Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley

Sorties Real and Imagined Beyond the Valley

My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains and deserts decreased during my years in the San Luis Valley.  The vivid and unimpeded views of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas from our property, coupled with the tranquility of our immediate surroundings, often satisfied my need to light out for the remote. 

Fitness, or a lack thereof, was another factor that kept me at home.  When in mountains, I like to camp at the highest elevations, where one has breathtaking views and the thrill of a nearby lightning strike.  I had the heart, lungs, knees, and ankles required to climb to the nine-, ten-, and eleven-thousand-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico.  However, my body did not do so well when it came to climbing the predominant twelve- and thirteen-thousand-foot elevations of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, and visit the Western wilderness in the richness of literature―in the writings of Frank Waters, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie, Harvey Fergusson, Colin Fletcher, Annie Proulx, and Frederick Manfred. 

Yet I still found the energy to now and again gasp in the south San Juans of Colorado and the Sangre de Cristos that border the San Luis Valley and tower in northern New Mexico.  San Antonio Mountain, a free-standing monolith overlooking the Colorado-New Mexico border just south of Alamosa, had the effrontery to tear my medial meniscus, thus preventing me from reaching its 10,900-foot summit.  A fall on a steep bushwack in the Piñon Hills delivered a hairline fracture to my humerus.  And Buddy and I once drove six hours to my desert playground near Bluff, Utah, to stay for only one night, but a typically magical one. 

I had to do these things.  Along with the sexual act, they are the most primal, the most authentic experiences I can imagine.  Maurice Herzog, who along with Louis Lachenal was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captures it for me when he wrote: “I believe what I felt [the day of the summit] closely resembles what we call happiness.  I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete.  It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.” (This even after Annapurna “digested” all of Herzog’s fingers and toes via frostbite.)

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Becoming a Nurse

After sixteen months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.”  I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that secure place.  For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for strength, flexibility, and balance, and this had served me well on my job.  Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and contort myself in shower stalls while bathing them without risking permanent injury.  Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt I had the intellectual acumen handle such a challenge.  So, once again with Linda’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the council and begin studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that certified me in nurse aiding.  

Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State. 

Formal instruction in nursing, somewhat to my surprise, began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking.  How cocky I felt, having done this now for a couple years!  But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” and “angiotensin.” 

One day I was pleasantly surprised, even moved, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a “cardiology” scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student. One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly recognized.  He was a smart, likable if rather self-absorbed Del Norte vegetarian, ski patrolman, and bicycle-frame designer.  A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life.  He had succeeded at this, in my opinion:  He could have passed for Irish.

Then I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject.  Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife.  Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, wanted instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free.”  Thus, I underwent a vasectomy.  My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like Linda, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults.  So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation and birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding. 

Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units.  At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet.  One morning at the same hospital, a woman in labor on the pediatric ward granted the students permission to witness her vaginal birth.  As a purely natural process, I looked forward to this as well.  We waited and waited, then were told we would likely have time to grab a breakfast in the cafeteria.  Unfortunately for my education, I learned that the child was born while I was halfway through an excellent plate of huevos rancheros at the hospital cafeteria.  Back in surgery, I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure. 

My one year of instruction, enough to qualify me for a license in practical nursing, ended with nerve-wracking drills in the proper calculation of medication doses and the usual final exam, which I passed.  Then, for my Colorado licensing test, I drove to Pueblo, where, at a testing center, I sat before a computer screen and answered more questions about nursing basics.  A week later, I was informed that I had passed this, as well.

For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa.  Linda was now employed by the medical center, as well, in the internal medicine clinic.  I floated quite a bit, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners.  I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon.  I worked for an internist who specialized in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, and sparsely-populated valley where deeds were more determining than looks).

I loved working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this was before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors.  I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them forty and older.  In our sparsely-populated valley, I regarded them as my neighbors.  I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired.  At times I wished I’d studied fifteen years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer.  Still, I couldn’t deny my wonderful experience at the University of New Mexico.      

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

The Flats

Our house was located on one edge of a fifty-acre subdivision over which some eight other houses were spread.  The subdivision was essentially a dead end, so the dirt roads that served it were rarely used by anyone other than our neighbors, and the place was thus very quiet.  Because it contained no streetlights, our neighborhood had minimal light pollution.  Nearly every night, the moon, planets, and stars were visible in our desert-clear skies, our property a virtual planetarium. 

Abutting the southern boundary of our property were some two hundred acres of desert scrubland. When we moved in, this land was unfenced on three sides and undeveloped, bereft even of a dirt road.  Its verdure consisted mainly of greasewood, snakeweed, rabbitbrush, cactus, grass hummocks, and occasional wildflowers.  Productive soils, much of them consisting of sand, alternated with sterile beds of alkali-impregnated dirt and little catchment basins of mud dried into elegant, potsherd-like flakes.  I quickly came to calling this place simply “the flats.”  Like most of the central Valley, it was a treeless landscape, not particularly picturesque, but immensely peaceful.  I never saw anyone, not even a neighbor, on it, and I had no idea who owned it. 

Shortly after moving in, in order that our dogs could safely have unfettered outdoor privileges, we had fencing installed along nearly all of the boundary lines of our one-acre property, which, except for a small sodded and flagstoned courtyard, was also desert scrub. 

I ran the dogs regularly on the flats, where they would chase rabbits and briefly dart after ground chipmunks and lizards scurrying for cover.  Meanwhile, I would ruminate on the distant mountains and hills, marvel at a nest of mallard or dove eggs, puzzle over a scattering of tin cans and metal buckets gone completely to rust, and regularly, almost ceremoniously, visit, but never disturb, a small, delicate, desiccated skull, perhaps that of a fox, nestled in a bed of cinnamon-colored sand.  Despite the skull’s advanced age, it tended to tempt the appetites of the dogs―that timeless craving for bone and marrow―so I frequently blocked their advances upon it.  

Linda and I had spent nearly all of our lives in dense neighborhoods and noisy business districts, so we immediately took to the tranquility of semi-rural living in Anthony, New Mexico.  Our spacious, quiet neighborhood in southern Colorado was equally pleasant, and the two hundred undeveloped acres beside it was a splendid bonus.  “Here is my space,” wrote Shakespeare.  “Kingdoms are clay.”  While I respected the 16th- and 17th-century European city-dwellers who, as historian Roderick Nash has documented, were the first to “appreciate wilderness,” an appreciation that continues among city people to this day, I was equally certain of Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the virtuousness of rural living. 

Then, one breezy May evening nearly two years after moving to Alamosa, I proudly emerged from the new gate I had just retrofitted into our rear fence and stepped onto the flats, the dogs, as usual, accompanying me.  We were bound for another routine walk on our mystical landscape. 

And I was gobsmacked: On the flats were various arrays of wooden stakes from which flapped hot pink plastic flags several inches long: survey markers.    

Enter the horrifying visions of dozens of new tract houses, rivers of asphalt and concrete, glowing windows, blinding porch lights, bright motion-activated driveway lights, rumbling motor vehicles, a night sky obliterated. 

For days I was depressed and confounded.  How could there exist a demand for houses on this bland swath of high desert when only one additional house had been constructed in our own little development since our arrival?  What would become of my rabbits, mallard eggs, skulking coyotes, fox skull; my greasewood crowns tossing in the spring winds; my towering, churning white ghosts raised by dust devils as the devils marched across the patches of alkaline soil?

Over the next few months, from the bastion of our property, I regularly cast a wary eye over the flats, ever watchful for further development.  I continued to run the dogs on it, although not without first making certain it was deserted: I had no desire to speak to anyone who might have a hand in its development, who might have explained the awful plans for it.  Looking at those freshly-milled wooden stakes jabbing my contentment like daggers, and listening to those pink flags chattering in the wind, was tormenting enough.  The place was no longer completely mine and my dogs’. 

I fantasized about following Edward Abbey’s famous Arches National Monument example (which may or may not have actually occurred; I’d learned to approach Abbey’s tales with a measure of skepticism) and removing each and every survey stake under the cover of darkness, tossing them into my truck bed, and dumping them in some remote Costilla County arroyo.  Yet it remained a fantasy: I knew such an act would be futile and, moreover, I’d obviously be a prime suspect in their disappearance.  In any event, for three months, only the survey stakes marred the acreage, and I began to wonder, hopefully, if whatever had been planned had been scrapped. 

Then, it appeared not.  Again one evening, the dogs and I entered the flats to find that ten-foot-wide tracks had been bladed along each of the arrayed survey stakes.  Future roads?  Future gas and/or electrical lines? My dread naturally returned, heightened.  So I at last mustered the courage to contact the Alamosa city government in charge of zoning and learned that―Shit!―four “ranchettes” were being planned for the acreage, and I resigned myself to the fact that a playground for the dogs and a nightly cathedral of pure darkness vaulting to a luminous net of stars would soon be no more. 

And yet, I rather enjoyed the broad dirt paths that had been slashed through the scrub; they made for easier walking, allowed me to concentrate more on the glamorous distances, while the wildlife still had their maze of shrubs and grasses in which to thwart the pursuing dogs.

For nine more months, there was again a puzzling lull.  Then, one early May afternoon, I spotted a tractor on the flats.  It was fitted with what I had previously noticed manicuring the summer roadsides in the Valley: a multi-bladed rotary mower.  With the rigor and monotony of a combine in a Valley barley field, in a cloud of dust, the machinery was combing over the acreage, sloppily leveling all the shrubs, plants, and grasses in its path, frequently―and with a perverse self-destruction―striking embedded rocks with a ring and a clamor.  This developer was determined. Through binoculars I could see the face of the tractor’s operator partially obscured by a respirator.  High above the flats circled several large birds: red-tailed hawks waiting in anticipation for the tractor/mower to flush their terrified prey―rabbits, mice, chipmunks―into the open.  Beyond depressing.

After a week, the tractor disappeared, leaving some eighty butchered acres and a scatter of empty Mountain Dew cans.  The dogs and I once again returned to the flats.  It was a mess: the shrubbery had indeed been leveled―yet not uprooted.  Thus, in the back of my mind, hope springing eternal, I knew that with sufficient rain it could return after several years to its original luxuriance.  Still, what in the hell did this activity now portend? I wondered.

Meanwhile, the dogs had broad views in all directions; the fleet-footed rabbits would surely continue to outrun them, although, without the benefit of cover, they would have to run longer.  And I had to admit, if I didn’t look too closely at the crudity of this coiffure, there was a certain pastoral loveliness to this landscape now clipped like a suburban lawn―that rather satisfying “wooing of earth” about which biologist René Dubos wrote.

Over the next five and a half years, the duration of our stay in the Valley, little further development occurred on the flats.  A grader bladed some dirt roads.  Lengths of something―communication cables or electrical lines―were buried.  But not a single structure sprang up, not a single house trailer rolled in.  The shrubs and grasses regenerated.  The rabbits resumed flummoxing the dogs.  The moon, stars, and planets shouted their presence in the night skies south of our property.  And my faith that events in the Valley unfold at a wonderfully leisurely pace was maintained.

Today, 2021, a grid of a few unnamed dirt roads covers the acreage, and the acreage includes a large shed with an adjoining house, but beyond that, nothing.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

“Women’s Work”

Not long after 9/11, the Council moved its office to a two-room, second-floor accommodation overlooking Alamosa’s main street; its carpet was worn and the office’s “restroom” was a bathroom shared with a stealth family who lived directly across the hallway.  However, over the next two years, my hours at the organization gradually decreased.  Although Chris was working at full capacity, there was no longer even twenty weekly hours for me. 

I didn’t want to leave the organization, so I began considering possibilities for a second part-time job.  I pictured the sheer boredom of selling furniture or clothing on Alamosa’s main street.  And I didn’t want to sort the Valley’s famous potatoes all day long in a frigid warehouse.  

However, Linda had learned that nurse aides were in short supply in the Valley, where there were two hospitals and several long-term-care facilities (what used to be commonly known as “nursing homes”).  So, one day, she suggested that I become a nurse aide.

Wow, that’s different, I thought.  But why not?

Sure, I knew that “nurse aide” is a non-traditional job for a man.  I knew that many men―and women―consider nurse aiding strictly “women’s work.”  And gay men’s work.  But, at that point in my life, I fancied myself something of a non-traditional man.  Ten years earlier, when I was a graduate student in English, I’d done some cooking and housekeeping while my wife worked full time.  From the day we married, I knew my wife, as a physician, would always have three or four times my earning power, and I was comfortable with that.  Because I loved her, she loved me, and I was doing what I wanted to do.  And if there was any “manhood” that needed to be proven to myself or anyone else, I felt I’d already proven it: my job history included tire-factory worker, forklift operator, underground miner, and night-shift cab driver.  I had no desire to return to any of those occupations.  So, if all of this amounted to “liberation,” then yes, I proudly considered myself a “liberated man.” 

It so happened that Alamosa’s branch of a junior college based in Trinidad, Colorado, offered a three-month course to become a certified nurse aide.  So, I applied.

I easily met the admission requirements for the program.  There were about a dozen students in the class, including one man about my age.  With the first stethoscope and sphygmomanometer of my own, I learned how to take a blood pressure.  I learned CPR, how to take a pulse, and measure oxygen saturation.  A Valley physical therapist taught us proper body mechanics in the physical transference of patients and residents.  We were taught how to feed people and safely accompany them as they ambulated; how to shift bedridden people to avoid skin tears; and how to use a gait belt.  A decubitus, or pressure ulcer, was something I’d never heard of until this course, and we were lectured stringently about the dangers of this malady.  We were taught that mattress pads and bottom sheets must be as smooth as possible to avoid ulcers.  We were taught how to perform a bed bath.  We were even taught how to make a bed, including a technique I’d never heard of: “mitering a corner,” which had a geometric beauty I rather admired.

Matching the concern for pressure ulcers was a focus on infection control.  Thus, we were tested in our thoroughness of handwashing: a minimum of twenty seconds, about the time it takes for back-to-back renditions of “Happy Birthday.”  (Of course, this would serve me well when the coronavirus arrived on our shores.)  However, I thought our nurse instructor had gone a bit too far when she insisted, after the insertion of a patient’s pillow into a freshly-laundered case with a minimum of disturbance (disturbance, she reminded us, creates air currents, which can deliver germs), the mouth of the pillowcase must face away from the door to the patient’s room, the open mouth of a pillowcase being a potential catchment basin for hallway germs migrating into the room.  (Well, the instructor did describe herself as “anal.”)

Toward the conclusion of the course, the students were required to spend several days practicing what they had learned at two long-term-care facilities and one hospital in the Valley.  For these events, solid white was required for scrubs, footwear, and socks.  I hated this look―like the Good Humor man or an orderly in a 50s insane asylum.  In any event, my first day as a nurse aide occurred at a long-term-care facility.  It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting day.  I felt I had to feign a sweet-talking tenderness with the facility’s elderly residents so as not to frighten them, an affectation with which I was utterly uncomfortable―so much for the “liberated man.”  I performed “peri care”―hygiene after defecation―on several residents; other than my first experience with sexual intercourse, it was the strangest thing I’d ever done with another person.  I briefly had to single-handedly clean and dress a demented woman who had smeared herself with her own feces―mercifully, a facility aide came to my aid during this episode.  However, at the end of the day, I seriously doubted I wanted to work in a “nursing home.”  Domesticity―the bathing, dressing, bingo, jigsaw puzzles―not healthcare seemed to be the aim in such a facility, which is why I vastly preferred the class field trip to a Valley hospital, where I spent a day actually aiding nurses.

Several months after graduation, I was hired as an aide by Conejos County Hospital, a fifteen-bed facility in the village of La Jara, ten miles south of our house.  I worked three consecutive days, from six a.m. to three p.m., and then took four days off, alternating with one other day aide.  The hospital’s nursing staff consisted of a registered nurse and, depending upon the daily census, one or two licensed practical nurses. 

I worked at the hospital for sixteen months.  Arriving for work in the black-and-blue Valley dawn.  Gently greeting the nurses―in chairs but often asleep, as their shift had begun three hours earlier.  Taking vital signs at a cold dawn on a dying patient as her nine family members looked on, their silence and solemnity recalling that of the Mexican Indians in the “resuscitation” scene in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Getting patients up and toileted by seven.  Distributing breakfasts.  Getting routinely ignored by the hospital’s only rounding physician, a cowboy-booted redneck whom I disliked.  Listening to a spunky female LPN discretely go on about the joy of receiving oral sex.  Occasionally sharing liberal political views and a bag of potato chips with the hospital’s Birkenstocksed ER doc, whom I did like.  Learning about the care of patients with MRSA.  Slogging through a Thomas Wolfe novel in the afternoons when the pace had slowed.  Watching in discrete disbelief as a sweet, stoic long-term patient with pulmonary edema swell up like the Michelin Man, his skin glazed as if with plastic―and eventually die, his normally-composed wife now howling in grief in the hallway outside his door.  Attending a baby shower for an LPN’s first-born.  Assisting in my first “I&D,” or incision and draining: stunned as I watched pus fountain endlessly from a patient’s back.  Wearing scrubs of any color I chose.