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

Sorties Real and Imagined Beyond the Valley

My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains and deserts decreased during my years in the San Luis Valley.  The vivid and unimpeded views of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas from our property, coupled with the tranquility of our immediate surroundings, often satisfied my need to light out for the remote. 

Fitness, or a lack thereof, was another factor that kept me at home.  When in mountains, I like to camp at the highest elevations, where one has breathtaking views and the thrill of a nearby lightning strike.  I had the heart, lungs, knees, and ankles required to climb to the nine-, ten-, and eleven-thousand-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico.  However, my body did not do so well when it came to climbing the predominant twelve- and thirteen-thousand-foot elevations of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, and visit the Western wilderness in the richness of literature―in the writings of Frank Waters, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie, Harvey Fergusson, Colin Fletcher, Annie Proulx, and Frederick Manfred. 

Yet I still found the energy to now and again gasp in the south San Juans of Colorado and the Sangre de Cristos that border the San Luis Valley and tower in northern New Mexico.  San Antonio Mountain, a free-standing monolith overlooking the Colorado-New Mexico border just south of Alamosa, had the effrontery to tear my medial meniscus, thus preventing me from reaching its 10,900-foot summit.  A fall on a steep bushwack in the Piñon Hills delivered a hairline fracture to my humerus.  And Buddy and I once drove six hours to my desert playground near Bluff, Utah, to stay for only one night, but a typically magical one. . 

I had to do these things.  Along with the sexual act, they are the most primal, the most authentic experiences I can imagine.  Maurice Herzog, who along with Louis Lachenal was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captures it for me when he wrote: “I believe what I felt [the day of the summit] closely resembles what we call happiness.  I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete.  It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.” (This even after Annapurna “digested” all of Herzog’s fingers and toes via frostbite.)

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

“Women’s Work”

Not long after 9/11, the Council moved its office to a two-room, second-floor accommodation overlooking Alamosa’s main street; its carpet was worn and the office’s “restroom” was a bathroom shared with a stealth family who lived directly across the hallway.  However, over the next two years, my hours at the organization gradually decreased.  Although Chris was working at full capacity, there was no longer even twenty weekly hours for me. 

I didn’t want to leave the organization, so I began considering possibilities for a second part-time job.  I pictured the sheer boredom of selling furniture or clothing on Alamosa’s main street.  And I didn’t want to sort the Valley’s famous potatoes all day long in a frigid warehouse.  

However, Linda had learned that nurse aides were in short supply in the Valley, where there were two hospitals and several long-term-care facilities (what used to be commonly known as “nursing homes”).  So, one day, she suggested that I become a nurse aide.

Wow, that’s different, I thought.  But why not?

Sure, I knew that “nurse aide” is a non-traditional job for a man.  I knew that many men―and women―consider nurse aiding strictly “women’s work.”  And gay men’s work.  But, at that point in my life, I fancied myself something of a non-traditional man.  Ten years earlier, when I was a graduate student in English, I’d done some cooking and housekeeping while my wife worked full time.  From the day we married, I knew my wife, as a physician, would always have three or four times my earning power, and I was comfortable with that.  Because I loved her, she loved me, and I was doing what I wanted to do.  And if there was any “manhood” that needed to be proven to myself or anyone else, I felt I’d already proven it: my job history included tire-factory worker, forklift operator, underground miner, and night-shift cab driver.  I had no desire to return to any of those occupations.  So, if all of this amounted to “liberation,” then yes, I proudly considered myself a “liberated man.” 

It so happened that Alamosa’s branch of a junior college based in Trinidad, Colorado, offered a three-month course to become a certified nurse aide.  So, I applied.

I easily met the admission requirements for the program.  There were about a dozen students in the class, including one man about my age.  With the first stethoscope and sphygmomanometer of my own, I learned how to take a blood pressure.  I learned CPR, how to take a pulse, and measure oxygen saturation.  A Valley physical therapist taught us proper body mechanics in the physical transference of patients and residents.  We were taught how to feed people and safely accompany them as they ambulated; how to shift bedridden people to avoid skin tears; and how to use a gait belt.  A decubitus, or pressure ulcer, was something I’d never heard of until this course, and we were lectured stringently about the dangers of this malady.  We were taught that mattress pads and bottom sheets must be as smooth as possible to avoid ulcers.  We were taught how to perform a bed bath.  We were even taught how to make a bed, including a technique I’d never heard of: “mitering a corner,” which had a geometric beauty I rather admired.

Matching the concern for pressure ulcers was a focus on infection control.  Thus, we were tested in our thoroughness of handwashing: a minimum of twenty seconds, about the time it takes for back-to-back renditions of “Happy Birthday.”  (Of course, this would serve me well when the coronavirus arrived on our shores.)  However, I thought our nurse instructor had gone a bit too far when she insisted, after the insertion of a patient’s pillow into a freshly-laundered case with a minimum of disturbance (disturbance, she reminded us, creates air currents, which can deliver germs), the mouth of the pillowcase must face away from the door to the patient’s room, the open mouth of a pillowcase being a potential catchment basin for hallway germs migrating into the room.  (Well, the instructor did describe herself as “anal.”)

Toward the conclusion of the course, the students were required to spend several days practicing what they had learned at two long-term-care facilities and one hospital in the Valley.  For these events, solid white was required for scrubs, footwear, and socks.  I hated this look―like the Good Humor man or an orderly in a 50s insane asylum.  In any event, my first day as a nurse aide occurred at a long-term-care facility.  It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting day.  I felt I had to feign a sweet-talking tenderness with the facility’s elderly residents so as not to frighten them, an affectation with which I was utterly uncomfortable―so much for the “liberated man.”  I performed “peri care”―hygiene after defecation―on several residents; other than my first experience with sexual intercourse, it was the strangest thing I’d ever done with another person.  I briefly had to single-handedly clean and dress a demented woman who had smeared herself with her own feces―mercifully, a facility aide came to my aid during this episode.  However, at the end of the day, I seriously doubted I wanted to work in a “nursing home.”  Domesticity―the bathing, dressing, bingo, jigsaw puzzles―not healthcare seemed to be the aim in such a facility, which is why I vastly preferred the class field trip to a Valley hospital, where I spent a day actually aiding nurses.

Several months after graduation, I was hired as an aide by Conejos County Hospital, a fifteen-bed facility in the village of La Jara, ten miles south of our house.  I worked three consecutive days, from six a.m. to three p.m., and then took four days off, alternating with one other day aide.  The hospital’s nursing staff consisted of a registered nurse and, depending upon the daily census, one or two licensed practical nurses. 

I worked at the hospital for sixteen months.  Arriving for work in the black-and-blue Valley dawn.  Gently greeting the nurses―in chairs but often asleep, as their shift had begun three hours earlier.  Taking vital signs at a cold dawn on a dying patient as her nine family members looked on, their silence and solemnity recalling that of the Mexican Indians in the “resuscitation” scene in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Getting patients up and toileted by seven.  Distributing breakfasts.  Getting routinely ignored by the hospital’s only rounding physician, a cowboy-booted redneck whom I disliked.  Listening to a spunky female LPN discretely go on about the joy of receiving oral sex.  Occasionally sharing liberal political views and a bag of potato chips with the hospital’s Birkenstocksed ER doc, whom I did like.  Learning about the care of patients with MRSA.  Slogging through a Thomas Wolfe novel in the afternoons when the pace had slowed.  Watching in discrete disbelief as a sweet, stoic long-term patient with pulmonary edema swell up like the Michelin Man, his skin glazed as if with plastic―and eventually die, his normally-composed wife now howling in grief in the hallway outside his door.  Attending a baby shower for an LPN’s first-born.  Assisting in my first “I&D,” or incision and draining: stunned as I watched pus fountain endlessly from a patient’s back.  Wearing scrubs of any color I chose.  

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

Altitude Sickness

My work at the Ecosystem Council progressed.  I expanded the organization’s mailing list in fits and starts.  I composed the annual letters to the half-dozen or so foundations that provided the council with the bulk of its funds―$5,000 here, $8,000 there.  I learned how to compose a lengthy newsletter online, the bits, bytes, and pixels of which were then sent to a local business that created the hundreds of hardcopies, which were subsequently mailed.  Then, with the help (at no cost) of a retired tech wizard living in Crestone―the quirky, quiet little new age place was a surprising Zen garden of talent―I created the organization’s first website.  The wizard then explained to me how to get maximum exposure for the council via a relatively new “search engine” he recommended above all others―something with the goofy name of Google. 

Perhaps the issue of greatest concern during my employment at the council was a proposed resort―cozily if unimaginatively named “The Village at Wolf Creek”―capable of accommodating eight thousand people on some three hundred acres of private land adjacent to the family-owned, modest, and relatively remote Wolf Creek Ski Area.  Surrounded by national forest land and the ski area, which leased its acreage from the national forest, the private land was acquired in an 80’s land swap of shady nature between the United States Forest Service and a Texas land development company: three hundred acres of lush forest and wetlands just below the apex of storied Wolf Creek Pass for sixteen hundred acres of, in the words of one environmental advocacy organization, “degraded rangeland” in the San Luis Valley.  The council was opposed to the development, which was being bankrolled primarily by a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in automobile sales and communications. 

My job was to explain to the council’s supporters, via newsletters and fundraising letters, the primary threats this development at the headwaters of the Rio Grande posed, including water, air, and light pollution; traffic jams; and wildlife disturbance.  My job was also to attend and document townhall meetings arranged to discuss the proposed development and to participate in and document fields trips to the proposed development site to examine its potential environmental impacts.  The council was aided by various non-profits in southern Colorado, with the legal muscle provided by an organization based in the chic southwestern Colorado town of Durango. 

The billionaire―a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team and Denver Nuggets basketball team―never to my knowledge during my tenure at the council made an appearance either in the Valley or at the proposed development site.  His partner in the venture, an Austin, Texas, land developer and chief executive of the company that would build the project, represented him at “townhall meetings” in Del Norte, Creede, and South Fork, towns all nearby to the ski area.  In his fifties or sixties, this soft-spoken―disarmingly so, I thought―man made an obvious effort to affect a casual, down-home look.  His jeans were faded and his boots scuffed.  He wore a leather jacket.  Ralph Lauren?  Perhaps.  But it was sufficiently worn and faded to challenge any conclusions that might have been drawn from the brand name.  He had a thick, plump, and curvaceous crown of hair that never quite melded with the straight grain of hair on the sides and back of his head and thus, to me, whispered “hair piece.”  A perfect “mountain man” for the new millennium, he was rarin’ to seduce any skeptical local.    

Here was a clash that had all the makings of an environmental activist’s dream or a zesty plot of a John Nichols novel: a Texas billionaire who made a killing in automobiles, broadcasting, and sports franchises, wanted to couple with the modest owners of a ski area―small, but renowned for its prodigious snows and challenging runs―on the top of the United States in order to create a commercial hell.  

The battleground was effectively a combination of Mineral County, which contained the private parcel and the ski area, and, at the nearby lower elevations, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties.  These were the three counties to which the development team primarily pitched its project, not only because the project required the Mineral County commissioners’ approval, but also because the three counties, in the opinion of the team, were “economically depressed” and would thus benefit hugely from the jobs generated by the project.  Opponents of the project countered that the jobs in the completed development would mainly involve low-paying work waiting tables, making beds, and cleaning toilets.  

Another, somewhat peripheral, argument against the project was the possibility of widespread altitude sickness among the resort’s guests.  The planned resort would stand at roughly 10,400 feet.  Altitude sickness is possible above 8,000 feet.  Its milder symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, and vomiting―which prompted on my part frankly comical visions of Dallaseños lined up outside of The Village at Wolf Creek gift shop and convenience store for jumbo bottles of Tylenol or clutching stylish Village lampposts for dear life as they ralphed, on fourteen inches of new powder, the previous evening’s meal of margaritas and fish tacos.  More seriously, acute altitude sickness can lead to potentially fatal pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which can only be arrested by immediate descent to a lower altitude or prompt oxygen administration on site.

And yet, despite its delicious possibilities, The Village at Wolf Creek controversy lacked the drama that I had anticipated―and, frankly, hoped for.  At the townhall discussions, no punches were thrown.  No obscenities were exchanged.  No accusations of “Tree hugger!” or “Rapaciousness!”.  No tires were slashed in parking lots.  No guns were drawn.  Try as I might, I could not bring myself to particularly dislike the developer and his frequent sidekick, the project’s “local project manager,” a grinning, chubby-cheeked young man from Del Norte who worked in sporting goods and real estate.  The townhall meetings were always calm, courteous affairs.  

Meanwhile, the technicalities and legal maneuvers of the battle, which I made little effort to understand―that was, after all, Chris’s job―ground on and on and on.  And on.  Much of this Jarndyce and Jarndyce tedium, which proved to be to the opposition’s benefit, was due to the fact that public land surrounded the land owned by the developers, and the opposition was fighting for every single one of the 750 public feet the developers needed to connect their proposed resort to nearby highway 160.  Why the architects of the original land swap didn’t anticipate this snag was beyond me.  Week after week, month after month, it was nothing but “environmental impact statements,” “public comments,” “higher court rulings,” “lower court rulings,” “judges,” “riders,” “NEPA” processes, “easements,” “collusions.”

Today, 2021, not a cubic yard of cement for The Village at Wolf Creek has been poured.  Meanwhile, the proposed development has an official website, which includes the motto “mountain solitude reimagined.”

Well, one element of the development, at least on the website, has been “reimagined.”  A long-distance photo, obviously depicting idyllic summertime on the development’s acreage, presents a dark-green, obviously robust conifer forest.  However, when I returned to Wolf Creek Pass in the summer of 2018, I witnessed this same acreage, although now rather different in appearance: an acreage―in fact, an entire pass―ashen with trees, thousands of them, dead from global warming.  Unless these trees are cut down―or preserved and painted?―this is what residents will see at The Village at Wolf Creek: a conifer graveyard.[1] 

Imagine! 


[1] As of 2021, the battle over “The Village at Wolf Creek” is still being waged in the courts. The Council’s website (slvec.org) lists as one of its 2021 goals: “Update the citizenry about the importance of protecting Wolf Creek Pass from unbridled development and keep the public informed about the Federal Court Case that will be decided sometime early this year. Then, respond in an appropriate manner to the Judge’s decision.”

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

Frankly, I’d Rather Mount . . . oh, Never Mind

My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, off-asphalt motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled motorized vehicles designed for an operator and no passengers―on America’s public-land trails was born one day in the early 90s. 

I was hiking a trail to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest.  A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed.  Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation.  Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely just a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman.  By the 90s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd and, sadly, the sell-out of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.  In places en route to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery.  The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with trunks, limbs, and branches to discourage traffic of any kind.  Yet even with forty-five pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute.  Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake soothed my nerves.

So I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris, my Ecosystem Council boss, asked me to represent the organization at a “training event” for ATV operation. 

Aren’t ATVs the council’s sworn enemy? I wondered.  But I didn’t verbally question her request.

It was a two-day affair on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa.  I commuted to the event both days. 

The first day, we met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon.  Some twenty-five people, mostly male, were present.  The participants included the instructor, who was an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee from Play Dirty ATV Tours of Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely area in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of Fay Meyers Motorcycle World in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area. 

The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad”: as near as I could figure, another name for an ATV.  Eight quads were provided for our training.  They were militant little vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads―infant stegosauri.  The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses.  As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and delivering me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor.  So much for subtlety, I thought. 

Meanwhile, What in the hell am I doing here? I wondered. 

Although I was perfectly cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event.  Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt out of place.  She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads.  Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie.  I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery. 

Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “practice track,” our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust.  When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”  On his own machine, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed.  But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the size and brute force of these quads. 

At the end of the day, we all dripped dust.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled, and bore a nascent 8-foot-wide circular dirt track―the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.

The following day, we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead.  Far more people attended this event, which dealt primarily with the operation of dirt bikes―bare-bones motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock-absorbers and more tires bearing formidable teeth.  Some fifty males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20s and 30s arrived―from where I had no idea―in their electric-blue-and-orange shirts and pants, helmets, boots, gloves, and breastplates.  Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail. 

An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.”  We were advised to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of our machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and crows that chattered on the limbs and branches above us as Kenton lectured.  I could almost hear the attendees salivating when he informed them―to my astonishment―that the Rio Grande National Forest had eight hundred miles of trails available for motorized use.  When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” With this, Roz and I exchanged knowing looks. 

At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature.  No off-road machinery was provided for Roz and myself this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles as we bid each other goodbye.  I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our national forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck.  There was more day to dawn and the sun was but a morning star.

On the drive home, I reflected.  I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead.  She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.”  I concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day event was simply to increase the visibility of the council with Colorado’s public lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots. 

Still, on the drive home, I returned to unexpurgated Ed Abbey, specifically an entry in his journal in 1984: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise takes up more space inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”

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

Messianic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry Lopez (1945-2020)

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Snow in the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

More Fall in the Valley, More Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Nooooo. Chile Grown in Colorado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, Viva Pee-EB-low!