Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sticky Subject

or Cowboys: They Knew What They Were Doing

The desert will make you appreciate Western wear like nothing else.  The dust will have you yearning for a bandana, the sun for a 10-gallon hat, the rattlesnakes for sturdy, knee-high boots (and a horse), the cholla for waist-to-ankle leather chaps.  After visiting the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, with my sister's family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have a new respect for cowboys and their ilk—for anyone, in fact, who traversed this landscape in anything softer than a tank.

If you lack an armored vehicle or traditional Western garb for protection, of course, paved trails and a nature center with drinking fountains are the next best thing.  On a mild November day perfect for picnicking on sunny benches with views, you don't actually even need a hat—just cheese sandwiches, homemade dill pickles, and good company.  I'd only seen the Chihuahuan desert before from the shelter and distance of a car, but my experience of the high desert area around Albuquerque is that it doesn't yield its best from a distance.  It's only when you see it from as close as its spines, thorns, barbs, and teeth will allow that you glimpse how delicately beautiful it really is.

The Chihuahuan desert is the same. Take the ocotillo, for example, one of  the signature plants of the area.  Seen in the far distance, it looks like an upside down rag mop in a fit.  From the middle distance, it looks more like what it is:  a bunch of sticks with really big thorns.  Close up, however, the branches and thorns take on lovely colors, making exquisite play with gentle shades of plum.  They remind me of some of the stronger, tougher people I know—the kinds of stoics who can take anything on the chin and who could dish out serious damage if they chose; their gentleness melts your heart.

I have yet to see an ocotillo in leaf or bloom, but I suspect that if I did, I would fall in love outright.   

That's the thing with the desert:  all the good things in it are just so hard to get to.  It demands that you look closer but also that you keep your distance.  It can dazzle you with its strength, adaptability, and beauty, but it puts up barriers to knowledge that stop you in your tracks.  It is vibrant and alive, but it gives you every reason to leave it alone.  And it richly rewards you for your faith in it, for giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Wait—are we talking about people again?


A P.S. to my last post:  Vegemite with cranberry salsa—it's not as bad as you'd think.

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