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Sunset Canto, from River of Traps

Text by William deBuys                                                   [launch slideshow]
Photographs by Alex Harris

Jacobo Romero on the El Valle road at sunset.

June 21, the longest day. Tonight the stars will beam like headlights, and Scorpio will crawl along the ridge.

We’ll drink and talk beneath the portal and wait for heat lightning, red as Antares, to flash beyond the horizon.

No car has passed for an hour. No chainsaw has growled. The melt is over, and the river is low and quiet. Not the wind, but silence rolls in from afar.

There are near sounds: a blackbird in cattails by the river, swallows mewing on the power line. The sapsucker drums in the elm.


Hear that?


The nighthawks are up and wooing their mates with dives. They climb to the limit of sight, then plummet until—whoosh—they brake within feet of the ground. Each night at dusk they make this dance, plunging in and out of sunset.

The final light blazes on the blind man’s house, last house in the valley. It gleams on the transformers and the signs for Quality Oil and Chevron.

It lingers on the peaks, bare islands in a sea that laps the edges of our fields, waiting to reclaim them.

Comes the old man on his canes. Huffs as he climbs from the road. “Son of a bitchy bull, gone all the way to Orlando. Broke the fence again. Maybe tomorrow you help me bring her.” The road is dusty, dry. Yes he’ll take a beer.

Montoyita, how is he?

“Fine. Fine.”

And Juan de Dios?

Todavía the same. Weak to walk. Fine to sit.”

Silence, and we watch the valley. Sound of sipping and swallowing. Sound of bottles put down on the rough cement stoop. Sound of circling nighthawks, calling eep, eep, as they hunt and swoop.

The chamisa darkens by the road. The light of the blind man’s house goes out. Now a coyote starts up. Now a car.

“All right, thank you. I got to go while I can see. That vieja is waiting.” He edges down the bank, weight on the canes, loose dirt sliding before him. He reaches the bottom, stamps his boots clean.

See you tomorrow.

“You see me tomorrow, yes. If I don’t die and you don’t go blind.”

He raises high the righthand cane, a salute without looking, and shuffles down the road.

Comes now the light of the moon and the red eye of Antares, staring from the dark above the llano. Somewhere by the river an owl begins to hoot.

View slideshow of 16 Jacobo Romero photographs from River of Traps   >>   
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William deBuys is the author of The Walk and Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range. His other books are Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico's National Preserve, cowritten with Don J. Usner; Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California; and Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. He is a professor of documentary studies at the College of Santa Fe.

Alex Harris is a distinguished American photographer, a professor at Duke University, and a founder of the Center for Documentary Studies and of DoubleTake Magazine. Harris has photographed extensiely in the American South, Alaska, Cuba, and New Mexico. He is the author or editor of 14 books, including, most recently, The Idea of Cuba.

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"Sunset Canto" originally appeared in River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, text by William deBuys, photographs by Alex Harris (Trinity University Press, 2008, 1990). It is reprinted with permission.

All photographs are by Alex Harris. The photographs on this page is from "Sunset Canto." The photographs in the slideshow appear throughout River of Traps.

River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, by William deBuys and Alex Harris

River of Traps combines words and photographs to tell the story of Jacobo Romero, an oldtime northern New Mexico villager who befriends the authors and initiates them into knowledge of land, water, and a way of life long rooted in the mountain valley that became their common home. Critically acclaimed and widely admired—it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and won the Evans Biography Award—the book has been called a Western classic.


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