[preparing for an August visit to New Mexico, when weather conditions may be favorable, a fly-fisher looks back at the drought…]
Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?– Aldo Leopold
Dry Blue is both a state of mind and an actual stream in wild New Mexico. Two years ago, while chasing Gila-rainbows in the canyon lands near Arizona, I came close enough to Dry Blue to imagine it in a wetter season, but serious drought had fallen on the land and it was better to leave well enough alone. The trout stream, on a blank spot of the desert highlands, may have had a life-supporting flow, or it may have been just rock and sand, or moist arroyo. I’ll never know for sure, but there were times when thoughts about it cooled a heated brow.
My search for cold clean water had a desert source. Easterners tend to take their streams for granted. They are fortunate to live near brooks and rivers. Westerners tend to live in more open spaces, often with a lovely view across harsh landscapes where distant waters flow. We were staying in Alamogordo near the White Sands National Monument, a wilderness encompassing 275 square miles. On summer mornings, before the sun grew fierce, you could watch a darkling beetle scuttle over snow-white sand, or bristle as a Stealth Bomber crackled through the sky.
I was waiting for the forest fires of New Mexico to abate. Monsoon rains were overdue. I waited for the state’s decision to rescind the ban on access to public lands, and waited for a chance to fly-fish the wonderful northern streams again.
The sun began to heat the gypsum dunes once more, the pure-white landscape where coyotes bark in bittersweet tones, where a singular cottonwood extends its root for a lick of moisture far below. The leaves gave shadow refuge to insects, lizards, mockingbirds, and a kit fox that had wandered from the night. I felt no greater than a yellow primrose or a black-throated sparrow trilling from an ocotilla. This strange, new land seemed oddly balanced.
Change was coming. I would soon head northward to the upper Pecos. The fires near Los Alamos were burning out. The Rocky Mountain skyline would appear. Extreme fire threats would keep the national forests closed, but I could wet wade in the Pecos and sustain my Dry Blue fascination.
Dressed in shorts and sandals and a fishing shirt, I was ready for the wade. I was comfortable as a desert mouse or lizard clad in off-white camouflage. The river was low but clear and cold. A small Latino boy observed me from the bank then dashed away, returning with a plastic fishing pole and reel. He made awkward casting motions. I imagined an oversized bobber bouncing off my fishing hat. His parents joined him and inquired what kind of flies I used. “Dries,” I said. “Stimulator, Adams, Elkhair Caddis.” They nodded in approval. An Elkhair was their favorite for the Pecos.
The pools and riffles emptied from a wilderness above. My first two fish were rainbows that had been stocked near a bridge, but then it was wild browns all the way. After my twentieth trout was taken and released, I called it quits. My Dry Blue state of mind had come to this, a lovely river with a closed-out wilderness beyond. I thought about the “forty freedoms” of the naturalist Aldo Leopold. I had no way to grasp them, but I wasn’t far away.
Dry Blue had a way of placing the “blank spot on the map” within my reach, or to bring it close enough for meaning. While staying at Alamogordo, I had more than White Sands to remind me of freedom and the wild. Dog Canyon beckoned from the nearby Sacramentos.
A stream trickled from the canyon and disappeared in sand. It was Dry Blue, or something like it, in the early morning light. Its source was high on the escarpment, well inside the Lincoln National Forest. I entered the canyon. It’s riparian zone was tucked inside sheer walls of rock. Above me, the mountain would reflect 101 degrees of heat.
Here the winter nights could be frigid. The canyon might receive 11 inches of rain in a typical year, but most of it would fall as summer monsoon. Sudden floods were not uncommon. Here the plants and animals adapt, or perish.
A mule deer scrambled from the stream bed to the slope. It ran parallel to the stream and hopped like a goat, as if for a better view of danger. It reminded me of javelinas that I once surprised nearby. Songbirds like Scott’s oriole and rufous-crowned sparrow foraged by mesquite and cactus. Four-wing saltbush and maidenhair fern struggled for root-holds under a dripping ledge. The remnants of an irrigation system built by a rancher named Oliver Lee reflected the scarcity of water.
A canyon wren flew among the rocks. Red dragonflies wove their way above the stream. There were no trout in Dog Canyon, but I’d known my share of them in the Gila and the Pecos. They’d seen me through an arid place. Dry Blue pitched itself across the map and emptied on the sands.