arizona, creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

The Psychical Mestizo

Adequately hydrated, I didn’t mind Yuma’s extraordinary heat.  I even liked it.  At 9% humidity, a temperature of 104 can be, in Edward Abbey’s words, “comfortable, even pleasant.” 

July and August days, dressed in athletic shorts, a sleeveless polyester shirt, and sandals, with only household errands to perform, I deliberately drove around Yuma with my truck’s windows wide open and its air-conditioning off, fancying myself one of Frank Waters’s “psychical mestizos”─men “European on the outside and Indian inside, men neither white nor wholly red.”  Rather than continually battling the heat, I sought to engage it on its own terms, the way people did for thousands of years before refrigerated air was introduced to the Southwest around 1950.  I found such heat soothing, cleansing, purifying. 

Of course, I also acknowledged that such heat could be exhausting.  I thought of the Yumans who had to toil day after day in it: the farm workers and landscapers, the people who maintained the ditches and swimming pools, that remarkable─or pixilated─person who wore the full panda suit while hawking some business on 4th Avenue at midday. 

Yet, as much as I like to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t live in the hot desert without some kind of home refrigeration, be it air-conditioning or evaporative cooling. 

I became especially aware of this in Yuma, when our dwelling’s air-conditioner failed on the cusp of the Labor Day weekend, when the temperatures were, of course, still in the 100s.  As a consequence, Linda retreated to a motel room while the three dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such geography would have made any difference―with a ceiling fan spinning madly above and two floor fans blasting air from opposite sides. 

Our management company said it was unlikely a repairman could be found over the Labor Day weekend.  (Probable translation: “We’ll be damned if we’re going to pay triple the cost just so you can enjoy the holiday.”)  But, to my surprise, after two days and two nights of the North African sirocco in our living room, a repairman showed up on Labor Day itself and spent four hours in the blaze on our roof installing a new compressor, which he had to pick up in Phoenix the previous day.  I tipped him fifty dollars when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.

arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

More from the Land of the Black Flame

Thus began our stay in Yuma, and my fascination with extreme heat.  That strange third digit morning after morning on the front page of Yuma’s daily paper.  The prefix “one hundred and” uttered day after peculiar day by television meteorologists.  Heat that required running the cold-water tap for five minutes before getting a slightly cool drink.  Heat that could fry an egg or possibly even grill bacon―or at least zap its trichinella―on a rail of the Union Pacific track not far from our house.

On fiery July afternoons, our neighborhood was effectively deserted, disturbed only by a fleeting breeze, the flight of a dove, the rasp and whisper of palm leaves, the shadow of a vulture, the distant roar of a freight train.  Meanwhile, the chief activity in Yuma’s ubiquitous RV “resorts”─the city’s cumulative golden goose during the fall and winter─was the mere drift of sand. 

Then, at sunset, like the rattlesnakes, pocket mice, kit foxes, and solpugids in the surrounding desert, our year-round human neighbors―some of them, at least―emerged from their dens and commenced to walk, run, bicycle, play hopscotch and kickball, water flowers and shrubs, and reconnect.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, southwest

Maine Sunset

Meanwhile, Linda studied theology.  Her bedroom, which included a desk, easy chair, laptop computer, and inkjet printer, filled with texts, hardcover as well as paperback, on theology through the ages, including theological approaches to such contemporary issues as violence, incarceration, and LGBTQ rights.  Many of the texts, if their cover descriptions were any indication, struck me as unimaginably dense―the particle physics of faith and spirit―yet she tackled them with the same rigor she applied to the study of medicine.  Chaplaincy, not preaching from a pulpit, was her blossoming interest as, while a student, she enjoyed volunteering at a Portland hospital, the Cumberland County Jail, and the state prison in Warren, Maine. 

And then, four years after we moved to Maine, as my wife prepared for her graduation, we looked at the mounting entries on the liabilities side of our Maine balance sheet: The wearying humidity of summer.  The bone-gnawing cold of winter.  The ticks that appeared in the woods every spring, entering our house aboard our four dogs and the Smartwool of my socks before crawling between our bed sheets, threatening Lyme Disease, expiring only between the teeth of a pair of pliers or beneath the blow of a hammer.  The rare Maine vista beyond its shorelines.  The Mother’s Day invasion of the bloodsucking black fly.  The Father’s Day invasion of the mosquito.  The snow-laden tree limbs that broke power lines, plunging houses into cold and darkness for days.  The marginally-satisfying “Mexican” food at the On the Border restaurant in South Portland.  (Beware of an enchilada scantily clad with sauce and garnished with parsley and a jalapeño slice.)  The idiocy and racism of Maine governor Paul LePage.             

So we decided to some way, somehow, return to the Southwest. 

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

Summers in Maine

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine.  For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau).  Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.

But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat.  And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I.  Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.[1]

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key 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 some 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 could see storms approaching from miles away.  However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more 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.         


[1] Spoiled?  In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, southwest

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now as a practical nurse with all its expectations and responsibilities―honestly, not every one of which I met.  I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough.  Neither worked out. 

I then settled into a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s Disease.  There, I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents and exploded at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose out of boredom from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with severe pressure sores and praying to die.  Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent he performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart.  On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England shoreline night exhausted.  I lost ten pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months.  I then worked at a family-practice clinic that employed four physicians―here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse.  I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.

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

Rotten Ice and Rain

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 Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs 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 was forty.  The skies were leaden.  The air was still.  Fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten 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, is a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering:  Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland?  Would this sea of towering 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 I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa.  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―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me.  I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England.  Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain.  And rain.  And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain.  It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof.  In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared.  James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure.  Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.  

Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it.  Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots.  (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.)  Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete.  In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.

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

Home in Maine

We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February.  Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from―frankly, to my surprise―the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts.  I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer; Linda drove the SUV; and we divided the four dogs between us.  We spent six nights on the road to Maine, sleeping in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Utica, New York; and Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.  Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley.  As we let the dogs wander, I ceremoniously brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips.  New York!  Where I went to college, had my first legal beer, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time!  

Four days later we closed on house #4 at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the house 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 many occasions in which Bruce would help us. 

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 a 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. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―guarded, hugged, and canopied our house.  The remaining one-third acre was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness.  Nearly all of the fifteen or twenty other properties on our three-quarter-mile-long 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 and solitude provided by the crush of trees.

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

Look Homeward, You Restless Nostalgic Angel

As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast.  Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence.  Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun.  No, nowhere in New Jersey.  

Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next.  Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far.  A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week.  Crows and song sparrows.  Corn fields.  Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass.  A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud.  Stubbed and bloodied toes.  Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine.  Motorboats.  Water rainbowed with fuel.  Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms.  A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf.  Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish.  Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans.  Barred owls calling in the dead of night.  Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.

Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain.  Coats and ties.  Mandatory sports and chapel.  No girls.  Constant hunger.  Nicotine withdrawal.  Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master.  A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books.  The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow.  The shame of a remedial education.  And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.

I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston.  Age seventeen.  Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge.  Lolling on the banks of the Charles.  Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand.  The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform.  A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.

However, bad memories also haunted that land.  Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings.  I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.

Still, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I thought I could.

Now, could my wife?

.

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

Becoming a Nurse

After sixteen months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.”  I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that secure place.  For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for strength, flexibility, and balance, and this had served me well on my job.  Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and contort myself in shower stalls while bathing them without risking permanent injury.  Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt I had the intellectual acumen handle such a challenge.  So, once again with Linda’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the council and begin studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that certified me in nurse aiding.  

Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State. 

Formal instruction in nursing, somewhat to my surprise, began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking.  How cocky I felt, having done this now for a couple years!  But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” and “angiotensin.” 

One day I was pleasantly surprised, even moved, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a “cardiology” scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student. One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly recognized.  He was a smart, likable if rather self-absorbed Del Norte vegetarian, ski patrolman, and bicycle-frame designer.  A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life.  He had succeeded at this, in my opinion:  He could have passed for Irish.

Then I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject.  Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife.  Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, wanted instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free.”  Thus, I underwent a vasectomy.  My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like Linda, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults.  So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation and birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding. 

Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units.  At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet.  One morning at the same hospital, a woman in labor on the pediatric ward granted the students permission to witness her vaginal birth.  As a purely natural process, I looked forward to this as well.  We waited and waited, then were told we would likely have time to grab a breakfast in the cafeteria.  Unfortunately for my education, I learned that the child was born while I was halfway through an excellent plate of huevos rancheros at the hospital cafeteria.  Back in surgery, I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure. 

My one year of instruction, enough to qualify me for a license in practical nursing, ended with nerve-wracking drills in the proper calculation of medication doses and the usual final exam, which I passed.  Then, for my Colorado licensing test, I drove to Pueblo, where, at a testing center, I sat before a computer screen and answered more questions about nursing basics.  A week later, I was informed that I had passed this, as well.

For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa.  Linda was now employed by the medical center, as well, in the internal medicine clinic.  I floated quite a bit, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners.  I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon.  I worked for an internist who specialized in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, and sparsely-populated valley where deeds were more determining than looks).

I loved working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this was before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors.  I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them forty and older.  In our sparsely-populated valley, I regarded them as my neighbors.  I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired.  At times I wished I’d studied fifteen years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer.  Still, I couldn’t deny my wonderful experience at the University of New Mexico.      

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

The Flats

Our house was located on one edge of a fifty-acre subdivision over which some eight other houses were spread.  The subdivision was essentially a dead end, so the dirt roads that served it were rarely used by anyone other than our neighbors, and the place was thus very quiet.  Because it contained no streetlights, our neighborhood had minimal light pollution.  Nearly every night, the moon, planets, and stars were visible in our desert-clear skies, our property a virtual planetarium. 

Abutting the southern boundary of our property were some two hundred acres of desert scrubland. When we moved in, this land was unfenced on three sides and undeveloped, bereft even of a dirt road.  Its verdure consisted mainly of greasewood, snakeweed, rabbitbrush, cactus, grass hummocks, and occasional wildflowers.  Productive soils, much of them consisting of sand, alternated with sterile beds of alkali-impregnated dirt and little catchment basins of mud dried into elegant, potsherd-like flakes.  I quickly came to calling this place simply “the flats.”  Like most of the central Valley, it was a treeless landscape, not particularly picturesque, but immensely peaceful.  I never saw anyone, not even a neighbor, on it, and I had no idea who owned it. 

Shortly after moving in, in order that our dogs could safely have unfettered outdoor privileges, we had fencing installed along nearly all of the boundary lines of our one-acre property, which, except for a small sodded and flagstoned courtyard, was also desert scrub. 

I ran the dogs regularly on the flats, where they would chase rabbits and briefly dart after ground chipmunks and lizards scurrying for cover.  Meanwhile, I would ruminate on the distant mountains and hills, marvel at a nest of mallard or dove eggs, puzzle over a scattering of tin cans and metal buckets gone completely to rust, and regularly, almost ceremoniously, visit, but never disturb, a small, delicate, desiccated skull, perhaps that of a fox, nestled in a bed of cinnamon-colored sand.  Despite the skull’s advanced age, it tended to tempt the appetites of the dogs―that timeless craving for bone and marrow―so I frequently blocked their advances upon it.  

Linda and I had spent nearly all of our lives in dense neighborhoods and noisy business districts, so we immediately took to the tranquility of semi-rural living in Anthony, New Mexico.  Our spacious, quiet neighborhood in southern Colorado was equally pleasant, and the two hundred undeveloped acres beside it was a splendid bonus.  “Here is my space,” wrote Shakespeare.  “Kingdoms are clay.”  While I respected the 16th- and 17th-century European city-dwellers who, as historian Roderick Nash has documented, were the first to “appreciate wilderness,” an appreciation that continues among city people to this day, I was equally certain of Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the virtuousness of rural living. 

Then, one breezy May evening nearly two years after moving to Alamosa, I proudly emerged from the new gate I had just retrofitted into our rear fence and stepped onto the flats, the dogs, as usual, accompanying me.  We were bound for another routine walk on our mystical landscape. 

And I was gobsmacked: On the flats were various arrays of wooden stakes from which flapped hot pink plastic flags several inches long: survey markers.    

Enter the horrifying visions of dozens of new tract houses, rivers of asphalt and concrete, glowing windows, blinding porch lights, bright motion-activated driveway lights, rumbling motor vehicles, a night sky obliterated. 

For days I was depressed and confounded.  How could there exist a demand for houses on this bland swath of high desert when only one additional house had been constructed in our own little development since our arrival?  What would become of my rabbits, mallard eggs, skulking coyotes, fox skull; my greasewood crowns tossing in the spring winds; my towering, churning white ghosts raised by dust devils as the devils marched across the patches of alkaline soil?

Over the next few months, from the bastion of our property, I regularly cast a wary eye over the flats, ever watchful for further development.  I continued to run the dogs on it, although not without first making certain it was deserted: I had no desire to speak to anyone who might have a hand in its development, who might have explained the awful plans for it.  Looking at those freshly-milled wooden stakes jabbing my contentment like daggers, and listening to those pink flags chattering in the wind, was tormenting enough.  The place was no longer completely mine and my dogs’. 

I fantasized about following Edward Abbey’s famous Arches National Monument example (which may or may not have actually occurred; I’d learned to approach Abbey’s tales with a measure of skepticism) and removing each and every survey stake under the cover of darkness, tossing them into my truck bed, and dumping them in some remote Costilla County arroyo.  Yet it remained a fantasy: I knew such an act would be futile and, moreover, I’d obviously be a prime suspect in their disappearance.  In any event, for three months, only the survey stakes marred the acreage, and I began to wonder, hopefully, if whatever had been planned had been scrapped. 

Then, it appeared not.  Again one evening, the dogs and I entered the flats to find that ten-foot-wide tracks had been bladed along each of the arrayed survey stakes.  Future roads?  Future gas and/or electrical lines? My dread naturally returned, heightened.  So I at last mustered the courage to contact the Alamosa city government in charge of zoning and learned that―Shit!―four “ranchettes” were being planned for the acreage, and I resigned myself to the fact that a playground for the dogs and a nightly cathedral of pure darkness vaulting to a luminous net of stars would soon be no more. 

And yet, I rather enjoyed the broad dirt paths that had been slashed through the scrub; they made for easier walking, allowed me to concentrate more on the glamorous distances, while the wildlife still had their maze of shrubs and grasses in which to thwart the pursuing dogs.

For nine more months, there was again a puzzling lull.  Then, one early May afternoon, I spotted a tractor on the flats.  It was fitted with what I had previously noticed manicuring the summer roadsides in the Valley: a multi-bladed rotary mower.  With the rigor and monotony of a combine in a Valley barley field, in a cloud of dust, the machinery was combing over the acreage, sloppily leveling all the shrubs, plants, and grasses in its path, frequently―and with a perverse self-destruction―striking embedded rocks with a ring and a clamor.  This developer was determined. Through binoculars I could see the face of the tractor’s operator partially obscured by a respirator.  High above the flats circled several large birds: red-tailed hawks waiting in anticipation for the tractor/mower to flush their terrified prey―rabbits, mice, chipmunks―into the open.  Beyond depressing.

After a week, the tractor disappeared, leaving some eighty butchered acres and a scatter of empty Mountain Dew cans.  The dogs and I once again returned to the flats.  It was a mess: the shrubbery had indeed been leveled―yet not uprooted.  Thus, in the back of my mind, hope springing eternal, I knew that with sufficient rain it could return after several years to its original luxuriance.  Still, what in the hell did this activity now portend? I wondered.

Meanwhile, the dogs had broad views in all directions; the fleet-footed rabbits would surely continue to outrun them, although, without the benefit of cover, they would have to run longer.  And I had to admit, if I didn’t look too closely at the crudity of this coiffure, there was a certain pastoral loveliness to this landscape now clipped like a suburban lawn―that rather satisfying “wooing of earth” about which biologist René Dubos wrote.

Over the next five and a half years, the duration of our stay in the Valley, little further development occurred on the flats.  A grader bladed some dirt roads.  Lengths of something―communication cables or electrical lines―were buried.  But not a single structure sprang up, not a single house trailer rolled in.  The shrubs and grasses regenerated.  The rabbits resumed flummoxing the dogs.  The moon, stars, and planets shouted their presence in the night skies south of our property.  And my faith that events in the Valley unfold at a wonderfully leisurely pace was maintained.

Today, 2021, a grid of a few unnamed dirt roads covers the acreage, and the acreage includes a large shed with an adjoining house, but beyond that, nothing.