Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Look Homeward, You Restless Nostalgic Angel

As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast.  Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence.  Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun.  No, nowhere in New Jersey.  

Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next.  Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far.  A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week.  Crows and song sparrows.  Corn fields.  Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass.  A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud.  Stubbed and bloodied toes.  Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine.  Motorboats.  Water rainbowed with fuel.  Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms.  A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf.  Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish.  Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans.  Barred owls calling in the dead of night.  Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.

Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain.  Coats and ties.  Mandatory sports and chapel.  No girls.  Constant hunger.  Nicotine withdrawal.  Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master.  A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books.  The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow.  The shame of a remedial education.  And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.

I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston.  Age seventeen.  Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge.  Lolling on the banks of the Charles.  Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand.  The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform.  A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.

However, bad memories also haunted that land.  Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings.  I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.

Still, 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 fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I thought I could.

Now, could my wife?

.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley

Sorties Real and Imagined Beyond the Valley

My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains and deserts decreased during my years in the San Luis Valley.  The vivid and unimpeded views of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas from our property, 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 like to camp at the highest elevations, where one has breathtaking views and the thrill of a nearby lightning strike.  I had the heart, lungs, knees, and ankles required to climb to the nine-, ten-, and eleven-thousand-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico.  However, my body did not do so well when it came to climbing the predominant twelve- and thirteen-thousand-foot elevations of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, 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 found the energy to now and again gasp in the south San Juans of Colorado and the Sangre de Cristos that border the San Luis Valley and tower in northern New Mexico.  San Antonio Mountain, a free-standing monolith overlooking the Colorado-New Mexico border just south of Alamosa, had the effrontery to tear my medial meniscus, thus preventing me from reaching its 10,900-foot summit.  A fall on a steep bushwack in the Piñon Hills delivered a hairline fracture to my humerus.  And Buddy and I once drove six hours to my desert playground near Bluff, Utah, to stay for only one night, but a typically magical one. 

I had to do these things.  Along with the sexual act, they are the most primal, the most authentic experiences I can imagine.  Maurice Herzog, who along with Louis Lachenal was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captures 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.)

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 1

During my first spring in the valley, weary of the surrounding mountains―the weight of their prodigious snowfields and the way they seemed to crimp each day’s helping of daylight―I once again felt the lure of the Great Plains, the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT” on explorer Stephen Long’s 1821 map.  

So I got in my truck and drove east, entering the plains at Walsenburg, Colorado, where I continued in the same direction on empty, laser-straight Colorado Highway 10.  There, I passed barbed-wire fences bearing no-trespassing signs faded into near invisibility by incessant sunlight, scouring wind and dust, and utter human disinterest; empty pastures gone to yucca and cholla; and lonely mini-mesas, buttes, promontories, and nubbins; all in the wrap of sky and beneath the crush of space. 

Nothing else.  Not even Cary Grant in a dusty suit. 

At the Kopper Kitchen in La Junta, Colorado, I ate a “chiliburger,” a factory-stamped beef patty on a slice of Holsum Bread, all drowned in a “chili sauce” so bland I added ketchup to give it a kick, any kind of a kick.  A Southwestern travesty.  And in a town with a Spanish name!

Then I headed south into the Comanche National Grassland. After the Comanche nation, once the most fearsome on the North American continent.

There, with a fully-loaded backpack, prepared to camp for a night, I explored a strange geological shiver on that otherwise smooth land: the half-mile-wide canyon of the Purgatoire River and its various feeder canyons, all of them burrowing echoes of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Spanish Peaks to the west.  The Purgatoire, about 30 feet wide, moved at the pace of a Western box turtle on its journey to its confluence with the far larger Arkansas River east of Las Animas, Colorado. 

These worn canyons were not the colorful, sheer, deep defiles of southeast Utah.  They were generally twenty to thirty feet deep and consisted of two tiers of sandstone separated by a gentle dirt slope.  With a sound body one could climb out of them at nearly any point.  They were filled with grasses, sagebrush, cholla, the occasional cottonwood, and, along the riverbanks, willow and salt cedar.  They didn’t boom with space and vibrate with broken rock, as in Utah; they rather slumbered.

At various times of day, they filled with the music of the meadowlark, flicker, red-wing blackbird, and, far too infrequently, the signature bird of the canyon country: the delicate canyon wren, whose call is a series of plummeting notes―somehow appropriate for places with depth.  Meanwhile, above soared the red-tailed hawk and the first vultures of the season. 

In the appalling emptiness of the plains, the womblike shelter these canyons offered was particularly welcome.  I saw not a single foot traveler.  And who the hell backpacks on the Great Plains, anyway?  Trudging along beneath my load, I was a Four Corners, hump-backed Kokapelli gone astray, feeling as queer on this landscape as a blue spruce or bull elk.

The following morning, wishing to escape any sight of the Rocky Mountains, I continued southeast, past miles and miles of treeless pastures, barbed-wire fences, windmills, and dry creeks.  My next destination: the Cimarron River in the Cimarron National Grassland of southwestern Kansas. 

On the way, I paused on a windy afternoon to investigate an abandoned house near Kim, Colorado.  (Kim, Rush, Vona, Cope, Joes, Otis, Hale, Kirk, Roy, Pep, Dora, Eads: Why do high plains towns often have names as short as the native grass that carpets them?) 

From the road, the house was not hard to identify as abandoned: its dirt driveway was choked with weeds, and the vivid plains sky streamed through many of its curtainless windows, some without panes.  A raptor, nesting or merely hunting, alighted from somewhere in or on the single-story structure as I approached.  The house’s roof, nearly stripped of shingles, was a bristle of nails.  The roof that day notwithstanding, the obvious fitness of the sandstone-and-concrete-mortar structure might at one time have been the envy of Kimians.  With a warring mixture of curiosity and anxiety―Abandoned or occupied, what can be more private and personal than an American home?―I entered. 

The house included a sun room windowed with tall plexi-glass.  A large, vinyl-upholstered easy chair, now in considerable decay, was its only piece of furniture.  I wondered why this sumptuous chair was abandoned on this smooth, hard land where even a natural seat is difficult to come by.  Around the chair were scattered magazines―Farm Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens―from the early fifties and an October 1964 issue of Grit magazine. 

The kitchen’s wooden cabinets and shelving were rotten and caked with rodent turds.  The living room included a fireplace, although the obvious question was, where did one find an abundant supply of wood for it?  Meanwhile, the wind howled through holes in the roof.  Wary of prairie rattlers, I descended into the basement cautiously.  The basement had two rooms, each with a closet, the closet likely doubling as a tornado shelter.  How precious, amid the stare of all this space, must have been the privacy of a simple little bedroom constructed of flimsy walls in a simple little house on the plains. 

Back outside the house, as the flushed raptor circled directly overhead, I discovered what appeared to be a concrete cistern, bone dry.  There was a corral, and a stable with a cinderblock foundation.  Six trees, likely fruit of some kind and apparently dead, stood in a row.  A rusted, windowless Chevy Impala, minus wheels and bearing 1963 Colorado plates, perched on a great pedestal of dirt.  The surrounding yard was littered with cow manure: home, home on the range. 

I’ve entered abandoned houses in such Great Plains counties as Weld in Colorado and Harding and Union in New Mexico.  There are few things emptier, sadder.  Unlike their counterparts in cities, their missing windows―rendering them “sightless,” in the words of author Max Evans, who lived for years in Des Moines, New Mexico―and doors are rarely boarded up, probably because there’s no interest whatsoever in entering them.  So the surrounding space flushes and scours them outside and in. 

A major scourge of cities is homelessness.  For decades, places like Kim, Colorado; Mills, New Mexico; and Rolla, Kansas, have grappled with a different kind of tragedy: homes without people.  Peoplelessness.  Since the 1920s, due to consolidation and automation in the farming industry―and, yes, perhaps a lack of vision―population has been steadily decreasing in the rural areas of the Great Plains.  Human-caused climate change might be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe wind farming will reverse this trend.  Maybe, as has been proposed, vast tracts of the plains will be transformed into a federal nature preserve, a “buffalo commons” employing caretakers.  In any event, the peoplelessness allowed me to brazenly snoop around that property and, as my guts churned, imagine the whole human spectrum of hope, perseverance, disappointment, and ultimate failure.  The ruinous dwelling in Kim brought to mind Robert Duvall’s modern-day plainsman character in the motion picture Tender Mercies when he proclaimed: “You see, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did.  I never will.” 

Finally, I wondered where that cool Impala went on a Saturday night in Kim, Colorado, when JFK was president.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Messianic

When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to the 10,230-foot-high La Manga Pass area, 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 tiny towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. 

I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved snowshoeing. 

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 the 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 hated barriers that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and jeans and drawing blood in any other season. 

I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, scudded 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. 

I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers. 

Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a ten-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 recalled 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 Southwestern mountains are―far more so, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of my native Northeast―when it comes to delivering snow and rain to the arid lands.

Barry Lopez (1945-2020)

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Snow in the Valley

Snow arrived during our first October in Alamosa.  The manner of its unfolding in this valley that abhors precipitation would become typical.  It began with late-morning clouds descending upon the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Blanca Peak.  By afternoon, the clouds continued to build on the perimeter, extending south over the range beyond La Veta Pass.  Then winds entered the valley, ushering clouds that obscured the Piñon Hills to the south.  By four p.m., the entire valley was under a dome of cloud.  By six p.m., a wall of cloud connecting sky and earth advanced over the valley floor from the north.  By seven, dry, confetti-like flakes of snow began to fall at our house.    

Come morning, the skies clear, the air clean and biting, several inches of snow blanketed Alamosa County.  Buddy and Nick, born and raised in the hot desert, stepped upon it tentatively.  The squeak and growl of snow beneath my boots was the first I’d heard in years.  The crests and peaks of the Sangres, now more a province of sky than Earth, were cloaked in snow; forbidding enough in summer, now they were a no-man’s or -woman’s land. 

Yet, by noon, the air had warmed and the snow around our home had melted, surprising and saddening me, although the ground was still damp.  But I knew those mountains would remain snow-capped until the following summer, unfailing beacons, their glow fed by sun-, moon-, and even starlight.

My friend Wayne would tell me of the brutal winters he experienced in Alamosa as an Adams State College student, winters not only bitterly cold but deep with snow that lingered even in the generally arid heart of the Valley.  I believed him, although with some difficulty.  Snow rarely accumulated to any great extent during our years in Alamosa, and when it did, it disappeared rapidly in the teeth of the almost daily unobstructed sunshine. 

In any event, when it snowed at our house and in town, I reveled in it, grateful for every flake.  The dry valley cold that usually accompanied a snowfall insured that the flakes would be light and dancing, as apt to travel, with the right breath of wind, upward as downward―the “champagne powder” for which Colorado ski resorts are famous.  Normally not one for jostling sidewalk crowds―not even the “crowds” on the sidewalks of little Alamosa―I’d deliberately walk through the city’s downtown on a snowy afternoon, exchanging smiles with the other citizens who were obviously delighting in the rare magic.  Urban pedestrians―jostling, grasping, and grating under the best of circumstances―surely enjoy at least the initial stages of a snowfall, when everyone is wrapped in his and her personal envelope of falling snow, buffered against everyone else, nerves soothed.  Meanwhile, I knew the valley’s farms and ranchers cherished the moisture.   

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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June in the Desert

June in the desert. 

Albuquerque had accustomed me to temperatures in the hundreds, although not as early as the first week of June, as was the case in Anthony.  By two p.m., when the cottonwood leaves seemed to sparkle as they trembled in a slight breeze, when every point in space was afire, and when the songs and chattering of the swallows, doves, grackles, sparrows, finches, and kingbirds, so prevalent in the morning, were hushed, the mercury held at 106 in the shade, the aridity furiously wicking all moisture.  Then, it seemed only two wild birds continued to make their presence known.  The mockingbirds continued their deranged monologues; indeed, one regularly broadcast from our roof’s TV antenna, which must have been nearly as hot as a branding iron.  And the furtive Gambel’s quail periodically cried in the usual vague distance.

Throughout the day, Buddy, who’d yet to have indoor privileges although always access to shade and water, would follow me around our yard, and I’d study his reaction to the inferno.  At 105 degrees, I estimated he delivered 250 ppm’s, or pants-per-minute.  I determined his tongue extended an additional three-quarters of an inch for every ten degrees above a temperature of 80.  Yet, like the mockingbirds, he managed in the blaze, as did I. 

In fact, I reveled in it, challenged it to deplete me as I worked outdoors, emptying the little storage shed of useless items left by the previous owners; sectioning the trunk of a dead yucca for disposal; uprooting dead ocotillos; and treating our house’s vigas, customarily protruding a foot or two beyond the outside walls, with a mixture of mineral spirits and linseed oil, the parched wood absorbing the liquid as fast as I could pour it.  

At five p.m., quitting time, the temperature was 100, and the day’s cumulative heat covered me like freshly-spread asphalt.  Yet I was still alive, marveling at my body’s cooling systems, feeling cleansed, purged.  With the relatively low humidity (soon to be challenged by the flood irrigation of the surrounding fields and the advent of the summer monsoons), the crackling heat was tolerable.  Of course, my peace of mind was maintained as well by the knowledge that at any point in the day I could retreat to the inside of the house, where an evaporative cooler provided a constant and comfortable temperature of 78 degrees (although the increasing humidity would eventually challenge the cooler’s effectiveness).   

One morning, I engaged a man, an Anglo, who stood at the edge of the cotton field immediately behind our house.  He told me he farmed the field.  Playing dumb―that is, without mentioning the irrigation of our property that apparently regularly occurred with the previous owners of our house―I asked the man if, for compensation, he would be willing to channel some water onto our property when he irrigated his field.  To my surprise, he refused, explaining he needed every drop of his allotment and, further, fearing a lawsuit should his water damage the foundation of our house.  I wasn’t about to challenge the man’s reasoning regarding his need for water, and explaining to him that our house, on its slightly elevated foundation, would be safe from any flood irrigation now struck me as a waste of time.  So I merely smiled and bid the farmer adieu. 

In the days that followed, I had minimal concern about a lush lawn―this was the desert, after all.   Meanwhile, I had faith in the plentitude of the summer rains soon to come.  But then, on a hot afternoon two weeks later, Linda and I returned home from a weekend in Albuquerque to discover that a good deal of our property was flooded.  After splashing barefoot through a couple inches of the broth in our backyard, I came upon a 15-foot-long and one-foot-wide channel that had been dug between the cotton field and the little grassy ditch that marked our property’s edges―for the obvious purpose of quenching our various vegetation.  Where the water had entered our property, there was a fixed raft of hundreds of six-inch-long cotton stems―debris from the previous fall’s harvest.  Meanwhile, to facilitate the movement of floodwater onto our front lawn, someone had scraped a crude channel across our graveled driveway.  I was moved by this obvious, if mysterious, thoughtfulness.  Clearly, there was a second posture in addition to the farmer’s regarding irrigation water in our Anthony neighborhood, and the ditch rider―or perhaps common field worker―responsible for the consideration shown us was either ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the farmer’s position. 

In any case, the event fascinated me, as I thought it would: the wild, icy blood of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains was now warm and rank and covering our property at a standstill, a final resting place.  Within a day, our property had absorbed most of the water.  And in the days that followed, with a twenty-dollar bill at the ready, I took to regularly scanning the cotton field. Memory told me to be on the lookout for a Latino wearing knee-high rubber boots and a straw hat.  Yet I saw no one.

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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.