Stating the obvious, fall in Maine was colors, primarily the reds, oranges, and lingering greens of maple and oak, swimming, exploding, dripping, and drooling everywhere. Sure, the effervescent gold of the aspen and the muted reds of the scrub oak of the Southwestern high country, and the bright lemon-yellows of the cottonwoods in the Southwestern river valleys and arroyos, were beautiful, but nothing could surpass the sheer variety and abundance of New England’s autumnal palette. The New England autumn weather, too, was nearly always delightful, thanks largely to the decrease in the relative humidity. Of course, fall also meant the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.
I resumed working, now not as a medical assistant but officially as a practical nurse with all of its expectations and responsibilities. I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough. Neither worked out.
I then somewhat settled into employment at a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s disease. I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents, exploding at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose, out of boredom and anxiety, from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with difficult-to-manage pressure sores.
Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and, with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent, performed creaky gospel songs for the residents.
I worked the swing shift. Every shift began and ended with the necessary tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart. On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England coastline night exhausted. I lost 10 pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months.
I then worked at a fast-paced family-practice clinic that employed four physicians, here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse. I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.
The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me. I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England. Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain. And rain. And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain. It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof. In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared. James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods. These rains compounded that pressure. Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.
Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it. Shrouded in my vinyl rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein-monster gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots. (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.) Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete.
In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.
New England spring unlocked.
We closed on our fourth house at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the dwelling on a dead-end road. The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow. Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place. It was the first of a number of occasions in which Bruce, unbidden but greatly appreciated, would help us.
Meanwhile, the slightest sounds, in the stillness, seemed to echo against all these walls of trees.
After several days we established a modicum of order in the house. The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style. It had a second floor and an unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience. The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch. The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic.
The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover. The remaining one-third was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―hugged and canopied our house. Nearly all of the 15 or so other properties on our road were of similar size. We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado. On the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy provided by all the vegetation.
Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door. Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.” That is, the otter pond. (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the New England accent would take as much getting used to as the woods. And, yes, I came to understand that the Maine accent differed from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differed from a northern Maine accent.) We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned. We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track.
It was a raw morning, the temperature 40 degrees, the skies leaden. The air was still and fog filled the woods in places. A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open field. The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and ice. It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling. Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft. The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog, a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, was a very popular canine in watery Maine.
The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, and got me to thinking. Some aspect of this surely inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, Edward Hoagland. Would this blanket of wood succor or smother me? Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing? Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?
Soon we arrived at the pond, actually one of several ponds, where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush. (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.) The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that covered about 50 acres. The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon lifted my spirits as Buddy and I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness.
World enough and time.
After nearly three decades, my wife decided to no longer practice medicine. She had devoted her professional life to physical care. Now, she wanted to study theology with the hope of providing spiritual care. Her Christian faith was an essential part of her life. She had been a member of church wherever we lived. So we agreed: She would study while I continued to work in healthcare.
But study theology how and where? We ruled out an online education, if indeed such a thing were even available in her desired field of study. We also agreed that Linda would not live and study somewhere other than Alamosa―for there were no seminaries in the San Luis Valley―while I remained in the Valley. My company and that of our dogs, now numbering four, were too important to her.
Thus, we would sell our house and leave Alamosa.
So, educational possibilities for my wife. And geographical possibilities, once again, for me. Though I loved living in the Southwest, for a decade I had fantasized about returning to live in my native Northeast, specifically New England. It was, as I have written, a land that shaped me, touched me deeply, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age 58, reengage with the spirit of New England? Could I spend the rest of my life there? I believed I could.
Somewhat to my surprise, because I thought she was a diehard Westerner, Linda said she could as well.
We researched New England seminaries. Linda wanted to attend an institution with a progressive spiritual tradition, so her choices quickly narrowed to two: Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and Bangor Theological Seminary, which had campuses in Bangor and Portland, Maine. While we continued to hold jobs in Alamosa, we made plans to fly to Boston and, from there, visit both institutions.
We landed in Massachusetts in October. At the Hertz car rental desk at Boston’s Logan Airport, I penned in my journal: “Boston: Old, wet, dark.”
We toured the campus of Andover Newton. The admissions director of the seminary warmly welcomed, informed, and advised us. I had no doubt that Linda would be accepted for study there.
With a real estate agent, we then looked at houses in the Boston suburbs.
Of course, compared to Anthony and Alamosa, the Boston suburbs―such towns as Bolton, Clinton, Harvard, Hudson, Boylston―were densely populated. After two decades in the Southwest, I wasn’t prepared for such inescapable density. People, houses, businesses, and motor vehicles everywhere, with no safety valve of vast undeveloped public land―land, not sea―nearby. All of this tumult was somehow summed up for me with the sight of a commuter train roaring westward during evening rush hour though the heart of a town whose name I’ve forgotten. I hadn’t seen a commuter train since I left metropolitan New Jersey.
Of course, with four dogs, an apartment in the Boston metropolitan area was out of the question. Then, we quickly realized that housing was costly in the Boston suburbs, and that even a quarter-acre property upon which our four dogs might romp was unaffordable, if not impractical. There existed no “small house in the country” anywhere near Boston for the likes of our family. Thus, an education at Andover Newton was ruled out.
We then drove from Boston to Bangor. The drive took nearly four hours―long even by Western standards―including two hours to get to Portland, Maine’s largest city.
Maine differed considerably from Massachusetts. On the interstate north of Portland, we drove through mile after mile of nothing but dense, dark, monotonous pine and hardwood. No luminous woodlands of piñon and juniper here. Such prodigious verdure was autumn colorful, but murmured of a savagery that unnerved even my nature-loving sensibility.
We arrived in Bangor―at last, no longer just a name in a Roger Miller song. (And Miller incorrectly pronounced it BANG-her. We would soon learn the correct pronunciation was BANG-gore.) The city not even halfway up the length of Maine was stark, modest, and tidy. After a pleasant tour of the Bangor Theological campus, we drove to the office of a local real estate agent.
She showed us a newly-built house with a generous property. The property was treeless, starkly so in this otherwise shaggy land; nonetheless, ideal for the dogs. Yet there remained the reality of this city’s considerable distance from the commerce and culture of Portland, and, more unsettling, the certainty of Bangor’s long, cold, gnawing winters greased by vast, damp, howling places named Penobscot, Piscataquis, Aroostook, New Brunswick, and Quebec just to the north.
So we agreed: Bangor, too, was out.
Which left us with the Portland area. The seminary’s “campus” was just a basement in a great old church in downtown Portland, but the classrooms, offices, and seminary library there were attractive and cozy.
Portland, too, was attractive. Like Boston, it had a picturesque harbor. But it was one-tenth the size of Beantown and quickly spread into spacious communities, many of them semi-rural and even rural―an area obviously with room to wander a-foot in peace and solitude. And Portland, despite its antiquity, appeared to be filled with people in their 20’s and 30’s. Not that we socialized regularly with this age group in the Southwest, but this meant vibrance and progressive politics, and a guaranteed variety of better restaurants. So we agreed: this place was it.
Time permitted us to look at only two houses. They were both within the Portland city limits and their yards were much too small for a canine quartet, but we were informed there would be larger, affordable properties within a reasonable commute to Portland. However, they would have to wait for a subsequent visit by one or both of us.
Meanwhile, everywhere there was the charm, history, and tang of New England. The woods with their fireworks of autumn colors. The gentle light. The thick, humid air that nibbled on the bones at nightfall, but plumped and delivered enjoyable odors, including and especially the sweetness of fallen leaves. The ubiquitous water: rivers and streams that pulsed, lakes and ponds that bejeweled. Yes, there were many, many houses, but the abundant wild and domestic verdure seemed to cushion the rattle of households. And there was, of course, the cosmic, storied ocean, although my gaze was on those limitless forests (despite their savagery) and granite mountains, about which Thoreau wrote, for hiking and packing. (I discovered my testicles when, as a kid, I boldly leapt into the frigid waters off the coast of central Maine . . . and felt that pair of cocktail peanuts scramble for dear life up into my throat. Joyce’s “scrotumtightening sea.”)
After acceptance at Bangor Theological Seminary, Linda returned to Maine in the winter and selected a house in a semi-rural neighborhood outside of the village of Gorham.
We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February. Somewhat to my surprise, Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from the aforesaid Clinton, Massachusetts. Thus, it was sinking in: Mexican-Americans were no longer confined to the Southwest. They were establishing families and powering our economy from coast to coast.I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer, Linda drove the SUV, and we divided the four dogs between us. Across an America on the cusp of spring. We spent nights in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago; and Cleveland. Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley. As we let the dogs wander, I brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips. New York! Where I went to college, drank my first legal beer in a bar, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time. Then, a night in Utica, New York. Then, exhausted, several nights in Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.
My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains decreased during my years in the Valley. The vivid and unimpeded views from our property of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas, coupled with the tranquility of our immediate surroundings, often satisfied my need to light out for the remote.
Fitness, or a lack thereof, was another factor that kept me at home. When in mountains, I liked to camp at the higher elevations, where grand views were abundant and the thrill of a next-door lightning strike was a possibility. My heart and lungs delivered me easily to the to the 10- and 11,000-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico. However, they did not do so well with the 12- and 13,000-foot heights of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, ride my bicycle on quiet country roads, and visit the Western wilderness in the richness of literature―in the writings of Frank Waters, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie, Harvey Fergusson, Colin Fletcher, Annie Proulx, and Frederick Manfred.
Yet I still occasionally forced myself to gasp and spit, fracture a humerus, tear a medial meniscus in the San Juans and Sangre de Cristos. I had to tempt these fates. Along with the sexual act, wilderness visits were the most primal, most authentic experiences I could imagine. Maurice Herzog, who, along with Louis Lachenal, was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captured it for me when he wrote: “I believe what I felt [the day of the summit] closely resembles what we call happiness. I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete. It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.” (This even after Annapurna “digested” all of Herzog’s fingers and toes via frostbite.)
After 16 months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.” I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that comfortable place. For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for flexibility, balance, and strength, and this had served me well on my job.
Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and twist and turn in shower stalls without risking permanent injury. Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt, despite never being much interested in the biological sciences, I had the intelligence to handle such a challenge. And I’d always admired the Civil War nursing of Walt Whitman.
So, once again with my wife’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the Council and began studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that trained me in nurse aiding.
Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take foundational courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State.
Somewhat to my surprise, formal instruction in nursing began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking. How cocky I felt, having done this now for nearly two years! But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” “angiotensin,” and IV infusion.
One day I was pleasantly surprised, moved even, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a specialized cardiology scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student.
One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly presented. He was a smart, likable Del Norte ski patrolman and bicycle-frame designer. A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life. He had succeeded at this, in my opinion, although perhaps with the help of genetics: Like my former boss Chris, he, too, could have passed for Irish.
Further into my education, I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject. Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife. Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, desired instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free”. Thus, I underwent a vasectomy. My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like my wife, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults. So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation, birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding.
Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding-white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units. At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet. I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure. During these procedures, I had my usual ridiculous fantasies―in these cases, not about being a surgeon, but rather about being an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist. I loved the way these latter two quietly and competently delivered one to La-La Land just before the knives were drawn.
My one year of instruction, enough to qualify me for a license in practical nursing, ended with nerve-wracking drills in the proper calculation of medication doses and the usual final exam, which I passed. Then, for my Colorado licensing test, I drove to Pueblo, where, at a testing center, I sat before a computer screen and answered more questions about nursing basics. A week later, I was informed that I had passed this as well.
For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa. Linda was now employed by the medical center as well. I “floated” frequently, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners. I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon. I worked for an internist who specialized as well in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, sparsely-populated, and dirty-fingernailed Valley where, it seemed to me, experience, deeds, and grit were more determinate than looks).
I loved and was proud of working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this being before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors.
I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them 40 and older. In our sparsely-populated Valley, I regarded them as my neighbors.
I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired. At times I wished I’d studied 15 years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer. But, back then, I was hung up on “women’s work.”
My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, all-terrain motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled, motorized means of transport designed for a driver and, at most, a single passenger―on America’s public-lands trails was born one day in the early 1990’s.
I was backpacking a trail ascending to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed. Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation. Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman. By the 90’s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd, and the surrender of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to that religion.
At times while making my way to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery. The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with limbs and branches to discourage traffic of any kind. Yet even with 45 pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute. Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake settled my nerves.
Thus, I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris asked me to represent the Council at a two-day “training event” for ATV and dirt bike operators.
Aren’t ATV’s and dirt bikes the Council’s sworn enemies? I wondered. But I didn’t verbally question her request.
The event was held on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa. I commuted to the event both days.
The first day, the participants met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon. Some 25 people, mostly male, were present. The participants included the instructor, an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee of an ATV “touring” business located in Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely place in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of a dirt bike dealership in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV (off-road vehicle, another name for an ATV) organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area.
The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad,” still another name for an ATV. Eight quads were provided for our training. They were militant, muscular, Jurassic, open-aired vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads.
The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses. As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and spiriting me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor.
So much for subtlety, I thought.
Although superficially cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event. Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt rather out of place. She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads. Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie. I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery.
Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “track” we were quickly excavating, our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust. When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”
On his own vehicle, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed. But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the brute force of these machines.
At the end of the day, we dripped dust. Meanwhile, a third of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled and clearly bore an eight-foot-wide circular dirt track: the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.
The following day we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead. Far more people attended this event, which dealt with the operation of my old friend, the dirt bike. Some 50 males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, arrived―from where, I had no idea―on their bikes: motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock absorbers and more tires bearing formidable, hungry teeth. All were dressed in tailored-for-cycling shirts and pants―many in electric colors―helmets, boots, gloves, and what appeared to be Gothic breastplates. Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail.
An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.”
Then, Kenton proceeded to advise the warriors to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of their machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and ravens that chattered―in protest?―on the limbs and branches directly above us. I could almost hear the attendees salivating when Kenton informed them, to my astonishment, that the Rio Grande National Forest had 800 miles of trails available for motorized use. When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.”
No mystery there. Roz and I exchanged looks.
At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature. No off-road roto-tillery was provided for Roz and me this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles and bade one another goodbye.
I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our National Forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck.
On the drive home, I reflected. I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead. She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.” I thus concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day smoke- and dust-fest was simply to increase the visibility of the Council with Colorado’s public-lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots.
Still, I couldn’t resist returning to Ed Abbey, specifically a 1984 entry in his published journal: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise [sic] takes up more space [sic] inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”
Sadly, by 2001, Ed was well into permanently “missing in action.”
Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work.
One afternoon, while emptying the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager.
My interest was immediate. I assumed this organization, at the very least, dealt with issues of wilderness protection around the Valley. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engage in the nuts and bolts of defending it.
I phoned the number included in the note and spoke to Chris, the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. I’d never heard of the organization. We agreed to an interview.
The interview with Chris and a Council board member was conducted at the Council’s little office located in the building of Alamosa’s public radio station. The two shared with me the Council’s mission, and my original assumption about the organization was correct. There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, membership in the Sierra Club, and master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico.
I felt good about the interview. However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.
The Council’s office was small, dank, and dusty. Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains. Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris. On mine sat a personal computer.
The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring. Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff. The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company. The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley and securing legal advice.
I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the organization’s mailing list, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the Council at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects. I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week. The independence and solitude suited me.
Chris was a classic representative of certainly one slice of the Valley’s population. Some ten years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she told me that she worked briefly for, of all things, one of David Letterman’s Late show incarnations―in what capacity, I never asked. She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind. She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland. Her long hair, un-styled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office still damp from a shower. Her clothes were casual. Many of them might have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store. Her running shoes were worn. She was relaxed and irrepressibly upbeat. From the start, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.
Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my initial months of employment. There were no challenges to timber sales in the national forests of the mountains surrounding the Valley. There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses. The office rarely had visitors. The phone rarely rang. Indeed, I realized that the Council was truly unknown. Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.
However, things began to get more interesting when, one day, Chris assigned me some field work.
Snow arrived in Alamosa as early as October. Often born in the Sangres at the northeast corner of the Valley, the weather advanced south through the evening and night, producing dry, light flakes that were as apt to go up as down, the “champagne powder” of which Colorado was famous. Several inches would blanket the ground the following morning. Buddy and Nick, born and raised in the dry desert, stepped upon it tentatively.
But, again, the Valley abhorred precipitation. Unless the Valley was locked in a cold front, the snow would disappear completely in the days of radiant sunshine that inevitably followed.
When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to 10,200-foot-high La Manga Pass, where I snowshoed on vast meadows in the shadow of Pinorealosa Mountain, a crumb of the greater South San Juan Mountains. Accessible by a two-lane highway, the pass was nonetheless remote, as it connected only the little towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, tickling the boundary between the two states in the process.
I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved the activity. I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers.
The snows on La Manga Pass were variously three to five feet deep, and deeper even where they drifted along the clefts of the frozen creek beds. With the aid of ski poles, I’d trek upon great depths of virgin snow, if the conditions were right sinking no more than six inches to a foot. Casually I’d venture up and down gentle slopes, here in blinding sunshine, there through gloomy stands of conifer casting cyanotic shadows.
I particularly delighted in blithely crossing, or pretending to tightrope upon, the topmost strands of nearly-buried barbed-wire fences, those damned obstructions that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and costly REI trousers and shorts and drawing blood in any other season.
I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, filmy clouds racing just above, banners of snow spewing from the edges of drifts, scores of ghostly snow devils whirling and boiling over the meadows, requiring me to don amber-tinted goggles.
Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a 10-foot drift, stomp my feet, watch cracks suddenly etch all around me, and gaily plummet in my own little death-defying avalanche of cushiony snow. I was the eight-year-old, deliriously happy Philip Davis in a New Jersey blizzard, a leaden and, but for the howling wind, silent world of cancelled schools, snow caves, snow plows, soggy leggings, ice-jammed boot buckles, Flexible Flyers seeking out even the slightest slope, and a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with Premium Saltines for lunch.
And I’d recall Hal Borland’s words describing the high plains of northeastern Colorado following a three-day-long blizzard: “After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place. It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time. Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern. The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys. It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.”
And I, on La Manga Pass, was able to have my way, work my will, by walking on top of all that snow without fear of burial. The feeling was messianic.
At day’s end, I’d bid farewell to the wind and snow of the pass and return to the bare, frozen ground of the San Luis Valley, reminded of how consequential Western mountains are―far more consequential, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of much of the Northeast―when it came to delivering, in the fullness of time, water to the arid lands.