Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

To the North Southwest

Another winter in Anthony passed, and our nomadic life resumed. 

My wife, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and not looking forward to a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, noticed in a medical journal a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado.  She informed me of the opening.

My antennae quivered.  I’d never forgotten that windy, chilly spring night when I made the car camp in a woodland on La Veta Pass, and gazed westward at the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that arid, remote part of the world immediately. 

After a phone call, Linda flew to Denver, caught a connecting flight, interviewed in Alamosa at a government-funded medical clinic for the indigent, and was offered the job.  With my blessing, she accepted it. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa―located in south-central Colorado, 30 miles north of the New Mexico state line―and the San Luis Valley, consulting books, maps, and the internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time. 

In the winter of 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike―who historian David Lavender characterized as a “natural dupe . . . earnest, ambitious, dutiful, and naive”―and his men, frozen and nearly starving to death, discovered the valley on behalf of the White race of the fledgling United States during their attempt to find the headwaters of the Red River. 

Some eight decades later, Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest―and who is credited with coining the name “Southwest”―beheld Alamosa―and, for the first time in his life, the Rio Grande, which runs through Alamosa―as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

My research revealed the following about the modern-day San Luis Valley:

The Valley was over one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut and had a population of some 48,000. 

In the rain shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the central Valley was effectively a desert, although a desert naturally watered by the rios Grande and Conejos, and artificially by a massive underground aquifer―not unlike the arid valleys of Albuquerque and Anthony. 

The Valley stood at an altitude of 7,600 feet, making it the largest alpine valley in the world.  At this altitude, the temperature in the Alamosa rarely reached 90 degrees.  In the winter, the Valley was often bitter cold, but it was a desert-dry cold, and thus far more tolerable than the cold of, say, Buffalo, New York. And if one longed for Colorado’s deep snows, one could find them on the peaks, ridges, and meadows of the surrounding mountains. 

The Valley was farming and ranching country.  Its crops included lettuce, wheat, and potatoes.  Cattle grazed its rangelands.   

The town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the Valley, was the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Hispanic country, indeed:  Latinos comprised 45 percent of Alamosa’s population.  

This demographic suited me.  I’d made Latino friends and acquaintances in my years in New Mexico, and I came to appreciate many aspects of Latino culture beyond simply the food.  “Perhaps because of his love of land,” Erna Fergusson observed in 1941, “his disinclination to leave his native place, and his ability to enrich an austere life with simple pleasures, the Latin seems to have a basic stability which the Nordic in similar situations lacks.”  Of course, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  However, Fergusson was correct about my life for over a decade now: It had been anything but “stable.” Still, I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.”

Then, the fact that the Rio Grande ran through the heart of Alamosa was an added attraction: The river would still be with me, still remain a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors. 

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