… quite by choice.
When I first came to Las Cruces, it was to attend New Mexico State University. A kid from Maryland, I had to learn to live in the desert. It was far different from anything I had ever experienced. It took me some time to appreciate the way life thrives here … quite different from the Chesapeake Bay or the farmlands of the Piedmont or the forests of the Appalachian Mountains I had grown up with.
After a 40-year absence, I decided to retire to Las Cruces, from wage-earning work, to finally following my heart’s desire, to write the stories I always wanted to write.
I came back to Las Cruces because of the desert … not in spite of it. Friends asked why I wanted to live in a desert. My immediate answer was: “It’s empty … and it’s clean.” You can’t say that about many places in the world today. The desert principally is empty of human habitation for one reason: there’s limited water. And people need water.
Without water, there are no forests, no limitless vistas of growing corn or wheat, no green pastures spattered brown with cattle. Oh, they raise cattle in New Mexico. But you only see two or three animals grazing here and another two or three over there, a half mile away. Round them up and they constitute quite a herd, but it’s not like Nebraska or Montana or Wisconsin.
To me, the desert means freedom. I can walk across great stretches of land that knows no road, across places where no foot has tread in years. I can’t say, “Where no man has gone before,” because I have discovered places where people hundreds of years my senior lived. They’ve left mementos for us. Petroglyphs chipped into desert varnish or pictographs spray painted on rock faces.
The desert is mysterious. From the limited geology I know, I’ve found chunks of pahoehoe and other basaltic lavas, pieces of welded ash from distant volcanoes, slabs of sandstone and shale from ancient seas scattered around the desert floor as if someone sifted the earth and let them fall. Each rock speaks of its past. There is petrified wood from times when the land was moist and abundant in forest and even fossil footprints of creatures that predate dinosaurs by millions of years. There are legends of treasure buried by Conquistadors and lost mines, mythologies fascinating enough to keep me searching even when I know most of what I hear is false.
The desert is as intimate as a Monet, as bold as a Van Gogh, as outrageous as a Picasso. Although you might think the desert is mostly brown, it abounds in color. I have found wild flowers and cacti in every imaginable hue blooming from early April well into October. Some blossoms are tiny, smaller than your little fingernail. Others approach the dimensions of oranges. They grow on vines, on stalks, in clusters … if you can imagine a shape and floral architecture, I have seen it in the desert.
There’s no denying, the desert is brown, but that brown changes … nearly minute by minute … as the sun crosses the sky, as clouds cast shadows. It’s amazing. It’s intriguing. It’s amusing. I never grow tired of watching the desert evolve in its sunlight.
Perhaps most importantly to me, the desert means solitude. In the desert I can be by myself, yet never be alone. I have watched a red-tail hawk test a thermal in search of a meal, watch it soar until my neck grows weary from holding my head at an oblique angle. I have watched a colony of ants at work, crisscrossing the ground in front of me so often they’ve carved a trench, if only an eighth-inch deep. If I’m fortunate, I will catch a glimpse of an elusive coyote or an even more secretive puma. The only sounds I have heard are the wind rustling the creosote and mesquite and my own exhaling breath. The desert is a place to breathe in the essence of nature – a place to be still. To find myself – my true self – when I’m lost in the chaos and commotion of living. I walk the desert to absorb the marvels of creations, the wonders of the mind of God. I walk to renew my spirit, to refresh my soul, to be at one with my Creator.
And so I live in the desert. I walk in the desert. I thrive in the desert. And I will until age deprives me of the means to explore and discover and appreciate my chosen home. But by then, I’ll have a house so full of memories, it won’t matter if my legs won’t carry me once again into the land I love.