creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest


Snow arrived in Alamosa as early as October.  Often born in the Sangres at the northeast corner of the Valley, the weather advanced south through the evening and night, producing dry, light flakes that were as apt to go up as down, the “champagne powder” of which Colorado was famous.  Several inches would blanket the ground the following morning.  Buddy and Nick, born and raised in the dry desert, stepped upon it tentatively. 

But, again, the Valley abhorred precipitation.  Unless the Valley was locked in a cold front, the snow would disappear completely in the days of radiant sunshine that inevitably followed.

When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to 10,200-foot-high La Manga Pass, where I snowshoed on vast meadows in the shadow of Pinorealosa Mountain, a crumb of the greater South San Juan Mountains.  Accessible by a two-lane highway, the pass was nonetheless remote, as it connected only the little towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, tickling the boundary between the two states in the process. 

I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved the activity.  I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers. 

The snows on La Manga Pass were variously three to five feet deep, and deeper even where they drifted along the clefts of the frozen creek beds.  With the aid of ski poles, I’d trek upon great depths of virgin snow, if the conditions were right sinking no more than six inches to a foot.  Casually I’d venture up and down gentle slopes, here in blinding sunshine, there through gloomy stands of conifer casting cyanotic shadows. 

I particularly delighted in blithely crossing, or pretending to tightrope upon, the topmost strands of nearly-buried barbed-wire fences, those damned obstructions that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and costly REI trousers and shorts and drawing blood in any other season.    

I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, filmy clouds racing just above, banners of snow spewing from the edges of drifts, scores of ghostly snow devils whirling and boiling over the meadows, requiring me to don amber-tinted goggles. 

Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a 10-foot drift, stomp my feet, watch cracks suddenly etch all around me, and gaily plummet in my own little death-defying avalanche of cushiony snow.  I was the eight-year-old, deliriously happy Philip Davis in a New Jersey blizzard, a leaden and, but for the howling wind, silent world of cancelled schools, snow caves, snow plows, soggy leggings, ice-jammed boot buckles, Flexible Flyers seeking out even the slightest slope, and a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with Premium Saltines for lunch.

And I’d recall Hal Borland’s words describing the high plains of northeastern Colorado following a three-day-long blizzard: “After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place.  It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time.  Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern.  The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys.  It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.” 

And I, on La Manga Pass, was able to have my way, work my will, by walking on top of all that snow without fear of burial.  The feeling was messianic. 

At day’s end, I’d bid farewell to the wind and snow of the pass and return to the bare, frozen ground of the San Luis Valley, reminded of how consequential Western mountains are―far more consequential, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of much of the Northeast―when it came to delivering, in the fullness of time, water to the arid lands.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Fall in the Valley, Death in the Air?

So, fall in the San Luis Valley was this, and more.  

Bales of alfalfa and straw cleated the fields, the alfalfa bound for dairy farms in desert New Mexico, the straw bales for commercial photography businesses offering portraits with rural themes.  On our property, straw bales also elevated the dogs above the frozen ground. 

Asters like lavender-flamed farolitos miraculously blossomed in the Valley’s most villainous desert soils.  

Gold was rampant in the blooming rabbitbrush that tossed gaily in the wind and the snakeweed that flooded the overgrazed rangelands. 

Gold reached its apotheosis in the leaves of the aspens in the surrounding mountains.  Pure high-elevation sunlight pouring through autumn-vacant skies fueled the leaves’ color like gasoline fueled fire.  When a breeze was added to this mix, setting the billions of fiery leaves to fluttering, the trees seemed to strain at their roots, fit to launch themselves en masse and carry a mountainside with them.  An overcast sky only heightened a flaming stand of aspen. 

Fall was Maximilian sunflowers exploding at the edges of roads and highways, the forlorn greasewood coming to dull-pink flower on the parched flats, hollyhocks tottering beneath the weight of their blossoms in Alamosa’s gardens.  Fall was the scatter of skinned potatoes on the asphalt at the rural intersections, a sharp turn or abrupt start liberating the tubers between field and shed.  Fall was the campaign sign nailed to a fence, the pop of a hunter’s gunfire echoing against hill and mountain, the last Mexico-bound vulture, the Conejos River west of Manassa reduced to pools.

Fall was the livestock harvest: cattle herded down from the mountains, rounded up in the pastures, and finally clustered in sturdy wooden corrals outside of Valley towns.  There they were loaded onto double-decked trailers that took them to the slaughterhouses east of Colorado’s front range.  Each packed with 25 tons of beef, the tractor-trailers rumbled down Alamosa’s main street, an ammoniac train in their wake.  The steel trailers were like giant, box-shaped colanders.  Through their thousands of oblong ventilation holes, the perimeters of some shit-smeared, I’d catch a glimpse of a dusty hide; the pale pink flesh of a nostril; or the single dark eyeball unknowingly enjoying its last look at sunshine, billowing clouds, towering mountains, sparkling rivers and streams, and grassy plains―the idyll that comprised its mere 15 months of Earthly existence.  A sharp turn or a sudden stop at a traffic light resulted in a loud clatter of hooves as the cargo momentarily lost its balance―callous disregard, I’d think, but perhaps nothing compared to the load’s ultimate fate, Temple Grandin’s efforts at humane slaughter notwithstanding.

A yogi I once studied, Swami Vishnu-devananda, advocating for a vegetarian diet, invited his readers to consider the mood of cattle awaiting slaughter while penned in a seemingly benign stockyard.  Beginning with the belief that even a Hereford cow has a considerable range of emotions, he maintained that cattle in such a circumstance have somber, even sad, states of mind, because, of course, they sense their impeding deaths.  Not long after reading this, I took a bicycle ride on a trail in northwest Denver that happened to skirt a packed stockyard.  (And try to imagine a stockyard in Denver today.)  The cattle I witnessed there were strangely quiet, almost motionless, barely even bobbing their heads.  Perhaps the yogi is correct, I thought. 

In Alamosa, the memory of this event got me to wondering.  Surely there was the smell of death in the “packing plants” of Greeley, La Junta, or wherever Colorado cattle met their doom.  I wondered how many degrees of separation the odor survived.  Did it attach to the trucks and trailers at the slaughterhouse?  If so, did it ultimately trickle to the very wooden loading pens in the otherwise sweet air of the Valley? 

After seeing all those packed trailers during my autumns in the Valley, it was hard for me to not go full Billy Crystal, not be moved by the sight of a cow feeding, nuzzling, or grooming her little calf―surely an expression of tenderness transcending mere instinct―out on some warm summer range. 

And yet on a cold autumn evening, my mouth often watered at the prospect of a burger at St. Ives restaurant on Alamosa’s main street.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Nooooo. Colorado Chile?

Although for 15 years, before moving to New Mexico, I enjoyed excellent Mexican food in Colorado, I never noticed late-summer commercial chile-roasting on Colorado’s street corners and in its supermarket parking lots.  Arriving in the Valley, I continued to assume this was a practice unique to New Mexico.  

Thus, I was surprised when, one late-afternoon in mid-August, while driving on State Avenue just south of downtown Alamosa, I got the unmistakable whiff―that intoxicating, sweet-smoky odor―of roasting long-green chiles.  Sure enough, a roaster, a gridironed metal drum that revolved just above some propane gas-fed flames, was operating in the parking lot of Atencio’s Market, so I just had to pull into the lot―not, I told myself, to make a purchase, merely to watch and smell.  By the roaster, I joined several other addicts, along with the man with the denim apron, long brakeman’s gloves, and wire brush who operated and maintained the device. 

As I watched the peppers tumble in the drum―slowly, carefully blackening and becoming increasingly limp―my gaze turned to a nearby pallet stacked with burlap bags of freshly-harvested raw chiles.  The bags read that the peppers were from a farm in . . . Pueblo, Colorado? 

I was surprised.  I didn’t think a chile seed had a prayer beyond the air, water, soil, sunlight, and agricultural sorcery of Hatch, New Mexico, the (self-proclaimed) “chile capital of the world.” 

Good heavens, I wondered, had I been enjoying Colorado chile in various Alamosa restaurants since my arrival?

I had to explore this further, so I walked into Atencio’s and headed for the fruit-and-produce section.  In a bin were piled some individual chiles, with a sign indicating they were “hot.”  I held up one.  “From Pueblo?” I asked a nearby employee, a woman un-boxing bananas.  She arched her brows, cocked her head, and nodded as if to affirm the obvious.  I purchased several of the peppers and headed home.  

There, I spread some foil in our stove’s broiler, upon which I laid the washed peppers.  I turned on the broiler.  I dumped some ice into a pot of water. 

I turned the chiles over and over until they had sufficiently blackened and blistered.  I dropped them into the pot of ice water and stirred, to coax the hot chile flesh from the charred skin, a technique I’d learned in our kitchen in Anthony. 

When the ice cubes had nearly melted, I asked myself, Should I don latex gloves?―to protect my hands against the capsaicin, of course.  Nah.  After all, we’re talkin’ Pueblo.  

I plunged my bare hands into the pot and removed the peppers.  I carefully separated the skins (generally not recommended for eating when charred) from the flesh.  Hunger increasing, I took a knife and sliced off the head of each pepper.  Then I sliced open each pepper lengthwise and scrapped away the seeds. 

Reaching for the salt shaker, I suddenly felt all my fingers aflame.  

Alarmed, I opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a half-gallon milk bottle.  Then I flushed both fiery hands with milk, to neutralize the capsaicin―or so I’d once been told.  This providing only slight relief, I rinsed my hands under cold tap water, despite reading that such a remedy was essentially futile. 

But never mind this discomfort: My taste buds were longing, and those chiles weren’t getting any warmer by the thermometer.  I lightly salted the flesh of a chile, cut off a segment of it, and, with a fork (gratuitous, really, at this point), popped the segment into my mouth. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  That slightly sweet, slightly citrus-y, mostly indescribable flavor.  Then I felt a blowtorch on the lips, which spread to my tongue and gums, and then a firestorm filled the entire buccal region.  

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, I thought, Viva Pueblo!


More About Alamosa and the Valley

In 1944, the San Luis Valley was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

That’s remote.

Even in 1999, in a United States of 280 million, it was not a stretch to characterize the Valley as equally “remote.”    

World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado.  However, despite all the snow that accumulated on the mountains cradling the San Luis Valley, Alamosa was clearly not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs.  The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa was Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt.  The nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, a business offering skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―was Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter drive in the opposite direction.  (And fans of Wolf Creek were more likely to stay overnight in the stylish resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, west of the ski area.)  Being a desert, the central Valley lacked snow sufficient even for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  Meanwhile, rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lacked excitement, for there the river, even when swollen, was nearly bereft of whitewater. 

About the only outdoor recreation the Valley could truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, was romping up and down, on foot, the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  People lived in Alamosa primarily to farm, ranch, and teach at and attend Adams State and the Alamosa branch of Trinidad State Junior College.

Still, the Valley was a permanent home to a wide variety of people, including artists.  Several art galleries were located on Alamosa’s main street.  The city had an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” for the homeless partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank.  The city had a National Public Radio-affiliated station, with a satellite office in Taos, whose signal reached all of the Valley and much of north-central New Mexico.  

The Valley’s citizenry included environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the 1990’s successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range.  The government-funded medical clinic for which Linda worked had satellite clinics throughout the Valley.  Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner was the former mining town of Crestone, a bastion of New Age thought that included a respected school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”

A standard-gauge railroad, once a branch of the famed Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, served the Valley.  Regular, short, slow-moving freight trains from Colorado’s Front Range entered the Valley via La Veta Pass.  From Alamosa, the line branched northwest to serve agricultural interests, and south to serve agricultural and mining interests.  The railroad ran a quarter-mile from our house.  Meanwhile, a narrow-gauge tourist railroad that ran from Antonito, Colorado, in the southern portion of the Valley, to Chama, New Mexico, 35 miles to the southwest, operated daily from late-spring to early-fall, its passenger cars pulled by steam locomotives traversing some of the most spectacular landscapes in the southern Rockies. 

What Linda and I came to like about Alamosa, in addition to its affordability, was its leisurely pace, rural character, breathtaking views, and, thanks largely to its Latino population, a robust Democratic base.

Yes, there was glamor in Alamosa, but it was distant.  Yet those distant mountains watered the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of grains and produce.  Thus, Alamosa was a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.


College Instructor Again

Shortly after arriving in the Valley, I managed to land a job at Adams State College (today officially named Adams State University) as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution―whose 1,300 out-of-town students increased Alamosa’s population to some 10,000 annually―had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods (as opposed to the broader-leafed Rio Grande cottonwoods of New Mexico) shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent.  Brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the norm. 

Because Adams was a four-year institution, I was now back among many instructors with doctoral degrees who were either tenured or on tenure tracks.  For the same reason, I assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that its students were academically of a higher caliber and more committed to completing a higher education than your average community college student. 

My classes consisted of fewer Latinos.  The presence of one or two African-Americans in each of my classes was also a change from teaching in west Texas.  Most of my students were from Colorado and bordering states.  A good number of my White, non-Latino students were from rural areas like the San Luis Valley. 

What remained the same was the English department’s teaching angle: rhetorical approaches to composition, using yet another reader chock full of short essays. 

The reading comprehension and writing abilities of my Adams students were somewhat better than those of my community college students.  Still, it was a chore to generate class discussion, and I continued to dread reading and grading papers.  Certainly, there were exceptions.  For instance, there was the essay, by a young man, written vividly and coherently, about the joys of masturbation.  I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

Wayne was an adjunct colleague of mine.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, although he was far more experienced than I at teaching, having taught at the secondary-school level as well.  I envied what seemed to be his successful pedagogical methods and his ability to roll with the challenges.  He lived with his wife, also an educator, in the frigid, hard-pan mining town of Creede, northwest of the Valley.  In addition to reading and writing, his passion was downhill skiing.  And, thus, snow: His prose offered more descriptions and discussions of the white stuff than any I’d ever read.  Indeed, he was Thoreau’s “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” understanding, for his own safety as well as enjoyment, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts at a California college and publish a book, Instant Karma, about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a delicate, surgically-mended heart.


First Morning in Alamosa: “Pueblos”

“Gonna get close to a hundred today in Pee-EB-low,” said the 60-something, gap-toothed Anglo fellow beneath the grimy John Deere hat as we fueled our respective trucks at a convenience store on my first morning as a resident of Alamosa.

“Pee-EB-low.”  I hadn’t heard the word “Pueblo”―in this instance, the name of the Colorado city nearest to Alamosa, 90 miles to the northeast―pronounced that way in years, certainly not since leaving Colorado for New Mexico. 

I refused to believe any schoolteacher had ever instructed a pupil from Colorado, or anywhere, to pronounce “Pueblo” thusly.  When I heard it uttered that way when I originally lived in Colorado, I assumed it was done so merely for humor.  Back then, Coloradans also referred to Pueblo as “Pee-YOO-town,” for the noxious odor emanating from the city’s once-dominant steel mill or mills. 

Now, however, after living in a land rich with Latino and Indigenous cultures, I wondered if such a pronunciation was deliberately disparaging, or even racist.  I couldn’t imagine any established New Mexican―Latino, Native American, or even Anglo―pronouncing “Pueblo” “Pee-EB-low.”  It’s a Spanish word meaning “village,” and it had been my experience that New Mexicans of any race or ethnicity, being immersed in Spanish whether they spoke it or merely heard it on a regular basis, pronounced it as close to the Spanish pronunciation―“P-WAY-blo”―as possible.  If a New Mexican uttered the word “Pee-EB-low” to another New Mexican, he or she would likely be met with puzzlement, or offense.  Certainly, I had never heard a member of the Pueblo nation refer to her- or himself as a “Pee-EB-lan.” 

In any event, this incident reminded me that, while I was certainly still in the classic American Southwest, I was nonetheless on the northern edge of it, bumping up against the predominantly-Anglo lands of the northern Rockies, the considerable Latino population of Denver notwithstanding.  Thus, I wondered if I was now in a Southwest of a slightly different tone.

Although, with Pueblo nearing 100, a familiar heat.


Adios, la Frontera

Throughout June and July, while our house in Anthony languished on the market and the fires of summer raged beyond our doors, I once again boxed items for another move, my hands becoming raw from grappling with cardboard, tape gun, and tape. 

One evening, 10 days before our departure, Ernesto, Ernesto’s wife, Linda, and I walked across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge for dinner in Juárez. 

From the bridge, I noticed, painted high on the sloping concrete bank on the Juárez side of the Rio Grande, a three-foot-square portrait of Che Guevara, a reproduction, likely a stencil, of the world-famous Alberto Korda photograph of the Cuban revolutionary, medical doctor, and summary executioner.  Except for a red star on Che’s beret, the painting was in black and white.  In black letters beneath the portrait were the words “El Che Vive XXX Aniversario,” surely a reference to Guevara’s own execution by the Bolivian army in 1967. 

I was tempted to draw the painting to pinko-hater Ernesto’s attention, but did not.  Given Ernesto’s respect for Mexican self-determination, he probably would have reserved judgement. 

At the Juárez foot of the bridge, vendors sold popsicles, handbags, plastic Jesuses in agony on plastic crosses, and automobile sun shades.  Meanwhile, idle cab drivers tempted, in creaky but nonetheless effective English, callow gringos: “You want something big?  Something special?  You want young girls?” 

Juárez was dusty and weary after another day of 100-plus temperatures.  Gazing upward to the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, I saw a crush of one- and two-story businesses and residences, many painted in lavender, sky-blue, pink, and aquamarine.  Everywhere in Mexico there was a love of bright colors.      

After a brief walk down Avenida Benito Juárez, we entered Martino’s Restaurant, where Ernesto and his wife would treat us to a meal.  In the hot evening, the restaurant’s dark, air-conditioned interior was welcome. 

Martino’s was classy: white tablecloths, plump cloth napkins, waiters in white jackets and bow ties, ice in the urinals. 

I drank Corona and scarfed down freshly-baked white bread.  I ate onion soup, its chopped white onions mild, sweet, and crisp.  My salad was pallid iceberg lettuce.  Tangy shrimp cocktail followed it.  My entrée was a slab of lean beef piled with strips of roasted poblano peppers with a side of whole beans.  Dessert was the Mexican custard known as flan.  I don’t recall if Ernesto disappeared behind another bowl of caldo. 

Immediately after supper, the four of us re-crossed the bridge, and Linda and I said goodbye to Ernesto, his wife, and Juárez. 

While we lived in Anthony, we heard lurid stories about Juárez’s crime related to the exportation of illegal drugs to a drug-hungry United States.  A Las Cruces colleague of Linda’s, a Mexican-born physician, told us of a Juárez plastic surgeon who remade, at gunpoint, the face of a Mexican drug lord, and was then dispatched for his efforts.  But it would be another 10 years or so before the complete explosion of the Juárez drug wars, which were coupled with the mysterious, because apparently non-drug-related, murders of hundreds of Juárez women, turning that city into a terrified place day and night. 

Between my El Paso students who commuted from Mexico, my Instituto students, my adventures in the city with my father and Ernesto, and my experience at Martino’s, I left Juárez with a soft spot in my heart for the legendary city.

Our final night in Anthony was warm, breezy, and humid as fantastic electrical storms, distant and silent, surrounded the little town.  The crushing heat of July made it easier to say goodbye.  Although I considered our experience in the Chihuahuan Desert largely a disappointment, I knew I would always remember the good neighbors we had as well as the cheerful, soulful, humble Mexican-Americans of southern New Mexico and west Texas in general.  The following afternoon, with the moving van loaded and gone, I climbed in the truck with Buddy.  Meanwhile, Nick and the two cockatiels joined Linda in the sedan.  We arrived at a motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, before nightfall.  The following day we were in Alamosa, Colorado.