The swallow I came under the wing of, was actually called a “snake in the grass” by many… and yet turned out to be crucial in getting us the land now known as Anima Center. Dan Swallows was one of only two or three real estate agents within a hundred mile radius at the time, in a county that now hosts a half dozen or more. Agents are often dishonest, in my experience, unprincipled people who would gladly help turn heritage ranches or wilderness paradises into mobile home lots if it would make them a buck. In my intemperate youth, I was known to refer to the majority of the fellows in this profession as “land pimps” and worse. It nonetheless occurred to me, that working at the side of an agent could mean being among the first to hear about a new parcel the moment it was listed. This was especially important in the Gila bioregion of S.W. New Mexico, where over 80 percent of the area is state or federal land. In 1979 the few private parcels were still mostly in the hands of Anglo and Hispanic families that had been here for generations, leaving little for sale. And even if some of the ranches had been broken up already, I certainly wasn’t interested in anyplace where the mark of inglorious and often artless civilization could follow. I was looking for what is popularly called an “inholding,” a piece of undeveloped private property surrounded on all 4 sides by National Forest. Nor would just any inholding do, but only a special river canyon I felt sure existed, the singular place that I had so long imagined, dreamed of, and felt called home by.
An hour after hearing Swallows was hiring unskilled labor, I was at the door of his Cruzville ranch house ready for work. He said he’d start me at $3.00 an hour, less than minimum wage but, as he pointed out, over twice what he could get an undocumented Mexican for. A few months before, I had been making up to $1000 per framed oil painting, and although the high cost of Taos gallery rent ate up nearly everything I made, my 3 dollar wage was still quite a blow. Setting pride aside for the greater cause, I parked our school bus camper in his back 40, as far as I could get it into the trees, and put on a pair of borrowed coveralls. Unfortunately, nothing in my past had equipped me with the kinds of practical skills required to handle even the most menial labor on a ranch. While other youngsters were playing with their daddy’s hammers, I was busy reading classical literature and picturing myself in the roles of adventurer, outlaw, scientist or explorer. When other teens were happily learning how to adjust four-barrel carburetors under the hoods of their first cars, I was a runaway on the streets, a self fashioned street philosopher painting wildlife and wild sword-bearing women on the sides of custom vans and motorcycle gas tanks, riding a chopped BSA that I always needed someone else to fix. I always made money by exploiting my creative talents, and the closest I got to being a laborer was playing a double bass Rogers drum kit in various rock n’ roll bands. I knew things, by golly! And so you can imagine my great disappointment at finding out that I didn’t know how to run a plow, know how to weld the casing on a water pump, or even know how to hit a nail on the head more than one out of five times.
Swallows kept trying me at different chores for the first month, including gluing together PVC plumbing at the bottom of a 6’ deep ditch. It was while on my knees in the ditch, that I first heard a truck drive up, and a soft spoken man describe an isolated piece of property that he wanted help selling. With the two of them standing just out of my sight, I could make out every word: “You gotta find me some city rube,” the old man said. “It’s only got one rough trail leading into it, you’ve got to cross the same river 7 times, anyone would play hell trying to develop it. I can’t figure who’d want such a thing.”
The fellow at the bottom of the ditch, that’s who… doing his best to keep his long pony-tail out of the PVC glue.
(to be continued)