It might be just one of those cosmic mistakes that Catron County
and Myrtle Cox find themselves today in the same place at the
same time. This, America, gets complicated.
To be sure, Myrtle was here first. Her father, Ira Sweazea, homesteaded
outside Quemado in 1918, when what little was yet known about
this part of west-central New Mexico was still a part of Socorro
County. The Catrons and their sometimes notorious style for establishing
land baron authority wouldnt make it a county of their own until
1927. Myrtle likes to keep that point firmly in mind as she does
battle with county authorities these days over a road that cuts
right across her property, within sight of the still-standing
adobe house Ira put up as part of his claim.
Ira was not really a cattle or sheepman. He was, for his day,
what might be considered an entrepreneur, ready to deal in mercantile
and services that were sorely needed on the opening frontier.
Nevertheless, he had a keen eye for land, and that part he claimed
for his own was chosen carefully beneath the Mangas Mountains
and alongside what became Highway 60. Unless you know the land
the way Ira did, today you might not even be able to catch on
to his cleverness. From the highway, and even from the much disputed
road, his landnow Myrtles landlooks about as ordinary as the
rest of this part of New Mexico, with long sloping foothills dropping
into coulees and disappearing before climbing out again and rolling
on south in a plain of sage and piñon.
Myrtle Cox keeps all of her gates locked. All of them. Getting
a look at her property beyond the gates means either a risky trespass
or hiring an airplane. No other way are you likely to see the
treasure Myrtle holds.
There was a Mr. Cox, but he hasnt been seen around these parts
since Myrtle caught him in the back seat of their car with one
of her best friends back in the 1950s. Neither has the former
best friend. Myrtle has two kids, a son and a daughter both in
their 50s, but they have moved on to their own lives elsewhere,
leaving Myrtle and the hired help she manages to run her 20,000-acre
Like her father, Myrtle was more merchant than rancher for most
of her life. She owned and operated the trading post in Quemado
for more than 20 years before finally selling it in the mid-1970s.
It was in part during that time when teetotaling Myrtle established
her tough reputation from behind the trading posts bar or back
of its business counter. She wasnt there to win a popularity
contest, and, by her own account, slept on the floor of the bar
more than one night rather than take the risk of leaving after
hours. Not that Myrtle doesnt have friends. She has plenty of
them, and plenty of respect even among others who might not count
themselves exactly as pals.
The mistake made by some newcomers especially is in thinking that
because of her advanced age, one can easily befriend Myrtle with
a few kind and condescending words that will help her understand
the new way things are done.
Thats the way Molly Thomas tried it, leaning over to the drivers
window of Myrtles pickup and trying to explain to the elderly
lady why she was wrong. Myrtle answered with a fist in Mollys
mouth that sent her sprawling on the ground.
Well, she was a gal who moved here from California and thought
she was going to teach everybody out here cause were so stupid,
I guess, recalled Myrtle. She was holding my window down so
she could tell me what was wrong with me, but I didnt want to
Twenty-five of Myrtles friends went with her to court before
the assault charges were dismissed.
Molly Thomas and another active woman Myrtle refers to as Tokyo
Rose represent the kind of changes coming to Catron County as
much as to almost anywhere in the West. New ranchette-sized
developments have sprung up in the mountain regions north of what
Myrtles father used to call Swaezeaville. Expensive new homes
with colorful subdivision names like Golden Horseshoe and Indian
Springs, where people with money from somewhere else suddenly
appear and start demanding that it all look more like home, with
cable TV, phones, lights, and, most important, roads.
Authorities in Catron County, in truth, arent much happier with
that situation than is Myrtle. But its what happens after federal
authorities keep forcing ranchers out of business, said County
Manager Adam Polley.
It was the road out from such a subdivision that cut across Myrtles
property that first began the battle in the 1980s. They already
had at least two other roads, but the one that cut directly down
to U.S. 60 over an old wagon trail was the most convenient, and
according to a state judge who finally ruled on it, Myrtle Cox
owed them that one.
Not by your longest shot, as far as Myrtle was concerned. The
road edged in from a little patch of ground her family had sold,
but then took off on an old trail across 14 miles to the next
highway, half of that over land Myrtle Cox had no intention at
all of owing to the county. The new fence she put up on an open
range side of the road narrowed it down to a near hazard that
infuriated the subdivision residents. As the battle raged over
10 years and more, the sides grew ever more rigid, until finally
Myrtle, at the age of 84, was put in jail by the judge for contempt.
She had the key herself, said Polley. All she had to do was
remove her fence. An old lady locked up in the hoosegow over
a road dispute was an outrage even in Catron County. She was out
the next day, but the fence was gone as well.
Its gotten complicated, bemoaned Polley, who would probably
prefer not to have to take sides. I just wish we could all get
along on this. With the offending fence gone, the new subdivision
folks came racing down the dirt and newly graveled road so fast
that a lease holder on that side of Coxs property didnt dare
allow his cattle to graze on open range.
All that, however, is on the more or less east side of Myrtle
Coxs property. On the other side of that road, a courteous 30
feet from its center, Myrtles firm fence still stands. Locked.
There arent a handful of people who get beyond those gates these
days, because thats where the treasure really is.
They think Im rich, she said, a wry smile on her thin face.
I am rich, but not the way they think. Not trusting anybody
else with the duty, she firmly snapped the padlock back in place
before heading out on the two-track cutting west across her property.
It rolled ahead over the long slope and seemed to disappear into
the canyons of coulees.
There before and below us on the bluff where Myrtle brought her
pickup to a perilous stop was what Ira Swaezea knew made his claim
most valuable in whatever they called the countya long, deep
blue lake stretching gently into meadows where deer and antelope
seemed as comfortable as the sleek cattle.
Thats what they really want, Myrtle said. And theyll never
Oh, no, groaned Polley, defensively pleading his own case for
understanding. We dont want the water. It is a beautiful lake
and she has taken magnificent care of it, but were not after
it in any way. Thats not in anybodys plans.
So says the county. But Myrtle Cox looks the subdividers in the
eye and figures she knows what theyre thinking. Theyve learned
not to stand too close to Myrtle, but the distance is likely to
be closed by yet another lawsuit before the battle of the road
If they know anything at all about me, she said, it better
be this: I do my homework, and I dont give up.
America needs a place like Catron County, no doubt about it. At
the same time, these days it seems that there are just too few
Myrtle Coxes to keep it all in perspective.
Tim Findley lives in Fallon, Nev. He broke his truck trying to
follow Myrtle at a flying rate across her New Mexican dirt roads.