The highway between El Paso and Sierra Blanca runs through a rocky desert which rolls from horizon to horizon. Travelers on this road tend to nod to each other as their cars pass, in recognition of the only other sign of humanity for miles at a stretch. Their windows are generally rolled up, heaters on in the winter, air conditioners in the summer, radios on full volume, coolers in the back, maps in the front, trying as much as possible to ignore the view. This, at least, is the way I had traveled over this road in sporadic forays from El Paso to East Texas. In fact, although I have lived in El Paso for over fourteen years, the first trip I took into the desert itself was when Eleanor drove me to meet Jewel Babb. Eleanor had been telling me about Jewel Babb for months, describing her as an older woman who lived by herself in the desert and kept goats, who had no electricity or running water but knew the desert as well as any Indian, and who could heal people by touching them in the right places. When I told Eleanor that I wanted to meet her, she agreed to take me with her the next time she went. This first visit took place in the spring of 1975.
We drove out in Eleanor's old station wagon, which creaked and moaned on bad springs the whole trip. In the backseat were her children and mine, stacked on top of a strange assortment of goods: five gallons of water in a plastic jug, two cartons of discarded clothes we had been accumulating for the past two months, a gallon jar of honey, three loaves of whole wheat bread that Eleanor had baked, two jars of peanut butter, and an Aloe vera plant. This was our offering. The old clothes, according to Eleanor, Mrs. Babb cut into pieces and quilted, the food she used sparingly, and the water was a luxury her place did not have. In return she taught Eleanor about the desert and how to heal, how to use the hot springs water six miles away, and how to massage various parts of the body for health.
At Sierra Blanca, Eleanor pulled the station wagon off the highway and stopped in front of a dilapidated building at the edge of town. There was a faded barber pole by the door but no indication otherwise that it was anything but abandoned and used for storage, as the windows showed only a gray, indistinguishable clutter. Eleanor left the engine running, ducked in the low shop door, and then in a couple of minutes swung back into the driver's seat.
"She's out there," she said. "Agustín says he saw her this morning when she got her mail." Agustín T., according to Eleanor, was a barber, fiddler, sometime chauffeur and handyman, and always the combination outpost man and secretary to Jewel Babb when she was living at the tie house. Eleanor drove to the center of town, then turned south toward the Rio Grande on a blacktopped road which unexpectedly changed into packed dirt and gravel about two miles out of town. This road wandered into another and then another, so that it seemed to me that Eleanor was taking the turns almost at random. Sometimes there were large arroyos washed across the road, and we had to crawl the station wagon over them, slowing the car down to less than five miles an hour. It was hot. The children bounced up and down on the pile in the backseat, too hot even to hassle each other, their faces sweaty and red, eyes drowsy. At three, Eleanor's girl Becca was the smallest, her pudgy body perched in the middle, with Brookie, my six-year-old, on one side and Alex, Eleanor's older girl, on the other. Away from the insular highway, the desert had become totally different to me. There were small hills and valleys which we were constantly pitching up and running down into, finding the road suddenly closed in on both sides by jagged red rocks and boulders tumbled against each other. Yuccas eight and ten feet high loomed on the crests of hills, nodding to each other as if they were the incarnations of desert people friendly with each other and watchful of strangers. It was May, and there had apparently been rain, because there were blankets of yellow flowers on some of the slopes and blue and red shoots of wildflowers along the road. It was hard for me to admit that this was the same desert I had managed to avoid looking at all these years. Dozens of rabbits sprang out in several directions at the approach of the car. There were mockingbirds in the low mesquite trees which grew in the gulleys, and an occasional hawk swooped low enough for us to catch a glimpse of the white epaulets on his shoulders.
Then, rounding a slow curve, Eleanor pointed out the house to me, on a ridge about half a mile up the road. I could barely pick out the cluster of brown buildings from the clutter of desert rocks they were sitting on. As we drove closer, the details became clearer: the sheds and posts, a scattering of rusted parts of abandoned cars, the junked carcass of an old school bus. We drove into the yard between a low-lying house and a long deteriorated trailer. A black-haired man was sitting in the trailer door, but when we drove up, he turned inside and disappeared. Behind the house, I could make out a series of pens and sheds which seemed to lean against each other as their only support. Chickens bustled in the yard, and several goats were wandering freely between the buildings. The ridge dropped down quickly on all sides of the building cluster, and when we got out of the car, we could see the desert rolling off and down from us in every direction. The air was thin but hot, and no wind was blowing. This was the first human construction of any kind in the thirty miles of road we had just come over, and from this high outlook, it was the only one as far as the eye could see in all directions.
The clearing probably covered an acre of land, but, other than the various sheds, the house, and trailer, there was nothing on it for shade. Low-lying prickly pear grew in patches along the outer edges and an occasional yucca or Spanish dagger, but, otherwise, there was only rock and sand, as the goats had apparently taken care of any edible bushes or grass that had ever tried to grow here.
The main house was made of vertical railroad ties with horizontal ties at the bottom, top, and casings. It had been covered with pieces of tar paper which had been stripped off in wide sections in several places and some of these partially recovered with stamped tin panels and old license plates. But the ties were clearly visible in several places. There was a hipped roof made of boards, then covered, too, with tar paper and tin.
Eleanor walked to the screen door and knocked. The door thudded, and behind it a narrow white face with intelligent golden eyes appeared. It was a goat, apparently standing guard close to the porch. Someone called out from inside the house; then I could vaguely see a figure through the screen as the door opened.
"Why, Eleanor Taylor, you come on in here." She opened the door wide and motioned us all in. While the girls and Eleanor and I carried in the boxes from the car, she sat in a rocking chair on the porch, somewhat shy of the sudden company but smiling happily at the attention. Her skin was ruddy but relatively smooth for her age, and her hair was long and gray, gathered in a loose bun at her neck. She wore a plain housedress with a dark apron tied around her waist. Her body was strong and vigorous, and she sat solidly, in firm possession of herself, her hands folded calmly on her lap in the midst of activities. She motioned us to sit on the porch when we finished carrying in the provisions, which she directed us to pile by the side of the door. She wouldn't allow us to go into the main part of the house. That part, she said, was too cluttered and dirty. Besides, the porch was where she lived and slept in the warm months; the house was only for when the weather was cold. The porch was screened and ran the full length of the house. On it were two iron beds piled high and soft with quilts and pillows, and to one side was her rocking chair and a square table. The floor was a concrete slab, and in addition to the white-faced goat who greeted us at the door, there was a black baby goat who skittered in and out of the porch area when anybody opened the door and he could squeeze through. Along a ledge which ran halfway up the screen were bits of fossil and bone, rock crystals, and rusty hand tools.
She had been expecting us and had cooked a large pot of beans and a skillet of cornbread. She disappeared in and out of the main house setting utensils, plates, and food on the table for us. At her direction, we didn't try to follow her into this forbidden part of the house but sat on the beds watching both her and the goats as they tagged behind her. Then we ate and talked, getting acquainted with each other for the next several hours. Outside, the girls ran through the goat pens, petting the goats, laughing when they butted up against them playfully. Mrs. Babb cautioned them about going too far from the clearing, as the snakes were out and could be dangerous. But the girls were content to stay within the confines of the yard where the goats and chickens were.
When I asked to use the bathroom, Mrs. Babb pointed me out the screen door to the privy at the back part of the clearing. The door didn't close completely but was faced away from the house, so that it seemed private since there wasn't anyone looking for the next hundred miles facing front. When I came back onto the porch, Mrs. Babb asked me what I thought of its view. "I think you can't find a better view anywhere in the world than the one I have from my johnny!" I agreed that she should indeed be proud of her facility.
Later, she took us on a tour of the premises, proud of her goats, calling them by name. Chickens were busy pecking in and out of the pens. She told us that they roosted with the goats at night, so that she didn't have to worry about the hoot owls or coyotes getting to them. The pens were made of various materials: pieces of tin, sotol sticks bundled together, lengths of baling wire, chicken mesh, railroad ties, even large stones. They unfolded one into another, some open and large holding several goats, others small and enclosed. Two of the sheds I peered into, no larger than refrigerator crates, held mother goats, one with a sweet-faced brown kid, which Mrs. Babb told us was less than a day old. She listed off the exotic names: Angoras, Nubians, Alpines, Toggenbergs, Saanens. Some nudged us when we walked through, others stood aloof, legs apart, and still others shyly backed away. She cautioned us not to let them nibble on our shirts or pants. Her own hems were frayed and shredded at the edges, partially eaten away. By the time we returned to the house, a crowd of a dozen or more had gathered and continued to peer in at us on the porch as we talked the rest of the afternoon.
That day, Mrs. Babb talked to us at length about the hot springs not far from her house and what they could do for people. She expressed a sadness that the springs weren't being learned about by more people and hoped that Eleanor and I would at least go down to see them. She took off Eleanor's shoes and began to massage her feet. Then, after several minutes of massaging each toe and along each side to the ankle, she began massaging gently up and down Eleanor's arms, sides, and legs as she was talking—Eleanor had been complaining of general fatigue and pains in her lower back. After almost twenty minutes of massage, Mrs. Babb released her. Eleanor stretched out full across one of the beds, to indicate her complete relaxation.
We left just at sunset. The western sky was turning orange, bleeding red into Mrs. Babb's clearing as we pulled away, promising her we would come again soon. She waved and shaded her eyes to watch us as we drove slowly down the ridge. Long before we were out of the desert, it was completely dark, but Eleanor knew the roads well enough not to lose the way. As the stars began to appear, Eleanor told me that we were driving through a canyon area where red lights sometimes bobbed mysteriously across the face of the canyon walls and hopped across the desert floor. She said that Mrs. Babb can tell of having seen them many times and that once she herself saw them behind her coming along the very road we were on. She had thought at first they were approaching headlights, but then they had suddenly disappeared where there was no house or possible exit. In the backseat, the girls pricked up their ears. As we drove farther, they began to squeal and point.
"I saw one!"
"Me too! Me too!"
I admit that I scrutinized the canyon walls myself. I was not sure of the red lights' reality, but if they were out there, I wanted to see them.
The children kept a sharp eye out for the mystery lights all the way. I never saw anything except uninterrupted darkness. Soon the car bumped, and there was black asphalt beneath us again. Lights began to appear on both sides of the road, farmhouses with the porch lights on, living room lights, and the lights of television. Another turn and we saw Sierra Blanca, a cluster of lights, with the long straight highway leading out of it. Once we were on the highway, the desert receded completely away into the darkness, and there was nothing but ourselves talking to each other, headed for El Paso, our headlights bobbing straight ahead on the road.