Lightning Wolf

We met Whitey at the Grapevine campsite off of New Mexico State Highway 15. He arrived in an early 1980’s F-250 truck. He proceeded to lead our group of two cute-utes and a full-size SUV through three crossings of the East fork of the Gila River. We were headed for a ranch - where Whitey runs a few head of cattle and acts as caretaker - that sits in meadowland described by a lazy oxbow. The river, in geologic time, has carved through the sedimentary rock – leaving horizontally striated canyon walls that rise up and are crowned by an assortment of  mesas, buttes and hoodoos (tall skinny spires of rock).

After we all spent the night in the adobe ranch house, Will, Nicki and I climbed up the north western slope along a steep scree path. Arriving at the narrow mesa that runs along the ridge we looked out to the west just as the sun was threatening to top the eastern canyon wall. While we idly searched for shards of mimbres pottery the sun began to play on the distant Mogollon Mountains and then slowly spread across the Gila Wilderness that lay before us.

This is remote country, but tourists regularly trek to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument located at the end of Highway 15, about seven miles north of the ranch. About mid-morning, this time without an escort, we took Will’s X-Terra back through the looping East Fork and headed up the highway – the last stretch of a route the State has named ‘Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway’ that originates in Silver City – gateway to the Gila. The cliff dwellings were built into a series of shallow caves halfway up the south facing wall of a narrow canyon some seven centuries ago and although only inhabited for a generation, they stood intact until the late nineteenth century when local ranchers looted and burnt them in the belief that they were contemporary Apache redoubts. When we arrived they were in full sun and heavily patrolled by loquacious Park Service volunteers.

As late as 1883, a miner named James McKenna visited the caves and found the dwellings complete, with heavy pine beams supporting roofs of twigs and grasses and a layer of adobe plaster. In the cool interiors, stone hammers and war axes, turquoise beads, and mimbres-style pots decorated with images of bear, elk and deer lay undisturbed on the floors. In addition, he found a mummified female child of about two years of age with cottonwood fiber woven around it (James A. McKenna, Black Range Tales, New York, 1936). McKenna goes on to describe the mummy as about eighteen inches long with its knees drawn up and the palms of the hands covering the face, but with its high cheek bones and coarse, dark hair clearly visible. After its discovery, it was displayed in a shop window in Silver City for some months before being purchased by a private collector who had posed as a representative of the Smithsonian.

Their wanton desecration, the intrusion of bright sunlight into the cave rooms, the steady trickle of tourists and the oppressive presence of uniformed personnel combined to remove any magic that once surely inhered in these sensitively sited and painstakingly constructed ancient dwellings. On the way back to the ranch we visited a small canyon that led to a single cave dwelling which, while it had also been looted and its roof destroyed, was out of the sunlight and blessedly devoid of interpretive adjuncts: it resonated with a mournful immanence. A few hundred yards to the south of the cave were rock paintings rendered in a red, hematite pigment.

The novelistic accompaniment that I chose for this New Mexico trip was Edgar Rice Burrough’s greatest work, The Land that Time Forgot, 1918. In this age of Google Earth the plot is preposterous: it suggests that a mini-continent had lain hidden in the frigid mists of the far Southern Ocean, amidst icebergs sourced from Antarctica, until its discovery by Tom Billings, a Southern Californian commanding a captured German U-boat in World War One. Tom goes on to find within the Island, “…glimpses of a world past, a dead world, a world so long dead that even in the lowest Cambrian stratum no trace of it remains.” For in Caspak, the name ERB gives to this lost continent, there exists Cretaceous flora and fauna and a complicated hierarchy of creatures that represent the full range of hominid evolution. Tom and his subsequent would-be rescuers thus have the opportunity to battle dinosaurs, mastodons, cave-bears and sabre tooth tigers as well as a wide assortment of primitive and not-so-primitive tribes. It makes, as they say, for a ripping yarn.

Much of the New Mexican landscape was formed as much as 65 million years ago – at least according to recent Caltech research that dates the creation of the Grand Canyon, a close geological neighbor, to that era – a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. It was easy, then, to transpose Caspak to the Gila and imagine Tyrannosauri roaming the high desert plains desperate for the fecund flora of the Cretaceous, now atrophied to juniper, piñon, scrub oaks, mountain mahogany and dwarf grasses in this dehydrated world.

As Brian Aldiss points out in his Modern Library Classics edition introduction, The Land That Time Forgot is a part of the ‘Lost Race’ genre popular at the turn of the century and exemplified by writers like Ryder Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World). James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (Valley of the Blue Moon) is a late addition to the canon. It’s not hard to unearth the ‘lost races’ of New Mexico – evidence of previous inhabitations is all around. The Mogollon, whose culture lasted a scant thirteen hundred years, were responsible for the beautiful Mimbres pots we saw in the Western New Mexico University Museum in Silver City before leaving for the ranch and those left behind at their Gila cliff dwellings – some of which, by repute, are still hoarded by local ranching families.

Earlier that morning Whitey had left the ranch with his beautiful Mexican partner Diana and a trailer hitched to his truck bound for a cattle sale in Las Cruces. He was planning to sell four animals and that night, our last at the ranch, was haunted by the bereft lowing of a cow whose heifer-calf had been taken. Whitey, of indeterminate middle age and whose public appearances are always in a slouched felt Stetson, is an old school cowboy. He fiercely protects his herd until he gauges it is time to sell. A few years back he shot a ‘Mexican’ wolf that had been threatening his new-born calves. These beautiful lupine creature are on the Federal Endangered species list (I saw one recently in captivity at a private home here in Ojai) and thus the killing was a Federal offence.

Burying said animal under an abandoned truck on the Ranch seems like a reasonable strategy in the circumstances and in most cases would have been the end of it. Unfortunately for Whitey, buried within the wolf was a radio chip and the Feds were soon on to him; he fled to Mexico while the ranch owner argued his case and eventually had the charges dropped.

Driving north to Quemado, our next destination, the only billboards along the lonely highway were crudely fashioned rants against the outlawing of Wolf hunting (in contrast to all roads leading to Albuquerque and Santa Fe which are festooned with Indian Casino come-ons). The liberal sensitivities of us six southern Californians were duly pricked. Turns out that the recently re-introduced wolf is not popular with the local ranchers – who comprise the primary source of wealth in these parts. At Quemado, a miserable town where both gas stations, the local fortune teller and all save one restaurant have given up the ghost, we were met, in a derelict two-storey building that announced itself as the local headquarters of the Dia Foundation, by the driver who would ferry us to The Lightning Field – the putative reason for our trip to New Mexico.

Walter De Maria, who was part of a loose confederation of earth artists which included Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), Robert Heizer (Double Negative), James Turrell (Roden Crater), and Nancy Holt (Sun Tunnels), died this summer. His most famous work sits in a vast high plain rimmed with cinder cones, rugged mountain ranges and, at a distance, the Zuni, Navajo and Acoma Reservations. Our driver knew Walter for her father Robert had helped construct his art piece. During the drive, on washboard gravel roads over which she maintained a steady fifty miles per hour, occasionally letting the rear end of the GMC drift in the lazy corners, she made it clear that her sympathies were not with the wolves and she briefly mentioned the notorious Silver City case in which Whitey had starred: in her world wolf-killers are heroes.

We were dropped off (or abandoned) at a picturesquely restored log cabin that sat like a little house on the high plain. Inside were Stickley and Heywood Wakefield craftsman furniture, three bedrooms and a creaking porch with a view of the grid of twenty foot high stainless steel rods anchored in the ground over an area of one mile by one kilometer. This is what we came to watch – for this matrix becomes an active participant in the passage of time, the changing of light and one’s relationship to the vast landscape.

The echt-Lightning Field experience can only be had in an electrical storm (the raison d’etre of the rods is, of course, to attract lightning). Earlier on our trip, Lorrie and I spent a night in the Murray Hotel in Silver City while other members of our party were driving through the night from Los Angeles. Around midnight we were awoken from our slumbers by the crashing of thunder and momentary day-lighting of the room by lightning. Wrong night, wrong place. Sunday night in the cabin passed uninterrupted by stormy weather.

At dawn I ran two circuits around the grid. Later we packed up and prepared to go our separate ways. Nicki and Will to the Grand Canyon, Julian to Chaco Canyon and Lorrie, Amy and I back to L.A.. Leaving Quemado and driving through the El Malpais National Conservation area to Albuquerque the primal landscapes of western New Mexico, even viewed through a rental-car window, served as an imaginative adjunct to the lost world that still swirled in my consciousness from the moments of reading I had snatched in the cabin, between festive meals spent discussing the finer points of our ‘Field’ experience - and the lost races are forever in my mind as I travel New Mexico (Too Late). The Lightning Field, sans lightning, stands as an effete affectation of modernity in this deeply affecting land: but with nature’s cooperation I imagine it might stir my soul to its primordial roots.