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Obvious Colorado

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

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

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


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

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First Bivouac with My Love – Part 4

Valley of the Fires State Park’s campgrounds overlooked the sea of rock.  After choosing a parking space serving a small campground of hard-packed earth, we strolled―as the wind blew harder than when we set out on Highway 380―to the pay station near the park’s entrance.  The park, now occupied by only a couple other visiting parties, was a small and modest affair with some 15 campgrounds and a cinder block structure containing flush toilets and sinks.  We walked by two faded, dusty trailer houses, one of which had a padlocked door, that appeared to serve as administration buildings.  In the window of the locked trailer there were posters bearing photos of missing children last seen in places far removed from Carrizozo, New Mexico.  Affixed to the outside wall of the trailer was a bulletin board.  Enveloped in clear plastic and tacked to the board was a newspaper photo of “Jumbo.”  Wording beneath the photo explained that Jumbo was a 214-ton steel “bottle” that was placed 800 yards from the Trinity explosion and survived the blast intact.  Tacked next to the story of Jumbo was a list of Carrizozo churches. 

At the unattended “pay station” (we’d yet to encounter any park personnel), we placed our cash in an envelope provided by the park and dropped the envelope through the slot of a steel cylinder that would likely have survived the Trinity explosion as well.  From a lidded wooden box, parched and splintered, beside the cylinder we took a pamphlet that explained the park.  The sea of rock was lava that originated from a now-dormant volcano not far north of 380; the lava field ran due south for 44 miles.  The pamphlet explained that the field was known in Spanish as a malpais, or badland.  Holding hands, we walked back to our campground, I several times securing against the wind my black and orange Gallup High School cap, purchased during my recent return from Utah.    

I hadn’t camped in any state park since the summer of 1964, when, as a member of a YMCA group of a dozen boys and two handsome, young, bearded honchos―looking back, I suspect they were among the original admirers of the murdered John F. Kennedy―I spent the night in southern Vermont’s Ascutney State Park.  This was in preparation for a canoe trip down the Connecticut River through Vermont and Massachusetts―seven days of sand in my (Sears) sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation.  (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in privacy upon a flush toilet, I sadly discovered―as I clutched in futility, merely for appearance, our expedition’s trenching shovel―that the body mechanics of eliminating in woods and fields did not come naturally to me, and my bowels froze in hopelessness.)

Gazing at the asphalt, worn trailers, several automobiles, state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills of the state park, a part of me longed for the solitude and wildness that I had recently enjoyed in southeast Utah.  Yet I suspected that Linda, given the choice, would have preferred the relative comforts of the state park.  Still, owing to its distance from a major city―Albuquerque, 100 miles; El Paso, 135 miles―and the fact that it was a weekday, there was an enjoyable tranquility to the place. 

And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the ocean of lava that stretched south to the empty horizons of the Tularosa Basin; the Oscura Mountains, just beyond which brooded the birthplace of the Nuclear Age, to the west; and the Sacramento Mountains, culminating in massive, forested Sierra Blanca, its array of commercial ski slopes still glowing with snow, to the east.

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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 2

In a chilly twilight, I exited the interstate in Gallup, New Mexico, and, as the Stones’s rendition of the Bobby Troup song played in my head, motored down the city’s stretch of the former Route 66, which seemed as long as the western New Mexico horizon was wide. In what I presumed was the city’s center, the traffic on the five-lane blacktop was considerable, yet its businesses, primarily Indian merchandise stores and pawn shops on the south side of the thoroughfare, were all closed, with many storefronts obscured behind drawn scissor gates. Immediately on the north side of 66, the Santa Fe Railroad, heretofore consisting of merely two tracks, now appeared to swell to ten, with many of the tracks loaded with long, dark strings of freight cars. Except for one string crawling westward, all were at rest.

Just a handful of pedestrians appeared on this stretch of 66. A small group of men, each lean, broad-shouldered, and bearing a waterfall of raven hair―Navajos likely―wandered through some brush beyond a chain-link fence that partially cordoned off an Amtrak railroad station. A woman in a tee-shirt emblazoned with “GEORGE STRAIT” staggered east down the south sidewalk, her forward progress only slightly more than her lateral.

By now, I knew―from conversations with long-time New Mexicans, stories in Albuquerque newspapers, and Abbey’s musings in Desert Solitaire―of Gallup’s history of rampant alcoholism among its visitors from the vast Navajo reservation immediately to the north. On this Friday evening, I tried to imagine the bars of Gallup. Were they joyous places? Was that “cowboy,” George Strait, crooning on their jukeboxes, the Indian wars now obviously over, differences now reconciled, all forgiven, and “let’s drink to that”? Surely some of the bars were profoundly grim venues where sipping and light repartee was dispensed with because the object was to get hammered as quickly and cheaply as possible. In any event, I imagined them beginning to fill up. Fifteen years earlier, had I been in Gallup, perhaps on route to Tucson or Phoenix to visit friends or relatives, I would very likely have entered one or more of them, slumming, getting buzzed, as I occasionally did on Denver’s skid row. Now I was grateful to be free of that scene, as well as the regular patronizing of bars of any repute.

Yet, in my imagination, there was still a stubborn, attractive romanticism to all of it. For there was a time when bars offered me laughter, music, male companionship, female companionship, and one fight (which I lost). For years, I thought such authors as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, sodden alcoholics both, understood and harnessed such romanticism to their benefit (Bukowski maintaining wine was his best accompaniment to writing). I thought Malcolm Lowry, English chronicler of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and arguably literature’s most ruinous drunk, did as well; indeed, of him, film critic Pauline Kael seductively wrote: “[H]e somehow got himself to believe that alcoholic self-destruction would give him access to the states of mind necessary to set words on fire.” I didn’t seek self-destruction in alcohol, but I often found comfort.

Today, I acknowledge the enormous complexity of alcoholism, including and especially Native American alcoholism; that Friday evening, I simply felt smug that I had managed to avoid the predation of places like Gallup, although I was still fascinated by the city’s tragic nature. Even Bob Dylan, although no alkie, fell prey to Gallup’s romance, once, when he was 20, falsely telling an interviewer that he was “raised” in the city.

I continued through Gallup, past its cold, dark brick and sandstone buildings, without stopping. The last thing I noticed, while negotiating a bridge over the Santa Fe tracks, were two pairs of rails leading westward. Above their grime, the crowns of the rails, cleaned and polished by the wheels of millions of freight cars, held an eerie glow that seemed to defy the diminishing twilight: silver ribbons afloat on a black sea of desert that spread to eastern Arizona.

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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 1

After moving to Albuquerque, I was hungry to explore the Southwestern lands well beyond the cities and towns. My first exploration was to the Four Corners region, the Colorado Plateau country northwest of the city. Ten months prior to my arrival in Albuquerque, I finally visited the Moab, Utah, area, regarded by many as one of the prime destinations of the plateau country and the locus of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I would visit Moab two more times before moving to New Mexico. Like Abbey, I was fascinated by this arid “red wasteland” of relentless rock monoliths―like ruins of ancient, fabulous civilizations―and yawning canyons. On all three occasions, accompanied once by family and twice by friends, I had approached it from west-central Colorado; now I aimed to enter it alone from northwestern New Mexico.

On a Friday afternoon in March, directly from work, I headed west on I-40. In Little Red’s rear was stowed my camping gear: a circa 1976 Kelty backpack, Sears sleeping bag, foam rubber pad, plastic ground cover, Svea stove, surplus-store mess kit, plastic cup, can-opener, a can of baked beans, dried apricots, instant coffee, sugar, creamer, water, and my worn paperback edition of Desert Solitaire. I had no idea where I would lay my head that night. Fifteen years earlier this prospect would have frightened me; now, I reveled in its limitless possibilities. After all, I was now a cocky New Mexican, a Southwesterner, a friend of foresters, loggers, and sawyers, and no one could tell me I was a stranger here.

On I-40, I was among the steady stream of westbound autos and eighteen-wheelers. Meanwhile, I glanced at the frequent freight trains on the Santa Fe Railroad main line intermittently visible from the highway. I passed the Indian pueblo of Laguna, a small, pale apparition on a hill overlooking the highway. I crossed the Continental Divide, a mere swelling on the land, a trifling imitation of its soaring, rugged, snowbound stretch in much of Colorado. At Prewitt, New Mexico, an array of towering sandstone headlands, rosy in the setting sun, began to appear just north of the interstate. According to my map, I was now about to skirt the southern edge of the Navajo reservation. Soon I passed an exit to a place with the odd name of Rehoboth.

Out of curiosity, I switched on the Lynx’s AM radio and began turning the tuning dial from far left to right. Almost immediately, at about mid-60s kilohertz, I came upon an old favorite: Johnny Horton singing “Whispering Pines,” so I stayed there. At the completion of the recording, a voice, presumably that of a station announcer, came on. The Chinese I’d overheard as a busboy at Denver’s Lotus Room years earlier was odd enough. The language of the announcer sounded like Chinese sliced and diced, then recorded and played backwards. Occasionally, however, some English would bubble up through the bizarre linguistic goulash: a numeral, “auto parts,” “Chevy pickups,” “Baptist,” “Four Corners,” “booster cables.” After George Jones sang “Walk Through This World with Me,” the announcer returned with the strange lingo, but this helping included the utterance “66 KTNN, voice of the Navajo nation.”

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First Exploration Beyond Albuquerque – Part 1

My curiosity was not limited to Albuquerque during that first week.  I was eager to explore the undeveloped lands beyond the city’s limits.  Of all American cities, including Southwestern cities, Albuquerque is surely unique in that it is surrounded by four distinctly different landscapes: forested mountains to the north, shortgrass prairie to the east, classic desert to the south, and arid plateau country to the west.  Finally, of course, it is sliced by a fifth: the riparian area of the Rio Grande. 

Of these, it was the plateau country that I initially explored.  That grand, empty stage that loomed at the western edge of the city constitutes the extreme southeastern region of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among the United States of America, meet.  It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also contains scattered mountain ranges, many of them forested.  I wasn’t a complete stranger to it.  In the year prior to my move to New Mexico, I twice visited southeast Utah, where the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, carved primarily by the Colorado and San Juan rivers, are given fullest expression. 

To gain the plateau country as quickly as possible, I headed west in Little Red on I-40.  After crossing the Rio Grande, I climbed steeply for some seven miles to the rim of my stage.  Beyond the rim and its fretwork of several small businesses, there exploded a grassy and nearly treeless upland beneath a vast sky.  A mountain range, barely forested and certainly diminutive by Colorado standards, loomed above the horizon to the southwest; visible, as well, from many parts of Albuquerque, I would later know it as the Sierra Ladrones.  A gradual climb of several more miles led me to a crest and then a view that rivalled the one my father and I had witnessed on our trip to Taos: a massive basin, also predominantly treeless and uninhabited.  The distant western horizon was a nearly a solid string of mesas, those queer flat-topped formations.  To the northwest rose a forested mountain, a snow-covered flank of which shone in the morning sunlight; I would soon identify it as Mt. Taylor, one of the four “sacred mountains” of the Navajos and Pueblos.  The basin contained a lone, barren hill; its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─I later calculated, was roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey; yet it was merely one more marble in the huge satchel that was this basin. 

While plummeting to the basin’s depths, I passed some acreage that was eroded, strewn with trash and old automobile tires, and almost completely stripped of vegetation.  A half-dozen cattle wandered upon it, effortlessly raising puffs of dust.  Yet, I was barely troubled by the obvious connection between this appalling devastation and the presence of the livestock, still of the opinion that a dusty, shit-smeared cow was as natural and welcome a presence on the Southwestern landscape as the coyote, black bear, mule deer, cougar, and nuthatch; this attitude would change.  At the bottom of the basin, sunk in a shallow, dirt-walled, tree-and-brush-choked canyon, a mere scratch in the land, there ran a slender watercourse, although now one just occasionally puddled.  Two concrete bridges delivered nearly all of the interstate traffic across this grim bottomland and silent riverbed.  A third conveyance, a steel truss bridge obviously from a much earlier era, barely two lanes wide and rusting, was part of a frontage road that served a convenience store and gas station just east of the canyon.  An exit sign identified this forlorn outpost, and, presumably, the watercourse accompanying it, as Rio Puerco.  To me, the feebleness of this “river” didn’t at all the square with the hugeness of the basin that stretched to the northern and southern horizons, but then I was still unappreciative of that river known as time.  From the basin the interstate climbed and dipped a couple more times before delivering me to yet another plateau.  Upon it another queer landform appeared: a massive ramp of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like a piece of warped linoleum. 

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Old Albuquerque

West of downtown stands Old Town, Albuquerque’s original commercial and residential area.  It consists of houses―many, not surprisingly, pueblo-revival style; perhaps even some of authentic adobe brick─that border a plaza that includes a handsome gazebo, shops and restaurants catering largely to tourists, and an ancient Catholic church with an attached former convent.  In February, under portals on the east side of the plaza, bundled-up Indians from the nearby pueblos sit with infinite patience on folding chairs or directly on the concrete and flagstones as they display their exquisite jewelry for sale. 

North of Old Town, in a place known as the Sawmill District, stood the headquarters of the lumber company where I was to work.  While the company harvested timber from, and had a number of mills in, rural New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and even Mississippi, I liked the fact that its Albuquerque headquarters also had a mill for processing logs trucked in from northern New Mexico.  Thus, a sweet piney fragrance, a scent of the wilderness in the depths of the city, wafted over the company’s twenty-five-acre property.   

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Downtown Albuquerque

A little farther west stands downtown Albuquerque.  The city’s commercial and municipal core for most of its history, it covered at the time about sixty square blocks and was thus considerably smaller than Denver’s.  Downtown’s tallest building was a mere eighteen floors.  Located downtown were banks, hotels, small restaurants, Indian jewelry and pottery stores, a Woolworth’s, parking garages, shoeshine parlors, barber shops, a post office, a jail, bail bonds businesses, city and county administration buildings, the Kimo Theater with its colorful Pueblo Deco façade, and the grim façade of the decaying El Rey Theater, which hosted rock concerts. 

Along with the public library, my favorite downtown attraction was the Santa Fe Railroad line, which delineated downtown’s eastern boundary.  It was a predominantly single-track line that deviated twenty-five miles southwest of the city from a main line of the Santa Fe and ran to northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado.  The occasional freight train and the twice-daily Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train that ran through the heart of Albuquerque thrilled me, a train watcher since childhood.  (Every major inner city should have at least one grade crossing requiring anxious and neurotic motorists to pause and contemplate a slow-moving train bearing soothing messages from the remote.)  Squatting beside and slightly below two long and empty platforms, a small, decrepit downtown railroad station served the Amtrak passengers.  Albuquerque remains a refueling point for the Southwest Chief, whose route, like Route 66’s, runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, so each shining, elegant passenger train pauses at the station for thirty to forty delicious minutes before issuing a single blast of its whistle, announcing departure, that echoes off of downtown’s taller structures. 

After the glass, steel, and fast pace of boom-and-bust Denver, I liked, both as a motorist and pedestrian, downtown Albuquerque’s smaller size, slower pace, intimate feel, and antiquatedness.  Downtown had its slice or two of luxury, but the sight of a stretch limo escorted by a pair of galumphing tumbleweeds as it pulled into the entrance of the handsome La Posada Hotel on a windy February night was yet another reminder that this is a roughhewn city on the edge of a wilderness.       

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Getting My Kicks: Part 2

West of San Mateo Boulevard, as Central Avenue neared the University of New Mexico campus, many businesses on and near the avenue had a smarter and more prosperous look.  Fancier restaurants appeared, as did the businesses─head, clothing, record, video, and copying shops; a sprawling twenty-four-hour eatery; three small art movie houses; two independent bookstores─that catered to the needs, wants, and trivialities of college youth flush with allowances.  The campus along Central included an informal athletic field and grassy commons from which grew stately fir and deciduous trees that filled with a remarkable quantity of crows at dusk, and handsome and imposing buildings, including beautifully maintained pueblo-revival structures.  Here on the sidewalks of Central, amid the hurrying students─men and women of all races and ethnicities burdened with textbooks, radiant with youth and idealism─there often shuffled, staggered, or squatted a mentally ill, alcoholic, or homeless person: the wretched and needy of Albuquerque knew where the tolerant, tender-hearted, and generous could be found. 

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Fast Forward

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

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Dad Meets Mabeltown

On another occasion, I drove down to Albuquerque to meet my father, who had flown into the city from New Hampshire, where he had retired, a widower now for nearly three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army draftee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across southern New Mexico.  After Linda―whom my father had previously met in Denver―and I welcomed him at the Albuquerque airport, my father and I headed in my car to Taos, where we would spend the night and ski the following day.  I was my understanding Dad had never been to the romantic northern New Mexico town.

On the ride north, my father, in the passenger seat, said little.  Understandable: he had always been a man of careful words; plus, his left ear had been failing him for some time and he thus had difficulty conversing even in a car.  Nonetheless, I could see his great interest, in his wide eyes and the continual swivel of his head, as we drove through ancient Santa Fe, shared the street with low riders in the pastoral town of Española, and hugged the Rio Grande, now January somber, in the winding cañon between Velarde and Pilar.  Yes, I thought proudly, Dad is as fascinated by New Mexico as I am

When we finally climbed out of the cañon, we both took a deep breath, treated as we were to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: in one direction, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; and, in a slightly different direction, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, nestled in the embrace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Then we passed through the woodsy hamlet of Ranchos de Taos, where a sign indicated the iconic St. Francis Church, which had been attracting painters and photographers from all over the world for years. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon us.  I so wanted my father to fall under New Mexico’s spell.  But when we entered the south end of Taos, and the highway ballooned into four hectic lanes on either side of which was, amid the litter, a dreary succession of hotels and fast-food joints, my father dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”

“Shitty town.”  Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks, albeit in a cruder manner, of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after the aforementioned Mabel Dodge Luhan.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” the ever-forthright Lawrence once observed, “has a terrible will-to-power.”)

A bit stunned, I said nothing and drove on.  Meanwhile, more amused than resentful, I thought: Well, perhaps it is “shitty”―when you live in a New England retirement community of handsome condominiums, manicured lawns, book and bridge clubs, a community garden, weekly trash collection and recycling, and cable TV, all located in a white-steepled Norman Rockwell village with a 150-year-old college, a lake with private beaches, a “Little Theater,” and a tavern serving crab cakes and shepherd’s pie.

My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the pueblo architecture, the famous plaza with its majestic cottonwoods, and, especially, the Native Americans from the nearby pueblo and the town’s comely Latinas.  After two martinis and a dinner of pan-seared trout at Doc Martin’s restaurant, and the promise of a night in a sumptuous bed surrounded by R.C. Gorman prints and traditional Hispanic woodworking at the Kachina Lodge, the Taos mystique had just about captured my father. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, he struggled for air in a heavy snowfall and called it a day after several runs due to poor visibility and a dearth of oxygen.  Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the wind, snows, and vertiginous slopes of the southern Rockies.  On the drive back to Albuquerque, in the cañon of the Rio once again, he reiterated, in his own straightforward and quiet way, his high regard for Linda: “She’s a good catch.”