Sunset in Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Grasshopper rain

I recently had the challenge — and opportunity — of spending a month in the middle of nowhere. Sparseness is as confining as it is liberating. It takes weeks, but desert schedules loosen their grip without changing their course. 

In the morning, the rising New Mexican sun or the showers of neighboring guests in the Super 8 or the not-quite-urgent beeping of a wristwatch wake me.

In the desert, my life is mediated by schedules.

If I want free coffee, yogurt, and apples from the motel lobby, I must be out of bed and downstairs before 8:30 a.m. If I want to avoid getting in the way of daily maid service, I must be out of the room by 8:45 (plus or minus 10 minutes). But I can’t enter the public library until 9:00 a.m. When the public library is closed (weekends, holidays), I can bide my time at Dallas Park, which is open round the clock. Here, it’s the cycle of the sun that controls my actions: shrinking shadows chase me closer and closer to the bases of trees, and sun heats the air, teasing up rapid winds. By the time it’s too hot or windy to sit outside, or the librarian has locked the doors for lunch at precisely 12:00 p.m., I can safely return to fresh towels and a made bed at the Super 8.

When a busier than usual day for the maid or a sky teetering on the edge of a storm or a thorn that punctures my bike tire disrupts this schedule, I’m displaced. Lost, I seek refuge in the local dollar store or the Super 8 stairwell or the ant-filled shoulder of the village’s main highway.

My imagined version of modern pastoral life was unrestrained, simple. But here in the village of Fort Sumner, with a population hovering around 1,000, I am more aware of the time of day, day of week, and time of year than I ever have been in a city or a suburb.

Nature’s desert schedules

Back in my hotel room, I pull cheese and vegetables from the mini-fridge and wait for my boyfriend to return from the hangar where he spends all his days and too many of his nights. The freight train schedule — coal and wheat and metal equipment moving East and West and back along the Clovis line — dictates the pace of his two-mile trip. I try my best to wait for him before eating lunch, but sometimes I’m too hungry. I munch on mini-carrots as I watch the trains and their orange and black cars bisect the road between the Super 8 and the cube of corrugated metal three stories high.

Human, mechanical, commercial, animal, geologic, celestial and solar progressions trace lines and patterns my actions must follow.

On weekdays — between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., sharp — I return to the public library to work. When I leave, I have to waste time because it won’t be cool enough to go running for another hour. But if I waste too much time, the sun will set. Darkness comes quickly in the desert, and the Milky Way is visible before the light on the horizon slips away completely. When I get the timing just right, I’m able to finish my run at twilight, just as my boyfriend is pulling his car into the Super 8 parking lot.

In our kitchen, which is also our bedroom and our living room, we set the digital timer on the microwave and play card games as we wait for our boxed rice or canned soup. When it’s ready, we eat with plastic spoons and watch cable news. If we don’t feel like cooking (if it can even be called cooking) there are three restaurants in the village that are open for dinner. Fred’s is officially open until 8:00 p.m., as is Sadie’s, and Dariland until 9:00 p.m. But posted times can’t be trusted and they start closing down much sooner.

After dinner, for an hour or two, our time is unscheduled. We stroll along the village streets, or drive on dirt farm roads scanning the ground for itinerant tarantulas. We can drive about twenty miles and toward hundreds of blinking red eyes on the horizon that become the aluminum and fiberglass giants of New Mexico’s oldest wind farm, inviting us to walk among them.

Human desert schedules

It takes weeks, but the desert schedules loosen their grip without changing their course. I can’t change them — and neither can the train engineers, or the truck drivers, or the coyotes, or the feral cats who howl and fight, or the owls perched on fence posts, or the Family Dollar clerks, or the grasshoppers with abdomens the size of lipstick tubes and hind-legs like heavy-duty safety pins who sound like fat heavy rain as they crash into concrete.

At first these overlapping schedules were suffocating, like dusty desert air. But once I began to understand the schedules of the desert, they become windows without bars: I can open them close them, gaze at them, climb through them, even break them. They won’t move, but I can, working in, around, even through them.

As I go to sleep under the motel’s slippery nylon comforter, I hear yet another train rumbling past. I can’t hear the ants, but I know they are working around the clock, too.