Category Archives: The Southwest

Borderland

The drone hung low in the sky as the road curved back to Fort Davis. It hung in the sky on a faint line tethered to the ground somewhere out in the desert. A mile away…fifty? It’s hard to judge distances in Texas.

It was white and metallic. It was a lurking thing and a lonely-looking one, too, in an odd way — this man-made bird up there with the kestrels and an occasional passing cloud.

High desert plains

High desert plains looking back at Marfa, TX

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

I first saw it a week earlier as we drove north from the U.S. border town of Presidio. We climbed over the mountains and into the high desert plateau on our way to the bustling railroad town of Marfa. It was further off then but still waiting in the air, hovering high above the purple mountains that frame the town.

This isn’t quite like the killing drones we’ve been hearing about lately. It’s for surveillance along our border with Mexico and is officially called an “aerostat” or “drug blimp,” as locals dub it. During the day, this faceless bird stays motionless. At night, it combs the border with its infrared sensors for body heat, tracking suspicious cars with its eyes above the clouds.

It’s pretty spooky.

Marfa's old courthouse

Marfa’s old courthouse

Old theatre

Old theatre

Old hotel

Old hotel

Local flavor

Local flavor

Of course the weirdness has worn off on locals. Now the drone is just a part of the landscape; a new cloud in the sky that formed soon after 9/11 to make us safer.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.

What’s more certain is that things in West Texas are different now. Continue reading

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Homesteader Country

One day in New Mexico Nancy and I were inside peeling garlic and she started to tell me the story about how she came to the mountains with her goats. I had asked her a little about it when I first met her over lunch in lonely Grants, NM. She hadn’t had much to say then. Now, sitting side by side, empty buckets and a couple hours work in front of us, it was easy to talk.

Fence on the long road into the farm

House and old windmill one pink morning

House and old windmill one gray morning

Nancy’s lived up in the mountains near the Continental Divide in southwestern New Mexico for about thirty years. She’s had her goats there with her the whole time. Her dairy, The Coonridge Dairy, has got to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. Located about a two hour drive from the nearest booming town of 200 residents (named Pie Town for — you guessed it — its ample amount of delicious homemade pies), she lives in the heart of old homesteader country.

“Texies” and “Okies” arrived in Catron County during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. They came, as biographer Joan Myers writes in Pie Town Woman, an account of local homesteaders, “in any sort of conveyance that would roll.” The dream was to reach the fertile land of California but many couldn’t make it that far and settled instead on the open, scrubby ground beneath Alegra Mountain, or “Ol’ Legra” as its locally known.

Looking out over Catron County and the Sawtooth mountains

Abandoned steer out in a field grazing

Grab a homemade slice at either the Pie Town Cafe or the Pie-O-Neer!

“Life in such places,” Myers writes, “is not something to remember or wait for but just to live.” Most families started working the land — “proving up” — so that they could earn the title to their 160 acres (under the original Homestead Act of 1862; 640 acres if you were raising cattle thanks to a revised act in 1916). They built small 15′ by 30′ dug outs to live in, haled water by wagon to drink, and prayed that their beans and corn would grow. If they had a good season, they could sell some crops to the Pie Town general store in exchange for other necessities, but that was pretty rare.

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Goats and Oysters

What does a New Mexican hill top farm strewn with goats and an Alaskan bay filled with buoys have in common? Not much, except if you’re in the business of high end organic food.

In Alaska, it was oysters. In New Mexico, it’s been cheese. Both are businesses that got started because of one singular passion. For Mike, it’s the ocean. For Nancy, it’s rugged mountains. Both are paving a new way in their states’ organic food industry.

Pile o' oysters!

Overlooking Homer's Kachemak Bay

Oysters are not native to Alaska. I learned this within my first few days with Mike Nakada’s Northern Lights Oyster Company back in July. A lucky break had landed me there after finding Mike’s oyster farm on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website. I had emailed him on a whim, saying I could work for him sometime in the next week. He called me five minutes later. “Can you be here tomorrow?” and “Do you have boots?” were his only two questions. Sure, and no I didn’t have rubber boots. “That’s alright, we’ve got some somewhere around here.” We hung up and I kind of wondered what had just happened.

Christa, novice-turned-expert filleter

Can't get much better than home made smoked salmon

I arrived at his yurt in Homer the next day. His friend Bill had brought in close to 200 salmon from a recent run and the front yard was a dizzying mix of silvery bodies, knives, freezer bags, and the bright red of flesh and eggs. I dived right in and spent the afternoon learning to filet and smoke the salmon. (I was, for the record, horrible at it but the big German lab at my feet didn’t seem to mind the extra scraps.)

Setting out for the bay in the skiff

Homer likes to claim it's the halibut capital of the world, though nearby Seward says otherwise! Oh, fishing town rivalries...

The Susitna, home sweet crab boat

We set out for the farm a few days later in a small skiff that Mike kept docked on Homer’s spit. Leaving the harbor, we pass fishing boat after fishing boat coming in with their halibut catch, or what locals like to call “chickens,” the cornerstone of the Alaskan fishing industry. We pass a cruise ship (Alaska’s other cornerstone) and then hit the open water. The wind pushes the swells higher and doesn’t let up until forty minutes later when we turned into Jakolof Bay. Our bay. Our “farm.”

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Meanwhile Back At The Ranch…

Thirty miles south of Prescott, Arizona is a road called Wagoner. It’s also known as Walnut Grove and occasionally just “the dirt one after the Kirkland junction.” To get to it from Prescott, you either go up and over the Bradshaw mountains or take the Iron Springs road around them. This is the way I like. On it, you’ll find the Kirkland Bar, built as a stagecoach stop turned bordello in 1863, and the somewhat ominously named town of Skull Valley.

And that’s all before you’ve even hit the dirt.

Once you’re on Wagoner, you’ll cross cattle guard after cattle guard belonging to ranches that have existed for over a hundred years (one family claims to be the first white ranchers in all of Arizona). If you follow the road back to mile 26 up and down some grizzly ruts and canyons, you’ll find the gold mining turned ghost town of Crown King. You’ll also find the occasional junk yard, stray horse, and wild javelina.

Welcome to the ranch!

View out the back door with the Bradshaws blue in the distance

Gold Bar's 100 year-old ranch house. Front porch was a haven for cats, chickens, a very determined skunk, and an unfortunate end to a pumpkin pie.

Riding horses home on the road on Christmas evening

But more than any of that, the road is the neighborhood. It’s the place where people pass each other in their trucks, on their horses, on foot, and slow down for the latest news or maybe to show off the coyote, tomcat, and, sometimes, mountain lion pelt they’ve got in the back from the latest hunt (I’ll save the story about my own lion hunt for another day…).

I called mile 11 home for most of late November and December. There, tucked away beside a creek and cottonwoods, stands Ella and Mike’s Gold Bar Ranch. This was my second experience as a roaming farmhand through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (aka “WWOOF”), having spent November at a vineyard in southeastern Utah, and it was just as great an immersion into a different way of life.

Giving me the stare down after we loaded her friends up for auction (sorry!)

Barn in the late afternoon sun

You can't run a ranch without some good gates and...

...some good rope.

My first Tuesday at the ranch and we were off to the Chino Valley livestock auction with a bull and a calf for sale (after we had herded them through a squeeze box into the trailer). The auction sees about 1000 cattle pass through it a day (plus a cool 800 goats and sheep) and is the main one in Arizona. It’s mostly composed of a metal-sided building with a system of wooden pens, gates, and cut-throughs that stretch off into the distance behind it. Inside, there’s a front room where you can pick up your latest copy of Beef Today with article after article extolling the health benefits of beef and a small arena where you sit on cement bleachers and watch cattle come through, one by one, onto the sawdust show floor.

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Out In It, Again

A month ago I was reunited with a former flame. It’s been over three years (I’m sad to say) since we’ve enjoyed each other’s company. But, now that we’ve realized how better our lives are together, I doubt we’ll ever part again.

I’m talking about camping, of course.

The ranch I was working on near Monticello, Utah closed for the season on November 15th and so a farmhand friend and I headed to Canyonlands National Park (with a stop for pizza, long-awaited cell service, and to see if we could convince a couple others to come). For the next eight nights, we slept outside and, with temps dipping into the 20s, got used to wearing every single layer we own to bed.

There’s a certain rhythm to living your entire life outside that I love. I think it’s the simplicity of it. You wake up because that’s when the sun’s decided to wake up. You make a fire. You make oatmeal and coffee. (You do this because you’re more cold than hungry and because the act of doing it will warm you up too.) You strike camp. And then, one foot, two foot, go. You set out on your path.

Our first BLM campsite, curiously called "Hamburger Rock." There were a few hungry nights we wished it was more than just a name...

Start of our first day hike in Canyonlands looking out at La Sal mountains

Here's some nice red needles!

Meandering down the walls

Druid Arch, a not-too-shabby final destination

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