Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Devil's Land

We (ahem) continue to work on the publication of Dragonfly. Tweaking it has been more time-consuming than anticipated, but we (my publisher and I) are still on for our April 27 release date. In the meantime, I'll ruminate a bit on Texas and Mexico, which have been much on my mind for various reasons lately.

Blooming ocotillo and acacia near the Pecos River and Rio Grande.
The former, also aptly known as the devil's walking stick, usually
looks like a dead stick with murderously long, sharp thorns, but after a
spring rain it sprouts leaves and vermilion flowers.
I am, as my bio reads, a circuit-riding professor living in the Texas hinterlands. My work this week took me deeper than usual into the open spaces on the map.* My young son accompanied me. Among other things, we paid a nighttime visit to the Marfa lights, where mysterious orbs of golden fire appear and disappear over the distant desert for no apparent reason. Sometimes the lights fail to show, but we were fortunate on this occasion. The night was chilly and star-pricked, and storm cells flashed in the distance.

I've been visiting the spot since I was a boy. But the place is on the itineraries now, and there's a viewing platform and public restrooms; my son and I were subjected to a busload of senior citizen tourists who swarmed the stop and complained loudly that the lights weren't as spectacular as they'd been led to believe. One lady right behind us, after having exclaimed to all and sundry that she couldn't see what everyone was talking about, finally had the little orbs pointed out to her by a neighbor, and bitterly commented, "Well they should be bigger."Sigh.

Because Texas is a Gulf state, it's easy to forget that the westernmost tip, occupied by El Paso, is closer to the Pacific Ocean than to Louisiana. The wedge of land between the Pecos and the Rio Grande belongs to the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico and the high plains of New Mexico. What rain it gets typically sails over from the west. It's a land where your heart expands, a land that makes you feel wild and free, a land for which I have a deep and abiding love. But, as I said, it's becoming increasingly well known, which sends persons like me hunting for places farther from such well-trodden ways.

My home lies in the east, at the Edge of Beyond, as I call it, on the ecological borderland where the Winter Garden region, known for its winter vegetable growing season, ends and the South Texas Badlands begin. Farther west, beyond the Amistad Reservoir and the Devil's River, civilization gives out altogether. The stretch of country between the Pecos canyon and the town of Sanderson is particularly desolate.

The Pecos River, that sediment-choked symbol of death, hell, and
the devil, gateway to the semi-mythical Old West.
The land is open and rolling and completely treeless, an undulating, rocky plain of prickly, dark green acacia cut here and there by canyons and arroyos. Most of the buildings are abandoned and roofless and have a haunted, almost demonic look. Marfa and the rest lie far beyond it, and there's little danger of a popular inundation so far from the Interstate and any points of interest.

The U. S. highway hugs the Rio Grande. Looking northeast you have eighty or a hundred miles of trackless, houseless wilderness, bordered on the far side by the Interstate. In the other direction, on clear days, you can see far away into the southwest, beyond the Rio Grande and across the uninhabited deserts of northern Coahuila, to where the Sierra del Burro rise up from the arid flats; perhaps you can even catch a glimpse of the Sierra del Carmen beyond, a "sky island" in a sea of desert that attains heights of more than 8000 feet, putting me in mind of one of my favorite films. Together these two ranges form the northernmost limits of the Sierra Madre Oriental. There are no paved roads there and no towns. What inhabitants there are live on large ranches. It has been called one of the remotest places on earth.

I've traveled a bit in Coahuila, having spent some time in Saltillo, the capital city, in my tumultuous youth. It's a wild and beautiful region, and one that I've longed to explore ever since. Perhaps one day, when my children are older and Mexico is more settled, I'll do so. More than anything I long to penetrate those blank spaces on the map, the Sierra del Burro and Sierra del Carmen.

Joseph Conrad's Marlow puts the desire thusly:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour's off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and...well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
Sometime soon perhaps I'll write a little narrative of my strange journey to Saltillo.

* Since my bio also reads that I live eighty miles from the nearest bookstore, I will mention that, in a tiny used bookstore I frequent out there in the Old West, I discovered a number of Arkham House books, including three collections of Clark Ashton Smith's stories, dust jackets and all, but, alas!, they are priced far beyond my limited means.

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