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Lost and Found

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his wandering―as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence that I so admired.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways.  Rapidly mounting anticipatory grief began to be coupled with anger at my naiveté.  Then I fired up and directed another kind of anger at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  I cursed their careless, unlawful, and―as evidenced by all the empty beer cans, liquor bottles, and wine bottles along county thoroughfares―drunken driving. 

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, Linda, still relatively composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along.  At an El Paso copy shop we ran off fifteen posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  In my truck we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house; throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”, a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring him in right away.  X-rays revealed that Buddy had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my rational and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he did not survive the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures.  The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the valley.  In the desert wildlands, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay, on a knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly by the chest and collar.   Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, a clamorous train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which all the noise of the world, including that of the train itself, was sucked, creating a vast and eerie silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, reveling in the independence of his remarkable senses.

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An Environmental Conscience – Conclusion

After two years, it got to a point where I was daily trying to rationalize my employment at the company.  In my mind, worthy arguments seemed to come from both sides.  I told myself that even tree-huggers lived in houses framed with two-by-fours.  Or did they?  Maybe they all lived in wickiups.  Or wigwams.  Or geodesic domes of steel and plastic.  Or dwellings of adobe, sod, or straw bales.  I thought of my first company picnic.  Sure, it included the executives decked out in finery likely from L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer.  But it also included the denim and T-shirts of sawyers, shipping clerks, fork-lift drivers, receptionists, lumber graders, stackers, kiln operators―the salt of the Southwest earth.  And their spouses.  And, especially, their children.  Children who were eager to be blindfolded and told to whack at a papier-mâché cabron engorged with a rainbow of Jolly Rancher candies.  Children who now played with doll houses, Big Wheels, and toy dump trucks operated by remote control.  Children who were covered by medical and dental insurance.  Who would deny these children?  Ah, but was the company clear-cutting, and could I stomach the sight of this?  And these were Western forests.  Their vastness notwithstanding, they were arid and thus slow-growing.  Perhaps America should get all of its “forest products” from the dark and dripping woods of Maine, where trees grow like weeds.  Perhaps the timber companies should be required to harvest timber only from private land.  Perhaps the Forest Service should stop taking an outrageous loss on each and every one of its timber sales.  Yet, what about that handsome 40-foot-long footbridge across the Rio Grande north of Taos, its $5000 tab paid for by the lumber company, used by grateful fly-fishermen and hikers like myself?  Yes, but have I lately heard the bark-like call of the threatened spotted owl in the chill of a November night?  Or seen the imperiled goshawk coast silently through the dim understory? 

Meanwhile, I hoped.  I hoped the company and Forest Guardians would reach some kind of amicable compromise.  Not a chance.  Forest Guardians continued to challenge every timber sale.

After two-and-a-half years, I left the company.  My moral crisis had something to do with it, the trees having won out, but I also left because I couldn’t see myself writing code for the rest of my working life, regularly attending seminars and training sessions in an effort to keep apace with a constantly evolving field.  Although opportunities for performing challenging software maintenance and development were rare at the company, when they did occur, I would come home from work mentally drained and headachy.  Furthermore, while I liked the distinction of my position at the company and the attention it garnered, and I liked the salary, there were many days at work in which I was bored.  One afternoon in July, members of the data processing and accounting departments and several salespersons treated me to a going-away lunch at Sadie’s restaurant.

I didn’t look for another job.  Shortly after leaving the company, Linda and I, after living together for a year in a rented townhouse in northeast Albuquerque, married at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus.  Meanwhile, I had been accepted in the university’s graduate program in English.  I planned to attend the university full time.  I wanted to get the education I felt I had squandered at Hobart.  I wanted to read books.  I wanted to write books.

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Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic

During our first two years together in the Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque author Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic.  The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I fired off enthusiastic postcards bearing the obviously doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope”―a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of an elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small bundles of sage smudge, and soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Lynx Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza.  Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose; however, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  Surprisingly, she never hung a ristra on her balcony at The Conquistador.  The ristra is a venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, a mass of chile peppers intricately strung together in a long bundle, the newly-harvested peppers scarlet and rubbery when purchased, but, when hung outdoors, destined to dry, shrivel, and darken to burgundy as they sway en masse in the New Mexico winter winds.  We did, however, purchase and ship red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and a “vegetal chart”―from where, I cannot recall―explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave to me my first ring, a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  In our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together, framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others, graced the walls.  We watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War, set in a thinly-disguised Taos, although filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and cultural centers and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel, the La Fonda displaying titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, and Nichols.  Lawrence Clark Powell’s book Southwest Classics, a marvelous work I purchased on a whim from a used book store on Central Avenue, introduced me to a vast range of much earlier and lesser-known Southwestern authors, including Erna Fergusson, whose 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest remains my favorite book about this land.      

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First Bivouac with My Love – Conclusion

With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority.  I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car.  I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind; for myself, looking at this mess that lacked any accompanying instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication.  I could not.   But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground. 

Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground.  We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon.  Unsure of the tent’s four corners, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors.  We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them.  After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics: it hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles. So we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent.  However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead.  It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west.  But I somehow managed to deflate it and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf. 

Eventually, despite the bluster, we erected and secured the nylon shelter.  The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its grandiloquence.  Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut.  We were proud of our first home in the desert.            

Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love.  After spreading our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper.  It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish.  A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too unattractive―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wild wind.  So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove well into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal.  The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly.  Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods. 

After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the park.  The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness.  To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380.  To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds.  (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town”; perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest whoopee.)  After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.

Which was pure pandemonium.  The wind had increased in velocity.  Staring into the tent’s darkness, I was hoping and praying for that nudge into blessed slumber, yet it refused to occur.   Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me; I could practically feel it.  Every 60 seconds, for hours it seemed, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes.  And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer―as if the desert night was expressing outrage at our presence.  This went on until the wee hours.  (And thus we learned that powerful winds were an inevitable element of springtime in New Mexico. “Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)

At an immaculately still sunrise, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent.  Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax.  Obviously, the weight of our corpses was the only thing that had prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity Site overnight.  Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods. 

After we had packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―surprised me by proposing that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving.  So we stumbled over the hundred yards of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava.  A nature walk for the walking dead.             

Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert.  I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast hairdos.  Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright.  Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque.  But I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

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First Bivouac with My Love – Part 3

Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico―according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton.  A more unlikely birthplace of the hotel magnate and husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, I could not have imagined.  We crossed the Rio Grande, swelling with spring snowmelt, at the east end of the town, the river’s bosque mirroring Albuquerque’s. 

We continued east on Highway 380.  Now that we were well into the Chihuahuan Desert, I was expecting miles of nearly barren sand, and so I was surprised to find ourselves coursing across an upland dense with shrubs and dotted with juniper.  Yet the Oscura Mountains to the southeast―climbing to 8,600 feet, barren, burlap-brown―reminded me that this was indeed a land of little rain.  Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a steady wind.

As we headed to a place on our map named Bingham, I knew that some 20 miles to the south, on the White Sands Missile Range, there exists a place called Trinity, where our country exploded the first atomic bomb.  Gazing at the surrounding desolation that somehow supported an occasional hardscrabble ranch, I had to marvel at the contrast: a device of staggering sophistication birthed in a territory so rude.  And I vowed then and there to learn more about the history of The Bomb. 

For some 20 miles the highway ran through rugged, juniper-forested hills.  Then it traversed a landscape covered―no, smothered―by the blackest rock I’d ever seen, blacker even than the asphalt of the highway.  Most of the rock, which oddly crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured.  Yet there was occasionally rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun; in its structure and luster, I couldn’t escape its amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah.  This was not the dead rock that I daily faced as a miner in Colorado or that bore the pecked images in southeast Utah.  These fanciful, frozen whorls and ripples spoke of something, if not alive, only very recently come to a queer standstill.  Meanwhile, this seemingly unbroken sea of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so: grasses, shrubs, and cacti proliferated throughout it, bobbing up and down among and upon the dark waves, their roots somehow clutching nurturing soil. 

After three miles, we exited this landscape that, were it not for the paved highway, would have been utterly unfit for human travel, including by foot.  Soon afterward we arrived at Valley of the Fires State Park.

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Four Corners Sojourn – Conclusion

By evening, the skies had cleared. Anticipating a long, cold, lonely night, I decided to create a warm, colorful, lively companion until sleep overcame me. Wandering near and far, I gathered juniper limbs and branches, gray and arid, that I found scattered upon the red earth, and piled them at my campsite. After scouring the ground, I reluctantly took to breaking branches and limbs from nearby junipers dead but still standing. Although still reaching for the sky, that leafless wood was equally gray and parched. Yet, when I ripped a limb from a trunk, producing a sharp report that echoed faintly off the canyon wall, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and still faintly aromatic, was revealed.

That night, after a meal of beans and apricots (and yes, a windy night inside my Sears bag would follow), I sat on a boulder and fed juniper into a fire for three hours, studying the distant lights of Bluff, watching a particular star progress across the sky at the pace of an hour hand, and thoroughly smoking myself with the incomparable spice of burning juniper.

The following morning, I awoke to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley. Before leaving, I investigated, simply out of geological interest, a nearby cluster of boulders, some as big as storage sheds, at the base of the cliff. After rounding the corner of one, I was stunned.

The side of the boulder was not belly-round, but rather planed perfectly flat, as if sliced with a giant diamond wheel. And pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify it as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as “desert varnish”), was a collection of obviously manmade figures.

Several figures clearly depicted human beings, or, rather, abstracted human beings. Today, they might be said to resemble a modern person’s impressions of space aliens. One was armless with stubby legs and an elongated trunk with a large rectangle in its center. Another possessed all its limbs, although it, too, had an elongated trunk. A third had an elongated neck and stubby legs and was accompanied by a circle (signifying what?) immediately to the right of its head. There was a figure that recalled a snake, or perhaps a river, or perhaps a mountain range. There was another that clearly resembled a scorpion.

I knew immediately the figures were not the work of modern man or woman.  Any newcomer to Albuquerque with the slightest bit of curiosity quickly learns of the petroglyphs―manmade etchings―in the volcanic rock of the vast lava field on the western edge of the city. Indeed, Linda and I had already visited the field that would, within two years, become Petroglyph National Monument. There we saw etchings, some perhaps seven hundred years old―well before Coronado’s arrival in today’s North America―that prepared me for the ones I now beheld in southeast Utah. The idea that these lonely etchings had survived possibly seven centuries of wind, rain, heat, cold, and dust, murmuring their presence to virtually no one throughout nearly all of those years, stirred my guts. Then I entertained the absurd possibility that I was the first to witness them after such time, but the paved road two miles to the east more or less affirmed otherwise. The petroglyphs stayed with me all that day as I returned to Albuquerque.

(Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that the camping experience just described occurred just below a place called Muley Point. Also years later, I would read, in an October 25, 1982 entry of Edward Abbey’s published journal, his description of the point: “It’s as marvelous as ever up here. The tremendous stillness. The tremendous infinity of sky. One raven croaking. The inevitable raven, guardian spirit of this place. Sunlight on the beaches down in the Goosenecks of the San Juan River.”)

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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 3

I headed north on Highway 666, unaware of this number’s modern-day association with the antichrist or the devil. (Some 15 years later, as a result of its Satanic connotation and periodic thefts of its official highway signs, the “Devil’s Highway” would be renumbered/renamed 491.) Scattered along my first 10 miles of 666, ghostly apparitions coalescing in my headlights, were some one dozen northbound hitchhikers, presumably Navajos. On the one hand, it was an odd sight: in a nation overflowing with cars and trucks, all these individuals afoot and seeking rides; on the other, it suggested a solidarity, a remarkable faith, surely tribal in nature, on the part of each and every one of these hitchhikers that, sooner or later, despite the obvious competition, he or she could count on a car or truck for a lift to Sheep Springs, Newcomb, Sanostee, Little Water, or Shiprock before the 10 o’clock weather report.   Few, I sensed, are forever left by the wayside in Navajoland.

Although, that night at least, no thanks to me: I passed them all, wiping their existence away in the wake of my high beams. My current solitude was too delicious, too white man, obviously very un-tribal. Meanwhile, KTNN broadcast “No Reason to Quit” by Merle Haggard, the ultimate drunkard’s rebel yell (without the yelling, however, only Haggard’s incomparably beautiful baritone).

After 70 more miles of darkness, flecked only by the occasional light of a house near to or distant from the 666, I arrived in Shiprock, New Mexico, a veritable metropolis in this remote country, for the first time in a dozen years. At a Taco Bell, I purchased some Mexoid and a Pepsi to go.

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Home Sweet Homes in Burque

Within several weeks of my arrival in Albuquerque I was living in an apartment a block down Madeira Drive from Linda’s, which was the way we initially wanted it. The names of our respective apartment complexes back then might raise red flags in a marketing department of any land development company in New Mexico, if not all of the United States, today. Back then, however, they were presumably acceptable, and they strangely―or, if you’re so inclined, comically―mirrored one another.

My complex was called The Plantation. For the life of me, I couldn’t see the New Mexico connection in the name. As far as I knew, the state had no history of large-scale tobacco, sugar, and rice farming. (Although I would eventually realize that cotton is farmed in southern New Mexico, though hardly on the scale of the 19th-century South.) Since my arrival in the state, I’d not seen any Georgian and French Creole architecture, any mansions encircled by twelve-foot balustrade galleries. Therefore, all I could do was assume the name was simply meant to recall the bounty, leisure, and Gable/Leigh romance of―what? The antebellum South? The postbellum South? Yet, hearing the name, I couldn’t quash images of whips, chains, manacles, welts, auction blocks, and pints of salt. And I had to wonder how Albuquerque’s Black community, which at the time comprised 3% of the city’s population, regarded the name.

Yet, The Plantation was indeed a pleasant place. It was quiet at night. I’d thrill to the spring winds shaking my apartment door. On warm spring days, I’d occasionally and discreetly watch, through my front window, the female tenants sunbathe by the empty swimming pool in the complex’s courtyard. And nearly every evening I’d relax to the moody serenade, through my living room wall, of my neighbor as she practiced her cello.

Linda’s apartment, meanwhile, was named The Conquistador. It was obviously named to acknowledge, if not honor, the first Spanish explorers, Francisco Vasquez Coronado premier among them, to arrive in today’s North America. Shortly after my arrival in New Mexico, I developed an intense interest in the state’s history, and, among many other things, I learned that many contemporary New Mexicans of Spanish and even mixed-Spanish blood revere these explorers. They were conquistadores: “conquerors.” They conquered lands―loosely speaking, that is: they “claimed lands for Spain”; they were neither pioneers nor settlers. However, they also “conquered” peoples, and not always in a gentle manner. This was brought to my attention in the pages of Albuquerque’s newspapers. In various articles, the Pueblo people were reminding New Mexicans that these 16th- and 17th-century conquistadores were responsible for forced labor, familial breakup, punitive amputations, rape, religious persecution, and the spread, unintentional yet deadly, of infectious diseases among the Pueblans’ ancestors. So I was soon joking that I was living on a two-block stretch of Madiera Drive known as “Slavery Row.” (In 2018, the Spanish and Catholic organizers of an annual Santa Fe reenactment of the 1692 “reoccupation” of the city by the Spanish, the “entrada pageant,” agreed, after increasing pressure by New Mexico’s Pueblos, to end the event. Meanwhile, my former apartment complex is no longer The Plantation; Linda’s former dwelling, however, is still named The Conquistador.)

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Board Feet in Española

Shortly after I came aboard, Vice, one of the regional foresters, and I drove north in a “company car,” a plush Detroit sedan, to tour, largely for my benefit, the mill in Española. Before arriving at the mill, we stopped for lunch at an Española restaurant, where I beheld my first fajita, originally a Tex-Mex mélange of thinly sliced beef flank, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices delivered to a table sizzling, sputtering, and smoking on a metal platter, and then loaded by the diner into the fold of a flour tortilla. In my many years of sampling Denver’s Mexican restaurants I’d never encountered the fajita. On this occasion, fajitas was Vice’s selection; I went with my usual cheese enchiladas, the forester, the same. As I commenced to eating, I watched Vice fork a generous helping of the savory mixture into a tortilla and then deftly clasp the package as he delivered it to his mouth. The load, however, was a bit too generous: upon Vice’s initial bite at one end of the cradling tortilla, a large dollop of the mixture blossomed out of the other―the forester and I looking on with discreet alarm―threatening to plummet to a plate and spatter Vice’s dress shirt and tie. However, seasoned fajitaista that he no doubt was, Vice quickly and cleanly snapped up the wayward dollop with his mouth, consuming it before the possibility of any indignity, and continued his discussion of the cost/benefit of recycled sawdust.  

The Española mill, the company’s largest, stood on a barren, arroyo-slashed plateau at the base of the snow-capped Jemez Mountains, nearly hidden from Highway 84 and just south of the settlement of Hernandez, the moonlit subject of a famous 1941 Ansel Adams photograph. The mill was a classic picture of American industry, albeit on a modest scale: large sheds; horizontal pipes briefly challenging the skyline before tapering down into huge metal bins and funnels; mountains of neatly-stacked logs; elegant temples of sawdust; neat, tight bundles of freshly-milled lumber; idling logging trucks and eighteen-wheeled flatbed trucks; scurrying forklifts.

Escorted through the mill by its manager, a fellow whose extroversion bordered on the annoying, I was once again the goggled-eyed kid my proud father, a layout designer for a medical industry magazine, led on a tour of the magazine’s printing plant in Rutherford, New Jersey. As with the printing plant, the mill’s automation fascinated me. I watched a huge ponderosa pine log “de-bark” as it passed through a giant, slowly-revolving, toothed ring. In a shed where the initial milling occurred, I watched a “sawyer” (now no longer just a character in a Twain novel) seated behind a plexiglass window, bundled against the chill, and busily at work. His hands―and, for all I knew, his feet―on a mess of levers, he flipped and sliced, with the ease of a seasoned backyard chef grilling franks, one raw log after another, preparing them for their final expression as lumber. Elsewhere, I watched the completely milled lumber, now requiring only drying, roll steadily past an employee who, after eyeballing each piece, stamped a grade on it in ink. Much of this was obviously monotonous work, but work that likely paid a good wage for largely impoverished northern New Mexico. (That said, I was certain no union represented any workers at the mill.)

From the grading station, I was escorted to the mill office, where I met the office manager―the only female I saw at the mill―and the lone IBM 38 computer terminal and keyboard, which communicated by a modem and telephone line with the computer in Albuquerque. On the terminal display, in the familiar glowing green letters and numbers, I saw the inventory application that was now solely under my care. At 37, I was no longer doing “manly” work like that of the sawyer and the work I had done in the tire factory and mine; still, my work now was as specialized and skilled as that of the sawyer, and of that, I was proud.

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3-24-20: Meet My Lumber Company

Weekday mornings, I wended my way northwest in Little Red to the lumber company, often driving past the Clover Club potato chip factory with the broad stack belching steam; a lover of potato chips since childhood, the sight made my mouth water even at the breakfast hour.

The lumber company’s headquarters was considerably less glamorous than those of the two previous companies for which I had processed data. The building was located on a broad, windswept, and dusty side street that contained no sidewalks. The street’s asphalt ran right up to the company’s doorstep, and parking spaces were indicated merely by a few concrete chocks arranged diagonally.

The front of the old, boxy, two-story building consisted of white brick with patches of wood paneling; it had a single, unsheltered glass door. The bottom floor of the headquarters contained a reception area―small and, due to the floor’s split-level architecture, totally isolated―the offices of the president, the vice-president of finance, and the vice-president of sales; and a large, wood-paneled room with cubicles for the company’s several salespersons.

An angled staircase with a small landing led to the second floor, except for the glassed-in computer room containing the System 38―my third―a largely open area where inventory, accounting, and computer programming occurred. The floor’s large windows overlooked the lumber and shipping yards. The floor had worn carpeting in some places and cracked linoleum in others. The men’s restroom was cold, bleak, functional. Yet, after the swank of the Denver companies, I rather liked all this grittiness; given the nature of the business, it seemed as appropriate as the rugged mountains and mesas framed in the headquarters’s second-story windows.

I worked with seven others on the second floor, a nearly even mixture of Latinos and Anglos. Christine, the person in charge of computer operations was a young and easygoing Latina. She and her husband, an auto mechanic, were originally from the northern New Mexico hamlet of Questa.

Next door to my cubicle sat Jolene, the accounts receivable clerk. She was middle-aged and lived on what she called a “hobby farm” in the sleepy village of Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque. Ordinarily quiet and focused on her work, when prompted she loved to discuss her farm, particularly her beloved goats. Proud of her pastoral life-style, she could hold forth about the tastiness of horse meat.

Sharing her cubicle was a fellow named Steve, also middle-aged, who daily updated the company’s inventory. He always addressed me as “Mr. Davis,” although with the warmest informality. Whether by necessity or choice, he was always the first to arrive at the second floor, at seven a.m., an hour before my appearance. So, his natural warmth notwithstanding, I always associated him with the mauve skies and chill of the New Mexico dawn. He was nearly always in good humor. At lunchtime, I’d poke fun at some mysterious glop he’d just nuked in the second-floor microwave and was enjoying at his desk. “You were expecting ‘The Galloping Gourmet’?” he’d respond. His home was the Shalako Apartments complex on east Central Avenue. The name was perhaps some marketing director’s idea of attracting tenants by invoking the hallowed winter ceremonies of western New Mexico’s Zuni Indians. Apparently unimpressed with this ploy, the inventory clerk always referred to his residence as “The Shacko.”

Nearly every day other employees paid visits to the second floor for one purpose or another. The vice-president of finance, a middle-aged Latino who hired me and whom I’ll refer to as “Vice,” wandered into every area. Although he was not a programmer, I got the impression he was responsible for the purchase of the 38 and was most invested in its successful day-to-day functioning; thus, he visited the computer room regularly. He was relaxed, often with his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned, but businesslike, rarely in the mood for levity. Early on in my employment, observing my frustration with one of the company’s software applications, he offered, “The challenge is not the mountain, Phil, it’s the pebble in the boot.” At this point in his life, he did not look like a mountain climber, rather like someone who would be content to surround himself with his extended family, enjoying their respect, at a picnic at a National Forest campground at the base of a central New Mexico mountain. In any event, as a hiker, I liked the ring of this homily: it struck me somehow as uniquely Hispanic, uniquely New Mexican.

One of the company’s shipping clerks, Ray―a young, slim, and handsome Latino―appeared with his coffee mug first thing every morning to get java from the second-floor coffeemaker and jaw in a relaxed and soft-spoken manner. Like many Albuquerque Latinos, he had a beautifully constructed pompadour; yet how he managed to maintain its shape apparently without so much as a dab of styling mousse, I couldn’t figure.

Other visitors to the second floor throughout the day might include the Albuquerque mill manager and the company’s several area foresters, two of whom lived in Albuquerque and one who lived in the northern New Mexico town of Española. I envied the foresters, pumped them for impressions of their latest sylvan rambles, for I knew they spent much of their workdays in the mountains up north, either in their trucks or on foot, among majestic ponderosa pines, the most coveted of the company’s raw material.