to him to calm him down. It was the second time lightning had hit a windmill that Gizmo was tied to, and I felt like we had run out of luck. The lightning hit again, very close, and he reared up and jerked me off my feet.
I managed to hang onto the halter. The downpour suddenly turned to hail the size of golf balls. They were giving us both a pounding, but my hat took the brunt of the punishment. Gizmo was being beaten pretty badly by it all, and I knew I had to get him under shelter of some sort. I unclipped the rope from his front hobble and clipped it to his halter. Then I untied it from the windmill and led him back to the creep feeder. I couldn’t get him inside, but I could coax his head and neck in, so he was partially protected from the hail. It lasted a few more minutes then reverted back to a steady, driving rain for another half hour.
Most of the afternoon summer showers in that part of the country come and go within an hour or two. This was a full-fledged storm that looked to be settling in for the night. The creep feeder did a poor job of keeping the gear dry. Everything was soaked. Gizmo and I were both muddy and drenched, and there was no place to sit or stand to get away from it. I decided to saddle up, and we set off for a building I had seen in the distance.
As we walked, I asked him, “What’re the odds of two windmills you’re tied to getting hit by lightning?”
He dropped his head and walked along, pretending he hadn’t heard me. I led him a couple of miles to where a large hay barn stood by itself near a dirt road. The barn doors were open, so we slipped inside and out of the storm.
As I was unsaddling and spreading my gear out to dry, I heard a pickup truck pull up outside. I looked out to see the truck’s doors opening, and two men stepped out and came into the barn. The older of the two (I figured for the father) asked me what I was doing, and I told him we had gotten ourselves trapped in the lightning storm. He was a bit stroppy and aggressive at first, but when he saw that we were traveling and meant no harm, his bearing changed and he became friendly. He told me it was fine if we spent the night and to help ourselves to some of the grass hay that was stacked in the barn. I told him I wouldn’t break open a new bale, but would find one already broken. We talked for a while, the younger man asking questions about where we’d come from, the older one offering suggestions for how to navigate the country ahead. They said their goodbyes and left us to weather the storm in the barn. It rained well into the night.
The air was crisp and clear when we hit the trail early the next morning. We had taken a bit of a detour by heading to the barn so we had to backtrack to find our way along the fence line to the east. We had covered a quick six miles at Gizmo’s smooth trot when we came upon a large truck and a couple of pickup trucks parked alongside the road. There were several men at work along both sides of the fence and it wasn’t until we were almost upon them that I realized what they were doing.
Several cattle were dead, piled on top of one another inside the barbed wire fence. Gizmo snorted in fear as we pulled up to the scene and stopped. The rancher and his son were there, along with several others. They were butchering the cattle. They wrapped the pieces in white butcher paper from a roll in one of the pickup trucks. They set the meat inside the large truck, which was refrigerated and used to haul meat and produce. The rancher told me that thirty-two head of cattle had bunched up against the fence. When the lightning hit the fence, it had killed all but three of them. He told me I had made the right choice, taking cover in his barn. I asked if they needed any help and he said no, that they had it all under control. He spoke in a matter of fact manner, as if this was just part of the job of raising cattle. And I suppose it was. I turned Gizmo back up the road, and we left them there, trying to make lemonade out of lemons.
Camped at an abandoned schoolhouse outside of Trujillo. Last night I saw a mother sparrow making a nest. This morning she was dead, caught in some sort of nylon webbing she had brought home. She had flopped around until she died. I cut her loose and buried her. For some reason it made me sad and I cried.