Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sundown on Canyon Road

The people driving down the road must have thought me daft. A man afoot miles from nowhere, in no apparent hurry or trouble, casually waving them off while the sun westered, shadows lengthening and the drone of cicadas throbbed in the sultry air. Don’t stop, I silently pleaded, I’m trying to get away from you. I’m trying to get away from me. They passed in a plume of dust and so disappeared around a bend with the sound of the car slowly receding, and the dust generated by their wake boiled up to catch the pendant sun so that it seemed the narrow walls of the valley filled with shimmering golden light. I stood there unmoving while around me dust settled like falling embers. The music of woods returned, cicadasong, birdcall, the rattle of grasshopper wings. Beneath it dwelled the silence of those empty spaces, the gathering shadows beneath the trees, the beating of my heart, the soft exhalation of breath, the questions I would not answer.

I moved onto the road and went on, the distant river at my back. Each step a slight but manifest gain in elevation, the highlands hidden behind a gentle curve, and another, and another, but eventually the road I knew would straighten and ride a long slash of sunlight to the upper reaches of the valley and spill out across the vast open lands beyond. But I was not there yet, though such was my destination.

Coming here had been an act unbidden and yet inescapable. Lori had left for work to pull a double night shift and the evening stretched long and lonesome, an unimaginable chasm. The abrupt disconnect I felt was ridiculous in proportion to the ordinariness of the act. There were dozens of things I could do to keep myself busy and yet without her presence the house closed in around me, almost sinister in intent, and a sensation of being trapped crept in until I could scarcely breathe. Not even Sheba could alleviate the panic. I fled into the evening carrying only a water bottle, binoculars and camera bag, hesitating at the last minute to slip a small .380 in the front pocket.

The truck left the river valley and topped out with a view to the horizons, the tallgrass prairie splashed with dark clumps of cedars and the greener ribbon of woodland bristling along the watercourses. It should have been enough to lift my mood but wasn’t. Light clouds rising in the west and the sun low and sinking lower and me following it down into the valley on a road I would soon backtrack on foot. Again, it was not my intention. When I reached the juncture where Sunflower and East River Road join I pulled onto a grassy shoulder and killed the ignition. The engine ticked itself into silence even as the cicadas rose to a shrill din. For a long time I sat there pondering whether to go on to Alcove Spring or to simply return to town in defeat. And then, without thinking, I was out of the truck and slinging the camera bag over my shoulder. The door slammed with a resounding finality that was immensely satisfying. Before I could question my motives I strode off with my shadow stretching far ahead.

“The solution comes through walking” goes the Roman adage but I wasn’t looking for solutions. I was looking for something else, something first recognizable as a flight from my own skin and the loneliness plaguing me but then which circled around and became the search for a solution. So much for critical thinking. I put it aside and marched on, gaining as much distance between myself and the truck in the shortest measure of time.

Once the truck was out of sight I slowed down and began to notice my surroundings. Near its mouth the canyon opens up into narrow meadows flanked by towering bur oaks. Soon it constricts and the trees shrink in size until the rocky crests of the hills are visible. Locals call it the Canyon Road, so named for its narrowness and its steep descent. A deep ravine snakes from side to side, carved out by the indomitable force of water. In two places concrete culverts had been set to bridge the flow but floodwaters frequently overwhelmed them, littering the roadway with fist-sized stones brought down from above. No one in their right mind would drive the road after a heavy rain. Now it was dozing in summer’s heat and humidity, dry enough but riotous with sunflowers, hoary cress, snow-on-the-mountain, yarrow and other wildflowers, and electric with dragonflies.

I unlimbered my camera when a turquoise-bodied widow skimmer perched atop a dried mullen stalk. The lens is fairly new and I hadn’t had time to put it through the paces, but it zoomed in until the dragonfly covered most of the viewfinder. Using a small f-stop to blur the background, I snapped the shutter. The result was unlike anything I was able to accomplish before. What I saw was a microcosm of the valley, no more than a speck, a mote, a particle only, and at a perspective unlike anything the human eye could manufacture. I’d always been a wide-angle fanatic in photography, and maybe it had leached into my own life in an unhealthy way. Too much big picture and not enough basics.

Even as the sun raced its course, and me in pursuit, intent on grass seed heads blazing like torches, galaxies of gnats backlit into diamonds, weathered boards sprayed with a living graffiti of moss, an orange butterfly stark against purple blossoms, a single delicate leaf slipknotted to a broken thorny stem, the rising hum of insects, shadows flooding the valley, light weltering, light dimming, inhaling, exhaling, seeing and moving on.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Under the knife—a cautionary tale

Snip, tug, twitch: “Very minimal poke for the local anesthetic and one little, minor twitch at some point during the process, absolutely no pain at all, whatsoever. Not nearly as bad as I expected! In fact, it was easy!” And so my friend and editor, Dan, joins the rank of men who will nevermore sire children.

That was his quote, not mine. He privately confessed to having qualms about going public with so private a matter but felt that his experience would provide an important educational tool for couples seeking answers to the second most important decision on family planning, ergo, when it’s time to guarantee no more children come into this world, who goes under the knife—the man or the woman?

That’s what he said, anyway.

Phooey. Balderdash. Bunkum! Dan wrote it knowing full well my own experiences were diametrically opposite from his. It was gloating, pure and simple. Because of his Lutheran persuasion, his faith is mightiest when he witnesses believers being blessed and the wicked struck down. (Such a rare occurrence these days that anybody’s faith would be weakened, so this was a real treat.) And I was, literally, struck down.

He knew it, and his creed now rejuvenated, wrote with inspired fervor.

So in the interest of setting the record straight, to better inform couples struggling to decide which gender gets rearranged “down there” and to furnish men a better conception of what to expect (conception being deliberately and deliciously chosen in this case), I offer my own sad tale. But first a warning: The faint of heart, the squeamish, the fearful, should stop reading forthwith. From here we descend into the deepest, darkest depths of vasectomy perdition. It’s not a pretty picture.

It all started innocently enough. Some research, a question to a neighbor, his reply, an appointment with my family physician. Considering that the procedure is much less invasive for a man than it is for a woman, and certainly less expensive, I opted to be the sacrifice. My nervousness was assuaged somewhat by my neighbor, whose admonitions led me to believe the procedure was no big deal. “In fact, it was easy!” he exclaimed, or something to that effect.

Still, I dreaded it. When I entered the clinic there was an air about me of a condemned prisoner being led to his execution. Further complicating the mood was a repressive Baptist upbringing which conditioned me to be obsessively squeamish about letting strangers see me in my natural state. I was horrified when a pretty nurse asked me to disrobe and slip into a skimpy gown with barely enough material to cover my backside (shouldn’t it be the other way around?), but it was nothing like the jolt that froze my blood when I learned it was she who would administer the needle.

It was, she said, a local anesthetic, just a little sting, hardly any pain at all. She deliberately left out the part about her graduating with honors in Persuasion Skills from Torquemada University, a fact I was soon to decipher on my own. When the needle entered my body I stifled a scream as white light blazed through my clenched eyelids. I swear I heard her whisper, “Repent, infidel!”

When I regained lucidity the doctor was looking down at me. In his hand was an evil-looking scalpel. He smiled. “Ready?”

“Please, doc,” I panted, suddenly engulfed in terror, “whatever you do, don’t slip.”

“This won’t be nearly as bad as you expect,” he laughed, which was hardly comforting.
I stared at the ceiling while they went to work. There was a small tug, a pinch, and the sizzle of roasting flesh as smoke lifted to the heavens like a burnt sacrifice. “I’m cauterizing the tube,” the doctor explained. I was too busy hyperventilating to reply. A few minutes later he was finished. He told me to take it easy for a few days, no heavy lifting, and to return in a week or two to get the stitches removed.

Lori helped me to the car. “Next time you do it,” I snarled, and then realized there would be no next time. The beauty of a vasectomy is that it’s a forever thing: problem solved permanently. “Try childbirth,” Lori said, giving not an iota of sympathy.

It should have ended there, but it didn’t. Several weeks passed of painful crab-walking, and work was certainly no help. I finally decided what I needed was a full week of R&R, and scheduled a camping trip with my family on the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Days passed in blissful reverie. My nieces waited on me like royalty, my sons fetched me drinks and snacks, I read and conversed all day, and slowly, very slowly, I began healing. One morning I watched my son Joel playing army in a flowery meadow and minced over to join him. His weapon was a long gnarly stick which he swung like a broadsword, lopping off the heads of dandelions. How cute, I thought, just before he wound up and swung an underhanded homer that violently connected to that part of my anatomy the vasectomy was supposed to solve.

In agonized slow motion I put my knees together, folded together, placed my nose against my kneecaps and collapsed into a fetal position. My family rushed over to see if I was dying. “Go away,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m going to lay here awhile.”

After several hours I unkinked myself and limped back to camp. After that, I was like a new man. Maybe it just took a good whack to get me back in shape.

Men, I heartily recommend this procedure. I realize my experience was an aberration, a worst-case scenario. You might only feel a minimal poke and a little twitch. It’s possible you’ll experience absolutely no pain at all, none, nada, zilch. It might not be nearly as bad as you expected. In fact, it might be easy!

And maybe not.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Night journey across the middle landscape

Later an orange moon oblong and misshapen will rise from the greater darkness in the east. Glimmer, glimmer, glimmer me home, I’ll sing, a tuneless rhapsody. Alone in the car, in my thoughts, careless of my vocal anti-talent, making noise only to keep myself awake. Two-thirty a.m. For a while the moon will be in my eyes, squatting on the horizon like a bloated toad, but without my noticing it will shift to my left, and then behind, though the road ahead will not have changed. I’ll descend from the highlands onto the long curve of the bridge and enter a dark and silent town, halflit, full of shadows and moving shapes, and the house will be as empty, as deserted. As silent. I distrust that silence, so poignant, so different than outside where the crickets fiddle their yarns, but for now the darkness holds a sort of respite, even solace, and the road ahead ghostly in my headlights. I could be anywhere, or nowhere. Or nothing, just another night creature loose upon the land.

For now I pour a cup of coffee from a silvery Thermos and back the car onto a broad gravel street, pointing the hood toward Tierra del Fuego. Now there’s a destination—the end of the world, last stop before the Roaring Forties and the Screaming Fifties. How did that old whaling line go? “Beyond 40 degrees south there is no law. Beyond 50 degrees south there is no God.” A landless place of constant gale. What odd thoughts for such a calm night.

The last time I came to this small town near the Nebraska border the wind was blowing harder than I thought possible, or convenient, certainly. Driving up had been a white-knuckle adventure refereeing a boxing match between a bodiless presence and several tons of steel, glass and a big V-8, but the former clearly had the upper hand. Inside the cab was a steady shriek so that for hours afterward I could barely hear. Near my destination I topped a low rise and plowed over a redheaded woodpecker who never once glanced my way. Probably deafened, too, and intent on its prey. In the mirror I watched it flutter to the shoulder, a ruffled mop of black, white and scarlet feathers, so I turned and drove back. A gust almost tore the door from my grasp, and buffeted me cruelly as I knelt beside the bird. Blood flowed from its beak. I was muttering obscenities when it closed its eyes and grew as still as possible in that wind-ravaged land.

The bird’s death soured a mood already tenuous. I was here to cover a news story and uncertain of my welcome. Afterward I drove the same road turned dark and dangerous with limited visibility, a hammering gale and a menagerie of mammals both large and small. The place where I’d killed the woodpecker was known less by sight than by a heavy weight, as if guilt had a landmark. I fought to control the vehicle and listened captive to its screams, and for a while alone in a sea of darkness I recalled other night journeys, notably from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, where on occasion I would kill the headlights and sail on moonbeams, the only other illumination that of small farms and the snowy crowns of unseen mountains. I loved it then. It was a form of communion, a time alone with myself, especially after in a fit of drunken rage I battered the eight-track player to pieces with the butt of a 12-gauge. My life was mostly uncertain back then and though it hasn’t really changed it has plodded into something more stable. I’m no longer able to summon such rage.

Rural towns possess a calm disposition in the late hours that larger cities cannot replicate. A city never sleeps, but small towns shut down when the sun goes down. It’s almost a myth but there’s enough truth in it to keep it real. The old agrarian work ethic—early to bed, early to rise—a few street lights hiding more than they reveal, a single porch light like a benighted candle, the houses snuffed of life, and I pass into the outer darkness beyond city limits.

The dirt road rises and falls like breaking waves, the stars brilliant overhead, my world reduced to a sphere no deeper nor wider than the reach of headlights. A chalky, albinistic white, washed of color and hue, like moonlight on sand dunes. Now and then a house swims into view, a brief flash of light and color, and whelming darkness returns. Is this the middle landscape that Leo Marx described in his book, The Machine in the Garden? I believe so. The pastoral ideal meets modernity, in his case based upon a painting by George Innes where a steam train rumbles across a broad wheat field. The distinctive American desire to merge nature with technology, now sadly debased into images of creeping suburbia, but untouched here on this nightscape. The land changed, yes, but still wild, and the creatures wandering into my path the real inheritors, not these few people on fewer scattered farms.

Miles away I stop at a church. Deer bound away into shorn wheat fields and a gang of raccoons skulk into the shadows with an air of aggrieved innocence. Why are you here, their banded eyes ask. Stretch my legs and a refill of coffee. Awash in stars, I exult in the night.

On I go, following my headlights southward. It will be hours before I sleep, and then in an empty bed after being awake for 24 hours. But weariness cannot touch me here. Something in the night feeds me. There is no hurry, no expectation, no desire other than a formless wish that I somehow never reach my destination, that the moon will not rise and glimmer me home, that night will carry me content and at peace to the ends of the earth, and beyond.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

El Norteno, 6416 Zuni SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico -- the pinnacle of chile rellenos. Drop by and tell 'em Tom sent you!

The best place in the known universe to eat Mexican food

New Mexico's Merci Train, now housed at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque

Return to a Kansas summer

Last night. Our bedroom is stuffed with cases of salsas and spices, camera gear stacked in a corner, duffels packed. There is one last thing to do and that’s eat, so it’s off to another restaurant, one my brother swears is the best in the known universe. I suspect he wouldn’t know a good chile relleno if it bit him on the nose, especially considering the stories he’s regaled us with about how he helped the owners of the place acquire their citizenship papers. The husband is Iranian, the wife Mexican, and the combo sounds suspicious. What does an Iranian know about chile rellenos? I’m reminded of my maxim that any Mexican restaurant owned by white folk should be avoided at all costs. I could add that any Mexican restaurant in Kansas should probably be avoided, too, but there are a few surprises floating around the state so I’ll keep my thoughts to myself.

Here in Albuquerque the opportunities for splendid food are astronomical, leaving one such as me salivating at the prospects and wishing my belly would hold more. It shouldn’t be unreasonable for the traveling gourmand to consume five main courses in the space of a day if it’s the last such food he’ll eat for a long time to come. We crowd in as many memories as possible during a vacation, so why not food? Dieting can come later.

The restaurant is across town, but we all squeeze into Wes’s monster truck. Reece is absent, having disappeared into the rocky hills above San Ysidro to photograph a lone gnarled pinyon pine he saw several years back. On the way we stop at the fairgrounds where we locate New Mexico’s Merci Train. Some classy event is being held and well-dressed kids are boogying on the raised stage with the train as a backdrop, but we’re able to sneak around behind and snap a few photos. Merci Trains were sent over from France after WWII in appreciation for Americans helping feed them during the war through the Friendship Train program. Each state received one boxcar bearing gifts to be distributed among the counties. Kansas’s train resides at Hays behind a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. It looks like a detainee.

El Norteño Restaurant appears unassuming. The parking lot is mostly empty which is never a good sign. When we dined at Garduño’s earlier in the week the place was packed, the décor dazzling, the food heart-breaking. I’m here only because I love my brother and I was outvoted anyway. We sit down to read the menus but I already know what I want. Down here in the Land of Enchantment it’s always the same thing: chiles rellenos, or stuffed green chiles. There’s no reason to eat anything else.

What my fellow codgernauts failed to understand during our ramble across New Mexico and southern Colorado last October was that my craving for green chile cheeseburgers and Mexican restaurants wasn’t a simple culinary penchant but something much deeper. It was, in fact, a belief system, a religion if you will. And as all religions have their Holy Land, mine is New Mexico, and the Holy of Holies is a food dish. All this week I was a disciple following the stations of the chile, my faith strengthened at each stop, and now that we’re at the end I yearn for an epiphany. I want visions, outpourings of the Holy Chile. Actually, I want Garduño’s, which surpassed my previous favorite, La Loma in Denver.

A lot can be told about a place by the salsa and chips. These chips are still piping hot, salty, thin and crisp, and instead of one salsa we have a choice of five. Each is better than the last. My pulse quickens with the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Grudgingly I concede that perhaps my brother knew what he was talking about. But, oh, the humiliation!

When our entrees are served I make one of the biggest mistakes in my life. Rather than bolt for the truck I sink a fork into the relleno and take a bite. It isn’t good. Good has nothing to do with it. It’s perfect. It’s unsurpassable, incomparable, the consummate blend of chile, cheese and sauce. I take another bite, my eyes closed in ecstasy, and another, until the plate is bare. And then it hits me—I should’ve got a photo to hang above the computer, a salivant memento of the ultimate dining experience.


We flee in dark and fog. Fourteen hours of 70-miles-per (75 on I-40), several detours forcing a hopscotch pattern across the state of Kansas where tornados tore a deadly swath, two quick stops for food and we’re home before dark. I would never have thought it possible had I not painstakingly calculated the mileage for the shortest possible route and arrived at a number that was within the bounds of possibility. My entire body thrums with road vibration and I can barely hear from road noise, and the shift between the pinyon-covered slopes of the Sandia Mountains to the verdant hills of Kansas leaves me discombobulated. Compounding it is an inability to recall much of the trip itself other than a few way-stations and a lackluster meal in Liberal, our unfortunate welcome to Kansas.

An indigo bunting sings us home. Grass is deep, hills in flower, trees in full leaf, the air heavy and damp. Summer returned in our absence. I pause for a moment looking out across the fields we know and realize Kansas will never play second fiddle to New Mexico. This green river valley is where I belong. Inside the house is a rabbit who missed me as fiercely as I missed her, and I climb the stairs and unlock the door and call out “Sheba, we’re home!” and so we are.