Conclusion: Destinations Close to Home – Part 1

With Laura Paskus’s warning―or projection, or prediction, or however you wish to interpret it―in mind, I was imagining a Southwest a decade hence.  I am 80 years old.  New Mexico’s oil and natural gas wells are capped, no longer vomiting carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere, no longer cooking the planet, no longer holding the state’s economy hostage.  New Mexico is now dressed with solar panels, bristling with windmills, grappling with the challenges and enjoying the rewards of harnessing and delivering clean energy.  Forests are relaxing.  The desert is luxuriant, the blessing of regular flash floods erasing the prints of resurgent wildlife on the sands of its arroyos. Lithium for batteries is being mined relatively cleanly from brine rather than rock. Psychiatry is booming as purring electric cars, trucks, motorcycles fail miserably as expressions of American manhood. And I am once again longing to hoist my (plant-based) pack on my back and light out to mountain, desert, or prairie for a night. 

But then I have questions.  Will my dimming mind and historically-tender piriformis muscles withstand another 50- or 100- or 200-mile drive?  And, if so, will there be a charging station for my car in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas; Campo, Colorado; Mexican Hat, Utah; Winslow, Arizona; or Vado de Fusiles, Chihuahua?  And should I have a major medical event on the remote trail, will rescuers reach and deliver me to a major medical center in time? Have I renewed my Verizon service? (Shit! I can’t remember.)

And then it occurs to me: Maybe I no longer have to put all those miles of asphalt and concrete beneath me to get away from it all, rough it, enjoy a wilderness experience.  Maybe it’s time to finally spend a night in those mountains that have witnessed, inspired, and comforted me for my quarter-century in Albuquerque: maybe it’s time to backpack a destination close to home: the Sandias.  After all, despite docking against a city of three-quarters of a million, they still offer opportunities for solitude and peace; still cover 112 square miles; still contain 37,000 acres of federally-designated “wilderness”―that is, acreage free of all motorized and mechanical devices.  As reliably as any mountain I’ve ever packed, they offer earth for a bed; sky and stars for a blanket; and plenty of safe, discrete woody and rocky hollows―those figurative little-brown-shacks-with-half-moon-ventilators―for relief.  Prescribed burning of their forest has successfully reduced the threat of catastrophic wildfire.  And they’re a mere 45-minute walk from my front door . . . through another wilderness, one I’ve never packed: Albuquerque.

So, at age 70, to prepare for this eventuality, that’s what I did: I backpacked Albuquerque and the Sandias.  


Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 4

Now, thinking locally:  I don’t want a Southwest that is desertificated and devoid of humans and wildlife.  Or, if not devoid of humans, home to only those curmudgeons, desert mystics, and desert rats who can afford solar-powered air-conditioning (and imagine that colossal irony) and private wells a mile deep.  And I’m guessing future generations don’t want that, either.  

I want a Southwest in which higher-elevation forests complement lower-elevation deserts, plateaus, and prairies―as satisfying as the Southwest’s complements of mountain and plain, refuge and prospect, and country and city.  A Southwest where people can continue to travel vertically as well as horizontally, going up to escape the heat and down to escape the cold. 

I want a Southwest that has, even if only intermittently, the sound of running water in its mountains and deserts, water that will maintain this land’s tradition of narrow but clever and enduring agriculture.  I want a Southwest steep with snow and deep with burning sand.

I want a Southwest alive with birds, snakes, insects, fish, and furry quadrupeds, and a Southwest that can sustain a reasonable number of humans.  I want a Southwest where people can enjoy companionship―and solitude. 

I want a Southwestern climate whose fate largely depends not on the tailpipe of a pickup truck on Central Avenue, but rather on the whims of a distant El Niño or La Niña, or even a sun-dictated epoch of planetary fire or ice. 

Earth is not threatened.  Earth will survive.  It has survived five mass extinctions, oxygen starvation, deadly cold, sweltering heat.

Civilization is threatened.

And the estimate by science that there are 10 billion trillion habitable planets in the universe does not give us the right to trash this one. 

The choice is ours.


Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 3

And here’s another pebble: the “Anthropocene.”  In her preface to her biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls succinctly explained it to me: an epoch in which human beings have become “a geological force changing the planet itself.”  Scientists are now suggesting, or perhaps confirming, we have entered it. 

Sure, we have. 

Speaking of Thoreau, how would he have regarded an “Anthropocene”?  In Walden, he wrote: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” 

Methinks we abandoned that “requirement” some time ago, Henry.  We’ve dammed the rivers.  We’ve wiped out thousands, perhaps millions, of species.  With atomic weapons, we’ve unlocked the secret of the stars.  In the Pacific, we’ve produced a raft of garbage and errant plastic twice the area of Texas.  Belts of national aeronautical and space administration junk gaily orbit our tiny planet.  Global “cactus traffickers” are “cleaning out the deserts.”  Now we’re goosing the weather of the entire planet.  The weather! 

Is there not a speck of mystery and the “unfathomable” left?  Is there no aspect of the physical world, of nature, that has not escaped our clutches?


Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 2

But if we don’t reverse?

In A Great Aridness, William deBuys paints a bleak picture of the world, including the Southwest, should global warming not be rigorously addressed.  “If present trends of carbon pollution hold steady,” he warns, the temperature increase for parts of the Southwest “could amount to 8°F . . . by the end of the century.”  Paskus, only slightly less gloomy, estimates a 4- to 6-degree increase.  Generally speaking, observes deBuys, across the planet, unless we put the brakes on climate change, “wet places will become wetter; dry places, like the Southwest, drier.”  Thus, referring to the findings of Jonathan Overpeck, today a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, deBuys writes, “Climate change . . . will produce winners and losers.”  Then, he quotes Overpeck himself: “[I]n the Southwest we’re going to be losers.  There’s no doubt.”

If we don’t cease global warming, our high-elevation forests of conifer, spruce, and aspen, and our lower-elevation woodlands of piñon and juniper―the floors of both now clogged with dead wood, grass, and brush―will experience more, and more severe, wildfires that will “cook” more soils.  If the burned forests regenerate at all, due to a warming climate the dark, soughing conifers that have lolled this backpacker to sleep many a mountain night will not return, but will instead be replaced by Gambel oak, locust, and aspen.  The piñon and juniper woodlands, meanwhile, will be replaced by oak, mountain mahogany, and brush.  Shade, is that you?

More charred landscapes will mean more erosion and flooding.

The Rio Grande―in Paskus’s words “already a climate casualty in New Mexico”―will have a snow supply pared down by 67 per cent, which will reduce a spring and summer supply of water to New Mexico’s farms and homes by 95 to 100 per cent.  The Colorado River will likely see a 30 per cent decrease in flow by 2050 and a 50 per cent decrease by 2100.  What threatens the Colorado also threatens the San Juan River, a Colorado tributary.  Water is piped from the San Juan to New Mexico’s Rio Chama, which empties into the Rio Grande.  Deny the Great River liquid and its water table will drop.  Should it drop to more than ten feet below its surface, the cottonwoods cushioning its banks that I so admired when I first moved to Albuquerque will wither and die.

Increased warming and drought will affect the Indigenous nations of the Southwest, threatening their forests and grasslands with wildfire, and threatening the conditions necessary for them to grow their traditional foods.

Risks to health will increase.  Those who cannot afford air-conditioning may die of heat prostration.  Increased dust will imperil those with respiratory ailments.

Vanishing surface and groundwater will mean no more agriculture along the Rio Grande.  Will you trust a long green grown in Saskatchewan?

New Mexico, historically afflicted with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, teenage failure to take responsibility for teenage pregnancy, and political corruption, may find that climate change worsens these scourges.

And, of course, there’s desertification.  Sand, and more sand.  On this topic, I e-mailed David Gutzler, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.  Given that I had once lived in the Chihuahuan Desert, I asked him:  If we fail to address climate change, will Albuquerque and its surroundings look like the Chihuahuan Desert city of El Paso and its arid, harsh Franklin Mountains?  Gutzler’s slightly oblique reply was: “In fact, if we extrapolate the sort of century-scale trends in climate projected by models out to 2100, it turns out that the average temperature and precipitation in Albuquerque becomes very similar to present-day El Paso.  I’ve made this point in public presentations by showing photos of the Franklin Mountains above El Paso, which really are very nice for hiking . . .  But there are no trees to speak of in the Franklins [my italics].”  I took this as a “yes,” and imagined the Sandia and Manzano mountains sun-blasted and covered with creosote, prickly pear, mesquite, an occasional decaying Huggie (New Mexico is always New Mexico), and an occasional desert willow.  That is, desertificated.  

It boggles the sensibilities.  Will central and northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, their forests and woodlands wiped out by wildfires, one day look like Yuma, Arizona; Death Valley; or the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico?  (Mexico, too―85% of it―is currently grappling with drought.)

Will New Mexicans face crop failure, civil unrest, famine, new diseases?  Will they, if they can afford it, migrate en masse to the northern parts of the United States, desperately seeking a cool breeze and that region’s modest economic gains as a result of climate change?  Will the United States withstand such a migration?  

Pebbles in my boot.


Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 1

During the first few months following my return to Albuquerque, I would regularly drive Central Avenue.  I still liked the thoroughfare’s life, color, laughter, multi-culture, and stop and go.  I still liked the human ripples and echoes of the continent’s first inhabitants, this distinction, as usual, granting no noticeable perks.

But there were times when I didn’t like the street.  Times when I’d gasp and grasp as reckless drivers darted all around me; see the homeless trailing luggage with plastic wheels worn nearly to the axel, filthy sleeping bags over their shoulders; hear the sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, and the horns of angry drivers; stare at the mentally-ill young men, shirtless, sun-slaughtered, wild of hair and eye; see the boarded-up restaurants and the empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, and broken cinder blocks.  Times when, driving, I’d recall what I read in the Albuquerque Journal that morning: another murder, another traffic fatality, another story about the ongoing investigation of the remains of eleven women, many or all of them sex workers, found buried on Albuquerque’s West Mesa―the west mesa that I had romanticized when I arrived in Albuquerque years earlier. 

And my spirits would droop.

But, then, I’d glance upward . . . and be reminded that no matter how intense and dispiriting things got at ground-level Albuquerque, I’d always have the company of that astonishing New Mexico sky.  A sky that, banking off the Sandia Mountains, exploded for a hundred miles in three different directions, suspending mountain and mesa, prairie and plateau.  A sky with a blue so deep it could, in the words of Annie Proulx, drown you.  A sky untouched, unsullied, by the hands and machinations of mortals.    

And, with this heaven in mind, I’d take comfort in the words of essayist Edward Hoagland when, in 1989, he observed that the sky “is left after every environmental mistake, roiling in perpetuity.  We can squint up at that.  Can’t chain-saw or bulldoze it, or buy and sell the clouds, pave them over or dig them up.”

Today, however, a mere seven years after returning to New Mexico, I question, as I suspect Hoagland is now questioning, the shelf life of his assertion.  For today, I believe, we are, in Hoagland’s figurative sense, chain-sawing and bulldozing the sky, and in so doing threatening everything below it.  And this haunts everything I’ve so far written.

To review: Our centuries-long burning of fossil fuels has pumped greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, which is trapping some of the planet’s heat, which is warming the planet. Dangerously.  Average global temperatures since 1880 have increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  The Earth is hotter today than it has been in 1,000 years.  As a result, around the globe, ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking; arctic sea ice is disappearing; droughts, wildfires, and floods have gotten more extreme.  Seeking cooler conditions, wildlife are migrating to higher elevations.

The Southwest has not escaped this threat.  New Mexico journalist Laura Paskus, in her 2020 book At the Precipice, has made this case compellingly, basing, as I have, many of her conclusions on the 2018 “Fourth National Climate Assessment” of the United States Global Change Program. 

The Southwest’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901.  Since the 1970s, the average annual temperature of New Mexico has increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit.  New Mexico is the sixth-fastest-warming state in the nation. 

Then, there’s drought.  Droughts, thought to be largely caused by water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, are normal in the Southwest.  However, since 2000, the Southwest has been in a whopper of a drought, one of the worst in 1,200 years.  Researchers are concluding that global warming is accounting for about 50 per cent of this drought―or, rather, what scientists are now calling this “megadrought.”  Drought of any scale, of course, means less water in our rivers, streams, and soils.  

And drought means an increased threat of wildfires.  In a space of three years, New Mexico has had four devastating forest fires: the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011―156,000 acres burned; the Little Bear fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 2012―44,330 acres; the Whitewater Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico in 2012―300,000 acres; and the Silver fire in the Gila National Forest in 2013―138,000 acres.

Fire season in the West has lengthened by two months.  The week during which I wrote this, hotshots were battling a blaze in the Lincoln National Forest . . . in a snowfall, this weird combination likely a result of New Mexico springtimes becoming warmer earlier.  Thus, snowmelt is peaking in February and March, instead of May and June, when farmers in central and southern New Mexico are needing it to water their crops.

Water tables are dropping across the Southwest, threatening farms and homes.

Hi-intensity fires due to fuel build-up due to a century of fire-suppression are, in Paskus’s words, “cook[ing] the soils,” preventing trees of any kind from returning.

Clearly, Mr. Hoagland, we’re chain-sawing and bulldozing our Southwestern sky.

Paskus gives civilization about a decade to reverse this.  To stop burning fossil fuels.  To stop me from driving three times a week fifty highway miles one way―and burning more than a gallon of regular―in order to pedal my bicycle for sixteen miles on a remote stretch of highway because I like the space, light, peace, and the rare sight of the lone, loping, wayfaring coyote.

A tall order?  As poet James Merrill observed: “Always that same old story― / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks.”


Full Circle

After six months, our obligations in Yuma had ended, and we began looking for a final house―once again, in Albuquerque.  We chose Albuquerque because we knew and liked the city; it likely had a robust job market (my wife would look for work as a chaplain, I for work as a non-medical home caregiver); and, given our advancing ages, it offered a wide variety of medical services.  We looked at several semi-rural houses in central New Mexico on the internet, but concluded they were beyond our means and/or were too distant from emergency medical care.  In the late winter, we eventually closed on a house at the edge of Albuquerque and moved in at the end of March, about a quarter-century after we first arrived in the Southwest.

During my first few months back in New Mexico I returned to some of my old haunts.  I visited a mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Albuquerque, and discovered that it had been renovated and was now serving more costly food and a variety of “specialty” beers.  Although it retained its name, largely gone, it seemed to me, were its customers with whom I once dined, including the many bacon-and-eggs viejos of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhoods, replaced now by a new generation of young people who were patronizing the many new nightclubs and venues for live music downtown. Downtown now also included a titty bar. (“Feel the power,” Burque?)  

On the campus of the University of New Mexico, I visited Mitchell Hall, where I first taught composition.  However, my classroom was gone, replaced by a spacious lounge with a refreshment stand.  Had my classroom been so equipped on that anxious morning two decades earlier, I might have entered it with considerably less paralysis.  At the campus’s Zimmerman Library, where once there stood the long wooden banks of a card catalog, students now lounged upon comfortable chairs and sofas, their fingers upon sleek keyboards, their noses buried in handheld electronic devices.  Index cards cataloging books had now been digitized, the digital information accessed by computer terminals scattered throughout the library.  

Elsewhere in the city, I tightened my sphincter as, dodging reckless motorists, I negotiated the intersection of Interstate highways 40 and 25, its latest manifestation what Burqueños called a “spaghetti bowl” of ramps and overpasses, an engineering feat I had to admire. 

Easter week, I once again passed, in a light snowfall, a dozen of the Christian faithful, no doubt mostly Catholics, walking south of the town of Tijeras along a remote stretch of highway 337―to where, I knew not. 

I returned to the Rio Puerco basin west of Los Lunas to watch the freight trains of the BNSF railroad, once again fantasizing hobodom. 

I plunged back into the outdoors, spending days and nights hiking and packing, among other places, the slopes and summits of New Mexico’s Manzano, San Mateo, and Gallinas mountains.  To my surprise and delight, they were still lightly visited.  

Still, I was an urban dweller once again, and now for the duration.