Mescalaro Labor Day

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For most of us, Labor Day fills a primitive need for a special day to mark the change of seasons, the end of summer and the beginning of fall. In New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains on Labor Day, summer still held the land in her dark green grip. Only the sunflowers and asters crowding the highway hinted that fall was squeezing in.

But we knew. Because it was Labor Day we went about the rituals that would lay the summer to rest and welcome the autumn. Near Cloudcroft, families shared the last picnic of the summer or took a last roaring turn on the trail bike. In Hondo and Tinnie and Lincoln, Texas tourists, satisfied that they were doing the right thing on this day, slowed to a creep to admire and explain with fingers pointed from car windows.

Following U.S. 70 west, I was aware of more traffic, not just aimless drivers, but pickups and cars drawn by some power toward Ruidoso Downs where another Labor Day ritual was under way. The All-American Futurity, advertised as the richest horse race in the world, was being run. For many people, it was enough to park alongside the highway and perch on hoods and cabs to watch the horses sweep around the track to the announcer’s cadenced chant.

Outside of town, the highway was deserted. Clumps of black-eyed Susans grew waist high, and thunder heads built up in the vast sky. On Indian land, the highway bisected green meadows that pushed up against tall and gloomy pine trees. At intervals dirt roads ran from the highway into the forest, but hand-painted signs warned the non-Indian to proceed no farther.

The highway curves gracefully and opens out at Mescalero. The shopping center, with its gas station, community center, and laundromat, looks as though it could have been picked up in Albuquerque and set down here.

Oh, blessed are the Mescalero Apaches among Indians. Blessed with mountains, fields, and ponderosas. Blessed by the treaty makers who would not have been so benevolent if they could have foreseen ski runs and the Inn of the Mountains Gods, legal gambling and green golf courses.

As I came into Mescalero, I saw St. Joseph’s Church, thrusting above the tree tops in an arroyo that separates the highway from the hill on which the church stands. The church is not part of the mushroom string of buildings in the shopping center. It holds itself aloof, not quite meeting the eye of modern Mescalero. I pulled off the highway and got out to take pictures of this eminence.

Back in my truck, I drove across the highway and parked in the expanse of asphalt, the only . . . no, the second vehicle there. The whole place seemed deserted. No one at the gas station. The grocery store was closed. The Mescalero Apaches do not spend Labor Day hanging around a shopping center. Then I saw three kids noodling around on the grassy slope at the rear of the buildings. A girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, shepherded two younger children on a meandering patrol. Waiting for the parents in the laundromat? No. No trucks or cars there. Left here to entertain themselves while their parents went to Ruidoso?

I walked to each end of the shopping center and found nothing open but a small sandwich shop. I had an intense need to use a restroom, so I went into the lunchroom and asked. An Indian man, face stolid, nodded in the direction of a door in the back.

The code of the highway says a traveler can’t just use a restroom and leave. I wasn’t hungry, but I ordered an ice cream cone. There was a woman some place in the background, but filling orders and taking money seemed to be the man’s job.

His face could have modeled for a statue but his belly spilled over his belt. His fingers fumbled with fragile cones in a long box. Hands, brown and strong, scooped and placed a hemisphere on the cone. Not too much pressure. The vanilla scoop rested delicately on top. He extended it to me while I groped in my purse for money. There was something terribly awkward in our exchange. This brown man with his scourge-of-the-settlers face and his brown fingers holding the papery cone evoked a saddening mood in me.

I sat down at a table near the window and had a conversation with myself. Oh, how are the mighty fallen, and how quickly, I thought. From proud defiers of the cavalry to shopkeepers and ice-cream-cone-fillers in a hundred years. Come on now, Mazzio, you don’t really expect these people to be a living museum to satisfy your once-a-year nostalgia for the Old West. So I argued, back and forth across the plains of my mind while I ate the cone.

The three kids came into the lunchroom. They gave lots of consideration to the selection of some candy. The older girl’s T-shirt had Mickey Mouse on the front. They left. I watched from the window until they wandered out of sight.

Then I saw something coming across the parking lot. Hesitantly, surreptitiously, as though nervous in so much open space, a brindle bitch trots, sack-like dugs swaying as she comes, tail tucked between her legs.

Look hard, Mazzio. That dog trails clouds of history after her. There she is following her people to Bosque Redondo, hungry, always hungry. From there, dodging horse hoofs, she joins the exodus back to the mountains. And, again, herded to the stinking corrals of Fort Stanton. Avoiding hungry eyes, longing for the smell of venison blood and the spill of marrow from a cracked bone. Sharing in the defeat, the humiliation, the inward-turned violence. How’s that for nostalgia, Mazzio? Not quite the theme for another Disney World.

I went back to the truck, but was reluctant to leave this cool valley. I parked in the shade of a tree from where I could see the parking lot, the shopping center and the church.

The conversation in my head had drowned out other sounds. Now, for the first time, I became aware of crowd noises coming from an arena up a dirt road from where I was parked. These were ending noises – a crowd breaking up, engines starting, voices coming closer. Now I saw the sign. There was a Labor Day ritual in Mescalero, too. A big rodeo. There was satisfaction in the voices drifting down the dirt road.

Out of and around the crowd came a rider and pony, fused together, picking their way like a thread weaving in and out of a tapestry. The rider was young with black, glinting eyes, and he pulled back on the reins until the pony’s neck arched. Both were taut, both proud. They broke clear of the crowd, the horse prancing with little steps. Skittering now, the hoofs drove stitches into the vibrant land.

I started my truck and joined the pickups that trickled onto the highway. It was getting late. Traffic would be heavy from Alamo to Cruces.