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

Conclusion: Destinations Close to Home

With Laura Paskus’s words in mind, I was, in all hopefulness, imagining a Southwest a decade hence. 

I am 80 years old.  New Mexico’s oil and natural gas wells are capped, no longer vomiting carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere, no longer cooking the planet, no longer holding the state’s economy hostage.  New Mexico is now dressed with solar panels, bristling with windmills, grappling with the challenges and enjoying the rewards of harnessing and delivering clean energy. 

Forests are relaxing.  The desert is luxuriant, the blessing of regular flash floods erasing the prints of resurgent wildlife on the sands of its arroyos.  Lithium for batteries is being mined relatively cleanly from brine rather than rock.  Psychiatry is booming as purring electric cars, trucks, motorcycles fail miserably as expressions of American manhood.

And I am once again longing to hoist my plant-based pack on my back and light out to mountain, desert, or prairie for a night. 

But I have questions.  Will my dimming mind and historically-tender piriformis muscles withstand another 50- or 100- or 200-mile-or-longer drive in my all-electric car or truck?  And, if so, will there be a charging station for my car in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas; Campo, Colorado; Mexican Hat, Utah; Winslow, Arizona; or Vado de Fusiles, Chihuahua?  And should I have a major medical event on the remote trail, will rescuers reach and deliver me to a major medical center in time?  Have I renewed my Verizon service?  Shit!  I can’t remember.    

And then it occurs to eight-decade-old me: Maybe I no longer have to put all those miles of asphalt and concrete beneath me to get away from it all, rough it, enjoy a wilderness experience.  Maybe it’s time to finally spend a night in those mountains that have witnessed, inspired, and comforted me for my 25 years in Albuquerque.  Maybe it’s time to backpack a destination close to home: the Sandias!  After all, despite docking against a city now numbering three-quarters of a million, they still offer opportunities for solitude and peace; still cover 112 square miles; still contain 37,000 acres of federally-designated “wilderness.”  As reliably as any mountain I’ve ever packed, they offer earth for a bed; sky and stars for a blanket; and plenty of safe, discrete woody and rocky hollows―those figurative little-brown-shacks-with-half-moon-ventilators―for responsible relief.  Prescribed burning of their forests has successfully reduced the threat of catastrophic wildfire.  And they’re a mere 45-minute walk from my front door . . . through another wilderness, one I’ve never packed: the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque.

So, at age 70, to prepare for this eventuality, that’s what I did: I backpacked Albuquerque and the Sandias.

I wonder if anybody will call the cops?

Well, that’s a thought that never occurred to me at the foot of Mt. Taylor or entrance to the Valley of the Gods!

It was 6:30 in the morning, I had just exited my front door, and I was walking through my neighborhood, a private community of closely-packed patio homes on the southeast edge of Albuquerque. 

The day’s forecast called for a high of 97 degrees with a 2 percent chance of rain.  Meanwhile, an internet site reported a “heat dome . . . baking Arizona and Nevada.”  But the sun had yet to crest the Sandia Mountains to the northeast, so it was still dim and pleasantly cool in my neighborhood. 

I had a pack weighing 40 pounds, 18 of them water, on my back.  I wore a dingy, stained, long-sleeved tee shirt.  My five-year-old hiking boots were faded, striated, and badly worn at the toes―in other words, perfectly broken-in.  Nearly my entire head was hidden beneath a sweat-stained sun hat. 

Throughout my six years in this community, my neighbors had periodically complained about homeless people camped in undeveloped, lightly forested, and brushy Tijeras Canyon, which bordered the north side of our development.  Thus, I wondered if one of those neighbors would mistake me for an interloper, tramp, thief, or raider from a presumed encampment, and then panic and dial Albuquerque’s popular 2-4-2-COPS or a local, privately-owned, “armed response” security company whose vehicles regularly appear in our community.  After all, Albuquerque was on edge of late because of a rash of homicides.  

A stretch of lush green lawn―a community common area―looked and felt utterly foreign beneath my dust-impregnated boots.  Equally strange was the tap of my walking stick against the asphalt of the street that led out of our community. 

On that street I came upon a woman―undoubtedly a fellow homeowner in my development, although I didn’t recognize her―standing on the edge of the pavement beside a bird-of-paradise shrub, preparing to take a photo of one of the shrub’s gay red and yellow blossoms.  Fearing that my presence on the street at that hour and my somewhat slovenly appearance might frighten her, I bid her good morning in my most cheerful, non-threatening manner.  She looked at me briefly, barely acknowledging the greeting, and returned to composing her photo with her electronic device. 

After passing the woman, I dipped into a pocket of my cargo pants, extracted my journal and pen, and noted the encounter.  While doing so, I, as self-appointed arbiter of all things authentically New Mexican, recalled that the bird-of-paradise, lovely though it was, did not grow wild in our state, but was instead imported from South America.  But I then muffled that somewhat disparagingly provincial thought.  This is your long-awaited urban backpack, I reminded myself.  Embrace it in all its urban-ness!  Don’t belittle an attractive city neighborhood with some nitpicky botanical observation.  The plant thrives here on a modest amount of water, for goodness sake! 

I continued my climb up the steep community entrance road.

At the top of the road, already beginning to sweat, I did an about face and looked westward at the huge mesa bordering my city’s west side.  As I’ve mentioned, what made Albuquerque’s western horizon so beguiling, inviting, and stress-absorbent was its stark emptiness.  On the far end of the horizon, 100 miles nearly due west, rose Mt. Sedgewick, highest point in the Zuni Mountains.  Immediately to Sedgewick’s north climbed the southern slopes of Mt. Taylor.  I’d backpacked Taylor numerous times, made whoopee on its shoulders shortly after moving to New Mexico.  Sedgewick, meanwhile, was a mountain I was planning to pack, although I feared its slopes might buzz with too much humanity, as a Forest Service map indicated a primitive road went practically to its summit. 

Other things occupied the horizon, albeit at Albuquerque’s edge:  Five volcanic cones.  And a third mountain, the massive Amazon distribution center, which was still under construction.  That is, Mt. Bezos.  Or perhaps, more precisely, given its boxy construction, Bezos Mesa.  Was it ugly?  Of course.  Was I at least somewhat responsible for it?  With my hundreds of online purchases over two decades, inescapably. 

But “jobs,” our ball-and-chain. 

I exited our community at Four Hills Road and descended into Tijeras Canyon―“Scissors” Canyon, where modern-day cowboy John W. Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, and Burns’s beloved horse, Whiskey, played by a horse, were tragically taken out by a tractor-trailer hauling toilets in the 1962 movie Lonely are the Brave

I had to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed my swift and smooth, because utterly predictable, gait upon Four Hills Road’s recently-repaved asphalt sidewalk, realizing not only how much additional energy I expend negotiating, with feet and legs, the sheer ruggedness of backcountry terrain, but also all the scenery I miss as I’m forced to constantly stare downward at said terrain in order to avoid injury while advancing into the primeval. 

Scenery such as the kind I was now freely enjoying, particularly the towering western canyons and slopes of the Sandias, majestically unfolding although still shadowed in blues, greens, and blacks.  In his 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy, on which Lonely are the Brave was based, Abbey described those canyons and slopes as “loom[ing] over” the Rio Grande Valley “like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations.”

So much for Abbey’s boast about the “poetry of simple fact.”  He, too, occasionally couldn’t resist the mystical touch.  And we have been the better for it.

After I crossed the bridge over Tijeras Arroyo at the bottom of the canyon, however, I was pulled jarringly back into the city.  There stood a man and woman on the sidewalk beside the entrance to a dirt road that descended briefly to a small dirt parking area beside the arroyo, the woman clutching a cell phone.  Meanwhile, a fire truck came roaring down the north slope of Four Hills Road, its lights flashing and siren screaming. 

“What’s going on?” I asked, and the couple nodded to the parking area, where two young men beside a late-model sedan were frantically stamping out a small fire of what appeared to be merely some papers.  They obviously were not encamped in the arroyo.

“Whoever they are, they’re going to start a brush fire,” said the woman.  “So I called 911.” 

Although the city was indeed tinder-dry, I doubted the brush fire threat, as there was no brush in the parking area and not a breath of wind.  However, I kept this opinion to myself.  But I was nevertheless pleased with the woman’s phone call.  The two men had started an open fire on property not their own, a fire that under different conditions could have had serious consequences.  I usually minded my own business, but why ignore and thus encourage this carelessness?   

I was also glad to see the monstrous fire truck grind to a halt, probably coincidentally, at the entrance to the dirt road, effectively blocking it off.  I was fed up with seeing Burqueños constantly getting away with behavior such as speeding, reckless driving, and littering.  Now I knew these two miscreants would at least suffer some embarrassment as a result of this obvious infraction.

Although they tried not to.  With the fire out, they jumped into the sedan, which then disappeared beneath the bridge.  I knew they wouldn’t get far, however, as the dirt road was the only automobile exit from that stretch of the arroyo.  Sure enough, the sedan reappeared and slowly crept up the dirt road to the sidewalk and Four Hills Road, where the fire truck and a half-dozen burly firefighters awaited them.  Caught, the two men exited the sedan.  Words of some kind were exchanged.  The two smiled sheepishly and then re-entered the sedan, evidently free to go, surely relieved the cops didn’t arrive and come down on them with considerably more weight, including questions.

I didn’t linger at the scene.  I was of the impression that our public servants―our cops and firefighters―were rightfully cautious about engaging in small talk with bystanders, so I always helped them out by avoiding the practice.  Like any kid, I was just pleased I could watch a “fire” and the excitement and drama of a huge, colorful truck arriving to address it.  And mete out some justice in the process.  My tax dollars at work.

Meanwhile, I still had miles to cover in this urban wilderness, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler, so I continued up the north slope of Four Hills Road.

After crossing the oil-stained and food-bespattered asphalt parking lot of Smith’s Supermarket, I donned a sweatband.

Then I arrived at the intersection of Central Avenue and Tramway Boulevard.  Due to the time―7 A.M.―and the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, the intersection was still almost entirely devoid of people and traffic.  Soon, however, it would become a tumult of cars, trucks, and motorcycles; panhandlers with their cardboard signs; loiterers; the homeless; pedestrian grocery shoppers; fatalists; the doped-up; and the meandering mentally ill.

I crossed Central Avenue in the immediate wake of another urban backpacker.  Well, packer.  Because his goods were not exactly loaded on his back.  He carried an unbundled sleeping bag in one hand and a small, filthy vinyl tarp in the other.  A plastic bottle of water was shoved in the rear pocket of his jeans and a looped handbag hung from his neck.  A lumbering, flapping human chuckwagon on an urban Chisolm Trail.  Unshaven, stone-faced, dead-eyed, and bent forward into another day of survival on the streets, he might have been my age. 

Meanwhile, there I was, with my $300 Osprey backpack with its multitude of bins and pockets and hooks and clips and zippers, perfectly adjusted with Velcro and straps to float away from my shoulders, aerate my back, and ride like eiderdown on my hips―snug, streamlined, and ready and waiting to get me up the Maroon Bells like crap through a goose.  Still, given my clothing and the reputation of that intersection, I was wondering if the people who bothered to notice me at all were lumping my lot in life with that of the poor soul just ahead of me.    

Continuing north on Tramway Boulevard, I passed the off-ramp from I-40.  A premier platform for panhandlers, it would soon be occupied. 

Then I walked beneath the I-40 bridge.  Here was a literal underworld, a netherworld.  Filled with the eerie, endless thunder of six lanes of interstate traffic above, it was a dim-to-dark biosphere never sweetened or cleansed by so much as a ray of sunshine.   From the sidewalk, concrete sloped up to a narrow ledge just beneath the bridge’s understory, a ledge, I estimated, just big enough to accommodate a human being. Or, end to end, two human beings.  Or three.  An empty section of sleeping bag drooped over the ledge.  I shuddered to think who was using that bag, and to imagine a dream having to support all that traffic.

Pigeons preened and paced on the ledge.  Others flew beneath the understory, coarsely chopping the sluggish air.  Pigeon shit, denied a good flush of rain, caked in ridges on the sidewalk at my feet.  Stirred into it, the usual discarded fast-food packaging.  Meanwhile, up above, they drove like mad to Chicago, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Kingman, Gallup, and Rolla, Missouri.  Hauling onions, wind-turbine blades, ventilators, pre-stressed concrete, restless children, husbands and wives, lunch meats, PODS, televisions, new cars, dog food, fertilizer, beef jerky, backpacks.  America on the move. 

The rest, forlorn as a hubcap on the side of a highway.

But just so much dark romanticism brought to you by the comfortably-retired Urban Backpacker.  Try selling this metaphorical piffle to a homeless person simply seeking shelter from a downpour or shade on a fiery New Mexico afternoon.

I gratefully exited this world on the deafening roar of another Albuquerque monkey in a muscle car heading, like me, north on Tramway.  The clamor the homeless must put up with.

Plodding up the Tramway sidewalk/bike path, I came upon a bright red plastic hazardous-waste bottle on the asphalt.  I picked it up and shook it.  It rattled, no doubt with used syringes. 

Good, I thought.  For once a proper disposal. 

Local organizations routinely asked Burqueños to volunteer to comb empty lots in order to safely pick up and dispose of syringes used for injecting heroin and other illegal drugs.  Obviously, a percentage of Albuquerque’s homeless injected this stuff as well.  Whatever the syringes in this bottle were used for, and however the bottle found its way to this sidewalk, I was touched and encouraged by this meager gesture of safety and compassion in a cruel world.  I should have clutched the bottle until the next trash can along the sidewalk, but I wanted my hands free to make entries in my journal, so I returned the bottle carefully to the sidewalk and documented the happenstance.  Guilt weighs less than a hazmat bottle.  I walked on.

On a terrace above the sidewalk there bloomed, with purple and white trumpet-shaped blossoms, a small desert willow―a true, tough, and lovely New Mexico native.  This was a tree still in its infancy, a sapling.  Meanwhile, there was a homeless campsite of a sleeping bag, shopping cart, pillow, plastic storage bin, and plastic storage barrel on the east side of the tree.  If the tree was for privacy, it obviously failed.  More likely, it was for the scant shade it offered in the late afternoon.  Relatively clean and tidy, the campsite had no occupants at the moment.  However, its vulnerability to weather and “wilding”―Albuquerque punks, blessed with homes, assaulting, even killing, the homeless for a lark―was troubling.

Soon sunlight began to bathe Tramway.  Traffic became heavy on the thoroughfare.  Runners, walkers, and bicyclists, most of them absorbed in their daily exercise routines, began to pass me on the broad sidewalk. 

Draining the west slopes of the Sandias, a deep and wide concrete arroyo with sloping sides began to parallel the sidewalk.  Given the drought, the arroyo was bone dry.  When running, much of its water flowed to the Rio Grande.

Gazing into the arroyo, I spotted a mimosa sapling growing out of the slightest crack nearly at the arroyo’s bed.  Although not native to the Southwest, the mimosa was a popular tree in Albuquerque.  I first heard it mentioned while growing up in New Jersey, in my favorite Hemingway short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” set in Africa.  We had a couple mimosas in our yard.   

I marveled at the mimosa’s ability to seed, root, and sprout in this challenging fissure, and then to grow to a couple feet.  The tree’s nearly complete concrete world, though utterly unnatural, certainly had its benefits in this drought.  What scant rain we’d been having had funneled into this arroyo, and had thus quenched the sapling.  On the other hand, I knew the arroyo might spell the mimosa’s end.  Despite the drought, a flood―water three feet deep or more and traveling at 30 miles-per-hour―in this conduit was inevitable.  And if hydropower alone didn’t take out this tender flora, some equally inevitable manmade cargo of the flood―a sleeping bag, shopping cart, mattress, day pack, office chair, carpet remnant, bicycle―likely would.  I’d seen all such flotsam, making its way, slowly but surely, to the Rio throughout the monsoon season. 

Then I saw something the sight of which tumbling in a flooded Albuquerque arroyo or caked with mud on a remote riverbank in West Texas or East Coahuila would have rent my heart: a big dingy stuffed bear sitting on the lip of a smaller concrete arroyo feeding into the larger one beside which I continued to walk.  What carelessness or cruelty delivered him to here? I wondered.  No electronic toy will ever replace a child’s Teddy.  I imagined a girl or boy upslope in tears.

I paused to sit down gratefully upon a bench.  I admired some blooming white horse nettle on the edges of the trail.  I’ve never failed to identify this plant―technically a weed―with the funny name during all my years in the Southwest.  Like me, it was drought-tolerant and equally at home in the city and the desert.  With blossoms of lavender stars with yellow centers, it deserved the dignity of being called a wildflower.

I watched an ant bearing a crumb twice its size: inspiring, somehow.  While doing so, I wondered if anybody looking at me thought I was some eccentric tourist from England, Germany, or France, although I’d never been to any of those places.  I walked on.

On the corner of Tramway and Indian School Road, I encountered a descanso, or roadside memorial, a common sight along New Mexico’s highways, some of the deadliest in the nation.  It was a combination of a rusted metal cross, decorative rocks, plastic flowers, and large glass beads (tears?).  The memorial honored somebody with, as near as I could discern, the initials “PAHI.”  “PAHI” was surely yet another victim of a New Mexico traffic accident.

Now began the final leg of my urban trek, the mile-long climb east up Indian School Road. 

I passed the entrance to Walgreens, where I’d been getting a prescription to correct post-ventricular contraction, give me the steady, solid Hal Blaine heartbeat I’d need to hopefully continue to do these slogs into my 70’s.

I passed a handsome stone-and-stucco sign between the sidewalk and the street welcoming me to the neighborhood of “MONTE LARGO HILL,” with the reminder to “STAY FOCUSSED AVOID TEXTING.”  Good advice for drivers.  As for this pedestrian, he continued to “text” into his journal as he’d been doing without an accident for 33 years.

This neighborhood, part of Albuquerque’s aptly-named “Northeast Heights” section, was stunning: the homes, handsome; the yards, many of them prudently xeriscaped, manicured; the cars and trucks in the driveways (some gated), expensive.  I estimated each home on the first block I passed had an average price of $500,000, with homes increasing in value by at least $100,000 with every ascending block.

The Sandias now exploded into view.  I spotted the peak of a foothill that might offer a reasonable campsite for the night.  I knew that if I camped a mere mile into the National Forest, with Albuquerque lapping at the shore of my bivouac, I’d be happy, for my goal was not to escape Albuquerque, but rather to celebrate our public lands and behold a fascinating city that had contributed greatly to my Southwestern experience.  I could make a “wilderness” experience out of a pile of gravel on a dirt road beside a busy railroad line a half-mile from a two-lane New Mexico highway if I’m content and my imagination is in gear.  Although some undeveloped land nearby does help.    

Meanwhile, in my worn boots, clutching my battered walking stick, I now more than ever felt like a tramp, a cop magnet.  But I forged ahead, still unmolested.

I paused to catch my breath in a lot―the rare lot under construction in this neighborhood―containing a recently-poured house foundation.  Cars climbed the hill with me, some undoubtedly en route to the trailhead, and, of those, some surely from more modest neighborhoods in the Duke City.  They slowed for the speed bumps on Indian School Road―speed bumps for safety, of course, and perhaps for prolonging the tormenting envy of the less fortunate driving through this glamorous part of the city. 

Two-and-three-quarter hours after I set out, I arrived at the large paved parking lot, sparsely filled with automobiles on this hot morning, at the mouth of Embudo Canyon.  Embudo Canyon trails began here, in a small patch of acreage designated Sandia Hills Open Space.  A half-mile into the trail I planned to pack commenced the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.  The canyon filled with hills, increasingly lofty ranges, and great gulfs of golden light.  As the slopes climbed, piñon and juniper yielded to pine, which yielded to aspen and spruce.  Public, undeveloped land.  How utterly fortunate Albuquerque was to have this at its ribs!

The Open Space also included a massive earthen berm with a concrete spillway, and a huge, obscenely inappropriate water tank.  But did I decry the tank?  No.  The water that I showered with the night before, and the bottled water now in my backpack, very possibly spent some time in that thing.

Thus, except for my return pack home, my urban backpack was over.  Taking a breather, I slipped out of my pack, and felt a foot taller. 

My pack, my house for the night.  Before my urban hike, I took great pride and comfort in believing that the pack, properly equipped, could be my house anywhere in the world.  Now, I wasn’t so sure.  A house is one thing, the property upon which it sits, another.  I had covered some rugged property this morning.  I preferred the property that now awaited me. 

I set out.  At my back, a half-million, some applauding, most oblivious.  Before me, the sound of mountain water, the chatter of a tufted squirrel, the tart squawk of a jay, the perfume of pine resin, the moan of wind in a pine, the whisper of silence in the mind.  Si, refuge and prospect. And a destination close to home, because, as I entered my eighth decade, I was now nearing another destination close to home, close to wherever I am and will be, in fact.  But now I chose to be here.  I would perhaps have thought to break the spell by raising my voice, adding another word, but I would not do so again.  I was invisible.  It meant nothing.  If it were not so there would be little told of it.  I’ll explain someday.  Home for supper.