If you are inclined to recreationally eyeball road atlases as much as I am, you have probably graduated to the point where you see more than states and provinces, more than roads and streets, more than cities and towns. In other words: more than the obvious information one needs to travel more-or-less accurately from one’s home town to one’s vacation destination and back, even if you are disposed to zig, zag and wander. You are to the point in your atlas scrutinization evolution where your attention falls upon the oft-times perplexing minutiae that can be found in the fine print of every atlas worthy of the name. For instance, you will come across, in south-central Oregon, four little red squares (called “points of interest” in atlas legends) that direct you — mentally, if not physically — toward such noggin-scratchers as the Big Hole, the nearby Hole-in-the-Ground, the proximate Crack-in-the-Ground and, additionally, the Lost Forest, which, one would guess, has now been successfully located, since it’s mentioned in a road atlas and all.
Another little red square, in the Adirondacks of New York, notes something called “The Land of Make Believe.” (One can only imagine … )
Yet another in Arkansas’ Boston Mountains is “Sam’s Throne.” (I assume this has something to do with Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, who is likely considered royalty in the so-called “Natural State.”)
And, in southwest New Mexico, very near where I live, there can be found the only little red atlas point-of-interest square I know that highlights a functioning imbibery — in this case, the Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House in Pinos Altos, a 7,000-foot elevation mountain hamlet that is commonly referred to as a “ghost town,” not because only ghosts dwell there, but because ghosts far outnumber the living. Though P.A., as it is known to locals, is now home to about 300 near-bouts stunningly demographically diverse souls, it is a place, like many Western locales, that once had a mining-era population so large that it takes a great deal of active imagination, and maybe even a hefty dose of psychotropics, to envision the supposedly 30,000 people who once hung their hats here. It’s not as though there remain rows of long-empty edifices prompting a visitor to merely wonder where everyone went, and why. Only a handful of buildings remain from the time when P.A. was actually the seat of Grant County. There’s the old courthouse, which is now for sale, though, as soon as prospective buyers hear story after story about witches, bat infestations and hauntings from hell (remnants of the hanging tree are still found in the front yard), they usually shy away pronto toward real estate environs that do not require immediate exorcisms. There are a few old crumbling adobe walls in P.A. And there’s also the Buckhorn.
The Buckhorn is the first bar I visited when I moved to the Mountain Time Zone 35 years ago. I had been backpacking for several days on Tadpole Ridge and emerged sun-burnt, cactus-shredded, stumbling, exhausted, stinking to high heavens and dry of throat onto New Mexico Highway 15 just at dusk. I hitched a ride into P.A. and entered the Buckhorn looking for little more than a ride back to Silver City. What I found instead was a watering hole so flat-out special that it occupies a place of honor (well, at least a little red square) on page 131 of National Geographic’s “The American Road Atlas & Travel Planner.” I could easily spend several thousand words describing what makes the Buckhorn such a compelling place to tip a few brews, but that would require additionally herein inserting an equally lengthy tangent, wherein I would wax philosophic about the nature of bars and their place in the greater cosmos. Though I have that inclination, I do not have the room. Suffice it to say that the Buckhorn is one seriously splendid establishment.
Now, cool as it is, one has to wonder why, out of all the worthy bars in the country, the Buckhorn was singled out by National Geographic to be an official point-of-interest in its road atlas. My guess is that N.G. employs people whose gig it is to cruise around the country looking for offbeat points-of-interest to include alongside the more traditional local museums and historic sites. (I would give a left nut to have such a job.) That person was likely traveling through the area, making certain that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were still located where they have been for 1,000 years or so, and, as he/she crossed the Continental Divide north of Silver City, realized he/she was feeling a tad dry. When what to his/her wondering eyes should appear, but a building that from the outside looks like it may very well crumble into a pile of dust as you’re sitting there thinking that thought. And — lo and behold! — of all fortuitous things, there’s a bar sign right there in the window, alongside another sign that proves beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that there is indeed a supreme being up there in the heavens, and that deity is the very one mentioned in the bumpersticker that proclaims: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!” Yes, that second sign said, “open.” The N.G. point-of-interest verifier says fuck the Gila Cliff Dwellings and enters the Buckhorn, where he/she spends a convivial few hours enjoying the ambience, the beverages and the local color. Still, all things considered, there are other bars just in the Southwest as worthy of inclusion in the N.G. road atlas as the Buckhorn. Why then did the N.G. person report back to headquarters that — hold the goddamned presses! — this place needs to be on the next map? What separated the Buckhorn from Tucson’s Congress Hotel Bar or the Adobe Bar in Taos?
Please allow me to venture a guess.
Most noteworthy among the constants during the time I have visited the Buckhorn: Sitting on the same barstool —“Norm”-from-“Cheers”-like — has been a single solitary figure: Injun Joe. When I first laid eyes upon his disheveled self back when I had more future than past, I, like thousands before and since, thought he was verifiably corporeal. Maybe a little rough around the edges — hair a bit too long for a man boasting grey streaks, rumpled hat, tattered flannel shirt, ratty jeans, muddy boots — but, still, a living and breathing being. I might have even said howdy as I made my way to the bar that first time. Like thousands before and since, it probably took me a few minutes of sideways glancing to realize that Injun Joe had not moved a muscle since my arrival, not so much as a nervous twitch. Which prompted a more studied eyeballing, until I finally realized, like thousands before and since, that, though Injun Joe is surely endowed with a full ration of spirit, he was nothing more than a manikin with weathered-looking skin that had clearly spent far too much SPF-free time out in the blazing New Mexico sun.
It’s my guess that the N.G. person probably found him/herself parked next to Injun Joe that day, and Joe probably spoke in such a way as to compel him/her to make the Buckhorn an official point-of-interest. No place else has Injun Joe sitting at the bar.
A couple years back, the Buckhorn was scheduled to close for what turned out to be an 18-month renovation that, rumor had it, would include new management. Joe’s fate was at that time unknown. The words “politically incorrect” were starting to get uttered. So, before the doors closed for the renovation, I brought my camera, pen and notebook up to the Buckhorn with the idea of formally interviewing Injun Joe, who, I should point out (with a combination of relief and concern), was, when the Buckhorn thank-godfully finally re-opened, re-placed on the very same stool in the very same spot he had occupied since at least the mid-1960s.
Now, some of you might look askance at the notion of formally interviewing a, well, dummy. To that I respond: Hell, I’ve interviewed Scott McInnis and John Andrews. Obviously, my standards ain’t that high. Besides, this would not mark the first time that I had chatted with Injun Joe. One of those long-ago days, I had eaten what I learned later was not only too many, but too many by a factor of 10, fresh Maine Liberty Caps. That was the time, just as we were going by the sheer 1,000-foot drop-off near Cherry Creek at 60 m.p.h., that my buddy Kerry, who was driving, turned to me with shock on his face, took his hands off the wheel, started pushing on his own chest (the car was by now starting to careen, much to my consternation) and told me, with a degree of earnestness that was downright captivating, that his heart had stopped beating. (I did not know whether to laugh or cry.) I consider the fact that we safely made it to the Buckhorn that day to be among my greatest accomplishments. While Kerry lay across the street under a juniper tree giving himself CPR, I went in for a calming beverage, as high as a human being can be without seeing the bright white light at the end of the long dark tunnel. I parked it next to Injun Joe, who turned to me with a wry grin and asked: “Rough one, huh?” We talked for two solid hours about this and that, until I finally felt compelled to check on Kerry, who, still lying under the same juniper, said, frantically, upon seeing me, “’Bout time!!! I think I need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Though lots of folks filtered in and out, for the duration of our chat, it was only Injun Joe and yours truly at the bar when I pulled my notebook out. Here’s a sampling of that interview.
MJF: You remember me, Joe?
Injun Joe: Sure. I still laugh when I think about your buddy giving himself CPR. Lucky you grabbed the steering wheel like you did. That’s a long ways down that cliff. I liked walking around there when I was young.
MJF: So, you used to do a lot of trekking through the Gila?
Injun Joe: This country flows through my veins. But I think my arteries are starting to harden. I worry about my heart.
MJF: What exactly kind of Injun are you? Are your people from this area?
Injun Joe: I used to think I was Apache, the direct descendent of Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas. But maybe that was just a story I told to impress the hippie chicks who used to come through town. They were into that sort of thing. I used to tell good stories. But what does it matter? You probably don’t know any more about your heritage than I do of mine.
MJF: Yeah, but my heritage comes from thousands of miles away. Yours probably comes from right where we’re sitting. Seems like you should know. Seems like something your people consider important.
Injun Joe: Once you take up residence a bar, especially a bar with few windows, spatial relationships can get distorted. No matter where you are, you find yourself a million miles from your roots, a million miles from the dreams you once held dear. That’s the worst part — not just not fulfilling your dreams, but forgetting entirely what they were.
MJF: So, what’s it like, sitting on the same barstool by your lonesome, all day, every day?
Injun Joe: I’ve been hugged and kissed by people from all over the country. You know … you’ve seen those over-cologned big-haired Texas ladies with the low-cut dresses rubbing their breasts on me. They take lots of photos. I’d hardly call that lonesome. And, on crowded nights, they move me back by the bathrooms to free up room at the bar, so I do get a change of scenery.
MJF: Yeah, but the over-cologned Texas ladies take their photos, laugh a bit, then saunter back to their tables. They don’t try to get to know you.
Injun Joe: OK, you’re right — it’s superficial. They leave, and I revert to being, at best, a decoration, and, at worst, invisible.
MJF: As the Buckhorn was gearing up for its big renovation, did you worry that you maybe wouldn’t be coming back, that you’d just be stashed in some storage room or tossed into a dumpster?
Injun Joe: The hereafter doesn’t frighten me. There’s a good chance the Buckhorn is my hereafter. Either way, at least I ended up in a nice place. They have a lot of good live music. The staff is pleasant. Time was when my kind wasn’t even allowed in places like this. As far as what they do with my physical body if they ever decide to ditch me, I guess I’d like to be taken out into the Gila, maybe somewhere up on Tadpole Ridge, and left sitting under a tree, where I can watch the light play off Bear Creek Canyon. I had a vision up there once, back when I had more future than past. I liked the potential I saw during that vision.
MJF: Look, man, as much as I personally fantasize about your lifestyle, about never having to leave the Buckhorn, I just gotta ask: Do you want me to break in here some night and take you away? You know, set you free? I’ll do it. I’ll take you up to Tadpole Ridge and sit you up under a tree. Just say the word.
Injun Joe: No, you’d probably get caught and get in trouble. You’d blab, the way you do, and they’d end up writing a story about you in the paper. I guess what I want to say is that I’m comfortable right here. Was there a time in my life when that would have mortified me? Sure. But there are worse things than being a decorative remnant of the past. At some point, all of our stories end. What can you do when it’s already too late? No, I think I’ll just sit here a while longer. Been feeling pretty tired lately. You don’t come up here as much as you used to. You should consider spending more time here. You can even try out my barstool when they move me back by the bathrooms on busy nights. It’s actually pretty comfortable. You can get used to just about anything.