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To the North Southwest

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

Linda, 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. 

After a phone call, she flew to Denver, caught a connecting flight, interviewed in Alamosa at a government-funded medical clinic for the indigent, and was offered the job.  With my blessing, she accepted it. 

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. 

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.  What I discovered about Alamosa and the Valley at the end of the 20th century largely holds true today.   

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 courses through Alamosa―as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

The Valley is over one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut and has 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 is a desert, although a desert naturally watered by the rios Grande and Conejos, and artificially by a massive underground aquifer.  The Valley stands at an altitude of 7,600 feet, making it the largest alpine valley in the world.  At this altitude, the temperature in the Valley rarely reaches 90 degrees.  In the winter, the Valley is often bitter cold, but it is a desert-dry cold, and thus, many in the Valley would maintain, more tolerable than the cold of, say, Buffalo, New York.    If one longs for Colorado’s deep snows, she or he can find them on the peaks, ridges, and meadows of the surrounding mountains. 

The Valley is farming and ranching country.  Its crops include lettuce, wheat, and potatoes; Hereford and Angus cattle graze its rangelands.   

The town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the Valley, is the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Meanwhile, Latinos comprise 45 percent of Alamosa’s population.  This suited me very well.  I’d made Latino friends and acquaintances in my decade in New Mexico, and I came to appreciate many aspects of Latino culture beyond simply the food.  “Perhaps because of his love of land,” Erna Fergusson wrote in 1941, “his disinclination to leave his native place, and his ability to enrich an austere life with simple pleasures, the Latin seems to have a basic stability which the Nordic in similar situations lacks.”  True, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  Meanwhile, my life with Linda had been anything but “stable.”  But I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.”

The fact that the Rio Grande runs through the heart of Alamosa was comforting, certainly 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.

 

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We Gather at the River

If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in 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, Tartan, beer bottles, and sunken rowboats.  But the lake was deep, and nature’s touch always prevailed.

It’s not that New Mexico lacks vast bodies of water.  It is, 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 cosmic.

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 runs with few meanders, and its banks are grassy and virtually treeless.  Absent here are the dense, peaceful, and shady bosques of cottonwoods, salt cedar, Russian olive, and willow that border the river in central New Mexico.  Here the river is firmly in the clamp of southern New Mexico agribusiness, which effectively begins 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 is bordered by and quenches the thirst of all manner of commercial crops: chile, onions, cotton, corn, pecans, alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and oats, with an occasional dairy farm accompanying these acreages.  Tapped by myriad canals and ditches; its flow subject to the gates of New Mexico’s Caballo, Elephant Butte, and Cochiti dams, a stack of national and international agreements and regulations, and the whims of the weather; the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico looks and behaves like a dull canal, its northern curvaceousness, wildness, and relative sloppiness in times of heavy precipitation merely a memory. 

Yet it is still two banks and a bed that will not be erased no matter how it is utilized; it still must 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 evaporates ocean water, delivers the moist vapors to the mountains, condenses the vapors into rain and snow, and channels 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 that 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.

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.  

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Albuquerque’s Great River

Just west of Old Town runs the legendary Rio Grande, depending on how it is measured, either the fourth- or fifth-longest river system in North America.  While a Colorado resident, I surely crossed it several times during my jaunts to the southern part of the state and northern New Mexico, most likely in the town of Alamosa.  During our Lawrence Ranch rendezvous, Linda and I witnessed the river from a bridge eight miles west of Taos; however, the river barely resonates there, for it is narrow through this stretch and buried in a canyon 500 feet deep.  And, of course, I glimpsed its scant flow as my father and I drove to and from Taos. 

Still, before moving to New Mexico, the Rio, to me, was far more a mere geographical feature in a Hollywood western or an element of a comic Johnny Mercer song about an “old cowhand” than an actual watercourse.  Rolling into the city on that Valentine’s Day evening, I didn’t actually see the river, but I certainly sensed it in the gulf of space between the east and west uplands that cradle the heart of Albuquerque.  Now, as a new Albuquerque resident, I realized the river was, literally and figuratively, central to the city.    

Tootling around Albuquerque’s center in Little Red during my first week, I crossed the river on Central Avenue.  While doing so, I first marveled at the woods, commonly known in the city by the Spanish name bosque, of cottonwood, willow, and Russian olive that border, narrowly but densely, each side of the river.  What precious slices of nature in the middle of this city of 380,000!  What encouraging foresight that the bosque wasn’t flattened and replaced with concrete levees, lawns, asphalt, parking garages, and luxury condominiums.  Then, continuing onto an unimposing beam bridge, my eyes darting left and right, I glimpsed the Great River itself, although in late February it wasn’t so “great.”  The snow packs of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico had yet to contribute to it, and Cochiti Dam, not far upriver, had yet to release much, if any, of its impounded waters for irrigation purposes, so the Rio, some 40 yards wide here, looked almost feeble as it braided through islands of sand, here and there exposing a snagged, sodden tree limb. 

I marveled at this serene wilderness corridor through the clamor and clutter of Albuquerque.  It was obviously a part of the city, yet at the same time oddly―and alluringly―apart from it, seemingly inviolate.  The river’s February want did not trouble me.  On the contrary, that the river was shrunken and slow-moving made it all the more inviting: I felt as if I could, if I was so crazily inclined, hike its string of sandbars north to Alamosa or south to Matamoros, Mexico, through forest or desert, abundance or penury, the spring freshets eventually erasing any trace of me. 


  

Such were my first views and impressions of Albuquerque.  I’d been a city-dweller for nearly all of the fifteen years since I graduated from college, and this new city agreed with me.  As did, especially, its surroundings: No matter where I happened to be in Albuquerque, I was nearly always accompanied by a vast, vibrantly blue sky and the uplifting sight of a near or distant mountain or mesa.  As Albuquerque author Erna Fergusson once observed, “This grandeur of nature so near is not without influence in the town.”