arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, maine, new mexico, southwest

Autumn in Maine

Stating the obvious, fall in Maine was colors, primarily the reds, oranges, and lingering greens of maple and oak, swimming, exploding, dripping, and drooling everywhere.  Sure, the effervescent gold of the aspen and the muted reds of the scrub oak of the Southwestern high country, and the bright lemon-yellows of the cottonwoods in the Southwestern river valleys and arroyos, were beautiful, but nothing could surpass the sheer variety and abundance of New England’s autumnal palette.  The New England autumn weather, too, was nearly always delightful, thanks largely to the decrease in the relative humidity.  Of course, fall also meant the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.

arizona, Colorado, Desert, maine, memoir, new mexico, southwest

New England Thunderstorm

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but undramatic systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from the usual indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where? 

In the desert Southwest, one saw storms approaching from miles away.  And in the woods of new England?  Imagine yourself in a woodshed with the door ajar . . . with a low-flying blimp about to arrive.  Then, thunder.  And lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.

arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, maine, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Home in Maine

We closed on our fourth house at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham.  Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the dwelling on a dead-end road.  The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow.  Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place.  It was the first of a number of occasions in which Bruce, unbidden but greatly appreciated, would help us.  

Meanwhile, the slightest sounds, in the stillness, seemed to echo against all these walls of trees.   

After several days we established a modicum of order in the house.  The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style.  It had a second floor and an unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience.  The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch.  The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic. 

The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover.  The remaining one-third was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness.  Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―hugged and canopied our house.  Nearly all of the 15 or so other properties on our road were of similar size.  We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado.  On the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy provided by all the vegetation.  

Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door.  Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.”  That is, the otter pond.  (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the New England accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I came to understand that the Maine accent differed from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differed from a northern Maine accent.)  We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned.  We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track. 

It was a raw morning, the temperature 40 degrees, the skies leaden.  The air was still and fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open field.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and ice.  It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling.  Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft.  The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog, a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, was a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, and got me to thinking.  Some aspect of this surely inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, Edward Hoagland.  Would this blanket of wood succor or smother me?  Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing?  Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?     

Soon we arrived at the pond, actually one of several ponds, where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush.  (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.)  The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that covered about 50 acres.  The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon lifted my spirits as Buddy and I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Finally, Ecodefense

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work. 

One afternoon, while emptying the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager. 

My interest was immediate.  I assumed this organization, at the very least, dealt with issues of wilderness protection around the Valley.  Here, I thought, was an opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engage in the nuts and bolts of defending it.

I phoned the number included in the note and spoke to Chris, the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.  I’d never heard of the organization.  We agreed to an interview.  

The interview with Chris and a Council board member was conducted at the Council’s little office located in the building of Alamosa’s public radio station.  The two shared with me the Council’s mission, and my original assumption about the organization was correct.  There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, membership in the Sierra Club, and master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico. 

I felt good about the interview.  However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.

The Council’s office was small, dank, and dusty.  Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains.  Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris.  On mine sat a personal computer. 

The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring.  Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff.  The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company.  The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley and securing legal advice. 

I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the organization’s mailing list, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the Council at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects.  I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week.  The independence and solitude suited me.

Chris was a classic representative of certainly one slice of the Valley’s population.  Some ten years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she told me that she worked briefly for, of all things, one of David Letterman’s Late show incarnations―in what capacity, I never asked.  She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind.  She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland.  Her long hair, un-styled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office still damp from a shower.  Her clothes were casual.  Many of them might have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  She was relaxed and irrepressibly upbeat.  From the start, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.  

Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my initial months of employment.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the national forests of the mountains surrounding the Valley.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors.  The phone rarely rang.  Indeed, I realized that the Council was truly unknown.  Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.

However, things began to get more interesting when, one day, Chris assigned me some field work.

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, New Mexico, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Nooooo. Colorado Chile?

Although for 15 years, before moving to New Mexico, I enjoyed excellent Mexican food in Colorado, I never noticed late-summer commercial chile-roasting on Colorado’s street corners and in its supermarket parking lots.  Arriving in the Valley, I continued to assume this was a practice unique to New Mexico.  

Thus, I was surprised when, one late-afternoon in mid-August, while driving on State Avenue just south of downtown Alamosa, I got the unmistakable whiff―that intoxicating, sweet-smoky odor―of roasting long-green chiles.  Sure enough, a roaster, a gridironed metal drum that revolved just above some propane gas-fed flames, was operating in the parking lot of Atencio’s Market, so I just had to pull into the lot―not, I told myself, to make a purchase, merely to watch and smell.  By the roaster, I joined several other addicts, along with the man with the denim apron, long brakeman’s gloves, and wire brush who operated and maintained the device. 

As I watched the peppers tumble in the drum―slowly, carefully blackening and becoming increasingly limp―my gaze turned to a nearby pallet stacked with burlap bags of freshly-harvested raw chiles.  The bags read that the peppers were from a farm in . . . Pueblo, Colorado? 

I was surprised.  I didn’t think a chile seed had a prayer beyond the air, water, soil, sunlight, and agricultural sorcery of Hatch, New Mexico, the (self-proclaimed) “chile capital of the world.” 

Good heavens, I wondered, had I been enjoying Colorado chile in various Alamosa restaurants since my arrival?

I had to explore this further, so I walked into Atencio’s and headed for the fruit-and-produce section.  In a bin were piled some individual chiles, with a sign indicating they were “hot.”  I held up one.  “From Pueblo?” I asked a nearby employee, a woman un-boxing bananas.  She arched her brows, cocked her head, and nodded as if to affirm the obvious.  I purchased several of the peppers and headed home.  

There, I spread some foil in our stove’s broiler, upon which I laid the washed peppers.  I turned on the broiler.  I dumped some ice into a pot of water. 

I turned the chiles over and over until they had sufficiently blackened and blistered.  I dropped them into the pot of ice water and stirred, to coax the hot chile flesh from the charred skin, a technique I’d learned in our kitchen in Anthony. 

When the ice cubes had nearly melted, I asked myself, Should I don latex gloves?―to protect my hands against the capsaicin, of course.  Nah.  After all, we’re talkin’ Pueblo.  

I plunged my bare hands into the pot and removed the peppers.  I carefully separated the skins (generally not recommended for eating when charred) from the flesh.  Hunger increasing, I took a knife and sliced off the head of each pepper.  Then I sliced open each pepper lengthwise and scrapped away the seeds. 

Reaching for the salt shaker, I suddenly felt all my fingers aflame.  

Alarmed, I opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a half-gallon milk bottle.  Then I flushed both fiery hands with milk, to neutralize the capsaicin―or so I’d once been told.  This providing only slight relief, I rinsed my hands under cold tap water, despite reading that such a remedy was essentially futile. 

But never mind this discomfort: My taste buds were longing, and those chiles weren’t getting any warmer by the thermometer.  I lightly salted the flesh of a chile, cut off a segment of it, and, with a fork (gratuitous, really, at this point), popped the segment into my mouth. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  That slightly sweet, slightly citrus-y, mostly indescribable flavor.  Then I felt a blowtorch on the lips, which spread to my tongue and gums, and then a firestorm filled the entire buccal region.  

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, I thought, Viva Pueblo!

arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

More About Alamosa and the Valley

In 1944, the San Luis Valley was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

That’s remote.

Even in 1999, in a United States of 280 million, it was not a stretch to characterize the Valley as equally “remote.”    

World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado.  However, despite all the snow that accumulated on the mountains cradling the San Luis Valley, Alamosa was clearly not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs.  The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa was Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt.  The nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, a business offering skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―was Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter drive in the opposite direction.  (And fans of Wolf Creek were more likely to stay overnight in the stylish resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, west of the ski area.)  Being a desert, the central Valley lacked snow sufficient even for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  Meanwhile, rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lacked excitement, for there the river, even when swollen, was nearly bereft of whitewater. 

About the only outdoor recreation the Valley could truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, was romping up and down, on foot, the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  People lived in Alamosa primarily to farm, ranch, and teach at and attend Adams State and the Alamosa branch of Trinidad State Junior College.

Still, the Valley was a permanent home to a wide variety of people, including artists.  Several art galleries were located on Alamosa’s main street.  The city had an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” for the homeless partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank.  The city had a National Public Radio-affiliated station, with a satellite office in Taos, whose signal reached all of the Valley and much of north-central New Mexico.  

The Valley’s citizenry included environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the 1990’s successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range.  The government-funded medical clinic for which Linda worked had satellite clinics throughout the Valley.  Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner was the former mining town of Crestone, a bastion of New Age thought that included a respected school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”

A standard-gauge railroad, once a branch of the famed Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, served the Valley.  Regular, short, slow-moving freight trains from Colorado’s Front Range entered the Valley via La Veta Pass.  From Alamosa, the line branched northwest to serve agricultural interests, and south to serve agricultural and mining interests.  The railroad ran a quarter-mile from our house.  Meanwhile, a narrow-gauge tourist railroad that ran from Antonito, Colorado, in the southern portion of the Valley, to Chama, New Mexico, 35 miles to the southwest, operated daily from late-spring to early-fall, its passenger cars pulled by steam locomotives traversing some of the most spectacular landscapes in the southern Rockies. 

What Linda and I came to like about Alamosa, in addition to its affordability, was its leisurely pace, rural character, breathtaking views, and, thanks largely to its Latino population, a robust Democratic base.

Yes, there was glamor in Alamosa, but it was distant.  Yet those distant mountains watered the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of grains and produce.  Thus, Alamosa was a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.

arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

College Instructor Again

Shortly after arriving in the Valley, I managed to land a job at Adams State College (today officially named Adams State University) as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution―whose 1,300 out-of-town students increased Alamosa’s population to some 10,000 annually―had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods (as opposed to the broader-leafed Rio Grande cottonwoods of New Mexico) shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent.  Brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the norm. 

Because Adams was a four-year institution, I was now back among many instructors with doctoral degrees who were either tenured or on tenure tracks.  For the same reason, I assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that its students were academically of a higher caliber and more committed to completing a higher education than your average community college student. 

My classes consisted of fewer Latinos.  The presence of one or two African-Americans in each of my classes was also a change from teaching in west Texas.  Most of my students were from Colorado and bordering states.  A good number of my White, non-Latino students were from rural areas like the San Luis Valley. 

What remained the same was the English department’s teaching angle: rhetorical approaches to composition, using yet another reader chock full of short essays. 

The reading comprehension and writing abilities of my Adams students were somewhat better than those of my community college students.  Still, it was a chore to generate class discussion, and I continued to dread reading and grading papers.  Certainly, there were exceptions.  For instance, there was the essay, by a young man, written vividly and coherently, about the joys of masturbation.  I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

Wayne was an adjunct colleague of mine.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, although he was far more experienced than I at teaching, having taught at the secondary-school level as well.  I envied what seemed to be his successful pedagogical methods and his ability to roll with the challenges.  He lived with his wife, also an educator, in the frigid, hard-pan mining town of Creede, northwest of the Valley.  In addition to reading and writing, his passion was downhill skiing.  And, thus, snow: His prose offered more descriptions and discussions of the white stuff than any I’d ever read.  Indeed, he was Thoreau’s “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” understanding, for his own safety as well as enjoyment, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts at a California college and publish a book, Instant Karma, about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a delicate, surgically-mended heart.

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Adios, la Frontera

Throughout June and July, while our house in Anthony languished on the market and the fires of summer raged beyond our doors, I once again boxed items for another move, my hands becoming raw from grappling with cardboard, tape gun, and tape. 

One evening, 10 days before our departure, Ernesto, Ernesto’s wife, Linda, and I walked across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge for dinner in Juárez. 

From the bridge, I noticed, painted high on the sloping concrete bank on the Juárez side of the Rio Grande, a three-foot-square portrait of Che Guevara, a reproduction, likely a stencil, of the world-famous Alberto Korda photograph of the Cuban revolutionary, medical doctor, and summary executioner.  Except for a red star on Che’s beret, the painting was in black and white.  In black letters beneath the portrait were the words “El Che Vive XXX Aniversario,” surely a reference to Guevara’s own execution by the Bolivian army in 1967. 

I was tempted to draw the painting to pinko-hater Ernesto’s attention, but did not.  Given Ernesto’s respect for Mexican self-determination, he probably would have reserved judgement. 

At the Juárez foot of the bridge, vendors sold popsicles, handbags, plastic Jesuses in agony on plastic crosses, and automobile sun shades.  Meanwhile, idle cab drivers tempted, in creaky but nonetheless effective English, callow gringos: “You want something big?  Something special?  You want young girls?” 

Juárez was dusty and weary after another day of 100-plus temperatures.  Gazing upward to the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, I saw a crush of one- and two-story businesses and residences, many painted in lavender, sky-blue, pink, and aquamarine.  Everywhere in Mexico there was a love of bright colors.      

After a brief walk down Avenida Benito Juárez, we entered Martino’s Restaurant, where Ernesto and his wife would treat us to a meal.  In the hot evening, the restaurant’s dark, air-conditioned interior was welcome. 

Martino’s was classy: white tablecloths, plump cloth napkins, waiters in white jackets and bow ties, ice in the urinals. 

I drank Corona and scarfed down freshly-baked white bread.  I ate onion soup, its chopped white onions mild, sweet, and crisp.  My salad was pallid iceberg lettuce.  Tangy shrimp cocktail followed it.  My entrée was a slab of lean beef piled with strips of roasted poblano peppers with a side of whole beans.  Dessert was the Mexican custard known as flan.  I don’t recall if Ernesto disappeared behind another bowl of caldo. 

Immediately after supper, the four of us re-crossed the bridge, and Linda and I said goodbye to Ernesto, his wife, and Juárez. 

While we lived in Anthony, we heard lurid stories about Juárez’s crime related to the exportation of illegal drugs to a drug-hungry United States.  A Las Cruces colleague of Linda’s, a Mexican-born physician, told us of a Juárez plastic surgeon who remade, at gunpoint, the face of a Mexican drug lord, and was then dispatched for his efforts.  But it would be another 10 years or so before the complete explosion of the Juárez drug wars, which were coupled with the mysterious, because apparently non-drug-related, murders of hundreds of Juárez women, turning that city into a terrified place day and night. 

Between my El Paso students who commuted from Mexico, my Instituto students, my adventures in the city with my father and Ernesto, and my experience at Martino’s, I left Juárez with a soft spot in my heart for the legendary city.

Our final night in Anthony was warm, breezy, and humid as fantastic electrical storms, distant and silent, surrounded the little town.  The crushing heat of July made it easier to say goodbye.  Although I considered our experience in the Chihuahuan Desert largely a disappointment, I knew I would always remember the good neighbors we had as well as the cheerful, soulful, humble Mexican-Americans of southern New Mexico and west Texas in general.  The following afternoon, with the moving van loaded and gone, I climbed in the truck with Buddy.  Meanwhile, Nick and the two cockatiels joined Linda in the sedan.  We arrived at a motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, before nightfall.  The following day we were in Alamosa, Colorado.

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

A Third House, in El Norte

In late May, Linda and I drove to Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring there: 70 degrees, 25 degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above the Valley, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light.  And, in Alamosa itself, there was much more greenery than in a desert New Mexico town.

On the east side of the Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose steeply, climbing to altitudes of 13,000 and 14,000 feet and thus presenting awesome reliefs of 6,000 to 7,000 feet.  They looked almost unscalable.  Their higher elevations were piled with snow, recalling my depressing days of briefly living among the Gore and Williams Fork ranges to the north.  However, now a fundamentally happier person who’d grown weary of the desert fires, I looked at this range with a longing to explore. 

The west side of the Valley was bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that ran from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  

If any of these ranges included private, as opposed to national forest, land, such land appeared to be sparsely populated.

And, on the east side of the Valley, there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park. 

The heart of the massive Valley was implacably flat.  At times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt as if I were peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain snowmelt fed the rios Grande and Conejos.  Canals and ditches drew from these rivers for cattle-growing purposes.  Meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of fields developed for crops. 

In the northern reaches of the Valley, however, there are vast stretches of gray desert scrublands. 

Except in the towns and along the rivers, the Valley had few trees. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Most of its neighborhoods looked as if they could have been imported from Ames, Iowa.  There was just a smattering of pueblo-revival structures.  Beyond the town limits, however, there were a number of much newer pueblo-revival style houses.  We made an offer on one of them, and it was accepted. 

Before leaving Alamosa, Linda directed me to a Mexican restaurant she had discovered on her initial visit.  

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest


But there was still another semester at the community college to complete.

And, as it happened, an opportunity to substitute teach.  The head of the college English department informed me that a substitute English instructor was needed for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez, and I offered my time. 

I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience, however thin, of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―regular instructors at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south. 

Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious and tidy. 

Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish. 

The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.  Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in suits and ties, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced positions in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devicesI’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it. 

I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert moon and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I enjoyed them throughout. 

After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.