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

Penultimate: Fire or Nice

During the first few months following my return to Albuquerque, I frequently drove Central Avenue, old Route 66, the Mother Road.  I still loved the thoroughfare’s life, color, laughter, multi-culture, and relatively leisurely pace.  I still loved observing the human ripples and echoes of the continent’s first inhabitants, although this distinction was still granting them no obvious perks.

But then there were the times when I’d gasped as reckless drivers darted all around me; witness the homeless, filthy sleeping bags over their shoulders, trailing luggage with plastic wheels worn nearly to the axel; stiffen with the piercing sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks; stare in disbelief at the mentally-ill young men of all races and ethnicities, shirtless, sun-burned, wild of hair and eye, ranting and raving; see the boarded-up restaurants and the empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, and broken cinder blocks. 

A quarter-century earlier, I would have likely dismissed all of this with an I’m-young-and-in-love-and-in-New-Mexico-for-the-first-time “That’s cool.”

But now these things often just angered and depressed me.

Still, there was that old remedy: Once again, I’d glance upward . . . and be reminded that no matter how intense and dispiriting things got at ground-level Albuquerque, I’d always have the soothing company of that remarkable New Mexico sky.  A sky that, banking off the Sandia Mountains, exploded for a hundred miles in three different directions, suspending mountain, mesa, and plain.  A sky with a blue so deep it could, in the words of Annie Proulx, drown you.  A sky untouched, unsullied, by the hands and machinations of mortals.    

And, with this heaven in mind, I’d take comfort in the words of writer Edward Hoagland, who, in 1989, observed that the sky “is left after every environmental mistake, roiling in perpetuity.  We can squint up at that.  Can’t chain-saw or bulldoze it, or buy and sell the clouds, pave them over or dig them up.”

Today, however, a mere seven years after returning to New Mexico, I question, as I suspect Hoagland now questions, the shelf life of his assertion.  For today, I believe, we are, in Hoagland’s figurative sense, chain-sawing and bulldozing the sky, and in so doing threatening everything below it.  And this haunts everything I’ve so far written.

To review: Our centuries-long burning of fossil fuels has pumped greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, which is trapping some of the planet’s heat, which is warming the planet.  Dangerously.  Average global temperatures since 1880 have increased by 2.2 degrees.  The Earth is hotter today than it has been in one thousand years.  As a result, around the globe, ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking; arctic sea ice is disappearing; droughts, wildfires, and floods have gotten more extreme.  Seeking cooler conditions, wildlife are migrating to higher elevations.

The Southwest has not escaped this massive threat.  New Mexico journalist Laura Paskus, in her 2020 book At the Precipice, has made this case compellingly, basing many of her conclusions, as I have some of mine, on the 2018 “Fourth National Climate Assessment” of the United States Global Change Program. 

The Southwest’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees since 1901.  Since the 1970’s, the average annual temperature of New Mexico has increased by 2 degrees.  New Mexico is the sixth-fastest-warming state in the nation. 

Then, there’s drought.  Droughts, thought to be largely caused by water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, are normal in the Southwest (meet “La Niña”).  However, since 2000, the Southwest has been in a whopper of a drought, one of the worst in 1,200 years.  Researchers are concluding that global warming is accounting for about 50 percent of this drought; or, rather, what scientists are now calling this “megadrought.”  Drought of any scale, of course, means less water in our rivers, streams, and soils.  

And drought means an increased threat of wildfires.  Already in this century New Mexico has had four devastating forest fires: the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011―156,000 acres burned; the Little Bear fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 2012―44,330 acres burned; the Whitewater Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico in 2012―300,000 acres burned; and the Silver fire in the Gila National Forest in 2013―138,000 acres burned.

Fire season in the West has lengthened by two months.  The week during which I wrote this, hotshots were battling a blaze in the Lincoln National Forest . . . in a snowfall, this weird combination likely a result of New Mexico springtimes becoming warmer earlier.  Thus, snowmelt is peaking in February and March, instead of May and June, when farmers in central and southern New Mexico are needing it to water their crops.

Water tables are dropping across the Southwest, threatening farms and homes.

High-intensity fires due to fuel build-up due to a century of wildfire-suppression are, in Paskus’s words, “cook[ing] the soils,” preventing trees of any kind from returning.

Clearly, Mr. Hoagland, we’re chain-sawing and bulldozing our Southwestern sky.

Paskus gives civilization about a decade to reverse this.  To stop burning fossil fuels.  To stop me from driving three times a week 50 highway miles one way―and burning more than a gallon of regular―in order to pedal my bicycle for 16 miles on a remote stretch of highway because I like the space, light, peace, and rare sight of the lone, loping, wayfaring coyote.  Again, no one is immune.

A tall order?  As poet James Merrill observed: “Always that same old story― / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks.”

But if we don’t reverse?

In A Great Aridness, William deBuys paints a bleak picture of the world, including the Southwest, should global warming not be rigorously addressed.  “If present trends of carbon pollution hold steady,” he warns, the temperature increase for parts of the Southwest “could amount to 8°F . . . by the end of the century.”  Paskus, only slightly less gloomy, estimates a 4- to 6-degree increase.  Generally speaking, observes deBuys, across the planet, unless we put the brakes on climate change, “wet places will become wetter; dry places, like the Southwest, drier.”  Thus, referring to the findings of Jonathan Overpeck, today a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, deBuys writes, “Climate change . . . will produce winners and losers.”  Then, he quotes Overpeck himself: “[I]n the Southwest we’re going to be losers.  There’s no doubt.”

If we don’t cease global warming, our high-elevation forests of conifer, spruce, and aspen, and our lower-elevation woodlands of piñon and juniper―the floors of both now clogged with dead wood, grass, and brush; that is, fuel―will experience more, and more severe, wildfires that will cook more soils.  If the burned forests regenerate at all, due to a warming climate they will not return as we have known them.  The tall, dark conifers that today sough in the wind―in Frank Waters’s words, “that immemorial sound of solitude which is as comforting to the mountain-born as the murmur of sea to the seafolk”―will be replaced by Gambel oak, locust, and aspen.  The piñon and juniper woodlands, meanwhile, will be replaced by oak, mountain mahogany, and brush.  Shade, is that you?

More charred landscapes will mean more erosion and flooding.

The Rio Grande―in Paskus’s words “already a climate casualty in New Mexico”―will have a snow supply reduced by 67 percent, which will in turn reduce a spring and summer supply of water to New Mexico’s farms and homes by 95 to 100 percent.  The Colorado River will likely see a 30 percent decrease in flow by 2050 and a 50 percent decrease by 2100.  What threatens the Colorado also threatens the San Juan River, a Colorado tributary.  Water is piped from the San Juan to New Mexico’s Rio Chama, which empties into the Rio Grande.  Deny the Great River liquid and its water table will drop.  Should it drop to more than 10 feet below its surface, the cottonwoods cushioning its banks that I so admired when I first moved to Albuquerque will wither and die.

Increased warming and drought will affect the Indigenous nations of the Southwest, threatening their forests and grasslands with wildfire, and threatening the conditions necessary for them to grow their traditional foods.

Risks to health will increase.  Those who cannot afford air-conditioning may die of heat prostration.  Dust increased by drought will imperil those with respiratory ailments.

Vanishing surface and groundwater will mean no more agriculture along the Rio Grande.  Will you trust a chile pepper grown in Saskatchewan?

New Mexico, historically afflicted with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, teenage failure to take responsibility for teenage pregnancy, and political corruption, may find that climate change worsens these scourges.

And, of course, there’s desertification.  Sand, and more sand.  On this topic, I e-mailed David Gutzler, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.  With my years in the Chihuahuan Desert in mind, I asked him:  If we fail to address climate change, will Albuquerque and its surroundings look like the Chihuahuan Desert city of El Paso and its arid, harsh Franklin Mountains?  Gutzler’s reply was: “In fact, if we extrapolate the sort of century-scale trends in climate projected by models out to 2100, it turns out that the average temperature and precipitation in Albuquerque becomes very similar to present-day El Paso.  I’ve made this point in public presentations by showing photos of the Franklin Mountains above El Paso, which really are very nice for hiking . . .  But there are no trees to speak of in the Franklins [my italics].”  I took this as a “yes,” and imagined the Sandia and Manzano mountains sun-blasted and covered with creosote, prickly pear, mesquite, an occasional decaying Huggie (New Mexico is always New Mexico), and an occasional desert willow.  That is, desertificated.  

It boggles the sensibilities.  Will central and northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, their forests and woodlands wiped out by wildfires, one day look like Yuma, Arizona; Death Valley; or the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico?  (Mexico, too―85 percent of it―is currently grappling with drought.)

Will New Mexicans face crop failure, civil unrest, famine, new diseases?  Will they, if they can afford it, migrate en masse to the northern parts of the United States, desperately seeking that region’s modest economic gains as a result of climate change, not to mention a cool breeze?  Will the United States withstand such a migration?

Pebbles in my boot.

And here’s another pebble: the “Anthropocene.”  In her preface to her biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls defined it for me: an epoch in which human beings have become “a geological force changing the planet itself.”  Scientists are now suggesting, or perhaps confirming, we have entered it. 

Uhh, we have. 

Speaking of Thoreau, how would he have regarded an “Anthropocene”?  In Walden, he wrote: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” 

Methinks we abandoned that “requirement” some time ago, Henry.  We’ve dammed the rivers.  We’ve wiped out thousands, perhaps millions, of species.  With atomic weapons, we’ve unlocked the secret of the stars.  In the Pacific, we’ve produced a raft of garbage and errant plastic twice the area of Texas.   Twenty thousand pieces of Earthly space junk gaily orbit our tiny planet at 17,000 miles-per-hour.  Global “cactus traffickers” are cleaning out the deserts.  Now we’re goosing the weather of the entire planet.  The weather! 

Is there not a speck of mystery and the “unfathomable” left?  Is there no aspect of the physical world, of nature, that has not escaped our clutches?

Now, thinking locally:  I don’t want a Southwest that is desertificated and devoid of humans and wildlife.  Or, if not devoid of humans, home to only those curmudgeons, desert mystics, and desert rats who can afford solar-powered air-conditioning (and imagine that colossal irony) and private wells a mile deep.  And I’m guessing future generations don’t want that, either.  

I want a Southwest in which higher-elevation forests complement lower-elevation deserts, plateaus, and prairies―as satisfying as the Southwest’s complements of mountain and plain, refuge and prospect, and city and country.  A Southwest where people can continue to look forward to traveling vertically as well as horizontally, going up to escape the heat and down to escape the cold. 

I want a Southwest that has, even if only intermittently, the sound of running water in its mountains and deserts, water that will maintain this land’s tradition of limited but clever and enduring agriculture.  I want a Southwest steep with snow and deep with burning sand.

I want a Southwest alive with birds, snakes, insects, fish, and furry quadrupeds, and a Southwest that can sustain a reasonable number of humans.  I want a Southwest where people can enjoy companionship―and solitude. 

I want a Southwestern climate whose fate largely depends not on the tailpipe of a pickup truck on Central Avenue, but rather on the whims of a distant El Niño or La Niña, or even a solar-dictated epoch of planetary fire or ice.  I want natural, damn the consequences.

Let’s keep this in perspective.  Earth is not threatened.  Earth will survive.  It has survived five mass extinctions, oxygen starvation, deadly cold, sweltering heat. 

Civilization is threatened.  And the estimate by science that there are ten billion trillion habitable planets in the universe does not give us the right to trash this one.  Got that, Bezos and Branson?

The choice is ours.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, New Mexico, southwest

Full Circle

During my first few months back in New Mexico I returned to some of my old haunts. 

I visited a mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Albuquerque, and discovered that it had been renovated and was now serving more costly food and a variety of “specialty” beers.  Although it retained its name, largely gone, it seemed to me, was the breed of customers with whom I once dined, including the many bacon-and-eggs viejos of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhoods, replaced now by a new generation of young people who were patronizing the many new nightclubs and venues for live music downtown.  Downtown now also included a titty bar.  (Feeling the power now, Albuquerque?)  

On the campus of the University of New Mexico, I visited Mitchell Hall, where I first taught composition.  However, my classroom was gone, replaced by a spacious lounge with a refreshment stand.  Had my classroom been so equipped on that anxious morning two decades earlier, I might have entered it with considerably less paralysis.  On the main floor of the campus’s Zimmerman Library, where once there stood the long wooden banks of a card catalog, students now lounged upon comfortable chairs and sofas, their noses buried in handheld electronic devices.  Index cards cataloging books had now been digitized, the digital information accessed by computer terminals scattered throughout the library.  

Elsewhere in the city, I tightened my sphincter as, dodging reckless motorists, I negotiated the intersection of Interstate highways 40 and 25.  No more cloverleafs, the intersection was now an Udon noodle soup of ramps and overpasses, an engineering feat I had to admire.  Meanwhile, 40 and 25―in fact, thoroughfares all over the city and state―bristled with giant billboards for personal-injury lawyers.  You’d think New Mexico was a very dangerous place to live.

Well?

Easter week, in my truck in a light snowfall, I once again passed a dozen of the Christian faithful walking south of the town of Tijeras along a remote stretch of highway 337―to where, I’d no idea. 

I returned to the Rio Puerco basin west of Los Lunas to watch the freight trains of the BNSF railroad, once again fantasizing hobodom. 

I plunged back into the outdoors, spending days and nights hiking and packing, among other places, the slopes and summits of New Mexico’s Manzano, San Mateo, and Gallinas mountains.  To my surprise and delight, they continued to be lightly visited. 

Still, I was an urban dweller once again, and now for the duration. 



 

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

Sonoran Trivia

Like central and southern New Mexico, southwestern Arizona was located in North America’s Basin and Range Province: vast plains dotted with relatively small mountain ranges.  As in New Mexico, the landscape struck for me a pleasing geographical balance between space and substance, mountain fashioning a buoyant space, and space lending individuality, dignity, and presence to mountain.  (“Is it not true that bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape?” asked John C. Van Dyke.)  In the stunning clarity of this arid land, the mountains were at once distant and weirdly intimate: I’d study an empty ridge, and sense that ridge studying me.  The formations were as majestic as ships at sea, possessing in the clarity and stillness an almost dioramic perfection and unreality.  To repeat, they were also the grimmest mountains I’d ever seen, their flanks steep, barren, and sun-blasted, their crests knife-edged and seemingly incapable of escaping the gnash of flames that began at their feet.

Yuma is located in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision of the Sonoran Desert.  The leading author of my desert field guide noted that the “open valley floors of this region . . . can be quite monotonous,” dominated as they are by the creosote bush and white bur sage. 

Monotonous?  Some might describe the face of a Maine woods in summer as monotonous.  Nonetheless, having once explored what is now known as Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, I was expecting a far greater variety of vegetation in Yuma, including and especially the saguaro cactus.  In fact, in the undeveloped deserts in and immediately around greater Yuma, the saguaros were strangely scarce.  To view them, and then only in small numbers, I had to scan the rugged slopes of the nearby Gila Mountains.  On the same slopes, the tall and tentacular ocotillo, also largely absent in Yuma’s city limits, were somewhat more ubiquitous.  But I was content, there at the lower elevations, with the few trees and shrubs that I managed to identify: the mesquite and paloverde trees; the athel pines with their clouds of long, tough, pendant needles; and, humble lord of the hottest North American deserts, the creosote bush.

The creosote had a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain.  Some might have described the odor as sickening.  Perhaps this explained why Native Americans used―and perhaps still used―creosote as an emetic.  However, in moderate doses, I was personally taken by the fragrance.  It pleasantly recalled our most forbidding lands; recalled, too, my leisurely youth, which was often spent walking railroad tracks the wooden ties of which were, and still are, preserved with the essence of creosote. 

Meanwhile, I wasn’t troubled by desert “monotony.”  Creosote bushes have been known to live for 9,000 years, and thus are the oldest living things on the planet.  Imagine how monotonous our parade of puny life cycles must appear to them

Like the mountains, Arizona’s desert florae were generously spaced, vibrantly individual.  They were clever in their capture and assimilation of water and remarkable in their adaptability and resilience.



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

Thank You, University of New Mexico

I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery. 

Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school―a Vermonter, navigator of a World War II airborne “bomb group,” and Yale graduate.  Delicately accusing me of plagiarism, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor.  But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken.  However, I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way granted me not only literary worth but a sprig of manhood.  (I subsequently withdrew the story for consideration.  Anonymity was my main defense against a boarding school I disliked, and I suddenly realized my story would have revealed too much of me.  Besides, Tom Chaffee’s estimation of my fiction was far more important to me―he rarely gave me better than a “C” in my day-to-day written assignments on the various novels we read in his class―than an appearance in a prep school literary magazine.)

But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to these two people, and a few others.  Too much alcohol, marijuana, intellectual laziness, distraction, and loneliness existed between them and my matriculation at UNM. 

No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis.  I’m grateful to every one of my professors at the place, particularly John Nichols.  That said, my readings of greater and lesser authors; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted; my final exams―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.



Throughout my time at UNM, fundamentally the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony.  Linda, however, had given it plenty.  She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel.  No surprise.  She was, after all, proud of me.  And she did support us throughout my education.  So, of course, I agreed. 

It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated.  At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored.  A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment.  Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap.  I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.

Strangely, my father opted not to fly out to New Mexico to witness the event, choosing, instead, to go fishing in Maine.  I understood.



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

Oh! Those Papers!

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, 700 to 1,000 words per paper.  In the words of Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes.”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of 80 percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every 10 days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; Liquid Paper applied with all the economy and delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.” 

Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered: Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  

I usually graded the papers in my study at home.  However, when I began to sense that my desk was weakening beneath the blows of my frustrated fist, or that the spine of my often airborne-and-crash-landing American Heritage Dictionary was further deteriorating, or that my next-door neighbor was about to call the police and report what he erringly believed was a domestic violence incident, I’d shove the loathsome papers in my Samsonite, drive to my lonely BNSF railroad crossing in the desert 30 miles southwest of Albuquerque, and grade the travesties in relative composure while imagining hopping the Amarillo- or Flagstaff-bound cars of the passing freights or summiting the ethereal peaks of the Sierra Ladrones in the distance.

Meanwhile, I knew the exasperation would only repeat itself, for I was certain that 90 percent of my students, upon receiving the graded paper, flipped immediately to the final page and, with yet another shrug of resignation, merely looked at the familiar “C-” and headed to the student union for a cup of coffee or the Frontier Restaurant on nearby Central Avenue for a sticky bun, forever ignoring my written comments and corrections smeared by my blood, sweat, and tears.  As the term progressed, I had a terrible feeling that my students were perceiving me less as an advocate and more as an adversary. 

Given this, how I looked forward to the day of the final exam, although not simply because it meant the beginning of the end of reading those papers.  In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unpleasant plans to flunk one or more of their students. 

The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”one of which the student was free to choose.  Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate.  A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course.  Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor.  The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.  

On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the Humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.”  The atmosphere was buoyant, even giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s―and, mercifully, not a damn thing more―on the insides of the books’ back covers. 

Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared. Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry.  More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule.  (To wit: “I question evolution.  How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”)  Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to kick back and let go. 

Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards aligned with those of my fellow instructors. 

A final, traditional letter grade―that is, “A” through “F”―for each student who survived to the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester.  Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had somehow managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm, twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well.  However, after several beers at a popular bar on Central Avenue, the alcohol managed to unlock a tender spot in my heart and I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering.  In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades. 

Nonetheless, as the fall semester progressed, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades; that is, grade-inflating.  However, several beers, once again, with said assistants would make this feeling go away.  And I went on to teach another semester. 

Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates.  Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so poked fun at.  Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane.  Finally, I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a hard-rock miner or a computer nerd.


[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  


 

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

More of My Craft and Sullen Art

Another early class at the university was “Creative Writing/Prose Fiction,” taught by Rudolfo Anaya.  Today, Anaya, a New Mexico native and long-time Albuquerque resident who died in 2020, is known as the “dean of Chicano Literature.”  Yet even three decades earlier, nearly any resident of New Mexico with a fondness for literature was familiar with his work, particularly his celebrated debut novel, Bless me, Ultima. When I arrived in New Mexico, there wasn’t a bookstore, and likely not even a gift shop in a museum or hotel, that didn’t have copies of Ultima for sale.  Thus aware, I, too, read the book, and enjoyed it.  What engrossed me about the novel was its evocation of place―the high plains of eastern New Mexico, which recalled for me my Pawnee Grasslands due north in Colorado―and the door it opened to the family life, society, customs, and religion of rural Latinos.  Except for the setting, it was a world unlike any I had ever known.

Rudy was soft-spoken, his words coming out slowly and measured.  He had a full but trim mustache and a head of lush, wavy hair.  He was serious but not in an intimidating or overbearing way, for there was a great calm at his core.  He dressed smartly: slacks and button-down shirts, although the shirts were usually unbuttoned at the collar and sometimes adorned with a bolo tie.

There were some one dozen students in his class, and we all sat in a rough circle around a couple long tables pushed together.  During class we would exchange and discuss photocopies of our stories-in-progress. 

I wrote two stories for the class.  One of the them I based upon a personal experience as a 1960’s New Jersey teenager.  It included an expression, a common putdown among us boys back then: “Smell me.”  I’ve never forgotten how Rudy, no stranger to juvenile cuts in his fiction, erupted into an unexpected high-pitched cackle when I read aloud the passage containing the putdown to the class.   

I finished each story mentally exhausted.  Rudy gave me reasonable grades for both stories, even suggested I attempt to publish one after I “re-work” it.  However, I didn’t care to return to either of them.  I told myself I had described the setting of each more than adequately.  I felt each one had a satisfactory narrative arc.  But neither of them glowed like, say, a tale by Cheever or Malamud (admittedly, ridiculous goals for me to set at the time, or perhaps any time).  I wondered if I was designed for fiction writing; if I had the imagination; if I had the radar required to constantly scan for life’s conflicts and possible resolutions of those conflicts; if I even had the meagerest philosophy of life or moral grounding that I could summon to explain or justify such resolutions.



But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia M rquez, Proust, Greene, Hemingway, Forster, Woolf, Kafka, Lessing, Camus.  I took “Chicano Literature,” in which I read Anaya, Ernesto Galarza, Tomás Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, northern New Mexico-born Sabine Ulibarri.  Yet although I rarely took more than three classes a semester, I felt that I never had enough time to carefully read many of the assigned books.  Nonetheless, I read them all and without amphetamines.  I even cranked out several of those dreaded “scholarly papers,” including one on Dickens’s Hard Times and another on Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, the title of the latter aptly describing my condition upon finishing both papers.  Neither paper was suggested by a professor for publication in an academic journal.  Mr. Davis, meet Perish.



Two years into my studies, I decided to give fiction writing one more try, and signed up for a creative writing course to be taught by novelist and “visiting professor” John Nichols.  At the time, New Mexico mystery writer Tony Hillerman had likely sold far more books than John.  However, John, a longtime Taos resident, was equally well known in New Mexico, his popularity having taken off with the publication, in 1974, of the novel The Milagro Beanfield War.  Prior to meeting him, my favorite book by him was The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, a memoir, with John’s fine photographs, about his life and friends during that season in northern New Mexico.  The writing in the book was vivid, candid, probing, and seasoned with just right amount of John’s characteristic humor.  I figured that if I did nothing else in his class, I would try to learn from his admirable style.

Although he owned an old pickup truck, John arrived on campus on a well-traveled, one-speed, fat-tired, Huffy-styled bicycle.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he never cabled-and-locked it at UNM.  If some unfortunate had needed it more than he did, I suspected John would have figured, fine.  His jeans and sweater, meanwhile, might have been purchased from a used-clothing store, his tennis shoes found along a Taos highway at the end of a long, hard winter. 

John was lean, loose-limbed, and boyishly handsome, extroverted and charming.  I imagined him a lady’s man.  Yet I also wondered if he was a tad vain.  On the back cover of Days of Autumn, there was a photo of him, probably about age 40, hoisting a wheelbarrow stacked with split piñon and juniper in front of a dilapidated garage door and a wall that needed re-plastering.  Wearing jeans but naked from the waist up, he revealed vein-popping arms and a muscular torso.  Cheekbones flushed with fall’s nip, he stared into the camera with the slightest smile, as if to say, “Sure, there’ll be a wood stove, outhouse, and a lot of pinto beans, but look at what else you’ll nightly get, muchacha.”  

Well, maybe not nightly: John told us he regularly wrote throughout the night. 

Into the classroom John would dance, grinning, singing Buddy Holly’s “Oh, Boy!” (“All my love / All my kissin’ / You don’t know what you’ve been a-missin’!”).  Yet for all his energy, he always spoke softly and eloquently.  He was an unabashed liberal.  Marxism, even, seemed to be at his philosophical core.  However, he never proselytized.   

I struggled through two stories in John’s class, dissatisfied with both.  They were largely autobiographical, and the writing of one was more cathartic than creative.  When the course was over, I knew I wasn’t destined to be a fiction writer. 

Yet John taught me a number of things I’ve never forgotten: 

Above all else, writing for a living is a job.  “Every day,” he told us, “you grab your lunch bucket and hard hat, and you go down into the salt mines.  You may be tired, hungover, fretting about next month’s rent, but you go to work.”  And the writer works for a set number of hours, without interruption.  Still, John was no typewriter-bound hermit existing only in his head.  Every fall, he told us, he took a one-month vacation from writing, which he often spent grouse hunting in the mountains above Taos. 

One learns to write mainly by reading, voraciously.  And by writing, constantly.  Thus, I secretly wondered if John thought creative writing classes were a waste of the student’s time.

Writing is revision.  You get that first draft out there as quickly as possible, and then you revise it, and re-revise it, and re-re-revise it, and . . . well, you get the idea.  And no matter how discouraged you become with a manuscript, you finish the damn thing.  

Use a dictionary, not only for spelling, but also for . . . diction, of course.  It bugged John that in his published novel An Elegy for September a pair of sneakers were described as “aerobic.” Sneakers don’t exercise, John reminded us.  People do.  And when they do, they often wear “aerobics sneakers.”  He failed to catch this difference while reading the galley proofs for the novel.  Carlos’s “pebble in the boot” was now apparently also John’s.

Writing is disappointment, oftentimes crushing disappointment.  John told us of the many finished manuscripts stacked around his house: novels rejected by publishers, even after he had published a half-dozen. 

Writing for a living likely means, if not abject poverty, living close to the bone.  John was brutally honest about the monetary rewards, or lack thereof, of the writing life.  He once shared with us his most recent annual income from advances and royalties.  The meager figure stunned me.

John shared with the class the following metaphor about the craft of writing.  His readers know he’s an accomplished fly-fisherman who, likely during his annual vacation, can also be found in Rio Grande Canyon near Taos.  He told us that writing is often like casting for trout: throw out too much line, and you get tangled up.  In other words, understand and accept your intellectual and creative limitations.  Exceed them, and you wind up lost and looking like a fool or a fraud. 

I left John’s class knowing I never again wanted to write fiction, but I also left a far better writer.  I would watch my line, write vividly but simply and coherently, and accept that I would never be a sui generis stylist like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. 

Dear John: Thank you. 

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

Literary Theory

The graduate program had a “foreign language” requirement, so during my first year I took elementary Spanish, which was taught by a vivacious female, a South American doctoral candidate.  The irony of Spanish as a “foreign language” in New Mexico was not lost on me.  For two-and-a-half years prior to entering UNM I had heard it spoken, surely not always with perfection, on the sidewalks of downtown Albuquerque and in the lumber yards of Española and Cuba, New Mexico.  During that time, I made an effort to properly pronounce the few words of Spanish I did understand―beyond those that had to do with Mexican food. Still, to this day I can’t roll an “r” down Mt. Everest, but I can speak the complete Spanish portion of Freddy Fender’s rendition of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Thanks to my late friend Anthony, I can even translate it into English.  Two additional semesters at UNM were spent taking a formal course in translating Spanish. 

Another first-year requirement was a course entitled “Introduction to Professional Study,” taught by an amiable long-time professor who had long, thinly-whiskered sideburns and particularly admired some ancient novel named Tristram Shandy.  Among other things, the course dealt with the rules for producing “scholarly” papers, including their proper documentation.  As monsters who had managed to wreak havoc for a dozen years, Nazis had fascinated me since adolescence, so my term paper for the course dealt with the early-1980’s hoax known as the “Hitler diaries.” 

The course also reintroduced me to that thing known as “literary theory”: the various methods of interpreting, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, interpretations that are galaxies beyond what one understands upon merely reading Gatsby for enjoyment, escape, beauty, and perhaps a little edification.  Indeed, forget merely struggling to divine a “theme” in a Fitzgerald novel: that is so high school.  At Hobart, literary theory was the province of many-lettered men like Allen Tate, Northrop Frye, John Crowe Ransom, and M.H. Abrams; yet during classroom discussions of their contributions to literature, my mind often wandered to the next pick-up basketball game, the sly observations of bluesman Lightning Hopkins, or the Dexedrine I planned to drop at an upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  As an undergraduate, I found literary theory hopelessly dense.  Couldn’t the reader, I wondered, simply be moved by the haunting image of Hemingway’s bereaved Frederick Henry walking home alone from the hospital in the rain?  (An ending that allegedly required 40 drafts before Hem was satisfied―try that, Leslie Fiedler.) 

An appallingly sophomoric attitude, I now admit. 

At UNM, I was introduced to a whole new generation of literary string theorists who had entered the spotlight during my academic locust years, among them two French philosophers named Foucault and Derrida.  Grappling with ideas developed on our side of the pond was difficult enough. Now the Continental perspective, which had given the universe Being and Nothingness, had been stirred into the intellectual gruel.  The new theories included “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”  I, who was still familiarizing himself with the “modernity” of the compact disc, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

However, I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of them; students, that is, who were pursuing their doctorates in English; PhD candidates nurturing dreams of a tenured professorship in a college or university.  They knew they had to publish these interpretations and plenty of them.  Indeed, the expression “publish or perish” had now entered my consciousness.  Yet at least one of my early UNM professors seemed to acknowledge the folly of it all: “PhD?  Pshaw!  ‘Piled high and deep’!” he laughed in front of a packed class.  I suspected he echoed the cynicism, if you will, of many another professor across America.  But, of course, he could afford to: He was a tenured Dickens scholar, and, wearing sandals, a very interesting and enjoyable one.

Before entering UNM, I often fantasized about one day turning “my students” on to Whitman or Hemingway, maybe even Edward Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of murky articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―in order to have the hope of actually doing that, dampened the fantasy.  After all, I merely wanted to write, and write well, about inspections of arroyos.[1] 


[1] Frank Waters about summed it up for me when, writing in the appendix of his marvelous book―factual, lyrical, mystical―about the Colorado River, he stated: “To append a complete list of references consulted would be both needless and misleading. It would fall far short of being a complete bibliography on the Colorado . . . and it would imply, like most imposing lists, an academic interest in its history which I have never had.”    


  

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

The Roots of My Woodsy Solitude

I continued my exploration of the Southwest that existed beyond the cities and towns.  My goal was always to get far beyond, among other things, artificial light and the sight and sound of motor vehicles of any kind. 

However, to do so safely and comfortably, some new equipment was in order.  So I replaced my flimsy footwear designed for concrete and asphalt with my first pair of boots manufactured specifically for hiking; my foam rubber mattress with a compact inflatable mattress; my Sears cloth sleeping bag with a down-filled mummy bag; and my little plastic tarp with a one-person backpacking tent with a rain fly.  I purchased a water filter and a container to hold four eggs.  However, my Svea stove still served me well, and I retained my Kelty backpack, which would now no longer be a mere storage locker.  Like me, it would be a sojourner!

Loading my Kelty―its features by today’s standards laughably rudimentary―I experienced an unprecedented feeling of independence.  From my freeze-dried food to my first-aid kit; from my remarkably lightweight tent and sleeping bag to my “candle lantern”; from my pocket-sized The Sierra Club Trailside Reader to my “snakebite kit”; from the fundamentally physiological to the loftily self-actualizing, I had psychologist Abraham Maslow’s complete “hierarchy of needs” ready to ride comfortably on my back for days and nights well beyond civilization.  United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps, as well as guidebooks by various authors, rounded out my equipment. 

 My preferred companion in the Southwest forests and deserts was simply myself.  This way of doing things had several deep roots.  At 12, I took my first long solo walk in the outdoors:  While vacationing with my family in the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I slogged eight miles along country roads and a lightly-used railroad track, through woods and swamplands.  Although I was tormented by mosquitoes and deerflies and miserable with dew-soaked socks and Keds sneakers, never once during the trek was I lonely. 

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, I frequently walked alone in the outdoors, not for adventure, but rather for psychic defense.  At the age of 15, I stressfully ended a destructive relationship with a boy who for five years I regarded as my best friend.  Although I tried, I couldn’t establish another close friendship with a peer for the remainder of my high school years.  So I was now completely on my own. 

To hide from my classmates my shameful solitude―teenagers, of course, want and need to bond with their peers―I avoided as best I could the streets and sidewalks between my house and my high school, often walking a stretch of railroad line bounded on both sides by a slender margin of trees and brush, which, for me at least, doubled as a kind of suburban “wilderness” experience.  I was comfortable walking along the railroad tracks.  I was similarly at ease walking our dog alone in some woods near our house.  Undeveloped wooded areas meant safety and relief.

Although I graduated from my senior high school after the customary three years, I was an unexceptional student who failed to gain entrance to any of the collegesmodest, in my opinionto which I applied.  My parents therefore enrolled me in a distant boarding school for a year of remedial educationand, perhaps in their minds, re-socialization, for they must have been aware of my solitude. 

I understood the boarding school’s necessity.  Still, I found the experience humiliating, tormenting.  I despised the school’s regulations, including regular haircuts, coats and ties for classes and meals, and the prohibition of smoking.  (I had been a clandestine tobacco smoker for four years.)  It was 1968, I was going on 18, and I was eager to grow my hair long and identify, at least superficially, with the growing “counterculture.”  Most of all, now a hardened loner, I hated the boarding school’s clamorous beehive existence of studying, eating, sleeping, recreating, relaxing, and worshipping together.  Although, as at high school, I felt shameful doing so, occasionally I had to get away from all of this to regain some sanity. 

Fortunately, the school was located in the Berkshire Hills.  In fact, not far from where I happily vacationed as a kid.  So after lacing up my Sears hiking boots (Sears, obviously, profited from my family), I’d leave the school property, briefly walk down a rural highway, and duck into the nearest woods.  After penetrating trees and brush for a quarter-mile, I’d sit on log and puff on a series of cigarettes smuggled to me by my sister through the mail―the sad sack luxuriating in the peace and solitude while a wet snow fell.[1]



With this nascent passion, I explored New Mexico’s wildlands.  Their variety and breadth astonished me.  Tempting photographs in my Audubon guide of the glowing Chihuahuan Desert in southernmost New Mexico led me to the fluted, harsh Organ Mountains.  In southeastern New Mexico, I escaped the heat of August by climbing into the Capitan Mountains, where, in the Lincoln National Forest, I caressed the head of a friendly, free-ranging horse and marveled at spiny cactus leaves nearly as big as a catcher’s mitt.  One winter night, I camped atop a bench of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Tularosa Valley, listening to the haunting conversations of great horned owls perched along cliff faces.  While camped on the Plains of San Agustin, a vast grassland in western New Mexico, I spent an afternoon and evening watching a succession of thunderstorms, compact iron-like curtains descending from the clouds, sweep across the appallingly vacant land.  In the Bisti of northwestern New Mexico, a colorless, sterile badland of soil and soft rock, I wandered among crusty hoodoos beneath a full moon fungus-white and blurry behind a cloudy sky. 

Not all of my initial expeditions were successful.  One February, determined to pitch my tent as close as possible to Mexico, I drove to the ghost town of Cloverdale, in New Mexico’s southwestern “bootheel” region, in the hopes of striking out west into the Coronado National Forest of the Guadalupe Mountains.  However, muddy, rutted roads halted my progress, and with disappointment I returned north through the Animas Valley.  Just south of the town of Animas, a Border Patrol agent, after undoubtedly noting the apron of mud on the sides of Little Red, pulled me over.  I complied with the burley Latino’s request to examine the contents of my backpack.  He merely glanced at the plastic baggies of granulated white sugar and Countrytime instant lemonade.  However, he opened a third baggie and gently wafted the scent of its contents, powdered milk, in the direction of his quivering nostrils.  Then, he thanked me and was gone, my brush with the War on Drugs over.  My experience in la frontera aborted, I spent the night in a cheap motel in the desert outpost of Lordsburg, New Mexico.


[1] Two decades later, I finally acknowledged my immense gratitude to the boarding school, for, despite yet more average grades, the institution forced me to be a joiner whether I liked it or not, and got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams, where I made friendships that have lasted to this day.  I’ve regularly made modest contributions to the school ever since.



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

“Mexican” Food

Then there was Mexican food.  Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind one that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the fare served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  (And today, maybe even in Vermont.)  However, for the purposes of this narrative, “Mexican food” refers to any food that obviously has its culinary roots in the United Mexican States.

When the opportunity to eat at a sit-down restaurant presented itself during my first summer in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican venue.  Still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth preferred to water at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s.  I also looked forward to a steaming dish of bland chow mein awash in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax (where I was once refused seating due to my hair length).  During my second summer in the city, however, the seed was planted. 

It was quitting time after a hot day of pumping concrete to a lofty story of an apartment complex under construction in Denver’s Capitol Hill.  The crew with whom I worked agreed to meet for beer and food at a restaurant and bar on Santa Fe Drive. 

Upon entering this modest establishment, it hit me immediately: the sweet, earthy odor of masa, the maize dough of the corn tortilla. 

We all decided to drink and eat at the bar, rather than at a table.  Although I was 19, the bartender didn’t card me, and therefore set me up a glass of cold, high-octane (as opposed to 3.2) Coors. 

For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  Hearing snow-white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this choice. 

When the plate, which included sides of rice and refried beans, was set before me, I found its appearance vaguely, yet pleasingly, familiar: the red chile and milk-white cheese, both bubbling vigorously, recalled the tomato sauces and cheeses that covered the countless slices of pizza I devoured as a teenager in New Jersey.   

Then, I ate.  Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded firmly yet tenderly to my bite.  The flavor of the pureed, scarlet chile was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: a sweet-smoky tang with a citrus-y hint.  On the heels of the flavor was, of course, the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.”  It was a vegetable, all right, but a vegetable from another world, a desert world of flames, blinding light, dust, bandoliers, sombreros, last cigarettes, and firing squads.  It opened wide my work-weary eyes, set my nose to watering, and even, as my fellow crew members laughed, caused me to sneeze once.   

I loved it, and perhaps I should have known I’d love it.  I was raised on a bland diet: paprika was about the boldest spice on my mother’s shelf.  Yet when introduced at Jersey pizza parlors to crushed red pepper seasoning, I realized my weakness for hot food, and the sauce at that Mexican eatery was happy to accommodate me.  With regular swallows of the Coors, I managed the flames.  Meanwhile, I gradually experienced the deep satisfaction that only a meal prepared with lard and a judicious helping of sodium can provide.  Made with obvious south-of-the-border amor, the meal was simple and unforgettable.

Thus, during my subsequent years in Colorado, I became a regular consumer of Mexican food.  I enjoyed beef enchiladas at Denver’s Satire Lounge, which every hip newcomer to Denver, it seemed, was advised to visit to eat Mexican food, perhaps for the first time, and drink beer and margaritas.  The combination bar-and-restaurant was owned and run by a Greek, although there was little doubt a team of muchachos, faithful to the tradition, was preparing its food.  Other Denver Mexican restaurants I favored were The Riviera, Las Delicias, and El Rancherito.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas, smothered in chile verde, served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swore Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, en route between Denver and Aspen, would stop for some authentic. 

For atmosphere as well as provender, Denver’s Chubby’s was without equal.  When I was a taxi driver in that city, a dear friend and fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown.  A cabbie knew that time was money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal, providing one had good intestinal control and no history of heartburn, during the 10-hour hustle. 

After parking in the grimy lot containing Chubbys’s white cinder block building, I would join the crush―heavily tattooed vatos with pressed pants, pompadours, and hairnets; beguiling young Latinas under pounds of makeup; grandmothers cradling crying babies; viejos with canes and walkers; slumming, nervous gringos―in the tiny waiting room with a few chairs against walls bearing posters for upcoming boxing matches and ranchera concerts.  A short, surly guy, his handsome face recalling that of a young Al Pacino, often took my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of men and women ladled chileand stirred huge pots of refritos. (Bubbling refritos, too, have that arresting odor of pure, fresh earth.)  

Soon I was handed my order, which never varied: two bean-cheese-and-green-chile burritos, each in a small white paper bag and the two of them in a larger white paper bag, and a can of Pape-see to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I took a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one reckless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peered gratefully at the burrito’s cross-section, marveling at its construction and bounty: the tender white frame of the flour tortilla, the generous helping of vaguely emerald-green chile layered on the bed of refritos, the gratings of queso.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

I had little sense of Linda’s regard for Mexican food while we were still living in Denver.  When we reunited in New Mexico, however, we both went for it full bore.  In 1988 there were scores of Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.  During our first couple of years in the city, we sampled 10 to 20 of them, but eventually patronized two on an almost weekly basis. 

Los Cuates was located next to a barber shop in an old strip mall in East Albuquerque.  Like Chubby’s, it had a tiny waiting room at its entrance.  The relatively small dining area consisted strictly of booths, no tables.  A number of the red vinyl bench seats were lumpy.  Shift as you might on them, you invariably found one buttock on a precipice, the other in a sinkhole.  The servers were generally full-figured Latinas, an encouraging sign, I concluded, in a Mexican restaurant.  For starters, I ordered a Pape-see, which was served with crushed ice in a large plastic tumbler. 

Heaven began with the arrival of the complementary tortilla chips and salsa.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten.  It had bite, of course.  Beyond that, it was thoroughly red, dark red, and smooth, thick, and slightly sweet.  Indeed, it was the sweetness that set it apart.  The tortilla chips always arrived warm, and sometimes irresistibly glistening with a breath of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung reliably to the chip, never bailed to your chest or lap on its way to your watering mouth. 

Then, “This plate’s hot,” the server always warned me as she casually set down my usual order, an oven-fresh platter of cheese enchiladas swimming in chile verde sauce, the sauce bubbling menacingly at the platter’s edges.  I could never fathom how the naked fingers and thumbs of these servers withstood the temperature, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table. 

Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile verdewas thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch or brunch, Los Cuates offered a complementary bowl of natillas, a custard of milk, eggs, and cinnamon, for dessert.  This creamy concoction calmed the walls of the mouth and throat, satisfyingly sandwiched itself between the restaurant and, as one exited the restaurant, the blaze of a New Mexico summer afternoon.

Sadie’s was located north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley.  A Lebanese woman operated it.  (Lebanese?  Greek?  Who cared, as long as it was good.)  Sadie’s, too, began your meal with a complementary serving of salsa and chips, a veritable mountain of the latter. 

Chile verde is what kept us returning to Sadie’s.  The diner was introduced to it immediately, for it was the foundation of the restaurant’s salsa, a dull green-gold concoction flecked with chile seeds that, because they are magnets for capsaicin, exploded like firecrackers in the mouth.  Sadie’s salsa was thinner than that of Los Cuates, so one had to apply it to the chip carefully and minimize gesticulation when delivering it to the mouth. 

As always at Sadie’s, I ordered the enchiladas con queso with chile verde.  Unlike nearly all of the Mexican restaurants Linda and I sampled, Sadie’s offered the diner the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on his or her entrée.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, I ordered the “hot” sauce, attempting to develop a liking for it.  (On these occasions, the distant sound of clobbered bowling pins seemed to anticipate this decision.)  I failed, however.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after the meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.  I eventually settled happily for the “mild.”

Linda and I didn’t limit our consumption of Mexican food to Albuquerque.  In Las Vegas, New Mexico, I took a liking to the red chile at Johnny’s, a restaurant whose beams were hung with frontier Americana and walls were covered with photographs of celebrities―well, regional celebrities―that bore their scribbled testimonials.  Nearby, a restaurant on Las Vegas’s plaza offered chicharrones.  If there is such a thing as “Mexican soul food,” chicharrones are probably it.  They are deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexicanas in the United Mexican Statesfood.  Very funky.  Linda, often adventurous when dining, ordered them.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites.  Although an informed diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening. 

West across the mountains, the El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrées, their sopapillaslight, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown, dusted with cinnamon, and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

Monroe’s, Tiny’s, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory (yes, its actual name), El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, Garcia’s, Little Anita’s, The Owl Café in San Antonio, Mac’s La Sierra, El Norteño: the number of Mexican restaurants Linda and I visited, individually and together, multiplied rapidly in just a matter of months in New Mexico.  We just couldn’t get enough of that heavenly chile.  It held us hostage, booden-schnotzened some heretofore unknown receptor, dormant since birth, in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like a mountaintop takes to a bolt of lightning, like the desert takes to sand, space, and light.   

O!

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

Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic, Southwest Everything in Between

During our first two years in the classic Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous cultural attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque-born Southwest scholar Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic. 

The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I enthusiastically fired off postcards bearing the obviously-doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope,” a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of a bull elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small, cylindrical bundles of sage smudge.  Soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Mercury Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza. 

Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose.  However, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  In Santa Fe, she purchased hand-painted Mexican tiles, which we hung in the kitchen of our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together.   

In the patio area of the townhouse, we hung a ristra.  A venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, the ristra was a mass of red chile peppers intricately strung together in a lengthy bundle.  When available for sale, the peppers of the ristra were freshly-harvested and thus scarlet, plump, and rubbery.  However, when hung outdoors, they dried, shriveled, and darkened to burgundy as they swayed en masse in New Mexico’s winter winds.  Artificial “peppers” were available in New Mexico as well: we purchased and shipped red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister and brother-in-law in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and, also from the auction, a “vegetal chart” explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave me my first ring: a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  

Gracing the walls of our townhouse were framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others.  Of course, we also purchased paintings of Southwestern landscapes.

On a rented VCR (those were the days), we watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War.  Set in a thinly-disguised Taos, the movie was filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as at the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel.  The hotel displayed titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, T.M. Pearce, Richard Bradford, and John Nichols.  At a used book store on Central Avenue I purchased the aforementioned Southwest Classics by Lawrence Clark Powell: sketches, critical and biographical, of respected authors of fiction and non-fiction who were among the first to chronicle life in the Southwest.  At the same store I purchased Erna Fergusson’s 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest, which remains my favorite book about this land.

And we often enjoyed much of this while listening to the music of “nouveau flamenco” guitarist and Santa Fe resident Ottmar Liebert.

Frivolous or authentic, we loved these acquisitions.