James Lee Mansell, RIP

James was Floyd Mansell’s oldest son, with the woodsman’s heritage and ability one might expect. Perhaps even in extra measure; he was one of the best woodsmen and elk and turkey hunters I ever knew in his youth. I believe he was also a Golden Gloves boxer, as many of Floyd’s kids and proteges were. But he had a problem. Before such things were diagnosed properly, at least in rural districts, he was utterly dyslexic and never did learn to read. It was no lack of intelligence or dedication; he spoke Spanish, “Burqueno”- accented English , and Navajo; people tended to think he was Spanish, but he was a quarter Navajo, a quarter Choctaw, a quarter Scots- Irish, and a quarter Lebanese; with his handsome vaguely Asian features he would have looked quite at home in Almaty or any of the Stans…

James worked hard, played hard, and walked more than anyone I knew (he once broke his back in an accident, and was walking three days later!), and he drank. It finally killed him. He was nothing if not realistic about it, and made jokes about it until his last days. I would ask him why he had done something uncharacteristically dumb, and he would look at me and say “Steve… I was drunk!” It reached its peak of heartbreak and hilarity when he insisted on narrating, in a loud voice, in the supermarket at 10 AM, how he had managed to get bitten two times by a big diamondback, which he normally could have controlled with ease, as he was a serious snake collector. In each stage of the narration — anaphylactic shock from the antivenin, and getting bit again when he released it; I would say “I know James, I know”. He kept on going “You know WHY?” I said “Yes, James” in a quiet voice. “PUTA, I was drunk!!”

He remained incorrigibly cheerful, even as his horizons narrowed. After being lost in the Gila Wilderness for three days,he stopped going on extended hunts. Breaking his back, though he walked through the pain, made it still harder than it was. He still came by almost daily, pointing out birds and other creatures he had seen on his walks. Toward the end, his wife Bernice was trying to get me to write about him, saying “You don’t know him — he’s Floyd Mansell’s son!” James, sitting at a table a few feet away, kept saying “Bernice, he’s my friend Steve. I saw him this morning! Leave him alone!”

He left behind an enormous amount of good will and love, many brothers and sisters, his mother Wanda, and a grieving wife, and a wonderful bunch of children and grandchildren, some of them already accomplished naturalists and outdoors people. Although he lived his life on the margins, he’ll be missed by many,including me.

James and grandchildren.

Vern Dawson 1962- 2017 RIP

Vernon Dawson died this week, tragically youmg. He was a miner, a craftsman, a drinker, a gentleman, and a friend.  Perhaps his problem was the one mentioned long ago by Jimmy Buffett in “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (Forty!): “My occupational hazard bein’ / My occupation’s just not around.”  The days of the hard rock miner in Magdalena have passed…

His manners were impeccable. Libby remembers the first time she met him. H’e was sleeping in the alley, but woke as we passed. He took off his hat, saying to her, “Ma’am, I don’t believe we have met.” Then turning to me: “Hello Stephen. Have you written anything good lately?” He then laid his head on his jacket and went back to sleep.

He was meticulous about tools, and it pained him to see them neglected.Once a person who perhaps had more dollars than sense had a flood in his basement that covered his guns with mud. They were not fancy– a couple of Mosssbergs , a Remington .22, two sporterized SMLE’s- but were useful working guns hat had hitherto been well-maintained- and O was just going to leave them encased in mud.

“That aint right”, said Vern to me. Then  to O: “See that spool table over there? Pile em up on it, get Stephen a fiifth of vodka and me a  case of beer, and find us a hose, some paper towels, and some oil. We’ll put ’em right.”

We did, too. By the afternoon’s end, we were drunk, but he guns were in better shape than they had ever been in….                                             


I have, to my mild shock, been elected unanimously to the post of Grand Marshall for the Magdalena Old Timers’ Parade. That means I lead the parade, folks; sadly, the herd of half- wild Corriente cattle they used to drive through town ahead of it has gone the way of the street dance in the STREET, open containers, drive in windows, Juan’s West Bar, and the oldest of Los Borrachos Perdidos, Monico Baca.

The position is usually a horseback one. Here is Tom Olney last year:

But I can no longer sit or control a horse easily,
 so my mind turned to thoughts of a mount. John Wilson’s Triumph TR 3 came to mind, but he babies it, and would have to trailer it to town.

 Then my Scottish friend Bodie Littlejohn– collector of cars and guns, and armor, falconer, Deerhound man, Karateka, horseman, shrink and, well, more, came to the rescue, offering his fabulous collector- fine Shelby Mustang, a car that shakes the ground when you turn on the engine. I am ecstatic, as is every fine car nut in town.

Says Bodie, “I’ll drive– you would have a hard time with the clutch anyway.Your job is to wave your hat at the pretty girls.”

 I think of the last line in Tom McGuane’s Crow Fair:

“Lately, I’ve been riding a carriage at the annual Bucking Horse Sale like an old timer, which I guess is what I’m getting to be.”

Old Timers

Our annual fiesta seems to have taken on new life, and despite threatening (pre?) monsoon  clouds staggering  by, nothing is getting  cancelled. It SMELLS like O t’s. Now we just need the metronymic rhythm of 4 pm daily storms (with hail!) and maybe this will be the best “real”  rain in a decade…

Pics, random and not necessarily meaning anything, but “I LOVE THIS TOWN!” (Sis Olney) is as reasonable response as the more cynical one by the old cowboy who when asked why he stays in our harsh land: “I been three other places and they’re worse…”

Click on photos to enlarge– most will two times, with a lot of detail.

Libby took this photo of Bessie Apache in a formal shirt.

  Eleanor, Roxy, and “Cousin” Sis with her granddaughter, who wants to be a paleontologist and has assisted UNM scientists on a dig of mammoths on the ranch (it was one of the conditions Sis gave for them to dig). Sis is semi- retired from actual ranch work after getting busted up by a cow, so she has time to chase lions with her hounds and her husband Tom, ‘way below on roan. Next,  Sis and daughter Gianetta, who I have known since she was four and who is now the ag teacher at the high school. When she was four, she used to exhort me to drive “..faster, Stevebodio, faster!” on the dirt roads on the ranch. Once, when I could barely stay on the road in my Suburban, I asked imperturbable Sis if she usually drove that fast. She grinned and said “I aint driven this fast on this road in my life!”


Gospel rock band from the Alamo rez. And every parade needs a 57 Chevy.

Karolyn and Doc ham it up.

Tom Olney (above, the computer won’t add where I want), leads the parade. Barbara Trujillo Bowden, below with flag, is the aunt of my old friend James “Viejo” Trujillo, who died last year and appeared here, sister of my mentor Tony, and the recent widow of Curly Bowden, a fellow bird fancier (he briefly kept an emu!) The whole family is known for good  horses. A teacher and a reader, she beat cancer last year, and is still smiling.

Above: the guy with this float has a collection of antique (mostly 19th century) astronomical telescopes, some on display at a gallery in town, and assists at astronomical events and star parties. (Remember, we have Tech, the VLA of “Contact” fame, and a huge traditional telescope on the crest of the mags. NM is cowboys, Indians, old Spanish culture, and science fiction.

Below, Paul Pino’s band has played in every fiesta for years, decades…

Left: Marin Harris, who I have known since she was born (in this town), has gone to college in British Columbia and Maine, and worked for the circus in Manhattan. She is in Albuquerque when not visiting her family here,  pursuing further degrees. Then, Sharon, Marin’s mother, and Terry, teachers

The last float was incomprehensible. When Libby asked Felipe, more or less driving, what it was for, He said “I don’t know– they came and woke me up and asked me if I wanted to ride in it.”

Below, us. We are still staggering, still smiling. A few hours later, the rains came. Libby in the aftermath just outside the front door, as some will recognize…


“The mountains paralleled the valley and the snowy peaks were extending with fall to the valley floor.”– Thomas McGuane, Nobody’s Angel

Which is at least visually appropriate for this view looking South on Main street to the Magdalena range, which rises from 6500 feet at the village to almost 11, 000 (10, 782 I THINK) within a few miles of my house, behind my back as I take this…

But it isn’t the quote I am looking for! I have for years paraphrased a McGuane quote about the mountains looming almost threateningly closer to town in winter. But I have searched first “Heart of the Game”, then the rest of An Outside Chance, Keep the Change, Nobody’s Angel, Something to be Desired— I am SURE I have been quoting it long enough that it isn’t in a more recent book–! Quite possibly I have missed it in one of the above. If any of my scholarly friends can find it, there or elsewhere and if I am prematurely senile somewhere in another writer’s work, I would be obliged. I thought of it when I took this pic this morning and have been looking, distracted by so many familiar and forgotten passages, that I need to get my blogging done and get back to life. Thankfully, no deadlines looming!

Update: I read the mad soliloquy in his 1971 Bushwhacked Piano for the first time in years, and laughed aloud. Anybody else remember & love it? If I get enough votes I will print it all here. When my friends and I were in our twenties in New England we could recite it, and competed. I can see Chris striding across Harvard Square, seeing me in front of the Coop, and bellowing “What I believe in? I believe in happiness, birth control, generosity, fast cars, environmental sanity, Coors beer, Merle Haggard, upland game birds, expensive optics, helmets for prizefighters, canoes, skiffs, and sloops, horses that will not allow themselves to be ridden, speeches made under duress; I believe in metal fatigue and the immortality of the bristlecone pine…” And as he joins me, we chant the whole damn thing together, flinging out our hands, gesturing, getting really strange looks. This is about 1972 or 3, a time when certain kinds of bad behavior are becoming ordinary. But this has a different ring. “… I  believe in words on paper, pictures on rock, intergalactic hellos. I believe in fraud. I believe that in pretending to be something you aren’t you have your only crack at release from the bondage of time…”

A mere taste. And if this meme takes off there is always “the Shining City” from 92 in the Shade: “I will behave badly”.

Magdalena’s Poet

Bruce Holsapple wasn’t born here any more than I was (“I’m not from here/ I just live here”– James McMurtry); but sooner or later you make your stand. Would you not credit Gary Snyder and his adopted watershed in the dry Sierra, or me in my Querencia?

Bruce has been here long enough to put down roots, and he is one of the very few people other than my late mentor Floyd Mansell who you might encounter high in the mountains of our fortunately neglected range outside of deer season. In his new collection Wayward Shadow , he sings our austere highland’s subtle songs, like some latter- day Zen monk praising “Mountains and Rivers Without End”.

Like Snyder, he speaks with precision, but so simply he is almost laconic, painting his chosen landscape with a dry brush, making a subtle picture anywhere you care to make a cut. I particularly like this piece below, perhaps because I too look over my shoulder for our (ambivalently) beloved but subtly feared apex predator whenever I descend through the switchbacks after the sun goes behind the ridge:

“Walking a twisty arroyo

cliff, hillside, tumbling rock, sand

& at one damp spot

shelved in by rock

a cougar’s track

where it leapt down

into the wash

then across–

me searching the canyon walls

from that point

especially as the sky darkened”

Great Local Photo

Shamelessly stolen from the Golden Spur Saloon website, which is replete with good stuff;  a portrait of Lawrence Aragon and Johnny Krynitz playing at the Spur last summer. They both live and raise cattle 30 dirt- track miles north of town, near the ghost town of Riley, or as we are more likely to call it, Santa Rita. Lawrence has a small farm plot on the seasonally dry river, one that  has been in his family for generations; Johnny (who is Spanish, a Vigil*) runs his cows in the uplands. Photo by Magdalena filmmaker Matt Middleton, who I think should do more black and white portraits.

* A local reminds me that ears from elsewhere read the name “Vigil” as something like “VIDjil” rather than as it is understood here” VeeHEEL”. Correct and noted.

Mattanza Magdalena

It has been a rough year for our town– four funerals in one family alone, no water for a month in summer, loss of our only food store. Perhaps my young friend Jason Otero, who is a guide and hound trainer among other skills, just decided to cheer everyone up. He staged a mattanza– literally a “killing”– a community pig roast. EVERYBODY came, despite near- freezing temps and fog. It was I think the best party yet of this century, though mattanzas were not rare events through the nineties. I think we should do one at least every six months. (These will enlarge if you right or double click).

Johnny Krynitz, Ty Scartaccini, Lib

Bar owner Darrel joins the conversation
Host Jason in the middle talking to guide Travis Tafoya; Jason’s mom Valerie to left

Update: I just realized that if you enlarge the fourth photo and look just above Valerie’s head you will see our highest local peak, South Baldy, at a little over 10, 700 feet. THAT’S why it is cold here.

Another Magdalena Tale

From John Wilson:

“We got out to B. W. Cox’s sawmill.  I had a chance to chat with Mr. Cox (he did not like being called Mr. Cox).  What an interesting guy.

“The two guys working the mill were filled with interesting information as well.  Guillermo has been around here for over thirty years.  Javier is more recently from Mexico City.  When it came time to write the receipt and the date became apparent, I mentioned that it was Pi Day.  Quizzical looks from the two.  I held my hands to form a circle and then drew my hand across the middle.  Guillermo immediately lit up and wrote 3.146 in lumberman’s chalk on the wall of the shed.  Javier was right behind.”