The return to Texas — Part 1: Mescalero

On Monday we drove the nine hours from Ruidoso, New Mexico, back to Kerrville.

The most direct route was of course how we’d driven there the previous Monday and was actually 8 hours and 22 minutes on paper (see here what I mean by “on paper” in a digital world), but I wanted to see another part of Texas, which would lead us down through the Mescalero Reservation, then skirt El Paso’s northeastern edge, and run along the U.S.-Mexico border for what appeared to be 20-30 miles before landing us back onto I-10 — one of the main arteries of American driving.

(I thought I-10 would be boring; I was wrong. But that’s for another post.)

So that’s what I wanted to do, and I proposed the alternate route to the family. But since the proposed drive was forty minutes longer than the most direct route — ten minutes longer than what I thought was an acceptable delta — I lied. I said that my detour — the reasons for which I explained as important to me, so at least I was candid when it came to my self-interest — would be only about “a half hour” difference.

Monday night at 9pm as we reached Junction, Texas, (we’d left Ruidoso about 10:30am and lost an hour crossing from Mountain to Central Time) about 70 minutes from home, my middle son complained that I had to stop for one final bathroom break. After I chided him for making a fuss over a half hour difference in routes (well, forty minutes…actually 38 minutes according to Google!), I also reminded him that he didn’t have the prostate of a 57-year-old man.

I was speaking into a gale.

London, Texas. A developer has purchased this building on the “main drag” (where there are no STOP signs) and plans to turn it into a boutique B&B.

My further intent with this route was to be able to perhaps snap off a few photos along the way. Lately I’ve become enamored of the sagging and even dead architecture and industrial matter one sees along roadsides and in decaying towns. Perhaps it makes one feel more alive: to see dead things.

Other than a pale rouge building in Ozona, Texas, with its windows busted out and some cream colored curtains blowing through them toward the street, like soft sobs over departed tenants — a building that didn’t take a good picture — other than that, I was locked to the steering wheel, and after about Hour 5 was often reminded of my detour. There even came a point when the three-member crew came near mutiny and claimed that I hadn’t asked their permission. This was patently false: when I lied about the longer route — because even writing here I call it a “detour” when in fact I like to think I was exposing everyone to an “additional exploration” on our return trip — taking 30 minutes longer (as apposed to 38-40) and asked them if I might take this route out of my own fascination — to wit, “to please consider indulging me” — each family member in his or her turn consented. There was a bit of grumbling, a bit of neutrality, even apathy, but consent they gave. I held them to that.

I’ll admit to being a bit of an ass about it, but since I’d arranged the whole trip and did most of the driving to and from and most of the cooking while there, I figured that my indulgent request was less a matter of gaining consensus than of exercising divine right. Operative word: “ass.”

The Mescalero Apache Territory, just south of Ruidoso, sits at 6,611 feet. I mention that because it felt like we were driving uphill for a while from Sudderth Boulevard and Route 70 in Ruidoso, where the altitude was 6,900. A couple of us admitted our ears were popping.

But this census-designated place — that’s a thing: “CDP” for short, meaning it’s a “place” only for the purposes of counting heads, of which there are about 1,400 — had gained some notoriety in the descriptions of it by my oldest son, who claimed that when white people ventured uninvited into that territory, there were reports of said whites being scalped.

I struck back, “Surely you’re kidding.”

“Seriously!” he said seriously.

“Where did you see a report about this?”

“Well…I’ve heard people talk about it.”

Ah. Well. That settles that.

It had sounded a bit too on the nose: like the next detail he’d describe would be how they’d whoop and dance in a circle around a bonfire, or perhaps around a King Ranch edition Ford truck, with what was left of the family of four from Highland Park who simply were looking for some turquoise earrings and hand-woven rugs but took a wrong turn after their ears popped and they became disoriented.

What was undeniable, however, was the seeming isolation and even poverty as we came over the ridge and passed Apache High School. Perhaps much of the housing on either side of the highway was set back — in fact, a number of dwellings were; I say “dwellings” because I could see only steep gravel driveways leading from Route 70 West up into the pine tree woods but no buildings; I have no idea of detail beyond “dwelling” — but what was visible from the road was sparse and generally disheveled. Tools and equipment lied haphazardly in yards. Run-down siding protected the interior of buildings from the winter snow. Vehicles like faded ornaments dotted the space between road and trailers.

I tend to give Native American peoples a pass when it comes to not more aggressively or obviously bettering their station in life. That statement alone has so much white-person baggage and bias that in many circles it’s worthy of scalping.

Perhaps I “infantilize” them, as today’s phrase bandied about by white conservatives is applied to black Americans who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement. But much like black Americans brought to this continent against their will and treated inhumanely for centuries, so indigenous peoples already here were unwitting hosts who saw their across-the-pond relatives — for we are relatives, that is undeniable — arrive and offer not gifts to be received and enjoyed without strings, but make deals with them that were outside the realm of their cultures and therefore entered into naïvely. Not even naïvely, but blindly. For these same white Europeans who duped them would be the first to cry “foul” if Martians came — or, shall we find a different and distant planet to draw aliens from, since Mars is kind of a done deal now and waiting for its first Musk-Virgin-Braniff Hotel — and made an exchange in the Martians’ favor that was completely beyond our cultural experience and wisdom to understand. The only reason we whites justify what we’ve done is because it hasn’t happened to us. Yet.

Perhaps my difference in thinking about indigenous Americans and blacks brought from Africa is because I have seen a black man become president, another become a Supreme Court Justice, another successfully lead a Fortune 50 company, and one of my closest black friends become a doctor and then retire at age 50 — 45 even. Now a black woman has been put forward as vice presidential candidate because it’s one party’s sense that this is the best or even only way to win: to put forward a black person as that party’s champion. It’s not affirmative action — giving a leg up to someone who needs it — it’s action that says, “We need you. Please give us a leg up.”

That’s different.

It’s welcomed.

Perhaps the news leaves out more than I can imagine. But when was the last time I heard anything at all significant about native peoples? When have I heard any descendants of the Lenape Tribe demand reparations for, or simply inalienable squatting rights on, the island that was craftily manipulated away from them by the Dutch and then maintained at a healthy distance from them by the English? Certainly, some Lenape great-great+-granddaughter has an opinion on what has become of her ancestors’ beloved Mannahatta? They didn’t even want to “possess” the land, since the land never gave her permission to be possessed by any people, let alone by an uninvited people who offered the equivalent of $24 for it.

So it was over this unexpectedly ear-popping ridge we drove, through the Lincoln National Forest until we reached US-54 south at Tularosa.

We left behind us the set-back homes of the Mescalero Apache and the “sacred land” of Geronimo, whom the Mescalero website describes as:

…highly sought by Apache chiefs for his wisdom. He is said to have had supernatural powers. Geronimo could see the future and walk without creating footprints. He could keep the dawn from rising to protect his people.

We white Europeans do create footprints, footprints that tend to be indelible.

And yet, for Europeans like me, who have lamented and confessed yet done nothing to redeem the past, those footprints may be washed away by the waves lapping against the shore, but they also are remembered by the ocean.


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