The Roots of My Woodsy Solitude

I continued my exploration of the Southwest that existed beyond the cities and towns.  My goal was always to get far beyond, among other things, artificial light and the sight and sound of motor vehicles of any kind. 

However, to do so safely and comfortably, some new equipment was in order.  So I replaced my flimsy footwear designed for concrete and asphalt with my first pair of boots manufactured specifically for hiking; my foam rubber mattress with a compact inflatable mattress; my Sears cloth sleeping bag with a down-filled mummy bag; and my little plastic tarp with a one-person backpacking tent with a rain fly.  I purchased a water filter and a container to hold four eggs.  However, my Svea stove still served me well, and I retained my Kelty backpack, which would now no longer be a mere storage locker.  Like me, it would be a sojourner!

Loading my Kelty―its features by today’s standards laughably rudimentary―I experienced an unprecedented feeling of independence.  From my freeze-dried food to my first-aid kit; from my remarkably lightweight tent and sleeping bag to my “candle lantern”; from my pocket-sized The Sierra Club Trailside Reader to my “snakebite kit”; from the fundamentally physiological to the loftily self-actualizing, I had psychologist Abraham Maslow’s complete “hierarchy of needs” ready to ride comfortably on my back for days and nights well beyond civilization.  United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps, as well as guidebooks by various authors, rounded out my equipment. 

 My preferred companion in the Southwest forests and deserts was simply myself.  This way of doing things had several deep roots.  At 12, I took my first long solo walk in the outdoors:  While vacationing with my family in the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I slogged eight miles along country roads and a lightly-used railroad track, through woods and swamplands.  Although I was tormented by mosquitoes and deerflies and miserable with dew-soaked socks and Keds sneakers, never once during the trek was I lonely. 

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, I frequently walked alone in the outdoors, not for adventure, but rather for psychic defense.  At the age of 15, I stressfully ended a destructive relationship with a boy who for five years I regarded as my best friend.  Although I tried, I couldn’t establish another close friendship with a peer for the remainder of my high school years.  So I was now completely on my own. 

To hide from my classmates my shameful solitude―teenagers, of course, want and need to bond with their peers―I avoided as best I could the streets and sidewalks between my house and my high school, often walking a stretch of railroad line bounded on both sides by a slender margin of trees and brush, which, for me at least, doubled as a kind of suburban “wilderness” experience.  I was comfortable walking along the railroad tracks.  I was similarly at ease walking our dog alone in some woods near our house.  Undeveloped wooded areas meant safety and relief.

Although I graduated from my senior high school after the customary three years, I was an unexceptional student who failed to gain entrance to any of the collegesmodest, in my opinionto which I applied.  My parents therefore enrolled me in a distant boarding school for a year of remedial educationand, perhaps in their minds, re-socialization, for they must have been aware of my solitude. 

I understood the boarding school’s necessity.  Still, I found the experience humiliating, tormenting.  I despised the school’s regulations, including regular haircuts, coats and ties for classes and meals, and the prohibition of smoking.  (I had been a clandestine tobacco smoker for four years.)  It was 1968, I was going on 18, and I was eager to grow my hair long and identify, at least superficially, with the growing “counterculture.”  Most of all, now a hardened loner, I hated the boarding school’s clamorous beehive existence of studying, eating, sleeping, recreating, relaxing, and worshipping together.  Although, as at high school, I felt shameful doing so, occasionally I had to get away from all of this to regain some sanity. 

Fortunately, the school was located in the Berkshire Hills.  In fact, not far from where I happily vacationed as a kid.  So after lacing up my Sears hiking boots (Sears, obviously, profited from my family), I’d leave the school property, briefly walk down a rural highway, and duck into the nearest woods.  After penetrating trees and brush for a quarter-mile, I’d sit on log and puff on a series of cigarettes smuggled to me by my sister through the mail―the sad sack luxuriating in the peace and solitude while a wet snow fell.[1]

With this nascent passion, I explored New Mexico’s wildlands.  Their variety and breadth astonished me.  Tempting photographs in my Audubon guide of the glowing Chihuahuan Desert in southernmost New Mexico led me to the fluted, harsh Organ Mountains.  In southeastern New Mexico, I escaped the heat of August by climbing into the Capitan Mountains, where, in the Lincoln National Forest, I caressed the head of a friendly, free-ranging horse and marveled at spiny cactus leaves nearly as big as a catcher’s mitt.  One winter night, I camped atop a bench of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Tularosa Valley, listening to the haunting conversations of great horned owls perched along cliff faces.  While camped on the Plains of San Agustin, a vast grassland in western New Mexico, I spent an afternoon and evening watching a succession of thunderstorms, compact iron-like curtains descending from the clouds, sweep across the appallingly vacant land.  In the Bisti of northwestern New Mexico, a colorless, sterile badland of soil and soft rock, I wandered among crusty hoodoos beneath a full moon fungus-white and blurry behind a cloudy sky. 

Not all of my initial expeditions were successful.  One February, determined to pitch my tent as close as possible to Mexico, I drove to the ghost town of Cloverdale, in New Mexico’s southwestern “bootheel” region, in the hopes of striking out west into the Coronado National Forest of the Guadalupe Mountains.  However, muddy, rutted roads halted my progress, and with disappointment I returned north through the Animas Valley.  Just south of the town of Animas, a Border Patrol agent, after undoubtedly noting the apron of mud on the sides of Little Red, pulled me over.  I complied with the burley Latino’s request to examine the contents of my backpack.  He merely glanced at the plastic baggies of granulated white sugar and Countrytime instant lemonade.  However, he opened a third baggie and gently wafted the scent of its contents, powdered milk, in the direction of his quivering nostrils.  Then, he thanked me and was gone, my brush with the War on Drugs over.  My experience in la frontera aborted, I spent the night in a cheap motel in the desert outpost of Lordsburg, New Mexico.

[1] Two decades later, I finally acknowledged my immense gratitude to the boarding school, for, despite yet more average grades, the institution forced me to be a joiner whether I liked it or not, and got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams, where I made friendships that have lasted to this day.  I’ve regularly made modest contributions to the school ever since.


“Mexican” Food

Then there was Mexican food.  Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind one that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the fare served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  (And today, maybe even in Vermont.)  However, for the purposes of this narrative, “Mexican food” refers to any food that obviously has its culinary roots in the United Mexican States.

When the opportunity to eat at a sit-down restaurant presented itself during my first summer in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican venue.  Still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth preferred to water at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s.  I also looked forward to a steaming dish of bland chow mein awash in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax (where I was once refused seating due to my hair length).  During my second summer in the city, however, the seed was planted. 

It was quitting time after a hot day of pumping concrete to a lofty story of an apartment complex under construction in Denver’s Capitol Hill.  The crew with whom I worked agreed to meet for beer and food at a restaurant and bar on Santa Fe Drive. 

Upon entering this modest establishment, it hit me immediately: the sweet, earthy odor of masa, the maize dough of the corn tortilla. 

We all decided to drink and eat at the bar, rather than at a table.  Although I was 19, the bartender didn’t card me, and therefore set me up a glass of cold, high-octane (as opposed to 3.2) Coors. 

For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  Hearing snow-white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this choice. 

When the plate, which included sides of rice and refried beans, was set before me, I found its appearance vaguely, yet pleasingly, familiar: the red chile and milk-white cheese, both bubbling vigorously, recalled the tomato sauces and cheeses that covered the countless slices of pizza I devoured as a teenager in New Jersey.   

Then, I ate.  Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded firmly yet tenderly to my bite.  The flavor of the pureed, scarlet chile was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: a sweet-smoky tang with a citrus-y hint.  On the heels of the flavor was, of course, the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.”  It was a vegetable, all right, but a vegetable from another world, a desert world of flames, blinding light, dust, bandoliers, sombreros, last cigarettes, and firing squads.  It opened wide my work-weary eyes, set my nose to watering, and even, as my fellow crew members laughed, caused me to sneeze once.   

I loved it, and perhaps I should have known I’d love it.  I was raised on a bland diet: paprika was about the boldest spice on my mother’s shelf.  Yet when introduced at Jersey pizza parlors to crushed red pepper seasoning, I realized my weakness for hot food, and the sauce at that Mexican eatery was happy to accommodate me.  With regular swallows of the Coors, I managed the flames.  Meanwhile, I gradually experienced the deep satisfaction that only a meal prepared with lard and a judicious helping of sodium can provide.  Made with obvious south-of-the-border amor, the meal was simple and unforgettable.

Thus, during my subsequent years in Colorado, I became a regular consumer of Mexican food.  I enjoyed beef enchiladas at Denver’s Satire Lounge, which every hip newcomer to Denver, it seemed, was advised to visit to eat Mexican food, perhaps for the first time, and drink beer and margaritas.  The combination bar-and-restaurant was owned and run by a Greek, although there was little doubt a team of muchachos, faithful to the tradition, was preparing its food.  Other Denver Mexican restaurants I favored were The Riviera, Las Delicias, and El Rancherito.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas, smothered in chile verde, served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swore Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, en route between Denver and Aspen, would stop for some authentic. 

For atmosphere as well as provender, Denver’s Chubby’s was without equal.  When I was a taxi driver in that city, a dear friend and fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown.  A cabbie knew that time was money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal, providing one had good intestinal control and no history of heartburn, during the 10-hour hustle. 

After parking in the grimy lot containing Chubbys’s white cinder block building, I would join the crush―heavily tattooed vatos with pressed pants, pompadours, and hairnets; beguiling young Latinas under pounds of makeup; grandmothers cradling crying babies; viejos with canes and walkers; slumming, nervous gringos―in the tiny waiting room with a few chairs against walls bearing posters for upcoming boxing matches and ranchera concerts.  A short, surly guy, his handsome face recalling that of a young Al Pacino, often took my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of men and women ladled chileand stirred huge pots of refritos. (Bubbling refritos, too, have that arresting odor of pure, fresh earth.)  

Soon I was handed my order, which never varied: two bean-cheese-and-green-chile burritos, each in a small white paper bag and the two of them in a larger white paper bag, and a can of Pape-see to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I took a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one reckless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peered gratefully at the burrito’s cross-section, marveling at its construction and bounty: the tender white frame of the flour tortilla, the generous helping of vaguely emerald-green chile layered on the bed of refritos, the gratings of queso.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

I had little sense of Linda’s regard for Mexican food while we were still living in Denver.  When we reunited in New Mexico, however, we both went for it full bore.  In 1988 there were scores of Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.  During our first couple of years in the city, we sampled 10 to 20 of them, but eventually patronized two on an almost weekly basis. 

Los Cuates was located next to a barber shop in an old strip mall in East Albuquerque.  Like Chubby’s, it had a tiny waiting room at its entrance.  The relatively small dining area consisted strictly of booths, no tables.  A number of the red vinyl bench seats were lumpy.  Shift as you might on them, you invariably found one buttock on a precipice, the other in a sinkhole.  The servers were generally full-figured Latinas, an encouraging sign, I concluded, in a Mexican restaurant.  For starters, I ordered a Pape-see, which was served with crushed ice in a large plastic tumbler. 

Heaven began with the arrival of the complementary tortilla chips and salsa.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten.  It had bite, of course.  Beyond that, it was thoroughly red, dark red, and smooth, thick, and slightly sweet.  Indeed, it was the sweetness that set it apart.  The tortilla chips always arrived warm, and sometimes irresistibly glistening with a breath of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung reliably to the chip, never bailed to your chest or lap on its way to your watering mouth. 

Then, “This plate’s hot,” the server always warned me as she casually set down my usual order, an oven-fresh platter of cheese enchiladas swimming in chile verde sauce, the sauce bubbling menacingly at the platter’s edges.  I could never fathom how the naked fingers and thumbs of these servers withstood the temperature, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table. 

Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile verdewas thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch or brunch, Los Cuates offered a complementary bowl of natillas, a custard of milk, eggs, and cinnamon, for dessert.  This creamy concoction calmed the walls of the mouth and throat, satisfyingly sandwiched itself between the restaurant and, as one exited the restaurant, the blaze of a New Mexico summer afternoon.

Sadie’s was located north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley.  A Lebanese woman operated it.  (Lebanese?  Greek?  Who cared, as long as it was good.)  Sadie’s, too, began your meal with a complementary serving of salsa and chips, a veritable mountain of the latter. 

Chile verde is what kept us returning to Sadie’s.  The diner was introduced to it immediately, for it was the foundation of the restaurant’s salsa, a dull green-gold concoction flecked with chile seeds that, because they are magnets for capsaicin, exploded like firecrackers in the mouth.  Sadie’s salsa was thinner than that of Los Cuates, so one had to apply it to the chip carefully and minimize gesticulation when delivering it to the mouth. 

As always at Sadie’s, I ordered the enchiladas con queso with chile verde.  Unlike nearly all of the Mexican restaurants Linda and I sampled, Sadie’s offered the diner the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on his or her entrée.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, I ordered the “hot” sauce, attempting to develop a liking for it.  (On these occasions, the distant sound of clobbered bowling pins seemed to anticipate this decision.)  I failed, however.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after the meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.  I eventually settled happily for the “mild.”

Linda and I didn’t limit our consumption of Mexican food to Albuquerque.  In Las Vegas, New Mexico, I took a liking to the red chile at Johnny’s, a restaurant whose beams were hung with frontier Americana and walls were covered with photographs of celebrities―well, regional celebrities―that bore their scribbled testimonials.  Nearby, a restaurant on Las Vegas’s plaza offered chicharrones.  If there is such a thing as “Mexican soul food,” chicharrones are probably it.  They are deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexicanas in the United Mexican Statesfood.  Very funky.  Linda, often adventurous when dining, ordered them.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites.  Although an informed diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening. 

West across the mountains, the El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrées, their sopapillaslight, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown, dusted with cinnamon, and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

Monroe’s, Tiny’s, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory (yes, its actual name), El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, Garcia’s, Little Anita’s, The Owl Café in San Antonio, Mac’s La Sierra, El Norteño: the number of Mexican restaurants Linda and I visited, individually and together, multiplied rapidly in just a matter of months in New Mexico.  We just couldn’t get enough of that heavenly chile.  It held us hostage, booden-schnotzened some heretofore unknown receptor, dormant since birth, in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like a mountaintop takes to a bolt of lightning, like the desert takes to sand, space, and light.   



Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic, Southwest Everything in Between

During our first two years in the classic Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous cultural attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque-born Southwest scholar Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic. 

The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I enthusiastically fired off postcards bearing the obviously-doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope,” a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of a bull elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small, cylindrical bundles of sage smudge.  Soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Mercury Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza. 

Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose.  However, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  In Santa Fe, she purchased hand-painted Mexican tiles, which we hung in the kitchen of our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together.   

In the patio area of the townhouse, we hung a ristra.  A venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, the ristra was a mass of red chile peppers intricately strung together in a lengthy bundle.  When available for sale, the peppers of the ristra were freshly-harvested and thus scarlet, plump, and rubbery.  However, when hung outdoors, they dried, shriveled, and darkened to burgundy as they swayed en masse in New Mexico’s winter winds.  Artificial “peppers” were available in New Mexico as well: we purchased and shipped red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister and brother-in-law in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and, also from the auction, a “vegetal chart” explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave me my first ring: a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  

Gracing the walls of our townhouse were framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others.  Of course, we also purchased paintings of Southwestern landscapes.

On a rented VCR (those were the days), we watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War.  Set in a thinly-disguised Taos, the movie was filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as at the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel.  The hotel displayed titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, T.M. Pearce, Richard Bradford, and John Nichols.  At a used book store on Central Avenue I purchased the aforementioned Southwest Classics by Lawrence Clark Powell: sketches, critical and biographical, of respected authors of fiction and non-fiction who were among the first to chronicle life in the Southwest.  At the same store I purchased Erna Fergusson’s 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest, which remains my favorite book about this land.

And we often enjoyed much of this while listening to the music of “nouveau flamenco” guitarist and Santa Fe resident Ottmar Liebert.

Frivolous or authentic, we loved these acquisitions.