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Here, Chihuahua City has always been closer than San Antonio, and

Perfectly Round Tortillas


for Enrique Madrid
SNAPPING PICTURES as we pull away from La Junta: Cordera sign past the white-washed cinderblock church, rusty bucket of bent nails by a backyard hay bailer, Washingtonia liferathe fan palmfeet wet in the constant drip, drip from the lone town water tank on a low Route 170 rise. Roadrunner up and scurries between leather stamp. Part precious human compulsion to burn a few moments into memory. Part, goodbye. La Junta, where the Rio Bravo meets the Conchos. Where Ben Leaton forged a land grant between whiskey sipsforced the last scraps of indigenous agriculture off these sandy stretches of onion elds. Where three years ago, I saw a leather-faced woman ride a burro straight out of the desert, past the Border Patrol station and down Presidios main drag.

in Ojinaga theyll slice your avocados open and cut the pits out if youre headed back over to the other side.

Its January, but it could be summer elsewhere. The sun rose behind a scraggly creosote and for a second the sky stalled, washing even the Christmas cactus Vegas strip red. Over coffee, watched another pair of vaqueros haul another load of ocotillo in on the rusty skeleton of a atbed, proceed to hack their roots with hatchets, bailing wire bundle their thorny stems, stack them in tipi-like pyramids behind Lucys. Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, or candlewood. Once used for at-roofed shade shelters or tough goat-proof fencerows, now bound like border skirmish prisoners, waiting to be bought and sold, planted in another mechanically watered, master-planned Phoenix suburb.

Plants, police, border patrol ofcers: If youve got the money, you can have the desert. La Fontera creates its own set of rules in the muddy waters safely removed from any main stream. Wade through La Juntas tangled history of the forged signatures, double crosses, cut-and-run deals, and youll nd sixty percent of Presidio County still living on rice and beans, sinking somewhere below the poverty line. Little surprise then when the DEA found a horse trailer crammed with cocaine in the Sheriffs backyard. Little surprise then when the county shut Redford elementary down. Little surprise then that the locals have taken to literally digging up whats left of the earth and selling for petty cash. Theres nothing to buy at half past ten on Tuesday in Redford. Last nights enchiladas lingering on my breath. The intense gaze of Enrique Madrid on my mind.

Usually, after a six-day Santa Elena paddle, we spend an afternoon with the Madrids. Usually, we talk about the militarization of the border. About Bush Forty-Ones Thousand Points of Light. About Enriques mother, Lucia, who tutored Junie Hernandez, the same boy who was eventually shot by the Marines not two miles from where were sitting. Cats stream in through the open window. The house smells slightly off. Books and rocks and photographs mingle on the shelves, coffee table, the couches. Enrique starts in on a brilliant, but hard-to-follow, monologue meandering in and out of Native American spirituality, the use of psychotropics, the Chihuahuan Desert mega fauna, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Berlin Wall, Hitler, the DNA of Ojinaga residents, NAFTA, and the General Accounting Ofce. At some point he starts talking about Zen and the prefrontal cortex. Now hes quoting David Bohm. A

Come-along in the dirt, discarded, its frayed nylon webbing brittle to the touch like the dried out inner bark of a long-ago cottonwood. Red checked shirt gathering road dust draped over a blind prickly pear by a cardboard box of old license plates: Tennessee. Arizona. Oregon. Texas.

picture of a marine dressed in a guilley suit hangs across from a painting of Zapata. The sky grows dark and streetlights outside start to hum. Eventually, we carry the conversation into the kitchen where Rubys mashing pintos, stand around the old electric stove, wait for Enrique to explain the scientic formula casually tape to the refrigerator door. Follow this formula exactly, hed say, and you cannot but make a perfectly round tortilla.

Things are different though this year. In Lajitas, the general stores been converted into an upscale prickly pear jam-selling gift shop and the guys at the border patrol station seem nervous, a bit selfconscioustheyve stopped telling their slightly offensive, homespun jokes, keep repeating the phrase Were human too with all the enthusiasm of a string of pack mules. Then Sunday, one of the neighbors out back plinkin bottles mistook Freckles (Enriques pointy-eared dog with a noticeable back leg limp) for a coyote. Shot him through the lungs. Left him with just enough to crawl in, collapse, and die right there on that same kitchen oor, blood spewing from his off-white nose.

against the Republicans, comparing the border fence to the Berlin Wall, recommending the September 16 issue of Newsweek: In the aftermath of Katrina, it appears the mainstream media suddenly discovered the poor. After ten minutes or more, he says he has to go; says Ruby is waiting for him in the car. So we shake hands, then turning to walk away, he levels me with his gaze. Unexpected, like a barn owl and shaped like a river stone, with a curious mix of scrutiny, skepticism, sadness and doubt, it is the kind of look that sizes you up instantly and decides, Im wasting my breath. Its a look Ive seen a few times before, and only from those long passed making friends. Probing and heavy, it challenges, Whyd you ever come down here in the rst place?

No job in town, no children to lean on and the two of them getting oldgrey streak running through Enriques otherwise jet black hair. Add it up and you might nd the source of Rubys depression. So this year we pass on the tortillas, ask our friend, Garcia, to teach us to make enchiladas, insteadstacked, not rolled, the old Mexican way. Hes Filipino and a professional chef, which is not lost on Enrique, when we run into him later in Baezas. Ah, Garcia, of course, he makes excellent Filipino enchiladas. Me: standing beside the center aisle tortilla display, two cans of tomato paste and a bag of key limes in my cart. Him: talking in a low monotonerailing 3 Mother Theresa said, In order to help the poor, you must become them. Charitys for the weak hearted. And charity isnt whats brought me here. But then theres Enrique, talking through his stiff lower lip, walking slowly toward the checkout line, poor like the rest of La Junta, scraping by with the help of a few itinerant renters and, of course, those perfectly round tortillas. And hes sized me up. And he just walked away. Setting in motion mental parade of paradoxes: like how you cant reect without, however slightly, stepping away; how the darker the night, the farther you see; how increasingly the

border entangles in your mind the further you move from itraising its thorny head in the most unwanted moments, like a prickly pear glochid in a fresh pair of socks. And nowwithin the span of that lookthe possibility of what this place might be from the inside dawns. But Enriques gone and theres no time to write, so I simply start taking pictures.

from the local Outward Bound says. Used to be on a good day itd reach 4000.

Creosote shadows in the sand. A roadrunner. Three boysjust crossd overduck behind a set of roadside bee boxes under their green and black hoodies. Mountains folding in and out of each other like dough creases, a pair of mourning doves, and us: just outside of

Tootsie Roll wrapper caught in a tumbleweed edged up against alternating two by fours; angry stmiddle nger raised tagged to the east side of a crumbling cinderblock wall; line of tire tracks at the El Polvo crossing; pottery shards; pair of rubber boots; rebar and washing machines left to rust kitty corner from the at-roofed adobe shed topped with a satellite dish pointing due South into Mexico. After coffee, we pack our tents, drop a package off at the post ofce and say goodbye. The road out of Redford is long and windy, climbing up and across a number of nameless, bone dry washes. As we pull away, a plume of smoke rises from Ben Leatons old onion elds. The river, barely what youd call a river in most places, simply looks pathetic: coffee brown, full of rivercane, rowboat here and there in the shallows. The Rios running at 200 C.F.S., someone 4

town, snaking our way away from long, dry, shallow river.

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Shaft of light ! on the water

across a turtles backgone ! ! before the red blood ! ! ocotillo bloom.

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Gila WildernessBlack CanyonTucson February 2006