Present Thoughts, Pleasant Memories

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Windmills, dry tablelands, propane torches, wooden sucker rods, cholla cacti, pastures, rainless clouds, algae-capped watering tanks, roadrunners & New Mexico.

T wo thousand eighteen: It is a cold and thundery June afternoon in Colorado and I’m expecting it to begin pouring any moment because a thick gray cloud is slowly edging its way toward me from the southwest. For some reason I can’t explain, I am now thinking of the heat and dryness of a New Mexico ranch on a late June morning nearly fifty years ago.

My family and I had been there only a month, arriving in the midst of a drought that had begun the year before. From Illinois, I had never made the acquaintance of a drought, but here, instead of spring-green pastures, the landscape was bone white, stripped bare of any vegetation except the prickly pear and cholla cacti. Their hay stores used up, ranchers were burning the cacti with long propane torches that scorched off the thorns so the cattle could eat them.

The county commissioners, many of whom remembered when this was part of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, were concerned and had given the job of checking the county’s water wells to a gregarious old fellow who had long been a resident. When he arrived at our ranch, it was late afternoon. He explained that he would check our well levels then, and return in October to see if the water level was down, but he needed to know the location of our wells.

Fluffy, rainless clouds drifted slowly overhead and I walked in their shadows where I could be at least a little cooler.

I’d changed the oil in all seven of the windmills only the week before, so I drove with him, as a guide. At each one, he shined his flashlight down the shaft, then pushed out his fifty-foot tape measure with a white fluorescent tape wrapped on the end and let it out until it glinted at the water’s surface. All the wells had water at less than fifty feet, even as the land and we baked in the nearly three-digit heat.

Windmills are gentle users of the groundwater, pumping it out slowly and barely dimpling its surface. The question the inspector was to answer was whether even that would be too much. I’d already become a fan of windmills, their clanking sound as the big fans spun, the way their metal vanes turned in circles so the blades faced into the wind, the sound of the wooden sucker rods with leather collars along their length that lifted cold, delicious water in pulsing gushes into the algae-capped watering tanks.

The inspector seemed to enjoy his job, alternating between visiting with ranchers and driving through the dry tablelands where cattle gathered, hungrily eating the scorched cholla and prickly pear.

For some reason I can’t explain, I am now thinking of the heat and dryness of a New Mexico ranch on a late June morning nearly fifty years ago.

After the last well was plumbed I realized that we were only a mile from the ranch house, so I decided to walk home. We shook hands and after a long, cold series of drinks from the windmill discharge pipe he drove off and I climbed the metal ladder of the windmill to look around. This was a smaller one, only about thirty feet high, but it was enough to lift me into the cooler air, away from the hot earth. The only sound was the rattle of the eight-foot metal windmill blades as they whirred in the wind, lifting and dropping the sucker rods into the well, and the scrape of my boots as I climbed the metal ladder, and of course the pulsing splashes of water into the tank.

And what a view: in the near and far distances, the clusters of cattle, vultures wheeling in a spiral over something that had given up the ghost, a dust cloud following the well inspector’s pickup as he headed to the Clavell ranch, our nearest neighbors four miles away. At the edge of a clump of scrub oak a family of scaled quail hurried along, the fluff babies following their mother as if linked, tram-like, then disappeared into the bushes. Suddenly a roadrunner dashed from the bushes and plucked up a small lizard that had been sunning on a flat rock. It was my first real roadrunner, not a cartoon, but it truly was fast.

I drank again from the cold, sweet water and strolled home. Fluffy, rainless clouds drifted slowly overhead and I walked in their shadows where I could be at least a little cooler.

The next week was the Fourth of July and we celebrated with a picnic and more than an inch and a half of rain. By the tenth of July the land was green as a golf course. Ranchers’ grins broadened as the cattle happily nibbled the tiny shoots. If cows can smile, they were.

Robert Howe worked more than fifty years in the hospitality industry, operating summer camps for twenty years and guest ranches for twenty-five. He is a naturalist and an amateur ethnobotanist . Following those interests, he has traveled and learned throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa and Central and South America. He retired more than a decade ago and now spends a third of his year living and volunteering with various conservation and community groups in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Wanting to introduce his six grandchildren to traveling, he told them, “When you think you are ready to travel with just me, I will take you wherever you want to go.” So far, that’s taken him to Italy, Iceland, Scotland, Belize and France—adventures for both him and the grandchild.

Lead image: Celestyn Brozek

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