WE DROVE SOUTH FROM Albuquerque, trailing the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande, down the old Spanish royal road that once stitched old Mexico City to old Santa Fe, down to the funky town of Truth or Consequences, and then east, over the high, piney Capitan Mountains to drop through the black lava fields of the Valley of Fires, the land of crusted ember.
It was a strange place for a duck trip. We sortied toward the Pecos River and Roswell, a town that attracts conspiracy theorists, UFO believers, and tourists who flock to gift shops selling alien dolls and scorpion-filled lollipops. We hunted hard and a little mean in a great southern arc across New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert because hidden in the heat shimmer, in the sage, mesquite, rubber rabbitbush, and wolfberry, in the marshes along the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers, were the ducks.
And the ghosts. We never were far from the ghosts.
For my friend James Powell, this was a homecoming. He was born in Roswell and spent his early years in Albuquerque. He hunted mule deer with his father in the big woods around the family cabin near the iconic peak of Sierra Blanca, and his stepfather took him on waterfowling trips to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, on the Rio Grande, when he was 6 years old. At the White Sands Missile Range, where Powell worked as a young biologist, he ran vegetation transects across creosote flats and rattlesnake dens. He learned to love the marsh, he told me, “because when you’re raised in the desert, a wetland seems like a miracle.”
The passion paid off in unexpected ways. Powell is now chief of communications for Ducks Unlimited, and he and I have hunted together for years. We have a lot in common: jobs tied to a vibrant natural world, sons who share our love of feathers and marsh muck, and memories of fathers whose passion for the outdoors set the rudder angle of our own lives. Powell had been thinking of this road trip for a long time, and he regretted not pulling it off sooner. His father had passed away three years earlier, and James Powell the elder would have loved sharing this road again, and a few more desert sunrises, with his son.
“Now you and I can talk about this trip until one day all we can talk about is how much we wished we’d done it,” Powell told me. “Or we can hit the road.” He didn’t have to ask twice. Shooting ducks, sharing old stories, and looking shoulder to shoulder into the past are precisely what friends are for.
Our sprawling loop traced a rough line along Powell’s own history here, jumping from duck hole to duck hole from the Rio Grande to the Pecos. Each waterway is a long, linear oasis in an arid landscape. Enormous marshes unfurl for miles between the rivers and nearby mountains. The ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes that get this far south have their backs against the wall. They put down roots for the winter, and they get smarter with each passing day.
Which makes chasing waterfowl here a bit of a crapshoot. There’s a lot of dry land between one decoy set and the other, which requires a lot of time behind the windshield— and a lot of miles and hours to muse on where the ducks might be out here in cowboy-andalien country.
OFF TO A HOT START
The first ducks were close, willing, and easy—although they required a down payment of sweat and scramble. Two hours before sunrise, we followed our guide’s pickup truck down 2 miles of off-road switchbacks, deep into a halfdry lake bed, headlights boring through dense stands of mesquite and yucca. In the dark, we buried one truck to its chassis in soft sand. Digging it output us way behind schedule, kicking off a mad sprint to beat the sunrise. Worn out before we even uncased the shotguns, we crawled into a pair of layout blinds half sunk in the muck. The lake’s receding water left behind a crazy plain of sprawling cocklebur fields pocked with silty potholes. We were hemmed in by cactus and rock cliffs. It was as un-ducky a spot as I’d ever seen. And then the predawn light seeped up from the east.
Our first duck dropped in like every mallard should: early, courteous, and straight into the decoys. Powell and I fired together and rolled the drake into the muck. Duck number two was a northern shoveler. Hoisting it into the sun, I felt like I always feel about this ugly cousin of puddle ducks: Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it would be on every hunter’s wall if not for the garden trowel attached to its face. A single pintail followed, dropping low from a flock of five, just in range. I can’t tell you where the wigeon came from. One moment I was scanning the sky, on high alert. The next moment five birds were already in the decoys, wings set, like they were spat out of a deep mountain cave in the volcanic ridges above us. Powell and I scrambled to get a shot off, but the birds cartwheeled wildly behind us when they saw us move. My shotgun stock wasn’t even near my shoulder when I pulled the trigger.
“All yours,” I said to Powell, rubbing my bicep, when he brought the duck back to the blind. “That’s a nice bird.”
Five ducks, five species. I started getting greedy. This far south, it’s possible to shoot birds that rarely venture farther north. Come on, cinnamon teal, I thought. Bring it on home, Mexican mallard. A pale hunting moon hung high in the sky, and I took it as an omen that our luck would hold.
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