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Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing: On the Trail of Carl Lumholtz

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 49, Number 3, Autumn 2007
pp. 357-368 | 10.1353/jsw.2007.0018

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Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing: On the Trail of Carl Lumholtz Charles Bowden It was a great pleasure to be with these natural people. I sang to them my newly acquired Papago song, ‘The Frog Doctor,’ . . . and ingratiated myself in their favor. . . . ‘Frog Doctor, Frog Doctor Continually sits, sings. Yonder spring forth winds And make me wet. . . . ’ —Carl Lumholtz, New Trails in Mexico The man under the ironwood tree beckons, his fingers pointing down to the ground and flapping toward him. This is Sonora and the gesture means come over. The fire crackles under a sheet of tin and the coffee pot bubbles, the blue metal blackened by the smoke. Six campesinos huddle in the chill of a January day. The brown hands show work and the smiles reveal a tooth missing here and there. I reach for the offered cup, gray with a blue lip. Leaves swirl inside, pieces perhaps of ephedra, Mormon tea, the poor man’s brew of the desert. I swallow and feel the warm rush of tequila and smile and the men smile back. They sit on little folding chairs before the hut, a shack of sticks, cardboard, scavenged wood, tin. This is Ejido Cerro Colorado, and the men say it has prospered on the Río Sonoyta since 1960. They carry two chairs over and motion us to sit but we politely refuse and stand there Charles Bowden has written a score of books, including Killing the Hidden Waters, Blue Desert, Frog Mountain Blues, and The Sonoran Desert. His latest is Inferno, a book about geography that is off the map but deep within the human heart. In following Hohokam shell trails to the gulf, the route of Carl Lumholtz, and paths of undocumented foreign workers, he has walked the length and breadth of the Pinacate region. Journal of the Southwest 49, 3 (Autumn 2007) : 357–368 358  ✜  Journal of the Southwest sipping tequila with sixty pounds apiece of backpacking gear hanging from our shoulders. This is the third day and we have adjusted to being minor events as we walk down the desert river. The stream trickles along a sand bed and at times disappears and then bubbles back again. Great blue herons and killdeer rise before us and swirl. The banks bristle with tamarisk, and the green and brown water flashes with the darting of Sonoran pupfish, a minnow-like creature that has made this skin of water a world. I sip the liquor and watch the sun blaze through the clear bottle resting by the fire. We are at the start of a two hundred–mile walk through ground that the twentieth century calls wilderness, what Mexicans consider a despoblado—ground innocent of people. In 1909, a Norwegian naturalist named Carl Lumholtz came this way, and we follow his trail, a kind of excuse to justify our wandering. We have a map of his journey, the land white, sea blue, mountains gray and black outlines, and a red line going everywhere and labeled “author’s route.” We follow that red line like bloodhounds on a rank scent. Of course, the trail is cold, threequarters of a century stale, but this does not hinder us and as the days pile up, this wall decades thick seems barely a detail. For us, the red line is still fresh and Lumholtz spoor wafts across our senses in the heat of the afternoons and the night thoughts just before dawn. I have just quit my job. My friend, Bill Broyles, is on a year’s holiday from high school teaching. We are middle-aged men acting out the life of boys, instant juveniles free of jobs, responsibilities, and plans for the future. And we are standing with six peasants before a hut on a desert river and sharing their liquor and the good time of their afternoon. My backpack costs more than their homes but this does not seem to matter to any of us at the moment. Mexico can be like that at times, strangely forgiving of the canyons between the rich and the poor. We began in Sonoyta, a town of 15,000 upstream on the river, where the local Indians in the mid...