creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Messianic

When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to the 10,230-foot-high La Manga Pass area, where I snowshoed on vast meadows in the shadow of Pinorealosa Mountain, a crumb of the greater South San Juan Mountains.  Accessible by a two-lane highway, the pass was nonetheless remote, as it connected only the tiny towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. 

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

The snows on La Manga Pass were variously three to five feet deep, and deeper even where they drifted along the clefts of the frozen creek beds.  With the aid of ski poles, I’d trek upon the depths of virgin snow, if the conditions were right sinking no more than six inches to a foot.  Casually I’d venture up and down gentle slopes, here in blinding sunshine, there through gloomy stands of conifer casting cyanotic shadows. 

I particularly delighted in blithely crossing, or pretending to tightrope upon, the topmost strands of nearly-buried barbed-wire fences, those hated barriers that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and jeans and drawing blood in any other season. 

I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, scudded clouds racing just above, banners of snow spewing from the edges of drifts, scores of ghostly snow devils whirling and boiling over the meadows, requiring me to don amber-tinted goggles. 

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

Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a ten-foot drift, stomp my feet, watch cracks suddenly etch all around me, and gaily plummet in my own little death-defying avalanche of cushiony snow.  I was the eight-year-old, deliriously happy Philip Davis in a New Jersey blizzard―a leaden and, but for the howling wind, silent world of cancelled schools, snow caves, snow plows, soggy leggings, ice-jammed boot buckles, Flexible Flyers seeking out even the slightest slope, and a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with Premium Saltines for lunch.

And I recalled Hal Borland’s words describing the high plains of northeastern Colorado following a three-day-long blizzard: “After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place.  It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time.  Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern.  The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys.  It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.” 

And I, on La Manga Pass, was able to have my way, work my will, by walking on top of all that snow without fear of burial.  The feeling was messianic. 

At day’s end, I’d bid farewell to the wind and snow of the pass and return to the bare, frozen ground of the San Luis Valley, reminded of how consequential Southwestern mountains are―far more so, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of my native Northeast―when it comes to delivering snow and rain to the arid lands.

Barry Lopez (1945-2020)

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Snow in the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

More Fall in the Valley, More Thoughts

So, fall in the San Luis Valley was this, and much more.  Bales of alfalfa and straw cleated the fields, the alfalfa bound for dairy farms in desert New Mexico, the straw bales for commercial photographers offering portraits with rural themes, and for our yard, where they elevated the dogs above the frozen ground. 

Asters like lavender-flamed farolitos miraculously blossomed in the bleakest of soils.  

Gold was rampant: in the blooming rabbitbrush that tossed gaily in the wind, the snakeweed that flooded the overgrazed rangelands.  Gold reached its apotheosis in the leaves of the aspens in the surrounding mountains.  Pure high-elevation sunlight pouring through autumn-vacant skies fueled the leaves’ color like gasoline fuels fire.  When a breeze was added to this mix, setting the billions of fiery leaves to fluttering, the trees seemed to strain at their roots, fit to launch themselves and carry a mountainside with them.  Not even an overcast sky could dim a flaming stand of autumn aspen. 

Fall was Maximilian sunflowers exploding at the edges of roads and highways, the forlorn greasewood coming to dull-pink flower on the parched flats, hollyhocks tottering beneath the weight of their blossoms in Alamosa’s gardens.  

Fall was the scatter of skinned potatoes on the asphalt at the rural intersections, perhaps a sharp turn or abrupt start liberating these tubers between field and shed.  Fall was the campaign sign nailed to a fence, the pop of a hunter’s gunfire echoing against hill and mountain, the last Mexico-bound vulture, the Conejos River west of Manassa reduced to pools.

Fall was cattle herded down from the mountains, rounded up in the pastures, and finally clustered in sturdy wooden corrals outside of Valley towns.  There they were loaded onto double-decked trailers that took them to the slaughterhouses east of Colorado’s front range.  Each packed with 25 tons of beef, the tractor-trailers rumbled down Alamosa’s main street, an ammoniac train in their wake.  The steel trailers were like giant, box-shaped colanders.  Through their thousands of oblong ventilation holes, the perimeters of some shit-smeared, I’d catch a glimpse of a dusty hide; the pale pink flesh of a nostril; or the single dark eyeball enjoying its last look at sunshine, billowing clouds, towering mountains, sparkling rivers and streams, and grassy plains―the idyll that comprised its mere 15 months of Earthly existence.  A sharp turn or a sudden stop at a traffic light resulted in a loud clatter of hooves as the cargo momentarily lost its balance―callous disregard, I’d think, but perhaps nothing compared to the load’s ultimate fate, Temple Grandin’s efforts at humane slaughter notwithstanding. 

A yogi I once studied, advocating for a vegetarian diet, invited his readers to consider the mood of cattle awaiting slaughter while penned in a seemingly benign stockyard.  Arguing that even a Hereford cow has a considerable range of emotions, he maintained that cattle under such a circumstance have uncharacteristically somber, even sad, states of mind, because, of course, they sense their impeding deaths.  Not long after reading this, I took a bicycle ride on a trail in northwest Denver that happened to skirt a packed stockyard.  The cattle I witnessed there were strangely quiet, almost motionless, barely even bobbing their heads.  Perhaps the yogi is correct, I thought.  In Alamosa, the memory of this event got me to wondering.  Surely there is the scent of death in the “packing plants” of Greeley, La Junta, or wherever Colorado cattle meet their doom.  I wondered how many degrees of separation the odor survived.  Did it attach to the trucks and trailers at the slaughterhouse?  If so, did it ultimately trickle to the very wooden loading pens in the otherwise sweet air of the Valley? 

After seeing all those packed trailers during my falls in the Valley, it was hard for me to not go full Billy Crystal, not be moved by the sight of a cow feeding, nuzzling, or grooming her little one―surely an expression of tenderness transcending mere instinct―out on some warm summer range.  And yet, on a cold autumn evening, my mouth often watered at the prospect of a burger at St. Ives restaurant on Alamosa’s main street.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Nooooo. Chile Grown in Colorado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, Viva Pee-EB-low!

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Teaching Yet Again

Meanwhile, I managed to land a job at Adams State College as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution (today officially named Adams State University) had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent; brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the order of the day. 

Because Adams was a four-year institution, I was now back among many instructors with doctoral degrees who were either tenured or on tenure tracks.  For the same reason, I assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that its students were academically of a higher caliber and more committed to completing a higher education than your average community college student.  My classes consisted of fewer Latinos.  The presence of one or two African Americans in each of my classes was also a change from teaching in west Texas.  Most of my students were from Colorado and bordering states.  A good number of my White, non-Latino students were from rural areas like the San Luis Valley, and thus they had what I sensed were conservative upbringings.  What remained the same was the English department’s teaching angle: rhetorical approaches to composition, using yet another reader chock full of short essays. 

The reading comprehension and writing abilities of my students were somewhat better than those of my community college students.  Still, it was a chore to generate class discussion, and I continued to dread reading and grading papers.  The college had a football program, so during class I occasionally had to rouse a “Grizzly”―that is, an Adams football player―out of what appeared to be a slumber.  Another first was the young man who wrote, vividly and with surprising coherence, about the joys of masturbation; I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

A colleague of mine, who also had a desk in the small common room for adjunct instructors, was Wayne.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, yet he was far more experienced than I at teaching, both at the secondary-school and college level.  I envied his apparently successful pedagogical methods and his ability to roll with the challenges.  He lived with his wife, also an educator, in the frigid, hard-pan mining town of Creede, northwest of the Valley.  In addition to reading and writing, his passion was downhill skiing.  And snow: His prose offered more descriptions and discussions of the white stuff than any I’d ever read; indeed, he was Thoreau’s “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” reading, for his own safety as well as transcendence, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts and publish a book about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a literally delicate heart.  He still lives in south-central Colorado, and we remain friends to this day.

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Obvious Colorado

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

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

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


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

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We Bid Goodbye to Juárez and Anthony

Throughout June and July, while our house in Anthony languished on the market and as the fires of summer raged beyond our doors, I once again boxed items for another move, my hands becoming raw from grappling with cardboard, tape gun, and tape. 

One evening ten days before our departure, Ernesto, his wife, Linda, and I walked across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge for dinner in Juárez.  From the bridge, I noticed, painted high on the sloping concrete bank on the Juárez side of the Rio Grande, a three-foot-square portrait of Che Guevara―a reproduction, perhaps a stencil, of the world-famous Alberto Korda photograph of the Cuban revolutionary and summary executioner.  Except for a red star on Che’s beret, the painting was in black and white.  In black letters beneath the portrait were the words “El Che Vive XXX Aniversario,” surely a reference to Guevara’s own execution by the Bolivian army in 1967.  I was tempted to draw the painting to pinko-hater Ernesto’s attention, although, given his respect for Mexican self-determination, he probably would have reserved judgement. 

At the Juárez foot of the bridge, vendors sold popsicles, handbags, plastic Jesuses in agony on plastic crosses, and automobile sun shades; meanwhile, idle cab drivers tempted, in creaky but nonetheless effective English, callow gringos: “You want something big?  Something special?  You want young girls?”  Juárez was dusty and weary after another day of 100-plus temperatures. Gazing upward to the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, I saw a crush of one- and two-story businesses and residences, many painted in lavender, sky-blue, pink, and aquamarine.      

After a brief walk down Avenida Benito Juárez, we entered Martino’s Restaurant, where Ernesto and his wife would treat us to a meal.  In the hot evening, the restaurant’s dark, air-conditioned interior was welcome.  Martino’s was classy: white tablecloths, plump cloth napkins, waiters in white jackets and bow ties, ice in the urinals.  I drank Corona and scarfed down freshly-baked white bread.  I ate onion soup, its chopped white onions mild, sweet, and crisp.  My salad was pallid iceberg lettuce; tangy shrimp cocktail followed it.  My entrée was a slab of lean beef piled with strips of roasted poblano peppers with a side of whole beans.  Dessert was the Mexican custard known as flan.  I don’t recall if Ernesto disappeared behind another bowl of caldo.  Immediately after supper, the four of us re-crossed the bridge, and Linda and I said goodbye to Ernesto, Lupe, and Juárez. 

While we lived in Anthony, we heard lurid stories about Juárez’s crime related to the exportation of illegal drugs to a drug-hungry United States.  A Las Cruces colleague of Linda’s, a Mexican-born physician, told us of a Juárez plastic surgeon who remade, at gunpoint, the face of a Mexican drug lord, and was then mercilessly dispatched.  But it would be another ten years or so before the complete explosion of the Juárez drug wars, which were coupled with the mysterious, because apparently non-drug-related, murders of hundreds of Juárez women, turning that city into a fearful place day and night.  In any event, between my El Paso students who commuted from Mexico, my Instituto students, my adventures in the city with my father and Ernesto, and my experience at Martino’s, I left Juárez with a soft spot in my heart for the city.

Our final night in Anthony was warm, breezy, and humid as fantastic electrical storms, distant and silent, surrounded the little town.  The crushing heat of July made it easier to say goodbye to Anthony.  Although I considered our experience in the Chihuahuan Desert largely a disappointment, I knew I would always remember the good neighbors we had as well as the cheerful, soulful, humble Mexican-Americans of southern New Mexico and west Texas in general.  The following afternoon, with the moving van loaded and gone, I climbed in the truck with Buddy, and Nick and the two cockatiels joined Linda in the sedan.  We arrived at a motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, before nightfall.  The following day we were in Alamosa, Colorado.

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The Wild Earth’s Nobility

In late May, Linda and I drove to the San Luis Valley and Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the 7,500-foot-high San Luis Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring in the valley: 70°F, twenty-five degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above Alamosa, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light. 

On the east side of the valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose steeply from the valley floor, climbing to altitudes of 13,000 and 14,000 feet and thus presenting awesome reliefs of 6,000 to 7,000 feet; they looked almost unscalable.  At that time of the year, their higher elevations were piled with snow, recalling my depressing days of briefly living among the Gore and Williams Fork ranges to the north.  However, now a fundamentally happier person who’d grown weary of the desert fires, I looked at this range with a longing to explore. 

The west side of the valley was bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that ran from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  The south end of the valley was peppered with individual hills and a large mesa, and included a range called the Piñon Hills.  And there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park―on the east side of the valley.  At 8,000 square miles, the valley was massive and, for the most part, implacably flat: at times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt like I was peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain and valley snowmelt fed streams that ran to the Rio Grande and the Rio Conejos, the valley’s two major rivers.  Canals and ditches drew from these sources for agricultural purposes; meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of fields developed for crops.  In the northern reaches of the valley, however, there were vast stretches of gray desert scrublands.  Except in the towns and along the rivers, the valley had few trees. 

Through Alamosa, the Rio Grande, though abundant with spring runoff, ran almost imperceptibly.  As in Albuquerque, it was bordered by stately cottonwoods, but a different specie of the cottonwood: the narrowleaf. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Yet, beyond the town limits, there were a number of pueblo-revival style houses, and one of them for sale, on a treeless acre of scrub in a new and sparsely populated housing development two miles south of downtown, interested us greatly.  We made an offer, and it was accepted.  Before leaving Alamosa, Linda took me to her newly-discovered Mexican restaurant just beyond the river at the east end of downtown.  Our Southwest saga would now continue in el norte.

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Final Days in the Borderland

But there was still another semester at El Paso Community College to complete. In addition to the usual beginning composition course, I was teaching, of all things, “introduction to film.”  Asked to do this by the English department head, I agreed, even though I had no experience in such instruction.  Shots, scenes, angles, lighting, fades, wipes: the course was as instructive to me as it undoubtedly was to my students.  The class not only included the study of film technique, but also the viewing of films, which occurred in a conference room of the college library with a device that projected videocassettes onto a large screen. 

Throughout my life, I’d enjoyed―too much, perhaps―watching movies.  I cannot count how many times as a child in the 50s and early 60s I watched Godzilla, King Kong, Crime School (starring my favorite delinquents of those years, the Dead End Kids), The Thing from Another World, Preston Foster in The Last Days of Pompeii, and other films presented by Million Dollar Movie, WOR Television’s program broadcast from New York City on weekday evenings.  The program always opened with music that never failed to stir my young heart: a segment from “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind.  As a teenager, I thrilled to the music and visuals of A Hard Day’s Night and was titillated by the scantily-clad girls in I’ll Take Sweden, starring Bob Hope.  As an adult, I counted among my favorite films The Godfather, Mean Streets, Red River, Hud, Lonely are the Brave, Easy Rider, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, and Deliverance

For the class, I presented some films―available at video rental stores in the area―I’d never before seen, including Dark Victory, It Happened One Night, and Robert Enrico’s masterful short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  In addition, I presented a film whose story line I hoped would be particularly encouraging to my Latino students: Stand and Deliver, in which Edward James Olmos plays a Latino inner-city high school instructor who inspires his students from troubled neighborhoods to overcome huge odds and master advanced mathematics. 

I enjoyed teaching the class, and yet there were times when I felt like I was pimping out a subject that had no place being taught in a community college.  I found myself coming to the conclusion that movies―no matter how critically acclaimed, no matter their artistic and technical achievement―are essentially entertainment, rarely an intellectual exercise.  And if community college students needed anything, I thought, they needed to exercise their minds in the fundamentals of academics; “film” would have to wait for the four-year university or college.  Indeed, I suspected that many of my students were requiring a hand-up in a community college precisely because they had spent too much time watching movies and television in high school, and that “video” had made mush of their curiosity, critical thinking, and imaginations.  Why, the very textbooks that I used to teach my classes often contained a compelling essay―”Amusing Ourselves to Death?”―by university professor Neil Postman decrying the scourge of television on young minds. In terms of an intellectual exercise, I doubted there was a single movie that could challenge the mind of one of my students more than a mere half-hour of reading the lowliest supermarket pulp fiction. 

And yet, had I not taught the class, I would never have introduced my students―and myself―to the genius and heart-rending tenderness of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.  I would never have been touched and gratified to hear one of my students, who likely had never met The Tramp, laugh again and again at the primitive film’s visuals and subtle humor.

I also substitute-taught English for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez.  The head of the community college English department informed me of the opportunity.  I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south.  Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute, which was southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious, clean, and attractive.  Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant, bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar institutional drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish.  The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.   Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devices―I’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it.  In any event, I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert sun and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth until the return of their regular instructor.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I liked them immediately.  After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

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To the Rio Arriba!

Another winter in Anthony passed. 

One day, Linda, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and likely dreading a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, saw in a medical journal a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado.  After a phone call, she flew to Denver, caught a connecting flight, interviewed in Alamosa at a government-funded medical clinic for the indigent, and was offered the job.  With my blessing, she accepted it.  She also ate at a local Mexican restaurant she could not recommend enough to me. 

So, nomads once again. 

I, too, looked forward to the move.  Although I had only the vaguest memory of Alamosa itself, I’d never forgotten that windy spring night when I made the car camp in a piñon woodland on a lower slope of La Veta Pass, and I gazed westward at the chilly, rosy embers of a dying sunset over the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that part of the world at once, although never imagined I’d be living there. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa and the San Luis Valley in books and maps and on the Internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time.  And I liked what I uncovered. 

In the winter of 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike―who historian David Lavender characterized as a “natural dupe . . . earnest, ambitious, dutiful, and naive”―and his men, frozen and nearly starving to death, discovered the valley on behalf of the White race of the fledgling United States during their attempt to find the headwaters of the Red River.  Some eight decades later, journalist Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest (and who, in fact, is credited with coining the geographical name “Southwest”) first beheld the Rio Grande in Alamosa as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

I learned that Alamosa, population about 10,000, is surrounded by farms and ranch lands.  I was hoping this meant there would be the possibility of continuing the semi-rural life we were enjoying, despite the heat, in Anthony.  

Although I handled the desert heat better than Linda, the prospect of cooler summers―Alamosa rarely gets above 90°F―was attractive.  From my days of following weather reports in Denver, I knew Alamosa is routinely the coldest place in Colorado, even the lower forty-eight.  Yet I now learned it is a dry cold: the San Luis Valley, being in the rain shadow of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains, is effectively a vast, if isolated, desert.  The valley’s abundant crops―including lettuce, wheat, and potatoes―receive their water primarily from a huge underground aquifer; its pastures, from water diverted from the Rio Grande, Rio Conejos, and the occasional rains.  Meanwhile, if I wanted to enjoy deep snows, I would easily find them on the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains.  

I learned that the town is home to Adams State College―today known as Adams State University―where I might continue to teach.

I learned that the town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the valley, is the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, and that it was settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Thus, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that Alamosa―Spanish for “cottonwood”―was 45% Latino.  This suited me, as well.  I’d made numerous Latino friends and acquaintances in my decade in New Mexico, and I came to appreciate many aspects of Latino culture beyond simply the food.  “Perhaps because of his love of land,” Erna Fergusson wrote in 1941, “his disinclination to leave his native place, and his ability to enrich an austere life with simple pleasures, the Latin seems to have a basic stability which the Nordic in similar situations lacks.” 

Okay, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  Meanwhile, my life with Linda had been anything but “stable.”  But I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.” 

Finally, I especially liked the fact that the Rio Grande, running as it does through Alamosa, would still be with me, still be a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors.  I tried to imagine the Great River’s character through Alamosa; would it be as different as Anthony’s section of the river is from Albuquerque’s?  I couldn’t wait to see.