Destination: New Mexico

This state's beauty and brutality are reflected in its literature, from the chronicle of explorer Cabeza de Vaca to Cormac McCarthy's masterly westerns to a history of the atomic bomb.

Topics: The Literary Guide to the World, Travel, Books,

Destination: New Mexico

New Mexico is a world of almost blinding clarity and color. The vistas are vast. The hot peppers are eye-watering when fresh and bright blood-red if left to dry. Summer sunsets nearly make you want to weep. A person could write a good guide to New Mexico merely by compiling a list of Hatch green chile recipes and cataloging the state’s fire lookouts — one of which I’m lucky enough to occupy, and where on a clear day I can see a dozen mountain ranges, some in Mexico and Arizona. Yet it’s the spooky human history pulsing just beneath the surface that makes New Mexico such a fascinating place; any real reckoning with the literature of the state has to involve a reckoning with genocide and apocalypse. It would also, ideally, be undertaken by a bilingual reader. Long before English dominated the written stories of the region, Spanish reigned supreme. Indeed, the original masterpiece of American writing appeared before America even existed. It was composed as a report for the king of Spain by a remarkable explorer with a wonderful name, Cabeza de Vaca, or “head of a cow.”

In 1527 Cabeza set sail from Spain on a mission to explore and colonize North America. He was second in command of a crew of 300, which triumphantly landed on the shores of Florida in 1528. The triumph did not last. Continuing west first by boat and then on foot, the crew suffered shipwrecks, disease, starvation and conflict with the natives. Eventually they were reduced to only four, including Cabeza, who worked his way out of slavery with a tribe of Texas natives by becoming a wandering trader.

Years later, after a miraculous reunion with his three fellow survivors, Cabeza set out for the Spanish settlements of Mexico. Along the final stretch of the journey he was greeted as a faith healer: The natives, apprised of his approach, would carry their sick to meet him. By Cabeza’s account, a laying on of hands, an Ave Maria and a sign of the cross were usually sufficient to cure the sick and the lame. Shaman, peacemaker, herald of the coming order, Cabeza was the first European superstar in the New World, and the story of his journey — the precise route of which is still in doubt, though it may have taken him as far west as present-day Arizona — remains to this day a weird and wondrous document, an undervalued treasure of American literature, whose Anglophilic keepers conveniently forget that the Spanish were here well before Jamestown.

The encounter of Spanish and Native Americans was the first great cataclysm of the written era; the coming of English speakers was the second. And not just their coming, but the violence of it. No single book renders that moment better than Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel “Blood Meridian.” A tale of an amoral group of bounty hunters roaming the borderlands in the late 1840s, “Blood Meridian” is perhaps the most unsparing treatment of genocide and moral depravity ever written. And the most shocking thing about it is that it was based on real events. In a high, biblical language that owes much to Faulkner and Melville, McCarthy chronicles the exploits of a gang of scalp hunters, modeled on the infamous Glanton Gang, who killed the region’s natives without remorse. Eventually, enthralled by blood lust, the bounty hunters turn on the very citizens who’d hired them in the first place. The killing only ends when the group itself is mostly extinguished — in the end all of them but the judge, a giant, hairless albino and multilingual philosopher, a serial rapist and murderer of children, and a figure of such demonic vitality that he can only be compared, as many have pointed out, to the great Shakespearean villains.

Certain critics have complained that the baroque prose style of “Blood Meridian” serves to distance the reader from the horrific gore of the events described. On the contrary, and in subversive fashion, McCarthy’s language imbues the anonymous victims with a measure of dignity even in grisly death. Consider this: “All about … the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

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No scribe, that is, until McCarthy. He is nothing if not meticulous. His portrayal of the Southwestern landscape, leavened here and there with bits of its half-forgotten history, reveals an artist extremely devoted to the verities of place. Every mountain range he describes in “Blood Meridian,” as well as in his “Border Trilogy” — “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain” — he has studied with his own eyes, and that encompasses most of west Texas and nearly all of New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico. These four novels simultaneously demolish the genre of the “western” and set the new standard for it. They are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

After the Spanish enslaved and proselytized the natives, and the “gringos” took cultural hegemony a step further toward complete genocide, a collection of scientists brought the dominion of man to the edge of reason at a site called Trinity. There the nuclear age was born on July 16, 1945, with a test explosion that would lead shortly to the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is the indispensable history of the project, most of which was carried out in the little town of Los Alamos, before the scientific handiwork was brought to an isolated stretch of desert further south. There, in what became the White Sands Missile Range, the American military still bombards the landscape, perfecting the art of warfare alongside a stretch of country the Spanish called the Jornada del Muerto, or journey of the dead man, in homage to its awful heat and paucity of water.

For a more personal reflection on the meaning of the bomb, Ellen Meloy’s “The Last Cheater’s Waltz” (1999) is the place to turn. It toggles back and forth from her home on the Colorado River Plateau of southeastern Utah, where some of the uranium required for America’s nuclear arsenal was mined, to White Sands, where she tries to reconcile “the friction between war laboratory and landscape, terror and the sublime, into an oddly harmonious anarchy.” “The Last Cheater’s Waltz” rivals “Dr. Strangelove” for black humor in the face of the ultimate killing tool.

It should be noted that all of these books deal with a geography much larger than that encompassed by what is now called New Mexico, and when they do deal with New Mexico it’s mostly with the part I live in and know best, which is the southern third of the state. There’s a wonderful saying we like down here: It ain’t new and it ain’t Mexico. This motto, in the guise of distinguishing us, acknowledges that we’re an artificial creation that’s become something nameable, culturally speaking, only with the passage of a good deal of time. It can be further amended to note that the north differs from the south in very real ways. Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca, William Eastlake and dozens of very talented others have given shape to the experience of New Mexicans further north.

But for a vision of contemporary life in this part of the world, one could scarcely do better than to pick up Sharman Apt Russell’s “Songs of the Fluteplayer” (1991), a collection of personal essays that range from the clash between environmentalists and cattle ranchers to the moral quandaries involved in hiring illegal laborers. At its best, it explores human-imposed boundaries — say, between public land and private, or between America and Mexico — with clarity, grace and a subtlety that subverts simple-minded moralizing. To hear our most vitriolic pundits tell it, illegal immigrants are the face of the coming apocalypse. I challenge them to read Russell’s essay on the subject and continue their wailing and gnashing of teeth with a straight face and a clean conscience.

Philip Connors is the author of Fire Season, which won the Banff Mountain Book Competition Grand Prize, the National Outdoor Book Award, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, and the Reading the West Book Award. Connors's writing has also appeared in Harper's, n+1, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New Mexico.

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