Thursday, January 16, 2014

City of Rocks – On the Way to the Boot Heel Country

As a matter of historical interest, the Boot Heel part of New Mexico and a good portion of southern Arizona (including Tucson) was acquired from Mexico by the Gadsden Purchase signed by the US on December 30, 1853 and approved by Mexico (after some changes imposed by the US Senate) on June 8, 1854. The treaty settled a dispute over almost 30,000 square miles of territory following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.

The third in the BJ Vinson mystery series takes place in the New Mexico portion of this acquisition. The as yet unpublished book is THE CITY OF ROCKS, a title suggested by a 1,280-acre New Mexico state park of the same name situated north of Deming near the small town of Faywood. Thirty million-year-old rocks create what look to be an ancient city situated in the middle of grasslands. Deming is not in New Mexico’s Boot Heel county, but the action in the book is centered on a ranch farther south and west in that part of the state. The following are some excerpts from the novel which show the reader portions of this beautiful state as BJ heads from Albuquerque to the M Lazy M Ranch. The hash tags indicate succeeding scenes from the novel.
Las Cruces, the county seat of Doña Ana County, was a city of around 75,000 perched on the Chihuahuan desert flats of the Mesilla Valley. This flood plain of the Rio Grande boasted pecan orchards, as well as onion, chili, and other vegetable fields. The city was also a rail center and the home of the state’s only Land Grant School, New Mexico State University. The stark, striking Organ Mountains rose abruptly to the east.
I parked in front of the East University Avenue headquarters of State Police District Four around 8:00 a.m. I wanted to follow protocol and have Dispatch let the officers on the scene know I was on the way.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled in behind a swarm of activity. Emergency flares blocked the westbound lanes of the highway. I pulled up to the uniformed patrolman diverting traffic to the eastbound lanes and identified myself. He used his shoulder unit to announce my arrival and then waved me over onto the verge. It looked as if the crime unit had about finished with their work. In the distance, I could see a banged up black Dodge Ram pickup upside down snug against the corridor fence. A man in civilian attire detached himself from a small group and started for me as soon as I got out of the car.
I headed for Deming, hoping to locate some of the dead man’s family or familiars who might be able to give me a lead before driving to the M Lazy M Ranch. The sixty-mile stretch between Las Cruces and Deming was relatively flat and dominated by creosote, honey mesquite, and yucca. An ungodly amount of cacti and spiked plants of every size and description lived among these anchors. Except, of course, the tall, stately saguaros the entire world associated with the American Southwest. To the best of my knowledge, those grew only in Arizona.
Road kill revealed the makeup of the local fauna: jackrabbits, desert terrapins, kangaroo rats, and the occasional rattlesnake. I even saw the desiccated carcass of a coyote hanging over the fence bordering the Interstate. Of course, in the Cooke’s Range to the north, there would be cougar and black bear and mule deer. The nearby Florida Mountains boasted ibex and mountain sheep with occasional unconfirmed sightings of the Mexican jaguar. I know this because I’m a confirmed history buff, especially the history of my native state.
The day was hot beneath a blue-flame sky, probably around a hundred degrees. But like we’re fond of saying down here, it’s a dry heat, so it doesn’t hurt much, especially at an altitude of three-quarters of a mile above sea level. Dark, menacing thunderheads hovered to the south over Mexico, but the monsoon hadn’t yet taken hold.
Deming, with a population of around 15,000, was the county seat and principal town of Luna County. It is also located in rockhound country. A good part of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona is a paradise for rock and mineral collecting. Most of the old mines are closed now, but on public land, it’s legal to collect bits and pieces of once-treasured rocks. Geodes. Fire agate. Jasper. Quartz. Azurite. Even turquoise chips can often be found in old dumps.
I sped down Highway 11 toward Columbus. It wasn’t the quickest route to the Boot Heel country, but the town had once played a dramatic part in a clash between two nations, and as a history buff, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sop up some of that flavor. Besides, it was getting late in the day for a drive over into Hidalgo County where the M Lazy M was located. I planned on remaining overnight in the little village named for Christopher Columbus just north of the border across from Palomas, Mexico.
The Impala breezed south over a landscape reminiscent of the drive between Deming and Las Cruces: flat, high desert terrain broken by blue-shadowed mountains in the distance. Heat waves rising off the asphalt were pleasantly hypnotic.
Columbus is an official, twenty-four-hour POE—Point of Entry—between the two nations, although it sits about three miles north of the actual demarcation line. Border City is where the crossings actually occur. Its proximity to the Mexican State of Chihuahua is what gave the place its brush with history.
The actual story is long and convoluted, as well as highly controversial. Two Mexican revolutionaries, Venustiano Carranza and Francisco Villa, better known as Pancho, tossed out a dictator named Victoriano Huerta and then turned on one another. A Columbus merchant and arms dealer by the name of Ravel supposedly sold defective ammunition to Pancho Villa. When the guerrilla demanded a refund, the merchant reputedly told him the Ravels no longer dealt with Mexican bandits.
On the morning of March 9, 1916, one of Villa’s generals attacked Columbus with more than 500 men. The twenty-four-hour invasion burned down a significant portion of the town and killed fourteen American soldiers and ten residents. Another eighty or so revolutionaries were dead or mortally wounded. The raid led let to General John J. Pershing’s Punitive Expedition deep into Mexico.
My initial glimpse of Columbus was as a disruption astraddle the flat, monotonous highway. After entering the town of mostly one-storied adobe affairs—some painted in brash colors of green or pink—I found a bed and breakfast and registered for the night.
These scenes touch on just a bit of the rich history of our great state. Hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.

Thanks for reading,


Next week: The Boot Heel.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

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