creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Teaching Yet Again

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

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

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

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

New Mexico, southwest

Laughin’ and Scratchin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wild Earth’s Nobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To the Rio Arriba!

Another winter in Anthony passed. 

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

So, nomads once again. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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