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.

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