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First Day in 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 is at an altitude of 3,800 feet, an additional 1,500 feet of space above. 

I beheld the surrounding mountains―the Franklins, Potrillos, Aden Hills: scattered, diminutive, barren, and worn.  If the Rockies of Colorado and northern New Mexico are the waves, and the Sandias and Manzanos of central New Mexico the breakers, then the mountains about Anthony are 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-50’s.  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, becoming increasingly 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.  What the hell is Spanish for “work”?  I wanted to politely inform him, “No work.”  Yet I couldn’t recall the Spanish.  Eventually, my visitor presented 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 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, with no fanfare, 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 there.  Now I relaxed in the desert stillness as I watched a full moon rise over the Franklin Mountains.  

 

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Farm Livin’ is the Life for We

In 1997, after nearly a decade in Albuquerque, Linda and I put our house of five years on the market.  Linda accepted a job as medical director of a newly-created, small, state-funded HIV/AIDS clinic in the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces.  I hoped to find work in the Las Cruces/El Paso, Texas, area teaching. 

This move marked the beginning of our rather nomadic―not to mention quixotic―life together, made possible primarily by the facts that we lived modestly and had chosen early in our marriage to be child-free.  We were a restless couple: Linda restless and adventurous in her career, I restless to experience new landscapes.

Linda was barely familiar with southern New Mexico.  As I have recounted, she visited Carrizozo in the chill of the spring and the White Mountains in the high-elevation cool of the summer, on both occasions just briefly.  I was only slightly better acquainted with the region as a result of several backpacks, my thesis-related explorations, and attendance at a writers conference in Las Cruces.  We certainly knew, from the newspaper and television, that summer in the New Mexico desert, Las Cruces’s location, begins in May and ends in October, with daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for weeks on end.  In any event, we felt we were prepared for the climate and the relentlessly barren landscape.

With a real estate agent, we looked at a number of houses in Las Cruces. 

Then we checked out a dwelling north of Las Cruces that stood beside the Rio Grande in the town of Radium Springs.  Despite the allure of the famous river, we rejected the house: we imagined its property keening with clouds of mosquitoes in the summer, and Linda disliked the grimness of the town’s name. 

Next, the agent drove us in the opposite direction to little unincorporated Anthony, New Mexico, 20 miles south of Las Cruces and bordering the incorporated town of Anthony, Texas.

We weren’t prepared for what I call “the Anthonys.”  Linda was certainly unfamiliar with them, and Anthony, Texas, was merely a forgettable exit sign on I-10 when I briefly investigated El Paso, Texas, 20 miles south of the Anthonys, during the writers conference.  The twin communities are located in the Mesilla Valley, which runs roughly from Radium Springs south to far west Texas as it cradles the Rio Grande.  To the east and west, they are bordered by the Chihuahuan Desert.  Their heart, however, is rich agricultural land―fields of cotton, alfalfa, onions, chile, and corn, groves of pecan and peach trees, all irrigated by the river.  To me, the Anthonys were like the bosque of Albuquerque, albeit the bosque on a lavish scale.  I was immediately charmed by them: their storied river; agriculture; aging houses and warehouses; north-south, single-track, and active railroad line; and canals and ditches―a fascinating, if considerably impoverished, oasis in an unforgiving desert.

Then there was the Anthony, New Mexico, house for sale.  The single-story structure stood by a quiet rural road that served a scattering of houses amid a landscape dominated by farming.  This was yet another New Mexico house in the pueblo-revival style.  However, this pueblo-revival was close to authentic.  Its exterior walls were of actual adobe brick, albeit brick coated with stucco for added protection against the elements.  Pine vigas supported its ceiling and roof.  A little portalof pine posts, wood planks, and tar paper shaded the house’s west entrance.  Cool, rosy saltillo tile comprised the floors of much of the house.  In the sunken living room, a fireplace―an odd feature, I thought, given the resounding desert outside―was blackened by the smoke of pecan logs, pecan being the most readily available firewood in the area.  I particularly liked the diminutive and somewhat isolate rear room whose window looked out upon the Franklin Mountains to the east: an ideal nook for reading and writing.  The agent stressed that the house was kept perfectly comfortable during the long, hot summer by evaporative cooling.

Slender Lombardy poplars lined two sides of the half-acre property.  A large cottonwood tree commanded the front yard.  Deep, tall, and dense stands of various cacti furiously guarded a number of the house’s windows.  Tough, pale, and mostly matted Bermuda grass carpeted the yard.  

Bordering nearly the entire property was a subtle grass-lined ditch, a landscaping phenomenon Linda and I had never before seen.  The agent explained that a level, donut-like depression surrounded the house; the ditch received flood-irrigation water from the agricultural field that abutted the rear of the property; and, when the water overflowed or was channeled from the ditch, it flooded the donut and thus irrigated the property’s grass, trees, cacti, and shrubs while keeping the house’s foundation perfectly dry. 

With a sly smile, the agent concluded this explanation by informing us that the property could be quenched by occasionally offering the “ditch rider,” the man who managed the irrigation for the adjoining field, “five or ten dollars” on a periodic basis during the―this being the desert―lengthy growing season.  With a few hefts of a shovel, the ditch rider would breach an earthen berm that separated the field from our ditch, the liquid gold would flow toward the house, and the house’s vegetation would flourish: for Linda and me, accustomed to hoses and sprinklers, a whole new concept in maintaining a lawn and garden. 

Then, my imagination kicked in.  Forget the artesian wells that supplied my native New Jersey town.  I couldn’t avoid being tingled by the fact that water that had traveled some 600 miles―witnessing 13,000-foot-high snowfields; a historic Colorado mining town; a canyon of appalling depth; orchards of apples, pears, cherries, plums, and apricots; traffic to a factory manufacturing weapons that could spell the end of humanity; dusty Indian pueblos many hundreds of years old; forests of cottonwood, Russian olive, elm, willow, tamarisk; baking desert sands; numerous dams of various sizes and compositions; fields of chile; and anglers fishing for brown trout, bass, and carp―would come to a final rest beneath a delicate raft of newly-cut Bermuda grass at my doorstep.  

Semi-rural living: Linda and I, who had lived in cities and suburbs nearly all of our lives, were smitten with the idea after seeing the Anthony property.  I wish I could claim that the sentiments of such respected figures as Thomas Jefferson, who championed the “yeoman farmer” and extolled country living; Thoreau, who, after surviving the savagery of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, expressed his preference for “partially cultivated country”; and René Dubos, the microbiologist who maintained that “the charm of the countryside has resulted from the ancient management of nature for agricultural purposes” echoed in my mind as I imagined a life in little Anthony, New Mexico. 

In truth, however, it was the opening segment of the vapid 1960’s sitcom Green Acres, about a wealthy and sophisticated Manhattan couple, portrayed by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, who move to the country.  The segment included a comical theme song, with its lofty appeals to “farm livin’,” “land spreadin’ out so far and wide,” “chores,” and “fresh air,” and visuals of Albert, still absurdly dressed in his iron business suit, proudly driving a tractor and ineptly pitching hay.  Yes, as surely as Oliver Wendell Douglas, the Albert character, commandeered that tractor, I hoped I would soon be operating the weathered MTD riding mower parked by the worn little shed in the northeast corner of the Anthony property, the mower, we were told, being included with the sale of the property.

Indeed, I would: In the early spring of 1997, our offer on the Anthony house was accepted, our house in Albuquerque sold, and we made plans to move to southern New Mexico that May.

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“Santa Fe is Always Santa Fe”

Immediately after graduation, I sought work as an English instructor.  I applied at many institutions in central and northern New Mexico: colleges, community colleges, vocational-technical colleges.  I was eventually hired as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College.  It was a one-hour drive to the college from Albuquerque, but I didn’t mind the twice-a-week commute: every highway in New Mexico offered a delight to the eye. 

Prior to teaching at the college, I had always enjoyed the occasional visit to Santa Fe, that small city at the foot of the darkly-cloaked southern Rockies.  I was stirred by the city’s antiquity: at some 400 years, the oldest city in the United States.   In the winter and spring, the city perches on a dais of golden earth beneath a parfait of blue sky, white peak, and blue-green forest. 

On one side of the city’s famous plaza, sitting beneath the portal of the ancient Palace of the Governors, the mysterious, timeless Indians from the nearby pueblos fascinated me as they offered their handcrafted jewelry and pottery for sale.  On the opposite side, Woolworth’s peddled its foodincluding the sodium bomb known as the “Frito pie”―soft drinks, personal hygiene products, office supplies, decorations, and gewgaws.  Elsewhere on the plaza, upscale women’s clothing stores offered long, billowy dresses and multi-colored, elaborately stitched cowgirl boots. 

Just off the plaza was the historic La Fonda Hotel with its massive honey-hued vigas (once used, we were told, to hang miscreants), fine artwork, dapper concierge, decent Mexican fare, a gift shop with novels by regional writers alive and dead, and cozy passageways to the guests’ rooms.  In the words of Frank Waters: “always . . . the end of the Santa Fe Trail for Anglo visitors.”

I liked the fact that Santa Fe’s lawmakers mandated that the colors of the city’s structures fall within a narrow range of earth tones.  I regarded this as a respectful nod to the region’s original inhabitants and the adobe structures in which they once, and perhaps still, dwelled, and an unspoken acknowledgement of the primacy of the earth beneath the city itself.  The city also permitted another style that dated from the mid-19th century: Spanish territorial revival.

At the time of my arrival in New Mexico, long-time Santa Feans, especially those of modest means, were complaining of being taxed out of their homes by―surprise!―an invasion of wealthy Californians, queen among them actress and New Age guru Shirley MacLaine.  However, I was frankly too fascinated by The City Different to give this much attention.

The community college, at the time pleasantly aloof on the southern edge of Santa Fe, was but a dozen years old when I began teaching there.  Its campus had awesome views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and east, the Ortiz and Sandia Mountains to the south, and the Jemez Mountains to the west.  There was still a dewy freshness to the campus’s attractive classrooms and offices.  

As at UNM, the class text was a collection of non-fiction essays that delineated the various rhetorical approaches to composition; the students were required to write some six essays throughout the semester; and the final exam was graded anonymously on a pass/fail basis by a team of instructors.  Unlike the university, however, the classes had more “non-traditional” students―working people 30 and older―and, this being northern New Mexico, a greater percentage of Latinos. 

As at UNM, my first assignment was a brief writing sample.  Upon reading my students’ efforts, I knew I would be facing greater challenges than those at the university.  Until my hiring in Santa Fe, I was unfamiliar with the concept of a “community” college.  I now understood that this institution was popular not only for its affordability, but also, as I and my fellow instructors delicately put it, its “lower entrance bar.”  I was certain many of my students had C’s and D’s on their high school transcripts.  Just as I once had.  I was certain, as well, that a number of my students faced challenges with English because they grew up in homes in which Spanish is the primary language, Spaniards having been rooted in Santa Fe’s soil since the early 17th century.  Indeed, the hallways, walkways, and parking lots of the college were rife with spoken Spanish.  However, whether a student was pursuing an education in a trade such as woodworking, plumbing, electricity, or automotive technology, or using the college as an economical stepping stone to a science or humanities degree from a four-year college or university, the primary obstacle was not language, but motivation.   

Teaching was often mentally and physically tiring.  However, I found rejuvenation, camaraderie, and laughs among my fellow adjunct instructors of all subjects as we gathered before and after classes in a large common area.  I shared my love of pasta and The Godfather motion pictures with an instructor of Italian; argued good-naturedly with an oddball veteran English instructor who maintained Across the River and Into the Treesa critical flopwas Hemingway’s finest novel; and playfully badgered a physics professor for a detailed explanation as to why and how the universe is infinite. 

Meanwhile, I discreetly took pleasure in the periodic entrada of a mid-50’s, very dark-complected Latina instructor.  Regal, mysterious, frequently dressed all in black―including a tight, mid-calf-length skirt―she’d strut in ankle boots into the common area, looking at and speaking to no one, and prepare for class―Spanish, I was told.  She reminded me of the Jo Van Fleet character, a proud and powerful madam, approaching her house of ill-repute in the motion picture East of Eden.  A Mexican matriarch out of an unwritten Frank Waters novel.  In my imagination, to provide this fascinating woman’s entrance the grand soundtrack it deserved, I drew from my tiny pool of classical music knowledge and chose―naturally, because it was pure Spain―the “Habenera” of Bizet’s Carmen.  I never spoke to her.

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Thank You, University of New Mexico


I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years.  The final draft of my master’s thesis, printed on my dot matrix device, numbered some 29,000 words.  I successfully discussed―as opposed to “defended,” which smacks of an adversarial relationship that did not exist―my manuscript with my thesis advisors.  Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with nearly identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none.  I completed my requirements for my degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor. 

I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery. 

Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school―a navigator of a World War II airborne “bomb group” and Yale graduate.  Delicately accusing me of plagiarism, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor.  But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken.  I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way granted me not only literary worth but a sprig of manhood.  (I subsequently withdrew the story for consideration.  Anonymity was perhaps my main defense against a boarding school I disliked, and I suddenly realized my story would have revealed too much of me; besides, Tom Chaffee’s impression was far more important to me than an appearance in a prep school literary magazine.)

But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to these two people, and a few others.  Too much alcohol, marijuana, intellectual laziness, distraction, and loneliness existed between them and my matriculation at UNM.  No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis.  I’m grateful to every one of my professors at the place, particularly John Nichols.  That said, my readings of greater and lesser authors; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.


Throughout my time at UNM, forever the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony.  Linda, however, had given it plenty.  She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel.  No surprise.  She was, after all, proud of me.  And she did support us throughout my education.  So, of course, I agreed. 

It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated.  At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored.  A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment.  Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap.  I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.

Strangely, my father opted not to fly out to New Mexico to witness the event, choosing, instead, to go fishing in Maine.

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I See by My Outfit, Part 2

I immediately took to Bobby and his wife, Peggy, who, draped in a gentle weariness, also appeared to be in or near her ninth decade.  They were a quiet couple; the long pauses in their speech echoed the vast spaces on the land that surrounded them.  

Before taking me on a tour of his ranch and a special place of his beyond the flatlands, Bobby―shorter and pudgier than I expected a cattleman to be―escorted me into a wooden shed not far from his house.  While he proudly demonstrated his rusted “walkin’ wheat drill,” a single-wheeled, manual device for seed implantation, I couldn’t help but draw attention to what sounded to me like the hum of a large electrical transformer directly beneath the floor upon which we stood.  Bobby, apparently oblivious to the sound until then, explained that I was hearing a mess of rattlesnakes aroused by our presence directly above, and my city blood began to curdle.  As we moved about the shed, the hum beneath seemed to follow our footsteps like a puddle spreading or iron filings rising to my magnet.  Bobby then told me about the rattlesnake bite his dog once sustained on the nose, how the dog’s face gruesomely ballooned before he managed to recover.  I had read that the venom of the prairie rattlesnake was particularly nasty, so I was now grateful for the thickness and solidity of the shed’s wood floor. 

We then got into Bobby’s pickup and drove to a nearby pasture, where some 20 bawling Hereford cattle converged upon us.  Bobby kindly asked me to step out and remove a salt block, for the animals’ nourishment, from the truck bed and toss it anywhere.  I did so readily, happy to assist and, for a few seconds, feeling like a real ranch hand.  Bobby then explained how lightning strikes occasionally claimed the lives of his cattle, and I was glad we were well out of New Mexico’s monsoon season. 

The longer I lived in New Mexico, the more I’d become infuriated when encountering cattle and their evidence on the public-land deserts of the Southwest: their fresh, abundant manure stinking and smothering; their hooves disturbing delicate soils; their urine fouling what meager natural water sources existed on the landscape; their thorough destruction of areas surrounding the occasional shade tree.  Yet now in my cowboy mode, grateful for Bobby’s hospitality, in awe of his and Peggy’s sticking it out in Mills during the horrors of the Dust Bowl, and noting the endless, seamless, resilient carpet of grama and bluestem grasses that seemed to disguise if not absorb the droppings of Bobby’s cattle, I couldn’t bring myself to pass judgement on these massive, dumb, wall-eyed beasts destined for the “processing plant” and captive bolt pistol―or certainly judgement on Bobby. 

We then drove to Bobby’s pride and joy five miles southwest of his house: Mills Canyon of the Canadian River.  The canyon was only 600 feet deep and about a mile wide, but amid the horizontal imperative of the surrounding plains, it was striking.  After we arrived at the canyon floor via a dirt road, I estimated the climb out on foot would take at least an hour, and, at roughly a mile in altitude, would get the heart pumping―a respectable workout for the backpacker/ranch hand.  In that relentlessly flat land, I likened the canyon to a mountain, albeit an inverted one, with all of a mountain’s charms, challenges, and mystery.  Its negative height, so to speak, as well as its abundance of ponderosa pine, oak, piñon, and juniper, were a relief from the annihilating space just beyond its edges.  Meanwhile, the Canadian flowed in its depths with a soothing, dry-season gentleness.  Containing only the ruin of a small sandstone ranch house, the canyon was deserted, peaceful, and lovely. 

I left Bobby and Peggy’s house as hopeful as when I parted with Frank the rockhound, eager to translate the experience into words.  Even though Bobby and Peggy were born around the same time as my parents, my regard for them was more akin to that I kindly felt for my paternal grandparents, perhaps because the couple’s life in that remote plains settlement still had an aura of the 1950’s of my grandparents.    

The following year, my thesis completed, I made a broad sweep of northeastern New Mexico in my truck, passing through the scant plains towns of Nara Visa, Amistad, Sedan, Gladstone, and Abbott, and the plains “city” of Clayton, New Mexico, population 3,000.  At the region’s restaurants and gas pumps, I felt far more at ease now than during my first venture into this land, more at home, more comfortable in my cowboy boots “out there.”  After all, I now had a pair of friends on the prairie. With Bobby’s permission, I camped once again on his spread, revisiting my late-afternoon shadow taller than a windmill, listening to the panicky grass in the winds.  Then I had a Sunday dinner with Bobby, Peggy, and several of their ranching friends.

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I See by My Outfit, Part 1

Meanwhile, I had one more piece to write for my master’s thesis: my overview of eastern New Mexico’s Great Plains and a profile of a plains resident.  My time spent on the shortgrass prairie of Colorado 15 years earlier was too epiphanic not to repeat in New Mexico, with the added pleasure of writing about it at considerable length. 

I connected with Bobby, an 84-four-year-old semi-retired cattle rancher, with the help of the district ranger of the Kiowa National Grasslands, which surrounded Bobby’s house in the northeastern New Mexico town of Mills.  Mills was effectively a ghost town.  Its only residents were Bobby and his wife and those of a nearby house.  A post office in Mills served the surrounding countryside. 

Before meeting Bobby, I spent several autumn days wandering around Harding County, in which Mills is located.  One night, I stayed in an old hotel in Roy, New Mexico―and a better name for a ranching town I could not imagine; the “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, once cut hair there.  Although tiny, compared to Mills, Roy was a bustling population center.  Another night, I camped out on the prairie not far from Bobby’s house, where the yawning plains and occasional headland spread and rolled gently west to the surprisingly grand canyon of the Canadian River. 

During this time, I reveled in my fantasies.  In my pickup (a Toyota, so three-tenths deduction in that buy-American country) and wearing my cowboy boots from my days of hitting the Denver country-and-western nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I admitted, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.” 

I thought of movies.  I was Paul Newman in the “modern-day western” Hud (“the man with the barbed-wire soul”), Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave, and Robert Duvall’s down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.  In another corner of my imagination, I was Brooklyn’s Truman Capote (minus the cigarette held delicately aloft between two fingers) when, decades earlier, he arrived “out there” in western Kansas for a rather run-of-the-mill investigation; six years or so later, that investigation resulted in a favorite book of mine, In Cold Blood, which dazzled the literary world, made Capote rich, and began his ruin.  Out there, I even entered the skin of Dick―“Deal me out, baby, I’m a normal”―Hickock, one of In Cold Blood’s crudely handsome, masculine murderers.  (But this was my overripe imagination back then.  Out there today I would prefer to think of myself as cutting a more decolored figure: say, 19th-century prairie wanderer, intellectual, and health-seeker Josiah Gregg or 20th-century nature writer and eastern Colorado native Hal Borland.)

All the while, I made merry in the explosion of space and sky, the weird emptiness, the monolithic sameness.  A land wrapped in sky.  A land of appalling horizontal depth in which my presence spread unobstructed for miles in all directions, thinning and threatening to dissolve.  A land of the pronghorn, the deerlike creature who found safety in space because hyper vigilant and fleet of foot, the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere.  As N. Scott Momaday observed of his plains-dwelling Native American ancestors, “The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind” in the forests.

A land where heights are few―the windmill, the grain elevator, the Siberian elm, the Baptist steeple, the Baptist―and acrophobia is bored.     

 

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An Environmental Conscience, Part 1

As I’ve written, while still living in Denver, I spent a year looking for work in Albuquerque.  My efforts yielded two job interviews.  The first occurred at a dealership for heavy equipment―massive dump trucks, bulldozers, scrapers, the kind of machinery that levels mountains and carves valleys.  Had the dealership offered me a job in its data processing department, I would have gladly taken it.  I then learned of the opening at the lumber company.  I interviewed there.  After some dithering, Carlos offered me the position. 

That the job was in the “forest products” business made no difference to me.  My job history included being a cog in a wheel that leveled trees, tore open the earth, and blew up beaver dams in order to expand commercial and residential development in Breckenridge, Colorado; that gutted a mountain and vomited lakes of lifeless mine tailings on Colorado’s Fremont Pass for the capture of molybdenum; and that punched holes in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for the collection of crude oil.    

“Forest products” was just another industry to me.  I’d never seen a “clear cut”: the felling of every single tree on a vast acreage for lumber, and effectively replacing that acreage not with a forest, but with a biologically-impoverished tree farm.  I thought the forests of the arid southern Rockies were as luxuriant as their cousins in the Pacific Northwest.  And I’d never heard of “old-growth forests”: forests that, according to the Audubon Society publication Western Forests, “have developed over long periods without catastrophic disturbance of either natural or human origin,” with an “untouched, primeval quality”; forests that are “more complex . . . and more beautiful than many young forests.” My goal as I commenced working in New Mexico was financial security and advancement in the data processing field.

Meanwhile, however, my innate curiosity―energized, certainly, by my new love and new life in New Mexico―continued to broaden my view of the world.  As a result, I was, among other things, developing what in retrospect I can only describe as an environmental conscience; or, in conservationist Aldo Leopold’s words, a “land ethic.”  Triggering this moral reckoning were the almost sacred joy I experienced in my hikes and backpacks into the pristine forests and deserts of the Southwest; my broader consideration of the writings of Edward Abbey, beyond his romantic wilderness escapades and into his dry but compelling polemics about America’s destructive lust for natural resources and “growth” simply “for the sake of growth”; and a greater awareness of regional and national environmental issues and activism being addressed on television and in Albuquerque’s daily newspapers.  Such a conscience was making me increasingly uneasy at the lumber company. 

For years while living in Denver, I noticed a little sign in the second-floor window of what I assumed was an office of some kind overlooking Colfax Avenue in the city’s Capitol Hill district.  The sign read “Sierra Club.”  I was intrigued by that name, although I had no idea to what it referred.  Yet I recalled that sign when, now a regular backpacker in the Southwest, I purchased at an Albuquerque bookstore Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader.  Pocket-sized, the book fit easily into my backpack and kept me occupied in my tent during those hours in the mountains and deserts after sundown or during a rare rainfall.  Published in 1987, the book is an anthology of “nature writing.”  It includes an essay on the Colorado Plateau by Abbey, reacquainted me with the words of Thoreau and Emerson I’d first read at Hobart, and introduced me to such authors as John Muir, Leopold, Ann Ronald, Mary Austin, John Graves, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, and Colin Fletcher.  Its copyright page informed me that the “Sierra Club . . . has devoted itself to the study and protection of the earth’s scenic and ecological resources―mountains, wetlands, woodlands, wild shores and rivers, deserts and plains”―all of which sounded interesting and worthwhile to me.  Not long after, I checked the phone book and discovered that there was a chapter of this “Sierra Club” in Albuquerque.  After attending one meeting at the chapter’s office in a modest storefront, I joined the organization.

At the time I joined, the dominant topic of conversation at the club’s meetings was the effort by a group of Albuquerque conservationists and land managers to transition Petroglyph State Park, at the western edge of the city, to a federally-managed “national monument.”  Linda and I had visited the state park a number of times after re-uniting in New Mexico, and we were both in favor of advocating for the loftier designation for the place and the additional protections that went with it. 

The chapter also discussed cattle grazing on New Mexico’s public lands; that is, lands managed by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  This coincided with my broader reading of Abbey.  He was fiercely opposed to grazing on public lands at all elevations; grasslands denuded and riparian areas―watercourses that attract thirsty cattle―trampled and fouled with urine and manure were two of his reasons why.  Such opposition was beginning to take shape in me as well.  “CATTLE-FREE IN ‘93” read bumper stickers around Albuquerque.  (Such “freedom,” however, never came even close to happening.)

And then there were a couple topics in the chapter’s regular discussions and in literature available at its office that particularly grabbed my attention.  The first was logging on the federal forests of the Rockies, the Sierras, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.  Not surprisingly, the club was opposed to clear-cutting in these forests; yet it also had issues with selective logging―the felling of a tree here, a tree there―in the same.  The second topic was specific to New Mexico and tied to the first: habitats for two New Mexico wild birds, the Mexican spotted owl and the goshawk.  Before joining the Sierra Club, I was vaguely familiar with these two species as a result of participating in group bird-watching expeditions in New Mexico’s Sandia and San Mateo Mountains.  Logging in New Mexico, the club maintained, was threatening their habitats and thus had to be checked. 

As a result of all this, a measure of guilt crept over me, and I tended to be distant at the chapter meetings, hoping none of my fellow members would inquire about what I did for a living.

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were multiplying on television and in the print media.  One evening in 1988, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the forest fire that had recently charred a third of Yellowstone National Park, parking for weeks a pall of smoke in central New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  (A commonplace today in the era of climate change.)  The segment questioned the wisdom of America’s nearly century-old and sacred Smokey-the-Bear policy of extinguishing by whatever means all forest fires.  Such fire suppression, more and more people were concluding, was causing a dangerous buildup of fuel―grasses, shrubs, and dead logs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more massive conflagrations like the one in Yellowstone.

In the New York Times, a representative of the forest products industry weighed in on the Yellowstone fire.  He maintained that still standing, although “dead and dying,” timber had contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry now be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any more fires.  However, this practice would have meant more logging roads carved into the national forests, and thus more erosion and wildlife disturbance, all of which, of course, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, I listened to actor Paul Newman narrating a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with rampant logging in the Pacific Northwest, to which Newman and scientists and environmental activists featured in the program were opposed.  The program opened with a scene of young people blocking a road to a timber sale.  A burly middle-aged man, wild-eyed and frustrated, approached them, furious at the blockade.  Memorably, he had a prosthetic arm, which, to me, lent the scene an inescapably strange mood.  My God, I wondered, was he defending an industry that was responsible for the terrible loss of one of his limbs?  (Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists logging as one of America’s “10 most dangerous jobs”; this was likely true back then as well.)  The man seemed to symbolize the visceral passion and complexity of this issue. 

Not long after, I noticed, lying on the table of the lumber company’s second-floor lunch room, a Xerox copy of an article from a publication I’d never heard of.  The article concerned a Pacific Northwest logger who lost his lower jaw as a result of a bucking chain saw.  The bucking occurred as the logger was driving his saw into a tree that the article alleged had been “spiked.”  “Spiking” is the driving of large nails into a tree to discourage a logger from felling it or a sawyer from milling it, as the spike risks costly damage to the teeth of a saw.  Abbey, in detail, advocated the practice of spiking―while maintaining its harmlessness―in his 1988 collection of essays, One Life at a Time, Please.  I discovered the Xerox copy not long after I had read One Life.  I left the Xerox copy on the table.    

Eventually, I became aware of another environmental organization, this one a regional non-profit based in Santa Fe and thus much smaller than the Sierra Club, that had obviously been laser-focused on the logging-on-public-lands battle.  The organization was challenging in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales in northern New Mexico.  The basis of its challenges was always the protection of the habitats of the spotted owl and goshawk.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on the second floor, but when it was, usually on the lips of Carlos or one of the foresters, I merely listened in silence with a blank expression.  

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Drip, Drip, Drip

Despite the satisfaction and pride I took in drilling, blasting, and mucking at Climax, and despite my increasing wealth, those high-country bugaboos, cultural famine and chilly weather, returned to dampen my enthusiasm for mountain living.  Paperbacks, trout fishing, and Leadville’s mining museum were not enough to satisfy my cultural needs.  As for climate, a running joke in Leadville is its two seasons: Fourth of July and winter.  The Mosquito Range soars at its back, and at its front the Arkansas River valley sweeps up through unyielding conifer forests to the gray pinnaclesincluding Colorado’s tallest, Mt. Elbert─of the Sawatch Range.  Above treeline, stubborn fields of rotten snow, filthy with airborne dust, stare down at the huddled Leadvillites even in August.  Come mid-September in Leadville, where below-freezing temperatures overnight are not unusual, I actually looked forward to the “warmth” of my underground jobsite: the temperature at the level I worked was a constant 40 degrees.

Yet there was dependable relief 30 miles southeast of Leadville, offered by an old acquaintance: Buena Vista.  On my days off, I’d occasionally drive there; buy a loaf of French bread, a block of Velveeta, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm “wine”; and head for those gentle hills of juniper and cactus just north of town.  Even at midday in the dead of summer, I’d build a fire of juniper and enjoy the incomparable spice of its smoke.  Then I’d dig my bare feet into the sand and relish the warmth, space, and light of the arid woodland. 

The continuing drip drip drip of the Southwest.

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I Return to Denver, Briefly

 

In Denver, over the course of a year, I made new friends and rediscovered the joy of using a large public library, browsing a bookstore, playing a game of pick-up basketball at a public court, watching a first-run movie.  I enjoyed the company of my sister, who left the mountains for the city about the time of my departure. 

And I stepped into the classic Southwest for the first time, visiting New Mexico.  My sister, her friend, and I drove to Santa Fe and lodged in a motel there.  We visited the city’s historic plaza.  We ate “Mexican” food (actually, New Mexican food) at its restaurants.  What struck me most about the city was its large Latino population and preponderance of earth-toned “pueblo-revival” architecture, although at the time I was utterly unaware of New Mexico’s various Pueblo Indian tribes that for generations had inspired such architecture.  I vividly remember playing word games in the car while returning to Colorado on I-25 in the high-plains northeastern New Mexico twilight.  Yet I left northern New Mexico with no great desire to return anytime soon.  Denver was still novel and exciting and thus I was set on establishing a life there. 

Unfortunately, this meant enduring a succession of dull, unchallenging, low-paying jobs.  I had settled in Denver with absolutely no career ambitions, no interest in how my bachelor’s degree in English would favor or disfavor me in the Denver job market.  What I did for a living in Denver did not matter as long as it put a roof over my head.  My interest was in eating, going to bars, smoking the occasional joint, reading, gazing at the mountains, and finding a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life.  After all, though he could claim at least a partial Ivy League education (Columbia), Jack Kerouac wasn’t looking for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder when he first landed in Denver in the 1940’s; he was content to do manual labor in the city’s Denargo Market district during the day and party and dream romantic dreams on Denver’s Colfax Avenue and in the historic Colorado mountain town of Central City at night. 

But I found myself discontented with working as a shipping clerk, forklift driver, shag boy for an RV and speed-boat dealership, and ditch digger.  I was insulted by the pay these jobs provided.  Yet I had no desire to return to college, get certification as a teacher, and teach in a Denver public school the English I presumably loved; no desire to get an advanced degree in English or begin the study of law, engineering, or business administration.  And I was certainly above learning a trade such as plumbing or car repair.  Meanwhile, I was still without a girlfriend.  Now, I simply wanted to make more money, and one day in 1975 I was offered that opportunity.

 

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Meeting the “Southwest” of Colorado

In the fall of 1973, following my graduation from Hobart, I returned to Colorado.  Yet I wasn’t bound for Denver.  My sister, to whom I wanted to remain close, wasn’t living there.  She had joined a boyfriend in the Colorado mountains.  The two lived just outside the town of Alma, in a rickety cabin with an outhouse.  At some 10,500 feet above sea level, Alma, at the foot of the Mosquito Range, is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States.  

Several mountain ranges away, a college classmate of mine lived in a combination of bedroom, living room, and kitchenette in a former motel in Silverthorne, Colorado, and he invited me to join him.  Today, Silverthorne is a wealthy high-country playground serving several nearby world-renowned ski areas, including Vail.  In 1973, however, it was a dusty, muddy settlement containing a few trailer parks, a bar, a liquor store, and a convenience store; home to ski bums and workers of various skill levels employed at the nearby Eisenhower motor vehicle tunnel, then under construction.  At 8,700 feet, the town sits beside the Blue River, clamped between the Gore and Williams Fork ranges, mountains upon which pile 200 to 300 inches of snow annually.  (With climate change, however, these quantities will likely lessen.) 

After three weeks in aptly-named Summit County, I realized I didn’t like mountain living.  The dearth of culture was one reason.  I missed Denver’s museums, libraries, book stores, and public parks.  I missed a place where something other than alcohol, sheet rock, tool belts, pickup trucks, and canine behavior could be discussed.  The lay of the land disagreed with me, as well.  Prior to Colorado, the only “mountains” I’d known were New York State’s Catskills and Massachusetts’s Berkshires, both ranges rather modest.  Summit County’s massive, ubiquitous formations crowd upon one another, brood over the towns, cast long shadows at morning and in the evening.  Daily I felt as if my existence was in their vise.  Above all, I disliked the weather of the dwindling high-country fall.  I was without a car, so five days a week I hitchhiked in frigid mornings and chilly evenings 13 miles to and from the town of Breckinridge, where I worked every day outside as a construction laborer.  Meanwhile, I dreaded the approach of my first mountain winter.  Everywhere I looked I saw towering ranges, each relentlessly cloaked in dark, mordant pines, each poised to breed raging snowstorms and deliver blasts of bitter cold.  Is this all there is to the storied Colorado high country? I wondered. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t. 

One Saturday in late October, my sister and her beau showed up in Silverthorne in her 1967 Mustang and invited me to join them for an afternoon and evening drive to a mountain town, heretofore unknown to me, named Buena Vista.  Recalling “Espinosa” and “Mares,” I liked the name of that town immediately and, always anxious to flee Silverthorne─the name alone seemed to draw blood─agreed to go.  We lowered the Mustang’s convertible top, bundled up, and drove southward. 

We drove through the valley of the Blue River, beneath the grim, gray peaks of the Ten Mile Range.  We drove up the switchbacks, convoluted as intestines, of Hoosier Pass to the Continental Divide; at the pass’s summit, 11,500 feet, I cast a sad eye upon a fresh dusting of snow.  From there we descended southeast into an empty, windswept mountain upland known as South Park, containing the little town of Fairplay, a stark fretwork of buildings, powerlines, and scattered, thin aspen stands.  From Fairplay we resumed heading south, now in the shadow of the massive Mosquito Range cloaked darkly by the Pike National Forest. 

Some 20 miles south of Fairplay, however, as Highway 285 noticeably descended, we entered a different landscape, one of gentle hills.  The hills were not dark with impenetrable stands of arrowy conifers and spruce.  They were instead dotted with evergreens of some sort─I would later identify them as juniper trees─that stood no taller than two or three times my height and often granted each other a generous measure of space.  And the ground beneath them was not smothered beneath ferns, mushrooms, dead pine needles, and rotting wood; rather, it glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine with a fine, sparsely-vegetated soil.  From this ground, as spaciously distributed as the junipers, grew stunted cacti, the first I’d ever noticed in the wild.  Meanwhile, the land was webbed with what appeared to be streambeds, but they were waterless, free of choking willows, and filled with what appeared to be bone-dry sand.  Although I knew we weren’t in the classic North American arid land of a Dristan commercial, the word “desert” entered my consciousness for the first time in my Western experience. 

As we continued our descent, progressively warmer air bathed the convertible.  When we emerged from this strange fold in the land, a valley huge beyond imagining appeared, and a slender, golden line of trees threaded through its depths.  “The Arkansas River,” my sister, referring to the thread, explained for my benefit.  And the spectacle didn’t stop there.  Just beyond the valley, there exploded a mountain of equally stunning proportion.  “Mt. Princeton,” announced my sister’s boyfriend, “Fourteen-thousand feet above sea level.” 

Warmth, light, space, majesty, refuge: as “high country” went, this one appealed to me.  Little did I know that I had entered, certainly by some authors’ and geographers’ standards, the “Southwest.”  In a mellow, purple evening, we ate alongside ranchers at a Buena Vista steakhouse, 800 very agreeable feet below Silverthorne.  I didn’t want to leave. 

I lasted another three months in Summit County, and one in neighboring, bitter-cold Park County.  As Annie Proulx wrote of a poor French woodcutter experiencing his first winter in New France’s boreal forest, he “learned he had never before experienced extreme cold nor seen the true color of blackness.”  Then I moved to Denver, my toes black, blue, and aching with frostbite, seemingly refusing to thaw.  (Due mainly to my imprudence: The boots I wore to work were too small, inhibiting circulation, which, thus, aided frostbite.) But I would remember and return to that land of sand, cacti, dry creek beds, and luminous woodlands.