So, fall in the San Luis Valley was this, and much more. Bales of alfalfa and straw cleated the fields, the alfalfa bound for dairy farms in desert New Mexico, the straw bales for commercial photographers offering portraits with rural themes, and for our yard, where they elevated the dogs above the frozen ground.
Asters like lavender-flamed farolitos miraculously blossomed in the bleakest of soils.
Gold was rampant: in the blooming rabbitbrush that tossed gaily in the wind, 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 fuels 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 and carry a mountainside with them. Not even an overcast sky could dim a flaming stand of autumn 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, perhaps a sharp turn or abrupt start liberating these 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 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 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, advocating for a vegetarian diet, invited his readers to consider the mood of cattle awaiting slaughter while penned in a seemingly benign stockyard. Arguing that even a Hereford cow has a considerable range of emotions, he maintained that cattle under such a circumstance have uncharacteristically 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. 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 is the scent of death in the “packing plants” of Greeley, La Junta, or wherever Colorado cattle meet 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 falls 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 one―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.