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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 nearly three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army draftee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across southern New Mexico.  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.  I was my understanding 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 somber, 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 both took a deep breath, treated as we were to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: in one direction, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; and, in a slightly different direction, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, nestled in the embrace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  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 years. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon us.  I so wanted my father 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, albeit in a cruder manner, of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after the aforementioned Mabel Dodge Luhan.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” the ever-forthright 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 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 captured my father. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, he 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, snows, 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.”   

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Nick! Nick! Nick! . . . Ftt! Ftt! Ftt! . . . Indians!

Once, Linda drove north and I drove south to get together at the Lawrence Ranch, as in the British author D.H. Lawrence, just north of Taos, New Mexico.  In 1924, the ranch property, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was essentially gifted to Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, by Taos patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan.  In 1955, Frieda 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 sixty-five 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 present as the clouds in the sky, yet something of which I’d been largely unaware all my life: the variously configured specks, known as floaters, in the vitreous of my eyes that skated 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 and crude wooden bunk, we both tossed and turned.  But we survived, albeit exhausted, to witness a beautiful morning of more clouds and floaters.

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First Impressions of Albuquerque

Prior to meeting Linda, I had seen Albuquerque only once, while driving between Denver and Arizona.  Cities witnessed only from interstate highways have never left impressions upon me, and Albuquerque was no exception.  Now, however, I was looking forward to calling Albuquerque my new home.  While Linda rented an apartment in that city 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 New Mexico 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 delighted me under nearly any circumstance.  I grew up in a typically verdant New Jersey town where many street names were not only figuratively but literally wooden: Linden, Maple, Chestnut, Spruce, Arbor, Sherwood, Beechwood, Edgewood.  Even the many Denver streets on which I lived over the years had similarly dull and predictable names: Clarkson, Lafayette, Pearl, Gaylord, Race, Vine, First, Seventeenth.  The names of countless Albuquerque streets, on the other hand, were not only lovely─Linda lived on Madiera Drive─they 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 a night of thrilling Albuquerque weather over the holiday.  On Christmas Eve, Linda and I attended the eleven p.m. service at her church.  The city was buffeted by winds that night.  I imagined them launching off the sheer western face of the Sandia Mountains to the east, or accelerating off the vast and empty plateau that marks Albuquerque’s western edge.  Whatever their origin, the gales shook the great sanctuary of the church as the pastor―who would one day marry Linda and me―delivered 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.  Later that night, one of Santa’s helpers made the mistake of gifting Linda a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner.  She’s never forgotten that!

It was on that gritty, windswept night that I first began to sense Albuquerque’s unique isolation on a sea of desert.  Albuquerque author Harvey Fergusson noted this back 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 nineties, noting Albuquerque’s most unique trait: a city of a half-million effectively surrounded by wilderness. 

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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, returning to the Northeast to live with her new husband.  I drifted back to a Denver college, studying at various times drawing, community service development, accounting, computer science.  I worked as a bookkeeper, bus boy, janitor, handy man, pre-school aide, cab driver, computer operator.  I lived merely from day to day, never imagining leaving Denver.  I dated many women, had flings with several, yet never found one to whom I was willing to open my heart.  Until, that is, 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.

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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 Marty Robbins’s ballads set in El Paso, Texas, the “badlands” of New Mexico, and the remote town of 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 Fender (born 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 reveal 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 is Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It is an evocative, poetic piece that is particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to said beauty by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identifies a number of authors─lesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college English major, 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, in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth; no writer wrote with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.

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1-9-20

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 wood stoves.  

An image from one of these visits 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 appeared to be dead drunk.  Then a 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 romantic curiosity, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Indians well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion.  I wondered if their sad condition to due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, separated from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida, so I now was surprised to see, as our car hurtled along and I sipped on a can of Bud, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine wilds of northwestern New Mexico.      

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Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister and I visited the Pawnee Buttes, eighty-five 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 city of Pueblo.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as 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 three-hundred feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stood in appalling solitude on the green sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounded them for dozens 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, sphinxes, the ferry boats of my childhood.  On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took about twenty 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 twenty 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.  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a 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.  

The buttes and plains were also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writing―for starters, merely in a cheap notebook―their seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  Forget the storied Rockies: since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my twenty-sixth year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved Spring in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from Denver, 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 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 private land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper, of all people, directed me to it.  Today the land is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with high-end mountain homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was, except for an access road or two, undeveloped.  Beside my parked car, after eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck sleeping bag.  I watched the relentless Spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction.  Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, unaware that in a quarter-century I would be living there.  I knew I was back in the genuine Southwest, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosey, 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 the mystical town of Taos.