creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Teaching Yet Again

Meanwhile, I managed to land a job at Adams State College as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution (today officially named Adams State University) had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent; brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the order of the day. 

Because Adams was a four-year institution, I was now back among many instructors with doctoral degrees who were either tenured or on tenure tracks.  For the same reason, I assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that its students were academically of a higher caliber and more committed to completing a higher education than your average community college student.  My classes consisted of fewer Latinos.  The presence of one or two African Americans in each of my classes was also a change from teaching in west Texas.  Most of my students were from Colorado and bordering states.  A good number of my White, non-Latino students were from rural areas like the San Luis Valley, and thus they had what I sensed were conservative upbringings.  What remained the same was the English department’s teaching angle: rhetorical approaches to composition, using yet another reader chock full of short essays. 

The reading comprehension and writing abilities of my students were somewhat better than those of my community college students.  Still, it was a chore to generate class discussion, and I continued to dread reading and grading papers.  The college had a football program, so during class I occasionally had to rouse a “Grizzly”―that is, an Adams football player―out of what appeared to be a slumber.  Another first was the young man who wrote, vividly and with surprising coherence, about the joys of masturbation; I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

A colleague of mine, who also had a desk in the small common room for adjunct instructors, was Wayne.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, yet he was far more experienced than I at teaching, both at the secondary-school and college level.  I envied his apparently successful pedagogical methods and his ability to roll with the challenges.  He lived with his wife, also an educator, in the frigid, hard-pan mining town of Creede, northwest of the Valley.  In addition to reading and writing, his passion was downhill skiing.  And snow: His prose offered more descriptions and discussions of the white stuff than any I’d ever read; indeed, he was Thoreau’s “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” reading, for his own safety as well as transcendence, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts and publish a book about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a literally delicate heart.  He still lives in south-central Colorado, and we remain friends to this day.

New Mexico, southwest

Laughin’ and Scratchin’

In the two decades prior to moving to Alamosa I had been a regular listener of “public radio” stations (i.e., advertising-free, tax-supported radio stations) in Denver; Albuquerque; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and El Paso.  All of these stations had National Public Radio affiliation and thus all offered various doses of NPR programming.  Among my favorite NPR offerings were the regular shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  So I was pleased―and, given the city’s size and remoteness, surprised―that Alamosa, too, had not only a public radio station, but one affiliated with NPR.  After my arrival, I began listening to KRZA regularly.  In addition to satellite-transmitted NPR programming, the station broadcast music shows of various genres hosted by disk jockeys―all likely self-trained―from the community.  Another locally-produced show that I enjoyed was A las Ocho, which, as its Spanish name indicates, aired at 8 a.m.  A half-hour long, the show discussed news, politics, arts, and entertainment in the KRZA broadcast area.  Linda suggested I inquire about volunteer opportunities, if any, at the station, so one August morning I drove to its location, a predominantly residential neighborhood several blocks south of downtown. 

Located on a corner lot, the station’s two-story, pitched-roof building was old; I would learn it was once a church.  Upon entering the ground floor and witnessing the worn carpeting; old, massive metal and wooden desks; windowsills coated with dust; chipped paint; and general disarray, I determined the station was operating on a very lean budget.  I met some four or five employees and volunteers, men and women ranging from their 30s to their 40s.  One of the employees, Debbie, suggested I might enjoy being a substitute “news host” for the broadcast of Morning Edition

The offer stunned me: Throw me, with absolutely no broadcasting experience, on the air?  Part of me was frightened by the possibility; and yet another part, the one that had enjoyed listening to the radio since I was 10, was intrigued.  I liked the music I’d heard on radio through the years―the AM rock-and-roll and pop, FM progressive rock, country, jazz, even classical.  Equally well I liked what I regarded as the marvelously adept voices―sprinting on AM radio, sauntering on FM―of the disk jockeys; people like Big Dan (“laughin’ and scratchin’”) Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Herb Oscar Anderson, B. Mitchel Reed on New York City radio; Dick Brehm, Gene Amole, Pete Mackay, Bill Ashford, and “Uncle” Mike McCuen on Denver radio; overnight jazz disk jockey Bob Parlocha syndicated on El Paso public radio. And then there was Jean Shepherd, an entirely unique airwave influence.  In the sixties, I listened nightly to this brilliant Indiana humorist―a hip, manic, maestro of improvisation―on New York City’s WOR.  A nonpareil radio storyteller rather than a smooth-talking disk jockey. 

“Sure, I would like to see the broadcast booth,” I answered Debbie, so she began leading me up a dank stairwell to the second floor.  At a landing on the stairwell, posted on a door to the east entrance of the building, was a picture of gaunt-faced novelist William S. Burroughs; from his mouth came a dialogue balloon containing the words “Hasta Pronto.”  

The second floor of the station, chilly even on an August mid-morning, reminded me more of an attic―a dark, cramped, nearly triangular space beneath the pitched roof.  A desk and chairs crowded this area, and CDs and vinyl records stuffed its shelves along the walls.  More CDs and vinyl overflowed from boxes on the floor.  In towers of metal racks were fitted electronic equipment that hummed and winked with dozens of small lights.  En route to the north side of the floor, Debbie pointed out to me the little room where “sound editing” was done.  At the floor’s north end, we passed through a door into cord cordium, the tiny broadcast booth.

The booth was considerably cheerier, owing to the daylight entering through a north-facing, un-openable window, the clarity of its pane and the fresh lumber of its frame clearly indicating that it was not originally part of the building.  The booth’s ceiling was covered with what appeared to be an inverted eggcrate mattress.  On one table sat two phonograph turntables.  On a second table were positioned CD and cassette players; the control console with its myriad dials, buttons, and knobs; a couple of free-standing microphones; and, finally, clamped and rubber-banded to a zig-zagging, retractable metal arm―like the stinger of a scorpion―the main broadcast microphone.  At the console a worn, cushioned desk chair on wheels stood upon a thick sheet of plastic, in various stages of decay and heavily bandaged with duct tape, placed over worn carpeting. 

Sitting in the chair was Tom, a bearded early-70s fellow in a brown leather vest and scuffed, round-toed Western boots: host, Debbie had informed me downstairs, of a weekly “big band” music show.  Tom bobbed to the music issuing from the booth’s speakers, and then turned to me.  “‘Up a Lazy River.’  Mills Brothers,” Tom, grinning, informed me, politely assuming I didn’t know, and he was correct.  “Very nice,” I said as the recording neared its conclusion, then continued, “My dad liked―” 

I paused abruptly as Tom raised an index finger to his lips, slipped on a pair of headphones, and pushed a button on the console.  The speakers went silent, cutting off the ending of the recording, and Tom began speaking into the mic, delivering a rundown of the set he had just completed: “Glenn Miller” . . . “‘Tuxedo Junction’” . . . “Gene Krupa” . . . “The Andrews Sisters” . . . “‘Fly Me to the Moon’” . . . “Benny Goodman” . . . “James Darren . . .”

James Darren? I thought (the old musical top-10 mind at work). Until then, I didn’t know Darren―in my opinion, just one more of those bland Philadelphia late-50s/early-60s pop singers whose recording career was mercifully annihilated with the arrival of The Beatles―was a “big band” vocalist. However, I kept this thought to myself.

As Tom spoke into the mic, a thrill swept through me.  I looked at the combination mic and cord and imagined the hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of people at the other end of it in the first hours of a Valley morning, sipping their coffee; eating their crunchy granola and bran muffins; smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes; vacuuming their geodesic domes; driving to their art galleries, dry cleaners, supermarkets, dental appointments, alfalfa fields, and irrigation ponds; firing up their day’s first joint.  

“I’d love to give it a try,” I said to Debbie as we exited the broadcast booth.

At 4:50 the following morning, pen and notebook in hand, I met Lisa, the regular Morning Edition host, at the station entrance.  Clutching a mug of coffee, she said little as she threw on a light in first floor of the stone-cold building and marched up the stairs with me close behind.  A second-floor light was already on as we proceeded to the broadcast booth.  At the electronics tower, Lisa turned on more switches to “bring up the station”―for the station broadcast nothing, either locally or by satellite, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Another switch activated the satellite transmission of NPR programming, which was well under way out of Washington, D.C.  Meanwhile, I scribbled these procedures madly in my notebook.  A minute before 5 a.m., while I sat and watched, Lisa sat at the console, slipped on the headphones, twirled a dial, coaxed a knob, and, speaking into the mic, identified the station, announced the beginning of the station’s “broadcasting day,” confirmed the station’s licensing credentials, and gave the local time.  She removed the headphones, hit a button, and through the booth’s speakers there was NPR Washington host Bob Edwards introducing the 5 a.m. Mountain Daytlight Time broadcast of Morning Edition

I then followed her downstairs, where, at a personal computer, she went to various websites from which she cut-and-pasted the daily weather forecasts for the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico and―to be broadcast later on A las Ocho―brief news stories of her choice from online local and regional newspapers.  After printing this information, we returned to the second floor.  In the broadcast booth, as I sat at the console, Lisa showed me a printed schedule of regular breaks that occur during the broadcast of Morning Edition, times during which I was free to report the weather forecast and deliver public service announcements, the latter collected in a three-ring binder.  Then I slipped on the headphones and―nervously, clumsily―”hosted” Morning Edition for an hour. 

The following morning, I arrived at the station at 4:45, although this time alone and with a key to the station’s front door.  Shortly before five, I brought the station up, slipped a cassette I brought from home into the player, and segued the station into the broadcast day with country singer Mickey Newbury’s recording of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  I thought this recording was rather appropriate, given that the song opens up with the “dawn . . . silently breaking.”  On the other hand, the singer’s heart is also “silently breaking” because his sweetheart has just left him.  I knew the melancholy recording might cause some listeners to shut off the radio and return to dreamland, but I broadcast it anyway, because I loved it. 

Over the next few mornings, until Lisa’s return, I occasionally stumbled, but generally figured out how to pace myself and navigate through NPR’s airwave traffic.  I took it upon myself to pencil-edit for clarity and brevity some of the clumsily-written public service announcements.  Meanwhile, buzzed on caffeine, with the headphone volume jacked up as I “announced,” I marveled at the various dimensions―the smooth plains, rounded hills, swooping valleys, and sharply-cut canyons―of my, if I did say so myself, rather good radio voice.

And so, at 49, I discovered a new interest.

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Obvious Colorado

One afternoon, shortly after arriving in Alamosa, I drove with Buddy 25 miles to the northwest corner of the Valley for a stroll among the rolling foothills, broken occasionally by rock outcroppings, that climb to the San Juan Mountains.  The hills are treeless but, in the summer, lushly carpeted with green grasses.

That day, pronghorns, hyper-alert as usual, roamed those hills, and their presence surprised me.  I recalled these lords of the vacant lands from my days of documenting the high plains of eastern New Mexico; however, I hadn’t realized they dwell on the intermountain lands west of the front range of the Rockies.  Buddy had chased deer in New Mexico’s forests and desert mountains, but never pronghorn.  Now, he chased two herds of them.  Flummoxed―a pronghorn can sustain a speed of 55 miles-per-hour―he returned to my side and collapsed, panting heavily, his tongue and muzzle smeared with foam.  

From moody skies a misty rain began to fall, but Buddy didn’t mind.  Nor did I.  I luxuriated in it, smelling and tasting its sweetness, spreading it like a balm upon my face and arms.  Gazing at this verdant, glamorous landscape at the feet of densely-forested Del Norte and Bennett peaks, I had to laugh at my misery in this very same high country over a quarter-century earlier, and I understood why the Colorado mountains are so coveted.[1]  Yet, after walking for a mile or two, I was happy to return to the patchwork of pastures, vegetable fields, and desert scrublands, to the Rio Grande’s sluggishness and muddy banks, of the central San Luis Valley.


[1] Well, coveted by most.  “Obvious Arizona, eh, Vladimir [Nabokov]?” wrote Edward Abbey.  “Obvious Colorado, if you ask me.  Colorado with its one big city and conventional alpinetype mountains is what would appeal to the European hotel-manager’s imagination of Nabokov, the wide-eyed wonder of pop music hack John Denver, the myriad mannikins of this world.  Let them have it.  Colorado has gone to hell anyhow  . . .”

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Alamosa

I believe my initial understanding of San Luis Valley and Alamosa largely holds true today. 

Even in a United States of 330 million, it’s not a stretch to characterize the Valley as remote.  It certainly was in 1944, when it was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.  The nearest large population center to Alamosa is Pueblo, a two-hour drive away. 

The mountains and hills that cordon off the Valley, forming a somewhat triangular configuration, are sparsely inhabited.  At the Valley’s northern end, the apex of the triangle consists of the confluence of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the southern reaches of the Sawatch Mountains to the west.  From there the Sangres run unbroken south into New Mexico.  Meanwhile, the western side of the triangle is crumbly and porous.  North to south, it consists of the remnants of the Sawatch Mountains, the eastern reaches of the Cochetopa Hills and La Garita Mountains, and the easternmost ranges of the San Juan Mountains.  At the southern end of the valley―actually, northern New Mexico―two individual and nearly identical mountains, San Antonio and Ute, suggest the base of the triangle.  

World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado.  However, despite all the snow that accumulates on these various mountains, Alamosa is not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs.  From Alamosa, one must drive across twenty miles of gray desert scrubland to reach the Sangres.  Fifty miles of driving north across an often equally desolate landscape is required to reach the foot of Poncha Pass, where the Sangres and the Sawatch meet.  The various mountains to the west are only slightly closer to the city.  Finally, San Antonio and Ute mountains are each about a half-hour away.  The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa is Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt; the nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―is Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter motor in the opposite direction.  (Fans of Wolf Creek are more likely to stay overnight in the tony resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.)  You live in Alamosa to farm, ranch, serve farmers and ranchers, and study at Adams State, not downhill ski.

Even if one merely wanted to cross-country ski or snowshoe, he or she would be hard-pressed to do so anywhere on the Valley floor, for, as has been noted, the various mountains create a rain shadow that denies the valley quantities of snow necessary for the Nordic skier and snowshoe-er.  Rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lack excitement, for here the river, even when swollen, is bereft of whitewater.  About the only outdoor recreation the Valley can truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, is romping up and down on foot the remarkable dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The size of Connecticut (population 3,565,000), the San Luis Valley has a population of about 48,000.  Alamosa has a permanent population of about 8,000.  The population increases to 10 or 11,000 when Adams State University is in session.  A little less than half the population of Alamosa is Latino, and the Valley thus comprises the largest conglomeration of Latinos in Colorado.  The Valley also has more poverty―roughly 18% of its population―than any other region of Colorado.    

Many of the residential buildings in the heart of Alamosa look as if they’d been imported from the middle-class neighborhoods of Ames, Iowa; others, from the impoverished rural areas of our home in New Mexico’s Doña Ana County.  Most of the houses are of wood clapboard, brick, and, in the case of the single- and double-wide trailer homes, aluminum.  Log homes are occasionally seen, as are geodesic domes constructed of various materials.  The half-dozen homes that comprised our neighborhood were of the pueblo-revival style.    

The San Luis Valley’s beauty and affordability attracts artists; several art galleries are located on Alamosa’s main street.  The city has an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank.  The city has a National Public Radio-affiliated station―with a satellite office in Taos―whose signal reaches all of the San Luis Valley and much of north-central New Mexico.  The Valley has environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the nineties successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range.  Alamosa has a government-funded medical clinic, with satellite clinics throughout the Valley, for the area’s indigent population; Linda was initially employed at the Alamosa location.  Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner is the former mining town of Crestone, an interesting bastion of New Age thought that includes a school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”

What Linda and I liked about Alamosa was its combination of leisurely pace, affordability, rural surroundings, breathtaking views, and a substantial politically-liberal population.  Latinos are generally liberal―that is, they acknowledge the value and importance of government―and thus tend to vote Democratic, and Alamosa’s large Latino population meant the city had a healthy Democratic base.  When we arrived, its representative in Congress was a Republican, but I attributed that to the fact that Alamosa is in a congressional district that includes a chunk of Colorado’s conservative eastern plains and all of the state’s conservative western third.  (Five years after our arrival, a Democratic Latino from Alamosa won the seat.) 

Finally, I was delighted to realize a railroad serves the Valley.  During our time in Alamosa, the line had a succession of owners: the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Rail America, the San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad, and Permian Basin Railways.  The single-track line enters the Valley from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the foot of La Veta Pass, east of the town of Fort Garland.  At the west end of downtown Alamosa, just beyond the city’s railroad station, the line splits into two branches, one traveling south, where it dead-ends in Antonito, and the other venturing northwest, where it dead-ends in Creede, Colorado; near the town of Monte Vista, the northwest branch branches even further to serve agricultural interests in the center of the Valley.  The railroad’s business is conducted in offices at the Alamosa station.  When I lived in the Valley, a freight the train arrived from the east―specifically, from Walsenburg, Colorado, where the line links up with a main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad―every weekday morning and returned to Walsenburg every weekday evening.  In addition to agriculture, the railroad served a mining company in Antonito.  The south-branching track ran a quarter-mile from our house, and we crossed it daily.  The relatively slow-moving trains, usually consisting of a single locomotive pulling a dozen cars, sounded their whistles at the crossing, and this delivered me pleasantly back to my days of lying a-bed on hot summer nights and listening to the heavy traffic on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad not far from our New Jersey house.

Yes, there is glamor in Alamosa, but it is distant.  Yet those distant mountains surround the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of potatoes, barley, alfalfa, wheat, and lettuce.  So Alamosa is a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.

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The Wild Earth’s Nobility

In late May, Linda and I drove to the San Luis Valley and Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the 7,500-foot-high San Luis Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring in the valley: 70°F, twenty-five degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above Alamosa, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light. 

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

The west side of the valley was bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that ran from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  The south end of the valley was peppered with individual hills and a large mesa, and included a range called the Piñon Hills.  And there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park―on the east side of the valley.  At 8,000 square miles, the valley was massive and, for the most part, implacably flat: at times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt like I was peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain and valley snowmelt fed streams that ran to the Rio Grande and the Rio Conejos, the valley’s two major rivers.  Canals and ditches drew from these sources for agricultural purposes; meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of fields developed for crops.  In the northern reaches of the valley, however, there were vast stretches of gray desert scrublands.  Except in the towns and along the rivers, the valley had few trees. 

Through Alamosa, the Rio Grande, though abundant with spring runoff, ran almost imperceptibly.  As in Albuquerque, it was bordered by stately cottonwoods, but a different specie of the cottonwood: the narrowleaf. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Yet, beyond the town limits, there were a number of pueblo-revival style houses, and one of them for sale, on a treeless acre of scrub in a new and sparsely populated housing development two miles south of downtown, interested us greatly.  We made an offer, and it was accepted.  Before leaving Alamosa, Linda took me to her newly-discovered Mexican restaurant just beyond the river at the east end of downtown.  Our Southwest saga would now continue in el norte.

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“Mexican” Food: Denver

Then there was Mexican food.  (Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind you that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the victuals served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  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 initial years in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican restaurant.  During my first summer in Denver, still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth watered at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s.  I also greatly anticipated a steaming dish of bland chow mein soaked in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax.  During my second summer there, 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 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, a sensation that I remember to this day: 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 a table.  I was 19; yet I wasn’t carded, and the bartender set me up a glass of cold 5.0 Coors.  For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  (Hearing lily white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this particular selection.) 

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 cheeses and tomato sauces that covered the countless slices of pizza I’d devoured since childhood on the East Coast.   

Then, I began to eat.  Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded 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 the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.”  It was a vegetable, all right, but from another world, a desert world of fire and blinding light.  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 fiery food, and the chile at that Mexican eatery didn’t disappoint.  It opened wide my work-weary eyes and set my nose to watering.  However, 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.  The meal was simple and unforgettable.

So, 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 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 and Las Delicias.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swears 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 fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown.  A cabbie knows that time is money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal―providing one had good intestinal control and no proclivity for heartburn―during the 10-hour hustle.  After parking in the grimy lot behind the white cinder block establishment, I’d 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; 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 face recalling that of the young Al Pacino, would take my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of kitchen workers, men as well as women, would ladle chile and stir huge pots of refritos (simmering refritos, too, have that arresting odor of fresh earth).  Soon I’d be 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 Pepsi to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I’d take a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one careless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peer 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.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

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Fast Forward

Fourteen months after meeting Linda, I landed a job as a computer programmer at an Albuquerque lumber company.  Advised (correction: warned) by my new employer that I would be drug-tested in Albuquerque prior to my first day of work, before leaving Denver I did a six-day juice fast, confident, albeit with no scientific proof whatsoever, that it would remove any trace of marijuana from my system.  On the last day of my fast─beyond hunger, my breath sweet, my mind calm and sparkling, my body feather-light and free of the distraction and ordeal of digestion─I arose early, got in my Mercury Lynx, named Little Red, and made a triumphant farewell loop through central Colorado─Fairplay, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Silverthorne─bidding a grateful goodbye to the Colorado high country that had led me on a circuitous journey to my Southwest.  Several days later, on a Valentine’s Day morning, Little Red and I headed south on I-25 to Albuquerque.

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1-9-20

While living in Denver during the next seven years, travel kept me in contact with the Southwest. En route to Arizona, I stayed in a motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  I visited friends in Tucson and Bisbee, Arizona.  I visited a cousin in Seligman, Arizona, where, on a chilly November evening, every street in the high-plateau railroad town was perfumed with juniper smoke from wood stoves.  

An image from one of these visits has never left me.  One evening, in the New Mexico quadrant of the Four Corners region, a friend and I were racing along a deserted highway leading to the town of Shiprock.  Up ahead, in the twilight, a half-dozen men, all in a line, appeared to be standing beside a wooden fence that paralleled the highway.  “Funny time to be repairing a fence,” I remarked.  However, as we passed them, we realized they weren’t exactly standing.  They were leaning against the fence.  Some were even draped over it.  All appeared to be dead drunk.  Then a roadhouse appeared on the same side of the highway, and out of it staggered and weaved another procession of Indians.  Our road map indicated that we were on the Navajo reservation.  Occasionally, out of a romantic curiosity, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Indians well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion.  I wondered if their sad condition to due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, separated from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida, so I now was surprised to see, as our car hurtled along and I sipped on a can of Bud, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine wilds of northwestern New Mexico.      

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Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister and I visited the Pawnee Buttes, eighty-five miles northeast of Denver, on the Great Plains.  Until that day, my explorations in Colorado never took me any farther east than the edge-of-the-plains city of Pueblo.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as the surface of sheet iron, nor the occasional polyp of a high-plains farming or ranching community held any attraction for me. 

Until, that is, the day I visited the twin buttes, which, along with their surroundings, entranced me.  Standing within a half-mile of one another, both breast-like formations were some three-hundred feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stood in appalling solitude on the green sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounded them for dozens of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seemed inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They had a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, sphinxes, the ferry boats of my childhood.  On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took about twenty minutes.  Spreading from its southern base was a maze of deep, barren arroyos: a mini-badland, nervous intaglio to the butte’s serene cameo, that extended for a quarter-mile before surrendering to the insistent plains smoothness.  

It took me another twenty minutes to climb to the butte’s anvil-like peak.  From this eminence I saw the Great Plains as never before.  Its implacable flatness calmed my soul.  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a weight upon the land, a powerful presence.  My reaction to the Pawnee Buttes and their spacious surroundings anticipated my fascination, a decade later, with the mesas of the high plateaus of New Mexico, Arizona, and southeast Utah.  

The buttes and plains were also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writing―for starters, merely in a cheap notebook―their seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  Forget the storied Rockies: since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my twenty-sixth year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved Spring in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from Denver, hoping to find a landscape similar to my cherished one outside of Buena Vista, where I would spend a night. 

I did.  It was a woodland on the western slope of La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado.  Lush with juniper, it also included another diminutive evergreen, one that bore nuts rather than berries: the pinyon, or, as the Spanish know it, the piñon.  It was part of a vast parcel of private land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper, of all people, directed me to it.  Today the land is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with high-end mountain homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was, except for an access road or two, undeveloped.  Beside my parked car, after eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck sleeping bag.  I watched the relentless Spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction.  Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, unaware that in a quarter-century I would be living there.  I knew I was back in the genuine Southwest, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosey, wind-whipped sunsets, I drove farther south, to camp for the first time in New Mexico, still in the foothills of the Sangres, not far north of the mystical town of Taos.