We met Max Gonzales in the mountains of northern New Mexico about 25 years ago. He lived in the Cruces Basin Wilderness five months a year in a canvas tent. Most of the time, he had only his two horses, a dog and 1,500 sheep for company. His supplies were packed in on horses, every two weeks or so. He could listen to a Juarez radio station when he had fresh batteries.
The Cruces Basin is a remote wilderness area about 35 miles northwest of the tiny village of Tres Piedras, which is about 30 miles west of Taos. To reach it requires driving dozens of miles on primitive seasonal roads that close after a hard rain, sometimes for days at a time. The U.S. Forest Service recommends that you keep extra food and water in your car when you visit since you might be trapped if the roads flood while you are there. Max’s employer had a summer grazing permit for a big flock of sheep. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in established wilderness areas, so Max’s supplies were brought in on pack animals.
Max was a gregarious person without any romantic attachment to the sheepherder’s lonely vocation. He learned his trade on his uncle’s rancho in the central highlands of Mexico. The work paid a lot better in the United States. Max said he missed his wife and his three daughters–he called them his “chamacas”–back home in Guanajuato. He missed his friends. Once or twice each summer he made it to Taos for a few beers and some conversation at a local bar called Los Compadres where most of the clientele spoke Spanish. The rest of the time he was up there in the mountains by himself.
Sometimes backpackers like us showed up for a few days to hike the trails and fish in the streams, but Max didn’t speak English and the campers generally didn’t speak Spanish. Still, Max did his best to communicate. Sometimes he made friends by fishing. He could lie on his stomach next to the stream, dangle his hands in the freezing water and toss trout out on the bank with a quick scooping motion. We worked for hours with our fly rods to accomplish what Max could do in a few minutes.
He developed his fishing technique to entertain visitors. He said he didn’t like fish, and didn’t eat them. His staple food, he said, was macaroni and cheese.
He was there for the money. He was making about $4,500 a year. Even if you adjust for inflation, that’s not much of a wage in the United States, but it was OK for a farm kid from Mexico without a green card, and his boss covered his meager expenses so the whole paycheck could be mailed home to Guanajuato.
Without Max, or someone like him, the rancher who owned those sheep would have been out of business. A legal employee would have cost the rancher at least twice what he was paying Max, if you could find a competent person willing to live in the mountains alone for half a year. And if the rancher had been paying legal U.S. wages, he probably couldn’t have competed against the wool and meat being imported from Australia and Chile.
Immigrant sheepherders have been an important part of New Mexico’s economy since the 19th century. Likewise the economies of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada.
My childhood home on the Mexican border was in an immigration corridor. If the weather was not too hot, we could sit in the back yard and watch dozens of people cross the border carrying water and cheap bags full of their possessions, every day. Often they stopped and asked if they could drink from our hose. The women wore pantsuits. The men favored cowboy outfits. They were, generally, polite and grateful. My grandmother’s well house was an 8-foot by 8-foot shack infested with black widow spiders. My father once discovered three men living in there, apparently waiting for a friend to show up and drive them al norte, up north, where they could get jobs. From the accumulation of food containers, it appeared that they had been living there for days, if not weeks.
Across the United States, you can’t travel very far without meeting an immigrant. Nearly every small town has a few Chinese cooks and dishwashers. Your cabdriver in Minneapolis might be from Somalia or Laos. The woman who cleans the lobby of your Chicago apartment building may have grown up in Ecuador or Bulgaria. I once had a lively conversation with three young guys working in a restaurant where I ate in Washington, DC. They were from Sierra Leone. I was only vaguely aware that there existed a placed called Sierra Leone, the “Lion Mountains,” named by a Portuguese explorer. I told them it sounded like a wonderful place. They said Washington was much better.
My wife and Max hit it off. Her Spanish is better than mine and she’d visited Guanajuato. I suppose most sheepherders would generally rather chat with a 23-year-old woman than with her college-kid boyfriend. Anyway, once Max struck up a conversation with Carolyn he pretty much neglected the sheep. They talked about his home and his family. He wondered if we ever went to Los Compadres. They talked about his life in the mountains. We had only been married a few months at the time but our friends Jon and Barbara, with whom we were camping, had been married a couple of years.
“Married two years and no chamacos?” Max wanted to know. “Why not?”
It’s possible that Max just wanted to talk about sex, but Carolyn thinks he was genuinely curious about families in los Estados Unidos. Max had been married four years. He had three daughters. He expected this pattern to continue for some time to come. Carolyn told him our friends didn’t want children yet. Max looked confused. Carolyn mentioned the possibility that they used birth control.
Max seemed never to have heard of such a thing and listened intently as Carolyn attempted to explain the general concepts.
I still think it’s possible Max was simply enjoying the line of inquiry and if Carolyn was willing to educate, he was willing to be educated. But it’s equally possible that he had not encountered the concept of birth control before in his life. Carolyn had lived in central Mexico and believed that in rural areas of Guanajuato province young people might never have heard of condoms or birth-control pills.
We never saw Max again. The next time we camped in the Cruces Basin there were no sheep there. I wonder about him occasionally. I wonder how many chamacos blessed his home, finally. I wonder if he has grandchildren by now. On a summer morning, when I’m out checking my own sheep, I sometimes wonder if he’s up there this year, in the Cruces Basin or some other isolated mountain valley, listening to the radio broadcast from Juarez and dreaming of home.