Monday, October 17, 2005

Harding County Notes

With the wife gone, I decided to do something that I had been wanting to do for awhile and that I knew she would have absolutely no interest in doing. That was visiting the one county in New Mexico I had never been to, Harding County. Where is Harding County? It is in northeastern New Mexico and is oddly shaped so that not only do no interstates travel through it, but no US highways either. In fact there is very little there. Harding County, which for those of you who have some knowledge of New Mexico is about an hour or so east of Wagon Mound and maybe a little more than that from the Texas border, is perhaps best known, such that it is known at all, for being part of the Dust Bowl. People talk about the Dust Bowl all the time, but I'm not sure that most people have a real good idea of just what exactly happened. In brief, around 1900, farmers began farming across the Great Plains, including in the western Plains, which was a really bad idea. It so happened that the late 19th and early 20th centuries were particularly wet throughout the West. So farmers thought that this rain would continue forever, badly underestimating the impact of drought on that landscape (much the same thing happened with the interstate water compacts that were signed around this time, causing problems that we are only starting to figure out here in the Southwest). The farmers plowed up the sod that kept all the dirt down. Now it's fairly windy in this part of the world, especially in the western Plains as winds whip off the Rockies. When drought came in the early 1930s, the sod was gone and there was nothing holding that land down. Thus the winds kicked up and blew all the soil away. The federal government had a pretty good response to this--they bought the worst of the lands and created the National Grassland system, some of which is in Harding County. The National Grasslands don't look any different than the rest of the land today--all of it has been pretty infected by cattle grazing and non-native species, but there is some effort to get the shortgrass prairie to rejuvenate itself. In fact, there is an excellent National Grasslands visitor center in Wall, South Dakota. If you're ever out there, stop by. It's much more interesting than Wall Drug.

Anyway, I digress. In any case, people realized pretty quick that you can't farm wheat or much of anything else in this part of the country without some serious irrigation. So most of eastern New Mexico is not farmed today, something that you notice when you cross into heavily irrigated west Texas. It's mostly cattle country today and that's about it. One very interesting thing about a place like Harding County is its existence as a borderland between the Rockies and the Great Plains. Some parts of it are flat as a pancake and could easily be western Kansas. Other parts get quite hilly all of a sudden with landmarks that are more like western New Mexico. I also happened to be lucky to see some good wildlife out there. I saw a hawk picking up a snake, which I had seen before but is always cool, as well as a tarantula crossing the road. I knew that there were tarantulas across New Mexico and that they are out and moving in the fall but I had never seen one before now. And when you see one, you know it. They are freaking huge.

Harding County is one of those counties on the western Plains that you are not sure why it exists anymore. There are 2 towns of some size there, Roy and Mosquero. You can drive through both of these towns in about a minute. Both of these towns have no doubt lost a great percentage of their population over the past 70 years or so, as can be seen by the number of boarded up buildings. More distressing to me yesterday was that I believe there is not a gas station in the entire county. I should have filled up in Wagon Mound but I didn't, figuring that surely there would be something along the way. I was woefully wrong. When I realized this, I had 2 choices. Go about 70 miles out of my way to Tucumcari where I knew there would be gas or go about 90 miles west to Las Vegas which was on the way home. I stupidly chose the latter. I, in fact, did not run out of gas, but if I had got stuck out there, you could have found vultures picking over my bones by about Wednesday. On the way back to Las Vegas, I drove past an old-timey closed gas station in the middle of nowhere. It even had one of those Texaco signs that probably dates to the 60s. It made me wonder, where do rural people buy gas these days. If there is no gas in all of Harding County, and everyone drives big farm trucks, do they drive all the way to Tucumcari or Wagon Mound to fill up? Do they have some kind of supplies out there that the traveler doesn't know about? It also brought to mind just how focused we are on the freeway system in the United States. If you get off that system, especially in the West, you had better be damn sure that you have enough gas to get to the next town of size, sometimes over 100 miles away. Because there are just no facilities to take care of you anymore. In the East, this is not such a problem because there are lots of little towns and you are rarely more than 25 miles from some kind of town. But not in the West. I knew this, chose to ignore it, and almost paid the price.