Why did someone who loved fishing and the water and had always lived by a coast, decide to buy desert land? It would ultimately take two trips to investigate. I still don’t know that I ever got the right answer, but we did make some quirky, fascinating discoveries about the drier places in our country. And it was my first experience of the calm that an arid openness awoke in me. Maybe Dad and I shared that.
Coast-to-coast and back again
The water-lover was my father. Major John Henry Austin USMC, ferried my Croatian mother, asthmatic little brother, Florida swamp-bred granddaddy, and me from Camp Pendleton on the Pacific coast to Camp Lejeune on the east coast of North Carolina. Granddaddy was not around for the return trip, but by then we had picked up a Chihuahua named Ginger.
We traveled in an over-packed/un-air-conditioned Chevy 2 towing a fishing boat longer than our station wagon. Hard to fathom how long stretches of the desert would hold appeal, especially for a man who had spent hours driving with two kids and an elderly family member squabbling in the back seat. Nevertheless, something moved him to buy acreage in Deming, New Mexico and later in Twenty-Nine Palms, California in the Chihuahua and Mojave Deserts respectively. Maybe those full-page ads in the 1960’s Saturday Evening Post for desert land ranchettes for $5 a month.
An unexpected nudge to explore
One Friday evening in the early ’90s, a few years after my father died, I was making my regular visit to Blockbuster to stock up on movies for the weekend. I usually worked late on Fridays and rarely got the “pick of the litter” which were the in-demand newer releases. That lead to digging deeper into films that hit the theaters and soon disappeared, dooming them to the more inaccessible racks in Blockbuster.
“Gas, Food and Lodging” had no big stars but the title grabbed me. It came from road signs on US interstate highways directing travelers to services near highway exits. The independent movie had a simple but engaging story. But what grabbed me were the credits at the end of the movie. Filmed in Deming, New Mexico!. I had “a message from God” moment that it was time to see the land my brother and I had inherited from my father along with a $50/year tax bill.
About my dad
My father resembled Andy Griffith, both in looks and attitude. He could engage anyone and had a charming smile and a story. When riled, he could make full use of his booming, theatrical voice to dress down a clueless recruit during his drill sergeant days. But he had a tender heart for people who were struggling. I later found out that some of his grunts called him “Teddy Bear.”
And John Henry Austin was driven to make something of himself. His boyhood nickname was “Cob,” after a gnawed corn cob that only hogs would eat. That core of toughness helped him advance from an enlisted man to an officer, a hard and rarely achieved transition.
Mustangs in the Marines
“Mustang” is the slang term in the US Military for this progression. These Marines are older and more experienced than the officers they share rank with. Former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a mustang. The nickname refers to the mustang horse, a feral animal that could be tamed and saddle broken but always has some wildness, making mustangs smarter, more capable and equipped with better survival instincts than thoroughbreds.
In the Marine Corps, those survival instincts served him in two wars and multiple deployments. Along the way, he moved from the poverty of his Florida roots and to property ownership. The land was as much proof of his success as his major insignia. Thirty years later, my husband and I boarded a cheap Southwest Airlines flight to El Paso, reserved a Chrysler Sebring convertible and planned a few days in New Mexico to scout his purchase. I am not sure Dad ever saw his New Mexican holdings.
Heading west from El Paso
We landed in the early afternoon in El Paso and headed west on I-10. First stop was Mesilla in New Mexico, now a small town but 150 years ago, the major stop for travelers between San Antonio and San Diego. Lunch was at La Posta de Mesilla, of historical significance because it was once a bunkhouse and stable for travelers on the Butterfield stage line and still had much of the frontier feeling. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Pancho Villa, and other Wild West legends all stopped here.
Billy the Kid also visited the jail across the street, but it was not a voluntary stay, though he was able to check out early. This jail housed The Kid before his extradition to Lincoln, NM, for the murder of Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts only to have Billy escape and elude capture for some time.
Following the Butterfield Stage Route
Having now dealt with one of the needs promised in the movie title that was inspiring this trip (Food), we were back on 1-10 for the hour-long drive to Deming. Closely following the Butterfield Overland stage route west, the land was near flat to the horizon with one small group of mountains south of the highway. They must have provided an easy reference point for stagecoach drivers because even now, there is not much else to see.
A contested stretch of desert land
These are the Florida Mountains with the highest peak at just under 7300 feet. This was also the site of the Florida Mountain War between Apaches and Confederate Troops in 1861. Later in our trip, we were to find we were near another memorable military action. Unheard echoes from these long-ago battles called to my warrior dad.
We bunked at the Butterfield Stage Motel in Deming, adding the lodging part to the movie title. Tomorrow morning, we would view the land we owned and had never seen. Tonight, we’d sleep while the galloping horses on the motel’s neon sign would continue their nocturnal race.
Finding out desert land inheritance
This area has haunting beauty if you like lonely, open arid spaces, especially in the mornings. While Las Cruces and El Paso are crowded urban areas, Deming and Luna County still are isolated. Dirt roads and a hay bale house gave us the only reference points along with the ever-present Florida Mountains. This trip was 20 years ago before maps were common on phones and cars, but I doubt we would get much help from GPS even if available.
Still, the cooler fall weather and the escape from Houston humidity and humanity was welcome. And after some dusty drives down barely passable trails, we saw “our land,” a patch of sand and centipedes with a few rusted and abandoned trailers for neighbors. Not moving here anytime soon but never say “never.” It was still relatively early in the day when we checked that off the list. What to do now? “Drive south with the one you love,” says the John Hiatt song.
Another forgotten battle site
Time is the best gift. We had an unexpectedly open schedule to explore. Columbus is 30 miles south of Deming, just north of the Mexican border. Pancho Villa State Park is now there, but I do not remember it when we visited. What we did see was a small border town and the remains of Camp Furlong, overrun by Villa in a surprise attack on March 16, 1916, which killed ten citizens, 8 American soldiers, and 90 Villastas.
In the unsuccessful search that followed, the Army used a Curtiss JN-4 airplane, nicknamed “Jenny,” for reconnaissance and trucks to carry supplies (both firsts for the Army). We found old trenches with ramps over them. In the absence of hydraulic lifts, trucks were serviced while on the ramps by mechanics in the trenches. This inaugural use of airplanes in a military situation helped prepare the U.S. military and General John Pershing for the fast-approaching battles of World War I.
From revolutionaries on horseback to air travel
Just southeast of town we stumbled upon some strange structures in a field and realized we were on an abandoned airfield. Beyond the military implications, it was part of a network of intermediate locations built in the 1920 & the 1930s to serve as emergency landing fields along commercial routes between major cities. By this time tomorrow, we would be back at the El Paso airport to compare just how far air travel had come in less than a century.
An expected visit through time
We spent another night in Deming’s Butterfield Stage Motel, gassed up the rental and retraced the stage line route to El Paso. We realized we were time traveling for two days – gunslingers, warring Indian tribes, Mexican revolutionaries and the birth of modern military aviation.
It would be a decade before we visited Dad’s Twenty-nine Palms land, but the discoveries would be just as magical. It’s almost like he hid a present for me to unwrapped twenty years after he died. The Twenty-Nine Palms trip would be spurred on by a chance listening to the Robert Plant song of the same name.