Saturday, July 16, 2005

Lightning and salt

It rained a couple of nights ago, for the first time in a long while. I was looking out my window at the lightning display to the south, dark clouds lit up with intermittent shudders of light, and it reminded me of El Paso. Kay and I lived there in the 1970s. It hardly ever rained in El Paso, but when it did it was spectacular. At night, from our house which was near the east side of the Franklin Mountains, we would be able to see distant thunderclouds, vaguely mushroom shaped, occasionally illuminated internally by lightning, like giant Chinese lanterns, over the Quitman Mountains 80 miles to the southeast. We could go out onto the front porch every once in a while to see if the storms were coming our way.

I remember once such a storm had finally gotten to town, and the wind blew a drift of rain through the window onto us as we slept, and we did not close the windows when we awoke being rained on, but stayed awake surprised and chill in our sheets watching the lightning sizzle and sparkle; the downpour so thick that we couldn't exactly see the bolt but instead a tremendous guttering dazzle and simultaneous wall of shock-wave decibels.

Wow. We thought maybe the lightning had struck the mulberry tree. (It hadn't.) Eventually we had to close the window.

Nostalgia for desert rain.

One day after it had rained in the desert I remember driving up toward the Guadalupe Mountains. The sky had cleared, and had re-acquired its summer dizzying emptiness, full of nothing but heat, and remote views of streaked boiling silver mirages below the occasional jutted mountains, and the blank horizon was hazy and yellow.

But that time, or maybe it was another time--it was years ago and memory gets non-sequential--the yuccas were in bloom, seemingly all the yuccas at once from El Paso to Carlsbad. The individual flower of the yucca resembles a waxy white lily, and each yucca flower stalk bears hundreds of flowers, a stalk three feet high with a foot-thick mass of white lilies growing out of it, tall incandescent candles in the dust of a desert where otherwise in the summer the plants and rocks all seem like papier-mâché props in an abandoned museum diorama slowly turning into powder. The yucca plant itself is sometimes overborne by the weight, and will lean permanently and crazily, or even topple over with the wind. The Indians ate these flowers.

In the direction of Wind Mountain on the New Mexico state line I saw a herd of antelopes strolling among the chollas and yuccas. Chollas are a kind of opuntia cactus, shaped like giant antlers. Here and there on these eolian plains there were forests of them, like skeletons of small trees.

The Mescalero Apache wandered like the antelopes among these blighted spine-forests; this was the south end of their homeland, called Siete Rios, Seven Rivers, by the Spanish, who knew of it only as a mythical place like Cibola; none of them had ever seen it.

It turns out there are no rivers at all there, only some intermittent streams coming down out of the high snows and spruce forests of the Sacramentos dim to the northwest, to end in a long dry lake bed, a lake of alkali and salt, no water.

The Apaches were eventually forced to live on a reservation in the high timberlands of the Sacramento Mountains.

Nowadays, Texans drive hundreds of miles to ski on the Apache reservation, where the Indians are now happy to stay and count coup on Dallas car salesmen and computer programmers who vacation at the tribally owned ski lodge. Do they still sometimes come down to the dry plains, their old home, and experience nostalgia, the sorrow of returning home, and maybe illegally shoot the antelope which dodge through the chollas, I wonder?

I read somewhere that the Apaches suffer from an older nostalgia; all the southern Athapascans have a legend that their people came into this world from a world of ice, in the far north, long ago. This happens to be true, the Apaches migrated down from the Arctic a couple of thousand years ago to wander here in a world pulverized by heat, at the powdery bottom of the seven dry rivers by a salt lake.

The dry lake bed, a dazzle of evaporite stretching 30 miles, was the object of the El Paso Salt War after the Mescaleros had been forced up into the (then) worthless forests of their mountain reservation. The people of the Mexican villages on either bank of the river below El Paso were accustomed to send ox-trains to the salt beds where they would dig the salt which they would transport far into Chihuahua to sell. They regarded the salt beds as common property which could be dug by anyone who cared to brave the dangers of nature and occasional Apaches.

In the mid-1870's an American named Charles Howard, who had come to El Paso from Missouri, gained legal control of the salt deposits, murdered a Piedmontese immigrant named Louis Cardis who had become a leader in the Mexican community and a spokesman for their interests. Then Howard let it be known that anyone who dug the salt without paying him for it would be prosecuted for trespass and theft.

The villagers continued to dig salt. When Howard heard that the village of San Elizario below El Paso intended to send another ox-train to the salt beds, he enlisted the aid of a small group of local toughs hastily deputized as Texas Rangers and set out to stop them. What they met up with in San Elizario was more than three hundred armed men under the command of a San Elizarian named Chico Barela. Howard and the Texas Rangers were besieged for several days in an adobe house. Several men were killed in the fight. The Americans surrendered and Howard and two others were taken to a wall and shot by a village firing squad.

Word quickly got out about the insurrection. Troops from several frontier posts were ordered to El Paso, and volunteers appeared from as far away as Silver City, New Mexico. Soon the left bank of the lower valley was occupied by armed Americans intent on revenge. The soldiers and volunteers murdered several people, but most of the men who had been a part of the rebellion had crossed over into Mexico. The El Paso Salt War was over. Troops occupied the villages for a few months. The occupying Americans began to kill each other and commit outrages against the local population, and were finally ordered out of the area. Chico Barela became a folk hero, and lived out his life somewhere in Mexico. A man named Ford was chosen to administer the salt beds for the absentee owners. At the end of the whole business, people had to pay to dig salt.

I remember looking at the expanse of saltpan, the object of the bloodshed, and wondering who owned the salt beds now. Anyone who might want to dig salt could certainly do so nowadays, and no one would even notice. The salt that people buy in little round cardboard canisters does not come from West Texas.

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