“What happens if I turn here?”

Not quite sure where this was taken, I was a bit lost, to be honest.

The caption of the picture above is a bit of a fib, but it was true when I wrote it. I had to click through on the picture’s geotag to figure out that it was taken where the Sausal Drain connects to the Jaral Lateral near Belen in Valencia County, New Mexico. Not exactly lost, either – I knew I had river to the east and railroad tracks to the west, two substantive linear features on the landscape, guardrails to keep yesterday’s bike road going in a manageable direction.

site of curious dog incident

I’d been working my way down back roads and ditchbanks, turning down dead-end farm roads and getting chased by dogs, looking for a way to get to the river. OK, only one dog on this stretch of the ride, I’m sorry, this post has an unusually high density of fibbing, but it was big enough in net accounting terms to count plural.

I’m trying to get a feel for the landscape down there, to beef up my geographical intuitions about the places we’ll be writing about in the next book. An excuse for a bike ride! It’s work related! So I just parked my car in a Walmart parking lot and turned right. The route that unfolded over the next few hours delivered a classic Middle Rio Grande Valley experience – affluent country estates, lower-middle class homes on small lots, mobile homes, tiny irrigated fields and big farm parcels. And finally, a river.

This is a metaphor for the style of research that has served me well over the last umpty years of being a writer. “What happens if I turn here?” as an intellectual style works for me. There are tricks to deciding which turns to take, and how quickly to bail and turn around (ideally, before the big dog – I mean, I saw it there in the driveway, I don’t know what I was thinking).

But I sometimes feel sorry for my students who, for legitimate reasons, would like help establishing a bit more structure around their efforts. I’m not so good at that.


  1. All the best places I’ve ever found- be they rocks, rivers, homes, husbands, kids, or careers- have followed almost directly after I asked that same question. Thanks for the write-up of your ‘process.’

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