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Conclusion: Destinations Close to Home – Part 2

“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 observationThe 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.

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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.  

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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Mexican Food in Yuma

Of course, we ate Mexican food in Yuma.  The Mi Rancho restaurant was our introduction.  The decor of Mi Rancho was splashed with lime greens and lemon yellows, all trimmed in pink.  The waitresses drew their dark hair into tight buns pinned with artificial roses.  The walls were covered with photos of young Latino boxers, until then something I’d seen mainly in Albuquerque barber shops.  There were colorful acrylics of matadors and Mexican mercados.  There was a rooster clock and a warping poster of Chichen Itza.  La Casa Gutierrez, now no more, was aptly named.  Sandwiched between two residences on a quiet street, it obviously was the house of the Gutierrez family at one time.  I favored its chile rojo.  Maricosos Mar Azul introduced us to Mexican seafood―Yuma is 70 miles from the Gulf of California―the best we’ve eaten this side of the border.  Like La Casa Gutierrez, Los Manjeres was charmingly intimate―a couple small rooms, one with a fireplace (that’s right, in Yuma).  It, too, was surely once a house. 

From Clinton, Oklahoma, to Yuma, Arizona, Latino chefs knew how to satisfy.

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Muggins, Dome, and Gila

To escape the bustle of Yuma, the dogs and I would drive east over Telegraph Pass, drop down into Dome Valley, and wander farther east on foot over a dirt road into the Muggins Mountains.  Except along their dry arroyos, these were mostly barren formations, as rugged and bleak as the formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum Valley (and Lawrence of Arabia fame).  Benches below the range’s sharp peaks and ridges were broad fields of nothing but fine black rock: desert pavement.  (Picture the most superfluous attempt at xeriscaping by a slovenly Southwestern homeowner.)  Even creosote struggled here, and the saguaro was almost non-existent.  The dominant hues and shades were browns, tans, dull greens, and whites.  Rarely did I hear birdsong.  The buzz of an occasional fly marred the silence.  In mid-November, while most of America prepared to gird its loins against another long season of rain, slush, and snow, this queer land of timeless sunlight, aridity, and vacant sky went on, serenely meditating on its indifference. 

Meanwhile, the heart of Dome Valley was a lush three-mile-wide belt of crops that ran for a dozen miles southeast to northwest.  The belt traced the course of the Gila River, once one of the Southwest’s most vibrant rivers from its source in southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range to its termination at the Colorado River in Yuma.  Buddy and I camped along its lively waters not far from its source fifteen years earlier.  Today, the river is strangled by a dam in Coolidge, Arizona, and, downstream, nearly starved by the agricultural demands of the Phoenix, Arizona, region.  To get to the Muggins, the dogs and I had to cross a bridge that spanned the Gila near Ligurta, Arizona.  From the bridge, we observed not a river but rather what appeared to be a series of narrow, stagnant puddles cushioned on both sides by a broad, treeless bottomland of green and brown grasses.  In the Dome Valley, and perhaps beyond to the Colorado, the river seemed to vanish entirely, reimagining itself as a maze of concrete canals and earthen ditches, all blanketed with cauliflower, wheat, lemons, and cotton.

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Lettuce

Amid the harsh desert of Yuma County are 180,000 acres of lush fields and orchards: North America’s winter produce section.  Yuma was once a massive flood plain for the Colorado and Gila rivers, and the soils that were deposited on the plain by flooding over the eons are rich in nutrients, and thus ideal for growing.

Agricultural activity, in the fields if not the orchards, was at a minimum when we arrived in Yuma in the dead of summer.  Planting on a grand scale commenced in September.  On fields level as pool tables, there was machine-made ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado River water; other fields were flood irrigated.  Soon these acreages were bright green with lettuce and dull-green with cauliflower.  Meanwhile, wagons piled high with colorful lemons and limes trundled along Yuma’s streets and avenues, their occasionally dribbled fruits ornamenting the roadsides.

Field harvesting in Yuma was serious business performed almost entirely―maybe entirely―by Latinos, many of them temporarily in Yuma from their homes in Mexico, 20 miles to the south.  Repainted former school buses packed with field workers scurried over the state and interstate highways and county roads from pre-dawn to post-dusk.

My culinary preference pointed me particularly to the Romaine lettuce harvest.  A harvesting machine―basically a wheeled, self-propelled, slowly-moving workbench that extended over a dozen rows or so―combed over the fields as the lechugeros―“lettuce people”―cut and boxed heads of Romaine, then delivered the boxes by conveyor belt to a shadowing tractor-drawn wagon.  Lechugeros in Yuma County numbered as many as 40 thousand between the months of October and March.

When the harvest was completed, the lettuce field always contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly good heads.  As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste.  (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, throw out 60 million tons of produce annually.)

For final processing and shipping, the harvested vegetables were transported to a massive complex on Yuma’s east side.  Empty and dark during the summer months, in the winter it operated non-stop, a dynamo that lit the night sky as it swarmed with eighteen-wheelers, their trailers refrigerated.

Legendary farmworker organizer and pacifist Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma.  And yet, nowhere in the city was there a monument to him, a designation of his childhood home or neighborhood, or a street bearing his name.  Understandable?  Although thinly so, perhaps:  Chavez’s fame rested on his considerable organizing successes in California; his efforts to do the same in Arizona were far less fruitful.  However, in nearby San Luis, Arizona, where Chavez died, I did come upon a handsome, larger-than-life bronze statue of him at a community center bearing his name.  And in Yuma County, as in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado, I regularly saw two examples of his legacy: Every field under harvest was equipped with tidy portable toilets (no more searching for a tree or ditch) and shiny hand-washing stations (although, of course, agribusiness today does have a serious stake in strict hygiene).