Skin Mask Replica, Hunter Louis
“Mill in sand.” Windmills pump water out of the sand to irrigate peanuts. At the junction of NM 206, NM 258 and NM 262. Halfway between Portales and Lovington. Still have no idea? ‘Bout a 100 miles west of Lubbock, TX. Does that clear things up? Probably not. The expression “been there, done that does not really apply to Milnesand because even if you have been there, you probably did nothing worth mentioning.
Milnesand is a state of mind, i.e., it is an unincorporated rural community, which serves the cattle that graze on the sandy areas in between the low shrub oak, which forgot to become trees, or even bushes. And stop saying MIL-neh-sand! As you enter Milnesand from the north after taking the Elida, NM “exit” from US 70, there is a Baptist church on your left, a fire station/ community center, and the Kountry Kitchen Gift Shop on your right. If you need any other services, you will have to drive 38 miles north to Portales, the home of the Eastern New Mexico University Greyhounds. You are probably wondering why the two east-west roads at the intersection do not line up. For some reason, the road going east (262) has a different number from the road going west of the intersection (258). The STOP sign is on the east-west road, not on the north-south road (206). If you run the STOP sign traveling at a high rate of speed from east to west, you might not make it to the other side without landing in the ditch.
Oh! And if you are even mildly curious about anything that you have read thus far, you are probably wondering why my wife and I are spending the weekend in a “town” where there is nothing to do worth mentioning. We are attending the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival.
That, of course, leads to a whole “slough” of questions. What the hell is a “prairie chicken?” Why is Milnesand the HQ for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival? What is so special about prairie chickens that they get to have their own festival? Are they really chickens? If so, what are they doing on the prairie, and not in someone’s chicken pot pie? And most importantly, who will be named the Lesser Prairie Chicken Queen?
Wikipedia: “The lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) is a species in the grouse family. It is a medium to large bird, striped white and brown, slightly smaller and paler than its near relative the greater prairie chicken. Adults range from 15.0-16.1 in (38-41 cm) in length and 22.1-28.7 oz (628-813 g) in weight.”
Prairie chickens are gallinaceous birds, from the same family as chickens and turkeys. Males look more like small striped turkeys. During the spring mating season, they have tall crests, which they can put up or down like flags, orange eyelids, and red cheeks, which they can puff out like some lizards and frogs. The males stake out areas called leks, and each morning about sunrise, all the males come to the leks hoping to find, impress a female, and if successful, saunter off into the bushes to make love. ‘Nough said; it is all quite festive, even without the humans. However, NM Fish and Game thought a festival would be a good way to bring in visitors.
So, now you are hooked! How does the festival work, you ask. To observe the birds, you must arrive on the lek before the males get there before dawn. Curiously, if humans are sitting quietly in a vehicle on the lek before the birds arrive, they will ignore you and go on about their amorous business. Where can you stay? You may camp out at the community center/volunteer fire station, or you can sign up to sleep at the home of one of the local ranchers.
Okay. But I will have to either bring food or buy stuff at the Kountry Kitchen. No. Each morning and each evening, the local women will prepare meals for everyone. It is included in the modest fee you have paid to attend, and the festival is limited to about 100 people. You will have to register and pay well in advance; the festival fills up quickly. And you must attend a short seminar Friday night on proper prairie chicken viewing etiquette (e.g., no bathroom breaks once). The van will be parked on the lek; don’t drink a lot of coffee before you go). Then, you sign up for one of the two morning lek visits, however, there are also other activities, such as bird watching, native plants, local history and archaeology, etc. You could drive to and/or stay in Portales. However, I recommend bringing a book to read and stay in Milnesand. You will never come back here again. Why not take in all that Milnesand has to offer?
Our Saturday morning pre-dawn trip to the lek went off without a hitch. The best part was this one male, who evidently was too young to be mating. Each time he stepped onto the lek and raised his crest, the other males jumped on him, and he had to flee. We also got to see one happy couple head off to the scrub. The poor male strutted his stuff and she acted like he was not even there. Then she turned and winked, and they were off. We signed up for native plants Saturday afternoon and birdwatching Sunday morning, before returning home to Las Cruces.
However, the highlight of this year’s festival did not happen out on the leks.
Saturday night, we are camped out by the fire station/community center, enjoying a
beer and waiting for sunset, chatting with our fellow lekkers. I hear a truck coming from
the east. It is going fast.
“Sounds like a big pick-up truck. Sounds like he’s accelerating,” someone says.
“No doubt a local. Knows there’s a STOP sign.”
“He’s pretty close, it doesn’t sound like he is slowing down.”
A loud crashing noise . . . and silence.
“I’ll go tell the firefighters we have a situation. Then I’ll meet you at the crash.”
“I hope he didn’t hit the Kountry Kitchen.”
I had been a first-responder to a rural, drunk-driving crash. As I walked over to the crash
site, I knew what we were likely to find. Suddenly, the truck’s engine revs up.
“He’s driving off! How the hell did he not roll the truck pulling an eight-horse trailer!”
“The trailer must be empty.”
An officer jumped into his truck, put on his sirens and lights, and gave chase. In New Mexico, Fish and Game officers have guns and can arrest you.
“That could have been really bad! I guess it’s over. Want another beer?” I say to my friend as we walk back to the community center and sit down.
Sunday morning; the community center is full. The local women are graciously serving pancakes and coffee to everyone.
“Look who just walked in the door,” a local man says.
A tall, large, robust-looking rancher in a big cowboy hat with a big belt buckle, wearing, of course, cowboy boots, struts in like the alpha male at the lek!
“Is it possible that he doesn’t know?” someone else says.
“Hey Joe, did you already bail Bobbie out of the Portales jail?” someone calls out.
“Bobby came driving through here like a bat out of Carlsbad Caverns.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Bobby? No way!”
“Ran right over the STOP sign and landed in the ditch. Good thing he didn’t take out the Kountry Kitchen.”
Thanks, Mill in Sand. Been there. Done that. Glad we did.
About the Author
Jonathan E. Davis · New Mexico State University
Jonathan E. Davis is a senior majoring in creative writing and French. A native southwesterner who has traveled the world, he loves the diversity of landscapes, cultures, histories and prehistories in the Land of Enchantment. His poem “The New Colossus 2019: To Emma Lazarus,” about asylum seekers in Las Cruces, was selected by Albuquerque poet laureate Mary Oishi to be videotaped for the March 2021 Las Cruces Big Read, and his poem “Ex-Caliber,” based on his father John’s WWII war diary, will be published later this month in The Edmonds (WA) News‘ Poet’s Corner. This piece first appeared in Crimson Thread.
About the Artist
Hunter Louis · University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin
Hunter Louis is an illustrator and printmaker based in Milwaukee, WI. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art and Design with an emphasis in Print and Narrative Forms from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in May 2021. His work has been shown in invitational group shows and juried group shows in the Milwaukee area. Louis has work belonging to numerous personal and private collections, including the UWM Library’s Special Collections and the UWM Union’s permanent collection, along with having work published in Furrow Arts Magazine. This piece was first featured in plain china in 2022.