Not that there isn't a certain rough beauty down in the Bootheel. It looks like God's testing lab for rocks, the geology changing every few miles as you climb or fall or arrow down long straight stretches of road whose unseen ends lick at the horizon. The Animas Mountains and the brooding peaks of the Coronado National Forest on either side give the landscape the look of what a dentist must see: a flat palate bounded by sudden ridges of teeth. No wonder the Apache chose to hide out here—you'd have to question the sanity of anyone who'd pursue a dangerous foe into this rocky wilderness.
At one point along Hwy. 80, the historical marker for the location of Geronimo's surrender suddenly materializes by the roadside. You wonder what made him give up—heck, in this landscape, he and a few dozen renegades could be hiding out there still. On the other hand, maybe he just wanted a ticket to someplace where he could see something besides rocks and sky.
If so, Geronimo should have waited for one more spring.
As we drove north toward home through the Bootheel one afternoon in early March, we topped a rise and saw a hill up ahead where the sun seemed to shine brighter than anywhere else. The entire hillside, along with an apron of land all around it, was the color of the dashed stripe down the middle of the highway, the vivid orange of "No Passing Zone" signs. It glowed.
Perhaps God had taken a break from rock R&D to do a little painting with fluorescent colors. To the left, as the scene came more fully into view, we could see a second hill, more patchily painted with orange—as though loosely brushed with something iridescent, or bathed in black light by a celestial CSI to reveal some clue.
It was poppies, of course. Fields of them—millions, zillions, bazillions. Before Google became a synonym for high-tech searching, it was—spelled "googol"—a brain-numbingly big number. A googol is, I suspect, roughly as many poppies as covered these hills.
Here and there the orange blooms reached the roadside, in small expeditionary parties seeking new hills to conquer, so we could see them up close. Singly, though, the poppies were merely pretty little flowers. In Red Army-like profusion ("let a thousand flowers bloom"?), their individuality lost in the swarm, they took your breath away. Out of many, one shimmering orange vista inexorably drew any eyes lucky enough to be here on this early spring afternoon.
Given the population of the Bootheel, that pretty much meant us. Every few miles, around each new bend, we'd pull the car over to the roadside to snap another couple of photos—knowing full well that this was one of those visions a camera can never quite capture. (Much less a black-and-white image as on this page. You'll have to go to our Web site at www.desertexposure.com to see it in color.)
The lone car behind us did the same, until we lost it entirely. Maybe it's still there, enchanted by the scenery like the spellbound characters in a fairy tale or the bewitched quartet in The Wizard of Oz, beginning to drowse and drown in an ocean of poppies. Maybe the car's occupants have wandered off into the blazing hills, joining ghostly Apache in unblinking contemplation of such beauty in such a cruel place.
That's the thing, of course—the contrast between brutal country and blooming poppies—that makes such a scene all the more remarkable. Transplanted to the candy-colored confectionary of Disneyland, acres of orange flowers would hardly draw your attention away from the hypnotic allure of "It's a Small World After All." Out here in the Bootheel, though, it's not a small world—it's a frighteningly large and daunting one. Grim fantasies of car breakdowns flit through your thoughts. Thank goodness—and how amazing!—there's cell-phone service. But how long would it take AAA to send help from—where? Lordsburg? Would the eventual tow truck find us just skeletons, withered from waiting?
Even in such a far and forbidding place, however, the universe has surprises in store. Given the right season and a wet winter, the Bootheel becomes a rough-hewn canvas for nature's painting with poppies. Keep your eyes open, because you never know what might be over the next rise.
That's a pretty good approach to life in general, I'm coming to think. If you can sustain your capacity to be pleasantly surprised, even the worst stretches of life's bad roads can be endured. If you're always willing to pull the car over to the side and savor life's surprising bursts of joy and awe, the long, boring parts in-between fly by faster. Getting there is not the whole point; even the grimmest patches en route can prove eye-opening.
My dad, like most dads in the golden age of long-distance auto travel that was my youth, was relentlessly focused on "getting there." Even if the day's destination was no more than a Best Western somewhere on the way to someplace else, he was determined to get there as fast and efficiently as possible. That meant a minimum number of potty breaks and stops for meals, no lollygagging and certainly no random hiatuses by the roadside to admire anything not identified as a scenic site on the map. He always drove, even when the day's trek was long, because it wore him out more—sheer nervousness—when anyone else was behind the wheel. My mom sat in the passenger seat, I in the back, battling car-sickness and boredom. So we'd push on across America, the driver's side window cracked in a vain attempt to reduce what we then didn't know to call "second-hand smoke," leaving a trail of flicked cigarette butts like a chain-smoking Hansel and Gretel.
You would never have caught my dad in the Bootheel in the first place. When we spotted the poppies, my wife and I were coming home from Tucson—taking the scenic route by way of Tombstone and Bisbee, Ariz. The interstate would have gotten us home in three hours, flat. But we would have missed the poppies. (Not to mention the man in Bisbee who'd trained his dog, his cat and a mouse to lie on the sidewalk, stacked atop each other in that order, in some sort of "lion lie down with the lamb" tableau, presumably for picture-taking at a price.)
We don't have as many "blue highways" in this spread-out part of the world—and they are hardly the bucolic "road less traveled by" that Robert Frost had in mind. But those we have are worth taking, even if they take more time. Getting from here to there, I'm very slowly learning, is overrated. The Best Western can wait; it'll still be there when you finally drive in. There are more uses for windows than as vents for cigarette smoke.
I don't think my dad was always in a hurry. There are a few references to my mom and dad camping out in their car in their youth, before I was born—an unimaginable occurrence for the mom and dad I knew. And he was a great golfer, a sport that teaches the contemplation of open spaces and the patience to master doglegs and sand traps (at least it was when he played, before courses required motorized carts to hurry players along).
But the whole world I grew up in was in a helluva hurry, racing to the moon, to prevent "dominos" from falling, to make it ever more a small world, after all. America was in a rush to get to tomorrow—to zoom ahead to, well, here and now.
And now that we're here, what next? The interstate ribbons ever grayly forward, beckoning with its promise of speed and seamless efficiency. It's tempting. You can get wherever you're going and then turn right around and zip back, almost as if you'd never left, almost as though you hadn't gone anywhere at all.
Or you can detour onto a squiggly, inefficient back road that looks like a mapmaker's mistake. You can waste time wandering across land that civilization largely hasn't gotten around to yet. You can even feel a pinch of unease at being so far from the nearest mini-mart or gas-n-go.
Over the next rise—or the next, you never know—the austere panorama might suddenly explode with poppies.
Go ahead, pull over. Take your time. You might be surprised.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.