arizona, creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

The Psychical Mestizo

Adequately hydrated, I didn’t mind Yuma’s extraordinary heat.  I even liked it.  At 9% humidity, a temperature of 104 can be, in Edward Abbey’s words, “comfortable, even pleasant.” 

July and August days, dressed in athletic shorts, a sleeveless polyester shirt, and sandals, with only household errands to perform, I deliberately drove around Yuma with my truck’s windows wide open and its air-conditioning off, fancying myself one of Frank Waters’s “psychical mestizos”─men “European on the outside and Indian inside, men neither white nor wholly red.”  Rather than continually battling the heat, I sought to engage it on its own terms, the way people did for thousands of years before refrigerated air was introduced to the Southwest around 1950.  I found such heat soothing, cleansing, purifying. 

Of course, I also acknowledged that such heat could be exhausting.  I thought of the Yumans who had to toil day after day in it: the farm workers and landscapers, the people who maintained the ditches and swimming pools, that remarkable─or pixilated─person who wore the full panda suit while hawking some business on 4th Avenue at midday. 

Yet, as much as I like to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t live in the hot desert without some kind of home refrigeration, be it air-conditioning or evaporative cooling. 

I became especially aware of this in Yuma, when our dwelling’s air-conditioner failed on the cusp of the Labor Day weekend, when the temperatures were, of course, still in the 100s.  As a consequence, Linda retreated to a motel room while the three dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such geography would have made any difference―with a ceiling fan spinning madly above and two floor fans blasting air from opposite sides. 

Our management company said it was unlikely a repairman could be found over the Labor Day weekend.  (Probable translation: “We’ll be damned if we’re going to pay triple the cost just so you can enjoy the holiday.”)  But, to my surprise, after two days and two nights of the North African sirocco in our living room, a repairman showed up on Labor Day itself and spent four hours in the blaze on our roof installing a new compressor, which he had to pick up in Phoenix the previous day.  I tipped him fifty dollars when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, Uncategorized

Maine True

Meanwhile, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities:  Fried clams.  The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950s gas station.  “Lobstah.”  Locals wintering in “Florider.”  Lighthouses.  The Italian corner store.  Winslow Homer.  Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road.  “Christina’s World.”  Old Town Canoes.  The seventeen-hundred-pound “chocolate moose.”  A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.”  A boat and trailer in every other driveway.  A Portland Seadogs Double-A baseball game disappearing behind fog.  Dunkin Donuts.  Sap gushing from a pruned maple limb in the spring.  Maple syrup.  Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside littered with windfallen . . . camp wood. The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows.  Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain.  Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening.

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

Summers in Maine

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine.  For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau).  Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.

But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat.  And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I.  Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.[1]

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where?  In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away.  However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder―and lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.         


[1] Spoiled?  In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, southwest

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now as a practical nurse with all its expectations and responsibilities―honestly, not every one of which I met.  I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough.  Neither worked out. 

I then settled into a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s Disease.  There, I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents and exploded at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose out of boredom from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with severe pressure sores and praying to die.  Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent he performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart.  On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England shoreline night exhausted.  I lost ten pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months.  I then worked at a family-practice clinic that employed four physicians―here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse.  I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.

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

Rotten Ice and Rain

Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door.  Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.”  That is, the otter pond.  (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs from a northern Maine accent.)  We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned.  We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track. 

It was a raw morning.  The temperature was forty.  The skies were leaden.  The air was still.  Fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice.  It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling.  Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft.  The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog―a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, is a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering:  Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland?  Would this sea of towering wood succor or smother me?  Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing?  Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?     

Soon we arrived at the pond―actually one of several ponds―where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush.  (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.)  The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa.  The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me.  I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England.  Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain.  And rain.  And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain.  It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof.  In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared.  James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure.  Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.  

Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it.  Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots.  (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.)  Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete.  In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.

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

Look Homeward, You Restless Nostalgic Angel

As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast.  Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence.  Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun.  No, nowhere in New Jersey.  

Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next.  Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far.  A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week.  Crows and song sparrows.  Corn fields.  Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass.  A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud.  Stubbed and bloodied toes.  Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine.  Motorboats.  Water rainbowed with fuel.  Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms.  A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf.  Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish.  Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans.  Barred owls calling in the dead of night.  Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.

Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain.  Coats and ties.  Mandatory sports and chapel.  No girls.  Constant hunger.  Nicotine withdrawal.  Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master.  A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books.  The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow.  The shame of a remedial education.  And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.

I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston.  Age seventeen.  Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge.  Lolling on the banks of the Charles.  Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand.  The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform.  A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.

However, bad memories also haunted that land.  Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings.  I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.

Still, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I thought I could.

Now, could my wife?

.

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

Becoming a Nurse

After sixteen months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.”  I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that secure place.  For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for strength, flexibility, and balance, and this had served me well on my job.  Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and contort myself in shower stalls while bathing them without risking permanent injury.  Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt I had the intellectual acumen handle such a challenge.  So, once again with Linda’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the council and begin studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that certified me in nurse aiding.  

Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State. 

Formal instruction in nursing, somewhat to my surprise, began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking.  How cocky I felt, having done this now for a couple years!  But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” and “angiotensin.” 

One day I was pleasantly surprised, even moved, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a “cardiology” scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student. One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly recognized.  He was a smart, likable if rather self-absorbed Del Norte vegetarian, ski patrolman, and bicycle-frame designer.  A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life.  He had succeeded at this, in my opinion:  He could have passed for Irish.

Then I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject.  Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife.  Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, wanted instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free.”  Thus, I underwent a vasectomy.  My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like Linda, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults.  So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation and birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding. 

Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units.  At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet.  One morning at the same hospital, a woman in labor on the pediatric ward granted the students permission to witness her vaginal birth.  As a purely natural process, I looked forward to this as well.  We waited and waited, then were told we would likely have time to grab a breakfast in the cafeteria.  Unfortunately for my education, I learned that the child was born while I was halfway through an excellent plate of huevos rancheros at the hospital cafeteria.  Back in surgery, I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure. 

My one year of instruction, enough to qualify me for a license in practical nursing, ended with nerve-wracking drills in the proper calculation of medication doses and the usual final exam, which I passed.  Then, for my Colorado licensing test, I drove to Pueblo, where, at a testing center, I sat before a computer screen and answered more questions about nursing basics.  A week later, I was informed that I had passed this, as well.

For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa.  Linda was now employed by the medical center, as well, in the internal medicine clinic.  I floated quite a bit, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners.  I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon.  I worked for an internist who specialized in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, and sparsely-populated valley where deeds were more determining than looks).

I loved working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this was before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors.  I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them forty and older.  In our sparsely-populated valley, I regarded them as my neighbors.  I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired.  At times I wished I’d studied fifteen years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer.  Still, I couldn’t deny my wonderful experience at the University of New Mexico.      

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.