Friday, April 2, 2010

Ghosts of the Pecos

The first time I ever heard about the Pecos River I was watching Drip Along Daffy match wits with Nasty Canasta in the classic Warner Brothers cartoon. I've been laughing at that duck and curious about that river ever since. It was the demarcation line to the way west for those seeking a new life, hope and freedom. If the film wasn't set along the Rio Grande it most often was in the area around the Pecos River which separated "civilized" Texas from Native Americans who were not about to sit idly by or step aside quietly.

The John Wayne treatment of the way of the wild west had me envisioning a river as mighty as the Missouri, equally wild, untamed and full of rapids, high water and strong currents. On one side, the east side, stood the rancher's widow, alone on the prairie and at the mercy of crop-killing heat, thirst parching winds and warrior Comanches at her back. To the west was the Apache Nation, equally aggravated and uncompromising; surrounded on all sides with only the Duke and Tab Hunter to save her!

Six hours to the west of my home in Dallas/Ft. Worth on I-20 is the middle stretch of the Pecos River, traveling 900 miles start to finish from North Central New Mexico through the Permian Basin to the Rio Grande. The interstate does today what wagons, horses and trains did before, carry people and commerce to other places as fast as possible because no one in their right mind wanted to stay here long. The terrain is skillet flat with scrub bushes serving for vegetation and tumbleweeds the closest thing to a road hazard as they flit and roll across drunkenly across the pockmarked landscape. Small cotton ball clouds tease one and all with the rain they hold but rarely part with in this area where men fought and died for sovereignty but all seem to have abandoned since.

When I got to the river I surely felt as awestruck as any tourist with a Hollywood image of what it was supposed to look like. It was tiny! A good quarter horse could have easily jumped the thing where the only possible danger may have been any snakes or scorpions lurking along the banks. The view was clear for miles in every direction leading me to further surmise that even the Apaches back in the day cared little about this particular stretch of nothing going on.

No, this can't be the fabled Pecos that separated white and black men from the riches of California, I thought to myself. Where was the butte crowned by the frighteningly beautiful sight of a war band atop pawing palominos with war paint, buckskin and feathers accenting their majesty and deadly purpose? Where were the historical markers listing one major campaign after another or the site of a frontier fort trying in vain to anchor a sense of order to the lawlessness in the very air? Oh how Hollywood had a hold on me that this boring little brook very near to completely destroyed.

It was then that I looked at the sum of the whole around me. Here, at this stretch of the Pecos River, there was nothing to be seen, nothing to be done and nothing to work or fight for in any direction. The river was the final barrier to a long quest for something better and, if surrounded by nothing better and most likely worse than where you were before, what was the point in going on? Most certainly like some before me, I followed the river north in to New Mexico before turning back east to Dallas and home.

Anyone for tennis?

Gotta go.

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