And Then a Little Beyond Albuquerque

Later that first week, I left the city limits, motoring west and looping briefly through the rural stretches of Bernalillo, Cibola, and Valencia counties.  In the distances I saw Sierra Ladrones and Mt. Taylor.  I plunged into and out of the massive basin of the Rio Puerco; the basin contains a lone, barren hill, Cerro Colorado, its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey.  (Now that’s big, I thought. Imagine the number of New Jerseys I could fit in this state.)  I skirted the Cañoncito Navajo Indian Reservation (today the re-named To’hajiilee Indian Reservation of Breaking Bad fame) and sliced across the Laguna Indian Reservation, although I don’t believe I saw a single Indian.  I saw countless mesas and massive ramps of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like pieces of warped linoleum.  I saw eroded rangelands of dust, destroyed, unbeknownst to me, by overgrazing.  In the extinct settlement of Correo, New Mexico, I passed the ghostly ruin of the Wild Horse Mesa Bar, likely the last stop of many a cowboy and Indian.  I drove Route 6, a remnant of Route 66, to Los Lunas; the highway paralleled the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad, and I kept pace with mile-long freight trains traveling 60 miles per hour.  Returning north to Albuquerque, I shadowed the Rio Grande.


Albuquerque’s Great River

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

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

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

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


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


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.  I drifted back to a Denver college, studying at various times drawing, community service development, accounting, and computer science.  I worked as a bookkeeper, bus boy, janitor, handy man, pre-school aide, cab driver, and computer operator.  I lived merely from day to day, never imagining leaving Denver.  I dated a few women, had flings with fewer still, yet never found one to whom I was willing to open my heart.  (Nor did it help that, my feminist posturing notwithstanding, I opened my lonely eyes a little too often to the hot, unreal voids of Playboy, Penthouse, and cruder magazines.)

One day, however, 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.


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, and 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 Fenderborn 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 the late Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It is an evocative, poetic piece particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to it by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identifies a number of authorslesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college student, 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, living in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth.  No writer has ever written with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.


Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister suggested she and I visit the Pawnee Buttes, 85 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 cities of Pueblo and Greeley.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I had crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as, in the words of Willa Cather, 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 are some 300 feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stand in appalling solitude on a sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounds them for scores of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seems inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They have a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, and sphinxes; for me, they particularly recall the ferry boats I occasionally rode in my childhood.  

On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took a mere 20 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.  “[T]here is something very restful about the horizontal line,” wrote desert sojourner John C. Van Dyke in 1901.  “Things that lie flat are at peace and the mind grows peaceful with them.”  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a queer 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.  

These buttes and plains are also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writingfor starters, merely scribblings in a cheap notebooktheir seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  And more.  Again, Van Dyke: “The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful.” 

Forget the storied Rockies: Since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.[1]

[1] Brooklynite Truman Capote’s reaction to the Great Plains―in his case, those of western Kansas, when he was chronicling events there that would result in his masterpiece, In Cold Blood―was not unlike my own.  Capote biographer Gerald Clarke writes: “Even the location, a part of the country as alien to [Capote] as the steppes of Russia, had a perverse appeal. ‘Everything would seem freshly minted,’ [Capote] later explained, reconstructing his thinking at the time. ‘The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather.  All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.’”  


Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my 26th year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved springtime 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”Blood of Christ”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 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, showed me precisely where to access it.  Today the woodland is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with pricey homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was undeveloped. 

Beside my parked car, after heating and eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (the 1970’s novice car-camper’s default banquet), I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck cloth sleeping bag.  I watched the wild and relentless spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction, the spice of the burning juniper barely detectable amid the thieving winds. 

Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, never imagining I would one day live there.  I was back in the spacious “desert” landscape I loved, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosy, 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 Taos, a town still little-known to me.


The Best Person I Met in Leadville

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 for a week or so at the dwelling.  No pulp for a snowbound week here: most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests.  There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, the True Light Beavers (Don’t ask), Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez, and Ram Dass. 

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 is his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah. 

So, I read. 

The memoir resonated with me as it vividly evoked an unusual wildland―for I was still open to a periodic escape to the backcountry, providing it was a warm and snowless backcountry―and did so with appealing doses of philosophy, humor, poetry, nods to classical composers, and, especially, anger.  Abbey was obviously angry at wilderness degradation, but that bile would resonate with me later; it was his Thoreauvian distaste for anthill society and its determination to marginalize, if not crush, the individual that clicked with me at the time.  Thus, the Solitaire of the title, I figured.

Abbey’s was the first book I ever read that revealed and celebrated the desert―actually, what scientists and geographers characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal.  And, more than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book: I felt I really got to know this likable and candid guy named Abbey.

A fanfare for the common loner.  Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.


That’s Amore?

The curtain effectively lowered on my sojourn in Leadville late one November night when, after weeks of increasing tension not uncommon among sexually-frustrated young men (perhaps somewhat similar to today’s “involuntary celibates,” although without the misogyny) condemned to live together in that rugged town of few single women, I was on the receiving end of an airborne frozen pizza as I tried to sleep.  A fistfight with my psycho-drunk housemate―a friend of 15 years, no less―ensued.  I managed to land a few blows as my friend lurched about, but then fled our rental house in my Fruit-of-the-Looms when he grabbed a carving knife awarded to him for his attendance record at the mine.  Fifteen minutes later, a third housemate and neutral body politic kindly brought me car keys and sufficient clothing as I huddled in my Mustang in front of our dump on Seventh Street.  Then I drove through the night to Denver and my sister’s rental house, where I made a temporary nest in its basement.  For the next two weeks I commuted the 90 minutes between Denver and Climax. 

Meanwhile, I ran into my housemate/nemesis at the dry.  I was anticipating a snub, perhaps a threatening look.  However, bearing a black-and-blue crescent under each eye (which I found deeply gratifying), he instead grinned and good-naturedly said, “Is the moon in the sky a big pizza pie?”  Stunned by his lack of hard feelings─puzzled, too, as I was at the time unaware of Dean Martin’s signature song─I sighed and grudgingly smiled.  But this gesture didn’t sway me.  I could no longer live in Leadville, nor could I any longer stand the absurd commute between Denver and Fremont Pass.  I abandoned the mountains for a second time and called Denver my home for the next 13 years.


Leadville, Colorado: Manliness and Machismo

A friend from my Summit County days, still living in the Colorado mountains, dangled the prospect of a job that would pay three times as much as I was making in Denver: working in an underground mine.  So depressing was my employment situation in the city that I was willing to take another stab at mountain living.  I rejoined my friend, who was now living in Leadville, Colorado. 

I couldn’t imagine a town with a duller name, and I was oblivious to the fact that this name was inspired by a neurotoxin that was poisoning American children who, being children, had been for years eating the sweet-tasting chips of lead-based paint.  Although Leadville, its colorless name notwithstanding, played a significant role in Colorado’s history, I had no interest in learning about it.  I was back in the mountains only for the big bucks, and identification with the adventure, romance, and manliness of what was commonly regarded as a very dangerous occupation was a bonus.  Despite no experience, I was hired as a molybdenum miner, working at a place on nearby Fremont Pass, 10 miles northeast of Leadville, called Climax. 

At my job in the ski resort of Breckenridge, I had worked with no Latinos; today, I cannot recall engaging so much as a single Latino in Breckenridge’s various bars back then.  The Climax mine, on the other hand, employed scores, if not hundreds, of them.  They, too, wanted to make good money.  They were overwhelmingly male and commuted from Leadville and the more distant towns of Buena Vista and Salida. 

For the most part, I liked the Climax Latinos, for they were like everyone else who worked underground: basically happy, humble, and skilled union men who made extremely good wages, playfully taunted the shift bosses, owned homes, and drove new cars and pickup trucks; buried beneath hard hats, headlamps, ear protectors, thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirts, rubber gloves, rubber boots, “self-rescuers” (emergency portable oxygen sources), and rain jackets and pants (the pneumatic rock drills showered water to keep the bits cool and suppress silicosis-causing dust), they shuffled and waddled through the caves and drifts like every other similarly dressed and accoutered miner.  Swallowed in complete darkness, variously 300 to 600 feet underground, we were all one, each equally subject to a twisted ankle or the random plummet of a dangerous, if not deadly, rock. 

Prior to my arrival in Leadville, a young Latino with whom I worked at the shipping clerk job in Denver had managed to sour me, albeit all out of proportion, on his culture.  Tossing his voluminous shag cut, he strutted around the warehouse in his platform shoes and bell-bottoms, insisted that I look at wallet photos of all the Latinas (he claimed) he had bedded.  No soft-spoken, gentlemanly Eddie Espinosa, he was an annoying, cock-of-the-walk urban Latino giving me my first taste of the toxic Latin masculinity known as machismo. 

There were undoubtedly Climax Latinos given to machismo, although I saw it exhibited only once during the eight months I worked at the mine.  One morning, as a bunch of us were headed from the parking lot to the “dry,” the building in which miners clocked in, got their gear, and prepared to descend into the guts of Bartlett Mountain, one burly hombre in a group of muchachos, walking immediately behind a Latina I’d seen working underground, cooed, “A beeg ass for a beeg man!”  

I was certain the woman heard the remark.  However, she simply smiled slightly without turning around.  I had no idea what she was feeling, assumed she didn’t know the hombre.  Today, feminists would likely characterize the remark as “controlling”; back then, the remark merely disgusted me.  Sure, I reveled in my perceived bravado as a miner, but my sister had taught me to respect women, and this ape made me ashamed of and embarrassed for my gender.  Yet I said nothing to him, for he was indeed “beeg,” “beeger,” in fact, than I.  And, shy and verbally inept as I was in such a situation, I said nothing to the woman after we had all dispersed at the entrance to the dry.