Monday, April 4, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

B Alvarius's comment from last post reminded me of a modern day Tall Tale, set in the bootheel of New Mexico at what was then called the Gray Ranch, a fabled ranch sprawled across the Continental Divide, which 20 years ago was owned by The Nature Conservancy. TNC found a partner, a private foundation, to take over ownership and management, because the Gray was too expensive an acquisition to keep. Its cost impacted all their other programs, across the board, and finding a new owner who held the same vision for the land became a high priority. They were in the midst of that search when Alan and I arrived to live on the ranch as volunteers, helping TNC mainly with docent and science programs.

High on the list of prospective new owners were Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, just married. Indeed, they spent their honeymoon at the ranch. (Later, on occasions when Alan and I stayed in "their" room, it was rather like sleeping at an inn in a bed once occupied by Abraham Lincoln.)

Jane thoroughly charmed everyone at the ranch, mainly by simple kindness shown to all. Our friend Ben was thrilled to have the honor of taking her around the Gray, and showing her the flora and fauna. It was the time of year when the luscious, red cactus fruits were fully ripe, and Ben was explaining that they were edible, quite tasty in fact. Jane expressed interest in trying one, so Ben speared one with his pocket knife and set about peeling it. When he turned to present it to Jane, he was horrified to see that she had just plucked one and was popping it, unpeeled, into her mouth!

Cactus fruits are just as spiny as the rest of the plant. The spines just aren't big, and they are very hard to see. These minute glochids grow in clusters across the entire surface of the fruit. Unpeeled, a cactus fruit is big trouble! Ben said that they spent the rest of the day, to his utter dismay, trying to remove the glochids from Jane's mouth!

Flowering Cane Cholla, source of the culprit fruit
(Photos by Narca)

In addition to that folly was Ted's memorable comment. On a later trip, the TNC manager Geoff took him on a long 4-wheel-drive outing around the ranch's Animas Mountains. It is the sort of road that can break an axle, and it took them all day to reach the Culberson Camp at the southern end of the mountains, via the long route. (There is much quicker access, too!)

The Culberson is an old adobe with no electricity and with walls two feet thick. A windmill pumps water for the house. Originally the headquarters of the Culberson Ranch, it was incorporated into the Gray when George Hearst and his partner were cobbling together the immense ranch. The Culberson also served as the requisitioned headquarters of General "Black Jack" Pershing, when he was pursuing Pancho Villa across the Borderlands.

Alan and I lived at the Culberson during our year on the Gray Ranch, and we were living there when Turner visited.

When Geoff and Ted Turner bounced into the yard of the Culberson after their long drive through the wilderness of the Animas Mountains, Ted took one look at the old adobe and said, "You'd really have to get along with your wife to live here!"

Culberson Camp in winter, on the Gray Ranch


  1. Excellent story, the landscape of the bootheel does fire the imagination and makes an incredible backdrop to good stories.

  2. Very interesting article you wrote about the bootheel.

  3. Oh my gosh. Ouch. Just a couple weeks ago a friend of mine told me he had done that very same thing with an unpeeled prickly pear fruit. It was a very painful learning experience.