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I Prepare for No-Man’s Land

I continued my exploration of the Southwest that existed beyond the cities and towns.  My goal now was to get far beyond 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 dipped into my pocket and 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, lightweight 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!  

Linda preferred to limit her backcountry foot travel to occasional day hikes on bird-watching expeditions in central New Mexico, guided by an Albuquerque birder whom we got to know.  Occasionally I’d backpack in New Mexico or Utah with a visiting Denver friend or two.  However, my preferred companion in the Southwest forests and deserts was simply myself. 

This way of doing things had deep roots.  Throughout childhood, I occupied myself alone for hours, playing with my blocks, Tinkertoys, modeling clay, and Lincoln Logs, and reading my Little Golden Books. 

At 12, I added a long solo walk in the outdoors to my list of experiences.  While vacationing with my family in the Berkshire foothills of northwestern Connecticut, I slogged eight miles along country roads and a 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, I walked alone in the outdoors more for psychic defense than adventure.  At the age of 15, I ended a destructive relationship with a boy who for years I regarded as my best friend; I dismissed, as well, a couple other even more toxic boys my friend and I knew in common.  Although I tried, I couldn’t establish another close friendship for the remainder of my high school years.  To hide from my classmates my solitude―now no longer an admirable expression of self-reliance, but rather a mark of shame―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 New Jersey “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 high school after the customary three years, I was―likely to an extent because of my solitude―a mediocre student who failed to gain entrance to any of the colleges to which I applied.  With my consent, my parents therefore enrolled me in a distant boarding school for a year of remedial education―and, perhaps in their minds, re-socialization.  I understood the boarding school’s necessity; nevertheless, I found the experience tormenting.  Although quite aware of my academic shortcomings, I still felt humiliated to be at the school.  Eighteen years old throughout most of my stay there, I loathed what I considered its childish rules.  Eager to join 1968’s “counterculture,” I despised the school’s regulations, including regular haircuts, coats and ties for classes and meals, and no smoking.  Most of all, now a hardened loner, I hated its clamorous beehive existence of studying, eating, sleeping, recreating, relaxing, worshipping, showering, and shitting 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 boarding school was located in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts―in fact, not far from where I happily vacationed as a kid.  So, after lacing up my Sears hiking boots, 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, puff on a series of cigarettes (smuggled to me by my sister through the mail), and luxuriate in the peace and solitude. (Two decades later, I finally acknowledged my immense gratitude to the school, for, despite yet more average grades, the school somehow got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams, where I made friendships that have lasted me to this day.  I’ve regularly made modest contributions to the school ever since.)

Thus, the significant events that prepared me for my first Southwestern backpack.

In my Albuquerque apartment, loading my backpack―its features, by today’s standards, laughably rudimentary―I experienced an unprecedented feeling of freedom and satisfaction.  From my freeze-dried food to my water filter; 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 lofty 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. 

As far as guidance into the backcountry, I was not comfortable relying on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps alone, so I purchased Harry Evans’s 50 Hikes in New Mexico.  It was summer when I was thus newly outfitted, so, with Harry’s advice, I struck out into a landscape that seemed most familiar and comfortable: the high-elevation forest. 

(Author’s note: An account of this backpack, entitled “The Lessons of My First Backpack,” appears in Volume 2 of Deep Wild Journal, a print edition and/or an online edition of which is available starting in early July of 2020. Please go to deepwildjournal.com. The author thanks Deep Wild Journal for publishing his account.)


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“Mexican” Food: Albuquerque

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’d order 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, both of which I relished.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten; it still is.  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 glistening with a wisp of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung 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 of these servers withstood the heat, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table.  Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile was thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch, 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, eased one into the blaze of a New Mexico afternoon.

Sadie’s was located not far north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley, and 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 them.  Chile verde is what kept me 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 far 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 you the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on your entree.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, during which time the rumble of a careening bowling ball and the thunder of clobbered pins seemed to anticipate the drama of the imminent meal, I ordered the “hot” sauce on my enchiladas, attempting to develop a liking for it.  But I failed repeatedly.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after each meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.

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, at a restaurant on the town’s plaza, Linda, often adventurous when dining, once ordered for the first time chicharrones, deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexican―as in the United Mexican States―food.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites; although she is a sophisticated diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening.  The El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrees, their sopapillas―light, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

By far the most oddly-named Mexican restaurant we frequented in Albuquerque was the Sanitary Tortilla Factory.  While we were expanding our waistlines there, we couldn’t help but wonder: “sanitary” as compared to what?  I was surprised and impressed by the four-page 1984 New Yorker magazine profile of the downtown restaurant that was framed on one of its walls.   However, the Tortilla Factory fell out of our favor, although not because of the quality of its food, which was consistently high, or, for that matter, its hygiene.  After a dozen visits, we realized our final charges were being regularly arrived at not electronically, but as a result of the mental arithmetic―the creative mental arithmetic―of the regular cashier, and that we were being routinely overcharged―true, only by nickels and dimes, but enough to add up, and to irk us.

Monroe’s, Tiny’s in Santa Fe, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta in Española, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, 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, excited some heretofore unknown receptor in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like the desert takes to silence and stillness.

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“Mexican” Food: Denver

Then there was Mexican food.  (Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind you that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the victuals served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  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 initial years in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican restaurant.  During my first summer in Denver, still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth watered at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s.  I also greatly anticipated a steaming dish of bland chow mein soaked in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax.  During my second summer there, 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 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, a sensation that I remember to this day: 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 a table.  I was 19; yet I wasn’t carded, and the bartender set me up a glass of cold 5.0 Coors.  For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  (Hearing lily white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this particular selection.) 

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 cheeses and tomato sauces that covered the countless slices of pizza I’d devoured since childhood on the East Coast.   

Then, I began to eat.  Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded 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 the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.”  It was a vegetable, all right, but from another world, a desert world of fire and blinding light.  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 fiery food, and the chile at that Mexican eatery didn’t disappoint.  It opened wide my work-weary eyes and set my nose to watering.  However, 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.  The meal was simple and unforgettable.

So, 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 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 and Las Delicias.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swears 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 fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown.  A cabbie knows that time is money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal―providing one had good intestinal control and no proclivity for heartburn―during the 10-hour hustle.  After parking in the grimy lot behind the white cinder block establishment, I’d 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; 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 face recalling that of the young Al Pacino, would take my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of kitchen workers, men as well as women, would ladle chile and stir huge pots of refritos (simmering refritos, too, have that arresting odor of fresh earth).  Soon I’d be 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 Pepsi to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I’d take a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one careless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peer 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.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

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Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic

During our first two years together in the Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque author Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic.  The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I fired off enthusiastic 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 an elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small bundles of sage smudge, and soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Lynx 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.  Surprisingly, she never hung a ristra on her balcony at The Conquistador.  The ristra is a venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, a mass of chile peppers intricately strung together in a long bundle, the newly-harvested peppers scarlet and rubbery when purchased, but, when hung outdoors, destined to dry, shrivel, and darken to burgundy as they sway en masse in the New Mexico winter winds.  We did, however, purchase and ship red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister 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 a “vegetal chart”―from where, I cannot recall―explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave to me my first ring, a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  In our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together, framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others, graced the walls.  We watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War, set in a thinly-disguised Taos, although 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 the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and cultural centers and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel, the La Fonda displaying titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, and Nichols.  Lawrence Clark Powell’s book Southwest Classics, a marvelous work I purchased on a whim from a used book store on Central Avenue, introduced me to a vast range of much earlier and lesser-known Southwestern authors, including Erna Fergusson, whose 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest remains my favorite book about this land.      

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First Bivouac with My Love – Conclusion

With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority.  I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car.  I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind; for myself, looking at this mess that lacked any accompanying instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication.  I could not.   But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground. 

Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground.  We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon.  Unsure of the tent’s four corners, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors.  We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them.  After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics: it hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles. So we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent.  However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead.  It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west.  But I somehow managed to deflate it and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf. 

Eventually, despite the bluster, we erected and secured the nylon shelter.  The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its grandiloquence.  Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut.  We were proud of our first home in the desert.            

Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love.  After spreading our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper.  It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish.  A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too unattractive―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wild wind.  So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove well into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal.  The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly.  Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods. 

After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the park.  The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness.  To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380.  To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds.  (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town”; perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest whoopee.)  After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.

Which was pure pandemonium.  The wind had increased in velocity.  Staring into the tent’s darkness, I was hoping and praying for that nudge into blessed slumber, yet it refused to occur.   Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me; I could practically feel it.  Every 60 seconds, for hours it seemed, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes.  And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer―as if the desert night was expressing outrage at our presence.  This went on until the wee hours.  (And thus we learned that powerful winds were an inevitable element of springtime in New Mexico. “Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)

At an immaculately still sunrise, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent.  Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax.  Obviously, the weight of our corpses was the only thing that had prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity Site overnight.  Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods. 

After we had packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―surprised me by proposing that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving.  So we stumbled over the hundred yards of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava.  A nature walk for the walking dead.             

Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert.  I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast hairdos.  Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright.  Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque.  But I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

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First Bivouac with My Love – Part 4

Valley of the Fires State Park’s campgrounds overlooked the sea of rock.  After choosing a parking space serving a small campground of hard-packed earth, we strolled―as the wind blew harder than when we set out on Highway 380―to the pay station near the park’s entrance.  The park, now occupied by only a couple other visiting parties, was a small and modest affair with some 15 campgrounds and a cinder block structure containing flush toilets and sinks.  We walked by two faded, dusty trailer houses, one of which had a padlocked door, that appeared to serve as administration buildings.  In the window of the locked trailer there were posters bearing photos of missing children last seen in places far removed from Carrizozo, New Mexico.  Affixed to the outside wall of the trailer was a bulletin board.  Enveloped in clear plastic and tacked to the board was a newspaper photo of “Jumbo.”  Wording beneath the photo explained that Jumbo was a 214-ton steel “bottle” that was placed 800 yards from the Trinity explosion and survived the blast intact.  Tacked next to the story of Jumbo was a list of Carrizozo churches. 

At the unattended “pay station” (we’d yet to encounter any park personnel), we placed our cash in an envelope provided by the park and dropped the envelope through the slot of a steel cylinder that would likely have survived the Trinity explosion as well.  From a lidded wooden box, parched and splintered, beside the cylinder we took a pamphlet that explained the park.  The sea of rock was lava that originated from a now-dormant volcano not far north of 380; the lava field ran due south for 44 miles.  The pamphlet explained that the field was known in Spanish as a malpais, or badland.  Holding hands, we walked back to our campground, I several times securing against the wind my black and orange Gallup High School cap, purchased during my recent return from Utah.    

I hadn’t camped in any state park since the summer of 1964, when, as a member of a YMCA group of a dozen boys and two handsome, young, bearded honchos―looking back, I suspect they were among the original admirers of the murdered John F. Kennedy―I spent the night in southern Vermont’s Ascutney State Park.  This was in preparation for a canoe trip down the Connecticut River through Vermont and Massachusetts―seven days of sand in my (Sears) sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation.  (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in privacy upon a flush toilet, I sadly discovered―as I clutched in futility, merely for appearance, our expedition’s trenching shovel―that the body mechanics of eliminating in woods and fields did not come naturally to me, and my bowels froze in hopelessness.)

Gazing at the asphalt, worn trailers, several automobiles, state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills of the state park, a part of me longed for the solitude and wildness that I had recently enjoyed in southeast Utah.  Yet I suspected that Linda, given the choice, would have preferred the relative comforts of the state park.  Still, owing to its distance from a major city―Albuquerque, 100 miles; El Paso, 135 miles―and the fact that it was a weekday, there was an enjoyable tranquility to the place. 

And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the ocean of lava that stretched south to the empty horizons of the Tularosa Basin; the Oscura Mountains, just beyond which brooded the birthplace of the Nuclear Age, to the west; and the Sacramento Mountains, culminating in massive, forested Sierra Blanca, its array of commercial ski slopes still glowing with snow, to the east.

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First Bivouac with My Love – Part 3

Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico―according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton.  A more unlikely birthplace of the hotel magnate and husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, I could not have imagined.  We crossed the Rio Grande, swelling with spring snowmelt, at the east end of the town, the river’s bosque mirroring Albuquerque’s. 

We continued east on Highway 380.  Now that we were well into the Chihuahuan Desert, I was expecting miles of nearly barren sand, and so I was surprised to find ourselves coursing across an upland dense with shrubs and dotted with juniper.  Yet the Oscura Mountains to the southeast―climbing to 8,600 feet, barren, burlap-brown―reminded me that this was indeed a land of little rain.  Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a steady wind.

As we headed to a place on our map named Bingham, I knew that some 20 miles to the south, on the White Sands Missile Range, there exists a place called Trinity, where our country exploded the first atomic bomb.  Gazing at the surrounding desolation that somehow supported an occasional hardscrabble ranch, I had to marvel at the contrast: a device of staggering sophistication birthed in a territory so rude.  And I vowed then and there to learn more about the history of The Bomb. 

For some 20 miles the highway ran through rugged, juniper-forested hills.  Then it traversed a landscape covered―no, smothered―by the blackest rock I’d ever seen, blacker even than the asphalt of the highway.  Most of the rock, which oddly crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured.  Yet there was occasionally rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun; in its structure and luster, I couldn’t escape its amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah.  This was not the dead rock that I daily faced as a miner in Colorado or that bore the pecked images in southeast Utah.  These fanciful, frozen whorls and ripples spoke of something, if not alive, only very recently come to a queer standstill.  Meanwhile, this seemingly unbroken sea of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so: grasses, shrubs, and cacti proliferated throughout it, bobbing up and down among and upon the dark waves, their roots somehow clutching nurturing soil. 

After three miles, we exited this landscape that, were it not for the paved highway, would have been utterly unfit for human travel, including by foot.  Soon afterward we arrived at Valley of the Fires State Park.