BEAUTY IN THE BEAST
It’s above freezing for the first time in days, so I bundle up for a walk. If the wind isn’t too strong, I have a destination in mind: the bottom of a nearby arroyo where centuries of monsoons have carved a deep pool out of the rock. I discovered it a few weeks ago and have been drawn back ever since. Although the flats I can see from my camper window are thick with knee-high blue grama grass, we haven’t had real rain in months. But the stone pool still holds several feet of water and reminds me to be grateful for any moisture in this arid landscape.
I snap up a vest and pull on my coat, tying a wild rag around my neck while I look for a pair of warm gloves. When I step out on our tiny deck and call the four dogs, they come tearing up, anticipating a change of pace, an opportunity to stretch their legs in the few inches of new snow. But as I shut the door to the camper, I see Coconut standing in the shadow of a nearby juniper, and I cringe.
From various accounts, I’ve gathered this cow elk was just days old when she was discovered by two German shepherds. She was rescued, named, and bottle-fed like a bum lamb. Now three years old, Coconut’s a sight bigger than any sheep ever gets. Banned as a nuisance animal in the nearest town— where she was running down children to get their treats—she was turned out to fend for herself on the same country my husband, Sam, and I just leased to run cattle, in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains. We just happened to end up in the same pasture.
Coconut taunts the dogs and mows off the potted herbs and geraniums I set out on warm days. She raids the abandoned house we use for storage, once hopping several feet up onto the porch and through the door, grabbing a bag of sugar, and swinging it in her mouth, hurling white granules all over our belongings. She broke into the cooler of produce I was storing outside and helped herself. Her distinctive turds are everywhere. I told a friend that it’s like having a spoiled pony in our yard.
I head out with the late-afternoon sun on my back, hoping Coconut will be gone by the time I’m home. I’m tired of the drama she’s adding to my life, which is plenty stimulating. A year ago, Sam and I left comfortable, good-paying ranch jobs and took a chance. I applied to school; he started looking for land to lease. I got accepted, and he partnered with other ranchers to embark on this adventure. Our four-season camper’s 320 square feet of living space is cozy, but much smaller than anywhere we’ve lived. Sam and I have realized our dream—living on a big place to lease and run cattle—but we’re making some sacrifices to adapt to it, working out the kinks of living in a tiny solar-powered space, dealing with limited to no cell phone service and the hour-and-a-half drive to Ruidoso to get groceries or gas. Doing the laundry is a weekly ordeal that involves a generator, several makeshift clotheslines, and, if we’re lucky, a breeze.
While I’m excited about our new opportunities, I’m still trying to adjust to our remote living situation after moving hundreds of miles away from friends and family.
The dogs look for permission to run ahead. They know to stay behind until they’re told, and they’re happy for a bit of freedom. My neck and shoulders are achy and tight: too much time at the laptop, writing, or hunched over yet another book, reading. Sometimes I forget to look up and get out on the land. Ironically, Coconut’s been helping with that, as multiple times a day I have to pop out and see what the racket is all about, remove a piece of cardboard from her mouth, or retrieve the folding stool that’s halfway across the yard, covered in elk drool. And sometimes, once I’m outside, I get distracted in a good way, sit in the blue wooden chair on our deck, and enjoy the incredible brilliance of the afternoon, wander down to the corral to see Sally, our Jersey milk cow, or investigate what the chickens are foraging.
When I look behind me, I see Coconut running the fence line. She stops and jumps the five barbed wire strands cleanly, then trots toward me. I’m nervous, imagining her stomping me with her sharp hooves. But as I climb the snowy hill, Coconut edges closer until we’re side by side on the two-track. She’s relaxed and quiet, moving comfortably in her rolling gait.
Pest or not, it’s fascinating to see a live elk so close up: the S-curved preorbital glands in the corners of her eyes, her coarse guard hairs bristled against the cold, those ever-moving, expressive ears. We’ve caught the horses’ attention, and they come running up, frisky in the cold, surprised at my new companion. Ahead of me, the dogs are waiting at the cattle guard, and by the time I reach them, the five geldings have fallen in behind Coconut and me. I feel like the Pied Piper, headed into the silent middle of nowhere.
As I walk carefully over the cattle guard, Coconut finds a low place in the fence. When we get to the stone pool, she wades in, takes a long drink, and curls her lip up: elk language for something unknown. I sit on a boulder in the sun, feeling my animosity fade. Imagining her dropped solo in the middle of this landscape—limestone outcrops and scrubby junipers, strong winds and scarce water—softens me a little. That’s a tough place to be, in the middle ground between the known and the unknown. I’m right there with her in a lot of ways now, too. I find myself mixing up the four homes I’ve made in the past eleven months, looking for light switches where there are none. Tossing the trash under the cupboard that doesn’t hold a waste-basket. I can’t imagine how Coconut navigated the switch from a social town life, with photo ops and Cheetos for snacks, to a place where she’s the only one of her kind. Habituated to humans, she doesn’t try to act like a native elk, nor does she show any signs of pining for the nearby resident herds. She embodies the “live in the moment” mantra; she seems content here in our cow camp. She’s making the best of it and finding companionship where she is.
Ever since that first time, Coconut walks with me daily. If I break into a jog, she trots. She’s never going to replace the people I miss or the family we don’t see nearly enough, but she’s sort of an ally now. Watching her adapt leaves me confident that I, too, will eventually settle in and embrace the newness and unexpected encounters this place brings. I suppose that’s why Sam and I came to New Mexico, and stayed. It would’ve been easier to find land elsewhere, but New Mexico’s unique offerings, including Coconut the mindfulness coach, inspire us, amaze us, and keep our life anything but normal.
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