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

Vacationland?

Maine summers had long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s motto was “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, had flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states to the south.  If you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91 degrees and the relative humidity 90 percent, 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 terminated, 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, topped an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80’s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling the New England of my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with fallen, fragrant 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 day’s accumulated heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I, although we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of Denver and, later, the Southwest.[1]


[1]Spoiled?  In July 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. However, 3385 disagreed. 


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

More Men’s Work

After 16 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 comfortable place.  For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for flexibility, balance, and strength, and this had served me well on my job. 

Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and twist and turn in shower stalls without risking permanent injury.  Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt, despite never being much interested in the biological sciences, I had the intelligence to handle such a challenge.  And I’d always admired the Civil War nursing of Walt Whitman.

So, once again with my wife’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the Council and began studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that trained me in nurse aiding.  

Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take foundational courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State. 

Somewhat to my surprise, formal instruction in nursing 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 nearly two 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,” “angiotensin,” and IV infusion.

One day I was pleasantly surprised, moved even, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a specialized 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 presented.  He was a smart, likable Del Norte 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, although perhaps with the help of genetics: Like my former boss Chris, he, too, could have passed for Irish.

Further into my education, 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, desired 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 my wife, 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, 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.  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.  During these procedures, I had my usual ridiculous fantasies―in these cases, not about being a surgeon, but rather about being an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist.  I loved the way these latter two quietly and competently delivered one to La-La Land just before the knives were drawn.   

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.  I “floated” frequently, 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 as well 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, sparsely-populated, and dirty-fingernailed Valley where, it seemed to me, experience, deeds, and grit were more determinate than looks).

I loved and was proud of working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this being 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 40 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 15 years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer.  But, back then, I was hung up on “women’s work.”

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

My Valley 9/11

I learned of 9/11 on the morning of the eleventh of September, 2001, as I drove to the landfill in Monte Vista with a load of concrete remnants from our house construction.  Bob Edwards, 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.  Yet despite marinating in the nightmare via radio, television, and the internet, I felt disconnected from it, the Valley so physically removed from New York City, Washington, D.C., and even a field in Pennsylvania, the Valley’s tallest structures grain elevators and sand dunes.  

Still, in the days that followed, the horror managed to manifest 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 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 faintly blinking lights and slender, snow-white 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.

When the various aircraft resumed operating, I couldn’t look at them, 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 2:00 A.M. one emerging November day, I awoke to my alarm, put on four layers of clothing, and sat in a folding chair in our backyard in 16-degree weather to watch the southern Colorado sky bristle with meteors―the annual 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. 

And 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, drones, and cruise missiles.  You have been, are now, and will always be home to us

An hour later, I returned to my bed and enjoyed the warmth of a vast, old blanket with a new pattern.

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

Dismount

My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, all-terrain motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled, motorized means of transport designed for a driver and, at most, a single passenger―on America’s public-lands trails was born one day in the early 1990’s. 

I was backpacking a trail ascending 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 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 90’s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd, and the surrender of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to that religion. 

At times while making my way 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 limbs and branches to discourage traffic of any kind.  Yet even with 45 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 settled my nerves.



Thus, I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris asked me to represent the Council at a two-day “training event” for ATV and dirt bike operators. 

Aren’t ATV’s and dirt bikes the Council’s sworn enemies? I wondered.  But I didn’t verbally question her request.

The event was held 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, the participants met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon.  Some 25 people, mostly male, were present.  The participants included the instructor, 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 of an ATV “touring” business located in Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely place in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of a dirt bike dealership in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV (off-road vehicle, another name for an ATV) 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,” still another name for an ATV.  Eight quads were provided for our training.  They were militant, muscular, Jurassic, open-aired vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads. 

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 spiriting 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. 

Although superficially 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 rather 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 “track” we were quickly excavating, 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 vehicle, 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 brute force of these machines. 

At the end of the day, we dripped dust.  Meanwhile, a third of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled and clearly bore an eight-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 with the operation of my old friend, the dirt bike.  Some 50 males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, arrived―from where, I had no idea―on their bikes: motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock absorbers and more tires bearing formidable, hungry teeth.  All were dressed in tailored-for-cycling shirts and pants―many in electric colors―helmets, boots, gloves, and what appeared to be Gothic 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.” 

Then, Kenton proceeded to advise the warriors to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of their machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and ravens that chattered―in protest?―on the limbs and branches directly above us.  I could almost hear the attendees salivating when Kenton informed them, to my astonishment, that the Rio Grande National Forest had 800 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.” 

No mystery there. Roz and I exchanged 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 roto-tillery was provided for Roz and me this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles and bade one another 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. 

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 thus concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day smoke- and dust-fest 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, I couldn’t resist returning to Ed Abbey, specifically a 1984 entry in his published journal: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise [sic] takes up more space [sic] inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”

Sadly, by 2001, Ed was well into permanently “missing in action.”  



arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

More About Alamosa and the Valley

In 1944, the San Luis Valley was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

That’s remote.

Even in 1999, in a United States of 280 million, it was not a stretch to characterize the Valley as equally “remote.”    

World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado.  However, despite all the snow that accumulated on the mountains cradling the San Luis Valley, Alamosa was clearly not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs.  The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa was Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt.  The nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, a business offering skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―was Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter drive in the opposite direction.  (And fans of Wolf Creek were more likely to stay overnight in the stylish resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, west of the ski area.)  Being a desert, the central Valley lacked snow sufficient even for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  Meanwhile, rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lacked excitement, for there the river, even when swollen, was nearly bereft of whitewater. 

About the only outdoor recreation the Valley could truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, was romping up and down, on foot, the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  People lived in Alamosa primarily to farm, ranch, and teach at and attend Adams State and the Alamosa branch of Trinidad State Junior College.

Still, the Valley was a permanent home to a wide variety of people, including artists.  Several art galleries were located on Alamosa’s main street.  The city had an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” for the homeless partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank.  The city had a National Public Radio-affiliated station, with a satellite office in Taos, whose signal reached all of the Valley and much of north-central New Mexico.  

The Valley’s citizenry included environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the 1990’s successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range.  The government-funded medical clinic for which Linda worked had satellite clinics throughout the Valley.  Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner was the former mining town of Crestone, a bastion of New Age thought that included a respected school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”

A standard-gauge railroad, once a branch of the famed Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, served the Valley.  Regular, short, slow-moving freight trains from Colorado’s Front Range entered the Valley via La Veta Pass.  From Alamosa, the line branched northwest to serve agricultural interests, and south to serve agricultural and mining interests.  The railroad ran a quarter-mile from our house.  Meanwhile, a narrow-gauge tourist railroad that ran from Antonito, Colorado, in the southern portion of the Valley, to Chama, New Mexico, 35 miles to the southwest, operated daily from late-spring to early-fall, its passenger cars pulled by steam locomotives traversing some of the most spectacular landscapes in the southern Rockies. 

What Linda and I came to like about Alamosa, in addition to its affordability, was its leisurely pace, rural character, breathtaking views, and, thanks largely to its Latino population, a robust Democratic base.

Yes, there was glamor in Alamosa, but it was distant.  Yet those distant mountains watered the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of grains and produce.  Thus, Alamosa was a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.


arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

College Instructor Again

Shortly after arriving in the Valley, I managed to land a job at Adams State College (today officially named Adams State University) as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution―whose 1,300 out-of-town students increased Alamosa’s population to some 10,000 annually―had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods (as opposed to the broader-leafed Rio Grande cottonwoods of New Mexico) shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent.  Brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the norm. 

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. 

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 Adams 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.  Certainly, there were exceptions.  For instance, there was the essay, by a young man, written vividly and coherently, about the joys of masturbation.  I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

Wayne was an adjunct colleague of mine.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, although he was far more experienced than I at teaching, having taught at the secondary-school level as well.  I envied what seemed to be his 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, thus, 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,” understanding, for his own safety as well as enjoyment, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts at a California college and publish a book, Instant Karma, about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a delicate, surgically-mended heart.

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

A Third House, in El Norte

In late May, Linda and I drove to Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring there: 70 degrees, 25 degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above the Valley, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light.  And, in Alamosa itself, there was much more greenery than in a desert New Mexico town.

On the east side of the Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose steeply, 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.  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.  

If any of these ranges included private, as opposed to national forest, land, such land appeared to be sparsely populated.

And, on the east side of the Valley, there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park. 

The heart of the massive Valley was implacably flat.  At times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt as if I were peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain snowmelt fed the rios Grande and Conejos.  Canals and ditches drew from these rivers for cattle-growing 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 are vast stretches of gray desert scrublands. 

Except in the towns and along the rivers, the Valley had few trees. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Most of its neighborhoods looked as if they could have been imported from Ames, Iowa.  There was just a smattering of pueblo-revival structures.  Beyond the town limits, however, there were a number of much newer pueblo-revival style houses.  We made an offer on one of them, and it was accepted. 

Before leaving Alamosa, Linda directed me to a Mexican restaurant she had discovered on her initial visit.  

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Sub

But there was still another semester at the community college to complete.

And, as it happened, an opportunity to substitute teach.  The head of the college English department informed me that a substitute English instructor was needed for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez, and I offered my time. 

I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience, however thin, of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―regular instructors 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 southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious and tidy. 

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 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 suits and ties, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced positions in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devicesI’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. 

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 moon and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth.  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 enjoyed them throughout. 

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.

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

To the North Southwest

Another winter in Anthony passed, and our nomadic life resumed. 

My wife, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and not looking forward to a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, noticed in a medical journal a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado.  She informed me of the opening.

My antennae quivered.  I’d never forgotten that windy, chilly spring night when I made the car camp in a woodland on La Veta Pass, and gazed westward at the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that arid, remote part of the world immediately. 

After a phone call, Linda 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. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa―located in south-central Colorado, 30 miles north of the New Mexico state line―and the San Luis Valley, consulting books, maps, and the internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time. 

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, Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest―and who is credited with coining the name “Southwest”―beheld Alamosa―and, for the first time in his life, the Rio Grande, which runs through Alamosa―as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

My research revealed the following about the modern-day San Luis Valley:

The Valley was over one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut and had a population of some 48,000. 

In the rain shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the central Valley was effectively a desert, although a desert naturally watered by the rios Grande and Conejos, and artificially by a massive underground aquifer―not unlike the arid valleys of Albuquerque and Anthony. 

The Valley stood at an altitude of 7,600 feet, making it the largest alpine valley in the world.  At this altitude, the temperature in the Alamosa rarely reached 90 degrees.  In the winter, the Valley was often bitter cold, but it was a desert-dry cold, and thus far more tolerable than the cold of, say, Buffalo, New York. And if one longed for Colorado’s deep snows, one could find them on the peaks, ridges, and meadows of the surrounding mountains. 

The Valley was farming and ranching country.  Its crops included lettuce, wheat, and potatoes.  Cattle grazed its rangelands.   

The town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the Valley, was the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Hispanic country, indeed:  Latinos comprised 45 percent of Alamosa’s population.  

This demographic suited me.  I’d made Latino friends and acquaintances in my years 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 observed 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.”  Of course, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  However, Fergusson was correct about my life for over a decade now: It had been anything but “stable.” Still, I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.”

Then, the fact that the Rio Grande ran through the heart of Alamosa was an added attraction: The river would still be with me, still remain a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors. 

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

We Gather at the River

If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in Denver and the Southwest, it was a regular plunge into an abundance of fresh water.  I’d known great quantities of fresh water throughout the Northeast―in New Jersey, New York State, Massachusetts, even north-northeast into Ontario. 

Of them, my favorite will forever be a glacier-carved lake cradled in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Connecticut.  Here was my boyhood elixir, water rich with the flavor and aroma of granite, quartz, lilies, sunfish, mussels, white pine root, crayfish, dragonflies, maple leaves, and, to be thorough and honest, this being the old and populous Northeast, gasoline, 6-12, motor oil, beer cans and bottles, Tartan, and sunken wooden rowboats.  But the lake was deep, and nature’s touch always prevailed.

It’s not that New Mexico lacked vast bodies of water.  It was, after all, home to lakes and reservoirs named El Vado, Heron, Cochiti, Elephant Butte, Navajo, Bluewater, Conchas, Fenton, and Storrie.  However, the opportunity to swim, bob, or splash in them had never presented itself.

New Mexico’s rivers and creeks were a somewhat different story.  In the Jemez mountains, I dipped into the icy Rio de Las Vacas, the “River of the Cows.”  In the Black Range, I bathed in the headwaters of the Gila River.  In northern New Mexico’s Porvenir Canyon, I slipped and fell into Hollinger Creek while backpacking.  Maybe it was the time of year, but the flow in each of these watercourses was rather scant, so these freshwater experiences were less than transformative.

Now, however, in Anthony, I had the mighty Rio Grande a mere five-minute drive from my house.            

Our second June in Anthony witnessed eleven consecutive days of temperatures in the low-100’s, coupled with the typical low humidity of early summer.  Some of those days were windy, with the wind-driven heat fit to slice and cauterize the nostrils.  The combination of heat, my pleasant memories of the Connecticut lake, and the possibility that Buddy might be seaworthy turned my thoughts to the nearby river.  So the hound and I headed out.

In Doña Ana County, the Rio ran with few meanders, and its banks were grassy and virtually treeless.  Absent here were the dense, peaceful, and shady bosques of cottonwoods, salt cedar, Russian olive, and willow that bordered the river in central New Mexico. 

Here the river was firmly in the clamp of southern New Mexico agribusiness, which effectively began just south of the Caballo Reservoir dam in the town of Arrey, some 75 airline miles northwest of Anthony.  From Arrey, through the Hatch and Mesilla valleys and into west Texas, the river was bordered by and quenched the thirst of all manner of commercial crops: chile, onions, cotton, corn, pecans, alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and oats.  Tapped by myriad canals and ditches, its flow subject to the gates of several New Mexico dams, a stack of national and international agreements and regulations, and the whims of the weather, the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico looked and behaved like a dull canal, its northern curvaceousness, wildness, and relative sloppiness in times of heavy precipitation merely a memory. 

Yet it was still two banks and a bed that would not be erased no matter how it was utilized.  It still had to flow above ground or below in whatever capacity from the mountains of southwest Colorado to the Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico.    

To my delight, the river was swollen and moving at a brisk pace on that hot afternoon as a dust storm with the odor of ripening onions raged. 

I entered the river at a narrow cleft in the bank where the water, some three feet deep, gently eddied.  The water was chillier than I’d anticipated, no doubt because it had recently been ice and snow in the Rockies and, subsequently, impounded in great, cold depths behind Elephant Butte and Cochiti dams.  Yet I eagerly wandered into it, although only up to my neck: Aware that a facility upriver in Las Cruces deposited that city’s treated waste into the river, I wasn’t about to get any water near any orifices above my shoulders. 

The primal―and gently perilous―thrill of the deep and powerful flow was immediate.  I hadn’t known such a sensation since I bobbed and paddled in the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah, on a fiery July afternoon a decade earlier.  Other than an ocean’s shoreline waves, is there another feeling like it on the planet?  Even if humanity, as in dams, had a considerable hand in the force of this flood, it was still transcendent: the collective plunge of thousands of western mountains and hills to the north; Earth’s very pulse; one example of that great, forever-turning “millwheel,” in Hal Borland’s word, that evaporated ocean water, delivered the moist vapors to the mountains, condensed the vapors into rain and snow, and channeled the rain and snowmelt down canyons and valleys and back to the oceans, to start the remarkable process all over again. 

Not wishing to be borne on the waters to Canutillo, Texas, just downriver, I resisted the current by dog-paddling, but also by planting my feet in the thoroughly sandy riverbed, which created an equally thrilling sensation.  Standing in the river, resisting its current, I stabilized the sand immediately beneath my feet.  The Rio then ate furiously at the surrounding bed, and my feet and the rest of me thus “rose” on two little pedestals of sand.  Then I got creative.  In the shallower water, where the current was nearly as robust, I sat on the bed, drew my knees to my chest, and was soon “hoisted” on a sandy stool.  However, not even this riverbed perch lasted long before the hunger of the current, so I continually planted myself in new places, and cleansed and cooled myself off in the process.  Pure, simple, childlike fun.  Meanwhile, I tried to imagine how many mountains―literally, mountains―of water-driven sand had marched in this manner to the Gulf of Mexico over the eons.

And then, of course, there were the moments when I simply drew up my legs and allowed the Rio to carry me for 20 or so yards.  How often does the Earth provide you with such wondrous transportation?    

As for Buddy, this was likely his first encounter with a broad, deep, moving body of water.  Linda had suspected that he had some retriever in his pedigree, and he perhaps demonstrated this that afternoon.  Watching me in the river, he initially stood on the edge of the bank and whimpered, anxious to join me yet not quite sure what to make of this strange liquid phenomenon.  When he could apparently stand it no longer, he dropped clumsily down the bank and into the water, but then executed a strong, perfect paddle, making his way toward me, occasionally snapping at the bounty for a drink.  (Okay, I had more faith in his constitution than mine.)  Ably resisting the current, he swam to my side in the middle of the river.  I cradled him, expecting him to cease his movements.  However, either out of a sheer desire to explore the river and his natal buoyancy or, more likely, obedience to his survival instinct, he continued to work his legs and paws, so I turned him loose.  

I then stepped and bobbed quickly to the bank, where I grabbed a stick and threw it downriver.  Buddy, still afloat, was on it, watching it as it wafted through the air, pursuing it after it hit the river’s surface.  Finding it after some brief confusion, he snapped it in his jaws, coughed as he clutched it and paddled across the current, and scrambled up onto the bank, where he dropped it.  Curtains of water briefly descended from him, and then water shot in all directions as a vigorous, uninterrupted shake began at his head and ears, traveled through his midsection, and ended at his shimmying butt and tail, a remarkably fluid series of movements unique to most canines and beautiful to behold. 

While he lingered on the bank watching me―he wasn’t stupid; he now knew the muscle of the river and wasn’t going to unnecessarily wear himself out―I grabbed another stick and delivered it over the water.  This time he leapt dramatically from the bank, broke the variously glassy and finely-bubbling river surface with a fan of water, and retrieved it.  Already I sensed he could handle any depth and flow of the Rio, at least as it traveled through Anthony.

In a queer land it was the queerest of afternoons: A hot eastbound river of wind and dust intersecting a chilly, watery flood driving southward, the perfect representation of a parched land eschewing a drink, narrowly perverse but broadly copacetic. 

During the ride home through the yellow world I dried almost completely.  Buddy would take only slightly longer.  At home, I showered quickly.  After all, what could have been more cleansing than the scrub and flush of the Great River? 

That night, pleasantly exhausted, I stripped, crawled between the sheets, and watched a distant lightning show through a north-facing window until sleep arrived.  In the middle of the night, however, a strange sensation awakened me.  I turned on the light, to find myself stretched out on a fine layer of cinnamon-colored river silt.  Too tired to address it, I doused the light and left this thinnest of pedestals to the mercy of my river of dreams.