National Geographic : 1993 Sep
DAPPLINGSHOWER cools trailhorse Mr. Woody and guide Huie Ley hat bagged in plastic "to keep the felt from gettin' soaked"-nearthe headwatersof the Pecos River in northernNew Mexico. Born and raisedin Terrero,populationten, Ley took over his father'soutfitting business in 1972 at age 15 and has never tired of his backyard, the 224,000-acrePecos Wilderness. "A lot of people can't handle the solitude out here, but I could stay in the woods all the time." Yet tourists descend in the summer to spy the bighorn sheep. "Then it's more like Jellystone Park," says Ley. Snow in the mountains (below) melts into Pecos waters that fill centuries old acequias, ditches used to irrigatefields downstream. and ends in furnace desert with not much in between but long horizon and hard blue sky. Born of snowmelt at 13,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe, it surrenders to the Rio Grande on the Texas Mexico border, draining 35,000 square miles along the way. "Graveyard of the cowman's hopes," Charles Goodnight called it. In 1866 he drove 2,000 cattle along the river and lost more than 300 to thirst. The following year his partner, Oliver Loving, lost his life to a Comanche bullet. It is the graveyard of many hopes- of Coro nado and conquistadores who came looking for gold in the 16th century, of 19th-century homesteaders lured by dreams of land ripe for the plow, of 20th-century wildcatters seduced by the whisper of oil. The Pecos-River of Hard-wonDreams Though short on water-"dinky," one hydrologist calls it-the Pecos has always been long on mythology. Here, folktale cowboy Pecos Bill, who cut his teeth on a bowie knife, rode a mountain lion while twirling a live rat tlesnake lariat. Real-life cattle king John Chisum employed cowhands so accustomed to the alkaline taste of Pecos water, it is said, that they carried salt in their saddlebags to doctor any fresh water they found. Gunfighter Clay Allison drew fast and shot true and, according to his gravestone in Pecos, Texas, "never killed a man that did not need killing." "Pecos" even got to be a verb. To "pecos" someone meant to deep-six him. "As in?" I prompted Paul Patterson, a cowboy poet who explained this. He thought a moment. "As in 'he pecosed the danged varmint.' "