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And Then a Little Beyond Albuquerque

Later that first week, I left the city limits, motoring west and looping briefly through the rural stretches of Bernalillo, Cibola, and Valencia counties.  In the distances I saw Sierra Ladrones and Mt. Taylor.  I plunged into and out of the massive basin of the Rio Puerco; the basin contains a lone, barren hill, Cerro Colorado, its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey.  (Now that’s big, I thought. Imagine the number of New Jerseys I could fit in this state.)  I skirted the Cañoncito Navajo Indian Reservation (today the re-named To’hajiilee Indian Reservation of Breaking Bad fame) and sliced across the Laguna Indian Reservation, although I don’t believe I saw a single Indian.  I saw countless mesas and massive ramps of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like pieces of warped linoleum.  I saw eroded rangelands of dust, destroyed, unbeknownst to me, by overgrazing.  In the extinct settlement of Correo, New Mexico, I passed the ghostly ruin of the Wild Horse Mesa Bar, likely the last stop of many a cowboy and Indian.  I drove Route 6, a remnant of Route 66, to Los Lunas; the highway paralleled the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad, and I kept pace with mile-long freight trains traveling 60 miles per hour.  Returning north to Albuquerque, I shadowed the Rio Grande.

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Albuquerque’s Great River

Just west of Old Town runs the legendary Rio Grande, depending on how it is measured, either the fourth- or fifth-longest river system in North America.  While a Colorado resident, I surely crossed it several times during my jaunts to the southern part of the state and northern New Mexico, most likely in the town 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 resonates there, for it is narrow through this stretch and buried in a canyon 500 feet deep.  And, of course, I glimpsed its scant flow as my father and I drove to and from Taos. 

Still, before moving to New Mexico, the Rio, to me, was far more a mere geographical feature in a Hollywood western or an element of 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 Albuquerque’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!  What encouraging foresight that the bosque wasn’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. 

I marveled at this serene wilderness corridor through the clamor and clutter of Albuquerque.  It was obviously a part of the city, yet at the same time oddly―and alluringly―apart from it, seemingly inviolate.  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 views and 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.”

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I Meet Albuquerque

I had a week to get to know 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.  Fortunately, much of what I observed back then still exists today.

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. Now, 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 1960’s, 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. 

I’ve mentioned hints of the Southwest during my childhood and youth.  Here was another prominent one: the 1960’s television series Route 66, in which two handsome and seemingly carefree young men named 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 dramatic and enlightening adventures.  Bandleader Nelson Riddle’s theme song for the show, a jazzy instrumental that churns like a Corvette engine and soars like the Western sky, stirs me to this day. 

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 drawn to Denver’s Colfax Avenue, a similarly long east-west thoroughfare, as an 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 grass 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.   

Meanwhile, 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; I doubted that any were actual adobe brick.  Protruding from the upper edges of the walls were logs, some six inches in diameter, meant to recall the supports―or vigas―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 were not supporting roofs of branches and mud, as in a much earlier time.  Meanwhile, Spanish portals constructed of pine logs occasionally shaded and sheltered the entrances to some of these businesses. 

Very quickly, I realized that pueblo-revival style for businesses and houses was extremely common throughout Albuquerque, with most of the structures likely consisting of cinderblock or wood 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 was a land of little rain.  Adobe brick would not last long in Kentucky.

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 brown-complected people who walked, rode, and drove on the avenue.  I’m referring, once again, to Latinos, who, at the time, made up about a quarter of Denver’s population; however, they comprised over a third of Albuquerque’s. The difference was stunning: At times on Central, I felt like I was on the street of any city in Mexico, among thousands of descendants of the first inhabitants of the Americas.

As in many an American city, this stretch of Central Avenue often included prostitutes and hustlers.    

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 24-hour eatery; three small art movie houses; two independent bookstores─that catered to the needs, wants, and trivialities of college youth, many of them flush with allowances. 

The UNM 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. 

A little farther west stood downtown Albuquerque.  The city’s commercial and municipal core for most of its history, it covered at the time about 60 square blocks and was thus considerably smaller than Denver’s.  Downtown’s tallest building was a mere 18 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 originated 25 miles southwest of the city, deviating from a main Santa Fe east-west line; beyond Albuquerque, it ran to northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. 

The occasional freight train and the twice-daily Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train that ran on this line through the heart of Albuquerque thrilled me, a train watcher since childhood.  (Every major inner city should have at least one grade crossing requiring rushed and neurotic motorists to pause and contemplate a slow-moving train bearing soothing messages from the remote.)  Squatting beside and slightly below a long platform, a small, decrepit station served the Amtrak passengers.  Albuquerque was a refueling point for the Southwest Chief, whose route, like Route 66’s, ran between Chicago and Los Angeles, so each shining, elegant passenger train paused at the station for some forty minutes before issuing a single blast of its whistle, announcing departure, that echoed off of downtown’s taller structures.  Today, the line continues to operate―although freight traffic on this line to Colorado has all but ceased―and the Southwest Chief continues to serve the city. 

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, frankly, 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 was a roughhewn city on the edge of a wilderness.       

West of downtown stood Old Town, Albuquerque’s original commercial and residential area.  It consisted of houses―many, not surprisingly, pueblo-revival style─that bordered a plaza that included 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 sat with serene, infinite patience on folding chairs or directly on the concrete and flagstones as they displayed their fine 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 25-acre property.   


[1] Today, according to the 2020 Census, Latinos make up roughly 47% of New Mexico, making New Mexico the most heavily Latino state in the United States. 

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Hello, New Mexico

As I drove south on I-25, the Great Plains to my left and then a succession of mountainsthe Rampart Range, the Wet Mountains, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountainsto my right, the exits to places with obviously 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 Sangres rose to my right and an array of mesas, dark green with piñon and juniper, towered to my left.  After I drove over Glorieta Pass, tame by Colorado standards, and a through place called Apache Canyon, there exploded before me a land of tawny plains and scattered mountains, what geographers call America’s Basin and Range Province.  Prospect and refuge: my new home.

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 cool, soft, spring-like air surprised me.  Driving south toward the city’s center on a broad, gently-sloping plateau that climbs east to the Sandia Mountains and descends west to the Rio Grande, I became aware of the huge, dun-colored, and seemingly uninhabited upland that borders 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 yawning landscape to the west, resembling as it does 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 3rd-floor balcony.

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Goodbye and Thanks, Colorado

Fourteen months after meeting Linda, I landed a job as a computer programmer at an Albuquerque lumber company.  Advised (translation: 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 cannabis from my system.  (I was an occasional user.)  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, Red and I headed south on I-25 to Albuquerque.