creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Nooooo. Chile Grown in Colorado?

Although for fifteen years, before moving to New Mexico, I enjoyed excellent Mexican food in Colorado, I never noticed late-summer commercial chile-roasting on the state’s street corners and in the state’s supermarket parking lots.  Now, in the San Luis Valley, I continued to assume this was a charming practice confined to New Mexico.  

Thus, I was surprised when, one late afternoon in mid-August, while driving on Hunt Avenue just south of downtown, I got the unmistakable whiff―that intoxicating, sweet-smoky odor―of roasting long-green chiles.  Sure enough, a roaster, a gridironed metal drum that revolves just above some propane gas-fed flames, was operating in the parking lot of Atencio’s Market, so I just had to pull into the lot―not, I told myself, to make a purchase, merely to watch and smell.  By the roaster, I joined several other addicts, along with the man with the denim apron, long brakeman’s gloves, and wire brush who operated the device. 

As I watched the peppers tumble in the drum―slowly, carefully blackening and becoming increasingly limp―my gaze turned to a nearby pallet stacked with burlap bags of freshly-harvested raw chiles.  The bags read that the chiles were from a farm in . . . Pueblo, Colorado? 

I was surprised.  I didn’t think a chile seed had a prayer beyond the air, water, soil, sunlight, and agricultural sorcery of Hatch, New Mexico, the (self-proclaimed) “chile capital of the world.” 

Good heavens, had I been greatly enjoying Colorado chile in various Alamosa restaurants since my arrival?

I had to explore this further, so I walked into Atencio’s and headed for the fruit-and-produce section.  In a bin were piled some individual chiles, with a sign indicating they were “hot.” 

“Hah!” I thought.  I held up one.  “From Pueblo?” I asked a nearby employee, a woman un-boxing bananas.  She arched her brows and nodded as if to affirm the obvious.  I bought several of the peppers and headed home.  

There, I spread some foil in our stove’s broiler, upon which I laid the washed peppers.  I turned on the broiler.  I dumped some ice into a pot of water. 

I turned the chiles over and over until they had sufficiently blackened and blistered.  I dropped them into the pot of ice water and stirred, to coax the hot chile flesh from the charred skin, a technique I’d learned in Anthony. 

When the ice cubes had all but melted, I asked myself, “Should I don latex gloves?”―to protect my hands against the capsaicin, of course.  “Nah.  After all, we’re talkin’ Pueblo.  We’re talkin’ el norte.”  

I plunged my bare hands into the pot and removed the peppers.  I carefully removed the skins―generally not eaten when charred―from the flesh.  Hunger increasing, I took a knife and sliced off the head of each pepper.  Then I sliced open each pepper lengthwise and scrapped away the seeds. 

As I reached for the salt shaker, I noticed my fingertips beginning to burn.  Then I felt entire fingers aflame.  I opened the kitchen door with one alarmed pinkie and carefully removed the half-gallon milk bottle.  I generously flushed both burning hands with milk, to neutralize the capsaicin: I’d learned that in Anthony, as well.  Yet this provided only a modicum of relief, so I rinsed my hands under cold tap water, despite the fact that I’d read this was basically futile. 

But never mind this temporary discomfort: I was curious, my taste buds were longing, and those chiles weren’t getting any warmer by the thermometer.  I lightly salted the flesh of a chile, cut off a segment of it, and, with a fork (gratuitous, really, at this point), popped the segment into my mouth. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  That slightly sweet, slightly citrus-y, mostly indescribable flavor.  Then I felt a blowtorch on the lips, which spread to my tongue and gums, and then a firestorm filled the entire buccal region.  

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, Viva Pee-EB-low!

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  . . .”

Uncategorized

We Have a Visitor

Several days before Thanksgiving my 83-year-old father arrived at the El Paso airport from New Hampshire.  The following day, Linda, Dad, and I visited Juárez.  At the El Paso Convention Center we boarded the “Border Jumper Trolley”―actually a simulated trolley with rubber tires―that inched across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge over the Rio Grande and into the Chihuahuan megalopolis.  We disembarked not far into downtown Juárez with an assurance from the trolley’s PA system―comforting, no doubt, to at least some of the Yankee passengers―that the trolley would return us to the United States on the same day from the same location.  

The section of the city through which we walked with no particular destination in mind was crowded, chaotic, and shabby.  Street and sidewalk construction had created giant holes that were, at least by standards to the north, insufficiently barricaded.  I feared my father, who at this point in his life was walking slowly and unsteadily, would disappear into one of them, becoming a permanent part of Juárez’s municipal water system, a Border legend.  But, to my relief, he remained in view.  I could see he was, as in New Mexico, fascinated by the heavily made up Latinas. 

One morning he joined me at the college.  I introduced him to a number of my students, some of whom commuted from Juárez.  Prior to our arrival at the college, I shared with him some of the phrases I’d grown accustomed to using since teaching in the border city.  Thus, “No hablo Español,” said Dad while smiling and extending his cool, prominently-veined right hand to a student, who gently clasped the hand while returning his smile.  

On a chilly Thanksgiving evening pecan logs burned in our fireplace, producing a vibrant flame but, unlike that of the piñon and juniper that flourished up north, a somewhat bitter smoke.  As the turkey cooked, I slipped a CD Dad had brought with him into the player, and Dad danced with Linda to Errol Garner’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly,” which Dad had lately indicated was his favorite song. 

My father was now mostly deaf and had had little success with hearing aids, although this didn’t frustrate him. In fact, he rarely complained about anything.  Since I had last seen him, he had been diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack, or “mini stroke,” and as a result was easily confused.  He never mentioned the stroke.  For years his favorite outdoor activity was skiing on New Hampshire’s King Hill.  Now, however, my sister and I knew he would never ski again.  Yet, our father, to our surprise―for he had always struck us as someone willing to acknowledge his limitations―continued to talk as if he would. 

During the visit, a discussion of nursing homes occurred, not in regard to my father’s health―my sister and I had never suggested to him that he might be a candidate for “long-term care”―but merely incidental to Linda’s adult-medicine practice prior to moving to Anthony.  Then, my father, who was still living independently, weighed in with a remark that was gaining in frequency with him: he said he would kill himself, preferably by an overdose of his prescription medications or by car-exhaust asphyxiation, before entering a nursing home.  It was not a threat, instead merely a declaration as he calmly sipped his martini and gazed contentedly into the blue and gold flames dancing upon pecan logs. 

Several days after Thanksgiving, we returned Dad to the El Paso airport.  It would be his final visit to the Southwest. 

Likely due to their being thrust into a climate far more arid than New England’s, my father’s legs itched often during his stay, and their skin, now loose and papery with age, bled easily. With Dad’s departure, I stripped and bundled the sheets and mattress cover, both spotted with blood, from his bed.  Proceeding with the bundle to the laundry room, I passed the guest bathroom that now reeked of the fifties, of Mennen Skin Bracer. 

Six years later, Dad passed relatively comfortably into the mystic―”Nothing to get riled about,” he assured my sister hours before his death―at a lovely assisted-living facility he willingly entered in his New Hampshire town.  The facility included a bar, open late-afternoons, stocked by the residents, and tended by various volunteer townspeople.  My father’s weakness was vodka martinis.  Not long after his arrival, the bar had to display a two-drink-maximum sign as my father was frequently requesting thirds, thus prompting his fellow residents to do the same, all of which almost resulted in a mutiny of sorts.  In any event, those chilly New Hampshire afternoons were likely warmed with tales of Old and New Mexico by a certain fellow.     

Uncategorized

Lost and Found

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his wandering―as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence that I so admired.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways.  Rapidly mounting anticipatory grief began to be coupled with anger at my naiveté.  Then I fired up and directed another kind of anger at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  I cursed their careless, unlawful, and―as evidenced by all the empty beer cans, liquor bottles, and wine bottles along county thoroughfares―drunken driving. 

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, Linda, still relatively composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along.  At an El Paso copy shop we ran off fifteen posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  In my truck we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house; throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”, a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring him in right away.  X-rays revealed that Buddy had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my rational and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he did not survive the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures.  The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the valley.  In the desert wildlands, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay, on a knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly by the chest and collar.   Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, a clamorous train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which all the noise of the world, including that of the train itself, was sucked, creating a vast and eerie silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, reveling in the independence of his remarkable senses.

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Gila

Eager to resume my backpacking, I headed with Buddy to not only a place that promised relief from the desert heat, but a new frontier in my outdoor experience: the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range.  Robert Julyan, author of The Place Names of New Mexico, writes that the relentlessly-forested range is so named because it is “conspicuously dark and foreboding.”  The range, he also notes, has also been called Sierra Diablo or “Devil Range.”  However, we were unfazed by such a reputation: we’d already grappled with the horned man in the red suit plenty of times in the flames of Anthony.

The Black was a two-hour drive from Anthony.  After winding up the steep east slope of Emory Pass, surely one of the Southwest’s loveliest passes, we parked at the pass’s summit, elevation 8,800 feet, on the eastern edge of the range. 

From there we hiked north for several miles along a ridge before making camp just south of the boundary of the 200,000-acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness.  From our campsite, dark with fir liberally draped with the moss known as old man’s beard, we gazed in sylvan coolness east into the glowing Chihuahuan Desert.  The panorama included the Rio Grande, its manmade aneurysm in that stretch of New Mexico known as Caballo Reservoir, and the harsh, naked Caballo Mountains overlooking the reservoir. 

From the start, Buddy was a fine backpacking companion.  At suppertime, before providing him his main meal of Science Diet, I offered him fragments of Milk Bones.  Yet, to my utter surprise, he gulped not a one of them down. With a determined brush of a forepaw and nudge of a nose, he shallowly buried each fragment, obviously for later consumption, beneath soil and pine duff―an apparent demonstration of canine delayed gratification that touched me.  (I could have used such a lesson a quarter-century earlier―when my grandmother left me $5,000.)  That night, curled beside the campfire, he softly growled at imagined―or so I hoped―threats just beyond the surrounding walls of the forest.  The following morning, I broke out some more Milk Bones, and he resumed his fastidious subterranean storage of biscuit fragments.  

After breakfast, I hoisted a day pack with water and snacks, and we continued north, entering the Leopold wilderness area, created in 1980.  It felt good to at last be in the place named after the man, a forester and pioneering ecologist, who in 1924 was instrumental in establishing America’s first “wilderness preserve,” the 574,000-acre Gila Wilderness, of which, I presumed, the Leopold Wilderness was a part.  Several years prior to the preserve’s establishment, it was Aldo Leopold who officially defined the modern American wilderness as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” 

Buddy and I continued up to 10,011-foot Hillsboro Peak.  On the peak, we encountered a fire lookout tower, sheet-metal storage shed, restored log cabin, and porta-potty―all of them obviously Leopold’s “works of man,” which meant we were no longer in official “wilderness.”  There, we met “Fred,” the fire lookout.  Fred, who “turned seventy up here,” informed me that he worked at the lookout from May to August.  He had been working there for four years, and his mother had worked there for nine before him.  He grew up in my new home, Anthony, on land that was once a “desert ranch.”  When not in this national forest, he lived in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, thirty-five miles northeast of the peak.  “Come up again to see me,” he said as we parted.  “And bring some women.  They don’t have to be good-lookin’ anymore.”  

That evening, back at our campsite, a steady rain fell, although Buddy and I remained dry in the two-person tent.  The following morning, after we broke camp, packed, and were about to leave, I realized Buddy hadn’t unearthed a solitary Milk Bone fragment.  I guessed that meant he was counting on us to return.  We never did.

Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, ye winds eye-oh / Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, blow, blow

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Buddy

One day, shortly after Linda and I arrived in Anthony, a dog appeared at my side as I stood at our mailbox just down the road from our house.  He followed me home.  He was a cinnamon-colored shepherd-retriever mix who looked to be about a year old and weighing some forty-five pounds.  He had no collar and was not neutered. 

For several days he hung around our property and followed me to and from the mailbox.  I did nothing to encourage his interest in me.  I neither fed nor watered him, although daytime temperatures were in the 100s.  I didn’t so much as touch him.  Meanwhile, he introduced himself to Linda, who, against my unvoiced wishes, provided him with water. 

We soon concluded that he was just one more of the many stray dogs, a depressing number of which were dead on the shoulders of highways and roads, we had seen in Doña Ana County since our arrival.  Whatever, I was simply hoping my neglect of him would make him go away―dissolve back into the ditches, fields, and woods from which he emerged―and never return.  After all, my interests now were tending our new property, the reading of great books, and the writing of my surely soon-to-be underground bestsellers.  It did occur to me that Linda, whose family had raised, bred, and shown Scotties much of her life, might like an addition to our household, but half of that responsibility would be mine, and I had no interest in caring for and giving companionship to a dog.

But I never flat out said this to Linda, so on about day four, as Linda and I stood in our yard with the anonymous mutt once again sitting ever faithfully and calmly between us, she suggested we adopt him. 

I objected.

“Fine!” she said with a sting that suggested anything but.  Then she blindsided me with the following: “Then you take him to the shelter in Las Cruces.”

Me?  Take him?  To a shelter?  By myself?

My mind was suddenly a welter. 

First: Of course, you dope!  You want one less dead or dying dog by the side of a road?  That dead or dying dog that depresses you so much?  It’s simple: You take the stray to a damn shelter!

But then my mind stepped into some darkness: Okay. She’s playing me.  She knows that I know I’ll be the last to see this poor animal delivered to the concrete, chain-link, dankness, cacophony, and―let’s face it, given all the stray dogs around here―the high probability of the euthanizing table of a southern New Mexico animal shelter.  And that I’ll give in!

But only momentarily.    

Of course she doesn’t want to be a part of it―for the very reasons you just enumerated.  Now, do you?  You who love this fabulous new home in the desert, largely made possible by her.  You who loved that blue belton when you were a teenager.  You who now have half an acre of private property and miles of fields and desert.  You who recall that photo of Steinbeck at his typewriter―with a dog at his side. 

Do YOU?  Step outside yourself for just this once.  She would enjoy a dog.  You might, too.

“Let’s keep him,” I said.

Within minutes, he was seated beside me in the truck as we prepared to go to the IGA for several cans of dog food.

Linda beamed at the two of us.

“Let’s call him Buddy!” she said.

“Sure!” I answered with a grin.

Obviously unused to the luxury of motorized travel, Buddy vomited some water en route to the supermarket, but I didn’t care.  I’d almost forgotten how easily dogs let go of things that don’t agree with them.

Soon he was neutered and fully inoculated at an Anthony, New Mexico, clinic.  I cannot recall, but if micro-chipping was available back then, I’m sure he was checked for it and found lacking.  We never posted a “found dog” in any newspaper, and had no second thoughts about that.    

After mere days with him―exploring fields and ditches, watching freight trains in the desert, assessing sunsets from the portal―I was grateful for his company.  Buddy took my mind off things: books I had to read, words I had to produce, a property I had to maintain.  But when I did write, he was always at my side. 

He lived to the age of seventeen, knowing the Southwest as well as I ever did.  Linda and I are now on dog number six.

And the ones delivered from the road, they’re surely the special ones.

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Welcome to the Mesilla Valley

Our first week in Anthony―a week in which New Mexico’s newest country squire noted in his journal that “My wife is greatly entertained by my enthusiasm for our new surroundings.”―I unpacked, looked, listened, and explored.

Pleasantly absent was the urban roar that always filled my ears to one degree or another in Albuquerque.  Only vaguely, and then depending on the wind direction, could I hear the steady rumble of traffic on I-10, some two miles to the east of our house. 

In this relative quiet, I heard new sounds, particularly those of birds.  In the pre-dawn hours began the bubbly chirp of dozens of kingbirds in the green mansion of our cottonwood tree.  I met a new species of dove, plumper than the mourning dove of central New Mexico and possessed of a different call.  Instead of the mourning dove’s “coo-AHHH coo coo coo,” the white-winged dove inquired, from the power lines overlooking our property, “Who cooks for you?”[1]  I heard roosters crowing throughout the day.  And what I originally thought was an elderly lady yelling “Helllllp!” every dawn from a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the northeast, I would soon learn was a peacock. 

One day I went for the first time to the IGA Feria supermarket in Anthony, Texas.  There, for all I knew, I was in Mexico.  I estimated that 98% of its customers were Latino, and a combination of Mexican-American and Mexican. (There had to be Mexicans, legal and illegal, in both Anthonys, I concluded, given their economies and proximity to the border.) The only two customers I heard speaking English were . . . Asian.  The market’s produce section included something I’d never before seen: cactus leaves, sans spines.

Row after row of four-inch-high cotton awaited flood irrigation in the huge field that bordered our backyard. Indeed, I was fascinated by the four-mile-wide greenbelt that humanity, harnessing the Rio Grande, had created through what was once almost entirely desert; how the river, which ran a mile-and-three-quarters west of our house, spread, through a variety of irrigation systems―canals and ditches―to our part of town.  Everywhere there were ditches, some earthen, some concrete, three to four feet deep.  Some were bone dry. Beneath parched skies, water, swiftly moving and lustrous as polished chrome, filled others.  Some of the earthen ditches were falling into crumbling, eroded neglect.  Yet these primitive ditches, no doubt dating back scores of years, were still working.  Their antiquity was stirring, these Roman aqueducts in miniature.

In my pickup, after driving through the Texas towns of Anthony, Vinton, and Canutillo, I entered the city of El Paso for the second time in my life.  The twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, are separated by the Rio Grande and cupped between the Franklin Mountains of Texas and the Juárez Mountains of Chihuahua.  Thus, El Paso’s legendary name.

I entered El Paso via Paisano Drive, which, as it skirted the Rio Grande, initially took me through a community named Smeltertown, after an ASARCO copper smelting plant that may have still been in operation―I didn’t know.  In any event, it was a name that surely made industrialists swell with pride and environmentalists cringe.  To the south, meanwhile, rose Juárez, population one million, its many squat, drab buildings covering small hills seemingly bereft of trees.  I saw a man on the Juárez riverbank dipping a five-gallon bucket into the Rio―here simply a trashy, languid stream―in order to painstakingly rinse the dust from his little school bus nearby.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated Paisano Drive from the Rio Grande.  On the opposite side of the thoroughfare, another chain-link fence, this one crowned with razor wire, blocked access to the tracks―tempting, no doubt, to a hungering undocumented citizen of Mexico―of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s main line. 

Now began the swarm of United States Border Patrol vehicles variously crawling and scurrying everywhere.  When not in motion the vehicles were idling, their cabs comfortably air-conditioned, under metal lean-tos at the river’s edge.  This scene depressed me: Here were armed employees of the United States government darting about with, it seemed to me, the absurd purpose of arresting and deporting people who merely wanted to clean American motel rooms, hoe American onion fields, and pick and sort American chile peppers.  The simplistic view of a liberal new-arrival, perhaps. 

As a railroad fan, I naturally chose to check out El Paso’s downtown railroad station.  It was not fenced.  The station, which witnessed a periodic stream of rumbling freight trains during my visit, was a grand red-brick edifice that included a handsome bell tower.  After leaving the station―which, I was interested to learn, was visited by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited nearly every day of the week―I accompanied the tracks as they headed east, but quickly lost them as they commenced to tunnel through El Paso’s heart.  The tunnel was no doubt constructed to facilitate the city’s north/south flow of car and truck traffic; yet, to me, it was a reminder as well of the clamp―consisting of the rugged Franklin Mountains immediately to the north and the formidable political and psychic wall that is the border with Mexico just to the south―in which the El Paso finds itself. 

Although considerable stretches of El Paso exhibited signs of poverty and decay, compared to dusty, smoky Juárez, El Paso, with its typically American abundance of steel and glass, shone.  And, of course, its overwhelming Latino population made El Paso look and feel far more New Mexican than Texan.   

Up and down the Mesilla Valley, murals―grand, colorful, ambitious, and frequently honoring Mexican history―graced the walls of even the humblest businesses.  At Charlie’s, a little Mexican restaurant in Anthony, Texas, a six- by twenty-foot mural on the dining room wall featured a buff, golden, bare-chested man in a giant headdress―undoubtedly Moctezuma II―reclining on a verdant hillside on the outskirts of a many-templed city.  In his arms swooned a voluptuous woman―undoubtedly one of his wives, concubines, or queens―her full lips about the length of an enchilada from his.  Elsewhere in the mural a jinete, or horseman―the revolutionary Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata?―brandished a rifle.  There were iconic images of El Paso and Juárez, including the Santa Fe Street bridge linking the two cities, and the 40-foot-tall limestone statue of Christ atop Sierra de Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which borders west El Paso.  On the north wall of the room a smaller mural depicted a humbler scene: the open door of a casa, revealing a cigarillo-smoking hombre reading by lamplight, his hat and dog at his feet. 

Purely commercial art saluting the area’s history was typified by the sign for El Pollo Ranchero, a fast-food restaurant in west El Paso, which depicted a menacing chicken with narrow eyes and―never mind the gender incongruity―a Zapatista mustache.  Wearing a ten-gallon hat, the feisty bird was armed with two holstered six-guns, and both wings were ready to draw.  One law-and-order pollo, all right―about to be plucked, chopped, grilled, and served up hot and spicy in a tortillaDelicioso! 

Meanwhile, in a different cultural vein, a large billboard along I-10, just south of the Anthony exit, advertised an El Paso “gentlemen’s club”―that is, a titty bar―that invited its prospective customers―“gentlemen,” of course―to “FEEL THE POWER!”  No subtlety there. Machismo in full bloom.  This would take some getting used to.       


[1] Since then, the white-winged dove has expanded its territory northward and today is well-established in Albuquerque, if not beyond the city, as well.

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Little Anthony

After spending a night in a Las Cruces motel, we arrived, just ahead of the movers, at our new house in Anthony on a late-May morning.  The movers unloaded the van in light, intermittent showers.  As I directed the movers, inside and outside of the house, I sensed a difference in this new place we now called home: an added weight―of silence, stillness, and, given that Anthony was at an altitude of 3,800 feet, an additional 1,500 feet of room above.  I beheld the surrounding mountains―the Franklins, Potrillos,  Aden Hills: scattered, diminutive, worn, barren.  If the Rockies of Colorado and northern New Mexico were the waves, and the Sandias, Manzanos, and San Andreases of central New Mexico the breakers, then the mountains about Anthony were surely the foam, the spindrift.  Our previous neighborhood, on Albuquerque’s east mesa, not far from the Sandias, had wings.  Anthony had wings, too, albeit the wings of a roadrunner.  Anthony felt mainly afoot.

After the movers left, while Linda napped on a bare mattress amid stacks of boxes, our front doorbell rang.  When I opened the door, I encountered a Latino in his mid-fifties.  He had thick, curly salt-and-pepper hair.  His sparse beard was a week long.  His jeans and buttoned shirt were worn, his running shoes surviving on duct tape.  His scratched, mud-encrusted off-road bicycle leaned against a post of the portal.  His expression was blank, his dark eyes remote.  A sadness seemed to be just below his surface.  I realized where I now was, and thus everything about him seemed to murmur “Mexico.”   

Before I could say anything, he began talking calmly but rapidly in Spanish, oblivious to his words ricocheting off my obvious incomprehension.  As he went on, I summoned what little I recalled from my Spanish classes at UNM, repeatedly interjecting, “No hablo Español.” However, the man, now becoming agitated, continued talking in Spanish.  I concluded that he had spotted the new arrivals in the neighborhood and was looking for an odd job. “Work”! I wondered to myself.  What the hell is Spanish for “work”!  Yet I couldn’t recall.  Eventually, my visitor offered the upheld palm of his right hand, which I took as a request for a handout, and which struck me as an odd shift, given that I thought his original and perfectly honorable expressed desire was for some work in exchange for pay.  Somewhat affronted by this, yet maintaining my composure, I patted the obviously empty pockets of my shorts and, recalling an expression I first learned in Leadville, said firmly, “No dinero.”  With that, my visitor turned, mounted his bicycle, left our property, and headed south on Opitz Road, dissolving into this strange new world.  

The evening that followed was calm, its skies were clear.   As I swept a puddle of water from the patio off the kitchen door, I heard the distant voices, in Spanish, of our new neighbors in our section of Anthony.  Had our house’s previous―and original―occupants not been gringos, I would have felt far more alien here.  Now I relaxed in the desert stillness as I watched a full moon rise over the Franklin Mountains.