Tuesday, October 25, 2011


The rooster and the owl were having a jam session. In their best syncopated call and response, they were playing a piece that recalled the epic battle between light and dark. Where the rooster summoned the sun, the owl was calling up death, at least according to the Navajo. The owl seemed to be winning for the moment, as the sun had yet to crest the Jicarilla range not far to the east. The owl called again. "I am become Death. I am the destroyer of worlds."

I recalled Robert Oppenheimer's famous words as I swung on the porch swing, awaiting the dawn. As I swung, I cradled my newborn daughter who was tucked into my fleece jacket as protection against the cold. She and my wife would stay here through the morning, while I drove southeast to Trinity Test Site. The radiation still present there wasn't recommended for an infant or for a nursing mother. As for myself, I hoped that I would receive a smaller dose than that now emanating from the first rays of a sun finally coaxed by the rooster into the eastern sky.

The road rose out of the valley of the Rio Grande that waters the Bosque del Apache not far to the south. The land flattens out eventually, with a few low hills standing as sentinels to the turnoff toward the Trinity Test Site. The true gate is at the Stallion Army Air Force Base, where my ID is checked, and I am handed information about today's event from two people who look like volunteers, definitely non-military. The road then heads south, through a landscape flat and featureless. Now and then an animal crossing sign looms up, bearing the silhouettes of elk, loping with head down, or the pronghorn, forelegs raised and curled, ready to spring into my path.

Besides the signs, the monotony of landscape here is at first broken only by the stands of spiky agave that rise above the dirt and rock. Then comes a nub of a man-made structure which mimics the low, squat shapes of the volcanoes to the east. Other buildings of unusual shape and unidentifiable purpose stand far away from the main roads. It is so vast and open here, the presence of any vehicle would be noticed for miles. The dust alone acts as a low-cost distant early warning system. I remember a friend who once herded sheep on the Navajo reservation over in Arizona telling me that he'd see the dust trail long before he saw the actual vehicle. He'd then go into the house and put on the kettle for the guests who would arrive around twenty minutes later.

Today, however, we are all expected. The test site is only open on this, the first Saturday of October, as well as on the first Saturday of April. As I make the final turn off to the site, I can see the light reflecting off the windshields of a few hundred vehicles down in the parking area.   I wonder how early they got here, as it is still less than a half hour after the main gate opened. I opt for irony for my own final approach, letting Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" fan out loudly into the desert.

I find a place for my car, then walk through a gate that funnels us down a chain link fence to the site itself, broad and circular with a single obelisk at the center. I'm not sure if there is any irony intended to the fact that this whole fenced in area is shaped like a mushroom. There must be a thousand people here, with more arriving by the carload. The majority are the tourist type, of shapes and sizes I rarely see in more health and fashion conscious Santa Fe. It is definitely a short and T-shirt kind of crowd, and many wear slogans that must be inside jokes for scientists. I can understand Trinity's draw for physicists. There are also science fans of a lesser sort here, and I overhear a fair amount of conversations about UFOs.

But I don't notice any of this until later. As I enter the test site proper, my attention is held only by the obelisk standing at the center. It is a short tower of black volcanic stone held together by concrete, and I smile at the irony of Vulcan being the Roman god of fire. I move along to the fence line, hung with signs and photos taken at random points of the blast. The time lapse photographs show the changing shape of the fire that for a few moments turned the pre-dawn darkness as light as midday. Oppenheimer's words return to me suddenly.

Turning back to the center, I notice that many people are hunched over and looking at the desert floor. Probably Trinitite. Existing only here at Trinity, it is a glass-like substance composed of sand fused together during the blast. I hurry over to one man who turns a piece over in his hand. then I laugh. I had long looked forward to seeing this, the newest of our planet's gems, but due to my being color blind, it looked nothing like I'd read. In fact, I'd been walking over pieces since I'd arrived, yet had seen only the dull gray of the usual sort found in the desert. My attention--all of our attention--was then suddenly pulled upward, by a sonic boom, then a jet streaking across the sky, barrel rolling as it passed.

I boarded the shuttle bus to McDonald Ranch, where scientists who'd worked on the Trinity blast had been housed. I could imagine the silence the surrounded them, at the open space filled only with their anxieties over whether or not the test bomb, dubbed "Jumbo," would work at all.  Some of their graffiti still remains on some of the walls and doors, the usual witticisms of a group of bright young people left in close quarters with little to occupy them but their work, of strangers thrown together in an extreme location and situation. I can imagine the permutations that their conversation took, as they drank beers and watched the desert at the end of a long day.

A similar scene had played out on a smaller scale last night at my B&B in San Antonio. There were two other couples there, and our talk took on new life out on the patio after dark, where the air's chill nearly matched that of the ice in the drinks. The other two men were ex-Air Force, both of the Vietnam generation, but with very different characters. One had been a pilot, stationed in Thailand, from where he'd taken off on his missions. He was a nice fellow, with the confident air of an officer. The other man had been an enlisted man, who'd never left the continental US.  He had a warmer, more gentle demeanor, and after the other man went off to bed, I heard more of his story. His job had been to guard the missile silos up in North Dakota, a lot of his time spent passing long nights in the brutal cold of the winters up there. There wasn't much to do but his job, and remember that this was a time when people didn't question, or even seem to think much about, the orders they'd been given.  Then, the health problems began, evolving into a more and more serious nature until the cancers began to develop. In the midst of all this his son had been born, a normal enough kid, but with a few health disorders of his own. As the man talked, he paused often for his tears, waiting out the catch in his voice. The military hadn't offered much, not even answers to what might be wrong. So he began to read, researching every single aspect of what had been birthed here on that July day in 1945. It was incredible the amount he'd read.  But he'd never been to Los Alamos, and this visit to the Trinity Site was a first.  It was a pilgrimage for him, a step toward the birthplace of the thing that threatens to destroy mankind's existence while at the same time defining his own.

His story began to trail off, blown by the soft stirring in the desert night.  He was off somewhere else, away from his wife, away from me.  Honoring his silence, I moved away toward bed.

And as I walk amongst the sites of Trinity, he never leaves me, entwined now by my own experience here.  I'm happy when I see him making his way in, and share the smile radiant beneath the shade of his cap.  We quickly exchange addresses, then I leave him to face what is his alone. 

The final thing I do before leaving is to take a lap around the parking lot, looking at the tables and the food stands. One of them is manned by two scientists, who answer questions more technical than historic. One of the scientists has a question for us. "Of all the things here, what is the most radioactive?" The answer of course is, "We are." Being close to White Sands, the Park Rangers have a table selling books and things educational. This is in sharp contrast to another souvenir stand standing beside it, expressing the height of poor taste. In neat rows are T-shirts and coffee mugs, adorned with pithy saying flanking that familiar pillar of fire imprinted upon our common memory. I'd seen similar items up in Los Alamos and had been similarly offended. I can assure you that nowhere in Japan is there a coffee mug or T-shirt emblazoned with a picture the USS Arizona ablaze.

My Subaru is the only one in the parking lot. I walk toward it, past all the trucks and Texas plates and Christian bumper stickers. The crowd here today is definitively pro-nuke. And as I climb into my car, I turn and look in the direction of Three Rivers, out beyond the mountains to the east. I wonder how many of those at Trinity today are familiar with the thousands of petroglyphs there, reminders of a time when man looked to the sky with wonder rather than fear.

On the turntable:  UB40, "Labour of Love"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Syncline

The drive home was done blind, the windshield never fully defogged, the snow falling against it lightly but steadily. The following day's hike to the remote Ortiz range didn't look promising. In the morning, I awoke before dawn, the only light being the blinking of my cell phone. As expected, the conservancy had canceled. One of my hiking companions then came up with a wonderful alternative.

I'd hiked with Musai before, having met him at REI. He drove us south past the Ortiz, whose crowns were capped with the unseasonal snow. The Sandias further south were likewise draped, their dark mass sloping gradually from the desert floor like a cresting wave, the top breaking into dense cloud that threatened to spill over into Albuquerque. Just shy of the city we turned west, leaving behind the silhouettes of balloon that dotted the sky. Not far now to White Mesa. Between it and its neighboring Red Mesa was the syncline.

We left the truck beside the highway and once through the fence were on our way. The was land was BLM managed, now cut with a new course for bicycles and motorbikes. We moved on a diagonal away from them, making a heading toward a pair of canyons that cut the earth much further up. After cresting a small hill we came across a small fenced area, that served no conceivable purpose but to protect a pile of burned oil cans and tires strewn about. Beyond this, the desert floor began to harden and crack. Inexplicatedly, we crossed a small grassy marsh, here amidst the dryness of stone. I quipped that I'd love to bring a New Yorker here and tell them that this too is desert. Then we reached the first of the small washes. Usually they're dry but today they flowed brown after a few days of heavy rain. At the bottom of a wider wash stood a lone cottonwood, tall and proud and just beginning to go into color. Apparently the washes flow more often than first thought.

We followed this low canyon awhile, gazing down occasionally at small falls sliding across rock and welling into shallow pools. In a day or so all this water will be gone, seeping into the ground now cut into low knobs of stone. It was tough going, attempting to find the lines with least obstacles. Ponderosa pines began to appear a few at a time, the lack of water keeping their heads low, groomed like natural bonsai. Their numbers began to increase, until forming an organized line that ran uphill in a straight line toward the mesa above. This paralleled another fence, man-made this time, which had been placed across the line of our ever deepening canyon. We found a way through, then scrambled up to higher ground.

Soon, we were standing above the large canyon. Dropping down into a smaller side canyon, we took lunch in a sunny spot with a nice view. Before moving on again, I peed a short distance away, a riddle for the animals who no doubt have little exposure to man. Musai suggested we finished the walk to the mesa top in silence. As I walked, I eyed the sandy ground, brushed my hands against juniper and pinon. This was the landscape of home, now approaching 7000 feet. Musai began signalling wildly at one point, but it was only later with words that I got that he'd seen a large and lean coyote wander past with purpose.

Meanwhile, I was keeping myself occupied with the not infrequent sight of heaps of small twigs piled up atop stones or sometimes amidst prickly pears. While logic dictates that this is the random work of pack rats, the romantic in me saw them as places where Natives had fallen in war. Over the centuries, others had come by and placed a twig there in order to appease the spirits. It all reminded me of the stone cairns piled high in Buddhist lands across the sea. This line of thinking carried on further with the discovery of small holes bored out into the large boulders in the canyons. Now, I'm nearly certain these were the work of water that had found its way through small cracks and channels in the rock. Yet the way that most of these holes were along straight lines helped me envision small shelters built from the juniper that covered the terrain. A resting spot for sheepherders perhaps? Overall, I thought how hard it is to read culture in landscape, when one is outside that cultural matrix. A Jemez man strolling this land could no doubt recognize innumerable things, where I merely saw plant and stone. The desert landscape itself is hard enough. In Japan, I'm pretty adept at reading the landscape, of recognizing the elements that had shaped my previous journeys across its face. But looking back now, I could recognize little, completely unsure along which way we'd come. No wonder it is so easy to die in the desert.

We reached finally the top of Cuchilla Mesa. Its name is in the knife-edge that run 1000 foot above the desert floor. To the East were the familiar ridge lines of the Jemez, the Sandia, the Sangre de Cristo. Beneath them, the Pueblos of Jemez and San Ysidro were dwarfed beneath all this scenery. To the West, a canyon ran parallel to the one we'd followed, cutting deep and dramatically into the valley floor.

We began to make our way down, following a side canyon that ran steep and deep. This was true canyoning now, over and around huge stones, ducking through scrub. The day was hotter now. All morning, clouds and wind had kept us bundled up, but the work of descending the canyon had us shedding layers quickly. It is hard to dress for hiking in New Mexico, especially in the desert. By late afternoon, we were back on the desert floor now, having once again passed down through four distinct environments, each unique in vegetation and topography. Despite what I've written above about easy disorientation in the desert, during the final hour we somehow followed the same route we'd used in ascending. We obviously had chosen our path well.

Near the truck, we stopped and had a last snack break in a boulder field littered with enormous rocks that had calved from the cliff above. The next candidate stretched itself like a diving board into the space above us. As we sat, I revisited the feeling I'd had throughout the day of being an extra in some cowboy film, induced of course by the number of classic Westerns I've watched since moving back to NM. Another common denominator was the theme of generations in our talk, particularly the topic of fathers and sons. These talks seemed rich and cathartic for both Musai and I, and I'll reflect often on them as I chart new territory in building a relationship with my newborn daughter. 'Generations' seems fitting, as we walked through day that was at once three seasons, an autumn day flavored with the heat of a summer passing and the snows foreshadowing what's to come.

(Musai's own take on the day can be found here.)

On the turntable: Charlie Rich, "Behind Closed Doors"
On the nighttable: Peggy Pond Church, "Bones Incandescent"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Papers: H.G. Wells

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

On the turntable: DJ Shadow, "Endtroducing..."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lincoln County or Armageddon II

...Midafternoon, and we leave the main road for a smaller one that is well-maintained enough for us not to worry about the twists that bring us closer to the valley floor. In this wide, grassy space is Fort Stanton. The yard here is about the size of a football field, completely ringed by low, white building of the sort that belong in the antebellum American South. After a quick turn through the modest museum here, we sit a spell on a bench, relaxing into the quiet here. Then we walk the wide porches and peer into windows. This fort has gone through many guises since it had first been built to defend the local citizens against Apache retribution. But today it seems deserted, devoid even of a sign denoting the structure from where Billy the Kid once escaped. As we wander, I think about how much trouble the government went to so as to help what was essentially a bunch of thieves to protect the land from its rightful owners. Such was the Domestic Policy of the day. Little has changed as one hundred and fifty years later, this same government now gives equal protection to the banks.

Backtracking 10 miles brings us to Capitan, and the Smokey Bear Motel, which is our digs for the night. The unfriendly woman who checks us in slightly annoys my wife with a thoughtless comment. When we get to our room, we're not impressed, considering the price. We'd expected rustic, but it exceeds it into the realm of run down. Besides, it is cold, and without linens. It takes the unfriendly woman an awfully long time to get the pilot lit. We're just about to say forget it and change hotels, when she gets it going. The strong odor of gas and dust sends us out for an early supper. The attached cafe actually delivers a decent meal, the best of the trip for me. Sadly, there isn't a beer to be had.

Later, back at the room, I drag onto the front sidewalk a heavy chair carved of adolescent birches, and read for a couple of hours. But I'm distracted. An unmufflered roadster drives up, of a vintage most often seen wrapped around a tree just that side of Dead Man's Curve. From which steps a guy of such incredible height and belly girth that I can only compare to a slightly diminutive Sasquatch, which he is now affectionately dubbed. But my affection stops there. His every move is noisy and violent, and I begin to worry that he'll wake my daughter. From the apparently spacious trunk of his vehicle he begins to take out maybe three dozen small garbage bags, making a couple dozen cacophonous trips to a room on the opposite side of the motel. It's entirely possible that there are body parts in all those bags. From his room I hear an occasional roar, the timbre of which alternates between the syllables of either, "GODDAMMIT!" or "SONUVABITCH!" Following said roars, he's back to the car again, futzing about in the loudest way possible. I'm actually a little afraid of the man, and I pray he doesn't turn his by now obviously drunken (in-)attention toward me, sitting about twenty feet away, captured by every move. There is poetry in the book I'm reading (The Hidden West: Journey in the American Outback
by Rob Schultheis ), but there's even greater poetry in the absolute lack of poetry in this man's movements, as if every limb is uncoordinatedly trying to escape for its life. Then, with a final slam of his door, all is still again. Then, I notice the chill, and make for an early bedtime...

...early to bed and thus early to rise. The cafe is open at 6 am, and I'm there not long afterward. There are already quite a few diners here, fueling before going off to the hills and killing themselves some defenseless critters. Before stepping back outside, I grab a local newspaper that reads like a bilious mouthpiece for the Tea Party. As I check out, the unfriendly woman at the desk makes her first friendly move, asking me if I'm the guy from the Britney Spears video. I wonder what a woman 10 years my senior finds in watching teeny bopper vids, then I remember the newspaper and the quality of 'writing' within. Despite long wanting to visit, I've found Capitan a major disappointment. I'd thought it would be a quaint mountain town, rather than a mere cluster of buildings along a busy highway. Am I being unfair? Perhaps, but neither the town nor its citizens had shown their best face. I don't think I'd go back.

The town's main attraction, the Smokey Bear Museum, attempts to sway my opinion. Though the guide book is apt in writing that the exhibits are geared toward kids, they do entertain. The encapsulation of six of this state's ecosystems in the gardens outside are gorgeous and hold us awhile. Then we return to the car and happily leave Capitan behind.

A miles later we've entering the valley of the Rio Bonito which had charmed me back in April when we'd tapped the eastern end. At her heart lies Lincoln, which is everything that Capitan isn't, what I'd been so hoping for the night before. Historically this town was the justification for the existence of nearby Fort Stanton. Mexican settlers kept up a constant warfare with the nearby Mescolero Apache, violence that would eventually be topped in the Anglo Land Wars that brought fame, and William Bonney, to the area. All three races were given fair representation in the Lincoln museum. In fact the entire town is a museum, which one visits by walking up one side of the street, then back the other, popping into buildings along the way. Stepping across the creaky floors of Tunstall's mercantile is one highlight, as is stepping across the impossibly creakier floor of the old courthouse, a building that lives forever in the multitude of films about Bonney, despite the differences in the surrounding landscape. Bonney the Kid killed a deputy who'd been dining across the street at a local hotel. The hotel still exists, and I nearly wept when I found that we could have stayed here for about ten dollars more than we'd paid in Capitan. I imagined myself sitting out on the front porch under a roof of stars, whistling to myself 'Peace in the Valley.' Lincoln warrants a future visit.

The rest of the day was filled with brief stops. Lunch up at Tinnie Silver Dollar, in an lovely old Victorian beside the river. A far too brief stop in Ruidoso, far more beautiful than I'd have thought, set high in the mountains. A squall found us here, chasing us back to the desert floor of Carizozo again. Roy's was closed again, depriving us of the fountain drinks we'd been thinking about since the day before. Thus it was north to Ancho, a ghost town with a picturesque old station beside the defunct railroad whose closure had been the death of both this town and of nearby White Oaks. I'm told the building had been a funky little museum, but the tall weeds out front hinted at a closure years ago. Gran Quivera were ruins of an older age, though we didn't stop since we'd been here last year. Rain anointed us all the way to Mountainair, then we made the turn north to Belen, both towns seeming more a part of the 19th Century than the current. This road trip had essentially been a tour of ghost towns, and judging from the fact that better than half of my hometown's businesses are now shuttered, it too could very well join the list in the 22nd. But amidst the ruins of past glories, life persists. As we pulled into the driveway, my mom stepped outside, arms outstretched to take her granddaughter into her arms.

On the turntable: The The, "Infected"
On the nighttable: Peggy Pond Church, "The House at Otowi Bridge"

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sunday Papers: Buddha

"Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."

On the turntable: Jimi Hendrix, "East Coast NYC Boy"

Friday, October 7, 2011


Early October snows
Retire my boots

For another year.

On the turntable: Bob Dylan, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Can you tell me where we're headin'? Lincoln County or Armageddon?

Highway 47 runs along the base of a hill, about a half mile from my mom's house. I usually take it on trips to and from Albuquerque, and find it such an enjoyable ride that about twenty years ago I used its pastoral beauty as the backdrop for a story that I never wrote. What I hadn't realized is that its northern terminus is in Algodones, though it doesn't call itself 47 there. It runs through a couple of pueblos, then through a rough Latino stretch of Albuquerque. The railroad and the Rio Grande are never far away.

Rather than carry on south to my mom's place, we hop on I-25 at Isleta. I generally don't like the blink and you'll miss it nature of the Interstate, but it is refreshing to approach Belen from a different angle, above the town, my high school, and the places in the desert where we used to party.
We leave I-25 at Socorro, intending to sightsee a little. I spent a month here thirty years back, plus part a summer a few years later, but I never really explored the shady old plaza that once served as the town center. But as we pull onto Socorro's main artery, traffic immediately clogs it. Right, it's Friday night. I'd completely forgotten about high school football. Our visit can wait. We push on to San Antonio.

Our B&B, Casa Blanca, is an old home circa 1880. It is a cozy place, with a comfy sofa and a large courtyard shaded by tomato plants climbing up trellises. Our hosts are a former Fish and Game warden from the nearby Bosque del Apache, and a former teacher who seemed to know my father from when he taught at NM Tech. Their collection of books and magazine hint at common interests, and I wish I could stay longer for what is bound to be good conversation.
After relaxing awhile on the courtyard swing, we make our way to Manny's Buckhorn for one of their famous green chili cheeseburgers. The Owl Bar across the street holds the nostalgia card for me, but a springtime visit disappointed me in a burger far inferior to what I'd remembered from 30 years back. So, we'll try Manny's, the joint jumping early this Friday. It is full, both with locals and those tourists who may have seen the current owner, Bobby, Manny's son, when he appeared on the Food Channel a number of years back. As we wait for our burgers to come, I walk my daughter around the room, looking at the decor, much of it unchanged since opening day in 1943. Bobby too is walking the room, shaking hands with customers familiar and new. Anytime someone mentions Manny, he apologizes for his father's infamously nasty disposition. We chat a minute or so, then our burgers come.
Afterward we head back to Casa Blanca, where I sit awhile out on the patio, talking with a couple who, like me, were heading down to the Trinity Test Site the following morning. I'll write more about this talk, as well as my visit to the site, in another post...

...I returned from Trinity around mid-morning, loaded the gals into the car, and retraced my route east. Beyond the Trinity turnoff, the road rose, revealing a black band across the desert floor that marked the Valley of Fires, where Miki and I'd camped back in April. On the other side was Carrizozo, a town that appealed to me for the way the name rolls off the tongue. In Spanish, 'carrizo' is a type of plume-like reed, which had once been so prevalent in the area that the town founders exuberantly added an extra '-zo' to the end. The town is famed somewhat for an annual event where local artists paint life-size burros that are then placed at various locales around town--in parks, beside storefronts, on the roofs of local businesses. We drove around the older streets of town, past the visitor center housed in a train caboose, and the Outpost Bar and Grill which supposedly had burgers to rival those in San Antonio. I'll never know since the owner of the Outpost had died back in June, his widow closing the joint soon after. Ironically, the nearby Four Winds served a burger may have been better than the one I'd had the night before. Midbite, I realized that a green chile burger is composed to two important components--the meat, and the chile. The beef I now enjoyed was of a better quality, but the chile was a limp and lifeless, lacking the spark that ignites the fire which lights up the burgers of The Buckhorn.

I'd wanted to wash this down with a beer at the infamous No Scum Allowed Saloon in nearby White Oaks. After a drive that twisted into the Jicarilla foothills, we found the town in a wide valley. It was larger than I expected, though this shouldn't be a surprise considering the large role it had played in this region's history. There were a few telltale signs of the former glory, but mostly it was modest houses trying to blend with the scenery. Though White Oaks is now known to be a bit of an artist colony, the stools of the saloon were manned by a rougher sort of bunch, the type I usually try not to engage. And here I was walking in with a baby strapped to my chest. To diffuse the tension, I quipped to the bartendress, "She's too young to drink, but that's OK since she's driving," which cracked the cowboys up. Safe for the moment, we stepped into the sun of the courtyard. There were only a few people here (all of whom could all wear the label 'artist') sitting in tall chairs in front of a stage now quiet. I could imagine the raucous scenes played here once the bands get going. Miki found a seat in the shade, near a friendly guy who was a drifter of sorts. White Oaks, he claimed, was his final stop. Miki and he continued to talk as I went back inside to assess the beer situation. No draft, and nothing in bottles but that flaccid swill that passes for beer in this country. (I see no value in them but for the fact that they keep sporting events on the television.) As an excuse, I told the bartendress that I wanted to ask my wife what she wanted. As we made our way to the door a few minutes later, one of the cowboys said, "You all can't leave yet,' to which I pointed at my daughter and said, "We wanna stay but she cut us off." The sound of the door closing behind us cut off the sound of their laughter.
Safely back in the car, we rejoined the main road and headed further east and further in history...

On the turntable: The Slits, "Cut"

On the nighttable: Frank Waters, "The Woman at Otowi Crossing"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sunday Papers: Kurt Vonnegut

"A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction."

On the turntable: Bill Monroe, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"