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Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier.

Dawn crashed blood-red into a cloudless December sky. High desert in New Mexico's Hidalgo County, Arizona pressing immediately west, the Mexican border only a few miles south.

When I poked up out of my sleeping bag earlier, frost had stiffened my beard and mustache, but the morning climbed quickly warm and calm. I was still a hunter in those days -- javelina this time, a wily desert pig, tough and thorny as the cactus it sometimes relies upon for moisture. For going on three days, I had not seen another human being.

About an hour out, clouds boiled in from the northwest. The temperature plunged. Snow swirled in frenzied whorls. Visibility was down to hardly more than a rifle length. I tried to stay put, let the blizzard blow out, but the wind was ravaging. My only warmth was in movement. By the time I crossed the next arroyo I was lost.

For nearly two hours I stumbled, slid and groped over rocks and hardscrabble, through creosote and mesquite, cholla and prickly pear, while the snow piled toward my boot tops and I crushed back images of some other hunter finding my bones there someday. Then, absurdly, I tripped over my own bedroll buried in the snow. I looked up and there was the truck.

Within minutes I had broken camp and was out of there, thanks to the four-wheel-drive pickup, on a track I could no longer see. By the time I hit Lordsburg, an interstate highway town about 60 miles north, the sky was clear as morning, temperature about 70 degrees.

Reading Dayton Duncan's Miles From Nowhere called this little adventure to mind. Hidalgo was one of the counties Duncan visited while researching his enticing tale of America's contemporary frontier. The one thing all the counties had in common was a population of fewer than two people per square mile, the same standard used a hundred years ago to determine when an area was still unsettled enough to be called a frontier. There are 132 of those counties in the lower 48 states, all of them in the West.

Satellite dishes, toxic-waste dumps and UPS trucks aside, life on the frontier hasn't changed all that much in a hundred years. Duncan discovered that in the stories he heard from people he met on his long pilgrimage into the past.

Hunters, trappers, ranchers, homesteaders, prospectors, preachers and polygamists, they are a maverick bunch, all told, as friendly with strangers as they are ornery with one another at times, flinty, weather worn, stubborn as stumps. And yet, in clinging to isolated, usually arid spaces no one else wants, they are far closer to Jefferson's ideal of a nation of yeoman farmers than those of us crushed into snarling cities.

Whether in the Nebraska Sand Hills, the Montana plains, Colorado high country, Nevada desert or the Big Bend wilderness of Texas, what Duncan brings to light is quintessentially American. Those vast, unforgiving landscapes, every rock and liver, butte and canyon are still elemental to the stuff of what we are as a people, part of our mutual myth and madness, even for those of us who wouldn't last a day of desert solitude.

You come away from Miles From Nowhere feeling that if ever that frontier, that primal presence in our national psyche, is truly gone from our spirit, some of our deepest, most radical heritage will die with it and it will mean something fundamentally different to be an American.

In at least one of Duncan's counties, that spiritual heritage appears to be expanding, rather than shrinking, embracing the world, as it were. This is Saguache (sa-WATCH) County in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado.

"Native Americans once considered the area a sacred and spiritual place where members of competing tribes could conduct vision quests in peace," Duncan writes. "Because of its powers, they called it a |dream corridor.' It still is. Dreams -- big dreams -- seem part of the landscape. Not all of them come true."

The excerpt below describes some of those dreams, spiritual counterparts to the more entrepreneurial visions Duncan outlines -- everything from a grandiose retirement village (killed by cold winters and rural isolation) to a Japanese-run buffalo ranch.

Miles From Nowhere, along with being a solid and entertaining read, is an invitation to better know your heritage, who you are as an American. It is a trip worth taking.

Looking off across New Mexico's Mimbres River toward the Black Range one afternoon, a rancher friend of mine said, "This is the kind of country where even if you starve out, you'll find a way to raise another grubstake and come back." He's near 90 now, so arthritic he has to be lifted onto his horse. But he rides. And be knows what he's talking about.
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Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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