My Friend Debris

In Memory of John De Puy

From Down the River
by Edward Abbey
Published by E.P. Dutton, 1982
John De Puy, b. 1927, d. March 15, 2023
Page created, March 22, 2023


Edward Abbey and John Depuy
Ed Abbey (left) & John De Puy

We met one evening in the streets of Santa Fe (Holy Faith!), New Mexico, in the springtime of 1959. A good year that one, excelled – at least in my experience – only by 1960 and each succeeding year. My friend Debris was staggering down Palace Avenue, supported on the arms of an artistic woman named Rini Templeton, whom I had met a short time previously in the editorial offices of a Taos newspaper called El Crepusculo de la Libertad. I had not yet learned how that name was translated into American but I did know that I was supposed to be the paper’s editor-in-chief. As proof of my newfound dignity, I carried in an inside pocket of my 1952 Sears Roebuck wino jacket (burgundy corduroy – threads of the king) a bona fide paycheck for one hundred dollars. A powerful sum of money in the subbohemian, underground-beatnik days. And all for only a week’s work. How this came about is a complicated story of confusion, misunderstanding, mistaken identity, extravagant hopes, exaggerated credentials, and general goodwill. One day I was a student of classical philosophy subsisting on Cheez-Its in a basement pad in the undergrad ghettos of Albuquerque; a week later I was dining on rack of lamb bouguetierre and rice pilaf and Chateauneuf-du-Pape or something at a five-star restaurant in Taos – I forget the name of the joint – where I paid the tab by scribbling my signature on a chit and walking out with a fat flaming cigar. It’s quite true, what I’d always heard: when you’re rich and important you don’t need money. You never touch it.

One hundred dollars a week!

I sang, as I walked along, to the tune of “Red Flag” and “O Tannenbaum,” an old song of the revolution, viz.,

The working class
Can kiss my ass,
I’ve got the fore-
Man’s job at last!

As for Taos, New Mexico, there is little that need be added to the volumes already available on the subject. Nabokov described the town adequately in a letter to Edmund Wilson: “…a dismal place inhabited by faded pansies and second-rate artists.” Nabokov was thinking of painters, not writers, but Taos and New Mexico as a whole suffered then and suffer still, despite pretensions, from a conspicuous lack of first-rate literary artists. D. H. Lawrence had died and been cremated nearly there decades earlier, and not in New Mexico; the gaseous essence of his mortal envelope had now become mere traces in the smog nuisance over southern France. John Nichols was a boy in New York City. William Eastlake, hidden from the world in his rancho near the village of Cuba, was more a part of Indian Country than the ‘Land of Enchantment.” And he would not stay. Robert Creeley, was another transient. Judson Crews would soon depart for Africa. Willa Cather was in Heaven, where she had always wanted to be. And so – who was left? Frank Waters, the Hopi transcendentalist?

Four names remain to be mentioned. Three of these, Apul H. Groan, Luap Nagroh, and the popular Nora P. Laugh, were even then collaborating on their Pulitzer Prize-winning book about New Mexico and the Rio Grande – Great Reefer: The Story of a Land and Its People.

Anyway, this is the story of my friend Debris. He was staggering, as I’ve said, marching to a drummer all his own, down the avenue and into the Plaza, propped up none too steadily by our mutual friend Rini Templeton. He seemed to be singing, a song of which I caught only the refrain, repeated with dogmatic insistence:

Nous allons, nous allons,
Nous allons sur la motif

If I heard aright, Rini introduced us. “This is John De Puy,” she said, pronouncing his name duh-pwee, in the correct French manner.


“De Puy,” she repeated. “Of the well.”

The tall thin fragile-looking fellow glared at me, his eyes enormous, intense, half-demented, behind the thick lenses of his spectacles. His hair was bushy, curly, black, his mustache full and drooping in the style of Emiliano Zapata. Or of Bartolomeo Vanzetti. He could have passed for an anarchistic organ-grinder. Only the monkey was lacking, and the tin cup. Perhaps the monkey was on his back; I suspected more than alcohol at work here. But the drug, as I would eventually understand, was not chemical but alchemical: the alkaloids of genius.

“My name is del Poggio,” he said in deep and somber tones, mock-heroic, “and my people come from the mountains.”

“From the cistern,” said Rini, hugging him tightly around his lean waist. “They crawled out of a cistern.”

I held out my hand. He considered for a moment, then allowed me to shake his hand. “I’ve heard of you,” I said. “You’re the artist, right?”
“The man, the artist, the failure,” he corrected.

“he calls himself an artist,” Rini said, “but right now he couldn’t draw a sober breath.”

“It is true that I am drunk,” De Puy said, “but it is not true that I am always drunk. We will meet again, Abbey. Beware.”

I watched them wobble past the Palace of the Governors, arm in arm, mutually supportive, bound for another bar en route to an Odetta concert. That Rini Templeton was a fine figure of a woman – still is – but De Puy looked too thin, almost emaciated; inside his stiff new Levi Strauss blue jeans there appeared to be no hams at all. No buttocks. The man would never be popular in Santa Fe. Nor get far in the art world, I assumed I would never see him again.

But I encountered them both once more, that very evening, at the concert. I too was in love with Odetta – beautiful and magnificent black goddess, planted solid as a tree on stage, belting out her freedom songs with a power that made the house rock. I found De Puy backstage afterward, on hands and knees among the crowd that pressed upon the singer. Like me, he desired only to kiss the hem of Odetta’s garment, maybe lift it a little.

In the twenty-two years that have since lapsed, relapsed, prolapsed, and collapsed between us, Debris and I have shared many adventures and some misadventures, helping each other through the anxieties of fatherhood, the joys of marriage, the despair of separation and divorce, the deep purple funk of creative inertia. And survived. And thrived. We have both been very lucky. But we deserved it.

We have hiked through the Maze together. The little maze and the big maze. We have circumambulated Navajo Mountain – navel of the universe – and camped together under its slickrock buttresses. We have climbed to the shoulders of Wilson Peak, leaving the summit untouched, out of natural piety. We have blundered through the cactus forests of Arizona and penetrated to the heart of the canyonlands. We have dropped off North Rim down to Thunder River, lain in the shade of limestone ledges while the sun roared like a lion three feet away, and discussed the mystery of the death of a father, of a wife – that inexplicable disappearance.

We have staggered together, like him and Rini, down the icy winter streets of Santa Fe, of Telluride, of Hoboken, and Manhattan – yes, Manhattan, where Debris hammered on the locked doors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at two in the morning, demanding admittance. God would not let us in. Can’t blame Him. Two kindly policemen led us away, commandeered a taxi, sent us home. Hove to Moab, Utah. To Oracle, Arizona. To Ojo Caliente (Hot Eye), and Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

Winter Scene by John De Puy, d. 2001
"Winter Scene" by John De Puy

I saw my friend Debris, enraged, overturn a punchbowl in the Selligman Galleries, New York, and smash it against the wall, and once I saw him dip a survey pole in gasoline and hurl it like a spear, flaming, from the verge of Dead Horse Point above the Colorado River, down into darkness a thousand feet below. As a matter of course, like good sagebrush patriots, we have burned or leveled innumerable billboards together, and sanded and sugared a goodly number of earthmovers, ore trucks, front-end loaders and Caterpillar bulldozers. Naturally.

And we have quarreled, and lied, and thieved from each other when necessary: he sold my best deer rifle for an airline ticket to Zurich, whence his wife had fled; in retaliation, when I discovered the loss, I sold his household furniture to a dealer in Distressed Freight, turning a fair profit. Those were dark days in Santa Fe, and long ago, never to return.

I have touched upon certain high points, making our long friendship seem, perhaps, more bright and merry than it actually was. In truth when we are together now we spend half out time semisodden with cheap American beer, reviewing the past and previewing the future in ever more flattering light, and the other half engaged in our plodding, furtive, solitary labors, Debris at his sketchbook or easel, me at my last where I am cobbling a shoe of wood (le sabbotage) that will kick down all doors from all jambs forever.

My friend Debris looks today more like a sheepherder than an organ-grinder, more like Einstein than Zapata. He is and appears part Basque, part Cretan, part stargazer, wholly a mystic. The rich curly dark hair has turned gray (like my beard) and his face is the lined, browned, wind-burned face of a man who has spent at least half of his fifty-odd years in the out-of-doors. Where we are happiest. Blessed with a hyperactive metabolism, Debris has never put on weight, despite the fact that he drinks beer from morning to night, every day, a continuous “transfusion” as he calls it, and eats with the gusto of a hungry wolf, moaning and groaning over his feed like a man in the throes of love. He remains as skinny and scrawny, as wiry and fibrous and hard as he was in the days of our youth.

He loves to eat. He loves to drink. He loves to cook. An insomniac, he rises always before the dawn, lights his Coleman lantern, starts the fire, brews a powerful and deadly Earl Grey tea loaded with honey and milk. He stumbles about camp in the dark, mumbling and chanting, comes presently to me and my lady with a hot steaming mug in each fist, a grin full of teeth below the Zapatista mustache. Salmon-colored clouds float on the east. Stars all over the west. We sit up naked in our ziplock sleeping-together bag.

“Drink,” says the grin; “hot tea.”

“It’s early, Debris.”

“Drink!” He thrusts the mugs into our hands, then weaves back to the campfire, there to prepare the breakfast omelets – huge mucoid globs of chicken embryo quivering with potency denied, browned and folded over the slime of melted cheese, the hot viscous kelp-like green chiles, the sliced and sautéed onions, the reek of garlic and garlic salt….

“My god, Debris, too much garlic.”

“There can never be too much garlic.”

“I hate garlic, you goddamned Frog.”

“Don’t whine and snivel at me, you puking Presbyterian. Eat!”

De Puy’s cooking, like his art, reminds me of Poe at his most Byronic:

“Of the glory that was Greece
And the garlic that was Rome.”

His wife Tina Johnson emerges from the back of their pickup camper, approaches us through el crepusculo, the twilight, of our mountain morning. She is a plump and pretty woman, brown and fair and Scandinavian, feisty but sweet, a total female, and about twenty years younger than Debris. She is his fifth wife. His fifth and final wife, says Tina, and hopefully John agrees.

She had come to him several years before as a student and apprentice from Evergreen College in Washington, and strayed, graduating into matrimony with honors and distinction. She is a crafty artisan, a maker of jewelry that she sells from New York to Scottsdale. She is dressed this morning like a gypsy in full skirt, flowered blouse, a scarlet kerchief on her head and golden hoops dangling from her pierced ears. She wears sandals. She plays the guitar. She smokes a pipe, farts when she feels like it, and swears like a man. A good honest woman.

I like her, and I usually don’t approve of my friend’s wives. His others had been too political, constantly getting poor John into trouble with their Red Brigades, Fidelismo, Maoist Mau Mau, Socialist Workers and Socialist Labor and Weathermen Underground. Distracting him from his duty, which is to paint pictures. Tina is not like that. She is a natural anarchist, like us, like all genteel, sensible, petit-bourgeois people in these days of total institutions and global power. (Our highest criminal ambition is to rob the World Bank. Give the money to the deserving poor, to you and me and Muzzie Schwartz down there on the street peddling his roasted chestnuts. Let’s hear no more of this.)

Not only does Debris’s wife look gypsylike, so does his summer home. He owns twenty acres on a wooded mesa in southeast Utah. From the center of his place you can see mountains and marvels in all directions: the Blue Mountains close by on the northwest, the San Juans to the east in Colorado, Sleeping Ute Mountain, Shiprock and the Chuskas and Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation, Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa and the Bear’s Ears Buttes to the west and southwest. On a clear day you can see all the way to Navajo Mountain, a hundred miles by line of sight.

For five years De Puy has been planning to build a cabin here, an A-frame on stilts, but so far, he has built nothing substantial. The kitchen is a large juniper tree with Ramada-like shelter attached, from the struts and spars and limbs of which hang skillets, pots, towels, rags, mirror, waterbags, canteens, shovel, ax, bucksaw, and other tools, implements, and weapons. We eat breakfast on a government-surplus picnic table. John and Tina sleep in their camper-truck, a veteran GMC. The guesthouse is a tent. When in residence here they do their work in a battered housetrailer that Debris had hauled in a couple of years previously.

This housetrailer – an immobile home – is old and drafty, infested with mice, hooked up to nothing; there is no plumbing or electricity. Not needed. The trailer is jacked up on cinderblocks buy not properly leveled. It sags to the east. To walk inside is like entering on the deck of a listing boat. It has always been this way. Debris and Tina like it this way.
Here in this listing trailerhouse, during the summer months, Tina manufactures her jewelry and my friend De Puy paints his paintings. His studio is small but well lighted, well ventilated. He has room for a stack of stretched canvases, a shelf of books, a work-table, the easel and the work-in-progress. There are posters, drawings, and photographs tacked to the wall – photos of friends, of natural scenes, and one of the artist himself posed dramatically, with pipe and walking stick and slouch hat, before a sunset sky. The only concession to vanity.

And what do we see on the easel? A window. An opening through a wall. In a moment I will explain.

Most of the year, eight or nine months, Debris and his wife spend in their modest home near Jemez Springs, in the high country of northern New Mexico. Harsh country – too hot in summer, cold in winter. Debris hauls and cuts a lot of firewood. And every morning, all year around, he brews his black, bitter tea. He smokes a pipe continuously, makes his own jerky, and cooks about half of the time over an open fire. He drinks too much – not only beer but whatever’s available with an appreciable alcoholic content. Blackberry brandy for chilly nights.

The effect of these incontinent habits has been, through the decades and so far, to keep my friend well preserved, in alcohol, tobacco, woodsmoke, tea, vitamin C, and old underwear, inside and out. He walks with a long and loping stride, uphill and downhill, through brush and over rocks, like a man accustomed to exploring, prospecting, searching. He expects to live for about 140 years – “indefinitely.”

What he is seeking and what he has found appears in the strange, powerful, brooding and mystical art that has been his lifework. His graphics and oil paintings represent, clearly, recognizably, the landscape of the American Southwest – mountains, mesas, volcanoes, abysmal gorges and gleaming rivers, the stillness of the desert under vast moons and domineering suns. But De Puy’s landscape is not the landscape we see with routine eyes or can record by camera. He paints a hallucinated, magical, sometimes fearsome world – not the world that we think we see but the one, he declares, that is really there. A world of terror as well as beauty – the beauty that lies beyond the ordinary limits of human experience, that forms the basis of experience, the ground of being.

Vague, pompous, pretentious words. I’m not sure what they mean. One would prefer to be precise and clear. But there is something in the art of John De Puy, as there is in a mountain or butte or canyon itself, that defies the precision and clarity of simple descriptive language. Whatever we can find to say about a desert mountain or a De Puy painting, there is always something more, obscure but ominously present, which cannot be said.

It will not suffice to dismiss this essential mystery as a mere romanticism. Whatever we can find to say about a desert mountain or a De Puy painting, there is always something more, obscure but ominously present, which cannot be said.

Reflections of the Colorado River by John DePuy
Reflections of the Colorado River J.D.

It will not suffice to dismiss this essential mystery as mere romanticism. The Romantics, after all, in art, music, poetry, philosophy, in action and in life, were onto something. Something real. Something as real as rock and sun and the human mind. Thus they were, and they remain – necessary. There is no “mere” about it.

Bloated rhetoric, I agree. A breezy effort at explanation. “Let Being be,” said Martin Heidegger, das Denker kraut, in a mere seventeen volumes. Exactly. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must be silent,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein in one sentence. Precisely. When Beethoven was asked to explain the meaning of one of his sonatas, he simply sat down at the piano and played it through again.

The facts in the case of J. Debris, as Poe would put it, are as follows:

Born in New Jersey during the Coolidge-Hoover era, he studied anthropology with Ruth Benedict as instructor at Columbia University; these studies brought him to the Southwest and into contact with the landforms and ancient cultures of our region. The Korean War interrupted this phase of his development. De Puy is a Navy veteran of World War II and had been enlisted (by mistake, he says) in the naval reserve. When he was called up for service in Korea he went over the hill – Absent Without Leave. At the time he believed he was Thoreau, and lived on the Navajo Reservation, working at a trading post. When he was caught and tried, his military lawyer pleaded temporary insanity. The Navy locked him up in a psychiatric prison.

Debris spent six months rattling bars and chanting “More guns. Less butter. Man is made for war, woman for procreation.”
The Navy gave him a medical discharge and turned him loose; the government was glad to get off so easy. Debris took advantage of his new freedom to study art and philosophy for a year at Oxford, then returned to New York for a year of Action Panting with Hans Hofmann and the push and pull school. When he’d had enough of that he came home to the West for good.

Except for journeys to France, Switzerland, Greece, and Crete, he has lived and worked ever since in the highlands of New Mexico and Utah. God’s country – and the artist’s. Thirty years of hectic marriages, four children, two deaths in the family, troubles and accidents, have not diminished his appetite for love, nature, life. Nor has the relative obscurity of his professional career – he makes little effort to show or promote his work – dimmed his enthusiasm for the craft and the passion of his art. He continues to paint as steadily, earnestly, furiously as before, with an ever-growing boldness and simplicity. Not so much for the glory of it – glory is fleeting – as for the joy in the act itself and for the satisfaction in the object created.  

How would I place De Puy in the contemporary art scene? He belongs, I suppose, to the school called Expressionism, or to what I would call romantic naturalism, in the tradition of El Greco, Goya, Van Gogh, Nolde, Dove, Clyfford Still, Georgia O’Keeffe. And no doubt others. But in my opinion John De Puy belongs to no school but his own. In my opinion he is the best landscape painter now at work in these United States. I never tire of looking at his pictures. They have a liberating quality. They make a window in the wall of our modern techno-industrial workhouse, a window that leads the eye and the heart and the mind through the wall and far out into the freedom of the old and original world. They take us back to where we came from, long ago. Back to where we took the wrong fork in the road.

My friend is not only a great painter of romantic landscapes but also a maker of superior jerky. In return for my recipes for Voluntary Poverty Pinto Bean Sludge and R. K. Stew., he gives me his for Jerky Supreme a la Debris®:

Take five pounds frozen round steak or brisket, slice into think (1/8-inch) strips. Marinate for 12 hours in a mixture of wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, red chili powder, salt, garlic salt (mais oui!), and beer. (Heineken’s will do.) (Or Black Swan.) Pin to a line in hot sun, if in an arid climate, for about twenty-four hours or until done, or dry in an oven for eight to twelve hours 200ºF; leave the oven door open about one inch to allow circulation of air. Remove. Cool. Place in pack. Place peck on back. March twenty miles into wilderness. Open Pack. Mangez!

For the discriminating gourmet, Debris offers his jerky stew:

In pot of Dutch oven, dump onions, green peppers, potatoes (I prefer turnips myself – I like that iron and earthy flavor), carrots, chopped celery, chili, garlic, a pound or two or three of Jerky Supreme a la Debris®, a bottle or two of red wine, and basil, oregano, more garlic, more chili, more wine, and more what have you, what the  hell, I’ve forgotten the exact amounts or what ingredients, it all comes out fine in the end, cook until ready, eat. Will feed five hungry storm troopers or two starving artists.

Debris is willing to grant the authenticity of my concern with eating but has somehow gotten the impression that I am not seriously interested in the art of cookery. He listens, therefore, with feigned attention at best, with impatience, with visible disinterest, as I sketch out my culinary inventions. To wit:

Voluntary Poverty Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge®

  1. Take one fifty-lb sack Dipstick County pinto beans. Remove stones, cockleburs, horseshit, ants, lizards, etc. Wash in cold clear crick water. Soak twenty-four hours in cast-iron kettle or earthenware pot. (DO NOT USE TEFLON, ALUMINUM, OR PYREX. THIS WARNING CANNOT BE OVERSTRESSED.)
  2. Place kettle or pot with beans on low fire, simmer for twenty-four hours. (DO NOT POUR OFF WATER IN WHICH BEANS HAVE SOAKED. VERY IMPORTANT.) Fire must be of juniper, piñon pine, scrub oak, mesquite, or ironwood. Other fuels may tend to modify or denigrate the subtle flavor and delicate bouquet of Pinto Bean Sludge.
  3. DO NOT BOIL. Add water when necessary.
  4. Stir gently from time to time with wooden spoon. (DO NOT DISREGARD THESE DETAILS.)
  5. After simmering, add one-gallon green chiles. Stir gently. Avoid bruising beans. Add on-half quart pure natural sea salt. During following twelve hours stir frequently and add additional flavoring as desired, such as, for example, ham hocks. Or bacon rinds. Or saltpork, corncobs, kidney stones, jungle boots, tennis shoes, jockstraps, cinch straps, whatnot, old saddle blanket, use your own judgment. Simmer additional twenty-four hours.
  6. Ladle as many servings as desired from put but do not remove put from fire. Allow to simmer continuously through following days and weeks, or until contents totally consumed. Stir from time to time, gently, when in vicinity. (DO NOT ABUSE BEANS.)
  7. Serve Voluntary Poverty Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge® on small flat rocks that have been warmed in sun. If flat rocks not available, any convenient fairly level surface will do. Plates may be used, if obtainable. (WEDGEWOOD ONLY, PLEASE!) After serving, slather beans generously with salsa, ketchup, or barbecue sauce. Garnish with sprigs of fresh sagebrush. (Your guests will be amused and pleased.)
  8. One cauldron of Pinto Bean Sludge, as specified above, will feed one starving artist for approximately two weeks. A grain supplement, such as rice, wheat, or maize, is needed for full protein complement.
  9. The Philosopher Pythagoras declared flatulence incompatible with thought and meditation. For this reason he forbade the eating of beans in his ashram. We have found, however, that thorough cooking ameliorates the condition, and custom (or solitude) alleviates the social embarrassment.

Second recipe:

Arizona Highways R.(1) K.(2) Stew®

½ cup rattlesnake grease a la blacktop
2 lbs sun-dried skunk (from the middle of the road)
¼ cup jackrabbit blood (dehydrated)
2 lbs squashed cottontail bunny
2 lbs flattened chipmunk (with tread marks)
1 ½  lbs macerated ground squirrel
1 ½  lbs laminated kangaroo rat
2 lbs elongated bull snake
2 lbs mashed house cat
2 lbs smashed dog a la asphalt
Etc,. etc,. etc.

Footnotes: (1.) Road  (2.) Kill

We are visiting a bar in the town of Garlic (a.k.a. Ajo), Arizona. The bar is full of locals, mostly citizens of the Mexican and Papago Indian preference. My friend is dancing. John has approached several of the Papago ladies – short stout barrel-shaped women with cheerful brown faces and long rich lovely hair so black it looks blue – but they have all turned him down, laughing. Even the fattest of them, who looks like the Venus of Willendorf, has declined his courteous invitation. Therefore my friend Debris, untroubled, dances alone.

John DePuy
John De Puy

He dances like Zorba the Greek, like Anthony Quinn, in the middle of the empty floor, hands clasped behind his back, old pipe smoking in his mouth, the decayed and rotten slouch hat on his head. The jukebox is playing Mi Corazon es su Corazon by Gabriel Cruz y sus Conjuntos. Ranchero music – guitars and violins and trumpets. A barbarous racket. Debris dances solemnly forward, then back, twirls, spreads his arms like wings and turns his fact to the ceiling. Eyes closed, dancing the he files, he soars, he sails like an eagle across the empyrean of his soul. Alone in the universe, he makes it all his own. No one but me pays him any heed. Just another gringo drunk. But what a beautiful, happy, ontological gringo drunk. Only one pitcher of beer – and God entered his soul.

We drive into the desert beyond Garlic, beyond Why, beyond the ghost town of Pourquoi Non, beyond the far western borders of Hedgehog Cactus National Park where I had once been employed, for three elegant winters, as a patrol ranger. Under the moon we pass Kino Peak, the Bates Range, the Growler Range, past warning signs lettered in red on white, riddled with bullet holes where we enter the Air Force Gunnery Range. This is the bleakest wasteland east or west of the Empty Quarter. A gaunt and spectral landscape littered with .500-caliber machine-gun shells, 88-mm cannon shells, unexploded rockets, and aerial tow targets stuck nose-down in the sand like twelve-foot arrowheads. Nobody lives here but the diamondback, the fatal coral snake, the Gila monster, the tarantula and the scorpion, and us, from time to time. Debris and I love the place. God loves it. The Air Force loves it. And nobody else I know of but a Green Beret named Douglas Heiduk, who discovered it years ago.

The dirt road becomes impassable, a torture track of sand traps and volcanic rocks with flint-sharp edges, petering out in prehistoric Indian paths. A tribe called the Sand Papagos haunted the region until a century ago, lurking about the few known waterholes, ambushing bighorn sheep, Sp9anish missionaries, gold seekers, and other pioneers, and eating them. The one road through this desert, long since abandoned, was called El Camino del Diablo – the Devil’s Highway.

And what became of the Sand Papagos? Historians say they were wiped out by the Mexican military, or by disease, or by a change in the climate. But John De Puy and I know better.

We stop the truck, shut off the motor, get out, and vomit. Feeling better we open another jug. My friend Debris hurls an empty bottle at the stars and bellows through the silence, Chinga los cosmos!

Nobody answers. Far to the north we can see flares, bright as molten magnesium, floating down across the sky. We hear the mutter of gunnery, like distant thunder. It’s only the Air Force, hunting the last of the Sand Papagos. Something to do on a Monday night. Watching those eerie lights, Debris crosses himself and recites an introit, his version of the prayer: “Dominus vobiscum et to spiritu, sancto oremus, pace…pace…pace…

Once an R. C. always an R. C. His mother was Irish, her family name Early. He’d been an altar boy, of course, long ago and far away, in another country. (New Jersey.) Although he worships at an older and grander altar now, De Puy expects to end up, as they all do, back in the arms of the Mother Church. Not by choice but because he feels he will have no choice. Frankly, he wants to live – to exist – to be – forever.


Out of spite.

You owe the earth a body.

But not my soul.

I seem to hear Gregorian changes in the distance, coming from far beyond and above the desert mountain. Sound of the Dies Irae. I shiver in the chill night, the fantasy passes. We build our ritual little fire of mesquite twigs, spread out bedrolls on the ground, contemplate the flames. The Air Force goes to bed. The silence becomes complete.

But forever? I say. That’s a long time.

Only an instant, says De Puy.

I fall asleep, by slow degrees, while my friend puffs on his pipe and explains to me the peculiarities of his quaint Roman religion. He talks; I dream.

I dream of a country church in Appalachia, painted white, shaded by giant white oaks. There is a graveyard on the hillside nearby, most of the headstones at least a century old. Some of the graves are marked with rusted iron stars and standards that carry the shafts of tiny, faded American flags. The stars bear the initials G.A.R. Grand Army of the Republic. Roots and branches of the family tree. My three brothers and I are marching through the woods, rifles on our shoulders. It seems to be autumn; the dead leaves rattle beneath our feet. We march swiftly, easily, without effort, without fear, toward a joyously desired buy unimaginable fulfillment. There are other men with us, ahead, behind, on both sides. We all march easily, swiftly, without effort, without speaking, toward the lights that glimmer off and on, like summer lightning, beyond the trees, beyond the dark ridge ahead. No one speaks. We move swiftly, easily…

De Puy is bustling about in the gloom, mumbling and grumbling, making the tea. Stars crowded over the west, opaline clouds on the east. One bird cheeps in the bush. The hackberry bush that grows by the dry wash, by the arroyo that snakes across the desert. I sit up in my sleeping bag, reach for my shirt and leather vest – the air is cold. Debris comes with the steaming mug, the maniacal grin, his mad eyes gleaming behind the glasses.

Nous allons,” he snarls.


“But yes!”

“But for chrissake, Debris, it’s still dark.”

He shoves the mug of hot tea into my hand and points over my shoulder toward the east. “Rosy fingers.” He indicates the jagged pinnacles of the mountains, charcoal black and cobalt blue against the cadmium red of dawn. “La motif, it will not wait.” Scarlet vermilion in his eyes.

I put on my hat and boots. We eat the Debris breakfast, the eggs and the cheese and the thick home-baked bread, washed down with about a quart each of the violent tea. Then the beer. Why always this nonsense of rocks, peaks, crags, sunrise skies, I ask him. Why can’t you stay home, like the other artists do, in a warm snug comfortable studio, and paint, well, say, what I would paint (if I didn’t have better things to do), namely, a damn good-looking woman sprawled recklessly upon a divan, her Peignoir a pool of black satin oozing across the floor, and in her green-gold eyes the sullen glow of an insane insatiable lust! Eh? Why not?

“You’re spilling your tea,” Du Puy says.

“But why don’t you?”

Anasazi Figures by John De Puy
Anasazi Figures John De Puy

He smiles, puffing on the pipe, and quotes freely from the journal of Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix: “ ‘The energy which should have gone this morning into my painting I expended instead upon the recumbent form of the model.’ I had,” he adds, “about a year of that in England.” He fidgets, glances at the sky, stands up. “Time to work.”

I see that he is ready; the daypack on his shoulders holding the sketchbooks, jerky, canteen of water; his shirt pockets braced with a battery of Marvy Markers and Pentel felt-tips of various calibers.

“Or schmierkunst,” I say, “why not paint schmierkunst? Some abstract frenzy of the inner eye, like Pollock or Rothko or Gottlieb or What’s-his-name? Why not a study of your neighborhood laundromat in photographic neorealism? Why not a bowl of fruit on a green felt table? Pears? Turnips? Apples? Poker chips? Okra?”

“I’ve done it all,” he says, slashing at the air with his walking stick. “Now I must paint the real world. Nous allons!

Time to march

Very well. We go.

Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today. And as we walk toward the sunrise, my friend Debris sings once again the little theme which his friends Gauguin and Van Gogh had also sung when they sauntered out each morning, a century before, into the rosy hills of Provence.

Allons! Allons!
    Nous allons sur la motif!