At Last: the Real Southwest!

Is Albuquerque the real Southwest?  Of course it is.  In fact, maybe the very heart of the Southwest.  In his 1974 book, Southwest Classics, Lawrence Clark Powell reminds 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 remains.  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 3rd-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, are not only lovelyLinda lived on Madiera Drivethey are 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 first began to sense Albuquerque’s unique isolation on a sea of desert.  Albuquerque author Harvey Fergusson notes 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 updates 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 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 65 years earlier; for, as Lawrence Clark Powell observes, 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.

1 thought on “At Last: the Real Southwest!”

  1. Reading “First Impressions of Albuquerque” reminded me of my life. Three decades ago I too lived on a verdant street — Chestnut Street (at the corner of 37th) — just across the river from New Jersey in Philadelphia.

    I have made many mistakes in my life, but giving a girlfriend a vacuum cleaner as a gift has not yet (or ever) been one of them. Your wife Linda must be wonderfully forgiving.

    You also mention Harvey Fergusson. Might he be related to Erna Fergusson, after whom a public library here in Albuquerque is named? (Incidentally, I write these words from the Tony Hillerman public library.) Fergusson’s words that you quote — “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.” — remind me of the opening words of the classic 1970s song “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

    On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
    Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
    Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light …


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