Desert Southwest

White Sands, New Mexico

Atomic Agriculture
on the Rio Grande

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

Above: Gypsum sand dunes at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico



I asked the border guard, again. He was mumbling something loudly. So loudly,

I couldn't decipher anything he was saying.

"What?" I said again.

Then he squeezed his face together and blurted so loudly something about stopping where I was supposed to. I looked in the rearview mirror. Was there a sign?

"Where are you from?" he yelled.
"Los Angeles," I said.
"How long were you in Mexico?" he chomped.
"Half hour."

He didn't seem to like anything I was saying, but I'm not sure why. There are few things as funny as a mad Texas border guard, but it begs the question - this guy is protecting the border?

White Sands Desert

Gambel's Quail range through the desert southwest states.

He sent us to inspections - five guys and a hammer. One guy took the hammer and started banging on our gas tank. Another guy sat down to interview me while the rest fumbled through the forty pounds of camera equipment in the trunk.

"Why were you in Mexico for only half an hour?"

"Nothing to do," I said.

The interviewer, a Mexican-American, seemed defensive and said, "there is a lot more to do in Juarez than El Paso."

I agreed.

"There is a dog racing park..."

Exactly my point. I asked him what the fuss was.

"It's suspicious that someone would only spend half an hour in Juarez."
I think that summed it up, and I said we were on our way to an international chile pepper festival in New Mexico, and we really had no business in El Paso or Juarez. We were just passing through.

They cleared us, and I realized I had just inadvertently messed with Texas. I had no worry about the border guards though - I had been dealing with them for years. My real concern was - would it shake up Jane? In our first times on the road together, I had already managed to send her tumbling off the deck of a boat, and managed to get her stung by a four foot long ancestor of the jellyfish. Yeah, a Sea Wasp, they say it's the most dangerous stinging creature in the ocean.

Driving through El Paso is like driving through a factory - on this morning, the city had the distinct smell of a freshly opened can of cat food. Even in the blistering sun, the place felt gray and dismal, with its backdrop of Juarez slums, its smokestacks, dated architecture and awful looking chain burger restaurants.

The land changed as we pass into New Mexico; the pounding of the sun felt welcome, and the whole flatness and red earth was cheery. Not beautiful, but somewhere indistinct, as if not far from home.

The mirage of water on the road is so intense in the midday heat that the mirror sheen creeps up to the wheels of our car. I am reminded, speeding on this mirage of flat sea, of Miyazaki's water train in the animated 'Spirited Away' - a journey from a mad city into the wilderness, to find answers.

The road to Alamogordo is flat, although there are always mountains in the background. Southern New Mexico's valleys are smooth as suede, the low brush like napped bristles. I tell Jane we are passing through the Trinity Site.

In 1939, Einstein wrote to the President, "I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over." It was one of the first realizations that the world had the knowledge to build a bomb that could be "exploded in a port (and) might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory."

Five years later, a U.S. army captain, positioned on a mountain range just west of us, wrote,

"My first impression was of sudden brilliant lighting of the surrounding landscape, accompanied by a momentary flash of heat...After raising the dark filter to protect my eyes, I looked in the direction of the light. Although the filter provided was designed to eliminate over ninety-nine percent of the light, the intensity of illumination was such that there was a momentary sensation of blinding similar to that following a close flash of lightning on a dark night."

The world changed that day, but no one would know until Hiroshima. I wondered if the army officials standing on that mountain understood that man had just solidified himself as the most significant biological factor on Earth. But my interest in the development of the atomic bomb always centered around the fact that it wasn't just that the United States had developed this weapon, but rather that the world had come to the collective knowledge to do so, and the United States just had the resources to do it first.

We stopped in the evening in the White Sands, a protected field of dunes, in the middle of the old trinity site. A female hiker once told me that to coax some women into the pains of travel, you have to make it appear fashionable, like a center spread from Wallpaper Magazine. Walking in the gentle gypsum dunes, I could have asked Jane what a Louis Vuitton hiking backpack might look like. But I held my tongue and commented on how nice her hiking shoes looked in the white sand.

The pepper has become one of those occasionally obnoxious adopted symbols of the over-symbolized Southwest - a long, red fruit with a little green stem. But where did they grow these things? What does a field of chiles look like? And why do they grow them in New Mexico.

Memorial on a lonely road in New Mexico

Roadside Memorial

I guess that's why we're on our way to Hatch - to find answers at the International Hatch Chili Festival. There are no books on the history of the chile pepper. There is little written discourse about from where they come, and what they did to the world. The lengthy English edition of Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s famous History of Food offers only a few pages on the subject.

The chile evolved somewhere in South America, maybe Bolivia, and was cultivated there for two thousand year. Its seeds traveled by tribal trade routes to the coast of Brazil, as a medicinal, and then, by canoe migrations north. It was probably because it was seen as an important medicine of some sort.

As the descendents of Brazilian Indians moved up along the Atlantic coast, they seeded the Americas with an otherwise indistinct plant. When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, the genus had already spread into cultivation both in Mexico and the islands by the Arawaks, Tainos, and Caribs. Most of the varieties of the genus Capsicum actually domesticated into their present-day varieties as foreigners in the Caribbean basin.

The Caribbean was important to the chile pepper, because small islands are like biological breeding grounds for variation.

Columbus was after the eastern black peppercorns; like other explorers of his time, spice was his motivation. It is no wonder, then, that he called the plant a pepper, and claimed it was superior to the 'old peppers' which he was sent to find.

We crossed out of the White Sands Missile Range, and over the Organ Mountains, into the city of Las Cruces.

We decided to take a walk up the mountains near Las Cruces, in the evening when the sun casts its long glow over humble Las Cruces. When each truck crossing a dirt road fifty miles away is seen by its plume of dust high in the still air. I am thinking about that border guard, how he must be home right now, in his shitty trailer park, playing war with tin soldiers or squeezing his face at his wife and yelling loudly. I wonder how my wife, marching along, might not enjoy a pursuit of answers about the chile pepper at all - mad border guards, long drives, crappy desert towns.

It was quite a relief then, when she crouched down and said she didn't know there were toads in the desert. 'Huh?' I said, and looked at the creeping thing. "Oh my gosh," I said (she had trained me not to say 'Oh my God!' "'s a horny toad." Now, Jane may not care much about those funny looking lizards, but she lit up into a bright smile when she recognized the importance of the stupid lizard to me.

Not just that, but we were off to a stay in the grandest hotel in Las Cruces. It's so grand, The Meson de Mesilla is not even in Las Cruces, but a small outlier called La Mesilla, where, I tell Jane - I hear they have something other than Mexican food.

All that salsa, all that hot sauce, all that corn. It gets to you after a while. When we arrived at the Meson de Mesilla, the clerk said they decided to close the restaurant down early. And why not, there's plenty of Mexican food in town.

We found a restaurant. Yeah, it was so Mexican, that Pancho Villa once visited it. Pancho Villa, and Geronimo too, they claimed. One was the world’s first modern Guerilla. The other created the first incidence of modern warfare. When the United States went after Pancho, they employed trucks and airplanes for the first time in combat. It seems like everything in modern warfare begins right here, in Southern New Mexico.

It's funny about ethnic food. Nationalities and ethnicities extend their pride to their food - Italian and Chinese food historians, in one example, still bicker over the true origin of pasta. Some reasonable Italians might say its origins were Germanic, and that this origin can be traced back to the 5th Century A.D., but some Italians have gone further to say that pasta was indeed unique to, and created by, Italians.

In fact, both the Chinese and Japanese were cooking pasta for two-thousand years. It is only documented in Italy for four-hundred and fifty.

So, the introduction of the chile pepper changed things, and all over the world. All Columbus did was introduce the peculiar plant to the Iberian Peninsula. After that, it was fifty years, and virtually every cuisine in suitable climates had changed - from Arabia, to Africa, to the Far East.

Americanization of the world is not so modern after all.

If you look at some cuisines - Ireland in the seventeenth century, for example - cuisines were not only turned on their heads by modernity, but thoroughly influenced by the botany of the new world. For all the claims of ancient cuisine, how many of them are actually nationalist ancient traditions? Most cuisines seem, rather, to be culturally dynamic, in flux, and influenced by faraway places. Four hundred years is yesterday.

It's funny, then, about travel writers. As soon they get a chance to write something that's not funded by Hilton Hotels, or Avis Rent-a-car, or the Cruise Industry, when they finally get to write a personal travelogue and present it to the public, they bitch about the Americanization of the world, or the globalization of the world, or about the McDonalds in Saigon, and how its all awful.

Yucca in White Sands, New Mexico

Soaptree Yuccas at White Sands National Monument

I've never quite seen those almost interchangeable terms as awful at all. No, they really do wear t-shirts in the African bush. They do listen to rap in St. Lucia. But that's why culture is dynamic. People adopt components of the dominant economic influences in the world and make it their own. People want to wear t-shirts, even if travel writers want them to wear headdresses. If Italy really was all tradition - they wouldn't have taken Chinese pasta and made it better. There would be no tagliatelle, mostaccioli, conchiglie and radiatore. And the McDonald's in Saigon - that's just confusing trends in culture with bad taste, which is universal anyway. And there is no McDonald's in Saigon anyway. It's a myth, started by travel writers.

The highway to Truth & Consequences, New Mexico was road-blocked, so we veered off on the agriculture roads to Hatch. For all the flatness of Southern New Mexico, this little road that winds through a hill and cliff along the Rio Grande, is rather pleasant and slow-going. It is also laden with fields of short green plants with bright red ornaments. Atomic agriculture on the Rio Grande - as colorful as I imagined.

Hatch is like the Italy of the chile pepper. They make things better. Hatch may not be the largest chile growing center in the world, but it is the most innovative. Here they cross-pollinate, experiment, taste-test and develop the newest hybrids of the cayenne, improving upon old things.

We pull over the hill, and there you have it - the international Hatch Chili Festival - Ford Trucks, a circus tent, a grade school baseball game, and lots of t-shirts. We parked, we crossed the street, and into the circus tent in the desert.

Where were the habaneros, the serranos, that new variety of jalapeno, the ethnic cuisines, the food scientists and the hot sauce collectors? I wasn't expecting snobbery, but wasn't even one person showing off a new cross-pollinated arbol -scotch bonnet? Vendors were selling obnoxious chile-earrings, and chile t-shirts, and sculptures of lambs and religious icons. Nobody was even offering a salsa recipe, or even a curry.

There didn't seem to be anybody here from anywhere else. The faces were distinctly New Mexican - light brown - a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Indian. I was expecting enlightenment. What we got was Hatch. This was a local festival - a festival of the town's economic staple, like an annual tribal worship of corn.

Jane had made herself comfortable waiting for the chile-eating contest to begin. I found her sitting between a family of Indians, with their children wrapped in blankets, and their cowboy hats. I told her I wanted to leave. We did not belong here.

I asked Jane if she thought the plant was a narcotic. Like tobacco, or cocaine. This is the thing about the chile – which was used by Aztecs as a tear gas bomb against Columbus, which was used by Isthmus Indians as a form of punishment for their children. The chile doesn’t have that much of a taste. The capsaicin chemical is totally tasteless. If so many cultures are eating the chile, every day, every morning, infused in their food – are they addicted?

Chili capsaicin makes me violent. It is a grand sensation; the mad rush of adrenaline. The false pain, the compounds called endorphins which come to rescue you from the pain that doesn’t even exist. I like a nice strong habanero paste, late at night, and a little Jerry Garcia on the radio. Then I feel like taking a club and smashing things. I feel like breaking everything. It’s a great sensation, because that’s when I write.

But you know, this violence, this pain, the heat. The reason that chiles taste hot is not coincidental to evolution. They were designed that way, to repel you from them. But more precisely, the reason is because of the way that mammals shit.

By the time a mammal craps, it has churned its food, digested it, made a mash out of it. Some seeds can survive this digestion, but not the seeds of the family Solanaceae, which are small and fragile. The purpose of a fruit is to disperse its seeds. That's why chiles stay green until their seeds are ready for their voyage, to wherever. When they're ready to go, they turn a bright orange or red, so that the birds can see them.

Why the birds, though? The chile's heat is actually a chemical designed to specifically interact with the receptors on a mammals tongue for heat - it keeps the folks who want to eat it before its red from eating it. The birds, of course, whose eyesight keeps them from the green, are unaffected. And, it so happens, that birds poo in a way quite favorable to the chile seed. The effect is a winged dispersal - a longer voyage, to somewhere else. A seed falling far from the tree.

It is interesting then, that the chile's ability to flourish in the world is not due to some damn parrot, but a few tribes of canoeing mammals, and a man named Columbus, in search of peppercorns.

Explore more in the Desert Southwest

While hiking in the Vermilion Cliffs, I dive into the ancient geological epochs that created these rainbows of stone

On the Road to a small desert spring, I investigate the border wall and the case for resurrecting a Transboundary Preserve.

My ongoing project to sketch every cactus in the Desert Southwest and the United States.

Notes on traveling to the Coyote Buttes during surreal winter weather.

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

Kayaking the Salton Sea to the tiny seaside town.

Exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

Notes on ecological devastation and salvation along the New River in Southern California.

Notes on the rich desert tapestry of Anza-Borrego in Southern California.

You want to hear about a hotel nightmare? Notes from Panamint Valley, California.

Notes on my travels to Joshua Tree National Park and the Western Mojave of Southern California.

Notes from a desert California outpost, and the weird rocky world of the Searles lakebed.

Exploring the idea of travel and limitations during some of the amazing wildflower blooms in California history.

A few years ago, I decided to cross Las Vegas by skateboard, and then write about it.

We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in pain.

Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

Notes on my frantic road trip across the dazzling desert Plateus of Utah and Arizona.