Dad Meets Mabeltown

On another occasion, I drove down to Albuquerque to meet my father, who had flown into the city from New Hampshire, where he had retired, a widower now for three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army inductee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across the southern part of the state.  After Linda, whom my father had previously met in Denver, and I welcomed him at the Albuquerque airport, my father and I headed in my car to Taos, where we would spend the night and ski the following day.  Dad had never been to the romantic northern New Mexico town.

On the ride north, my father, in the passenger seat, said little.  Understandable: he had always been a man of careful words; plus, his left ear had been failing him for some time and he thus had difficulty conversing even in a car.  Nonetheless, I could see his great interest, in his wide eyes and the continual swivel of his head, as we drove through ancient Santa Fe, shared the street with low riders in the pastoral town of Española, and hugged the Rio Grande, now January meager, in the winding cañon between Velarde and Pilar. 

Yes, I thought proudly, Dad is as fascinated by New Mexico as I am. 

When we finally climbed out of the cañon, we were treated to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: to the west, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; to the east, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, both nestled in the lap of the Sangre de Cristos.  Then we passed through the woodsy hamlet of Ranchos de Taos, where a sign indicated the iconic St. Francis Church, which had been attracting painters and photographers from all over the world for generations. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon the two of us.  Unlike me, my father loved to travel, and I so wanted him to fall under New Mexico’s spell.  But when we entered the south end of Taos, and the highway ballooned into four hectic lanes on either side of which was, amid the litter, a dreary succession of hotels and fast-food joints, my father dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”

“Shitty town.”  Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after Mabel Dodge Luhan, of course.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” Lawrence once observed, “has a terrible will-to-power.”)

A bit stunned, I said nothing and drove on.  Meanwhile, more amused than resentful, I thought: Well, perhaps it is “shitty”―when you live in a New England retirement community of handsome condominiums, manicured lawns, book and bridge clubs, a community garden, weekly trash collection and recycling, and cable TV, all located in a white-steepled Norman Rockwell village with a 150-year-old college, a lake with private beaches, a “Little Theater,” and a tavern serving crab cakes and shepherd’s pie.


My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the aged pueblo architecture, the famous plaza with its majestic cottonwoods, and, especially, the Native Americans from the nearby pueblo and the town’s comely Latinas.  After two martinis and a dinner of pan-seared trout at Doc Martin’s restaurant, and the promise of a night in a sumptuous bed surrounded by R.C. Gorman prints and traditional Hispanic woodworking at the Kachina Lodge, the Taos mystique had just about roped him. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, Dad struggled for air in a heavy snowfall and called it a day after several runs due to poor visibility and a dearth of oxygen.  Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the wind, snow, and vertiginous slopes of the southern Rockies.  On the drive back to Albuquerque, in the cañon of the Rio once again, he reiterated, in his own straightforward and quiet way, his high regard for Linda: “She’s a good catch.”  


At Last: the Real Southwest!

Was Albuquerque the real Southwest?  Of course it was.  In fact, maybe the very epicenter of the Southwest.  In his 1974 book, Southwest Classics, Lawrence Clark Powell reminded readers that he at one time regarded the Southwest’s “heart of hearts” as Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel, “that mellow old turquoise and silver Harvey House beside the Santa Fe [Railroad] tracks.”  The Alvarado was demolished in 1971, but the soil on which it stood remained.  T’was enough said, in my opinion.[1]    

Prior to meeting Linda, I had seen Albuquerque only once, while driving between Denver and Arizona.  Cities witnessed only from interstate highways had never left impressions upon me, and Albuquerque was no exception.  Now, however, I was looking forward to calling The Duke City, as it was also known, my new home.  While Linda rented an apartment in Albuquerque and pursued her career, I remained in Denver, working in data processing while seeking work in Albuquerque long-distance.  My job search took eight months.   

During this time, Linda and I periodically rendezvoused in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico.  I observed my first Christmas in the state while staying in her third-floor apartment.  Of course, everything in my life now was sweetened by first love.  Yet there were aspects of Albuquerque during that visit that would have charmed me under nearly any circumstance. 

I grew up in a typically verdant New Jersey town whose street names naturally spoke of wood: Linden, Maple, Chestnut, Spruce, Arbor, Sherwood, Beechwood, Edgewood.  Later, the names of the many Denver streets on which I lived struck me as dull and predictable: Clarkson, Lafayette, Pearl, Gaylord, Race, Vine.  The names of countless Albuquerque streets, on the other hand, were not only lovelyLinda lived on Madiera Drivethey were literally saintly: San Mateo, San Pedro, San Rafael, San Luis Rey, San Lorenzo, San Patricio, and, of course, San Felipe. 

And then there was the night of thrilling Albuquerque weather over the aforementioned holiday.  On Christmas Eve, Linda and I attended the 11 P.M. service at her church.  The city was buffeted by winds.  I imagined them launching off the sheer western face of the Sandia Mountains to the east of the city, or accelerating off the vast and the empty plateau that is Albuquerque’s western edge.  Whatever their origin, the gales shook the great sanctuary of the church as the pastorwho would one day marry Linda and medelivered the sermon of joy and hope.  At the end of the service, the congregation lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”  Certainly, “all” was not “calm” in Albuquerque that night.  Yet the dramatic weather seemed fitting for the night’s great religious significance.  Driving home, we saw strands of colorful lights, strung on the city’s trees and shrubs, dancing in the wind.  And there was snow in the air.  Yet in the dry, brute wind the flakes were remarkably light, reluctant to adhere to or even meet the ground, more spirit than substance.  Meanwhile, our car seemed borne upon the undulating veils of sand that proceeded up the asphalt streets before and beneath us.  Snow and desert, I thought, what a strange pairing! 

It was on that gritty, windswept night that I began to sense Albuquerque’s unique isolation on a sea of desert.  Albuquerque author Harvey Fergusson acknowledged this in 1944: “Like all Western towns seen from a distance, [Albuquerque] looks small and insignificant, completely dominated by a landscape that lends itself but grudgingly to human use.”  Albuquerque author V.B. Price updated this theme in the early 1990’s, pointing out Albuquerque’s most unique trait: a city of a half-million effectively surrounded by wilderness.  Wilderness, indeed: In 2015, the National Wildlife Federation named Albuquerque one of the top-10 wildlife-friendly cities in America.

Once, Linda drove north and I drove south from Denver to get together at the Lawrence Ranch, as in the British author D.H. Lawrence, just north of Taos.  In 1924, the ranch property, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was gifted to Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, by Taos patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan.  In 1955, Frieda, long after her husband had died, donated the ranch to the University of New Mexico.  As a Fellow in Infectious Disease at the university, Linda was given preferred access to the ranch’s facilities, which included several rustic cabins. 

For myself, I knew nothing about the ranch, and my knowledge of the bearded, wraith-like Lawrence was scant.  In high school, I read his short story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” about a boy who has an uncanny ability to pick winners at the racetrack.  In 1969, I laughed at the scene in the film Easy Rider in which a disheveled, unshaven, hungover ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson toasts Lawrence on the streets of a putative hick town (in real life, Las Vegas, New Mexico) with a breakfast slug of Jim Beam followed by a primitive war cry, some peculiar utterances, and a final gasp of “Indians!”  I saw director Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Lawrence’s novel Women in Love when it was first released, and had never forgotten the remarkable scene in which actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed playfully wrestle “Japanese style”: in the nude before a roaring fire.  Although I never studied him at length at Hobart, I knew Lawrence was regarded as a giant of English literature, and I looked forward to experiencing something so palpably associated with him as the New Mexico ranch. 

On the afternoon of our rendezvous, Linda and I lay on our backs in the sweet, soft summer grass of the ranch property, marveling at the color and clarity of the New Mexico sky, surely not unlike Lawrence some 65 years earlier; for, as Lawrence Clark Powell observed, D.H. “preferred to write out of doors, seated on the ground, with his back against a tree.”  In the midst of this reverie, Linda asked me to focus, really focus, on my vision and, summoning her medical knowledge, drew my attention to something as manifest as the clouds in the sky, yet something of which I’d been unaware all my life: the variously configured specks, known as floaters, in the vitreous of my eyes, skating in all directions as if upon the azure New Mexico heavens.  I regarded this as not only a fascinating anatomical lesson, but also, of course, as one more charming moment between us.  That night, in one of the cabins, the charm was tested as, each in a short (Lawrence stood 5 feet 9 inches) and crude wooden bunk, we both tossed and turned.  But we survived, albeit exhausted, to witness a beautiful morning of more clouds and floaters.

[1] Or almost enough said.  With the end of The Alvarado, Powell moved his Southwestern “heart of hearts” to a rather wilder location: “. . . that buff-colored sandstone battlement called by the Anglos Inscription Rock”―which likely will never be leveled―in the rocky piñon-and-juniper woodlands of northwestern New Mexico.


I Two-Step into Love

Meanwhile, I continued to grope for some kind of future in the Mile High City.  My sister had left Denver.  I drifted back to a Denver college, studying at various times drawing, community service development, accounting, and computer science.  I worked as a bookkeeper, bus boy, janitor, handy man, pre-school aide, cab driver, and computer operator.  I lived merely from day to day, never imagining leaving Denver.  I dated a few women, had flings with fewer still, yet never found one to whom I was willing to open my heart.  (Nor did it help that, my feminist posturing notwithstanding, I opened my lonely eyes a little too often to the hot, unreal voids of Playboy, Penthouse, and cruder magazines.)

One day, however, my fondness for country-and-western music eventually led me to a class in such country dances as two-step, schottische, and waltz.  There I met a woman, a long-time Coloradan, with whom I fell in love.  Her career as a physician was soon to take her to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Before long, we were agreeing to join one another there.


The Southwest of Music and Photographs

During these years, the Southwest also reached me through music, photographs, and literature.  Growing up in New Jersey, I was never far from a radio, and I enjoyed, on the pop music stations, the country-and-western “cross-over” recordings of such artists as Roger Miller, Leroy Van Dyke, Bobby Bare, the Statler Brothers, and Tammy Wynette.  In Denver, I naturally gravitated to an AM station that played nothing but country music, and soon I was purchasing country albums.  I particularly loved listening to recordings with an obvious Southwest tinge: Marty Robbins’s ballads set in El Paso, Texas, and Agua Frio, Arizona; Johnny Cash’s “You Wild Colorado,” his spare acoustical paean to the major American river of the same name; Johnny Rodriguez’s musical tale of hitchhiking to Mexico; and tenor Freddie Fenderborn Baldemar Huerta―singing, in Spanish as well as English, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Photographs had interested me ever since I was a child and first opened Life’s Picture History of World War II, which stood tall and weighty on my parents’ bookshelf.  So one day at the main branch of the Denver Public Library, I marveled at Ansel Adams’s Photographs of the Southwest: 109 black-and-white “plates” that revealed the strange landscapes and rugged peoples of the Southwest from Texas to California and Mexico to Utah.  Yet for me, a more lasting feature of this book was Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It was an evocative, poetic piece particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to it by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identified a number of authors─lesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college student, but, in Powell’s estimation, often no less talented─who had for over a century produced memorable fiction and non-fiction about the Southwest.  Later, living in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth.  No writer has ever written with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.



While living in Denver during the next seven years, travel kept me in contact with the Southwest.  En route to Arizona, I stayed in a motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  I visited friends in Tucson and Bisbee, Arizona.  I visited a cousin in Seligman, Arizona, where, on a chilly November evening, every street in the high-plateau railroad town was perfumed with juniper smoke from the many wood stoves of the town’s residents. 

An image from one of these travels has never left me.  One evening, in the New Mexico quadrant of the Four Corners region, a friend and I were racing along a deserted highway leading to the town of Shiprock.  Up ahead, in the twilight, a half-dozen men, all in a line, appeared to be standing beside a wooden fence that paralleled the highway.  “Funny time to be repairing a fence,” I remarked.  However, as we passed them, we realized they weren’t exactly standing.  They were leaning against the fence.  Some were even draped over it.  All were obviously dead drunk.  Then, a lonely roadhouse appeared on the same side of the highway, and out of it staggered and weaved another procession of Indians.  Our road map indicated that we were on the Navajo reservation. 

Occasionally, out of a Kerouac-ian romantic inclination, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Native Americans well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion.  I wondered if their sad condition was due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, wrenched from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida.  Thus, it surprised me to see, as our car hurtled along toward Shiprock, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine high-desert of northwestern New Mexico. 

Meanwhile, I sipped on my fifth can of Bud since Denver.

I’d much to learn.


Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister suggested she and I visit the Pawnee Buttes, 85 miles northeast of Denver, on the Great Plains.  Until that day, my explorations in Colorado never took me any farther east than the edge-of-the-plains cities of Pueblo and Greeley.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I had crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as, in the words of Willa Cather, the surface of sheet iron, nor the occasional polyp of a high-plains farming or ranching community held any attraction for me. 

Until, that is, the day I visited the twin buttes, which, along with their surroundings, entranced me.  Standing within a half-mile of one another, both breast-like formations were some 300 feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stood in appalling solitude on a sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounded them for scores of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seemed inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They had a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, and sphinxes.  They particularly recalled the ferry boats I occasionally rode in my childhood.  

On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took a mere 20 minutes.  Spreading from its southern base was a maze of deep, barren arroyos: a mini-badland, nervous intaglio to the butte’s serene cameo, that extended for a quarter-mile before surrendering to the insistent plains smoothness.  It took me another 20 minutes to climb to the butte’s anvil-like peak.  From this eminence I saw the Great Plains as never before.  Its implacable flatness calmed my soul.  “[T]here is something very restful about the horizontal line,” wrote desert sojourner John C. Van Dyke in 1901.  “Things that lie flat are at peace and the mind grows peaceful with them.”  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a queer weight upon the land, a powerful presence.  My reaction to the Pawnee Buttes and their spacious surroundings anticipated my fascination, a decade later, with the mesas of the high plateaus of New Mexico, Arizona, and southeast Utah.  

These buttes and plains were also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writingfor starters, merely scribblings in a cheap notebooktheir seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  Again, Van Dyke: “The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful.” 

Forget the storied Rockies: Since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.[1]

[1] Brooklynite Truman Capote’s reaction to the Great Plains―in his case, those of western Kansas, when he was chronicling events there that would result in his masterpiece, In Cold Blood―was not unlike my own.  Capote biographer Gerald Clarke writes: “Even the location, a part of the country as alien to [Capote] as the steppes of Russia, had a perverse appeal. ‘Everything would seem freshly minted,’ [Capote] later explained, reconstructing his thinking at the time. ‘The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather.  All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.’”  



Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my 26th year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved springtime in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from the city, hoping to find a landscape similar to my cherished one outside of Buena Vista, where I would spend a night. 

I did.  It was a woodland on the western slope of La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo”Blood of Christ”Mountains of south-central Colorado.  Lush with juniper, it also included another diminutive evergreen, one that bore nuts rather than berries: the pinyon, or, as the Spanish know it, the piñon.  It was part of a vast parcel of land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper showed me precisely where to access it.  Today the woodland is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with pricey homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was undeveloped. 

Beside my parked car, after heating and eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (the 1970’s novice car-camper’s default banquet), I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck cloth sleeping bag.  I watched the wild and relentless spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction, the spice of the burning juniper barely detectable amid the thieving winds. 

Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, never imagining I would one day live there.  I was back in the spacious “desert” landscape I loved, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosy, wind-whipped sunsets, I drove farther south, to camp for the first time in New Mexico, still in the foothills of the Sangres, not far north of Taos, a town still little-known to me.