The last thing you want to do is be in a uniform of any sort when you run into anyone out there. If they're tourists, they're going to bug you. If they're smugglers, they're going to shoot you. Both things are not good, to varying degrees. For a time, I volunteered for the Bureau of Land Management. Though my primary job was guidance, cleanup, and management of two small camp sites in the Organ and Sacramento mountains, I was also available for "back country" stuff that required hours of travel and an overnight stay. I had to sign waivers for those trips in case someone shot me, rancher or smuggler. It was those trips, though, that I craved, that I would jump at when offered. Out there alone? Fantastic.
During those trips, I would check a monster Ford Bronco 4x4 out of the motor pool. It was outfitted with law enforcement upgrades (it had a cop motor, cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks) though it had no light bar. It had great air conditioning (one thing American car makers are so much better at than anyone else), a very powerful winch, and a 100watt VHF. I would leave the Las Cruces field office at 4:30am and drive to the main gate at White Sands Missile Range, request that the main gate call security to unlock the Orogrande gate, and drive out to the Orogrande gate, normally waiting fifteen or so minutes for DOD security to show up all sleepy and cranky. Drive out on a two lane straight as a ruler to Orogrande and highway 54, then cut into the desert and start the long, long trek on semi-improved dirt roads to check fence violations, mineral rights, permits on pump heads (two water, twenty oil), and brands on animals in BLM land. The drive from the cutoff to the Brokeoff Mountains Wilderness Study Area was slow and poorly routed; we had certain roads that we could not drive on because they were private and the ranchers hated the BLM. The drive normally took me through free range areas, and I'd often have to stop for cows too lazy to move and too big to intimidate. On trips I made alone, I'd drive flat out on the salt flat stretches and make it to Panther Valley in three hours, for a total drive time of five or so hours.
The Brokeoffs are one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. From Panther Valley to Devils Den Canyon, which was a few miles north of the New Mexico line, the trip was breathtaking and slow...steep roads challenged the powerful 4x4, narrow goat tracks with hundred foot drop-offs led to meadows with clear alkali water running unnaturally blue in the yellow and brown sand. The mountains out there are granite the color of rusted iron, and just as hard. From Devil's Den to McKitrick to camp for the night, the paths turned sour and hateful, the truck taking a battering and leaving a lot of government paint on the rocks and mesquite. Climb a couple of thousand feet, park, set up the tent, break out the sterno and heat up canned beef stew, and wait for the night to come.
Night time out there is something so huge and deep. The sky is a polished blue black, shining with a billion diamond chips. It is hard to sleep in all of that, the land glowing with starlight, the edges defined and rugged against the infinite night sky. I was only out once when the moon was full, and I kept waking up and just staring at the moon and the alien landscape it created from the granite and sand.
Scenes like that stick into the mind and lodge much behind them, stopping a lot of otherwise bad or mundane thoughts, filtering them. I can still see that moon hanging there, big enough and close enough to reach out and touch, a perfect white light recreating the landscape. Dawn would bring the same light show as sunset, deep red leading to pale pink leading to blue. All of it too big and beautiful to see properly. I never felt that I could do it any justice; mere observation seemed so distant. I never felt connected to that beauty, but I did feel suffused with it, smothered in it, exhilarated and nostalgic for something I never knew.
The following day would be a trip south through Devils Den to the Guadalupes, then west to Dell City, the loneliest town I've ever known. It would signal the rising tide of noise that would culminate in the following Monday morning, grinding my way through minimum wage chain smoking caffeine consuming madness. Dell City provided gas, smokes, water, and a gateway back to the regularly scheduled program.
I never told anyone this, but the last time I made that trip I wept nearly the whole way from Dell City to El Paso, knowing I'd never see any of that again. Knowing that my last moments would have that desert, those mountains, that night sky embedded and glowing behind my eyelids, my life waiting for that quiet peaceful hush.
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