At dawn the other morning the birdbath was nearly empty from the previous day’s high winds, and what was left in it was frozen.
Yet the ocotillo beside it was shyly displaying little buds, the first sign of the bright red display it has planned for the return of the hummingbirds in a few weeks. An old man who lived alone in Derry for a quarter-century kept records, and the first hummingbirds arrived the same day each year until a couple of years ago. The ocotillo doesn’t keep notes, but knows very well when the hummingbirds will be around to assist in its reproductive cycle; and the ocotillo produces plenty of inviting nectar – and undoubtedly chose red not for our delight but to make sure the hummingbird didn’t neglect its duties.
I guess it must be spring. Certainly the green-budding ash trees and a very few yellow wildflowers think so. So does the dark iris that opened this morning, braving the winds. Last night, as we watched the full moon peek over the mountains, the season’s first sphinx moth grazed my hand. And swimming laps at NMSU’s outdoor pool is a suddenly wonderful again.
Spring, when Florida Gulf Coast University delights the sporting world by being this year’s Virginia Commonwealth, but more so, the baseball Giants’ Brandon Belt is tearing up the Cactus League, Las Cruces High is state basketball champion, and Austin Trout will unify the light middleweight boxing championship.
Spring, when an old man almost too stiff to walk limps around a rodeo arena photographing young cowboys and cowgirls roping calves, and cowboys riding broncs and bulls in preparation for rodeos.
Watching these young folks is a delight, partly because almost no one else is doing so. A roadrunner prowls the nearby desert, and a few saddled horses stand around looking bored. The Organ Mountains catching the afternoon sun, and bulls and broncos stand on the hill, outlined against the sky, waiting for their turns to toss riders around..
Part of the pleasure is the enjoyment of any athletic event, even one in which I’ve no knowledge of the skills and techniques involved.
Part of it is the mix of past and present. A hundred years ago, most everyone could ride a horse. In this part of the world, riding bucking broncos or bulls was a sport most young men at least tried.
Forty-some years ago, when I first arrived in Las Cruces, probably two-thirds of the male students in Corbett Center had cowboy hats on, although already a lower percentage of them could actually do the things these fellows are doing.
(That first autumn here I went to a rodeo. At some point they had an audience-participation event: they placed a ribbon on a bull’s horn and let the bull go. Anyone who could get the ribbon won a prize. I was ready to try it, but the woman with me, from Aztec and wiser about these things, suggested I just watch. A line of men stretched from one side of the arena to the other. They released the bull. The line parted, everyone ducking to one side as the bull raced down the center of the arena, then the line closed again with folks showing their courage by running after the bull at a safe distance. The bull ran straight across the arena and jumped the fence, much to everyone’s surprise, and they found him the next morning grazing outside Corbett Center.)
As a rancher told me at a branding a few months ago, “Used to be that when you needed extra hands you could walk into any decent-sized town and get ‘em off the street. Now, the kids just don’t know much.”
Ranches are islands of tradition in a sea of Burger Chefs, nail salons, and office towers.
These kids are just having fun, testing themselves as we all do at that age, ribbing each other about failures and slapping hands over successes, exercising a skill they probably learned young – like a friend’s ten year old son at that branding, proud of his father roping calves from horseback and learning the skill of turning the roped calves over and holding them down. At first he stood back tentatively, trying to look eager but visibly uncertain, but soon he was right in the middle of it, doing his part.
These kids are also a link to a past that grows more and more distant for us as a nation and for each of us as individuals. Sadly. It’s a special part of our past – for the country, because the frontier contributed mightily to the distinctiveness of our culture, even after it had disappeared, and for each of us who dreamed in childhood of the West. Of the wide-open spaces, starry skies, and horses we still enjoy here in Doña Ana County.
Do these kids know that what’s usual for them ain’t at all usual for most of the population? I haven’t asked, but have guessed that in the way they walk I see at least a hint of defiant pride that they’re practicing these old-time skills in their walk and manner.
But mostly they’re intent on doing what they’re doing, and on doing it better today than yesterday. By the way, their last rodeo here this spring will be April 26-28.
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[This column appeared today, Sunday, March 31 in the Las Cruces Sun-News. There are a variety of photographs from the rodeo practice arenas below, if you page down past this blog -- or click on Riding and Roping II and Riding and Roping I ]
The gallery is at 224 North Campo, just North of Las Cruces Avenue -- across Camp from the parking lot of the old city hall.