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I received this email from Graeme Wood


Mr. Shoumatoff,

I read Legends of the American Desert a few years ago and liked it very much.  One anecdote stuck in my memory, the one on page 66 about Pablo Valencia’s near-death-by-thirst.  But I read the source essay by Wm. J. McGee, “Desert Thirst as Disease,” and found that one of the key details of the anecdote as related in your book is false, or rather highly misleading.
You write:
After [Valencia’s] water was gone, he hallucinated that he met Jesus, and Jesus showed him where to find water, but when he got there, there wasn’t any water, and he became obsessed with finding and killing Jesus for deceiving him.  The strength of Valencia’s desire for revenge, McGee speculates, probably helped to keep him alive.
The Jesus here is not Jesus of Nazareth, as I originally assumed.  Elsewhere in the same essay, McGee describes Jesus as “a former vaquero and nearly typical Mexican, claiming familiarity with the country, but erratic and inconsequent and little dependable in statements of fact or in any other way.”
This is at best a partially accurate description of Jesus of Nazareth.  It’s much more likely that the “Jesus” of McGee’s essay is actually Jesús Rios, mentioned elsewhere in the same essay.  Would you agree?
Wood sent a paper about McGee’s essay that includes it in full. Desert Thirst as Disease – William J. McGee    It was rediscovered, after lurking in obscurity for decades, by my good friend Bernard Fontana, which is not surprising as he is the anthropologist of record for that desert region, home of the Tohono O’odam formerly the Papago people. McGee says Jesus and Pablo were prospectors looking for some lost mines. Pablo sent Jesus off to get some water and he basically abandoned Pablo to his fate. McGhee found Pablo stark naked after he had been wandering for six days and in the final, ghastly stage of desert thirst. All he had had to drink was his urine and what moisture he could coax out of a single scorpion.
I would absolutely agree with Graeme. It is misleading. I thought Pablo wanted to kill Jesus of Nazareth for abandoning him, or this is my recollection, when it was Jesus Rios who abandoned him that he wanted to kill. It is likely that I read only an excerpt of McGhee’s essay, which did not include the section identifying Jesus Rios. I won’t know this till I get down to the Adirondacks, where my Southwest books are.
Future editions of Legends of the American Desert : Sojourns in the Greater Southwest,
like the Last Look Books edition, which will hopefully be out within the year (I will shitcan the ridiculous title that the booksellers supposedly insisted on so they could explain what the book was about to the book stores, and restore my original title, Legends of the Desert) will have the following add :
After [Valencia’s] water was gone, he hallucinated that he met Jesus [not the Jesus, but his dodgy partner Jesus Rios, whom he had sent to find water, and never came back], and Jesus showed him where to find water, but when he got there, there wasn’t any water, and he became obsessed with finding and killing Jesus for deceiving him.
So thanks Graeme. I googled him and discovered he’s a contributing editor for the Atlantic and writes about all kinds of things and has his own blog
it’s not often that I get such a careful reader or hear from somebody who takes the trouble to straighten me out.
Interestingly, while i was writing this, I just got a call from my good buddy nearly dopelgang (he too studied guitar with Gary Davis and comes from a family of naturalists; his granddad was a renowned icthyhologist at the American Museum of Natural History) John Nichols (Milagro Beanfield War and many other great novels most of them set in New Mexico where he lives. I may be able to persuaded him to sell his wares on Last Look Books. We already have Elaine Rosenberg Miller’s Fishing the Intercoastal in the lineup. Isn’t it interesting how suddenly you have a patch of interaction with the Southwest, fellow writers, or whatever ?

One thought on “Thank God there are still some readers out there”

  1. Alex, you could qualify the pronounciation, Haysus as opposed to Jeesus. Jesus of Nazareth was not Hispanic so it wasn’t pronounced Haysus. Your first writing would of been correct if it was on “books on tape”.

    Suitcase replies to patrick : but if hispanos were talking about the son of god He is also Haysus. while i got yr attention, i’m going to be in l.a. from march 23 to 31. maybe we can get in a round or two. been tryin to get a rise out of glennito but no luck.

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