Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Frankly, I’d Rather Mount . . . oh, Never Mind

My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, off-asphalt motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled motorized vehicles designed for an operator and no passengers―on America’s public-land trails was born one day in the early 90s. 

I was hiking a trail to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest.  A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed.  Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation.  Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely just a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman.  By the 90s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd and, sadly, the sell-out of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.  In places en route to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery.  The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with trunks, limbs, and branches to discourage traffic of any kind.  Yet even with forty-five pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute.  Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake soothed my nerves.

So I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris, my Ecosystem Council boss, asked me to represent the organization at a “training event” for ATV operation. 

Aren’t ATVs the council’s sworn enemy? I wondered.  But I didn’t verbally question her request.

It was a two-day affair on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa.  I commuted to the event both days. 

The first day, we met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon.  Some twenty-five people, mostly male, were present.  The participants included the instructor, who was an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee from Play Dirty ATV Tours of Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely area in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of Fay Meyers Motorcycle World in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area. 

The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad”: as near as I could figure, another name for an ATV.  Eight quads were provided for our training.  They were militant little vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads―infant stegosauri.  The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses.  As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and delivering me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor.  So much for subtlety, I thought. 

Meanwhile, What in the hell am I doing here? I wondered. 

Although I was perfectly cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event.  Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt out of place.  She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads.  Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie.  I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery. 

Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “practice track,” our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust.  When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”  On his own machine, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed.  But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the size and brute force of these quads. 

At the end of the day, we all dripped dust.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled, and bore a nascent 8-foot-wide circular dirt track―the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.

The following day, we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead.  Far more people attended this event, which dealt primarily with the operation of dirt bikes―bare-bones motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock-absorbers and more tires bearing formidable teeth.  Some fifty males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20s and 30s arrived―from where I had no idea―in their electric-blue-and-orange shirts and pants, helmets, boots, gloves, and breastplates.  Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail. 

An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.”  We were advised to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of our machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and crows that chattered on the limbs and branches above us as Kenton lectured.  I could almost hear the attendees salivating when he informed them―to my astonishment―that the Rio Grande National Forest had eight hundred miles of trails available for motorized use.  When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” With this, Roz and I exchanged knowing looks. 

At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature.  No off-road machinery was provided for Roz and myself this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles as we bid each other goodbye.  I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our national forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck.  There was more day to dawn and the sun was but a morning star.

On the drive home, I reflected.  I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead.  She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.”  I concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day event was simply to increase the visibility of the council with Colorado’s public lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots. 

Still, on the drive home, I returned to unexpurgated Ed Abbey, specifically an entry in his journal in 1984: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise takes up more space inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 2 – “Out There”

At Walsh, Colorado, which was a skosh more developed and busier than Kim, I drove south on a secondary country road, crossed the North Fork of the Cimarron River, and continued south to the junction of Highway 51, where I headed east.  In short order, I temporarily jettisoned an hour of my life when, entering Kansas, I entered the Central Time Zone.  A brief jaunt south on Highway 27 took me to a bridge over the Cimarron River.  There, I parked my truck, hoisted my pack, and headed east along the river’s bank in search of a suitable campsite.

I was expecting a plains version of a “wilderness experience” along the Cimarron.  After all, I was in the heart of a national grassland, with all the reasonable measures against excessive development I presumed this federal designation implied.  And I had taken Truman Capote at his word when he wrote, in In Cold Blood, that western Kansas was “a lonesome area” that Kansans from the eastern half of the state called “out there.” 

However, I was initially disappointed.  Sure, there were some undeveloped expanses of native grasses “out there,” but there were also acres of agricultural fields; dozens of scattered oil pumpjacks, their horseheads bobbing monotonously; and numerous aboveground pipelines presumably carrying natural gas.  But I suppose Capote is to be excused: his observation was drawn in 1965, when he was living in Brooklyn Heights; after Brooklyn, New York, I suspect anything would appear to be a “lonesome area.”  In any event, there was far more development here than in Kim and Walsh. 

More disappointments: I expected the Cimarron River to be nestled in a modest canyon like the one that contained the Purgatoire.  Instead, the river was in a mere crease in the landscape.  In addition, this being spring, I expected the river to have a respectable flow, but it merely pooled and trickled intermittently as it wound its way eastward.  In this regard, perhaps I should have studied my various regional maps more carefully: the Cimarron is revealingly known as the Dry Cimarron throughout New Mexico, where it begins just east of the city of Raton.  It is only in Oklahoma and then Kansas that it begins to be identified as simply the Cimarron.  Greater precipitation east of New Mexico?  Perhaps.

(A totally separate Cimarron River originates, appropriately enough, in northern New Mexico’s Cimarron Mountains and enters the Canadian River east of Springer, New Mexico.)

On the other hand, where I was camped, the river was blessedly fenced off from thirsty livestock that are in the habit of pissing and shitting as they drink.  And, after I came to terms with my disappointment and calmed down, the fundamental wildness of the river and its surroundings began to reveal itself.  Like always, like everywhere in nature. 

I heard meadowlarks, mourning doves, killdeer, and red-wings.  I saw deer prints in the sand.  I marveled at the evidence―the riverside tree trunks wrapped high in a poultice of mud, grass, branches, and rabbit carcasses―of a powerful flood that had occurred on this insipid watercourse.  I looked up through the gaunt, arthritic springtime limbs and branches of old cottonwoods. 

As dusk approached, a breeze arrived, causing the river’s pools to shiver and lending depth and mystery to the place.  At night, through my tent door, I saw a waxing moon in the western sky; I heard the velvety hoot of a great horned owl and the sirens of distant coyotes.  And I reminded myself that I was terribly fortunate to be where I was, and that I ought to allow a place to unfold at its own pace.  The following morning, I left the Great Plains with three days of accumulated space in me, enough perhaps to pry the mountains back home a little farther apart.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 1

During my first spring in the valley, weary of the surrounding mountains―the weight of their prodigious snowfields and the way they seemed to crimp each day’s helping of daylight―I once again felt the lure of the Great Plains, the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT” on explorer Stephen Long’s 1821 map.  

So I got in my truck and drove east, entering the plains at Walsenburg, Colorado, where I continued in the same direction on empty, laser-straight Colorado Highway 10.  There, I passed barbed-wire fences bearing no-trespassing signs faded into near invisibility by incessant sunlight, scouring wind and dust, and utter human disinterest; empty pastures gone to yucca and cholla; and lonely mini-mesas, buttes, promontories, and nubbins; all in the wrap of sky and beneath the crush of space. 

Nothing else.  Not even Cary Grant in a dusty suit. 

At the Kopper Kitchen in La Junta, Colorado, I ate a “chiliburger,” a factory-stamped beef patty on a slice of Holsum Bread, all drowned in a “chili sauce” so bland I added ketchup to give it a kick, any kind of a kick.  A Southwestern travesty.  And in a town with a Spanish name!

Then I headed south into the Comanche National Grassland. After the Comanche nation, once the most fearsome on the North American continent.

There, with a fully-loaded backpack, prepared to camp for a night, I explored a strange geological shiver on that otherwise smooth land: the half-mile-wide canyon of the Purgatoire River and its various feeder canyons, all of them burrowing echoes of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Spanish Peaks to the west.  The Purgatoire, about 30 feet wide, moved at the pace of a Western box turtle on its journey to its confluence with the far larger Arkansas River east of Las Animas, Colorado. 

These worn canyons were not the colorful, sheer, deep defiles of southeast Utah.  They were generally twenty to thirty feet deep and consisted of two tiers of sandstone separated by a gentle dirt slope.  With a sound body one could climb out of them at nearly any point.  They were filled with grasses, sagebrush, cholla, the occasional cottonwood, and, along the riverbanks, willow and salt cedar.  They didn’t boom with space and vibrate with broken rock, as in Utah; they rather slumbered.

At various times of day, they filled with the music of the meadowlark, flicker, red-wing blackbird, and, far too infrequently, the signature bird of the canyon country: the delicate canyon wren, whose call is a series of plummeting notes―somehow appropriate for places with depth.  Meanwhile, above soared the red-tailed hawk and the first vultures of the season. 

In the appalling emptiness of the plains, the womblike shelter these canyons offered was particularly welcome.  I saw not a single foot traveler.  And who the hell backpacks on the Great Plains, anyway?  Trudging along beneath my load, I was a Four Corners, hump-backed Kokapelli gone astray, feeling as queer on this landscape as a blue spruce or bull elk.

The following morning, wishing to escape any sight of the Rocky Mountains, I continued southeast, past miles and miles of treeless pastures, barbed-wire fences, windmills, and dry creeks.  My next destination: the Cimarron River in the Cimarron National Grassland of southwestern Kansas. 

On the way, I paused on a windy afternoon to investigate an abandoned house near Kim, Colorado.  (Kim, Rush, Vona, Cope, Joes, Otis, Hale, Kirk, Roy, Pep, Dora, Eads: Why do high plains towns often have names as short as the native grass that carpets them?) 

From the road, the house was not hard to identify as abandoned: its dirt driveway was choked with weeds, and the vivid plains sky streamed through many of its curtainless windows, some without panes.  A raptor, nesting or merely hunting, alighted from somewhere in or on the single-story structure as I approached.  The house’s roof, nearly stripped of shingles, was a bristle of nails.  The roof that day notwithstanding, the obvious fitness of the sandstone-and-concrete-mortar structure might at one time have been the envy of Kimians.  With a warring mixture of curiosity and anxiety―Abandoned or occupied, what can be more private and personal than an American home?―I entered. 

The house included a sun room windowed with tall plexi-glass.  A large, vinyl-upholstered easy chair, now in considerable decay, was its only piece of furniture.  I wondered why this sumptuous chair was abandoned on this smooth, hard land where even a natural seat is difficult to come by.  Around the chair were scattered magazines―Farm Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens―from the early fifties and an October 1964 issue of Grit magazine. 

The kitchen’s wooden cabinets and shelving were rotten and caked with rodent turds.  The living room included a fireplace, although the obvious question was, where did one find an abundant supply of wood for it?  Meanwhile, the wind howled through holes in the roof.  Wary of prairie rattlers, I descended into the basement cautiously.  The basement had two rooms, each with a closet, the closet likely doubling as a tornado shelter.  How precious, amid the stare of all this space, must have been the privacy of a simple little bedroom constructed of flimsy walls in a simple little house on the plains. 

Back outside the house, as the flushed raptor circled directly overhead, I discovered what appeared to be a concrete cistern, bone dry.  There was a corral, and a stable with a cinderblock foundation.  Six trees, likely fruit of some kind and apparently dead, stood in a row.  A rusted, windowless Chevy Impala, minus wheels and bearing 1963 Colorado plates, perched on a great pedestal of dirt.  The surrounding yard was littered with cow manure: home, home on the range. 

I’ve entered abandoned houses in such Great Plains counties as Weld in Colorado and Harding and Union in New Mexico.  There are few things emptier, sadder.  Unlike their counterparts in cities, their missing windows―rendering them “sightless,” in the words of author Max Evans, who lived for years in Des Moines, New Mexico―and doors are rarely boarded up, probably because there’s no interest whatsoever in entering them.  So the surrounding space flushes and scours them outside and in. 

A major scourge of cities is homelessness.  For decades, places like Kim, Colorado; Mills, New Mexico; and Rolla, Kansas, have grappled with a different kind of tragedy: homes without people.  Peoplelessness.  Since the 1920s, due to consolidation and automation in the farming industry―and, yes, perhaps a lack of vision―population has been steadily decreasing in the rural areas of the Great Plains.  Human-caused climate change might be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe wind farming will reverse this trend.  Maybe, as has been proposed, vast tracts of the plains will be transformed into a federal nature preserve, a “buffalo commons” employing caretakers.  In any event, the peoplelessness allowed me to brazenly snoop around that property and, as my guts churned, imagine the whole human spectrum of hope, perseverance, disappointment, and ultimate failure.  The ruinous dwelling in Kim brought to mind Robert Duvall’s modern-day plainsman character in the motion picture Tender Mercies when he proclaimed: “You see, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did.  I never will.” 

Finally, I wondered where that cool Impala went on a Saturday night in Kim, Colorado, when JFK was president.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

“Ecodefense”?

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work.  One afternoon, while checking 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.  I phoned the number included in the note, spoke to “Chris,” the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and we agreed to an interview.  Chris told me the interview would be conducted at the KRZA building, where the organization had an office of which I was unaware, even though I had been volunteering once a week at the station.  I knew nothing about the Ecosystem Council.  

In any event, because Wayne identified it as an “environmental organization,” I assumed that, at the very least, it dealt with issues of wilderness defense around the Valley, and this greatly intrigued me.  Here, I thought, was a possible opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engaging in the nuts and bolts of protecting it, a chance to make amends I felt were necessary following my employment at the embattled Albuquerque lumber company. 

The interview occurred with Chris and “Howard,” the latter a Council board member.  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, my membership in the central New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club, and my 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 small, dank, and dusty office was at a front corner of the radio station’s first floor.  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.  A number of books stood on a shelf.  I was hoping for at least one by Abbey or “ecodefense” champion Dave Foreman, and was disappointed.

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 mailing list database on the computer, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the organization 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 struck me as a classic representative of a considerable slice of the Valley’s population.  Some 10 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 indicated that she worked briefly on, of all things, one of David Letterman’s “Late Night” shows―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, unstyled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office damp from a shower and shampoo.  Her clothes were always clean, but casual, and many of them might easily have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  Chris was irrepressibly upbeat and generous, and struck me as someone utterly incapable of mind games and power struggles.  From the beginning, 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 first months of employment.  There were no complaints about road closures or dirt-bike and all-terrain vehicle restrictions.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the Rio Grande National Forest.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors, and 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.