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.”