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“Mexican” Food: Albuquerque

I had little sense of Linda’s regard for Mexican food while we were still living in Denver. When we reunited in New Mexico, however, we both went for it full bore.  In 1988, there were scores of Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.  During our first couple of years in the city, we sampled 10 to 20 of them, but eventually patronized two on an almost weekly basis. 

Los Cuates was located next to a barber shop in an old strip mall in East Albuquerque.  Like Chubby’s, it had a tiny waiting room at its entrance.  The relatively small dining area consisted strictly of booths, no tables.  A number of the red vinyl bench seats were lumpy: shift as you might on them, you invariably found one buttock on a precipice, the other in a sinkhole.  The servers were generally full-figured Latinas―an encouraging sign, I concluded, in a Mexican restaurant.  For starters, I’d order a “Pape-see,” which was served with crushed ice in a large plastic tumbler.  Heaven began with the arrival of the complementary tortilla chips and salsa, both of which I relished.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten; it still is.  It had bite, of course.  Beyond that, it was thoroughly red―dark red―and smooth, thick, and slightly sweet; indeed, it was the sweetness that set it apart.  The tortilla chips always arrived warm and glistening with a wisp of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung to the chip, never bailed to your chest or lap on its way to your watering mouth.  Then, “This plate’s hot,” the server always warned me as she casually set down my usual order, an oven-fresh platter of cheese enchiladas swimming in chile verde sauce, the sauce bubbling menacingly at the platter’s edges.  I could never fathom how the naked fingers of these servers withstood the heat, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table.  Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile was thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch, Los Cuates offered a complementary bowl of natillas, a custard of milk, eggs, and cinnamon, for dessert.  This creamy concoction calmed the walls of the mouth and throat, eased one into the blaze of a New Mexico afternoon.

Sadie’s was located not far north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley, and a Lebanese woman operated it.  (Lebanese?  Greek?  Who cared, as long as it was good.)  Sadie’s, too, began your meal with a complementary serving of salsa and chips, a veritable mountain of them.  Chile verde is what kept me returning to Sadie’s.  The diner was introduced to it immediately, for it was the foundation of the restaurant’s salsa, a dull green-gold concoction flecked with chile seeds that, because they are magnets for capsaicin, exploded like firecrackers in the mouth.  Sadie’s salsa was far thinner than that of Los Cuates, so one had to apply it to the chip carefully and minimize gesticulation when delivering it to the mouth.  As always at Sadie’s, I ordered the enchiladas con queso with chile verde.  Unlike nearly all of the Mexican restaurants Linda and I sampled, Sadie’s offered you the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on your entree.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, during which time the rumble of a careening bowling ball and the thunder of clobbered pins seemed to anticipate the drama of the imminent meal, I ordered the “hot” sauce on my enchiladas, attempting to develop a liking for it.  But I failed repeatedly.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after each meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.

Linda and I didn’t limit our consumption of Mexican food to Albuquerque.  In Las Vegas, New Mexico, I took a liking to the red chile at Johnny’s, a restaurant whose beams were hung with frontier Americana and walls were covered with photographs of celebrities―well, regional celebrities―that bore their scribbled testimonials.  Nearby, at a restaurant on the town’s plaza, Linda, often adventurous when dining, once ordered for the first time chicharrones, deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexican―as in the United Mexican States―food.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites; although she is a sophisticated diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening.  The El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrees, their sopapillas―light, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

By far the most oddly-named Mexican restaurant we frequented in Albuquerque was the Sanitary Tortilla Factory.  While we were expanding our waistlines there, we couldn’t help but wonder: “sanitary” as compared to what?  I was surprised and impressed by the four-page 1984 New Yorker magazine profile of the downtown restaurant that was framed on one of its walls.   However, the Tortilla Factory fell out of our favor, although not because of the quality of its food, which was consistently high, or, for that matter, its hygiene.  After a dozen visits, we realized our final charges were being regularly arrived at not electronically, but as a result of the mental arithmetic―the creative mental arithmetic―of the regular cashier, and that we were being routinely overcharged―true, only by nickels and dimes, but enough to add up, and to irk us.

Monroe’s, Tiny’s in Santa Fe, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta in Española, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, Little Anita’s, The Owl Café in San Antonio, Mac’s La Sierra, El Norteño: the number of Mexican restaurants Linda and I visited, individually and together, multiplied rapidly in just a matter of months in New Mexico.  We just couldn’t get enough of that heavenly chile.  It held us hostage, excited some heretofore unknown receptor in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like the desert takes to silence and stillness.

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Four Corners Sojourn – Part 4

Determined to get even closer to the Four Corners, and certain that I would be sleeping under a sea of stars, I left Shiprock, heading west into Arizona. As I drove, I knew that somewhere not far to the south loomed the legendary rock formation that gave Shiprock its name, but I was unable to see it in the darkness beyond the lights of my car.

At a place named Teec Nos Pos, I pushed north on an even more remote highway, well aware that it was late, yet hoping that, in the light of a new day, I would find myself among those grand and colorful mesas and canyons, vibrating with broken rock, that I associated with Moab. After some five miles, I paused at the junction of a road that, according to a sign, led to the Four Corners Monument. I consulted my map: the monument was less than a mile away. I stepped out of the car, its motor and lights off. When my eyes adjusted to the starlit darkness, I looked around: no grand cliffs and canyons, not even a manmade structure; just a bland, rolling, nearly treeless upland. Thus, my introduction to the Four Corners: a cartographer’s curiosity, and some additional income for the Navajo nation (an entrance fee to the monument was required), but beyond that, not much. Small wonder each state provided a mere corner of itself to the place.

I resumed my drive in a northeasterly direction, but, exhausted, I soon stopped. Wary of sleeping on the ground so close to the highway, yet equally wary of bumbling off into the gloom with a loaded pack on my back without a flashlight, I lowered the back seat of Little Red, raised the hatchback, crawled in like a furtive high-desert creature. I didn’t know which of four possible United States I was in, and the mystery gave me a cheap thrill. Crumpled in my car, I spent a nearly sleepless night.

Dawn found me, to my surprise, at the top of a slope that led briefly down to a broad river, the San Juan, which I had skirted in Shiprock the previous night. I hastily repacked my gear and continued northeast. I passed a sign welcoming me to Colorado, so I assumed I spent the night in New Mexico. I crossed the San Juan, which flowed through a dismal landscape of barren gray hills, its shoreline dense with squat trees yet to leaf out. Other than the highway and a littered parking area beside a brief trail that led to the river bottomland, the area was devoid of any traces of humanity.

Immediately upon climbing out of the river basin, I pulled the car over and had a breakfast. Hungry as I was, I would have liked five scrambled eggs smothered in chile verde, a side of chorizo sausage, and two ten-inch flour tortillas, but I settled for my stewed apricots and coffee. As I ate, I studied Shiprock, not the city, but the actual geological formation, the Navajos’ “rock with wings.” It stood 25 miles to the southeast, aglow in the sunrise, jutting above a horizon of dun-colored tableland, like a lone, worn tooth of a saw blade.

Driving on, I turned, at a junction as desolate as the one that led to the Four Corners, onto a highway that led west to Bluff, Utah. After Aneth and Montezuma Creek, two reservation towns of ramshackle trailer homes, cars and trucks on blocks, muddy roads, and roaming dogs, I finally returned, just east of Bluff, to the red rock country that recalled Moab. Bluff was a tiny, tidy town with a grocery store, motel, homes that were actually built there, and even some lawns. Great sandstone formations hugged the north side of the town.

I didn’t linger there. Under mostly cloudy skies, I pressed on to a place northwest of Bluff with the alluring name of Valley of the Gods. I plunged and climbed through a massive canyon at the bottom of which ran Butler Wash. More gigantic rock formations appeared, although these were less angular, because far more curvaceous, than those in the Moab area. They stood upon a sea of the most beautiful combination of native soil and plant life I’d ever witnessed. Even under cloudy skies, the soil was vibrantly red as chile powder and peppered with diminutive green shrubbery accented occasionally by a juniper tree. As the man himself had lovingly proclaimed two decades earlier: “Abbey’s country.”

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First Exploration Beyond Albuquerque – Part 1

My curiosity was not limited to Albuquerque during that first week.  I was eager to explore the undeveloped lands beyond the city’s limits.  Of all American cities, including Southwestern cities, Albuquerque is surely unique in that it is surrounded by four distinctly different landscapes: forested mountains to the north, shortgrass prairie to the east, classic desert to the south, and arid plateau country to the west.  Finally, of course, it is sliced by a fifth: the riparian area of the Rio Grande. 

Of these, it was the plateau country that I initially explored.  That grand, empty stage that loomed at the western edge of the city constitutes the extreme southeastern region of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among the United States of America, meet.  It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also contains scattered mountain ranges, many of them forested.  I wasn’t a complete stranger to it.  In the year prior to my move to New Mexico, I twice visited southeast Utah, where the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, carved primarily by the Colorado and San Juan rivers, are given fullest expression. 

To gain the plateau country as quickly as possible, I headed west in Little Red on I-40.  After crossing the Rio Grande, I climbed steeply for some seven miles to the rim of my stage.  Beyond the rim and its fretwork of several small businesses, there exploded a grassy and nearly treeless upland beneath a vast sky.  A mountain range, barely forested and certainly diminutive by Colorado standards, loomed above the horizon to the southwest; visible, as well, from many parts of Albuquerque, I would later know it as the Sierra Ladrones.  A gradual climb of several more miles led me to a crest and then a view that rivalled the one my father and I had witnessed on our trip to Taos: a massive basin, also predominantly treeless and uninhabited.  The distant western horizon was a nearly a solid string of mesas, those queer flat-topped formations.  To the northwest rose a forested mountain, a snow-covered flank of which shone in the morning sunlight; I would soon identify it as Mt. Taylor, one of the four “sacred mountains” of the Navajos and Pueblos.  The basin contained a lone, barren hill; its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─I later calculated, was roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey; yet it was merely one more marble in the huge satchel that was this basin. 

While plummeting to the basin’s depths, I passed some acreage that was eroded, strewn with trash and old automobile tires, and almost completely stripped of vegetation.  A half-dozen cattle wandered upon it, effortlessly raising puffs of dust.  Yet, I was barely troubled by the obvious connection between this appalling devastation and the presence of the livestock, still of the opinion that a dusty, shit-smeared cow was as natural and welcome a presence on the Southwestern landscape as the coyote, black bear, mule deer, cougar, and nuthatch; this attitude would change.  At the bottom of the basin, sunk in a shallow, dirt-walled, tree-and-brush-choked canyon, a mere scratch in the land, there ran a slender watercourse, although now one just occasionally puddled.  Two concrete bridges delivered nearly all of the interstate traffic across this grim bottomland and silent riverbed.  A third conveyance, a steel truss bridge obviously from a much earlier era, barely two lanes wide and rusting, was part of a frontage road that served a convenience store and gas station just east of the canyon.  An exit sign identified this forlorn outpost, and, presumably, the watercourse accompanying it, as Rio Puerco.  To me, the feebleness of this “river” didn’t at all the square with the hugeness of the basin that stretched to the northern and southern horizons, but then I was still unappreciative of that river known as time.  From the basin the interstate climbed and dipped a couple more times before delivering me to yet another plateau.  Upon it another queer landform appeared: a massive ramp of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like a piece of warped linoleum. 

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Albuquerque’s Great River

Just west of Old Town runs the legendary Rio Grande.  While a Colorado resident, before knowing Linda, I surely crossed it several times during my jaunts to the southern part of the state and northern New Mexico, most likely in the city 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 resonated then, for it was narrow through this stretch and buried in a canyon 500 feet deep.  Thus, before moving to New Mexico, the Rio, to me, was far more a mere idea in a Hollywood western or 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 the city’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, I thought; what refreshing foresight that they weren’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.  In any event, I marveled at this serene and seemingly inviolate wilderness corridor through the clamor and clutter of Albuquerque.  It was obviously a part of the city, yet at the same time oddly apart from it.  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 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.” 

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Nick! Nick! Nick! . . . Ftt! Ftt! Ftt! . . . Indians!

Once, Linda drove north and I drove south to get together at the Lawrence Ranch, as in the British author D.H. Lawrence, just north of Taos, New Mexico.  In 1924, the ranch property, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was essentially gifted to Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, by Taos patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan.  In 1955, Frieda donated the ranch to the University of New Mexico.  As a fellow in infectious disease at the university, Linda was given preferred access to the ranch’s facilities, which included several rustic cabins. 

For myself, I knew nothing about the ranch, and my knowledge of the bearded, wraith-like Lawrence was scant.  In high school, I read his short story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” about a boy who has an uncanny ability to pick winners at the racetrack.  In 1969, I laughed at the scene in the film Easy Rider in which a disheveled, unshaven, hungover ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson toasts Lawrence on the streets of a putative hick town (in real life, Las Vegas, New Mexico) with a breakfast slug of Jim Beam followed by a primitive war cry, some peculiar utterances, and a final gasp of “Indians!”  I saw director Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Lawrence’s novel Women in Love when it was first released, and had never forgotten the remarkable scene in which actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed playfully wrestle “Japanese style”: in the nude before a roaring fire.  Although I never studied him at length at Hobart, I knew Lawrence was regarded as a giant of English literature, and I looked forward to experiencing something so palpably associated with him as the New Mexico ranch. 

On the afternoon of our rendezvous, Linda and I lay on our backs in the sweet, soft summer grass of the ranch property, marveling at the color and clarity of the New Mexico sky―surely not unlike Lawrence some sixty-five years earlier, for, as Lawrence Clark Powell observed, D.H. “preferred to write out of doors, seated on the ground, with his back against a tree.”  In the midst of this reverie, Linda asked me to focus, really focus, on my vision and, summoning her medical knowledge, drew my attention to something as present as the clouds in the sky, yet something of which I’d been largely unaware all my life: the variously configured specks, known as floaters, in the vitreous of my eyes that skated in all directions as if upon the azure New Mexico heavens.  I regarded this as not only a fascinating anatomical lesson, but also, of course, as one more charming moment between us.  That night, in one of the cabins, the charm was tested as, each in a short and crude wooden bunk, we both tossed and turned.  But we survived, albeit exhausted, to witness a beautiful morning of more clouds and floaters.

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I Two-Step into Love

Meanwhile, I continued to grope for some kind of future in the Mile High City.  My sister had left Denver, returning to the Northeast to live with her new husband.  I drifted back to a Denver college, studying at various times drawing, community service development, accounting, computer science.  I worked as a bookkeeper, bus boy, janitor, handy man, pre-school aide, cab driver, computer operator.  I lived merely from day to day, never imagining leaving Denver.  I dated many women, had flings with several, yet never found one to whom I was willing to open my heart.  Until, that is, my fondness for country-and-western music eventually led me to a class in such country dances as two-step, schottische, and waltz.  There I met a woman, a long-time Coloradan, with whom I fell in love.  Her career as a physician was soon to take her to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Before long, we were agreeing to join one another there.

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The Southwest of Music and Photographs

During these years, the Southwest also reached me through music, photographs, and literature.  Growing up in New Jersey, I was never far from a radio, and I enjoyed, on the pop music stations, the country-and-western “cross-over” recordings of such artists as Roger Miller, Leroy Van Dyke, Bobby Bare, the Statler Brothers, and Tammy Wynette.  In Denver, I naturally gravitated to an AM station that played nothing but country music, and soon I was purchasing country albums.  I particularly loved listening to Marty Robbins’s ballads set in El Paso, Texas, the “badlands” of New Mexico, and the remote town of Agua Frio, Arizona; Johnny Cash’s “You Wild Colorado,” his spare acoustical paean to the major American river of the same name; Johnny Rodriguez’s musical tale of hitchhiking to Mexico; and tenor Freddie Fender (born Baldemar Huerta) singing, in Spanish as well as English, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Photographs had interested me ever since I was a child and first opened Life’s Picture History of World War II, which stood tall and weighty on my parents’ bookshelf.  So, one day at the main branch of the Denver Public Library, I marveled at Ansel Adams’s Photographs of the Southwest─109 black-and-white “plates” that reveal the strange landscapes and rugged peoples of the Southwest from Texas to California and Mexico to Utah.  Yet, for me, a more lasting feature of this book is Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It is an evocative, poetic piece that is particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to said beauty by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identifies a number of authors─lesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college English major, but, in Powell’s estimation, often no less talented─who had for over a century produced memorable fiction and non-fiction about the Southwest.  Later, in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth; no writer wrote with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.

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Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister and I visited the Pawnee Buttes, eighty-five miles northeast of Denver, on the Great Plains.  Until that day, my explorations in Colorado never took me any farther east than the edge-of-the-plains city of Pueblo.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as the surface of sheet iron, nor the occasional polyp of a high-plains farming or ranching community held any attraction for me. 

Until, that is, the day I visited the twin buttes, which, along with their surroundings, entranced me.  Standing within a half-mile of one another, both breast-like formations were some three-hundred feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stood in appalling solitude on the green sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounded them for dozens of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seemed inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They had a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, sphinxes, the ferry boats of my childhood.  On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took about twenty minutes.  Spreading from its southern base was a maze of deep, barren arroyos: a mini-badland, nervous intaglio to the butte’s serene cameo, that extended for a quarter-mile before surrendering to the insistent plains smoothness.  

It took me another twenty minutes to climb to the butte’s anvil-like peak.  From this eminence I saw the Great Plains as never before.  Its implacable flatness calmed my soul.  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a weight upon the land, a powerful presence.  My reaction to the Pawnee Buttes and their spacious surroundings anticipated my fascination, a decade later, with the mesas of the high plateaus of New Mexico, Arizona, and southeast Utah.  

The buttes and plains were also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writing―for starters, merely in a cheap notebook―their seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  Forget the storied Rockies: since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my twenty-sixth year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved Spring in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from Denver, hoping to find a landscape similar to my cherished one outside of Buena Vista, where I would spend a night. 

I did.  It was a woodland on the western slope of La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado.  Lush with juniper, it also included another diminutive evergreen, one that bore nuts rather than berries: the pinyon, or, as the Spanish know it, the piñon.  It was part of a vast parcel of private land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper, of all people, directed me to it.  Today the land is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with high-end mountain homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was, except for an access road or two, undeveloped.  Beside my parked car, after eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck sleeping bag.  I watched the relentless Spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction.  Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, unaware that in a quarter-century I would be living there.  I knew I was back in the genuine Southwest, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosey, wind-whipped sunsets, I drove farther south, to camp for the first time in New Mexico, still in the foothills of the Sangres, not far north of the mystical town of Taos.

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High Country Bookishness

No, books didn’t keep me in Leadville, but they did sustain me as I fought the cold, recovered from dynamite headaches (not from the concussions of mine detonations, but rather from casual contact with undetonated powder), and grappled with the challenges of living in the higher elevations of the remote.  Scores of paperbacks covered half a bedroom wall of our little house built like a railroad flat.  Few of the books were mine.  Nearly all had accumulated in the house over a period of a year or two prior to my arrival, contributed by myriad young men who had lived or merely crashed at the house.  No pulp for a snowbound day here: most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests.  There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez.  There was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now

And there was Feast: a tribal cookbook by the True Light Beavers.  The “Beavers” was a communal hippie group whose commune, I assumed, had managed to survive into the seventies, as their book was copyrighted 1972.  I paged through this somewhat oversize book, which included photos of various “Beavers” people―all smiling, probably because they were all well-nourished, not to mention all regular as they posed seated in their outhouse―with interest and a twinge of guilt.  Five years earlier, blossoming into my own hippie act, I would have loved to have been a member of their commune, especially if it included that young, smiling, long-haired, shapely Earth mama who appeared to be wearing a hand-knitted bikini top.  By 1975, however, their lifestyle seemed dated.  Still, I liked the core planet-worshipping philosophy of the “Beavers,” even as I was part of a workforce that was destroying a mountain and smothering a large swath of the central Colorado high country under millions of tons of toxic mine tailings.

One paperback on the shelf grabbed my attention almost immediately.  First, there was its cover art: a photo of a solitary, naked, red rock monolith against a beautiful blue, cloud-dappled sky.  Then there was its title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  Living in Leadville, I naturally opened any tome whose title suggested warmth.  Written by a guy named Edward Abbey, Solitaire was his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah─not the classic Southwest, perhaps, but close.  To me, the memoir not only vividly evoked an alluring landscape―for I still enjoyed escaping to the out-of-doors, providing it was a pleasant out-of-doors―it did so with appealing doses of romance, philosophy, humor, irreverence, science, and, especially, fiery outrage at wilderness degradation.  Abbey’s was the first book that revealed the desert―actually, what biologists characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal to me.  More than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book.  A fanfare for the common loner.  Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.