Meanwhile, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities: Fried clams. The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950s gas station. “Lobstah.” Locals wintering in “Florider.” Lighthouses. The Italian corner store. Winslow Homer. Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road. “Christina’s World.” Old Town Canoes. The seventeen-hundred-pound “chocolate moose.” A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.” A boat and trailer in every other driveway. A Portland Seadogs Double-A baseball game disappearing behind fog. Dunkin Donuts. Sap gushing from a pruned maple limb in the spring. Maple syrup. Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside littered with windfallen . . . camp wood. The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows. Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain. Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening.
Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door. Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.” That is, the otter pond. (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods. And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs from a northern Maine accent.) We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned. We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track.
It was a raw morning. The temperature was forty. The skies were leaden. The air was still. Fog filled the woods in places. A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space. The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice. It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling. Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft. The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog―a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, is a very popular canine in watery Maine.
The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering: Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland? Would this sea of towering wood succor or smother me? Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing? Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?
Soon we arrived at the pond―actually one of several ponds―where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush. (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.) The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa. The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness.
The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me. I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England. Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain. And rain. And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain. It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof. In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared. James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure. Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.
Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it. Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots. (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.) Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete. In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.
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?
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.)
After sixteen months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.” I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that secure place. For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for strength, flexibility, and balance, and this had served me well on my job. Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and contort myself in shower stalls while bathing them without risking permanent injury. Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt I had the intellectual acumen handle such a challenge. So, once again with Linda’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the council and begin studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that certified me in nurse aiding.
Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State.
Formal instruction in nursing, somewhat to my surprise, began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking. How cocky I felt, having done this now for a couple years! But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” and “angiotensin.”
One day I was pleasantly surprised, even moved, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a “cardiology” scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student. One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly recognized. He was a smart, likable if rather self-absorbed Del Norte vegetarian, ski patrolman, and bicycle-frame designer. A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life. He had succeeded at this, in my opinion: He could have passed for Irish.
Then I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject. Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife. Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, wanted instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free.” Thus, I underwent a vasectomy. My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like Linda, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults. So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation and birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding.
Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units. At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet. One morning at the same hospital, a woman in labor on the pediatric ward granted the students permission to witness her vaginal birth. As a purely natural process, I looked forward to this as well. We waited and waited, then were told we would likely have time to grab a breakfast in the cafeteria. Unfortunately for my education, I learned that the child was born while I was halfway through an excellent plate of huevos rancheros at the hospital cafeteria. Back in surgery, I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure.
My one year of instruction, enough to qualify me for a license in practical nursing, ended with nerve-wracking drills in the proper calculation of medication doses and the usual final exam, which I passed. Then, for my Colorado licensing test, I drove to Pueblo, where, at a testing center, I sat before a computer screen and answered more questions about nursing basics. A week later, I was informed that I had passed this, as well.
For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa. Linda was now employed by the medical center, as well, in the internal medicine clinic. I floated quite a bit, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners. I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon. I worked for an internist who specialized in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, and sparsely-populated valley where deeds were more determining than looks).
I loved working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this was before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors. I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them forty and older. In our sparsely-populated valley, I regarded them as my neighbors. I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired. At times I wished I’d studied fifteen years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer. Still, I couldn’t deny my wonderful experience at the University of New Mexico.
Not long after 9/11, the Council moved its office to a two-room, second-floor accommodation overlooking Alamosa’s main street; its carpet was worn and the office’s “restroom” was a bathroom shared with a stealth family who lived directly across the hallway. However, over the next two years, my hours at the organization gradually decreased. Although Chris was working at full capacity, there was no longer even twenty weekly hours for me.
I didn’t want to leave the organization, so I began considering possibilities for a second part-time job. I pictured the sheer boredom of selling furniture or clothing on Alamosa’s main street. And I didn’t want to sort the Valley’s famous potatoes all day long in a frigid warehouse.
However, Linda had learned that nurse aides were in short supply in the Valley, where there were two hospitals and several long-term-care facilities (what used to be commonly known as “nursing homes”). So, one day, she suggested that I become a nurse aide.
Wow, that’s different, I thought. But why not?
Sure, I knew that “nurse aide” is a non-traditional job for a man. I knew that many men―and women―consider nurse aiding strictly “women’s work.” And gay men’s work. But, at that point in my life, I fancied myself something of a non-traditional man. Ten years earlier, when I was a graduate student in English, I’d done some cooking and housekeeping while my wife worked full time. From the day we married, I knew my wife, as a physician, would always have three or four times my earning power, and I was comfortable with that. Because I loved her, she loved me, and I was doing what I wanted to do. And if there was any “manhood” that needed to be proven to myself or anyone else, I felt I’d already proven it: my job history included tire-factory worker, forklift operator, underground miner, and night-shift cab driver. I had no desire to return to any of those occupations. So, if all of this amounted to “liberation,” then yes, I proudly considered myself a “liberated man.”
It so happened that Alamosa’s branch of a junior college based in Trinidad, Colorado, offered a three-month course to become a certified nurse aide. So, I applied.
I easily met the admission requirements for the program. There were about a dozen students in the class, including one man about my age. With the first stethoscope and sphygmomanometer of my own, I learned how to take a blood pressure. I learned CPR, how to take a pulse, and measure oxygen saturation. A Valley physical therapist taught us proper body mechanics in the physical transference of patients and residents. We were taught how to feed people and safely accompany them as they ambulated; how to shift bedridden people to avoid skin tears; and how to use a gait belt. A decubitus, or pressure ulcer, was something I’d never heard of until this course, and we were lectured stringently about the dangers of this malady. We were taught that mattress pads and bottom sheets must be as smooth as possible to avoid ulcers. We were taught how to perform a bed bath. We were even taught how to make a bed, including a technique I’d never heard of: “mitering a corner,” which had a geometric beauty I rather admired.
Matching the concern for pressure ulcers was a focus on infection control. Thus, we were tested in our thoroughness of handwashing: a minimum of twenty seconds, about the time it takes for back-to-back renditions of “Happy Birthday.” (Of course, this would serve me well when the coronavirus arrived on our shores.) However, I thought our nurse instructor had gone a bit too far when she insisted, after the insertion of a patient’s pillow into a freshly-laundered case with a minimum of disturbance (disturbance, she reminded us, creates air currents, which can deliver germs), the mouth of the pillowcase must face away from the door to the patient’s room, the open mouth of a pillowcase being a potential catchment basin for hallway germs migrating into the room. (Well, the instructor did describe herself as “anal.”)
Toward the conclusion of the course, the students were required to spend several days practicing what they had learned at two long-term-care facilities and one hospital in the Valley. For these events, solid white was required for scrubs, footwear, and socks. I hated this look―like the Good Humor man or an orderly in a 50s insane asylum. In any event, my first day as a nurse aide occurred at a long-term-care facility. It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting day. I felt I had to feign a sweet-talking tenderness with the facility’s elderly residents so as not to frighten them, an affectation with which I was utterly uncomfortable―so much for the “liberated man.” I performed “peri care”―hygiene after defecation―on several residents; other than my first experience with sexual intercourse, it was the strangest thing I’d ever done with another person. I briefly had to single-handedly clean and dress a demented woman who had smeared herself with her own feces―mercifully, a facility aide came to my aid during this episode. However, at the end of the day, I seriously doubted I wanted to work in a “nursing home.” Domesticity―the bathing, dressing, bingo, jigsaw puzzles―not healthcare seemed to be the aim in such a facility, which is why I vastly preferred the class field trip to a Valley hospital, where I spent a day actually aiding nurses.
Several months after graduation, I was hired as an aide by Conejos County Hospital, a fifteen-bed facility in the village of La Jara, ten miles south of our house. I worked three consecutive days, from six a.m. to three p.m., and then took four days off, alternating with one other day aide. The hospital’s nursing staff consisted of a registered nurse and, depending upon the daily census, one or two licensed practical nurses.
I worked at the hospital for sixteen months. Arriving for work in the black-and-blue Valley dawn. Gently greeting the nurses―in chairs but often asleep, as their shift had begun three hours earlier. Taking vital signs at a cold dawn on a dying patient as her nine family members looked on, their silence and solemnity recalling that of the Mexican Indians in the “resuscitation” scene in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Getting patients up and toileted by seven. Distributing breakfasts. Getting routinely ignored by the hospital’s only rounding physician, a cowboy-booted redneck whom I disliked. Listening to a spunky female LPN discretely go on about the joy of receiving oral sex. Occasionally sharing liberal political views and a bag of potato chips with the hospital’s Birkenstocksed ER doc, whom I did like. Learning about the care of patients with MRSA. Slogging through a Thomas Wolfe novel in the afternoons when the pace had slowed. Watching in discrete disbelief as a sweet, stoic long-term patient with pulmonary edema swell up like the Michelin Man, his skin glazed as if with plastic―and eventually die, his normally-composed wife now howling in grief in the hallway outside his door. Attending a baby shower for an LPN’s first-born. Assisting in my first “I&D,” or incision and draining: stunned as I watched pus fountain endlessly from a patient’s back. Wearing scrubs of any color I chose.
My work at the Ecosystem Council progressed. I expanded the organization’s mailing list in fits and starts. I composed the annual letters to the half-dozen or so foundations that provided the council with the bulk of its funds―$5,000 here, $8,000 there. I learned how to compose a lengthy newsletter online, the bits, bytes, and pixels of which were then sent to a local business that created the hundreds of hardcopies, which were subsequently mailed. Then, with the help (at no cost) of a retired tech wizard living in Crestone―the quirky, quiet little new age place was a surprising Zen garden of talent―I created the organization’s first website. The wizard then explained to me how to get maximum exposure for the council via a relatively new “search engine” he recommended above all others―something with the goofy name of Google.
Perhaps the issue of greatest concern during my employment at the council was a proposed resort―cozily if unimaginatively named “The Village at Wolf Creek”―capable of accommodating eight thousand people on some three hundred acres of private land adjacent to the family-owned, modest, and relatively remote Wolf Creek Ski Area. Surrounded by national forest land and the ski area, which leased its acreage from the national forest, the private land was acquired in an 80’s land swap of shady nature between the United States Forest Service and a Texas land development company: three hundred acres of lush forest and wetlands just below the apex of storied Wolf Creek Pass for sixteen hundred acres of, in the words of one environmental advocacy organization, “degraded rangeland” in the San Luis Valley. The council was opposed to the development, which was being bankrolled primarily by a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in automobile sales and communications.
My job was to explain to the council’s supporters, via newsletters and fundraising letters, the primary threats this development at the headwaters of the Rio Grande posed, including water, air, and light pollution; traffic jams; and wildlife disturbance. My job was also to attend and document townhall meetings arranged to discuss the proposed development and to participate in and document fields trips to the proposed development site to examine its potential environmental impacts. The council was aided by various non-profits in southern Colorado, with the legal muscle provided by an organization based in the chic southwestern Colorado town of Durango.
The billionaire―a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team and Denver Nuggets basketball team―never to my knowledge during my tenure at the council made an appearance either in the Valley or at the proposed development site. His partner in the venture, an Austin, Texas, land developer and chief executive of the company that would build the project, represented him at “townhall meetings” in Del Norte, Creede, and South Fork, towns all nearby to the ski area. In his fifties or sixties, this soft-spoken―disarmingly so, I thought―man made an obvious effort to affect a casual, down-home look. His jeans were faded and his boots scuffed. He wore a leather jacket. Ralph Lauren? Perhaps. But it was sufficiently worn and faded to challenge any conclusions that might have been drawn from the brand name. He had a thick, plump, and curvaceous crown of hair that never quite melded with the straight grain of hair on the sides and back of his head and thus, to me, whispered “hair piece.” A perfect “mountain man” for the new millennium, he was rarin’ to seduce any skeptical local.
Here was a clash that had all the makings of an environmental activist’s dream or a zesty plot of a John Nichols novel: a Texas billionaire who made a killing in automobiles, broadcasting, and sports franchises, wanted to couple with the modest owners of a ski area―small, but renowned for its prodigious snows and challenging runs―on the top of the United States in order to create a commercial hell.
The battleground was effectively a combination of Mineral County, which contained the private parcel and the ski area, and, at the nearby lower elevations, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties. These were the three counties to which the development team primarily pitched its project, not only because the project required the Mineral County commissioners’ approval, but also because the three counties, in the opinion of the team, were “economically depressed” and would thus benefit hugely from the jobs generated by the project. Opponents of the project countered that the jobs in the completed development would mainly involve low-paying work waiting tables, making beds, and cleaning toilets.
Another, somewhat peripheral, argument against the project was the possibility of widespread altitude sickness among the resort’s guests. The planned resort would stand at roughly 10,400 feet. Altitude sickness is possible above 8,000 feet. Its milder symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, and vomiting―which prompted on my part frankly comical visions of Dallaseños lined up outside of The Village at Wolf Creek gift shop and convenience store for jumbo bottles of Tylenol or clutching stylish Village lampposts for dear life as they ralphed, on fourteen inches of new powder, the previous evening’s meal of margaritas and fish tacos. More seriously, acute altitude sickness can lead to potentially fatal pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which can only be arrested by immediate descent to a lower altitude or prompt oxygen administration on site.
And yet, despite its delicious possibilities, The Village at Wolf Creek controversy lacked the drama that I had anticipated―and, frankly, hoped for. At the townhall discussions, no punches were thrown. No obscenities were exchanged. No accusations of “Tree hugger!” or “Rapaciousness!”. No tires were slashed in parking lots. No guns were drawn. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to particularly dislike the developer and his frequent sidekick, the project’s “local project manager,” a grinning, chubby-cheeked young man from Del Norte who worked in sporting goods and real estate. The townhall meetings were always calm, courteous affairs.
Meanwhile, the technicalities and legal maneuvers of the battle, which I made little effort to understand―that was, after all, Chris’s job―ground on and on and on. And on. Much of this Jarndyce and Jarndyce tedium, which proved to be to the opposition’s benefit, was due to the fact that public land surrounded the land owned by the developers, and the opposition was fighting for every single one of the 750 public feet the developers needed to connect their proposed resort to nearby highway 160. Why the architects of the original land swap didn’t anticipate this snag was beyond me. Week after week, month after month, it was nothing but “environmental impact statements,” “public comments,” “higher court rulings,” “lower court rulings,” “judges,” “riders,” “NEPA” processes, “easements,” “collusions.”
Today, 2021, not a cubic yard of cement for The Village at Wolf Creek has been poured. Meanwhile, the proposed development has an official website, which includes the motto “mountain solitude reimagined.”
Well, one element of the development, at least on the website, has been “reimagined.” A long-distance photo, obviously depicting idyllic summertime on the development’s acreage, presents a dark-green, obviously robust conifer forest. However, when I returned to Wolf Creek Pass in the summer of 2018, I witnessed this same acreage, although now rather different in appearance: an acreage―in fact, an entire pass―ashen with trees, thousands of them, dead from global warming. Unless these trees are cut down―or preserved and painted?―this is what residents will see at The Village at Wolf Creek: a conifer graveyard.
 As of 2021, the battle over “The Village at Wolf Creek” is still being waged in the courts. The Council’s website (slvec.org) lists as one of its 2021 goals: “Update the citizenry about the importance of protecting Wolf Creek Pass from unbridled development and keep the public informed about the Federal Court Case that will be decided sometime early this year. Then, respond in an appropriate manner to the Judge’s decision.”
I learned of 9/11 on the morning it occurred as I drove to the landfill in Monte Vista with a load of concrete remnants from our house construction. Bob Edwards, at the time host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, delivered the news through my truck’s radio. I was horrified by the violence, destruction, and depravity of the event. Still, despite marinating in the event via television and the internet, I felt quite disconnected from it, the Valley so greatly removed from New York City, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania, the Valley’s tallest structures grain elevators and sand dunes.
However, in the days that followed, the horror manifested itself in a subtle way in our sparsely-populated neighborhood south of town, and a deep, if narrow, way in my imagination. 9/11 shut down civilian air traffic in the United States for several days. This meant no noise coming from Alamosa’s little airport, a quarter-mile east of our house: no activity among the small private planes and the occasional private jet; no loud buzz of the propeller-driven commuter planes that connected Alamosa with Denver several times a day. It also meant no soft roar, faintly blinking lights, and contrails some 28,000 feet above the Valley floor: the large commercial jet airliners that regularly flew over southern Colorado between far more important destinations than Alamosa.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t look at aircraft, or even our vast and normally tranquil Southwestern skies, in the same way. Not that I’d ever swooned over human flight, but aircraft of all sizes and designs were suddenly no longer one of our crowning achievements of applied science; no longer things of grace and speed, but rather weapons, predators, death deliverers. And the skies over southern Colorado and northern New Mexico were no longer the benign home and playground of light, cloud, wind, and precious rain, but rather potential battlegrounds, cielos del muerto.
In time, however, aircraft in the Valley became friendly again. And so, too, the skies over the Valley, aided, for me at least, by a cosmic event some two months after 9/11. At two o’clock one November morning, I awoke to my alarm, put on four layers of clothing, and, wrapped in a comforter, sat in a folding chair in our backyard in 16-degree weather to watch the southern Colorado sky bristle with meteors―the November Leonids, dust- and marble-size debris from the comet Temple-Tuttle entering the earth’s atmosphere at 155,000 miles-per-hour. Under normal circumstances, the night skies over the Valley―especially in the dry, crackling-cold late fall―presented a glowing net of stars that fairly shouted. Meteors were an added attraction, and, just as the newspapers had predicted, the Leonid shower of 2001 was the most abundant in three-and-a-half decades. I watched the Leonids tickle wildly the southern skies. Some flame-outs were the briefest pale striations, others were slushy green belts that seemed to hold forth for several long seconds. It was as if these emissaries from an incomprehensibly older and larger world were reminding American skies: You are not home to hijacked airliners, F-16 scramblers, suicide bombers, and scud and cruise missiles; you have been, are now, and will always be predominantly home to us.
My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, off-asphalt motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled motorized vehicles designed for an operator and no passengers―on America’s public-land trails was born one day in the early 90s.
I was hiking a trail to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed. Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation. Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely just a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman. By the 90s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd and, sadly, the sell-out of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. In places en route to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery. The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with trunks, limbs, and branches to discourage traffic of any kind. Yet even with forty-five pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute. Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake soothed my nerves.
So I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris, my Ecosystem Council boss, asked me to represent the organization at a “training event” for ATV operation.
Aren’t ATVs the council’s sworn enemy? I wondered. But I didn’t verbally question her request.
It was a two-day affair on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa. I commuted to the event both days.
The first day, we met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon. Some twenty-five people, mostly male, were present. The participants included the instructor, who was an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee from Play Dirty ATV Tours of Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely area in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of Fay Meyers Motorcycle World in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area.
The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad”: as near as I could figure, another name for an ATV. Eight quads were provided for our training. They were militant little vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads―infant stegosauri. The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses. As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and delivering me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor. So much for subtlety, I thought.
Meanwhile, What in the hell am I doing here? I wondered.
Although I was perfectly cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event. Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt out of place. She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads. Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie. I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery.
Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “practice track,” our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust. When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.” On his own machine, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed. But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the size and brute force of these quads.
At the end of the day, we all dripped dust. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled, and bore a nascent 8-foot-wide circular dirt track―the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.
The following day, we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead. Far more people attended this event, which dealt primarily with the operation of dirt bikes―bare-bones motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock-absorbers and more tires bearing formidable teeth. Some fifty males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20s and 30s arrived―from where I had no idea―in their electric-blue-and-orange shirts and pants, helmets, boots, gloves, and breastplates. Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail.
An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.” We were advised to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of our machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and crows that chattered on the limbs and branches above us as Kenton lectured. I could almost hear the attendees salivating when he informed them―to my astonishment―that the Rio Grande National Forest had eight hundred miles of trails available for motorized use. When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” With this, Roz and I exchanged knowing looks.
At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature. No off-road machinery was provided for Roz and myself this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles as we bid each other goodbye. I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our national forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck. There was more day to dawn and the sun was but a morning star.
On the drive home, I reflected. I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead. She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.” I concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day event was simply to increase the visibility of the council with Colorado’s public lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots.
Still, on the drive home, I returned to unexpurgated Ed Abbey, specifically an entry in his journal in 1984: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise takes up more space inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”
At Walsh, Colorado, which was a skosh more developed and busier than Kim, I drove south on a secondary country road, crossed the North Fork of the Cimarron River, and continued south to the junction of Highway 51, where I headed east. In short order, I temporarily jettisoned an hour of my life when, entering Kansas, I entered the Central Time Zone. A brief jaunt south on Highway 27 took me to a bridge over the Cimarron River. There, I parked my truck, hoisted my pack, and headed east along the river’s bank in search of a suitable campsite.
I was expecting a plains version of a “wilderness experience” along the Cimarron. After all, I was in the heart of a national grassland, with all the reasonable measures against excessive development I presumed this federal designation implied. And I had taken Truman Capote at his word when he wrote, in In Cold Blood, that western Kansas was “a lonesome area” that Kansans from the eastern half of the state called “out there.”
However, I was initially disappointed. Sure, there were some undeveloped expanses of native grasses “out there,” but there were also acres of agricultural fields; dozens of scattered oil pumpjacks, their horseheads bobbing monotonously; and numerous aboveground pipelines presumably carrying natural gas. But I suppose Capote is to be excused: his observation was drawn in 1965, when he was living in Brooklyn Heights; after Brooklyn, New York, I suspect anything would appear to be a “lonesome area.” In any event, there was far more development here than in Kim and Walsh.
More disappointments: I expected the Cimarron River to be nestled in a modest canyon like the one that contained the Purgatoire. Instead, the river was in a mere crease in the landscape. In addition, this being spring, I expected the river to have a respectable flow, but it merely pooled and trickled intermittently as it wound its way eastward. In this regard, perhaps I should have studied my various regional maps more carefully: the Cimarron is revealingly known as the Dry Cimarron throughout New Mexico, where it begins just east of the city of Raton. It is only in Oklahoma and then Kansas that it begins to be identified as simply the Cimarron. Greater precipitation east of New Mexico? Perhaps.
(A totally separate Cimarron River originates, appropriately enough, in northern New Mexico’s Cimarron Mountains and enters the Canadian River east of Springer, New Mexico.)
On the other hand, where I was camped, the river was blessedly fenced off from thirsty livestock that are in the habit of pissing and shitting as they drink. And, after I came to terms with my disappointment and calmed down, the fundamental wildness of the river and its surroundings began to reveal itself. Like always, like everywhere in nature.
I heard meadowlarks, mourning doves, killdeer, and red-wings. I saw deer prints in the sand. I marveled at the evidence―the riverside tree trunks wrapped high in a poultice of mud, grass, branches, and rabbit carcasses―of a powerful flood that had occurred on this insipid watercourse. I looked up through the gaunt, arthritic springtime limbs and branches of old cottonwoods.
As dusk approached, a breeze arrived, causing the river’s pools to shiver and lending depth and mystery to the place. At night, through my tent door, I saw a waxing moon in the western sky; I heard the velvety hoot of a great horned owl and the sirens of distant coyotes. And I reminded myself that I was terribly fortunate to be where I was, and that I ought to allow a place to unfold at its own pace. The following morning, I left the Great Plains with three days of accumulated space in me, enough perhaps to pry the mountains back home a little farther apart.