Sunday, November 27, 2011

Watering Holes

or Birds of a Feather

When you turn on to New Mexico highway 247 in the little town of Corona, this is the sign that greets you:

U.S. Highway 285, 48 miles away.  The next event on this road isn't a town.  It's an intersection, and the next intersection—the very next time you see a cross-road—is 48 miles away.  (Bonus:  you can't get lost on NM 247.)  Not even a little county road meets you until then, nothing but the posts and crossbeams marking the dirt road entrance to a ranch here and there.  You might meet another vehicle somewhere along the road.  Then again, you might not.  You'll see small herds of black Angus lying in the blue grama grass and cholla or congregating around a stock tank; you'll probably come across some pronghorn antelope grazing.  Crows, hawks, yesterday even a badger (a badger!); toward evening maybe some mule deer.  But people?  Likely not.

The scenic route between Albuquerque and Dexter, in the southeastern corner of the state, zigzags along various roads through some 200 miles of low mountains, high plateaus, and scrub desert.  It reminds you what a large, empty place New Mexico is:  2 million people in an area larger than Poland—and half of them live in Albuquerque.  In the ranching areas heading south, there's a lot of open rangeland, and not much else.  When you do come to a town, the parking lot at the local watering hole is usually full.  Folks drive for miles to meet in company over a green chile cheeseburger and a drink, to enjoy being social animals for a while.

My sister and brother-in-law's house is a watering hole in its own way.  Their home near Dexter is the kind of place where strays drift in with the tumbleweeds and needlegrass:  cats, dogs, skunks, waifs in general, and the occasional sister looking for a Thanksgiving dinner.  You can be assured of a good meal and good company (human, feline, and canine), and hey—if you ever need de-worming, well, they probably have something for that, too.  A holiday done right is also an oasis of sorts, a pause in your journey through the year, a chance to flock together with others of your kind and be refreshed.

I've been thinking about watering holes because of the more-or-less traditional, day-after-Thanksgiving excursion that my sister, my nephew, and I made to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge along the Pecos River east of Roswell.  Like the Rio Grande's Bosque del Apache, the wetlands there are the winter home to snow geese and sandhill cranes—possibly record numbers of them this year, as the continuing drought in Texas sends waterbirds elsewhere.  During the day they go off to feast in cornfields, but when the sun begins to set they return to the shallow waters that keep them safe from night-time predators.  Only once have I seen a sandhill crane alone, and it was standing sentry (or had maybe been put in time-out).  They are highly social creatures, impressive in numbers and in their apparent singleness of thought and purpose.

When I returned home from the holiday and went out to the garden, I startled a trio of goldfinches, which had been perched forlornly on the empty birdbath making little "tsk"ing sounds.  They don't ever bathe in the birdbath, but they do drink from it; I'm not sure what other water sources they have in the neighborhood.  Cleaned and refilled, the birdbath now welcomes them to congregate on the rim of its garden-variety wetland once more. 

And here I am, playing on the World Wide Web, that watering hole extraordinaire, where we flock together to meet in company and enjoy being social animals (of a kind) for a while.

If nothing else, driving through the desert does fixate you on water...


  1. Beautiful photos of birds I don't see here.

    I have already informed my husband that we need a trip to New Mexico having seen some of the wonderful gardens and plant life on your blog - these images will help convince him!

  2. Hi Stacy, I may have mentioned that I've long been planning a fly drive trip to the States, and nothing I have ever read on your blog has led me to reconsider. My planning now has just become more feverish. The distances and scale are amazing; that NM is the size of Poland, I find incredible. And the sky - it's just so well ... big. Wasn't planning on coming to NM but I may have to reconsider. Dave p.s. Cute cranes too.

  3. Stacy I remember driving through NM on my way to graduate school in Phoenix. The main highways were desolate back then with very few places to stop between Amarillo and Albuquerque and even less between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, AZ before you headed S into even more desert before Phoenix. I love NM in its vast natural state...

  4. Spectacular landscapes and so different to over here. Water has never been an issue over here. We take it for granted.

  5. What beautiful country! And the birds are incredible! I'm so glad you get out and about to see such wonderful sites!

    Again, thanks for sharing with us!

  6. Karen, from what I know of you from your blog, you would really enjoy visiting--if for no other reason than that it's so differently beautiful from the northwest. Sometime when you're desperate for sunshine...

    Dave, you've mentioned the fly drive trip before, but somehow I thought it was in the "maybe someday" stage, not the actual planning stage. What a (fun) challenge, really--with limited vacation time to choose which big stretch of the country to explore. I'm obviously biased in favor of the west but will restrain myself from saying, "Yes, yes, NM, you absolutely must!"... I love hearing about road trip plans--if you feel like it, please let me know how they shape up.

    Donna, it's amazing how the population has grown in the last couple of decades--not quite as empty on those stretches of I-40, but you still have to plan your refueling stops carefully... It must have looked like a different planet to you the first time you made the trip.

    Janet, sometimes I don't know why this area was ever populated at all, with the ongoing lack of water. Scotland was a much more sensible place for people to settle.

    Elaine, it's been so wonderful to get out more lately--I've almost forgotten that this is theoretically a garden blog, because I've had so many other places to talk about. The cranes are some of my favorite birds of all time--I'm glad you enjoyed them!

  7. Glad to have a cup of tea in your corner of the WWW.

  8. Stacy - Enjoyed taking a sip at your watering-hole today. Coincidently, I saw a re-run of an Oprah Winfrey interview with Shirlie Maclaine today. They showed her home in NM, the views were incredible. Felt like I'd been there before, just from reading your blog.

  9. Look at all those birds! Amazing pictures! We do get to know each other through our blogs, and it's amazing to me how I can consider people I've never met as my friend, but I do. I guess gardeners form their own kind of 'flock'!

  10. Gorgeous photos. My state too is scarce of people. Only 800,000 or so in the entire state of South Dakota. Don't know if we have cranes, but I should try taking pix of the Canada geese some fall as they are plump, plentiful and low-flying. Unfortunately, I think I missed my opportunity this year as they usually have migrated by December. Can't blame them for not wanting to be around when the temperatures hit the teens.

  11. Oh. Wow. Those are great photos and the descriptions just finished me off--I LOVE New Mexico and simply can't wait to go back one day!

  12. Diana, as always it's a pleasure to have you here!

    b-a-g, I'm so pleased you could join me. A lot of celebrities seem to live in the area around Santa Fe—the countryside there is really wonderful. I'm glad to know I've been representing the state fairly!

    Holley, I've never really been a bird-watcher, but these are so incredible! It's funny how well we do get to know each other—enough to worry a little if someone hasn't posted for a few days. One of my favorite things about gardeners (and garden bloggers) is how interested we all are in each others' gardens, even when they're in completely different parts of the world. We really do seem to flock together and feel each others' challenges and triumphs like our own.

    klbrowser, it's great to see you again! I'm glad you're able to emerge a little bit. Some day I really have to go to South Dakota—I was there as a little kid but don't remember much, and wouldn't have appreciated its openness at the time in any case. In one of the Little House books (probably The Long Winter?) Laura talks about all the birds leaving practically overnight before winter really hits. At this point maybe you should aim for more rabbit photos... But yes, some fall those plump and plentiful Canada geese would make great subjects!

    Thanks, Michelle—it's an amazing place. On one of your trips back to the States maybe you can convince your family that a reunion in New Mexico is just the ticket.

  13. I think "The Long Winter" may have been written when Laura lived in De Smet, South Dakota. Her homestead is still there, and I hope to visit it someday.