The sun hangs low over the Hondo Valley, with the scent of pine in the air. Sierra Blanca lifts her massive head in the distance, dwarfing the crowns of her sisters — Nogal peak and the Capitan Mountains scatter before her: a kingdom of sand and coyotes, wild horses and sun-beaten ranches. History drenches the landscape with the ghosts of Henry McCarty, Pat Garrett and the Lincoln County War.
One plans ahead, but never arrives on time — the action is already underway, has been underway since the first Spaniard hurled a prayer off the sun-bleached mission walls into this desert wilderness. One-road towns come and go, signs point towards Nogal, Carrizozo, Capitan and Ruidoso. Many paths leading….where? Elsewhere, always towards another horizon, another town, another dream.
Familiar as a birthright, foreign as a bygone generation, we piece together the past through the footsteps left on sandy paths.
Lincoln County has been the home of outlaws, entrepreneurs, and artists since its invention. All manner of folk come to water their dreams in this dry heat: vaqueros and ranchers with visions of gold; horse thieves fleeing the law, or ignominy in the eastern city slums; buffalo soldiers wrangling with federal coats and the slippery nature of “freedom” on the parade grounds of Fort Stanton. The native Mescaleros sit and wonder at this business of white liars and their ruthless endeavors, while deep in the gorges and canyons, desperados plot get-rich-quick schemes in between siestas, and ravens soar overhead like a bad dream.
They call these an unkindness, Charise says. Peculiar name, for a group of birds.
We’re here to visit Denys and Caroline McCoy, close friends of my grandfather, Rea. Denys is a filmmaker and collector of stamps, artifacts, trains, curios and other wonders of the American myth; Caroline is a writer, horse trainer, and great teller of stories from the bohemian days of the New York art scene.
Together, Denys and Rea spent several decades crafting visions of the fever dream we call the “America” into celluloid film, with subjects ranging from the escapades of Billy the Kid to the futility of war, guised in a fateful encounter during the waning days of the Civil War, or a horse-drawn hearse plodding its way towards a remote island off the coast of Maine.
These films featured friends, relatives, members of the Wyeth clan (of which Denys is counted among), veteran actors like Jack Elam, Charlton Heston, and Woody Stroud, and even Broadway Joe Namath, who starred in a spaghetti western that Denys and Rea both consistently refer to as “terrible, but great fun.”
Through it all, Rea and Denys would remain steadfast companions, bickering and arguing through late nights of booze and cigarette smoke in Denys’ barn-borne studio in Chadds Ford. They’d travel across the country, from Pennsylvania meadows to the New England coast, New Mexico desert to the Italian countryside, all in search of that indeterminable moment of truth, the “essence of the thing,” as Denys puts it to me during a rambling car ride across the Lincoln County landscape.
It seems so romantic and innocent to my 21st century mind: the devil-may-care pursuit of a time and place fading even then from the mechanized convenience of daily life; the reckless construction of art through the lens of perhaps the most complicated medium, with a disregard for the accolades and accreditation of academies and big-city producers.
“We really didn’t have much of an idea what we were doing when we got into all this,” Denys tells me, half-rueful and half-mischievous, his sensitive blue eyes a contrast to his booming, east coast accent. Even now, after the dream has joined so many others in the annals ambition, you can hear his excitement, how thrilling and overwhelming and damn interesting it must all have been.
Regardless of how an individual project ended up, whether it was an “interesting little film,” or a half-baked daydream, the experience was well worth it.
I see it in his eyes; I hear it in the laughter around mishaps and memories– fixed somewhere on that horizon they both chased for so long.
Nature does not boast of her beauty in Lincoln County. Unlike the spoils of the eastern greenery, one get majesty here from the contrast of an indian paintbrush against hardscrabble rock, the shades of sandstone and volcanic rock intermingling, the many reds that comprise a sunrise. Lush valleys elude the lazy eye. The soil blends in pastel hues that shift with the light of day.
Denys and Rea formed an interesting contrast: one, the son of a well-known, established artist clan, who spurned an Ivy League education on the advice of Thornton Wilder to follow his dreams and forge his own legacy The other, a self-described midwestern “hick,” fresh out of the Air Force, seeking to imbibe the world he caught glimpses of in the work of Andrew Wyeth, Van Gogh, and others, only to come to the realization that “truth” can be found in a blackbird’s turn of the wing just as easily as in the great masters’ brushstrokes.
Denys says that Rea taught him about literature and philosophy; Rea credited Denys with “saving his life, in a way,” and likened being apart from him to “missing my right arm.” Despite the varied paths that life took them down, despite hardheadedness and disputes, differing visions and too many drinks at the bar, the two remained firmly in each other’s orbits, like minds in a world where conformity and political correctness sought to crush the individual spark beneath its monetary-minded heel.
Out of the many false starts and meandering labors of love, they unwound the strains of collective memory that weave into our contemporary consciousness. Their film “1864” won accolades across the film festival circuit in 1960s, and was later nominated for an Academy Award. Their meditations of the beauty afforded by the Chester County countryside long served as a visitor’s introduction to the region. Other accolades for films like An American Memory and Last Escape of Billy the Kid would follow. Even The Last Rebel still gets play on the late night reruns.
“We used live ammunition,” Denys says of that last as we drive down a stretch of highway between austere mountainsides whose names I don’t know, speaking of the gunfighter scenes in their westerns.
“Everytime you see the dirt pop up behind someone–that’s a real bullet. It just seemed the way to do it at the time,” Denys says. “Thank god Luther was a pretty good shot.”
We turn down a dusty road marked with a simple blue sign indicating “Hurd Gallery.” Inside a barn at the edge of the property, English-born artist Peter Rogers is seated with a book, his pipe, and a cup of coffee. Around him hang horses swathed in moonlight and maidens, symbols of magic and the dream world interwoven into colors on canvas. A sigh of the British Isles he hails from mingled with the legends of the western hemisphere.
Rogers laughs, recalling the wild days of misadventure and melees. He and Denys talk over names and times that could have been pulled from the pages of a western beat novel as easily as from the lived experience of their youth.
Many of the people they speak of are gone now. Their memories hang in the dry air of studios and studies, in books and binders, in Denys’ blue eyes as he talks about the last film he and Rea worked on, a sort of meditative journey through two men’s shared experiences, histories, and consuming dreams.
“We never finished it, and that always upset me,” Denys sighs. “Who knows, maybe I’ll try and finish it one day, but it just doesn’t feel the same without Rea here. I think it would really be a good film.”
Like the bands of cowboys and cattle rustlers that gathered in these dry valleys long before them, this posse had their moments around the fire, made their daring raids, and drifted off into the desert for the next horizon. Like the braves that gathered to destroy Custer’s ill-fated incursions into their holy lands, they lobbed artistry against the consuming fires of commercialism, counted a last grand coup on the enemies of creativity, and scattered to the winds once more.
Who knows–perhaps one day, the war whoop will rise beyond the bluff again, and they’ll ride into town once more with six-shooters blazing. Maybe another face, a few other misfits who’ve heard the stories, will take up the reins and go chasing after the dirt devils whirling on the valley’s edge.
New shadows join the old behind ramshackle buildings and bullet-pocked jailhouses in a land of open sky; troubles and tragedies collect like rocks on the hillsides. There’s livestock scattered along the range; the last round-up remains undone.
Film strips rolls on without words–a procession of mourners riding to the family cemetery while old men peer out windows towards a choppy gray ocean. Soldiers wander through the forest, unaware of their entwined destinies soon to meet. These moments, carried on the backs of birds high overhead in a New Mexico afternoon, waiting to be born out again from the pages of letters and newspaper clippings–
It’s not the looking but the seeing, said the man
with a kitten in his hand. It’s not the tree
but its growing; not the matchbox but its drama
in the lantern light–spaces where darkness delineates
the restless, half-woke visions of our past & future–
Describe it any way you can. Strike for gold
where ever you stake your claim.
Somewhere on the edge of night, from the doorways of canyons and the Apache moon, a voice calls out in broken Spanish, “Quien es?”