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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Chapter 8:  outpost
Carrizozo, New Mexico

The Outpost Bar & Grill is on the outskirts of Carrizozo. Like a lot of towns out here, outskirts is mostly what there is. Main street's not long and it's the only street, and the desert is there, you can see it between buildings, alleyways guide the eye back into white-gray plains joined at the horizon by whitish air.

I take off my hat while I'm driving, suddenly aware that I'm going in among my own kind, aware that it's been three days now since I've been in any public place, since I've talked to anyone, since I've looked in a mirror. I brush the sweatband dent out of my hair with my fingers. Then there's a Bar & Grill sign hanging above the street and the red neon sign in the window that says OPEN, and I have this sudden vision of date palms poised around a pool; this is an oasis and no mistake.

I'm not far wrong; going in is like going into water, cool and blessedly dark, a submergence.

Two pool tables, orange leatherette chairs, dark red Indian-blanket- patterned rug, TV on, video games in their cubicle booths; Ms. Pac Man and so on, and the lit slanted surface of a jukebox. A sign by the pool tables; "Absolutely No Wagering!" Two gumball machines, the kind you put a dime in and turn the toggle, and a pay phone next to them and a calling-card-covered bulletin board next to that. For sale behind the bar: cigarettes, Mars and Hershey bars, peanuts, Alka- seltzer, Wrigley's Spearmint gum, beef jerky.

I've been living out of my pack awhile so I hardly know where to begin; it's like Christmas morning in here, such a heap of goodies, but what is clamoring at me is thirst; so when the barmaid comes, which she does right away, placing my order is easy. Then I wait. It's the happiest waiting I think I've ever done. Between the drawn curtains come slits and wriggles of light as bright as an arc welder's torch: New Mexico afternoon. You can have it.

The beer comes in a dark brown bottle. It's as brown as lake water back East, I think, dark as lake water that's been filtered through the cakey duff of leaves and into streams chattering between stones, sweet clean water rich with dissolved organic acids and cold always. (Later I discover that this is part of heatstroke, this being overwhelmed by sudden nostalgia, and there it was: that bottle was beautiful.) With the beer is a bowl of tortilla chips and another of salsa. I get busy chilling my upper lip with foam and heating my mouth with chilies, which is a good excuse for another pull, not that I need excuses with the thirst I have, my first genuine desert thirst, that I do know won't be the last or the worst of these.

After a while I look around. The rest of the decor is a natural history collection if there ever was one. Two diamondback rattlesnake skins are stretched and mounted on polished boards, rattles and all and six feet long and as broad as my hips. Around the walls are mounted trophies of bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelopes, a peccary, two mule deer bucks -- an eight-pointer and a ten. The eight is the larger of the two, a chunky fellow once well fed on someone's irrigated corn. He has a wide-beamed fawn-colored face and a gray forehead. These deer are as individual in coloring, bulk, expression, character, as any men. The men involved are named on the tiny brass plaques below the animals' chins.

***

There are a few men at the bar, too, behind a carved partition, and two more wandering around the pool tables, both in T-shirts, overalls, and beards. They're playing pool badly. It comes to me that the real reason they're in here is the reason I'm in here.

When the waitress comes with my second beer, one of them pipes up:

''I'm buyin' this round, with the lady's blessing, o'course," he says, and we go on from there.

"My name's Carl."

"My name's Sam."

I introduce myself. "How come I knew your name was Sam?" I say, because I did.

"Yosemite Sam, that's why, they copied him off me," Sam says, "they got the colorin' right and the height right and the crazy right 'cept they added a little weight and got his beard to do this, permanent" -- he grasps his coppery beard in both hands and divides it, like drawing curtains aside, so that the bib of his overalls is visible -- "like this here, like mine does, see, when I'm runnin' from a rattler, see. Don't run too good otherwise."

They've both been cutting firewood up on the mountain where Carl has gold mines.

"We're in here 'cause we're too hot to work and too broke to eat," Carl says.

"Is it always this hot?" I ask.

"Two weeks in summer it gets up over hundred de-grees. Seventy-five on Christmas day."

"You've got gold mines?" I ask.

"Yeah. Got twelve of 'em up there. Want to see 'em? Come on, I'll show you."

"Why are you cutting wood then?"

"Took ten years for me to figure out it takes fifty dollars in to get forty dollars out of gold. Only way to make money owning mines is to get some big company in to rent 'em and pay you royalties, then you can sit back an' smoke your see-gars an' let them take the dee-duction, or the gold. Same to you, either way."

They get down to telling stories, I'm a bona fide ignoramus, fair game, notebook open.

"Interested in animals, huh?" Carl says. "Well, heck, you're settin' with a couple."

"Want to hear about rattlers?" Sam asks. "I can't tell y' too much," he says, "mostly when I hear that ts-ts-ts-ts I get myself a-goin', though of course you know you can't never tell where they are, an' so, half the time, I run right over the things an' goin' so fast they can't tell where they are theirselves."

"We ain't neither of us ever been bit," Carl says, "but that ain't sayin' we couldn't step out of here right now and meet a six-footer the middle of Main Street."

"I'll tell you the worst that happened to me," Sam says, "I was hitchhikin' up in Oregon and camped by an overpass. It got dark so I got into my sleepin' bag there an' went to sleep. Anyhow the middle of the night the sprinkler system there come on ... ts-ts-ts-ts-ts right in my ear! An' I didn't stop to think 'bout my boots or nothin', I just run across that overpass right in my sleepin' bag, yeah, takin' long hops in my sleepin' bag. Never lookin' left nor right. Rather be hit by a car than a snake any day. You OK, honey?"

''I'm OK," I say, wiping my eyes with the beer coaster.

"Y' think that's bad," Sam adds, "I had to change my di'pers too."

"The wild West ain't changed that much," Carl says, later, leaning over, talking low. "You see them four characters at the bar? I bet you anything five out of the four of 'em are packin' a loaded gun. Right now. Maybe two. A rifle they got in their pickup truck."

"Carl here ain't puttin' you on, neither," Sam says. "In Arizona they still have it on the books if a man steals your horse you can hang him from the nearest tree. In New Mexico you can shoot him. We don't have too many trees 'round here."

"But that's what you're cutting, right?" I ask. "Trees?"

"Heck, they ain't high enough but to hang a man's boots! I'm talkin' trees!" Sam exclaims.

"Here in New Mexico," Carl says, voice still low, "someone threatens you even with words you got a right to shoot him in self-de-fense. "

Sam: "Better give me a loaded shotgun."

Carl: "Double barrel."

Sam: "Got a wide scatter on them things. Don't have to aim to hit."

Me: "Won't that blow you over backwards?"

Sam: "Not if I wedge my back good against a tree."

Me: "Thought New Mexico was short on trees."

Sam: "A rock then. Got plenty of rocks."

***

The conversation goes on decaying like this, in a pleasant way, for quite a while. The slits in the curtains fade to the rose of dusk and then to darkness and it's time to go. On the way out I buy gum and a chocolate bar, no, three chocolate bars, can't help myself; who knows when I'll see one of those again? Sam and Carl nod and say I'm acting like an honest to God natural native, that I must have got a bit of desert rat in me, that they figure I'll know to eat all that chocolate before sunup or it'll melt in my britches and then I'll be sorry. I promise them I will. They walk me to my car and open the door for me, touching their fingers to the line between tan and white where their hat-brims should be.

I drive back through outskirts and then down the desert descent, black spikes of yucca silhouettes against starry sky, to the black lava rocks, and within them to the paler rocks of camp.

Sandstone, home, bleached bone in its flow of volcanic batter, white and jumbled in starlight. I unlace my boots and crawl into my sleeping bag, my tent, my pale chrysalis with its arc of a door open to starlight. To stars. To trillions of nuclear fusion reactors out in the vacuum of space and coming to me now distorted by atmospheric gas. The lovely violence of sky.

I eat my chocolate bars, obedient as a child. I'm safe here. Gas and rock are here. I lie between, the one my bone and the other my breath, and the heat of me is solar heat pumped again, and the slight lovely spiraling of the world is the gift of beer, not heatstroke; and I am here. On the earth, here.

Side-Blotched Lizard on Limestone Rock:  This is the most common lizard in the Southwest, but is variable in color and pattern.  This one is hiding his diagnostic underarm black blot with his elbow.

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