“I wonder if anybody will call the cops,” I thought to myself.
It was 6:30 in the morning, I had just exited my front door, and I was walking through my neighborhood, a private community of closely-packed patio homes on the southeast edge of Albuquerque. The day’s forecast called for a high of 97°F with a 2% chance of rain. Meanwhile, an internet site reported a “heat dome . . . baking Arizona and Nevada.” But the sun had yet to crest the Sandia Mountains to the east, so it was still dim and pleasantly cool in my neighborhood.
I had a pack weighing forty pounds―eighteen of them water―on my back. I wore a dingy, stained, long-sleeved tee shirt. My five-year-old hiking boots were faded, striated, and badly worn at the toes (in other words, perfectly broken-in). Nearly my entire head was hidden beneath a sweat-stained sun hat. Throughout my six years in this community, my neighbors had periodically complained about homeless people camped in the arroyo―city-owned “open space”―that borders the north side of our community. Thus, I wondered if one of them would mistake me for an interloper, tramp, thief, or raider from a presumed encampment, and then panic and dial Albuquerque’s popular 2-4-2-COPS or a local, privately-owned, “armed response” security company. Albuquerque was on edge of late because of a rash of homicides.
A stretch of lush green lawn―a community common area―looked and felt utterly foreign beneath my dust-impregnated boots. Equally strange was the tap of my walking stick against the asphalt of the street that led out of our community.
Along the way, I approached a woman―undoubtedly a fellow homeowner in my development, although I didn’t recognize her―standing on the edge of the street beside a bird of paradise shrub, preparing to take a photo of one of the shrub’s gay red and yellow blossoms. Fearing that my presence on the street at that hour and my somewhat slovenly appearance might frighten her, I bid her good morning in my most cheerful, non-threatening manner. She looked at me briefly, barely acknowledging the greeting, and returned to composing her photo.
After passing the woman, I dipped into a pocket of my cargo pants, extracted my journal and pen, and noted the encounter. While doing so, I, as self-appointed arbiter of all things authentically New Mexican, recalled that the bird of paradise, lovely though it is, does not grow wild in our state, but is instead imported from South America. But I tried to muffle that somewhat snide thought. This is your long-awaited urban backpack, I reminded myself. Embrace it in all its urban-ness! Don’t belittle an attractive city neighborhood with some nitpicky botanical observation. The plant thrives here, for goodness sake! I continued my climb up the steep community entrance road.
At the top pf the road, already beginning to sweat, I did an about face and looked westward at the huge mesa bordering my city’s west side. What makes Albuquerque’s western horizon so beguiling, inviting, and stress-absorbent is its stark emptiness. On the far end of the horizon, 100 miles nearly due west, rose Mt. Sedgewick, highest point in the Zuni Mountains. Immediately to Sedgewick’s north climbed the southern slopes of Mt. Taylor. I’d backpacked Taylor numerous times, made whoopee on its shoulders shortly after moving to New Mexico. Sedgewick, meanwhile, was a mountain I was planning to pack, although I feared its slopes might buzz with too much humanity as a primitive road goes practically to its summit. Other things occupied the horizon, albeit at Albuquerque’s edge: Five volcanic cones. And a third mountain: The massive Amazon distribution center, which was still under construction. That is, Mt. Bezos. Or perhaps, more precisely, given its blandly boxy construction, Bezos Butte. Or Bezos Mesa. Was it ugly? Of course. Was I at least somewhat responsible for its appearance? With my hundreds of online purchases over two decades, inescapably.
But “jobs,” our ball-and-chain.
I exited our community at Four Hills Road and descended into Tijeras Canyon―“Scissors” Canyon, where modern-day cowboy John W. Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, and Burns’s beloved horse, Whiskey, were tragically taken out by a tractor-trailer hauling toilets in the 1961 movie Lonely are the Brave.
I had to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed my swift and smooth, because utterly predictable, gait upon Four Hills Road’s recently-repaved asphalt sidewalk, realizing not only how much energy I expend negotiating, with feet and legs, rugged backcountry terrain, but also all the scenery I miss as I’m forced to constantly stare downward at said terrain in order to avoid injury while advancing.
Scenery such as the kind I was now freely enjoying: the towering western canyons and slopes of the Sandias unfolding majestically, still shadowed in blue, green, and black. In his novel The Brave Cowboy, on which Lonely are the Brave is based, Edward Abbey described those canyons and slopes as “loom[ing] over” the Rio Grande Valley “like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations.”
So much for Abbey’s boast about the “poetry of simple fact.” He, too, occasionally couldn’t resist the mystical touch.
After I crossed the bridge over Tijeras Arroyo at the bottom of the canyon, however, I was pulled jarringly back into the city. There stood a man and woman on the sidewalk beside the entrance to a dirt road that descended briefly to a dirt parking area beside the arroyo, the woman clutching a cell phone. Meanwhile, a fire truck came roaring down the north slope of Four Hills Road, its lights flashing and siren screaming.
“What’s going on?” I asked, and the couple nodded to the parking area, where two young men beside a late-model sedan were frantically stamping out a small fire of what appeared to be merely some papers. They obviously were not encamped in the arroyo.
“Whoever they are, they’re going to start a brush fire,” said the woman. “So I called 911.”
Although the city was indeed tinder-dry, I doubted the brush-fire threat, as there was no brush in the parking area and not a breath of wind. However, I kept this opinion to myself. But I was nonetheless pleased the woman called 911: Fires of any kind in Albuquerque Open Space are illegal and, given the right conditions, potentially devastating to what few thoroughly natural areas we have in the city. Wilderness sojourner John C. Van Dyke championed deserts as the “breathing spaces of the West”; similarly, in addition to the city’s developed parks, these urban wildlands are Albuquerque’s “breathing spaces.”
I was also glad to see the monstrous fire truck grind to a halt, probably coincidentally, at the entrance to the dirt road, effectively blocking it off. I was sick and tired of seeing Burqueños constantly getting away with behavior such as speeding, reckless driving, littering, and armed shoplifting. Now I knew these two rapscallions would at least suffer some embarrassment as a result of this obvious infraction.
Although they tried not to: With the fire out, they jumped into the sedan, which then disappeared beneath the bridge. I knew they wouldn’t get far, however, as the dirt road is the only automobile exit from that stretch of arroyo. Sure enough, the sedan reappeared and slowly crept up the dirt road to the sidewalk and Four Hills Road, where the truck and a half-dozen burly firemen awaited them. Caught, the two men exited the sedan. Words of some kind were exchanged. The two young men smiled sheepishly and then re-entered the sedan, evidently free to go, surely relieved the cops didn’t arrive and possibly arrest them.
I didn’t linger at the scene. I get the impression that our public servants―our cops and fire fighters―are rightfully cautious about engaging in small talk with bystanders, so I help them out by avoiding the practice. Like any kid, I was just pleased I could leisurely witness a “fire” and the excitement and drama of a colorful truck arriving to address it. And mete out some justice in the process. My tax dollars at work.
Meanwhile, I still had miles to cover in this urban wilderness, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler, so I continued up the north slope of Four Hills Road.
After crossing the oil-stained and food-bespattered asphalt parking lot of Smith’s Supermarket, I donned a sweatband.
Then I arrived at the intersection of Central Avenue and Tramway Boulevard. Due to the time―7 a.m. now―and the ongoing Covid restrictions, the intersection was still almost entirely devoid of people and traffic. Soon, however, it would become a tumult of cars, trucks, and motorcycles; panhandlers with cardboard signs; loiterers; the homeless; pedestrian grocery shoppers; and the meandering mentally ill.
I crossed Central Avenue―old Route 66―in the immediate wake of another urban backpacker. Well, packer. Because all his worldly belongings were not exactly loaded on his back. He carried an unbundled sleeping bag and old-man’s cane in one hand, a tarp and plastic water bottle in the other, and a handbag looped over a shoulder. He was a lumbering, flapping human chuckwagon on an urban Chisolm Trail. Unshaven, stone-faced, dead-eyed, and bent forward into another day of survival on the streets, he might have been my age. He didn’t acknowledge me.
Meanwhile, there I was, with my $300 Osprey backpack with its multitude of bins and pockets and hooks and clips and zippers, perfectly adjusted with Velcro and straps to float away from my shoulders, aerate my back, and ride like eiderdown on my hips―snug, streamlined, ready and waiting to get me up the Maroon Bells like crap through a goose. Still, given the reputation of that intersection, I was betting that the people who bothered to notice me at all were lumping my lot in life with that of the poor soul just ahead of me.
Continuing north on Tramway Boulevard, I passed the off-ramp from I-40. A premier platform for panhandlers, it would soon be occupied.
Then I walked beneath the I-40 bridge. Here, I now discovered, was a netherworld, an underworld. It filled with the eerie, endless, random thunder of the six lanes of interstate traffic above. A weird dim-to-dark biosphere never sweetened or cleansed by so much as a ray of sunshine. From the sidewalk, concrete sloped up to a narrow ledge just below the bridge’s understory―a ledge, I estimated, just big enough to accommodate a human being. Or, end to end, two. Or three. An empty section of sleeping bag drooped beyond the ledge. I shuddered to think who had been, or was still, using that bag. What did that person dream about while asleep? What was the condition of that dream upon awakening? Pigeons cooed, preened, and paced on the ledge. Others flew beneath the understory, coarsely chopping the dead air, like giant fidgeting bats. Pigeon shit, denied the flush of rain, caked in ridges on the sidewalk at my feet; stirred into it, the usual discarded fast-food packaging. Meanwhile, on the highway above, they drove like mad to Chicago, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Kingman, Gallup, and Rolla, Missouri. Hauling onions, pre-stressed concrete, restless children, lunch meats, PODS, televisions, new cars, dog food, fertilizer, beef jerky, beleaguered husbands, backpacks. America on the move.
But just so much dark romanticism brought to you by the comfortably-retired Urban Backpacker. Try selling this metaphorical piffle to a homeless person simply seeking shelter from a downpour or shade on a fiery New Mexico afternoon.
I gratefully exited this world on the deafening roar of another Albuquerque monkey in a muscle car heading, like me, north on Tramway. The clamor the homeless put up with.
I plodded up the Tramway sidewalk/bike path. I came upon a bright red plastic hazardous-waste bottle on the asphalt. I picked it up and shook it. It rattled, no doubt with used syringes. Good, I thought, for once a proper disposal. Local organizations routinely ask Burqueños to volunteer to comb empty lots in order to safely pick up and dispose of syringes used for injecting heroin and other illegal drugs. Obviously, a percentage of Albuquerque’s homeless inject this stuff as well. Whatever the syringes in this bottle were used for, and however the bottle found its way to this sidewalk, I was touched and encouraged by this meager gesture of safety and compassion in a tough world. I should have clutched the bottle until the next trash can along the sidewalk, but I wanted my hands free to make entries in my journal, so I returned the bottle carefully to the sidewalk and documented the happenstance. Guilt weighs less than a hazmat bottle. I walked on.
On a terrace above the sidewalk there bloomed, with purple and white trumpet-shaped blossoms, a small desert willow―a true, tough, and lovely New Mexico native. This was a tree still in its infancy, a sapling. Meanwhile, there was a homeless campsite of a sleeping bag, shopping cart, pillow, plastic storage bin, and plastic storage barrel on the east side of the tree. If the tree was for privacy, it obviously failed. More likely, it was for the scant shade it offered in the late afternoon. Although the campsite looked fresh and relatively clean, it had no occupants at the moment. Its vulnerability to weather and “wilding”―punks fortunate with homes assaulting, even killing, the homeless for a lark―was disturbing.
Soon sunshine began to bathe Tramway and crawl up the foothills of the Sandias. Traffic became heavy on the thoroughfare. Runners, walkers, and bicyclists, most of them absorbed in their daily exercise routines, began to pass me on the broad sidewalk.
Draining the west slopes of the Sandias, a deep and wide concrete arroyo with sloping sides began to parallel the sidewalk. Given the drought, the arroyo was bone dry. When running, much of its water flows to the Rio Grande.
Gazing into the arroyo, I spotted a mimosa sapling growing out of the slightest crack nearly at the arroyo’s bed. Although not native to the Southwest, the mimosa is a popular tree in Albuquerque. I first heard it mentioned while growing up in New Jersey, in my favorite Hemingway short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” set in Africa. We have a couple mimosas in our yard.
I marveled at the mimosa’s ability to seed, root, and sprout in this challenging fissure, and then to grow to a couple feet. The tree’s nearly complete concrete world, though highly unnatural, certainly had its benefits in this drought. What scant rain we’d been having had funneled into this arroyo, and had thus quenched the sapling. On the other hand, I knew the arroyo might spell the mimosa’s end. Despite the drought, a flood―water five feet deep or more and traveling at thirty miles per hour―in this conduit was inevitable. And if hydropower alone didn’t take out this growth, some equally inevitable manmade cargo of the flood―a sleeping bag, shopping cart, mattress, office chair, carpet remnant, bicycle―likely would. I’ve seen them all, making their way, slowly but surely, to the Rio throughout the monsoon season.
Then I saw something the sight of which tumbling in a flooded Albuquerque arroyo or caked with mud on a remote riverbank in West Texas or East Coahuila would have rent my heart: a big dingy stuffed bear sitting on the lip of a smaller concrete arroyo feeding into the larger one I continued to walk beside. What carelessness or cruelty delivered him to here? I wondered. No electronic toy will ever replace a child’s Teddy. I imagined a girl or boy upslope in tears.
I paused to sit down gratefully upon a bench. I admired some blooming white horse nettle on the edges of the trail. I’ve never failed to identify this plant with the funny name―and technically a weed―during all my years in the Southwest. Like me, it is drought-tolerant and equally at home in the city and the desert. With blossoms of lavender stars with yellow centers, it deserves the dignity of being called a wildflower.
I watched an ant bearing a crumb twice its size. While doing so, I wondered if anybody looking at me thought I was some eccentric tourist from England, Germany, or France. I walked on.
On the corner of Tramway and Indian School Road, I encountered a descanso, or roadside memorial, a common sight along New Mexico’s highways, some of the deadliest in the nation. It was a combination of a rusted metal cross, decorative rocks, plastic flowers, and large glass beads (tears?). The memorial honored somebody with, as near as I could discern, the initials “PAHI.” “PAHI” was surely yet another victim of a New Mexico traffic accident.
Now began the final leg of my urban trek, the mile-long climb up Indian School Road. I passed the entrance to Walgreens, where I get a prescription to correct post-ventricular contraction, give me the steady, solid Hal Blaine heartbeat I’ll need to hopefully continue to do these slogs into my 70s.
I passed a handsome stone-and-stucco sign between the sidewalk and the street welcoming me to the neighborhood of “MONTE LARGO HILL,” with the reminder to “STAY FOCUSSED AVOID TEXTING.” Good advice for drivers. As for this pedestrian, he continued to “text” into his journal as he’d been doing for thirty-three years.
This neighborhood, part of Albuquerque’s aptly-named “Northeast Heights” section, was stunning: the homes handsome; the yards, many of them prudently xeriscaped, manicured; the cars and trucks in the driveways expensive. I estimated each home on the first block I passed had an average price of half-a-million, with homes increasing in value by at least $100,000 with every ascending block.
The Sandias now exploded into view, their shadows dissolving into the sunlight. I spotted the peak of a foothill that might offer a reasonable campsite for the night. I knew that if I camped a mere mile into the national forest, with Albuquerque lapping at the shore of my bivouac, I’d be happy, for my goal was not to escape Albuquerque, but rather to celebrate our public lands and acknowledge a fascinating city that had contributed greatly to my Southwestern experience. I can make a “wilderness” out of a pile of gravel on a dirt road beside a busy railroad line a half-mile from a two-lane New Mexico highway if I’m content and my imagination is in gear. Although a desert nearby does help.
Meanwhile, in my worn boots, clutching my battered walking stick, I now more than ever felt like a tramp, a cop magnet. But I forged ahead, still unmolested.
I paused to catch my breath in a lot―the rare lot under construction in this neighborhood―containing a recently-poured foundation. Cars climbed the hill with me, some undoubtedly en route to the trailhead, and, of those, some surely from more modest neighborhoods in the Duke City. They slowed for the speed bumps on Indian School Road―speed bumps for safety, of course, and for prolonging the tormenting envy of the less fortunate driving through this glamorous place.
Two-and-three-quarter hours after I set out, I arrived at the large paved parking lot, sparsely filled with automobiles on this hot morning, at the mouth of Embudo Canyon. Embudo Canyon trails begin here, in a small patch of acreage designated Sandia Hills Open Space. A half-mile into the trail began the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. The canyon filled with hills, increasingly lofty ranges, and great gulfs of golden light. As the slopes climbed, piñon and juniper yielded to pine, which yielded to aspen and spruce. Public, undeveloped land. How utterly fortunate Albuquerque is to have this at its side!
The Open Space also included a massive earthen berm with a concrete spillway, and a huge water tank. Picture a goiter on the neck of a young Mick Jagger. Did I decry the tank? No. The water that I showered with the night before, and the bottled water now in my backpack, very possibly originated in that thing.
Thus, except for my return pack home, my urban backpack was over. Taking a breather, I slipped out of my pack, and felt a foot taller.
My pack, my house for the night. Before my urban hike, I took great satisfaction in believing that the pack, properly equipped, could be my house anywhere in the world. Now, I wasn’t so sure. A house is one thing, the property upon which it sits, another. I covered some unforgiving property this morning. I preferred the property that now awaited me. At my back, a half-million, hands together; before me, the sound of mountain water, the chatter of a tufted squirrel, the tart squawk of a jay, the perfume of pine resin, the moan of wind in a pine, the whisper of silence in the mind. Yes, a destination close to home, because, as I enter my eighth decade, I’m nearing another destination close to home, close to wherever I am, in fact. But now I choose to be here. I would perhaps have thought to break the spell by raising my voice, adding another word; but I would not do so again. I am invisible. I’ll explain later. It means nothing. Home for supper.