Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dentistry Mexican Style

Pancho Villa—a larger than life statue in Las Palomas.
Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known as Pancho Villa, crossed the border from the sleepy Mexican town of Las Palomas on March 9, 1916, and attacked the small town of Columbus, NM. He took mules, horses and other military supplies and fled back into Mexico. It was the first incursion on U.S. soil by foreign troops since the war of 1812.

Today, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Villa astride horseback stands in front of the municipal buildings of the tiny town of Las Palomas, where the major industries now are tourism and dentistry.

Once you go you understand why. Convenience and price.

It's a two hour drive from Truth or Consequence, NM. We did it early before the hot late summer sun had a chance to heat the parched earth. The border crossing was manned by sleepy-eyed officials on both sides. There was no line.

For many Americans Las Palomas is the destination, and so it is easier to park on the U.S. side and walk across. That is what we did.

I had come to see dentistry, Mexican style, at work, and was there  with two friends: one getting three crowns;  the other, three fillings, a mouth guard, and a cleaning. The dentist: Ricardo Salazar.

Dancing after dentistry.
Unlike visiting a U.S. dentist, there was no appointment needed, and no waiting when we got there though we did call an hour ahead.  My two friends were seen within minutes after we arrived.

And in an hour all was done, and we were out the door. Unlike at most U.S. dental pratices the crowns and mouth guards were made on premise. No waiting. No need to come back later. The ultimate walk-in clinic.

But the reason most norteamericanos come to Mexico for dentistry is not convenience but price.  The fillings were $35 each. The crowns were $300 for a high-end, all porcelain crown, $150 for one partly metal.

Dentistry done, we walked the hot and dusty town, visited a friend, and had lunch at the Pink Store, known for its line of gifts and souvenirs, especially pottery and porcelain.

While we ate a band played. My friends got up and danced.

Although the U.S. border lies just a few hundred yards to the north, it seemed we were momentarily in a different world.  A stress meter somewhere had down-clicked four notches. Maybe more.

Afterwards, we walked back to crossing. The Mexican authorities waved us through. The U.S. agents looked at our passports.

"Anything to declare?"

"Two t-shirts."

Back on the road again and on the way home.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Drumming for Lightning

I did not know Lightning, and he died before his time. Twelve years ago he was stabbed in the heart. He survived the stabbing but never was the same. Over the last few months his health failed. He died yesterday still in his forties.

In the evening, at Ralph Edwards park, a group of about 25 including his wife and three children gathered.  We sat in a circle with drums, rattles, an old tambourine and guitars, and drummed.

Drumming is a unifying experience. A group cannot talk all at once. It may sing but only one song.

But in drumming there is self expression. One person can set a rhythm and others follow, or a dozen can. But somehow it all comes together, each individual expression part of a whole— music without melody, lyrics without words.

We drummed until after dark. Farewell to Lightning.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Getting Soaked

My neighbor suggested a walk in the evening before dusk along the quieter residential areas of Truth or Consequences, in the historic district known as Hot Springs, before the name changed in 1950. The sky was fleeced with light gray clouds. Lighting flashed.

"We're going to get soaked," she said.

We stopped along the way and talked with a woman working hard at gardening. Gardening takes on a different meaning here. There may be no other place quite like it. The soil is porous desert sand. What grows is a mix of cactus plus anything you can put on it, water and fertilize, that can take sun. It is both sparse and lush at the same time. Below the ground hot water flows and sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Becky—with the sky still light beside the Rio Grande
In addition, in mid to late summer—monsoon season in New Mexico—storms can spring up suddenly, ride down the mountains like avenging banshees, and flood the town in minutes.

An evidence, walk along Broadway and you will see not only pools of standing water but filled sandbags at almost every door—just in case—to keep galloping waters at bay.

Then there is the river. The lazy Rio Grande borders the south side of town, flowing from Elephant Butte lake, adding its own humidity to the air.

As we walk the lightning strikes come more quickly. They ring the town, dancing on the hills like skinny, blue aliens— here for a moment and gone. Mixed with the smell of lightning and rain, the faint scent of wood smoke—perhaps from a distant fire from a lightning strike.

As we walk the rain picks up—droplets at first and then heavier blobs.

Jan—our hostess in the rain
We near a house under renovation. My friend says she knows the owners, Ted and Jan, so we holler, duck in and visit. As we sit on the deck the light in the sky does a gradual disappearing act, becoming deeper an deeper hues of purple/gray, until mountains across the river are no more than dark indigo shapes lit by occasional slashes of  blue/white lightning. The Rain tattoos on the roof. Then it slows, stops.

"Our chance to be going," says my friend Becky

We walk back in darkness.

"I thought we were going to get soaked," I say. I almost sense a smile in the dark.

Back at the house we change to bathing suits and walk to The Riverbend, one of a half a dozen or so resorts that tap the hot water just below ground and pipe it to the surface and into large bathing tubs. For almost 100 years visitors  have been coming here to take these hot mineral baths. Before that the first settlers, the Spanish and the Indians. Taking the waters is called soaking,

That's what we did. Sat in a tub for almost an hour watching the lightning prance in an inkberry sky and hearing the rain dance around us.

We got soaked.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Two Artists

Daragh Vaughan was born in Ireland. Like many who come to Truth or Consequences he is a transplant from another part of the world. Delmas Howe, born in El Paso, is not. He grew up in Truth or Consequences. After a career that took him to New York, he returned to the southwest, to Texas in 1975 and to Truth or Consequences in 1984.

Daragh at the keyboard
Both Vaughan and Howe were on display yesterday in different settings.

For Vaughan it was Saturday work as usual at the Truth or Consequences Farmers' Market, singing a three-and-a-half-hour set of folk, rock, pop and Irish ballads under blue skies before a milling crowd of hundreds shopping fresh produce, baked goods, woolens, crafts, tarot readings and haircuts.

His songs include original compositions including at least one celebrating his adopted home town. When it's over he sits on a stone step smoking a cigarette. "Great set," someone says.

"I'm glad you liked it," he says. "I'm really glad you liked it."

Meanwhile a short distance away at 110 East  Broadway the Rio Bravo Fine Arts Gallery is putting final touches on a by invitation only exhibit of Howe's enormous body of work.  It is impressive. Cowboy nudes in Greco-Roman settings line the walls and fill several rooms. The crowd including buyers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe  moves slowly from room to room, taking it in, and refreshing themselves with food and drink. Howe himself is on hand to greet visitors.

The Three Graces
He seems comfortable. This was not always the case. The unapologetic celebration of male nudity by a gay artist was not well received 40 years ago, and was one reason he left New York unable to make a living.  Today it is a different story. At the exhibition Howe prints and originals are on sale for $40 to upwards of $10,000 and more. He is the recipient of numerous awards and the subject of a 2004 film documentary, The Truth or Consequences of Delmas Howe, which in part explores not just his art but living in TorC.

Recently, this past June, one of Howe's early masterpieces, The Three Graces, 1978, was acquired by the Albuquerque Museum and put on display.

" 'The Three Graces' were my first attempt to combine southwest iconography with Greek and Roman mythology," Howe says. The painting was also the cover of a British arts magazine the year after it was done.

Cowboy Angel II
Howe's paintings would continue to delve further into the semi-classical, semi-mythical juxtaposition of Hellenic grandeur and American southwest and gay motifs.

"I see the cowboy as just about the only thing that approaches romantic mysticism in America," he is quoted as saying.

Howe continues that exploration to the present. His Cowboy Angel II painted in 2009 is priced at $15,000. It is a large canvas on oil, 70" by 44".

Howe himself, now 75, stands genially, tall and erect, among the crowd of buyers and well wishers. He shakes hands heartily.

"It's a terrific exhibition," someone says to him. "Thank you so much."

"I'm glad you like it," he says. "I'm really glad you like it."


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Day in Truth or Consequences


There we sat—three old men on a park bench. I won't name the other two. I live here now. But we sat sharing a view of the fishing pond in Ralph Edwards Park. Small fish swim by. Behind the pond the Saturday farmer's market is in progress. A singer sings and plays guitar. Vendors sell fresh bread, squash, tomatoes, pecans, beans, garlic, hot coffee.

"I've been reading Will Rogers and Samuel Clemens," says Old Man #1. "They nailed it. They saw it all coming."

"What coming?" asks Old Man #2. "This. The world as it is today.  Gone to hell," says OM#1 gesturing his arms in an all-encompassing motion.

The world as we all know has been going to hell in a hand basket for umpteen hundred years. But now, says OM#1, "We are really almost there. Something happened."

"Education," says OM#2. "I've never been to a white man's school. I taught myself read."

"What's wrong with education?" asks OM#1.

"When we worked with our hands, when we farmed, when we knew our place, when all you had to do was show up to get a job, you went to school to learn. Now we send kids to school to get employable skills, to succeed in the job market. It changes the whole focus of education," said OM#2. OM#3 nods.  "Everything is automated. We're doing away with people," he says.

View from the park bench of the fishing pond in Ralph Edwards Park.
 Fishing in it is limited to kids 12 and under and seniors 65 and older.
"Well, if we're talking about doing away with non-Native Americans it won't come a minute too soon," said OM#2, brandishing a book about the sorrow history of the Apache. "They ruined my country." The three OMs laugh. One throws a pebble into the water where the fish are swimming.

A woman walks up from the farmers' market. She is carries a large bag of pecans and a smaller one of fresh beans. She is wearing a long dress and her hair done in a neat bun. "How are you doing?" she asks.

"Can't complain," says one OM.

"Hey, that's all we've been doing," says another. "But it's OK. The world can always be thought better."


The light morning clouds visible in the sky and reflected in the water of the pond in the picture above gave way in afternoon to gray. Turtleback Mountain behind the town became shrouded in mist. Then rains came. They didn't end until late in the day.


Every second Saturday of evry month is Art Hop in Truth or Consequences. Stores and galleries stay open late, from 6 to 9. They have sales. Street merchants vend. Musicians play. It isn't a big thing as big things go. Broadway in downtown TorC is only a few blocks long. The turnout is a few hundred at most. But it's fun.

It's a pedestrian town. People walk. Men sport cowboy hats. Women dress up. Kids ride bikes.

One art gallery/ice cream parlor is doing a boom business in cones—$1.75,  your choice of 20 premium flavors. Restaurants offer specials. The smell of food wafts into the street and mingles with the smell of oils and incense of trendy shops with open doors.

The evening air is cool from the afternoon rain. The street, usually empty at night, is lined with parked cars. Neighbors step put and greet neighbors.

If this were a Spanish town it would be going on in the plaza. There is no plaza here. Broadway—five or six blocks long—is the plaza.

But by nine o'clock all is quiet except for the sound of merchants closing shop and one or two cars starting their engines and driving off. Another day in TorC.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Life Is A Journey — Two Parks Along the Way

Life is a journey. An inner one as well as external, a spiritual quest as well as a motoring adventure.

The two interact. You see beauty and it resonates within. You experience peace and it colors how you see the world.

We take our national parks for granted. We shouldn't. They are some of the finest in the world. It is not just the preservation of nature they encapture but something more.

Two of the finest I have seen are Canyon de Chelly and Colorado Monument. For different reasons.

The Grand Canyon writ small ...
Canyon de Chelly is the Grand Canyon writ small. Accessible. Peaceable. Located entirely within Navajo Tribal land. Because of that much of it is off limits without a guide and permit. One exception is White House trail.

Colorado Monument is the face of carved mountain beauty writ large. Here you can walk right to the edge and stare at grandeur across and below and above. And sense it staring back at you, small as you are.

... yet  in incredible beauty.
If the planet is alive. If there is a God. If we are part of something bigger than ourselves ... then what we see speaks to us. It is up to us to listen.

Colorado Monument twenty miles west of Grand Junction offers vistas few will ever see or see again.

A rare shot of Bus Companion. [Click on photo to enlarge.]
There are ledge outcroppings where painters go to paint. Photographers to shoot. But what a challenge! No film, no digits, no palette and canvas can come away with anything but an echo of what is to be seen or felt or heard there: the sun, the wind, the wheeling birds.

Need proof that the planet is alive? Look no further.

What follows are imperfect glimpses in a magical kingdom. [Click on photos to enlarge.]


Friday, August 5, 2011

Truth or Consequences — First Impressions

It's Friday. I have been here since Monday. It is a shock not living in my bus but in an apartment with shower, sink, fridge and all. It is the shower that is most amazing. To be able to walk a few feet, be in it, turn the water to any desired temperature and scrub away. Fantastic. No more sponge baths or standing in freezing water in a park shower.

This is how normal people live, right? And then there is air conditioning, and a fridge big enough to hold lots of stuff. Well, not lots. It's a small fridge by normal standards, but way bigger than the tiny one in the bus.

A peace flag  above downtown TorC.
My first impressions of TorC are just that: first impressions. It is a community of small businesses and merchants. Not chain stores. They do business their own way. Most keep their own hours. Rhonda Brittan at the Black Cat Bookstore at one end of Broadway is open Friday though Monday. Joe Silva, the barber at the other end of Broadway, is open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only, and only until 3 p.m. In the middle of Broadway the MoonGoddess boutique proclaims in a window sign it is open when the owner feels like it, and may be closed for bad weather, the return of Jesus, or because she just feels like beating a drum.

I cannot do justice to TorC in such short space and on such short notice. Here are some links that can add more flavor: New Mexico Magazine March 2009; and BudgetTravel, the 10 Coolest towns.

For an old VW bus driver and dweller, the town feels like home. Where else will you find a peace flag flying over downtown? A movie house from a bygone era with but one screen, and five shows weekly? Three book stores and three thrift shops within a few blocks' walking? A park and a Saturday farmers' market? Yoga, Tai-Chi, Qicong studios everywhere. Health food snack bars and markets. And colorful characters at every turn and on every corner?

And where else is a spaceport being built outside of town? Who says the past and future are not co-joined? SpaceportAmerica is being built and will be located on 18,000 acres 35 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences. See Map.

Location of Spaceport America. [Click on map to enlarge]
Will it fly? No one knows, but the end of NASA's Shuttle program last month and the possible beginning of an era of private space exploration may turn an out-of-the-way tract of sand and cactus under stars into a new portal to reach them.

Soaking in the history of Truth or Consequences is like soaking in the town's hot springs spas -- relaxing and pleasant combined with a sense of timelessness and vague rememberings.

Walk the sidewalks. Look down. Almost every sidewalk has an imprint of Depression-era construction stamped in the concrete:  F.E.R.A. 1935; W.P.A. 1939.

The town was Las Palomas early on. Changed to Hot Springs after Elephant Butte Dam was built in 1916. Changed again in 1950 on a dare from game show host Ralph Edwards, who would adopt the show's namesake city, and for 50 years preside over the town's spring parade and fiesta.

Ralph Edwards as TorC Grand Marshall.
There is quiet confidence about this low-key town even in uncertain economic times for America. A steady stream of spa visitors brings in tourist dollars. Year round good weather and modest real estate prices lure retirees.

It is as if the town that time forgot is waking up and remembering a diverse past -- its  1930s roots, postwar America, Ralph Edwards, and the 1950s, the 1960s.

Waking up to new people, to new ideas yet deep roots.

It was here that Lozen, legendary Apache woman warrior, who fought along side male Apache braves, and later with Geronimo himself, and who was said to have extraordinary powers, roamed on horseback, rifle held above her head. Who pined for her lost Confederate soldier lover who left for California. She never married.

Perhaps there is more at the Geronimo Springs museum in town. I have not seen it. I understand there is an Apache room that tells of Sierra County's Apache natives like Lozen, her brother Victorio and Geronimo himself who is said to have been born in the rugged Gila mountains not far away.

The blending of the old and new, teaching us who we are.

It is a town where my VW bus can park anywhere for free. There are no meters.

It is also a town where a spot in an RV park goes for $130 a month.

Yes, indeed. Life in TorC has the sweet feel of the slow lane.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Leaving Caballo

It was with a heavy heart that I woke early Monday morning before dawn and watched the sun crest the mountains to the east. This was to be my last day at Caballo, at least for a while, as I move into an apartment this morning in Truth or Consequences.

The fine filigree fingers of the gnarly salt cedars sway in the breeze. Birds swoop overhead. Down at the banks of the Rio Grande fishermen in dawn light wait patiently for catfish bites.

Waiting patiently in dawn's light .... [please click]
Could I really leave this morning paradise? I wondered.

The lower riverside part of Caballo Lake park is a one-of-a-kind place. Nowhere else will you find the mix of salt cedars and cottonwoods, or hear water cascading over a dam, or see hawks and eagles in flight, or skunks and raccoon on the prowl at night, or cattle walking placidly by in the morning, or swallows wheeling above the river at dusk, or bats wheeling the sky at night.

At 10 a.m. a stampede into the field.
And the people who come here are special too. These are not the Class A motor home dwellers who park their rigs at the upper levels of the park, turn on the air conditioners and stay indoors. These are mostly tent and trailer campers who come in pickup trucks and cars from Las Cruces and El Paso to celebrate, build fires, cook steaks, drink beer, play music, fish.

July 4 is a special holiday here.

So is Easter when the park fills with extended family, sometimes as many as ten tents to a site.

It is a special occasion because 600-dozen eggs are placed in an open field to the south the night before. On Sunday morning the kids line up. At 10 a.m. the whistle blows, and they stampede into the field, picking it clean of eggs within minutes.

And so it is just after dawn. I have eaten breakfast, packed my bus, said my goodbyes to the river and the trees, the ground squirrels and the song birds. I turn the key and nothing happens. I depend on a 65-watt solar panel to keep my bus batteries charged and power a small refrigerator and other things. The past three days have been overcast. My batteries are too weak. I have a battery charger with me. I take the starting battery out, carry it to an electrical outlet and charge it for three hours. Now I am ready to go.

My 65-watt solar panel -- no good without sun.
(Later I find that a loose wire from the charge controller may have been at fault.)

But I am not thinking of my electrical gremlins as I pull out of Caballo. I am thinking of friends like Albert Carreras who comes here to relax and fish. Who plays Santa at Christmas to hundreds of kids in and around Las Cruces. Of Jack, the camp host, and his wife who did me so many favors. Of the smiles and the waves of so many.

I am thinking, too, strangely, of the cows that walk through placidly at night and dawn, whose 'moos' add a strangely bucolic note to the morning air. The mourning doves that take the place of roosters.

Morning cows at Caballo.
It is a magic place, I will be back, I tell myself. If not to this park then another. For now as the engine hums with life I am going to an apartment in a town with a stove, refrigerator, shower, running water, a bed, electricity, a desk -- because I need a place to write.

But as I look in the rear view mirror I know my heart is here as is in so many places the bus has taken me.

Time, though, to move on.