The Land of Oil and Water
A sign above the café adjacent to the motel across
the highway from the railroad tracks in Lordsburg, New Mexico,
proclaimed the good news in faded red letters on a flaking white
"Whiskey and water," I told the waitress when she
came with her pencil and pad.
"No bar," she explained.
"But there's a sign."
"The bar is cerrito."
She brought a Tecate and a water glass rimmed with
salt, and I tried her again.
"I'll have the filet tampiqueño, medium
"Sorry. No tampiqueño left for toniiight please."
"Then I want liver and onions with hash browns."
"No liver a-gaiiin tonight sorry."
So I ordered chicken fried steak and ate while a
group of old people were taken from a senior citizens' bus and fed
fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, peas from a can, and
Jell-O. Southern New Mexico--where even sane people and grownups see
UFOs and rumors of space aliens are common, bicyclists vanish from
lonely stretches of road into thin air, and weird anomalies present
themselves unexpectedly in the vast deserts--has a surreal quality
that is more palpable still in the area of the Mexican border, which
exists as a kind of no-man's land where the various human elements
seem never to merge; to achieve a common form, identity, or
Around Animas the desert gave way to a yellow
grassy plain on which the Animas Mountains appeared to float like
bergs of black ice beneath a platinum sky, and elephantine cottonwoods
already in bud along the winding river formed a pointillistic screen
between the greening bottom and the tin roofs of ranch houses glinting
in the indirect light. Before Gregory MacNamee in Tucson warned
against it, I'd planned to drive from Juárez across the Continental
Divide where it follows the Sierra Occidental whose stony peaks
pointed above the southern horizon. (Much of the marijuana grown in
Mexico comes from the Sierra Madre; a gringo passing through the
region, if he is not shot by the growers, has a good chance of being
murdered by smugglers, or by the federales.)
At the foot of a pass in the Pelloncillo Mountains
from which Colonel Cooke and his Mormon Brigade in the
Mexican-American War lowered their wagons by ropes, a Border Patrol
officer sat in a green Ford Bronco monitoring his service radio.
"Have you caught any aliens running around up here
today?" I asked him.
"It's too high and rugged for them. But in Douglas
we're overrun by aliens, and smugglers. Our force has been increased
recently from 30 to 60 agents, but we figure that's going to be the
"And you still could do with twice that many men."
The officer grinned. "Yes."
Douglas, Arizona, was founded in 1901 by a party
that included the family of Justice William 0. Douglas, and developed
from an economic base of cattle-ranching, cotton-growing, and
copper-smelting. Since the 1970's when the justice's environmentalist
allies got the smelters closed down, the population of Douglas had
dropped from approximately 30 to 10 thousand people, while that of
Agua Prieta, its sister city across the border, swelled to one hundred
thousand, many of them waiting to sneak into the United States under
cover of the pall of smoke rising from the city's perpetually
smoldering garbage dumps.
I took a room at the Travel Lodge where, in an
atmosphere pungent with curry, I had difficulty making myself
understood by the manager, a native of New Delhi. The Chinese
restaurant adjoining the tavern where I went for a drink displayed a
crucifix, together with a hanging of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the
wall. At La Fiesta Cafe on 8th Street they served an excellent
menudo--soup made with hominy and tripe--and steak tampiqueño.
The patrons were mostly well-to-do Mexican ranchers and their wives:
beautiful women of the pure Spanish type wearing tailored slacks and
silk blouses ornamented discreetly with silver. The waitress failed to
understand when I ordered scotch-and-soda, then brought a water-glass
brimful of raw scotch in which two minuscule ice cubes floated.
I was awakened the next morning by roosters crowing
and a man in the repair shop behind the motel hammering out auto
bodies. On the sidewalk in front of the Gadsden Hotel where I went for
breakfast an old man stopped me to inquire as to what part of Wyoming
I was from, having recognized the bronc-buster license plates. A
saddle stiff with two canes, he said he'd cowboyed in Wyoming, Utah,
Montana, and Idaho, and mentioned in particular a ranching outfit near
"Not the Cannon Land and Livestock Company?"
He nodded vigorously. "No, but I'm acquainted with
The skylighted lobby of the Gadsden Hotel with its
grand staircase descending between marble columns had been filmed for
ten or fifteen movies, one of the more recent featuring Paul Newman,
and Pancho Villa once ate a meal in the hotel's dining room. I went
into the coffee shop and sat at the counter beside a small brown man
in his 70's: spare, weathered, his silver hair touched with Latin
black. As I drank strong coffee he leaned to me in the unabashed
self-presenting manner Anglos find disconcerting and said
confidentially in a heavily accented voice, "We ought to have a Gringo
Day around here--eh? Sunday is the only day of the week when they
aren't all over here on our side of the border."
His family, the old man told me proudly, had been
in the United States for five generations, and his father arrived in
the Douglas area in 1898. He himself was part Irish, part Scot, part
English. He spoke a few incomprehensible words, paused for the
reaction, and asked, "You don't understand? That's Gaelic. You're a
Scot, I can tell by looking at you. You ought to know Gaelic."
A hard wind driving out of Mexico like an invisible
broom pushed waves of trash across the chain-link fence on the
international border. A pickup truck with Sonora plates, pieced
together from the body parts of differently colored junkyard hulks,
passed noisily in the northbound lane, and a carefully parked sedan
burned quietly by itself at the curb along the main thoroughfare. Over
in Agua Prieta, young men with vacant faces leaned on iron lamp posts
rising from narrow sidewalks built on high stepped curbs above drains
clogged by garbage. Eighteen years ago three members of a Douglas
ranching family named Hanigan, the father and two sons, were charged
with the kidnapping and torture of three mojados who had
ventured across the border in search of work. Public feeling in
Douglas was strong for the Hanigans, while in Agua Prieta citizens
organized a boycott of the Douglas merchants. After the Hanigans were
acquitted on all counts in Cochise County Court, Anglos were afraid to
show their faces in the Mexican city.
"Where are you from?" the United States Customs man
asked me as I sought to recross the border into the States. "What do
you do up there? Are you a rancher?"
He waved on two old women and a family crowding
behind, all of them waving their MICA cards. When they had passed
through the inspector, speaking deliberately and in a formal voice,
said, "The problem is that they breed beyond the capacity to support
themselves. Demographics are going to sink us all. I like these people
okay, but they're not my people. This is a war going on down here, and
there's going to be a white backlash in a few years. --Yes, yes: go on
through. . . . See that old lady?" The Customs man pointed to a
toothless crone carrying a shopping bag on each arm. "She's probably
responsible for 30 grandchildren. I'm 40 years old, grew up in
Southern California where there were hardly any Hispanics at all. Now
the place is overrun with them. And it makes me furious: I resent that
I should be responsible for all these people. These small-town
peasants have no education, no general knowledge, no English. And they
don't assimilate. They can't support a wife and six kids on seasonal
agricultural work; I don't know what they're thinking about. They say
the Catholic Church has got them by the neck; I suppose they do."
Dating from 1880, Bisbee is a monument to the times
when Americans knew how to lay out a town and build buildings having
dignity, solidity, as well as to the heedless destructiveness of those
times; the livid pit from which generations of Bisbeeans extracted ore
for the smelters of Douglas remains an open wound in the surrounding
desert hills. A lead story in the Bisbee Observer concerned a
Ms. Alexis Claire--a local travel agent arrested for allegedly
harassing a Border Patrol agent as he attempted to interrogate a
Central American client who wished to purchase a Greyhound Bus ticket.
Missing from the reporter's account was an explanation of how Ms.
Claire's face, pictured in the paper, had failed to turn the offending
man to limestone. I drove past her travel office and the huge peace
symbol formed from a map of the world hanging behind the plate glass
window, and on to Naco: a hamlet located a few miles west of Bisbee on
the international border where vigilantes from Tucson used to take
shots at illegals crossing into the United States. The outskirts of
town were festooned with trash, the shoulders of the highway littered
with burst bags of garbage tossed from passing cars for the wind and
the starving dogs to tear apart. On Main Street all the commercial
buildings except for a couple of bars were closed, and the only people
in the street were a group of Mexican boys who, after clearing
themselves with United States Customs and Immigration, pushed their
jalopy through the port of entry onto American soil and stood grinning
and waving to their friends in Mexico as if crossing the border were
entertainment for them, or some sort of joke.
In the desert north of Bisbee I stopped for an old
woman in a black raincoat who stood beside the road holding a can of
beer. "I'm going to Tucson," she said through the window.
"I'm going to Nogales. I can take you as far as
The woman's face was a bleary ruin, her stringy
white hair streaked obscenely with yellow. "Thank you," she said,
drinking beer. "Are you a real cowboy?"
"I have to go to jail," she explained, "for six months."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
I let her off at the junction and went to have a
look at what remains of the OK Corral.
"Well, that's Tombstone."
"Yeah. Now, where's the cemetery?"
Where a century before gunfighters blazed away at
one another, potbellied old men from Rockford, Illinois, shuffled
about like Weeble-Wobbles, lifting their cameras off their paunches to
take slow aim. While the Mexicans arriving in Arizona come to work and
to breed, the Americans are here to play for a few more years, and
South a mile of the displaced Mexican village of
Sasabe a brick building on the American side of the border faced a
shack with the flag of the Republic of Mexico drooping above it on a
pole. The steel gate at the crossing had been torn away, only a
fragment left hanging from one of the posts. Three United States
Customs officials as I drove up stood glassing the Altar Valley to the
"What's going on in Sasabe?" I wanted to know.
The men grinned.
"What you see is what there is," one of them said,
making a wide gesture that encompassed a few hundred square miles of
desert. He pointed to the ruined gate. "We had a smuggler through here
two weeks ago, he was being pursued by the Border Patrol. When he
reached the crossing he ducked his head and hit that gate doing 70
miles an hour--took it clean off, along with the chain and padlock,
and he was going so fast he did hardly any damage to the vehicle. What
we were doing when you got here was watching a red car, followed by a
pickup truck, driving out in the mesquite there. Most of the trouble
goes around us here: the smugglers have their own road system allowing
them to cross the border without having to come through the Port of
Entry. All this valley from the border north 20 miles used to be a
single ranch until the owner sold out, and now the lower part here is
a bird sanctuary. We've got all these nice old folks down from Tucson,
wandering around with their cameras and binoculars, taking pictures
and looking at the birds, and all the time rubbing shoulders with
smugglers and desperadoes and never knowing it. It looks to me like
the car and van are harmless, though. You say you're from Wyoming? I
know a guy up in Wyoming. Name's Bob Skinner."
"I know Bob and his brothers, too: outfitters out
of Pinedale. And I know the man who used to own this valley. He bought
a spread near Cora, north of Pinedale."
"It's a small world," the inspector agreed.
He stared away as he spoke at the bird sanctuary.
The red car and the truck had disappeared and in the vast stillness of
the desert nothing could be seen to stir beneath the savage brow of
Baboquivari Peak, legendary home of the Papago deity I'itoi.
"In a couple of hours now," the inspector said,
"we'll be able to see their headlights out there, 20 miles away, and
there won't be a thing we can do about it. The War on Drugs is all in
the politicians' mouths."