That Predator Stare

According to the Sunday Journal’s letters page, we’re back once again to a heated argument over coyote-killing contests. And once again I’m wondering whether we would have the same argument over killing rats. (And speaking of rats, L.A. is experiencing an epidemic of Typhus, the disease known in olden times as the killer of armies. The trajectory is the same as in the bubonic: from rats to fleas to humans. and is directly traceable to poor public hygiene.)

So am I comparing coyotes to rats? No. Coyotes are both smarter and larger — and there’s some disquieting evidence they’re getting smarter faster than we are. And while the rats have been no more than holding their own in the cities, the coyote has expanded its range over the last century from the Western Plains to the entire continental U.S.

I’ve been collecting coyote stories for a while, and will share them in a subsequent post. For now, I’d just like to ponder why anybody is more opposed to killing coyotes than killing rats.

Are coyotes somehow cuter and more lovable? I think we can thank Chuck Jones for that. His Wile E. Coyote is one of my all-time favorite comic characters. But he’s no more real than Inspector Cloiseau.

I was eye to eye with a coyote not too long ago, not a half-mile from my house. I had seated myself close to what I now surmise was the path to the den where he and his mate were raising pups. He came trotting down the trail pretty obliviously, and not until he was downwind did he abruptly stop to check me out.

We eyed each other cautiously from a distance of no more than 12 or 15 feet. I was seated and so less potentially a threat, but I had a stout walking stick between my knees, so I might be formidable in defense. I could see him calculating the odds as we stared at each other.

No one who has seen a coyote upclose could mistake it for a dog. The eyes are a dead giveaway — bright yellow and cold as ice. As one writer puts it:

“… he held still and looked at me, unblinking. It was the predator appraisal. How would I taste? Was I worth killing and eating? A pale calm yellow stare, devoid of fear.”



La frontera de Nuevo Mexico

New Mexico’s Bootheel is a historical accident, the legacy of bad maps, the Apache Wars and the demands of railroad engineers. The Guadalupe-Hidalgo treatymakers relied on an inaccurate map, the Army couldn’t keep los Indio Bravos from crossing the new line, and the railroad builders needed a gentle incline to breast the Continental Divide. And so we made the Mexicans an offer they couldn’t refuse for one last chunk of la Patria. Now it’s becoming the focus of the Border Wars.

When I first saw Antelope Wells back in the ‘70s, it was literally a gateway to nowhere. A narrow paved road led south from somnolent Lordsburg to a lonely little building beside the sort of wooden pole you might find at a rural railroad crossing. Beyond was a rough track that would eventually (with luck) connect you with the sole paved road linking Chihuahua and Sonora.

I’m told the Mexican road has since been paved, but haven’t seen it myself. (Road work, at least in northern Mexico, proceeds at so glacial a pace it’s hard to avoid the perception that the workers look forward to passing the job on to their grandchildren.)

Paved or not, it’s a long, hard road from Guatemala across the length of Mexico to appear after midnight at the most remote and inaccessible point along a 2,000 mile border. How and why?

“How to grow old”

Perhaps the chief source of my fascination with Nana is his age. The old man and myself are nearly contemporaries in years on the planet, and yet I doubt I could have (or would have) undertaken the challenge he set for himself.

I’m sure Nana would have disagreed, but it’s worth pondering Bertram Russell’s advice on coping with advancing years..


Death 2

Little Jakelin Caal has already moved from the news to the op-ed  and commentary pages. While there’s something unsavory about using a 7-year-old girl’s death to advance a political agenda, whether from the left or the right, what I find more interesting is the apparent lack of journalistic curiosity regarding her journey from Guatemala to Antelope Wells. Within hours of the announcement of her death, TV cameras were on the scene in the remote Mayan village where her grandfather lives, but nobody seems to have inquired about how she made her way to New Mexico.

Although the father’s spokesman “declined to give details about their trip from Guatemala, he did say they had largely traveled by bus, and that they had not spent significant time in the remote desert west of Juarez where they ultimately crossed the border.”

Although the crossing is used by vans and SUVs carrying tourists from Phoenix to Mata Ortiz, there is no regular bus service to Antelope Wells. There is not even a town of any description on either side of the line there. The border post itself is closed at night and is at any time entirely without staffing or facilities to accommodate large numbers of people.

So someone arranged to have Jakelin, her father, and 160 other people dropped in the middle of the night at what is probably the single most remote and inaccessible border crossing along the entire 2,000+ mile frontier. I would hope there is no one cynical and cold-blooded enough to stage-manage a tragedy for political points. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Death in the Desert

I occasionally do posts on desert survival (or lack thereof) that offer worthwhile life lessons for feckless wanderers like myself.  Although I’ve written newspaper columns about the border, the death toll on the line is rarely remarked by myself or anyone else.

There are few descansas along la frontera — no one has the time or inclination to pause to honor the dead, and their passing is marked only by discarded plastic bags, empty bottles and rags of clothing blowing in the wind. I remember a black bra dangling from the thorny limb of a palo verde tree that told me more of a story than I wanted to hear.

The grief and anger of survivors dissipates with time, allowing historians and archeologists to pursue their trades unharried by ghosts. Most of the deaths on the border I’ve referenced occurred more than a century ago.

But the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl apprehended by the Border Patrol in the Bootheel is a tragedy we all need to confront, wherever you stand on the spectrum from open borders to the Great Wall of China.

Unfortunately, we’ve already raced past the fact-finding phase of this story and rushed on to the political outrage theater that is now the default setting for any story that momentarily engages the nation’s increasingly short attention span.

The little girl’s father has lawyered up.  (For a Mayan peon the global media/legal circus must be like being abducted and anally probed by space aliens.) The feds have gone to the mattresses, awaiting a coroner’s report guaranteed to stall questions until the news cycle turns to the next hot story. And a flock of political spin merchants have descended like a murder of crows on a roadkill jackrabbit, ending any chance we will ever really know what happened to the poor little girl.

Without knowing anything more of the story than I’ve read in the Journal and seen online, I will say this: I’ve spent more time in the Bootheel and in northern Mexico than 99.95% of  the “journalists” bloviating on this story. I’ve met and talked with some of the men and women who guard that remote corner of our nation’s border. I cannot believe any of those people would not do everything in their power to save a little girl’s life.

There are EMTs, nurses, doctors, pilots and Border Patrol officers at home tonight, staring at the ceiling and wondering whether there was anything more they could have done that might have made a difference. While we grieve for young Jakelin Caal, let’s spare a prayer for them as well.

For lack of a gun

Some interesting new details have come to light regarding a grizzly attack in Wyoming this fall in which an experienced guide was killed. Turns out that although he was carrying a pistol he had set it aside while engaged in field dressing an elk. When the bear charged, the gun was  30 feet away and might as well have been on another planet.

In researching the Apache Wars I’ve often been surprised by the number of accounts of prospectors, ranchers and travelers who were  unarmed when attacked.  Wondering why a prudent man would leave himself defenseless in Indian country, I experimented  by carrying a replica Colt Navy in a belt holster or toting around a rifle on my expeditions into the back country. I discovered either one an irritating nuisance around the camp or on the trail. I can understand why the temptation to set it aside would be irresistible. Nothing is more difficult that constant vigilance.

Que Macho!

Left over from my recent trip to AZ/NV,  here’s the story of one very tough old man Nana would have appreciated. His adventure reads like a page out of True Grit, and I can’t help but admire his cojones even as I have to question his good sense. Exploring abandoned mines is a very dangerous hobby and rappelling down into an old shaft solo borders on the suicidal. Years ago I spent some time tagging along with the state’s Abandoned Mine Lands team surveying the country around Madrid, Golden and Hagan south of Santa Fe. There are at a minimum several hundred and by most estimates a thousand or more abandoned mines in the state, ranging from extensive underground complexes like the labyrinth under Madrid to rough prospect holes scratched a dozen or a hundred feet under the surface. These doghole miners never heard of today’s mine safety regs and they likely would have paid no attention to them if they had. What sketchy shoring  they put in place they salvaged as they pulled out. Another danger, as the Arizona guy discovered, is that the old shafts and nearby building foundations attract snakes. One of my archeologist acquaintances described the ruins of Hagan as a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The only thing worse than being trapped in a cave-in, in my nightmarish imagination, would be to be trapped in the dark with a den of buzzworms for company.