He who loves with passion lives on the edge of the desert. –East Indian Proverb
The mountain rises like a vast ignoble specter in the sky. A broad tabletop mesa juts its ragged indentations every which way. A flat cleft has been shaved off the east side, exposing a dark pink patina. Its final tier stands like the misshapen top of a wedding cake. Below it the trail quickens into thick brown adobe dirt. Out near the highway the big rigs roll by in a cloud of diesel exhaust. Here, an ancient Prowler motor home inches up the road, there a tricked-out Lowe’s semi—splashed with glossy paint in a cornucopia of colors—idles past.
I drive as far as I dare on the deeply rutted roads before putting my ancient VW in park. The vista is a pastiche of brown and golden in the early October sun. The sun shines hot on my shoulders as my feet sweat and squeak in my plastic Crocs. A few pricklers insinuate their way under the soles and shoot up to stab the soft underbelly of my uncalloused feet. I trudge along the arroyo, hopping through the jagged high points. I am wearing summer Capris and a light sweater over my t-shirt. I remove the sweater and pause to swig a drink of water. Silence pulses around me. The sky is a medley of crystalline cornflower blue with its white spun-sugar coating of candyfloss clouds. It seems too perfect to be real. Its ethereal splendor is rudely punctuated only by the miles of crude barbed wire so ubiquitous in this country. The continuation of my walk is abruptly aborted by a green panel fence that warns me to go no farther. I turn around without protest and continue down the eastern path. From my peripheral vision I spy a fence opening. It opens onto a path that wends its way toward the broad jutting mesa and blue sea of expansive sky. I nod toward it with a smile and murmur “Oh yeah, I’ll be back.”
I’ve been asking for weeks if there’s anywhere to ride around here—that is to say, on horseback. My nearest horse-owning neighbor informs me that he’s lived in this town for ten years and has all but given up riding his tough-terrain capable Missouri Fox trotters despite owning nearly 40 acres of pasture land. The problem is, he can’t ride beyond it. Folks in agrarian Quay County, New Mexico are circumspect about giving others free rein of their land. It’s a “fence out state,” I’ve been told more than once.
“Boy, they sure like their fences around here,” my husband observes en route to the thriving metropolis of Clovis, a small city due south of here. Acre upon acre of brownish-green grazing pasture is fenced by sharp reams of wire. Barbed wire has an element of violence about it. The clotted little knots remind me of a pit bull’s snarl and the ensuing blood from its bite. The fence line continues on, ad infinitum, along this bumpy little washed-out road. There are no cattle to be seen, no dwellings, no water. Just mile upon mile of empty windy expanse and sparse grass. It is open, unfettered land. But it is jealously protected and fenced—every last little bit of it.
The man at the chamber of commerce greets me with a smile. His hair is snow white, his face darkened and creased with sun.
“I have an odd question for you,” I say. “Can you tell me if there is any public land available around here where people can ride their horses?”
“Well, some of these cowboys that come to town just ride right along 209,” he replies, considering.
It’s clear I’ve stumped him somehow.
“You mean right along the highway?” I ask.
“Yes, but there isn’t much traffic.”
All the same, it’s a highway. I don’t feel like taking my chances, even with my quiet, well-trained ranch horse.
“What about the mountain?” I ask. “I’ve heard it’s private but that it’s possible to get permission to ride there.”
“Oh yes,” he brightens. “You can ride up there. Just be sure to stay to the easterly side. It’s owned by three people, and the gentleman who owns the western side is—how should I put this? Well, he’s stingy. If you aren’t doing any work for him that’s free, he doesn’t want you up there.”
“But there’s a locked gate,” I remind him.
“Well, if you head in from Mountain Road, the gate is generally open,” he says. “And if it’s open, that means you can go on up.”
“Well, if you say so…”
“Have a good day,” he says kindly.
My friend swings the stock trailer in a wide arc. We unload the horses.
“Settle down, little missy,” he advises his mare.
My own mare snorts and observes her surroundings in her usual sensible, French Canadian fashion. She isn’t shod, and the terrain looks steep and rocky. But I’m riding with a farrier, and his horse isn’t shod either. I lead my horse over to a rock. I haven’t ridden in awhile and I’m not feeling limber. I’m not in the mood to “cowgirl up”—in other words, scramble into the stirrup from the ground.
“I can give you a leg up if you want,” my friend the farrier/cowboy suggests with some amusement.
“No, no, that’s okay,” I mumble, discarding my inflexible leather gloves on my mounting block rock.
I swing a leg up and spur my mare gently. My friend, who hasn’t ridden in over five years, looks at home on his sprightly Fox trotter.
The air is fresh and cool and the smell of sage is pungent. The sky is a herald of blue sea foam, awaiting our climb. I pause a moment to feel the weight of my stirrups, to let these sudden waves of homesickness wash over me. This homesickness of the past, of longing for this landscape I now inhabit. These raw elements of nature and the pristine tabletop of beauty above seem to await my long unfinished journey.
“You ready?” my friend asks.
I pause a moment, remembering the epigraph of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s novel, The Edge of Taos Desert.
“He who loves with passion lives on the edge of the desert.”
The desert. I am on the edge of it now, once and for all.
I turn to my companion and smile.
“I’m ready,” I say.