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High Country Bookishness

No, books didn’t keep me in Leadville, but they did sustain me as I fought the cold, recovered from dynamite headaches (not from the concussions of mine detonations, but rather from casual contact with undetonated powder), and grappled with the challenges of living in the higher elevations of the remote.  Scores of paperbacks covered half a bedroom wall of our little house built like a railroad flat.  Few of the books were mine.  Nearly all had accumulated in the house over a period of a year or two prior to my arrival, contributed by myriad young men who had lived or merely crashed at the house.  No pulp for a snowbound day here: most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests.  There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez.  There was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now

And there was Feast: a tribal cookbook by the True Light Beavers.  The “Beavers” was a communal hippie group whose commune, I assumed, had managed to survive into the seventies, as their book was copyrighted 1972.  I paged through this somewhat oversize book, which included photos of various “Beavers” people―all smiling, probably because they were all well-nourished, not to mention all regular as they posed seated in their outhouse―with interest and a twinge of guilt.  Five years earlier, blossoming into my own hippie act, I would have loved to have been a member of their commune, especially if it included that young, smiling, long-haired, shapely Earth mama who appeared to be wearing a hand-knitted bikini top.  By 1975, however, their lifestyle seemed dated.  Still, I liked the core planet-worshipping philosophy of the “Beavers,” even as I was part of a workforce that was destroying a mountain and smothering a large swath of the central Colorado high country under millions of tons of toxic mine tailings.

One paperback on the shelf grabbed my attention almost immediately.  First, there was its cover art: a photo of a solitary, naked, red rock monolith against a beautiful blue, cloud-dappled sky.  Then there was its title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  Living in Leadville, I naturally opened any tome whose title suggested warmth.  Written by a guy named Edward Abbey, Solitaire was his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah─not the classic Southwest, perhaps, but close.  To me, the memoir not only vividly evoked an alluring landscape―for I still enjoyed escaping to the out-of-doors, providing it was a pleasant out-of-doors―it did so with appealing doses of romance, philosophy, humor, irreverence, science, and, especially, fiery outrage at wilderness degradation.  Abbey’s was the first book that revealed the desert―actually, what biologists characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal to me.  More than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book.  A fanfare for the common loner.  Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.

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I Come, I Go, I Come, I Go

The curtain began to lower on my sojourn in Leadville late one November night when, after weeks of increasing tension not uncommon among sexually-frustrated young men condemned to live together in that rugged town of few single women, I was on the receiving end of an airborne frozen pizza as I tried to sleep.  A fistfight with my psycho-drunk housemate―a friend of fifteen years, no less―ensued.  I managed to land a few blows as my friend lurched about, but then fled our rental house in my Fruit-of-the-Looms when he grabbed a carving knife awarded to him for his stellar attendance record at the mine.  Fifteen minutes later, a third housemate and neutral body politic kindly brought me car keys and sufficient clothing as I huddled in my Mustang in front of our dump on Seventh Street.  Then I drove through the night to Denver and my sister’s rental house, where I made a temporary nest in its basement.  For the next two weeks I commuted the ninety minutes between Denver and Climax. 

Meanwhile, I ran into my housemate/nemesis at the dry.  I was anticipating a snub, perhaps a threatening look.  However, bearing a black-and-blue crescent under each eye, which I found deeply gratifying, he instead grinned and good-naturedly said, “Is the moon in the sky a big pizza pie?”  Stunned by his lack of hard feelings─puzzled, too, as I was at the time unaware of Dean Martin’s signature song─I sighed and grudgingly smiled.  But this gesture didn’t sway me.  I could no longer live in Leadville, nor could I any longer stand the exhausting commute between the city and Fremont Pass.  I abandoned the mountains completely for a second time.  I called Denver my home for the next thirteen years. 

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Southeast (and west) of Leadville

Despite the satisfaction and pride I took in drilling and blasting at Climax, and despite my increasing wealth, those high-country bugaboos, cultural famine and cold weather, returned to dampen my enthusiasm for mountain living.  Paperbacks, trout fishing, and Leadville’s mining museum were not enough to satisfy my aesthetic needs.  As for climate, a running joke in Leadville was its two seasons: Fourth of July and winter.  The Mosquito Range soared at its back, and in its front the Arkansas River valley swept up through unyielding conifer forests to the gray pinnacles─including Colorado’s tallest, Mt. Elbert─of the Sawatch Range.  Above treeline, stubborn fields of rotten snow, filthy with airborne dust, stared down at us, the huddled Leadvillites, even in August.

Yet there was relief thirty miles southeast of Leadville, offered by an old acquaintance: Buena Vista.  On my days off, I’d occasionally drive there, buy a loaf of French bread, a block of Velveeta, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm “wine,” and head for those hills of juniper just north of town.  Even at midday in the dead of summer, I’d build a fire of juniper and enjoy the incomparable spice of its smoke.  Then I’d dig my bare feet into the sand and relish the warmth, space, and light of the arid woodland.  The drip drip drip of the Southwest. 

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Leadville, Colorado: Manliness and Machismo

A friend from my Summit County days, still living in the Colorado mountains, dangled the prospect of a job that would pay three times as much as I was making in Denver: working in an underground mine.  So depressing was my employment situation in the city that I was willing to take another stab at mountain living.  I rejoined my friend, who was now living in Leadville, Colorado.  I couldn’t imagine a town with a duller name, and I was oblivious to the fact that this name was inspired by a neurotoxin that was poisoning American children who accidentally ate sweet-tasting chips of lead-based paint.  Although Leadville played a significant role in Colorado’s history, I had no interest in learning about it.  I was back in the mountains only for the big bucks, and identification with the adventure, romance, and manliness of what was commonly regarded as a very risky occupation was a bonus.  Despite no experience, I was hired as a molybdenum miner, often working the same shift as my friend at a place on nearby Fremont Pass known as Climax. 

Unlike the ski resort of Breckenridge, where I saw virtually no Latinos, at Climax I worked with dozens of them.  They were overwhelmingly male and commuted from Leadville and the more distant towns of Buena Vista and Salida. 

Prior to my arrival in Leadville, a young Latino with whom I worked at the shipping clerk job in Denver had managed to sour me, albeit all out of proportion, on his culture.  Tossing his voluminous shag cut, he strutted around the warehouse in his platform shoes and bell-bottoms, insisting I look at wallet photos of all the Latinas he had bedded―an annoying, cock-of-the-walk, urban Latino giving me my first taste of the toxic Latin masculinity known as machismo.  For the most part, however, I liked the Climax Latinos, for they were like everyone else who worked underground: basically happy, humble, and skilled union men who made very good wages, playfully taunted the (non-union) shift bosses, owned homes, and drove new cars and pickup trucks.  Buried beneath hard hats, headlamps, ear protectors, thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirts, rubber gloves, rubber boots, “self-rescuers” (emergency portable oxygen sources), and rain jackets and pants (the pneumatic rock drills showered water to keep the bits cool and suppress silicosis-causing dust), they shuffled and waddled through the caves and drifts like every other similarly dressed and accoutered miner.  Swallowed in total darkness, we were all one underground, each equally subject to a twisted ankle or the random plummet of an injurious rock. 

Like my erstwhile urban co-worker, some of the Climax Latinos were undoubtedly given to machismo, but I only saw it exhibited once during the eight months I worked at the mine.  And it was nasty.  One morning, as a bunch of us were headed from the parking lot to the “dry,” the building in which miners clocked in, got their gear, and prepared to descend into the guts of Bartlett Mountain, one burly hombre in a group of muchachos, walking immediately behind a Latina I’d seen working underground, cooed, “A beeg ass for a beeg man!”.  The woman smiled slightly without turning around.  I was certain she’d heard the remark.  I had no idea what she was feeling, but the remark disgusted me.  Sure, I reveled in my perceived manliness and courage as a miner, but I had an older sister who taught me to respect women, and this controlling creep made me ashamed of and embarrassed for my gender.  Yet I said nothing to him, for he was indeed “beeg,” “beeger,” in fact, than I.  And, shy and verbally inept as I was in such a situation, I said nothing to the woman after we had all dispersed at the entrance to the dry.  

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12-12-19: I Return to Denver – Briefly

In Denver, over the course of a year, I made new friends and rediscovered the joy of using a large public library, browsing a bookstore, playing a game of pick-up basketball at a public court, watching a first-run movie.  I enjoyed the company of my sister, who left the mountains for the city about the time of my departure. 

And I stepped into the classic Southwest for the first time, visiting New Mexico.  My sister, her friend, and I drove to Santa Fe and lodged in a motel there.  We visited the city’s historic plaza.  We ate Mexican food at its restaurants.  What struck me most about the city was its large Latino population and preponderance of earth-toned “pueblo-revival” architecture, although at the time I was utterly unaware of New Mexico’s various Pueblo Indian tribes that for generations had inspired such architecture.  I vividly remember playing word games in the car while returning to Colorado on I-25 in the high-plains northeastern New Mexico twilight.  I left northern New Mexico with no great desire to return anytime soon.  Denver was still novel and exciting, and thus I was set on establishing a life there. 

Unfortunately, this meant enduring a succession of dull, unchallenging, low-paying jobs.  I settled in Denver with absolutely no career ambitions, no interest in how my bachelor’s degree in English would favor or disfavor me in the Denver job market.  Initially, what I did for a living in Denver did not matter as long as it put a roof over my head.  My interest was in eating, going to bars, smoking the occasional joint, reading, fantasizing about the book I would write, gazing at the mountains, and finding a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life.  After all, though blessed with a partial Ivy League education, Jack Kerouac wasn’t looking for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder when he first landed in Denver; he was content to do heavy lifting in the city’s Denargo Market district during the day and partying and dreaming romantic dreams in the historic mountain town of Central City at night.  

But I found myself discontented with working as a shipping clerk, forklift driver, shag boy for an RV and speed boat dealership, and ditch digger.  I was insulted by the pay these jobs provided.  Yet I had no desire to return to college, get certification as a teacher, and teach the English I presumably loved in a Denver public school.  I had no desire to return to college to get an advanced degree in English or begin the study of law, engineering, or business administration.  I could not sell myself as a humble carpenter, for I’d learned no carpentry skills while working in Breckenridge.  And I was certainly above learning a trade such as plumbing or car repair.  Meanwhile, I was still without a girlfriend.  Now, I simply wanted to make more money with the knowledge and physical strength I possessed, and one day in 1975 I was offered that opportunity.

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12-8-19: Meeting the “Southwest” of Colorado

In the Fall of 1973, following my graduation from Hobart, I returned to Colorado.  Yet I was not bound for Denver.  My sister, to whom I wanted to remain close, was not living there.  She had joined a boyfriend in the Colorado mountains.  The two lived in a rickety cabin with an outhouse just outside the town of Alma.  At 10,500 feet above sea level, Alma, at the foot of the Mosquito Range, is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States.  Meanwhile, several mountain ranges away, a college classmate of mine lived in a combination of bedroom, living room, and kitchenette in a former motel in Silverthorne, Colorado, and invited me to join him.  Today, Silverthorne is a wealthy high-country playground serving several nearby world-renowned ski areas, including Vail.  In 1973, however, it was a dusty, muddy settlement containing a few trailer parks, a bar, a liquor store, and a convenience store.  It was home to ski bums and workers of various skill levels employed at the nearby Eisenhower Tunnel, then under construction.  At 8,700 feet, the town, located in aptly-named Summit County, squatted beside the Blue River while clamped between the Gore and Williams Fork ranges, mountains upon which pile two hundred to three hundred inches of snow annually. 

After three weeks in Summit County, I realized I didn’t like mountain living.  The dearth of culture was one reason.  I missed Denver’s museums, libraries, book stores, and public parks; I missed a place where something other than alcohol, sheet rock, tool belts, pickup trucks, and canine behavior could be discussed.  The lay of the land disagreed with me, as well.  Prior to Colorado, the only “mountains” I’d known, while vacationing as a kid, were the gentle hills where northwestern Connecticut, southwestern Massachusetts, and eastern New York State meet.  Summit County’s massive, ubiquitous formations crowded upon one another, brooded over the towns, cast long shadows at morning and in the evening.  Daily I felt as if my existence was in their vise.  Above all, I disliked the weather of the dwindling high-country Fall.  I was without a car, so five days a week I hitchhiked in frigid mornings and chilly evenings thirteen miles to and from the town of Breckinridge, elevation 9,600 feet, where I worked as a construction laborer.  Meanwhile, I dreaded the approach of my first mountain winter.  Everywhere I looked I saw towering ranges, each relentlessly cloaked in dark, mordant pines, each poised to breed raging snowstorms and deliver blasts of bitter cold.  Is this all there is to the storied Colorado high country? I wondered.  Fortunately, it wasn’t. 

One Saturday afternoon in late October, my sister and her beau showed up in Silverthorne in her ’67 Mustang and invited me to join them for a drive to a somewhat nearby mountain town, heretofore unknown to me, named Buena Vista.  Recalling “Espinosa” and “Mares,” I liked the name of that town immediately and, always anxious to flee Silverthorne─the name alone seemed to draw blood─agreed to go.  We lowered the Mustang’s convertible top, bundled up, and drove southward. 

We drove through the Blue River valley, beneath the grim, gray peaks of the Ten Mile Range.  We drove up the switchbacks, convoluted as intestines, of Hoosier Pass to the Continental Divide, elevation 11,500 feet; at the summit, I cast a sad eye at a fresh blanket of snow.  From there we descended southeast into an empty, windswept mountain upland known as South Park and the little town of Fairplay.  At an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, chilly Fairplay, a stark fretwork of buildings and scattered, thin aspen stands, did little to lift my mood.  From Fairplay we resumed heading due south, now in the shadow of the massive Mosquito Range cloaked darkly by the Pike National Forest.  It seemed we had traveled through one raw landscape after another. 

Some twenty miles south of Fairplay, however, as Highway 285 noticeably descended, we entered a different landscape, one of gentle hills.  The hills were not dark with impenetrable stands of arrowy conifers and spruce.  They were instead dotted with evergreens of some sort─I would later identify them as juniper trees─that stood no taller than two or three times my height and granted each other a generous measure of space.  And the ground beneath them was not smothered beneath ferns, mushrooms, dead pine needles, and rotting wood; rather, it glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine with a fine, sparsely-vegetated, sandy soil.  From this ground, as spaciously distributed as the junipers, grew cacti, the first I’d ever noticed in the wild.  Meanwhile, the land was webbed with what appeared to be streambeds, but they were waterless, unchoked by willows, and filled with what appeared to be bone-dry sand.  Although I knew we weren’t in the classic North American arid land of a Dristan commercial, the word “desert” entered my consciousness for the first time in my Western experience. As we continued our descent, progressively warmer air bathed the convertible.  When we emerged from this strange fold in the land, a valley huge beyond imagining appeared, and a slender, golden line of trees threaded through its depths.  “The Arkansas River,” my sister, referring to the thread, explained for my benefit.  And the spectacle didn’t stop there.  Just beyond the valley, there exploded a mountain of equally stunning proportion.  “Mt. Princeton,” announced my sister’s boyfriend, “fourteen thousand feet above sea level.”  Warmth, light, space, majesty, asylum: as “high country” went, this one appealed to me.  Little did I know that I had entered, by many authors’ and geographers’ standards, the “Southwest.”  In a mellow, purple evening, we ate alongside ranchers at a Buena Vista steakhouse, eight hundred very agreeable feet below Silverthorne.  I didn’t want to leave.  I lasted another three months in Summit County.  Then I moved to Denver, my toes black, blue, and aching with frostbite, seemingly refusing to thaw.  But I would remember and return to that land of sand, cacti, dry creek beds, and luminous woodlands.

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In Absentia: Southwest Echoes in Film and Literature

Except for one more summer in Denver, I spent most of the next four years in upstate New York, where I attended Hobart College and worked for two summers in the college’s town, and New Jersey, where I lived at home.  During this time, my sense of the Southwest, largely unformed to begin with, began to dwindle even more.  Nevertheless, that distant land still found ways to seep enticingly into my consciousness.  At Hobart, a class in film introduced me to director John Huston’s gritty The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  I especially enjoyed the movie for its depictions of urban and wilderness Mexico, and for Mexican-born Alfonso Bedoya’s memorable performance as a comic, yet cold-blooded, bandito.  Another course introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a book in which graduate student Castaneda narrates his apprenticeship with a Mexican sorcerer, Don Juan Matus, who prescribes peyote for enlightenment.  Castaneda’s “structural analysis” of Don Juan’s “teachings,” which consumes half the book, bored me.  But, given that I was now well into experimenting with mescaline and LSD, I devoured the passages in which Castaneda trips on peyote in the spacious, glowing desert of northern Mexico, a place that seemed much more conducive to visions than the cabbage fields and dense, dark woods of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Hobart’s location.