Max, et al.

| 12/27/2011 3:39:17 PM

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.

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