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

Summers in Maine

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine.  For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau).  Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.

But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat.  And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I.  Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.[1]

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where?  In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away.  However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder―and lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.         


[1] Spoiled?  In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.

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

Home in Maine

We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February.  Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from―frankly, to my surprise―the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts.  I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer; Linda drove the SUV; and we divided the four dogs between us.  We spent six nights on the road to Maine, sleeping in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Utica, New York; and Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.  Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley.  As we let the dogs wander, I ceremoniously brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips.  New York!  Where I went to college, had my first legal beer, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time!  

Four days later we closed on house #4 at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the house on a dead-end road.  The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow.  Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place.  It was the first of many occasions in which Bruce would help us. 

After several days we established a modicum of order in the house.  The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style.  It had a second floor and a unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience.  The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch.  The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic.  The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―guarded, hugged, and canopied our house.  The remaining one-third acre was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness.  Nearly all of the fifteen or twenty other properties on our three-quarter-mile-long road were of similar size.  We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado; on the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy and solitude provided by the crush of trees.

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

Becoming a Nurse

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.      

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

My Valley 9/11

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. 

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

Return to the Great Plains – Part 2 – “Out There”

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.

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

Return to the Great Plains – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ecodefense”?

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work.  One afternoon, while checking the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager.  I phoned the number included in the note, spoke to “Chris,” the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and we agreed to an interview.  Chris told me the interview would be conducted at the KRZA building, where the organization had an office of which I was unaware, even though I had been volunteering once a week at the station.  I knew nothing about the Ecosystem Council.  

In any event, because Wayne identified it as an “environmental organization,” I assumed that, at the very least, it dealt with issues of wilderness defense around the Valley, and this greatly intrigued me.  Here, I thought, was a possible opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engaging in the nuts and bolts of protecting it, a chance to make amends I felt were necessary following my employment at the embattled Albuquerque lumber company. 

The interview occurred with Chris and “Howard,” the latter a Council board member.  There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, my membership in the central New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club, and my master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico.  I felt good about the interview.  However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.

The Council’s small, dank, and dusty office was at a front corner of the radio station’s first floor.  Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains.  Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris; on mine sat a personal computer.  A number of books stood on a shelf.  I was hoping for at least one by Abbey or “ecodefense” champion Dave Foreman, and was disappointed.

The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring.  Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff.  The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company.  The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley, and securing legal advice. 

I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the mailing list database on the computer, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the organization at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects.  I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week.  The independence and solitude suited me.

Chris struck me as a classic representative of a considerable slice of the Valley’s population.  Some 10 years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she indicated that she worked briefly on, of all things, one of David Letterman’s “Late Night” shows―in what capacity, I never asked.  She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind.  She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland.  Her long hair, unstyled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office damp from a shower and shampoo.  Her clothes were always clean, but casual, and many of them might easily have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  Chris was irrepressibly upbeat and generous, and struck me as someone utterly incapable of mind games and power struggles.  From the beginning, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.  

Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my first months of employment.  There were no complaints about road closures or dirt-bike and all-terrain vehicle restrictions.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the Rio Grande National Forest.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors, and the phone rarely rang.  Indeed, I realized that the council was truly unknown.  Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Teaching Yet Again

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

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

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

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

New Mexico, southwest

Laughin’ and Scratchin’

In the two decades prior to moving to Alamosa I had been a regular listener of “public radio” stations (i.e., advertising-free, tax-supported radio stations) in Denver; Albuquerque; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and El Paso.  All of these stations had National Public Radio affiliation and thus all offered various doses of NPR programming.  Among my favorite NPR offerings were the regular shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  So I was pleased―and, given the city’s size and remoteness, surprised―that Alamosa, too, had not only a public radio station, but one affiliated with NPR.  After my arrival, I began listening to KRZA regularly.  In addition to satellite-transmitted NPR programming, the station broadcast music shows of various genres hosted by disk jockeys―all likely self-trained―from the community.  Another locally-produced show that I enjoyed was A las Ocho, which, as its Spanish name indicates, aired at 8 a.m.  A half-hour long, the show discussed news, politics, arts, and entertainment in the KRZA broadcast area.  Linda suggested I inquire about volunteer opportunities, if any, at the station, so one August morning I drove to its location, a predominantly residential neighborhood several blocks south of downtown. 

Located on a corner lot, the station’s two-story, pitched-roof building was old; I would learn it was once a church.  Upon entering the ground floor and witnessing the worn carpeting; old, massive metal and wooden desks; windowsills coated with dust; chipped paint; and general disarray, I determined the station was operating on a very lean budget.  I met some four or five employees and volunteers, men and women ranging from their 30s to their 40s.  One of the employees, Debbie, suggested I might enjoy being a substitute “news host” for the broadcast of Morning Edition

The offer stunned me: Throw me, with absolutely no broadcasting experience, on the air?  Part of me was frightened by the possibility; and yet another part, the one that had enjoyed listening to the radio since I was 10, was intrigued.  I liked the music I’d heard on radio through the years―the AM rock-and-roll and pop, FM progressive rock, country, jazz, even classical.  Equally well I liked what I regarded as the marvelously adept voices―sprinting on AM radio, sauntering on FM―of the disk jockeys; people like Big Dan (“laughin’ and scratchin’”) Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Herb Oscar Anderson, B. Mitchel Reed on New York City radio; Dick Brehm, Gene Amole, Pete Mackay, Bill Ashford, and “Uncle” Mike McCuen on Denver radio; overnight jazz disk jockey Bob Parlocha syndicated on El Paso public radio. And then there was Jean Shepherd, an entirely unique airwave influence.  In the sixties, I listened nightly to this brilliant Indiana humorist―a hip, manic, maestro of improvisation―on New York City’s WOR.  A nonpareil radio storyteller rather than a smooth-talking disk jockey. 

“Sure, I would like to see the broadcast booth,” I answered Debbie, so she began leading me up a dank stairwell to the second floor.  At a landing on the stairwell, posted on a door to the east entrance of the building, was a picture of gaunt-faced novelist William S. Burroughs; from his mouth came a dialogue balloon containing the words “Hasta Pronto.”  

The second floor of the station, chilly even on an August mid-morning, reminded me more of an attic―a dark, cramped, nearly triangular space beneath the pitched roof.  A desk and chairs crowded this area, and CDs and vinyl records stuffed its shelves along the walls.  More CDs and vinyl overflowed from boxes on the floor.  In towers of metal racks were fitted electronic equipment that hummed and winked with dozens of small lights.  En route to the north side of the floor, Debbie pointed out to me the little room where “sound editing” was done.  At the floor’s north end, we passed through a door into cord cordium, the tiny broadcast booth.

The booth was considerably cheerier, owing to the daylight entering through a north-facing, un-openable window, the clarity of its pane and the fresh lumber of its frame clearly indicating that it was not originally part of the building.  The booth’s ceiling was covered with what appeared to be an inverted eggcrate mattress.  On one table sat two phonograph turntables.  On a second table were positioned CD and cassette players; the control console with its myriad dials, buttons, and knobs; a couple of free-standing microphones; and, finally, clamped and rubber-banded to a zig-zagging, retractable metal arm―like the stinger of a scorpion―the main broadcast microphone.  At the console a worn, cushioned desk chair on wheels stood upon a thick sheet of plastic, in various stages of decay and heavily bandaged with duct tape, placed over worn carpeting. 

Sitting in the chair was Tom, a bearded early-70s fellow in a brown leather vest and scuffed, round-toed Western boots: host, Debbie had informed me downstairs, of a weekly “big band” music show.  Tom bobbed to the music issuing from the booth’s speakers, and then turned to me.  “‘Up a Lazy River.’  Mills Brothers,” Tom, grinning, informed me, politely assuming I didn’t know, and he was correct.  “Very nice,” I said as the recording neared its conclusion, then continued, “My dad liked―” 

I paused abruptly as Tom raised an index finger to his lips, slipped on a pair of headphones, and pushed a button on the console.  The speakers went silent, cutting off the ending of the recording, and Tom began speaking into the mic, delivering a rundown of the set he had just completed: “Glenn Miller” . . . “‘Tuxedo Junction’” . . . “Gene Krupa” . . . “The Andrews Sisters” . . . “‘Fly Me to the Moon’” . . . “Benny Goodman” . . . “James Darren . . .”

James Darren? I thought (the old musical top-10 mind at work). Until then, I didn’t know Darren―in my opinion, just one more of those bland Philadelphia late-50s/early-60s pop singers whose recording career was mercifully annihilated with the arrival of The Beatles―was a “big band” vocalist. However, I kept this thought to myself.

As Tom spoke into the mic, a thrill swept through me.  I looked at the combination mic and cord and imagined the hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of people at the other end of it in the first hours of a Valley morning, sipping their coffee; eating their crunchy granola and bran muffins; smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes; vacuuming their geodesic domes; driving to their art galleries, dry cleaners, supermarkets, dental appointments, alfalfa fields, and irrigation ponds; firing up their day’s first joint.  

“I’d love to give it a try,” I said to Debbie as we exited the broadcast booth.

At 4:50 the following morning, pen and notebook in hand, I met Lisa, the regular Morning Edition host, at the station entrance.  Clutching a mug of coffee, she said little as she threw on a light in first floor of the stone-cold building and marched up the stairs with me close behind.  A second-floor light was already on as we proceeded to the broadcast booth.  At the electronics tower, Lisa turned on more switches to “bring up the station”―for the station broadcast nothing, either locally or by satellite, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Another switch activated the satellite transmission of NPR programming, which was well under way out of Washington, D.C.  Meanwhile, I scribbled these procedures madly in my notebook.  A minute before 5 a.m., while I sat and watched, Lisa sat at the console, slipped on the headphones, twirled a dial, coaxed a knob, and, speaking into the mic, identified the station, announced the beginning of the station’s “broadcasting day,” confirmed the station’s licensing credentials, and gave the local time.  She removed the headphones, hit a button, and through the booth’s speakers there was NPR Washington host Bob Edwards introducing the 5 a.m. Mountain Daytlight Time broadcast of Morning Edition

I then followed her downstairs, where, at a personal computer, she went to various websites from which she cut-and-pasted the daily weather forecasts for the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico and―to be broadcast later on A las Ocho―brief news stories of her choice from online local and regional newspapers.  After printing this information, we returned to the second floor.  In the broadcast booth, as I sat at the console, Lisa showed me a printed schedule of regular breaks that occur during the broadcast of Morning Edition, times during which I was free to report the weather forecast and deliver public service announcements, the latter collected in a three-ring binder.  Then I slipped on the headphones and―nervously, clumsily―”hosted” Morning Edition for an hour. 

The following morning, I arrived at the station at 4:45, although this time alone and with a key to the station’s front door.  Shortly before five, I brought the station up, slipped a cassette I brought from home into the player, and segued the station into the broadcast day with country singer Mickey Newbury’s recording of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  I thought this recording was rather appropriate, given that the song opens up with the “dawn . . . silently breaking.”  On the other hand, the singer’s heart is also “silently breaking” because his sweetheart has just left him.  I knew the melancholy recording might cause some listeners to shut off the radio and return to dreamland, but I broadcast it anyway, because I loved it. 

Over the next few mornings, until Lisa’s return, I occasionally stumbled, but generally figured out how to pace myself and navigate through NPR’s airwave traffic.  I took it upon myself to pencil-edit for clarity and brevity some of the clumsily-written public service announcements.  Meanwhile, buzzed on caffeine, with the headphone volume jacked up as I “announced,” I marveled at the various dimensions―the smooth plains, rounded hills, swooping valleys, and sharply-cut canyons―of my, if I did say so myself, rather good radio voice.

And so, at 49, I discovered a new interest.

Uncategorized

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  . . .”