Wild West

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee You certainly don’t have to be a news junkie to know things in Border Country have been a bit dicey of late. I mean, even dicier than usual. A recent Yahoo News entry, headlined, “Government border town crackdowns on the rise,” caught my eye. It leads with a couple tales about a recent municipal election in Sunland Park, New Mexico, the only American town that lies south of the Rio Grande. The story details allegations of extortion and financial kickbacks among town officials, and, more colorfully, that a mayoral candidate tried to force his opponent out of the race with a secretly recorded video of the other man getting a topless lap dance. In addition, the Yahoo News story continued, former Mayor Martin Resendiz dropped a bid for Congress after admitting in a deposition that he signed nine government contracts while drunk. By the sixth paragraph, the story detours 70 miles west, to Columbus, N.M. (more on fair Columbus in a moment), where authorities a year ago arrested the mayor, police chief, a town trustee and 11 other people who have since pleaded guilty to charges they helped run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels. I cannot say why those of us who choose to hang our sombreros near the southern border find ourselves more than anything almost indifferently shaking our heads, shrugging our shoulders and maybe even grinning a bit when we read such things. Sane people would justifiably pack up the Outback and head post paste to more socially normal environs (read: toward the great white north). But then you get into that seven-month winter thing so many of us down here try so mightily to avoid. Still, even the most avid Border Country/Southwest/desert-o-philes wince a bit when we read stories like the above-referenced Yahoo News piece. We might try to limply rationalize the situation by saying things like, “Were it not for the crazy-assed ‘War on Drugs,’ things wouldn’t be quite so bad.” Or we might say, “Look, the border situation is not nearly as nuts as it’s made out to be by non-border-dwelling politicians trying to pander to the lowest common electoral denominator.” We might point out that, come what may, we at least have superlative green chile and incomparable year-round hiking and backpacking opportunities. Or we might observe that, insane though the border situation might be, at least we rarely lack for colorful media fodder. Whatever your sociopolitical inclinations, whatever your proposed solution(s), there’s no denying, when one approaches the frontera these days, whether for business, recreation or to commit major felonies, one had best cinch one’s saddle on tight and, at all times, be ready to duck. The closest legal border crossing to where these words are being penned is just south of the aforementioned Columbus, N.M., at Palomas, Chihuahua. About 80 driving miles from my front door. Columbus is the place where, in 1916, revolutionary forces under the command of Pancho Villa crossed into U.S. Territory (this being a mere four years after the Land of Enchantment became our 47th state) and launched an attack that resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians and eight soldiers attached to the 13th Calvary Regiment. That attack predictably spurred a response by the U.S. military that can charitably be called “not entirely successful.” Today, Columbus is one strange village, boasting a demographic mishmash that includes alternative-housing/architecture devotees (read: people inclined to construct abodes out of materials that, in more-civilized realms, would cause shock and dismay on the part of building inspectors), Border Patrol agents, drug-and-gun-runners, tough-as-nails ranchers, retirees, eccentrics, loners, survivalists, religious zealots and, if the rumors are true, numerous higher-ups from the Mexican drug cartels who have moved north of the border to escape the violence they themselves have caused in Old Mexico. There are a couple interesting restaurants, a few art galleries, a museum or two, Pancho Villa State Park and a cantina — along with beaucoup foliage boasting skin-penetrating spines, a healthy selection of rattlesnakes, oppressive heat and all the blowing dust you could ever want in a town. It was at the bar one day that I got a representative taste of the way things are in borderland limbo. I used to work for one of the area daily papers. There was a 70-something man from Evergreen, Colorado, who was about to embark upon a four-year effort to hike the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The plan was for him to hike one state section per summer (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho/Montana). The man was an avid Rotarian, and he planned on interacting all the way to the Canadian border with Rotary Clubs located near the CDNST route. (I believe he was trying to raise money for some good cause.) Since, stunningly enough, there was actually a Rotary Club in Palomas, the man opted to symbolically kick his 3,100-mile journey off with a gala at the famous Pink Store (a popular cantina/restaurant a few blocks south of the Mexican border crossing), even though the official CDNST southern terminus lies several dentition-jolting hours away near Big Hatchet Peak, over in the Bootheel. I ventured down to Columbus to hook up with the man and his somewhat substantial entourage/support team, with the idea of penning a piece for the paper, which is not too big a stretch, as the CDNST passes very near Silver City. (Verily, I hike upon it several times a week.) Though certainly in fine fitness fettle, the man from Evergreen, being a septuagenarian and all, rationally had hired a Sherpa in his mid-20s from Nepal  to join him on his journey — for on-trail company, in case of emergencies and, I would assume, to help carry supplies. (I do not recollect how the man from Evergreen made the acquaintance of the young man from Nepal.) Rather than risk problems getting the Sherpa back into the U.S., the man from Evergreen left him in my highly responsible company at Pancho Villa State Park, where the entourage planned to camp, while he and his fellow Rotarians sacrificed virgins over in Palomas, or whatever it is Rotarians do when they gather in lawless border towns. This Sherpa kid was cool. He had summited Everest twice. His wife had also summited Everest, and, matter of fact, the Sherpa had actually proposed on the very top of the planet’s highest mountain. It was not long before we decided to make our way over to Columbus’ sole watering hole. Even though it was only 4 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, the bar was full. I had over the years made the acquaintance of several Everest summiteers, but I had never tipped brews with one. I was looking forward to hearing some death-zone tales. Sadly, the ambiance was not what you would call conducive to storytelling, even barroom storytelling. The reason was that the town’s police chief was standing in the middle of the bar in full uniform. It was not his official presence, however, that drew the undivided attention of those there gathered. Rather, it was the fact the police chief was about as drunk as a person can be. In addition, and very captivatingly, he was also boisterous, obnoxious and, to add a little icing to an already very surreal cake, waving his sidearm around in a manner I believe most firearms experts would have deemed “unsafe.” The police chief’s assistant was also in there, and, though his visage bespoke minor concern with the way things were progressing on the potential negative incident front, it was obvious he felt compelled to serve as a wobbly wingman for his superior. Before long, both of them were waving their sidearms with one hand while holding shots of tequila in the other hand. Many toasts were given, and, in partial defense of the two inebriated law-enforcement personnel, only one of them — the chief — accidentally discharged his weapon, and, since the only thing that got shot was a ceiling fan, which, for all I know, deserved it, I guess I can’t very well conscionably make any disparaging statements about local weapons protocols. Still, the young Sherpa, who seemed somewhat taken aback by all this, and I decided that — who knows? — after another few shots of tequila, the police officer’s aim might take a turn for the worse, so we aimed ourselves at the door. “Wait a minute,” the police chief slurred when he saw us leaving. “Where do you think you’re going?” “Uh … ” “You’re not going anywhere … at least not until …” (and here I must digress by pointing out that by now he was pretty much waving the recently discharged sidearm so close to my nose that I ended up inhaling gunpowder residue) “ … you drink another shot with me … ” (and here I feel a need to digress yet again by stressing that 1) I had not yet done a shot of tequila with the police chief whose gun barrel was pretty much defining my immediate viewshed, 2) I dislike tequila so much that I never, ever drink that shit unless 3) I feel compelled to do so by someone waving a revolver under my nose) “ … and I give you your get-out-of-jail-free card.” The bartender, an obviously once-comely lass, who looked 50 but was probably more like 40, sported one of those looks not uncommon to practitioners of her chosen vocation. Like, “You know, I should have taken that cosmetology school scholarship offer when I was 18 …  ” But she also seemed bemused by the proceedings. Without hesitation, she handed me a shot of tequila, most of which was thankfully sloshed onto the floor when I traded saludos with the police chief and his underling. I choked the remainder down, thanked all involved and, once again, pointed my feet toward an exit that seemed to be getting farther away by the minute. “Wait!” the police chief shouted. “Don’t you want your get-out-of-jail-free card?” “Well, of course I do!” I responded. “How could I let concerns regarding my immediate mortality allow such a patently absurd thing to slip my mind?” I stood patiently as the police chief, who could barely maintain his balance, rummaged through the many pockets adorning his ill-fitting uniform. He was without a doubt earnestly searching for something palpable; this was not some sort of law-enforcement comedy routine, at least not one that was intentional. Finally, exasperatedly, he looked at me and said, “Hold this,” and handed me his gun, which, I stress yet again, had recently been, albeit accidentally, discharged in a public place populated by several dozen potential victims/witnesses, in an area literally crawling with people sporting various types of badges within radio-able distance. So, along about now, here’s what’s going on in my head: Even in a hamlet as off the grid of normality as Columbus, someone with a modicum of civic sanity had to have noticed that an otherwise innocent ceiling fan had been mortally wounded in the town’s one watering hole. That someone very well might have made an effort to contact officialdom, which, of course, would have been the police chief and the one other cop in town who was on duty, both of whom were drunk as fucking shit in the bar and one of whom was responsible for killing the ceiling fan. When neither the police chief nor his personal Barney Fife could be reached, there would likely be further concern — this being a part of the world where police officers often suffer violent ends — and, then, the effort to contact some form of non-drunk, on-duty law enforcement would be expanded to include the Luna County Sheriff’s Department and local federal agencies, like Border Patrol, DEA, INS, ICE, FBI, ATF and the various and sundry other law-enforcement sub-species that patrol the borderlands in ant-like profusion. I’m standing there wondering what would be the chances of one or more of those people busting through the front door of the bar, weapons drawn, and noticing in the darkened interior, a ratty-looking dirtbag, holding a service revolver in front of the town’s police chief, who right then is searching diligently through his pockets in such a way that, to an outsider whose pupils had not yet adjusted to the dimly lit interior, might seem as though he’s being robbed? Finally, the inebriated police chief managed to find a business card bearing his name, his title and the calming words, “Columbus Police Department.” He held the card upside-down two inches in front of my eyes and said, if I were to find myself in any sort of legal trouble, all I had to do was pull that card out, and all would be forgiven. “It don’t matter where you are or what you do,” he stressed. I thanked him profusely for his generosity, took the card and once more began my long trek toward the exit, thinking, “Bueno … now I can commit armed robbery in Duluth and, should I get caught, all I would have to do is pull out a business card handed to me by the shit-faced police chief in Columbus, New Mexico, and I’d be released from custody, no questions asked.” “Wait a minute,” the shit-faced police chief called out. “I forgot to write ‘get out of jail free’ on the card.” So, once more, I was asked to hold his sidearm — upon which now resided both my fingerprints and my DNA — while he searched from collar to shoe laces for any manner of writing implement. He finally located a broken pencil stuffed in one of his pants cuffs, took the card back from me, placed it on the bar and scrawled words that for all the world seemed to be: “smsdkwersuwgd,” his penmanship not being up to Japanese calligraphy master snuff. The Sherpa and I finally emerged blissfully unscathed into the harsh light of the Chihuahua Desert. We stopped by the liquor store and purchased a couple six-packs and returned to Pancho Villa State Park to watch the sun set and to await the return of the Rotarian septuagenarian, who, for all I knew, had been kidnapped in Palomas by his fellow Rotarians, who were right then penning their ransom note. At the edge of the park, there’s a teensy little hill, which we ascended with our beer. We sat on the rocky ground side by side. From our humble perch, the Sherpa looked around, at the proximate Tres Hermanas Mountains, north to the rugged Florida Mountains, west to the Sierra San Luis, south into the heart of Mexico. All around was the most desolate part of America’s most-desolate desert. “I somehow thought America would be … different,” the Sherpa sighed. “This is not America,” I responded. “This is something else entirely.” “Why do you live here?” he asked. “I don’t know … I just love it down here,” I said, shrugging my shoulders the way dwellers of the Border Country often do. I don’t think he understood. Right then, I believe he was thinking about how, in a few months, he would be hiking through the Colorado Rockies, where the days of drunken police chiefs waving weapons in bars have long since passed.

Read more of Fayhee’s ramblings on his Smoke Signals blog

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54 thoughts on “Wild West”

  1. Amusing and fun-to-read as all f*ng sh*t, Mr. F. If somehow, I had more of that “volition” stuff — I have the basis for filming the scene. Hunter Thompson’d be proud.

  2. That is the truest evocation of that town I have ever read. I used to frequent both the Pink Store in Palomas, the pharmacy next door for pills for my poor dog (she has no health insurance), and the duty free liquor just this side of the border. That was before all hell broke loose. Been a long time since I stood atop the hill in Pancho Villa State Park. I miss that place, kinda.

  3. Ah, John. After all the years, you still manage to find adventures where ever you go. Miss your smile.

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