First Exploration Beyond Albuquerque – Part 1

My curiosity was not limited to Albuquerque during that first week.  I was eager to explore the undeveloped lands beyond the city’s limits.  Of all American cities, including Southwestern cities, Albuquerque is surely unique in that it is surrounded by four distinctly different landscapes: forested mountains to the north, shortgrass prairie to the east, classic desert to the south, and arid plateau country to the west.  Finally, of course, it is sliced by a fifth: the riparian area of the Rio Grande. 

Of these, it was the plateau country that I initially explored.  That grand, empty stage that loomed at the western edge of the city constitutes the extreme southeastern region of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among the United States of America, meet.  It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also contains scattered mountain ranges, many of them forested.  I wasn’t a complete stranger to it.  In the year prior to my move to New Mexico, I twice visited southeast Utah, where the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, carved primarily by the Colorado and San Juan rivers, are given fullest expression. 

To gain the plateau country as quickly as possible, I headed west in Little Red on I-40.  After crossing the Rio Grande, I climbed steeply for some seven miles to the rim of my stage.  Beyond the rim and its fretwork of several small businesses, there exploded a grassy and nearly treeless upland beneath a vast sky.  A mountain range, barely forested and certainly diminutive by Colorado standards, loomed above the horizon to the southwest; visible, as well, from many parts of Albuquerque, I would later know it as the Sierra Ladrones.  A gradual climb of several more miles led me to a crest and then a view that rivalled the one my father and I had witnessed on our trip to Taos: a massive basin, also predominantly treeless and uninhabited.  The distant western horizon was a nearly a solid string of mesas, those queer flat-topped formations.  To the northwest rose a forested mountain, a snow-covered flank of which shone in the morning sunlight; I would soon identify it as Mt. Taylor, one of the four “sacred mountains” of the Navajos and Pueblos.  The basin contained a lone, barren hill; its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─I later calculated, was roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey; yet it was merely one more marble in the huge satchel that was this basin. 

While plummeting to the basin’s depths, I passed some acreage that was eroded, strewn with trash and old automobile tires, and almost completely stripped of vegetation.  A half-dozen cattle wandered upon it, effortlessly raising puffs of dust.  Yet, I was barely troubled by the obvious connection between this appalling devastation and the presence of the livestock, still of the opinion that a dusty, shit-smeared cow was as natural and welcome a presence on the Southwestern landscape as the coyote, black bear, mule deer, cougar, and nuthatch; this attitude would change.  At the bottom of the basin, sunk in a shallow, dirt-walled, tree-and-brush-choked canyon, a mere scratch in the land, there ran a slender watercourse, although now one just occasionally puddled.  Two concrete bridges delivered nearly all of the interstate traffic across this grim bottomland and silent riverbed.  A third conveyance, a steel truss bridge obviously from a much earlier era, barely two lanes wide and rusting, was part of a frontage road that served a convenience store and gas station just east of the canyon.  An exit sign identified this forlorn outpost, and, presumably, the watercourse accompanying it, as Rio Puerco.  To me, the feebleness of this “river” didn’t at all the square with the hugeness of the basin that stretched to the northern and southern horizons, but then I was still unappreciative of that river known as time.  From the basin the interstate climbed and dipped a couple more times before delivering me to yet another plateau.  Upon it another queer landform appeared: a massive ramp of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like a piece of warped linoleum. 


Albuquerque’s Great River

Just west of Old Town runs the legendary Rio Grande.  While a Colorado resident, before knowing Linda, I surely crossed it several times during my jaunts to the southern part of the state and northern New Mexico, most likely in the city of Alamosa.  During our Lawrence Ranch rendezvous, Linda and I witnessed the river from a bridge eight miles west of Taos; however, the river barely resonated then, for it was narrow through this stretch and buried in a canyon 500 feet deep.  Thus, before moving to New Mexico, the Rio, to me, was far more a mere idea in a Hollywood western or a comic Johnny Mercer song about an “old cowhand” than an actual watercourse.  Rolling into the city on that Valentine’s Day evening, I didn’t actually see the river, but I certainly sensed it in the gulf of space between the east and west uplands that cradle the heart of Albuquerque.  Now, as a new Albuquerque resident, I realized the river was, literally and figuratively, central to the city.    

Tootling around the city’s center in Little Red during my first week, I crossed the river on Central Avenue.  While doing so, I first marveled at the woods, commonly known in the city by the Spanish name bosque, of cottonwood, willow, and Russian olive that border, narrowly but densely, each side of the river.  What precious slices of nature in the middle of this city of 380,000, I thought; what refreshing foresight that they weren’t flattened and replaced with concrete levees, lawns, asphalt, parking garages, and luxury condominiums.  Then, continuing onto an unimposing beam bridge, my eyes darting left and right, I glimpsed the Great River itself, although in late February it wasn’t so “great.”  The snow packs of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico had yet to contribute to it, and Cochiti Dam, not far upriver, had yet to release much, if any, of its impounded waters for irrigation purposes, so the Rio, some 40 yards wide here, looked almost feeble as it braided through islands of sand, here and there exposing a snagged, sodden tree limb.  In any event, I marveled at this serene and seemingly inviolate wilderness corridor through the clamor and clutter of Albuquerque.  It was obviously a part of the city, yet at the same time oddly apart from it.  The river’s February want did not trouble me.  On the contrary, that the river was shrunken and slow-moving made it all the more inviting: I felt as if I could, if I was so crazily inclined, hike its string of sandbars north to Alamosa or south to Matamoros, Mexico, through forest or desert, abundance or penury, the spring freshets eventually erasing any trace of me. 

Such were my first impressions of Albuquerque.  I’d been a city-dweller for nearly all of the fifteen years since I graduated from college, and this new city agreed with me.  As did, especially, its surroundings: No matter where I happened to be in Albuquerque, I was nearly always accompanied by a vast, vibrantly blue sky and the uplifting sight of a near or distant mountain or mesa.  As Albuquerque author Erna Fergusson once observed, “This grandeur of nature so near is not without influence in the town.” 


Old Albuquerque

West of downtown stands Old Town, Albuquerque’s original commercial and residential area.  It consists of houses―many, not surprisingly, pueblo-revival style; perhaps even some of authentic adobe brick─that border a plaza that includes a handsome gazebo, shops and restaurants catering largely to tourists, and an ancient Catholic church with an attached former convent.  In February, under portals on the east side of the plaza, bundled-up Indians from the nearby pueblos sit with infinite patience on folding chairs or directly on the concrete and flagstones as they display their exquisite jewelry for sale. 

North of Old Town, in a place known as the Sawmill District, stood the headquarters of the lumber company where I was to work.  While the company harvested timber from, and had a number of mills in, rural New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and even Mississippi, I liked the fact that its Albuquerque headquarters also had a mill for processing logs trucked in from northern New Mexico.  Thus, a sweet piney fragrance, a scent of the wilderness in the depths of the city, wafted over the company’s twenty-five-acre property.   


Downtown Albuquerque

A little farther west stands downtown Albuquerque.  The city’s commercial and municipal core for most of its history, it covered at the time about sixty square blocks and was thus considerably smaller than Denver’s.  Downtown’s tallest building was a mere eighteen floors.  Located downtown were banks, hotels, small restaurants, Indian jewelry and pottery stores, a Woolworth’s, parking garages, shoeshine parlors, barber shops, a post office, a jail, bail bonds businesses, city and county administration buildings, the Kimo Theater with its colorful Pueblo Deco façade, and the grim façade of the decaying El Rey Theater, which hosted rock concerts. 

Along with the public library, my favorite downtown attraction was the Santa Fe Railroad line, which delineated downtown’s eastern boundary.  It was a predominantly single-track line that deviated twenty-five miles southwest of the city from a main line of the Santa Fe and ran to northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado.  The occasional freight train and the twice-daily Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train that ran through the heart of Albuquerque thrilled me, a train watcher since childhood.  (Every major inner city should have at least one grade crossing requiring anxious and neurotic motorists to pause and contemplate a slow-moving train bearing soothing messages from the remote.)  Squatting beside and slightly below two long and empty platforms, a small, decrepit downtown railroad station served the Amtrak passengers.  Albuquerque remains a refueling point for the Southwest Chief, whose route, like Route 66’s, runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, so each shining, elegant passenger train pauses at the station for thirty to forty delicious minutes before issuing a single blast of its whistle, announcing departure, that echoes off of downtown’s taller structures. 

After the glass, steel, and fast pace of boom-and-bust Denver, I liked, both as a motorist and pedestrian, downtown Albuquerque’s smaller size, slower pace, intimate feel, and antiquatedness.  Downtown had its slice or two of luxury, but the sight of a stretch limo escorted by a pair of galumphing tumbleweeds as it pulled into the entrance of the handsome La Posada Hotel on a windy February night was yet another reminder that this is a roughhewn city on the edge of a wilderness.       


Pause: Remembering Kirk Douglas (and a City I Wish I’d Known)

Kirk Douglas has died.  Meanwhile, his obituary in the Albuquerque Journal gave only the briefest mention of his 1962 movie, Lonely are the Brave.  Which is odd, because Douglas considered this movie his favorite.  And because the movie was filmed in Albuquerque.

The movie is based upon the fine 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey, a UNM graduate and firebrand of wilderness defense.  In the movie, Douglas is Jack Burns, a modern-day self-described “cowhand” and “loner clear down deep to my very guts.”  Burns also has issues, to say the least, with 20th-century life.  He rides on a horse named Whiskey into “Duke City” from a ranch likely in the vicinity of Socorro, New Mexico.  He soon purposely commits a minor, if wild, infraction in order to be thrown into the Duke City jail.  Burns’s longtime friend, Paul Bondi, is an inmate there, destined for “two years in the penitentiary” for giving aid to some “wetbacks” after they entered the United States.  With the aid of a pair of hacksaw blades smuggled into the jail in his boot, Burns wants to spring Bondi and himself from the jail.  He then wants Bondi and Bondi’s wife and son to join him on an escape to the safety and idyll of “a place in Sinaloa,” Mexico.  I’ll reveal no more.

The movie was directed by David Miller.  In a New York Times article, film director Alex Cox described the movie as “elegantly photographed, theatrical rather than ‘natural,’ exuberantly acted, deftly paced.” Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo did a fine job with the script, with Abbey himself, in his journals, generously remarking, “It’s very good – the dialog much livelier, heartier, wittier, than my own.”  Douglas, 44 when he made the movie, is as magnetic as ever: handsome, simple, strong, his famous chin dimple still as obvious as Tijeras Canyon.  The marvelous cast includes Walter Matthau (at his grumpy best), gorgeous Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane (unfortunately, often overlooked in discussions of the film), William Schallert, Carroll O’Conner, George Kennedy, and Bill Raisch, who is exquisitely menacing as an embittered one-armed man.  The movie has comedy and a very curious love triangle.  Finally, the movie is beautifully scored with equal measures of drama and tenderness by Jerry Goldsmith.

As a writer and a lover of wilderness who has long been interested in what writers call the “spirit of place,” I am grateful that Kirk Douglas had the vision and sensitivity to make certain that Lonely are the Brave was filmed not somewhere in California, but in Albuquerque.  The West Mesa, Rio Grande, and Sandia Mountains also figure prominently in the film.    

Watching the movie, I occasionally wish I could have lived in Albuquerque in 1961, when the movie was made and the city’s population was a mere 200,000.  Yet, today, thanks to this movie, I can, in a sense.  I can join Jack Burns and his beloved horse as they camp in the sand-and-juniper emptiness of the West Mesa, which today is blanketed by houses and strip malls.  I can enter the tranquil neighborhood and cozy home of the Bondi family – at the time, the North Valley residence of Arch Napier, an employee of the Albuquerque Tribune.  I can travel on the movie’s “Highway 60” – actually, Route 66 in 1961, serene by today’s standards – as it winds intimately through Tijeras Canyon.  And, with gasping Jack Burns, I can slog up the western ramparts of the Sandias, which Abbey, with a stirring mysticism, described as “loom[ing] over the valley like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations” – and which today, thankfully, remains mostly unsullied by development.  

I’ve lived in Albuquerque off and on for over three decades, and I’ve come to embrace this city and its unfailingly awesome surroundings.  As for Edward Abbey, he indicated he had scarce love for Albuquerque, but his romantic and tragic novel, and this film, remind me of why I’m sticking with this city for the duration.

When it was released in 1962, Lonely are the Brave was a modest popular and a strong critical success.  Today the movie is rightfully regarded as a cult classic. 

Thank you, Albuquerque.

And rest in peace, Kirk Douglas.          


Getting My Kicks: Part 2

West of San Mateo Boulevard, as Central Avenue neared the University of New Mexico campus, many businesses on and near the avenue had a smarter and more prosperous look.  Fancier restaurants appeared, as did the businesses─head, clothing, record, video, and copying shops; a sprawling twenty-four-hour eatery; three small art movie houses; two independent bookstores─that catered to the needs, wants, and trivialities of college youth flush with allowances.  The campus along Central included an informal athletic field and grassy commons from which grew stately fir and deciduous trees that filled with a remarkable quantity of crows at dusk, and handsome and imposing buildings, including beautifully maintained pueblo-revival structures.  Here on the sidewalks of Central, amid the hurrying students─men and women of all races and ethnicities burdened with textbooks, radiant with youth and idealism─there often shuffled, staggered, or squatted a mentally ill, alcoholic, or homeless person: the wretched and needy of Albuquerque knew where the tolerant, tender-hearted, and generous could be found. 


Getting My Kicks: Part I

I had a week to explore Albuquerque and its environs before beginning my job at the lumber company.  Denver fascinated me when, 18 and thrilled at being on my own for the first time in my life, I hit its streets.  The bliss of first love at age 37 fueled a similar fascination with the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque. 

Linda’s apartment was located several blocks from Central Avenue.  Before the construction of Interstate 40, Central Avenue was the city’s main east-west artery. Today, it remains a bustling, 16-mile-long segment of the famous U.S. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California.  Rendered obsolete by the gradual construction of America’s interstate highway system, Route 66 effectively ended in the late sixties, but its spirit lives on in Central Avenue, which is the longest surviving urban stretch of the highway; Albuquerque’s commercial and cultural interests make much of this fact.  

As I suggested earlier, Route 66 wasn’t a complete surprise to me. In the early sixties, I often watched the television series Route 66, in which two handsome and seemingly carefree young men, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, drive in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible all around America (and thus often far beyond the “Route 66” of the title) and have adventures generally of the dramatic nature.  Bandleader Nelson Riddle’s theme song for the show, a jazzy instrumental that churns like a Corvette engine and soars like the Western sky, thrills me to this day. 

Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” written by jazz pianist and actor Bobby Troup.          

When one lives in southeast Albuquerque, as Linda and I did when I first arrived in the city, Central Avenue is hard to avoid.  I was drawn to it by its fame as well as its convenience and various goods and services, just as I was attracted to Denver’s Colfax Avenue, a similarly long east-west thoroughfare, as a curious and adventurous 18-year-old.  In February of 1988, Central Avenue consisted of four worn and bumpy lanes lined with often cracked and grimy sidewalks.  Between San Mateo and Tramway boulevards, it was bordered by motels, some obviously decaying; chain fast-food and mom-and-pop restaurants; used-car lots; full- and self-serve car washes; appliance repair shops; an apartment complex set back from the avenue; bars; a supermarket; Indian jewelry stores; an “adult” store; the state fairgrounds; and a considerable number of boarded-up businesses.  What few spindly trees and feeble shrubs there were along the avenue had yet to leaf out; what few patches of grasses existed were winter gray.  By day, Central Avenue was a dull, monotonous sight; by night, it was an alternating river of darkness and lurid electric signage.   

Yet this was New Mexico, not Colorado, and Central Avenue was clearly not Colfax Avenue.  One explanation for this difference was architecture.  The architecture of many of Central Avenue’s businesses, particularly its motels, was what I would soon come to know as pueblo-revival style: generally single-story structures meant to recall the dwellings of adobe brick and mud of the early Pueblo Indian inhabitants of New Mexico’s Rio Grande region.  The businesses’ walls were brown, white, or dark pink and softly rounded at the edges; however, I doubted that they were actual adobe.  Protruding from the upper edges of the walls were logs, some six inches in diameter, meant to recall the supports for the ceilings and roofs of the original dwellings; I suspected many of these logs were full-length and not merely abbreviated simply for effect, although they certainly did not support the original roofs of branches and mud.  Meanwhile, Spanish portals supported by large pine logs occasionally shaded and sheltered the entrances to some of these businesses. 

Soon, I realized that pueblo-revival style was extremely common throughout Albuquerque, although almost without exception it consisted of structures of cinderblock or wood that was coated in wire and stucco.  Whether authentic adobe brick or not, whether with corners round or sharp, I liked its echoes, especially amid Central Avenue’s calamity of people and traffic, of a simpler, slower, more earth-rooted past, and its reminder that this is a land of little rain.  Adobe brick would not last long in a rain forest.

Another explanation for the difference, more profound, to me, than the architecture, were the people who occupied the pavement and sidewalks of Central Avenue.  I wasn’t prepared for the numbers of dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-skinned people who walked, rode, and drove on the avenue.  At the time, Latinos made up about a quarter of Denver’s population; yet they comprised over a third of Albuquerque’s.  I considered the difference significant: at times on Central, I felt like I was on the street of a Mexican city, among ancestors of the first inhabitants of the Americas. 


Arrival in Albuquerque

As I drove south on I-25, the Great Plains to my left and then a succession of mountains―the Rampart Range, the Wet Mountains, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains―to my right, the exits to places with Spanish names multiplied: Aguilar, Trinidad, Alamosa, and La Junta in Colorado; Raton, Cimarron, and Las Vegas in New Mexico.  Beyond Las Vegas, I began wending west.  For miles, the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristos rose to my right and an array of mesas, dark green with piñon and juniper, towered to my left.  After Glorieta Pass―tame by Colorado standards―and a place called Apache Canyon, there exploded a land of tawny plains and scattered mountains: what geographers call America’s Basin and Range Province.  Refuge and prospect: my home for the next nine years.

I skirted the southern end of Santa Fe, plummeted down the side of a huge plateau―La Bajada Hill―and negotiated a bridge that crossed a broad, meandering bed of dry sand, identified by a highway sign as Rio Galisteo.  I crossed more dry watercourses, passed more exits to mystical-sounding places: Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Algodones, Placitas.  

I approached Albuquerque’s city limit in a lavender dusk.  My window rolled down for the first time since Denver, the gentle, spring-like air surprised me.  Driving south toward the city’s center on a broad, gently-sloping plateau that climbed east to the Sandia Mountains and descended west to the Rio Grande, I became aware of the huge, dun-colored, and seemingly uninhabited upland that bordered the western edge of the city.  Not long after my arrival, Linda revealed to me that she feared I would find Albuquerque’s surroundings too barren to ever call home, with her fear particularly rooted in that stark upland visible throughout much of the city.  On the contrary, I was thrilled by that sprawling landscape to the west, resembling as it did a cosmic stage just waiting for the sky above it to enact its dramas―and waiting for me to explore it. When I emerged from my parked car on Madeira Drive, my Valentine waved to me from her third-floor balcony.


Fast Forward

Fourteen months after meeting Linda, I landed a job as a computer programmer at an Albuquerque lumber company.  Advised (correction: warned) by my new employer that I would be drug-tested in Albuquerque prior to my first day of work, before leaving Denver I did a six-day juice fast, confident, albeit with no scientific proof whatsoever, that it would remove any trace of marijuana from my system.  On the last day of my fast─beyond hunger, my breath sweet, my mind calm and sparkling, my body feather-light and free of the distraction and ordeal of digestion─I arose early, got in my Mercury Lynx, named Little Red, and made a triumphant farewell loop through central Colorado─Fairplay, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Silverthorne─bidding a grateful goodbye to the Colorado high country that had led me on a circuitous journey to my Southwest.  Several days later, on a Valentine’s Day morning, Little Red and I headed south on I-25 to Albuquerque.