Journal Entry: Project Enchilada—Route 66, Radiation, and Silver City
Date: February 14, 2016   Time: 1:30 PM Local, 20:30 UTC
Location when Posted: Silver City, NM

Las Cruces Farmer’s Market

I drove to Las Cruces, about 30 miles south of White Sands, to wait for a blanket of cold air to clear off the high desert. Las Cruces has a farmer’s market every Saturday, even in February. In the last ten days, I have traveled only 60 miles along the border but I have eaten a disproportionate amount of food and I firmly resolved to eat less.  At the farmer’s market, I exploring home-made quilts, green vegetables, brown pottery, and turquoise jewelry. My eating resolution faded like a twenty-dollar bill and I downed a dozen mini-donuts, smothered with caramel and chocolate and heavily dusted with powered sugar.

Vendors tied peppers in long bunches, deep red and capped with tan stems. Street musicians anchored each block: a young man in a white shirt played contemporary tunes, old hippies played folk music, and a vintage couple in classical Mexican outfits played Frank Sinatra melodies. An old man dressed like a cowboy sold fireplace pokers and shovels. I talked to him about smithing and he showed me pictures of his coal forge. An old black women sold kofias, bright in all colors of the rainbow. Farmers lined tables with quart jars of golden honey and cowboys sold New Mexico beef from big white freezers atop flatbed trailers.

Heading North

The drive is desert, all desert, relentless desert: unending mounds of gravel covered with countless cacti, stretching far off to the hills and beyond. In Albuquerque, I intersected old Route 66, famous for transporting the Grapes of Wrath dust bowl exodus and later, those seeking “kicks,” as described by Nat King Cole.
It winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than 2000 miles all the way,
Get your kicks on Route 66.

Garcia’s Kitchen, located on old Route 66, is tucked between a service station and an art studio. Red booths line one wall, a counter top with stools, the other. The walls are covered with signs and most of the customers were Latino: a good omen for authentic food.

Catching Up

Santa Fe rests in a valley, an hour north of Albuquerque. The buildings are adobe and lay close to the ground. Old Santa Fe is ascetically uncompromising in style and design with 300 galleries, aligned side-by-each: any dust and sweat is removed at the city limit. Shop windows were full of silver, turquoise, carved wood, beaded leather, and desert paintings. Each piece was exquisite, coming from hands with years of practice. Vendors sat in the shade of the portico of the Palace of the Governors with jewelry on blankets at their feet. Tourists used hand-held mirrors to look at earrings for self-approval.

I sat on a wood bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, closed my eyes, and absorbed the midday sun. A retired couple for Boston sat opposite with a pair of golden labs. Everyone who passed leaned over and caressed the grateful animals. I am fairly certain that golden labs are the worst watch-dogs on the planet. I think that if confronted by a burglar, they would say “Pet me, hold my face and rub my ears, and then you can take whatever you want.”  

Los Alamos, NM

It’s an uphill climb through ravines and valleys and along hillsides to Los Alamos, which sits atop a plateau at 7,300 feet. I know Los Alamos from documentaries on the History Channel: grainy black & white images of wooden buildings, primitive construction equipment, and Robert Oppenheimer, wearing a tie and jacket and smoking a cigarette under a large brimmed hat. I was surprised to find a vital community with busy restaurants, grocery stores, and libraries. I was also surprised to learn that the Los Alamos Research National Laboratory employs 9,000 people, 2,500 of which have PhD’s in physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, mathematics, computer science and geoscience. Los Alamos glows with intelligence and is full of sideways glances and with people wearing dosimeters.

I toured the Bradbury Museum and then headed south, back through Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Truth or Consequences, and spent the night in Las Cruces. The following day, I drove northwest to Sliver City, NM.

Silver City, NM

Bullard Street extends a dozen blocks dead-ending into a steep hill to the south. One and two story buildings, constructed at different times, border the asphalt. Two old theaters grace the west side of the street, adorned in their original wardrobes. The Gila is adobe with scalloped maroon stucco, embedded with gold circles over the marquee. The city has been built on a hillside and high curbs support concrete sidewalks, akin to a boardwalk. Red circles with large “ART” letters identify galleries.

There are few tourists so I am able to watch local people. They go about their business this Saturday morning: out of the co-op, a shout to a friend in a gallery, then across the street to the bakery. Bags in hand, they disappear into small vehicles or old pick-ups and, in the case of the latter, thunder out of town. Time seems to be slower here and people move about freely with little stress. Men with earrings and mysterious cowboy hats, shaped by sweat and weather and decorated with pins, beads, and feathers, drift between stores and restaurants. A group of men sat in webbed chairs outside a used book store. They varied like the contents of a cornucopia: crew-cuts to shoulder-length hair, clean-shaven to haggard beards, button-down plaids to faded t-shirts, hiking shoes to bare feet, baseball caps to broad-brimmed hats. A bobber or dressed Harley periodically roared from a side street with riders in black leather jackets, blue jeans, and engineer boots like from a James Dean movie.

I wasn’t hungry but a heavy Hispanic woman with jet-black hair and a red blouse, delivered a plate overflowing with a beef taco, a large chili relleno, rice, beans, and two cheese enchiladas.  A separate plate held two large sopapillas. I emptied the first plate and then smothered the sopapillas in honey and devoured them. I still wasn’t hungry.

Rusty hiking trails, on the hills west of Silver City, circumvent deep ore digs and test pits. The hillside provides panoramic views of the city and the University of New Mexico campus. The trails wind throughout the desert grassland and hikers and bikers crisscross the landscape. 

The Little Toad Creek Brewery sits on the corner of Bullard Street and Broadway. It has a solid oak floor, stucco walls, and a tin plate ceiling. I ordered a root beer and sat at a high round table. The saloon was full: couples in lounge chairs near the front windows talked in low tones while sipping beer, bright-eyes millennial hipsters sat at a high table in the center talking and laughing, a woman in a tank-top with a black tattoo encircling her bicep sat in the sunny corner near the door flirting with her boyfriend. The faces of hipsters, hippies, and pensioners held beards of color: pitch black, brown, red, and all shades of gray. A waitress, wearing a black t-shirt, a pink chiffon skirt, and pink fishnet stockings, skated—four wheels under each foot—smoothly between tables taking and delivering orders. She floated in gracious curves and cut tight loops, her pony tail danced behind her head, and silver spun in circles under her ears. She moved with surgical precision and I could have watched her all day.
I thought of Dire Straits and Skateaway.

I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on on her feet
Well the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the kerbside crawl
But the rollergirl she's taking chances
They just love to see her take them all.

Journal Entry: Project Enchilada—Caverns and Aliens and Rockets
Date: February 5, 2016   Time: 6:00 PM Local, 01:00 UTC
Location when Posted: Las Cruces, NM

No Shemagh

The lights of El Paso stretched across the valley like the Milky Way and the orange glow of Ciudad Juarez, south of the border, melted like butter over the horizon. Daylight revealed the hills of Sierra de Juárez pushing against Ciudad Juarez from the southwest and the Franklin Mountains flanking El Paso to the west. The huge Army training camp of Fort Bliss sits near the foothills, it’s orderly layout is stark against the neighboring subdivisions which are lined with curves and cul-du-sacs.

When in Laredo, I shopped for a shemagh—a scarf worn in the Middle East to protect the face from sun and sandas it would be useful when hiking in the desert. I found a wide selection at a military surplus store but I didn’t buy one, certain they would be plentiful elsewhere. At Big Bend, I hiked the Boquillas canyon along the Rio Grande. The canyon narrowed to a sliver through which only the water flowed. A vicious wind blew out of the crevice and river sand abraded my face and I cursed my hesitation. I added a shemagh to my shopping list, right below enchiladas.

Shoppers jammed the streets of El Paso and vendors sold beach balls, bras, and bakery.
Vendors rolled racks of provocative lingerie and tight blue jeans to the front of their stores. Leggy women carried packages filled with things that leggy women buy. Children, towed by protective mothers, held pastry in their free hand and sugary debris littered their little faces. A street vendor selling churros blocked the sidewalk and the scoundrel guarded a mountain of sugar-covered-deep-fried-treasure.

“How much are those?”
“A dollar and a half.”
“I’ll take one.”
“Do you want it filled with caramel?”
“How do people usually eat them?”
“Filled with caramel.”
“Ok, do that.”
I gave him two dollars and walked away, satisfied that I was eating a churro filled with caramel in the presence of others eating churros filled with caramel.

I drove to a military surplus store near Fort Bliss. Young men, dressed in military fatigues and with stubble for hair, waited near the cashier. Long tables held stacks of olive drab and desert tan. Behind the counter, seamstresses, buried in camouflage, pushed cloth through heavy machines. The cashier, a young man with jet-black hair parted down the middle, gave a soldier paperwork for his order.

His tone became deadly serious, as if planning a mission, “Here is your receipt and this yellow slip is your claim ticket, don’t lose it.”
The solder took both in hand and said, “OK.”
The clerk said, “This is important. If anyone comes in here with this claim ticket, I am going to give him the merchandize.”
The soldier said, “OK, I understand.”
The clerk said, “Your order will be ready after 12:30 on Tuesday. Remember, don’t lose the ticket.”

This was the voice of experience. The soldier shoved the papers into his pocket and leaned into his buddies. They exchanged a slap on the back and plowed through the door.

I did not find a shemagh.

Ferrying the Brass

After three enchiladas, rice, and refried beans in El Paso, I drove three hours to the northeast. Tan grass and cacti lined the worn reddish asphalt. The flat desert yielded to sweeping curves through rocky mounds, several hundred feet high. A triangular formation of three Black Hawk helicopters emerged from a canyon and flew directly overhead. I lowered the window and listened to the thumping. Two more Blackhawks flanked a twin-blade Chinook and followed the first cluster, probably ferrying Army brass to Fort Bliss.  

The sheer cliffs of the Guadalupe Mountains loomed to the north and the road banked and ascended the pass. The Element struggled under the load and automatically downshifted to maintain speed. We topped out at 7,000 feet and then the earth fell away and we coasted for miles.

Carlsbad Caverns

The visitor center has thick stucco walls with dark brown trim. A large solar panel covers the entry providing both shade and energy. There is no camping in the park so I spent the night in Carlsbad, 20 miles to the north. Early the following morning, while milling about the lobby, I met friends from Big Bend and we teamed up for this adventure.  The mouth of the cave is wide and hungry and is lined by tongues of cacti with millions of thorny teeth: a massive Venus flytrap waiting for groups of unsuspecting children and helpless old men. I felt a tickle of apprehension while peering into the cyclopean opening.

It is 800 feet to the bottom: 80 stories down and 80 stories up. There is an elevator but the damn thing is stuck at 600 feet with a broken shaft. I was assured that no one was in it when it broke. Since there are no intermediate floors, being stuck in that car would cause anxiety, followed closely by depression and death.

The walkway is steep and engineers used hundreds of switch-backs and miles of stainless steel railings to mitigate the issue. The caverns are massive and are lined with indescribable towers, mounds, and speleothems. Park rangers, equipped with backpacks, radios, and flashlights, appeared along the path. A young man in a Smokey Bear hat illuminated hidden fossils in the ancient sea reef. We passed a group of children who were uncharacteristically quiet: from apprehension and not fear, I think. Although the caverns were created by sulfuric acid eating limestone, there is no residual odor, and the air is clean and moist. At the bottom, we drank water and made excuses for why we should not hike another 90 minutes to see a feature called the Bottomless Hole.

The ascension was slow and methodical. The first beams of natural light touched my spirit and I thought of the many origin myths that are based on the belief that life emerged from caves. The winding path led up and out and like Jonah, we emerged from the mouth of the beast and left it agape, quiet, and wanting.

A Night in Roswell

I spent the night in Roswell, home to alleged crash of an alien spacecraft in 1947. Business signs exploited the event with plywood flying saucers and alien images. I sat in the corner of Starbucks, looking suspiciously like a character from the X-Files. From the corner of my eye, I watched people come and go. I checked my watch for gaps in time. I looked for short grays, tall grays, and lizard people. Nothing. The residents of this community belie its reputation, and, no disrespect intended, are disappointingly normal. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Postscript to Roswell: I remember a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I paraphrase. He said, "If aliens had the capability to travel across the galaxy but then crashed into the planet, I have no desire to meet them."

The Snow of the South

I ate breakfast at a small diner in Ruidoso Down, west of Roswell. The day was crisp and snow hung to roof tops. The sun hung low, disappointed, and made no progress. I rolled along Highway 70 through the canyons of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Tall green pines leaned into steep hillsides and winding road lead to casinos, set deep in the woods.

The White Mountains opened to the white sands of Doña Ana County. The road passed
through vast groves of pistachio trees, now barren of leaves. There is a terminal wave of white in the distance. It’s an long edge extending north to south and looks like the leading edge of seam foam against the bronze desert floor.  I watched it for a long time, just out of range until the visitor center at White Sands National Monument. The road through the park is phenomenal. The sand is off-white, something like cream or eggshell and varies depending on the angle or shadow. Heavy white dunes roll haphazardly over the desert floor and weave a tapestry of sand over and around desert foliage. A magical deal has been struck here, an
agreement between plants, animals, and the sand. Sage-colored foliage is tightly rooted into dunes and to the floor between dunes. The dunes, while still and heavy, appear to pitch and roll like hundreds of white whales from Melville’s imagination. The breaching of the landscape moves the eye without effort.  

The crystals are fine, like salt, and slid freely through my fingers. Little kids, bundled in winter jackets, stomped mightily up the sides of steep dunes. I was captured by a spell and I couldn't stop looking at the landscape. I wanted to absorb it completely and I photographed incessantly. I knew I would have to leave this wonderland but I wanted to hold it in my memory, crystalline and with the sheen of a pearl. 

A huge yellow grader plowed a drift and it reminded me of Upper Michigan during a blizzard, but this snow of the south would never melt and the white grains would just be rearranged ad infinitum. As I drove toward the White Sands Missile Range, I sensed that this eternal struggle of man against nature will likely end badly for man.

Vengeance Weapon 2

A big man, slumped in his chair at the visitor center at the White Sands Missile Range, asked for my driver’s license. A Bible, its worn pages tabbed with plastic stickers, sat conspicuously at the edge of his desk. 

I said, “That Bible has a lot of wear.”
He said, “You should see my mother’s. I had to glue the cover back on.”
I said, “You must spend a lot of time in the Book.”
He looked me square in the eye and said, “If you do not bow now, you will have to bow later.”
I thought, “Jesus, right on the tail of those negative existential thoughts about things ending badly for mankind.”

I just nodded.

He held my license like the Jack of Hearts and said that he needed to do a criminal background check. I felt my eye brows involuntarily raise and a slight quiver of vulnerable shot across my neck although I didn’t recall doing anything bad…recently. He dialed a secret number, recited my license information, and hung up. We waited, me sitting in front of this worn Bible upon which he tapped his fingers.

I broke the awkward silence. “What happens if someone fails the background check?”
Without blinking, he said, “We arrest them here on the spot.”
I said, “What if the person who committed a crime already did his time, would that prevent him from entering?”
He said, “It depends on the crime.”
I said, “Sure, I guess that makes sense.”

Then I shut up and put my hands on my knees and waited for the spy on the other side of the phone to return the call.

He took my photo with a web cam, printed an identification pass, and sent me out the door. I walked to the security gate and a smiling soldier with an M-16 draped across his chest looked at the paperwork, pointed to the museum buildings, and told me to stay on the sidewalk.

Dozens of missiles, representing America’s experimental and military efforts, stood at
attention in a gravel yard. An F-4 Phantom sat on the gravel, tired and worn. The faded insignia showed that it had been assigned to SAC squadron but it was configured for carrier landing. My guess is that it was armed with a nuke.

One of Wernher von Braun’s V2’s sits, horizontal and harmless, in a building of its own. In original colors of yellow and black, it rests on steel bracing, like a body in full rigor mortis undergoing autopsy. Its sides are cut away exposing fuel tanks, steam pumps, and navigation gear.

Along the wall, posters explained the history of this device. They describe not only the technical details of the rocket, but its strained history also. Von Braun and colleagues designed this rocket for Hitler’s warheads and the Nazi’s launched over 3,000 missiles against England and Europe, killing thousands. It was a weapon of terror and named the Vengeance Weapon 2, or “V2.” After the war, the United States spirited away German rocket scientists including Von Braun. Unbeknownst to a beleaguer citizenry, the government put them on the payroll. Motivated by a new allegiance and a new mission, they contributed to Americas’ military defense and exploration of space.

The moral morass of these decisions is thick and heavy and I wondered if Mama’s worn out Book provides any guidance.


I found solace in the memory of the last meal I ate in El Paso. Amen. Let's eat.

Journal Entry: Project Enchilada—Port of Entry
Date: January 31, 2016   Time: 6:32 PM Local, 01:32 UTC
Location when Posted: El Paso, TX

Learning to Fly

Del Rio leans against the border, three hours north of Laredo. At Starbucks, a tall young man, about 20 years old and well-groomed, sat opposite me at a large table. He paged through a stack of books, covered with red vinyl. The titles, written with a Sharpie, were obscure Roman numerals. There was no need to eavesdrop as I couldn’t avoid his behavior. He waved his arms about his head and his hands joined with deliberate and precise movements. My first guess was a particular form of Tourette's Syndrome but, as usual, my curiosity overcame my good sense.

I asked: “I don’t mean to be nosey but can I ask what you are studying?”
He said: “I’m learning to fly.”

My thoughts, simultaneously obtuse and impetuous, rattled about. “Hmm...Tourette’s with a fantasy…caffeine induced flying psychosis….Tom Petty fetish…flying daydream…Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” Then I thought, “It’s good that I am not saying these things out loud as no one would understand what I am talking about.” Oftentimes, it’s better to leave things in your own head.

I said, “How many lessons have you taken?”
He said, “One.”
I said, “Did the instructor bank sharply during your lesson to show you the capability of the aircraft?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are those your flight manuals?”
He said, “Yes, but I have to return them.”
I asked, “What kind of aircraft are you learning to fly?”
He said, “They have a bunch of T-6’s.”

The solution to the puzzle solidified in an instant. I said, “Oh, you are in the Air Force and you are training at Laughlin north of here.” (I remembered seeing it on the map.)

He said, “Yes, today was my first flight.”

Laughlin graduates hundreds of pilots each year. I asked him about his plans after training and he told me that they were dependent on his performance. I realized that his studying was based on stress, not caffeine. He needed to excel if he wanted to be a jet jockey. I wished him well and suggested he think about Project Orion—our attempt at Mars. He smiled incredulously at the proposition. I smiled because I understand the Law of the Harvest.

Don’t Feed the Animals at Big Bend National Park

The sign said “Don’t feed the animals.” I spread chunks of wheat bread around the tailgate. The relentless begging of a road-running made me do it. This trivial gesture resulted in company for the entire day: a pair of cardinals, a pair of doves, three road-runners, and one golden-fronted woodpecker. None were shy or spooked by sudden movements and I surmised that food in the desert was rare and worth the risk.

The Sonoran climate is unlike any other. While beautiful, it is barren and unforgiving and waiting for the unprepared to slip-up. My new friend, the road-runner, sat near my feet and I watched his crest rise and fall as he surveyed the horizon, his eyes scanning for danger (a coyote, perhaps.) A woodpecker would periodically swoop in, noisy and hungry. He perched sideways on the same twisted mesquite and surveyed the region while squawking. Then he would bobble to the ground, grab a chunk of bread, and flap away at high velocity and low altitude. After a while, my gaggle of friends ignored the bread. Thinking they might be bored, I opened a jar of Skippy.

As I sat on the tailgate recording a journal entry in the late afternoon, cool north air drifted over the desert and pushed the heat into Mexico. While I waited for the birds to return, I removed peanut butter from the “h” and “n” keys.

Light was going to fade soon so I placed bowl of water next to the food that I was not supposed to feed to the animals. 

Shadows formed on the sandstone cliffs to the east, making them appear shear and brittle.

My friends returned. The road-runner pecked some peanut butter which stuck to the end of his long beak. Then he pecked in the soil which stuck to the peanut butter. He dislodged the glob by shaking his head somewhat violently and then he roosted, quiet and resolved, about six feet away. He listened to me talk and type and I choose to believe that we enjoyed each other’s company.

The cardinal returned to the mesquite, a few feet to my left, and about head height.

Socializing with the animals in the desert at dusk was a treasure. The sand faded to darker shades of tan and the smell of camp fires drifted through the campground.

Port of Entry

Big Bend National Park is nestled in a literal big bend of the Rio Grande River. An obscure port of entry in the southeast corner of the park serves as a gateway to Mexico, more specifically to the tiny village of Boquillas: population 200. Marcie and Jim fed me beef tacos and jalapeno scones in their shiny Air Stream as we talked about music, travel, food, politics, and the village of Boquillas.

The customs building, a adobe structure with dark windows, was occupied by a young agent, a computer, and two security stations. The agent was young and fit. He carried a fully armed tactical belt and his body armor was barely apparent under this tan shirt. He checked our passports and recited the Litany of Boquillas.

“Go through that door. Walk along the path to the river. A ferry will transport you across. You will be assigned a guide. Boquillas is a mile from the river. You can rent a horse, a burro, or you can walk. You cannot come back with any fruits or vegetables. You cannot come back with any rocks, minerals, or animal bones. We close at 5:30. Should you not return by then, you will have to spend the night in Mexico or at our back door.”

I paid close attention because of my understanding deficit and my innate desire to violate rules. I was immensely grateful that the agent spoke loudly in English. I dismissed the little nag about of animal bones as a fib.

Yellow oars pulled against the water as an aluminum rowboat left the river’s edge. A Spanish melody, rich and baritone and from the mouth of an old man, accompanied the rowboat. Both sides of the border were thick with sand: barren and bleached and framed by cacti and marsh grass.

Our ferry arrived and a well-spoken young man with a plastic name tag assigned seating according to weight. I was placed in the back, on the downstream side, for ballast. He dug his boots into the sand and launched us into the Rio Grande. To arrive at the target, he pulled upstream against the current so that he could control the downstream drift. For five minutes we floated on the most controversial river in North America: the oars plunged into the water with gentle swishes and the current bubbled against the hull.

Our maritime pilot steadied the craft as it nudged the foreign shore. On a gravel surface atop a dune, an old man sat at a card table. He was flanked by a handful of weary souls in jeans and boots who leaned into the sand like empty bottles of beer. The old man had a heavy mustache, dark with wisps of gray, and he was singing. Marcie, our interpreter, greeted him in Spanish. In exchange for five dollars American, he gave us a blue ticket for the return trip on the Alumacraft. He nodded to another old man: Jose, our guide. Jose was heavy and weathered. He walked with a limp and wore a black glove on the hand of his right arm, which remained motionless. He spoke no English so Marcie interrogated him during the walk to the village. To my ear, the conversation was a delight but, given my language deficiency, they could have been exchanging recipes for Mexican wedding cake.

It was dry but cool and thin clouds hid the sun. We walked a zigzag path to avoid burro poo. Plastic bottles and shopping bags littered an arroyo—a dry creek bed. We moved aside for a young man who led several horses toward the river. The trail twisted and we climbed to the edge of Boquillas and stopped adjacent a primitive burro coral.

Boquillas was a sad little village: haphazard and dusty. Children approached from all directions to sell baubles. The ground surface was gravel, jagged and uneven, with no distinction between road, walkway, or yard. Barbed fences, with bent and weathered Cola signs, divided territory between burro bedding and housing. Dogs, mostly chihuahuas,roamed the streets looking for handouts. 

Colorful stucco buildings sat in small angular clusters. A clutch of buildings, linked by worn paths, huddled in the village center. The church was simple and orderly with two row of empty pews. Three young girls guarded the entry and held cups with outstretched arms like the long necks of baby chicks waiting to be fed. 

Other girls talked and giggled on the stoop of the hospital, a modern stucco building with the capacity of only a few patients. A stout man in his 40’s, clean shaven with curly hair and piercing brown eyes greeted us at the open door of the elementary school. Four students sat across the room, heads down, writing with pencils. Worn pictures and faded maps lined the walls. Old beat-up plaques with upper and lower case English letters rested atop an uneven chalkboard. The teacher told me that the children were learning English. I walked away, gloomy, but then returned and gave him some money for supplies.

Jose Falcons, a truly authentic Mexican restaurant, was the village highlight. We ordered tacos, enchiladas, Coca-Cola, and beer. The sun broke through the clouds and we ate in the shade, tucked under a canopy. From our perch, the Rio Bravo glistened and muted shadows drifted across southern Texas.

Toward the south, a vehicle raised a plume of dust on an unknown road in a foreign desert. Boquillas nearest neighbor is 160 miles south, where food and fuel is available. The village relies on tourists for its well-being. Jose’s daughter, the proprietor of Jose Falcons, told me that the border was closed for 11 years after 9/11. The survival of this village, isolated at the edge of Mexico, is a testament to perseverance.

We floated over the imaginary line and the custom agent checked our passports, asked the obligatory questions, and then said, “Welcome home.” I said “Thank you, it’s great to be back.” And it always is.

Sunset in the Desert

Sunset in the desert is pure and simple and the landscape changes with the light. Deep greens fade, tans darken, and rocks blend into the soil. A jagged hill rests near the river just south of the Rio Grande Village campground. From here, the audience can watch the sun sink effortlessly behind the Chicos Mountains to the west. The action is slow, smooth, and inevitable. All that is required is to be present.

Journal Entry: Project Enchilada—Three Days in Laredo
Date: January 30, 2016   Time: 10:18 AM Local, 17:18 UTC
Location when Posted: El Paso, TX


Lugging a bag of laundry and a sack of quarters, I backed through the door. The smell of fabric softener, heavy and sweet, hung under bare fluorescent bulbs. Machines, double stacked, gushed and purred, and a short woman jingled coins near a row of dryers.

Vending machines stood at attention, like Swiss Guards, ready to dispense candy, soda, and coins. A young woman in a pale blue uniform with dark hair tied atop her head arrived at the counter. I asked her about detergent but she spoke no English. I negotiating two packages of Tide and found that I bought enough for eight loads. My washing machine, jammed with dirty clothes, gobbled quarters and filled with water. I sat in a plastic chair, back to the window, and watched.

A strong wind had pushed errant leaves through the door and they spread across the tile like debris at a river delta. A toddler followed his mother like a duckling, eyeing her legs for navigation. His diapers puffed above his pants when he leaned to push his toy car and when it shot across the floor through the leaves, he squealed with delight.

Chocolate covered peanuts banged against the metal stopper of a red vending machine. She placed one into the boy’s mouth and he became still as a statue as he savored the candy.

Another child, a year older than the toddler, arrived with his mother. The boys played without introduction or expectation. The toddler stooped under a table as the other ran the perimeter. During one cycle, the toddler failed to negotiate the height of the table. He banged his head and fell to the floor, crying. It was a quiet cry and he clung to his mother for comfort.

On cue, Freddie Mercury drifted through the overhead speakers.

Another one bites the dust
Another one bites the dust
And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust

A tall woman, beautiful and lean and wearing an alabaster blouse, walked through the door and greeted the toddler and he broke into a wide smile. Whirling machines drowned the sound of Queen and the world was right again.

Fifteen minutes remained on the wash cycle and the woman in pale blue dusted the packages of detergent and methodically stacked the softener on a shelf behind the counter.

Released to the wild, the toddler twisted the handle and flipped the lid of each gumball machine: hope against hope. When he finished, he looked at me and smiled. Large green letters, emblazoned across his little blue sweatshirt, exclaimed: “I NEED MORE SPACE.” I smiled, knowingly, back at him.

Three Days in Laredo

At Starbucks, Caro introduced me to her business associates and friends: Claudia, Gabriel, Franco, Genni, David, Fernando, and others. I explained the nature of my mission, that is, the quest for enchiladas. For three days we talked and ate. Any break in the conversation was quickly filled by the mantra, "You need to try [enter Mexican dish name here]. 

I ate choriqueso with jalapenos, barbacoa taco, enchilada with chicken and beef, beef skirt and beans and rice, a tamiquena plate, a bowl of menudo, a pirata, and a tripas taco.

On Saturday, Gabriel, his wife Claudia, and Franco, took me to the Menudo Bowl, an annual cooking competition sponsored by Crime Stoppers. Since I am not up to the task, I refer to the The Laredo Morning Times to describe "menudo."

"Menudo is a mystery. Made up of cow stomach in a red chili base with hominy, spices and secret ingredients from recipes handed down from abuelas. The soup is simple, yet hard to prepare. It’s made from leftovers, and yet it’s many people’s first choice for family gatherings, parties and weekends."
Yup. That's right, cow stomach—also known as tripe. I remember seeing it in the A+P when shopping with my mother. As a child, I reacted to it's looks with intrigue. I have no idea how the residents of the Gogebic Range might have prepared it. 

The Menudo Bowl is serious competitionlike a chili cook-off. Long lines of eager foodies milled about the booths of 60 competitors, waiting the first serving at 1 PM. Although I was ready to try menudo, we had already eaten funnel cake, tripas tacos, cheese enchiladas, and esquites and my appetite was waning.

In addition to the food, I was compelled to enjoy the company of the residents of the Precinct 3 Saloon. 

The Webb County fairgrounds filled with people looking for Mexican hot dogs, funnel cakes covered with strawberries, ice cream, and chocolate, and Big Red soda. Cowboy hats and baseball caps floated at eye level like flotsam on a wavering sea. At ground level, neon running shoes competed with cowboy boots of the most exquisite design, texture, and material. Colorful shirts, skirts, and trousers, adorned with with silver and turquoise, embellished the space between head and foot. 

I sat on a hay bale near a food stand. Two beautiful woman in tight jeans and cowboy boots stood nearby waiting for their men to get food. One asked me a question and although I desperately wanted to answer, I remained speechless, mute, because of the curse of the gringomy inability to speak Spanish. Unable to resist silence, a short and confusing conversation validated my minority status in the Southwest. 

My problem rests firmly on two pillars: (1) lack of hearing and, (2) lack of understanding. My hearing and understanding are fading in direct proportion to my aging. I find it particularly difficult to understand people in crowded environments such as coffee shops and menudo festivals. The presence of a foreign language tips the scale and makes it impossible to communicate and I have found that making up words is just plain reckless. 

Having said all this, I must summarize Three Days in Laredo with the respect it deserves. I experienced more new flavors during three days in Laredo than in 30 years elsewhere, but more importantly, I was embraced by strangers who, now, are friends, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The Old City of Laredo

Red pavers surrounded the San Agustin Plaza, three blocks north of the Convent Avenue bridge connecting the United States with Mexico. Old men relaxed on benches and the sun streamed through branches covered with pale green leaves. A driver leaned against his taxi, patiently waiting for a fare. I watched him watch a tall women wearing a studded leather vest, embroidered blue jeans, and black spiked heals. She sauntered as if on a New York runway and when she passed, he whistled from the side of his mouth and nodded his head to the driver behind him, who wasn't paying attention. 

In small groups, young men approached from the bridge carrying backpacks and satchels. They waved to those who waited for them, then ducked their heads and plunged into the cars, laughing and talking and driving off the old square.

I walked the long streets watching people and studying store fronts. Mothers and daughters walked arm-in-arm. Families huddled at street corners formulating shopping plans. Then they paraded along the street and disappeared into buildings. 

I looked at store fronts, at passing traffic, and into open shops. Some had merchandise flowing from cardboard boxes while others had displays of clothing, computers, and watches meticulously arranged for discriminating customers. Occasionally, tall booming speakers, stood like sentries shouting Spanish songs like sentries in front of stores selling electronic merchandise.

I used my GPS to find my car.  

Journal Entry: Project Enchilada—Leaving Brownsville
Date: January 21, 2016   Time: 1:10 PM Local, 19:10 UTC
Location: Laredo, TX

The Ghosts of Brownsville

Three teenage boys, tall and strong and dressed in short pants and shirts, kicked a soccer ball around the perimeter of Washington Park while I ate lunch on the tailgate. In a grocery store, I waited behind an old man with brown skin full of wrinkles and eyes full of mischief. He paid for two cans of beer with change and made deliberate mistakes so he could flirt with the checker. She was about my age and we shared a grin. I bought six oranges for a dollar.

On Elizabeth Street, tired buildings leaned heavily against uneven walkways. Improvised signs hung in vacant windows of dirty storefronts: tienda cerrada - business closed. Specialty stores sold shoes, dresses, and watches and variety stores sold everything from plywood to piñatas. 

The Majestic, wrapped in ceramic turquoise and tan, stood proudly on a corner: a message from a previous era. It was a time when people dressed for the theater and when, on Saturday, kids stood in line with 35-cent tickets to see a cartoon, a serial, and a movie. There must have been a dairy bar near the Majestic and it must have had the thick sweet aroma of ice cream and malt and teenagers must have swiveled on red vinyl stools perched on chromium pedestals.

Neglected buildings in old cities evoke a nostalgic sadness in me. The vacant eyes of empty storefronts frown onto fractured curbs and gutters. Venetian blinds, slanted and loose, hang in upper floor windows. Stories, know only to the streets, have evaporated like the fading neon lights of nightclubs and old saloons. The era of the Majestic has passed in a blush and remains only as a faded memory.


I spent the night at Boca Chica, on the shore of the Gulf, a few yards from the sea. The gulls maneuvered as I sipped coffee and readied an orange for execution. With impossible dexterity, they captured the small pieces of rind that I flicked into the air. In a blink, they would spit the bitter fragments onto the sand. Another would swoop, collect the discarded rind, and spit it out also. They circled in disgust and, weary of my mischievous game, they floated over the waterfront seeking the generosity of a less devious human.

The chef served whole wheat bread smothered with Newmann’s Ceasar dressing, layers of pepper jack, thinly sliced roast beef, and Manzanilla olives. Pounding surf, salt air, and rolling dunes provided the atmosphere. 

A low sun silhouetted the dunes to the west and turned the crests of the waves, to the east, a mellow orange. Trucks, full of tired fishermen arrived from the north and south to leave the waterfront. Just before the asphalt, they gunned their engines and sent plumes of sand into the air: their final salute to the sea. Through binoculars I watched them arrive from miles away. Their lights, singular at first, divided into two or more as they approached. At a distance, these fishing machines glided silently on the hard sand at low tide under a gibbous moon.

After the fishers surrendered the beachhead, I played with the receding tide and a slight miscalculation filled a shoe with sea water. Retreating to the dunes and guided by moon shadows, I wound through canyons of sand, carved like huge waves by wind and rain.

Two freighters loitered several miles to the east, waiting to deliver cargo at Corpus Christi and when the sky darkened, their lights glowed in tight clusters against the horizon.

To the south, a lighthouse pulsed near the mouth of the Rio Grande.

The moon crested high in the sky and, aside from the relentless wash of the waves, the night was silent.

There is something special about awakening to the sound of surf. The receding tide had deposited clumps of seaweed and scattered shells, displaying the full gamut of tan, randomly over damp sand. A heavy front slid overhead as I sipped a cup of black coffee. In that moment, I realized that I was seduced by salt water like a sea turtle and I desperately wanted to stay and to see what would happen next. 

A Special Find

The landscape west of Brownsville opens to cultivated soils, some empty but others teaming with onion stalks, thousands of cabbage heads, and wavering leaves of sugar cane. Identified by a small sign, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is tucked in a small pocket along the Rio Grande between Progreso and Hidalgo.  Second thoughts prevailed. I made a U-turn next a border patrol vehicle who eyed me curiously but probably knew my intent. 

The Rio Grande flows against the 2,000 acre reserve from the south and until the River was damned, it used to flood the landscape annually. The reserve is the epicenter of migratory routes for over 400 bird species, 450 types of plants, and half of all butterfly species in North America. Because of it's unique location and ecosystem, this landscape is teaming with animals. Along with a dozen other tourists from the Midwest, we rode a noisy tram through the refuge. The guide was knowledgeable and passed around slides of leaves for the many species of trees. 

Armadillos rooted along the roadside and avoided eye contact. Around a bend, a bobcat stood at attention in the center of the road. He surveyed us for the period of an eye-blink, then dove into thick green foliage. It was a rare daytime sighting of a cat.

In rusted steel, the words Cementerio Viejo, rested in the arch over the entry to the old burial ground. The graves held the remains of local residents from the middle 19th century including a Washington resident who drowned in the river while surveying the Texas-Mexico border under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The crosses are constructed from Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano), which is an exceptionally dense and durable.

The stop was a welcomed pause from the highway travel and late in the afternoon, I rolled west onto the asphalt, thinking about bobcats and sea turtles.