Dispatch 34: Our Country's Wild Underbelly
By Jeffrey Roedel * Images and Excerpt by Joshua Wheeler
"As soon as you cross below the 34th parallel, you feel yourself projected in this way, made polyphonic in time, experiencing at once all the epoch- making wonders born of the underbelly: the Apache and conquistador and cowboy, rocketry and atom bombs and ETs, Firebees and Hellfires and spaceships. Our lady of the mountain has slept through it all. But now she stirs."
A sun of the dust, wrangler of myth and memory, torchbearer for a family rooted deeply in the Land of Enchantment whose spells and spectacles are cast on generations of desert dwellers in the southern stretches of New Mexico, hugging the borderlands of Atomic blasts and yucca daydreams, it is author Joshua Wheeler who has wrested from his youth in a staunchly religious enclave and his return journeys to that same horizon that reaches out endlessly a fine clutch of magically-meandering essays for the modern adventurer. The gripping volume is called Acid West, and is available now through Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
The key to his nearly exotic, always tense tales, the Louisiana State University creative writing professor tells Wonder South, is impatience.
“You can’t wait ‘til you understand something to start writing about it,” Wheeler says. “It’s all about the struggle."
That Acid West focuses devoutly on the often forgotten, often marginalized narrow strip of southern New Mexico—lying spiritually and geographically far from the tourist-pulling culture and colors of Sante Fe—that Wheeler once and still calls home, reflects the very same mission he bestows upon his students: Write true and untold stories of the South.
Wheeler’s stories are a fervent medley of curiosities, from the whirring and worry of military drones to Bible-laced death row dialogs, and old America’s fascination with baseball and faint voices of Atomic “downwinders.” Each isn’t written about so much as tackled, with a sparkplug prose in place of big meaty arms.
“You gotta get that shit out of your brain,” Wheeler says of writing from memory as much as research. And he does.
Throughout, Wheeler’s words feel prophetic, like psalms from a place that is wild and dark. And yes, they border the psychedelic side. Take this trip, but pack light. Being confused is the best place to start.
Below is an excerpt from Acid West. To read a fuller passage and to order the book, visit FSG Originals.
“Beyond Deadman Canyon...
but just this side of Purgatory Canyon lies the Sleeping Lady. I watch her from the yard of the haunted house where I’ve been staying since coming home again like I can’t quit doing because I can’t quit leaving. The Sleeping Lady is a formation of peaks and mesas and ridges in the Sacramento Mountains that spoon this house. She is made of our mountains, her rocky breasts presiding over town, over the whole of our desert basin, the peaks of her chin and nose in the clouds, striations of limestone and sandstone in a cliff of tremendous hair flowing behind her. During the days, I lie in the yard, burning out the ghosts, taking summer heat to the core as a reminder that what ever the intensity of what ever series of thoughts I’ve worried down to a single shooting pain in my brain or chest or ass, it is not real. After an hour, when the sweat has stopped, the mirage literally rises out of my skin. If there is a god of infinite love and scorn, it is the New Mexico sun, and so I lay myself bare before her, getting it all off my chest, letting it all hang out, a lazy naked prayer, but there are few neighbors this close to the mountains. There is only the Sleeping Lady. The mirage rises from her too. Together we bathe in the rays of our Lord like a couple of rattlesnakes cooking the night’s cold hex from our veins. This house is haunted because Granddaddy died here, because Grandmommy went blind here and lost her mind here, enough to finally get wrenched from the only place she could still navigate by memory, haunted because seven generations of my blood have run through this desert basin at the feet of the Sleeping Lady but now this house is empty except for me and I hear a strange sound that crescendos when the sun goes down.
This house is haunted because it is home, because I am home but am leaving again soon and that makes it feel haunted too, haunted by me. I grew up in this house as much as my own, which is just down the street, where Grandmommy now lives out her last days with my parents, confused about my relation to her. It is strange to have swapped like this, to see her in my old bedroom, to be surrounded by her whole life in boxes waiting to be dumped or sold or donated, to spend nights on the floor of her old bedroom, tossing and turning because there is a sound that won’t quit, a hum or a drone, getting up at all hours to unplug all possible culprits, navigating around the boxes of Bibles and needlepoints and sheet music and so many framed photos of Ronald Reagan, trying to get at lamps and fans and the refrigerator, cutting their power, circling even outside the house with an ear to the ground, hopping around from all the cockleburs impaling my feet as I fail to discover the sound’s origin and finally collapse again inside, eyes bugging and spine like a tuning fork resonating with the ungodly frequency, making my blood run with it, the sound I increasingly suspect is the stirring of the Sleeping Lady.”
~ Joshua Wheeler
Wheeler is currently finishing his first novel, also set in New Mexico. For more information on the author and his collection of essays, visit AcidWest.com.