Approaching the pass, the blacktop ahead glassy with the heat and the sky and hours of driving, I decide this is the place. There are no other cars, and aside from what can only be an adolescent hawk yet untutored in the role silence has in stealth, it is quiet.
I get out and stand in the middle of the road, looking down into the valley. My truck starts to tick softly in the heat, chamisa and saltbush thick to the undercarriage, and the hawk, offended, glides away. I look again at the picture—photocopied and creased and chilled from the air-conditioning.
It is an image of a young man—not yet 30—standing in front of a rough-hewn pine fence. He’s confident, his right hip cocked. In one hand a coiled lariat, in the other a weathered-gray Stetson. At his feet, a saddle. He stares into the camera square-jawed, as if that is the very definition of a cowboy, the slightest flicker of a smile corralled. Some years later he will stop spending his days wet and cold or hot and dusty, driving cattle across grasslands as vast as his family’s native country. He will stop sleeping on thin mattresses on which his is only the most recent presence in a long line of men before him. He will give up meals enjoyed in a circle of the like-minded and like-wearied around a campfire. In place of all these things, he will become a teller of stories—as an historian, a conservator, and, most influentially, as a writer.
When that picture of John L. Sinclair was taken, in 1931 at Casey’s Ranch in the Hondo Valley, the disinherited son of a Scottish aristocrat was already a New Mexican at heart. He’d stopped in Clovis, a flag stop, 10 years earlier, on his way to British Columbia from back east. Stepping onto a platform built on land that had enjoyed statehood for less than 20 years, Sinclair gave up the idea—his family’s idea— of ranching in Canada. He saw ponies. Men in hats. Spurs. Beautiful women. The exotic. Home.
For the next 65 or so years, Sinclair roamed New Mexico widely and loved it deeply. Although he eventually wrote three novels, he was best known for the stories he wrote over 50 years for New Mexico Magazine. He got his real writing start with the magazine, and it was there where he wrote—often passionately—of small towns, their geography, and their people. He truly loved the places and characters that made mid-century New Mexico’s reputation, and that continue to shape how we see ourselves today.
It’s why I found myself under a sky so blue it was tinged with black, granite walls of the pass rising to either side, imagining the imaginings of a Sinclair 40 years ago. In 1965—retired again, this time from managing the Coronado Monument—he moved with his wife to the town of Rodeo. Once there, he did what he always did: drank deep of a new place and its people. He published an article in October of that year in New Mexico Magazine, and titled it “The Farthest Southwest.” For someone who loves the extremes of the state, such a title was all the invitation I needed to go exploring.
Rodeo is three-quarters of a mile from the Arizona border, in the bootheel of New Mexico. That makes it many things, among them the town that’s precisely the farthest southwest in the state. Sinclair had a knack for titles. Short, evocative, even a little seductive. “Upstairs Albuquerque” for Placitas, “Broken Hearts Valley” for the Estancia, “Sun and Sanctuary” for all of New Mexico. So, in some sense, I knew what I was getting into. But short, evocative, and seductive titles can often hide as much as they show. For instance, this part of the world saw the passage of The Kid and his cohorts in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, set a decade or so before Rodeo’s founding. No one before or after has been able to describe so unsparingly the raw and violent nature of Southwestern landscape.
And so, standing at the pass, looking down into the San Simon Valley, seeing, as Sinclair described, “a world of mighty distances, abrupt contrasts, pinnacled summits,” and the faintest glimmers of a town marked by a water tower, I wonder what of his “domicile of very nice people” I will find in such a place.
Creosote and mesquite slowly give way to grass—not really the pampas of his article, but a powerful reminder of the homesteaders and ranchers who so impressed Sinclair. This isn’t a place where, absent hard work, settled life thrives. A few buildings here and there, some in good repair, some nothing more than tangles of bleached wood and blackened iron. A road winding off to the east, over the mountains to the next valley. A road to the west, to Arizona. And then, Rodeo.
Like countless towns across the nation, Rodeo grew up in service to the rivers of iron that fed and clothed a country growing sea to sea. Cattlemen converged on Rodeo and its access to the El Paso & Southern line. Then, in 1915, Arizona went dry and Rodeo became the watering hole of necessity. The town, Sinclair deadpans, “wept sympathetic tears for a beloved neighbor’s predicament.” Rodeo boomed, and then, with national prohibition and the rerouting of the trains, it slowed. Now the tracks are gone; so, too, the station. A single tavern lights the highway after dark.
Yet Sinclair’s Rodeo wasn’t a ghost town, nor is it now. It’s a small town. Nine streets, half that many developed. There are fewer places of business now than when Sinclair lived here. Of the places he mentioned—markets, gas stations, cafes—only one is still recognizable, and long ago ceased doing what its sign advertises. But Rodeo is a place where, in the midst of the mountains, the skies, and the wide-open spaces of possibility—what Sinclair called the flamboyance of nature—people establish roots, build lives, and create opportunity.
Sinclair was fascinated with local legend J. A. Chenowith. A preacher and rancher right out of McCarthy’s imagination, Chenowith was as good, Sinclair said, “with a gun as he was with Leviticus.” He was also, I later learned, the man who offered Geronimo his last meal before the Apache leader’s surrender in 1886, just south of town. The Reverend was gone, his ranch lost in the Great Depression, long before Sinclair moved in. But he symbolized for the writer the spirit that fed Rodeo.
In DiAnn Matteson’s living room, five minutes after arriving in town, I meet a guy clearly enjoying his life. Wearing a two-day beard and a smile, he’s a storyteller. The story he’s telling, of his great-grandfather, sounds more and more familiar as he goes on. Finally, I stop him. “What’s your last name?” I ask.
Ten years ago, working from a tip, Nathan Lynn Chenowith returned to Rodeo and bought back his great-grandfather’s ranch. He’s fixed it up. He’s back in Rodeo; the family is back in Rodeo. We laugh at the odds. Later that night, at the tavern, he’ll buy me a drink. The spirit’s intact.
Elsewhere, too. The Sew What Club, the collection of Rodeo (and now some Arizona) women that so impressed Sinclair, still runs things, and puts on a series of intellectual and social events. I did get some rolled eyes speaking with current members when I read Sinclair’s comment that the “members have all the stamina and determination of the late Reverend Chenowith, though none of his colorful vocabulary.” From what I hear of the group’s legendary hikes into the Chiricahua Mountains, I expect things have changed on the latter front.
Bill and Nancy Cloudt offer a lesson in local history at their cafe and grocery, and are happy to share pictures that span generations. Elsewhere, there’s a small, informal group of folks, led in part by Matteson and Bruce Thompson, caretaker of the Painted Pony Resort, to tell the world about a place Sinclair described as a “wonder-world,” featuring some of the best birding in the U.S., the finest hiking in New Mexico, and the deepest quiet and prettiest skies in the world.
That night, after the tavern closes and only a single light shines into the desert, I leave my room and follow Matteson’s advice. I lie down in the middle of the highway—still warm from the afternoon sun—and stare into those skies and the cathedral of stars. I am reminded of something Sinclair wrote at the end of the ’50s about the skies and nighttimes of New Mexico: that “civilized man is still a little afraid of the dark.” Despite the coyotes gathered in the mesquite a hundred meters from me, imperceptible but for their chatter in the darkness, it isn’t fear that I feel but a sort of longing.
Perhaps Rodeo wasn’t such an unusual place in Sinclair’s New Mexico. Now, of course, places like it disappear regularly, and very few parts of America still look as they did nearly a half-century ago. The economics are different, the politics are different, the culture is different. For us, Rodeo is the sort of place we think of when we think of a small town—the people, the ways of life. It’s part of a shimmering past—inspiring not nostalgia but something far deeper, more fundamental, a thing we want to believe in. A thing we once did. Ponies, men in hats, the frontier, the exotic. Maybe it’s not where we want to live, but for much of New Mexico, and for much of the nation, it’s a place of beginnings, of origins. Home.