City on the Plain

Raton Pass viewed from New Mexico

Raton Pass viewed from New Mexico

We pass through Louisiana after leaving Mississippi. The pastures are turning green with the spring, tall white wading birds wade low marshy places, and the creamy white dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom. In Bossier City Louisiana there’s an Isle of Capri Casino. In Decatur, Texas, Lisa and I see a billboard for The Naturist RV Park, with the number 313-NUDE. Not long after we pass a little pond with a floating doghouse in the middle. Crops are planted in circular fields defined by the irrigation machines, a long pipe on wheels that pivots around a central well-head. In years to come I’ll realize that these rigs aren’t unique to the West, but for the moment they signify aridity and justify my excitement. The first night we stay at a Motel 6 in Amarillo. Later that evening I go out to retrieve something from the car and notice a woman in a Ford Escort circling the parking lot over and over. She drives slowly, looking at each car and person in the parking lot. I tell Lisa, “Someone’s here who’s not supposed to be here,” and she laughs.

The next morning we drive north out of Amarillo and into the sagebrush flats. Just east of Hartley six creamy brown and white antelope walk single file across a field. It’s the first wildlife we’ve seen that isn’t road-kill. Not long after, a herd of at least a hundred antelope spread out across the plain, grazing. The road map says we’re approaching a National Grasslands. The land is rolling and open, with outcrops of rock punctuating the grass. In New Mexico little bumps of mountains rise out of the plains, the steam outlets of Capulin Volcano, whose top blew off in some earlier geologic era. And then, topping a rise, the Rocky Mountains stand on the horizon like a wall capped with snow. We drive for miles and miles, steadily drawing closer. We cross into Colorado at Raton Pass, after climbing a steep grade bounded by tree-spotted mountains and snow-lined canyons. There is a rest stop at the top of the pass and we pull over. A foot of snow lies beyond the snowplow lanes and we get out to stretch. Lisa hits me with a snowball as I lean into the hatch of our Mazda 323. Freed from the back seat, Bonnie, the black and white Border collie mix with one brown eye and one eye that’s mostly blue, runs off leash, rolling in the snow like it’s a sandy beach. Then she runs through the powder, dipping her nose into the snow and tossing it over her head. The altitude makes it hard to breathe.

We drop off of Raton and head toward Colorado Springs through a snow storm, the flakes swirling across the road like a fog that won’t settle, with little accumulation. The empty plains are on our right. The mountains on our left, the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies are mostly hidden by the storm, but occasionally the clouds part long enough that we can see rocky spires towering along the horizon. We drive out of the storm and pull into Colorado Springs and select another Motel Six. Lisa calls her parents to tell them we’ve made it this far in one piece.

The date is March 27th, 1995. I’ve recently defended my dissertation in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. Lisa and I have been married three months and ten days. I will graduate in May. School is still in session, but I’ve been given a week off for good behavior to look for a home and work. I have applied to over seventy universities and colleges for a teaching position. I received a couple of flashes of interest, but eventually all my effort resulted in letters telling me I was one of three hundred applicants for the job. Lisa has grown up and lived in Memphis all her life, and I in Mississippi, though I have worked in other states all over the South before going to grad school. We picked Denver off the map, literally. It is far from our families (a good rule of thumb for young married couples—place at least two major river systems between yourself and your family); there are eleven hospitals; and there are dozens of colleges and universities within an hour’s drive north or south.

We aren’t worried about Lisa finding a job. Nurses are in short supply and she has three or four interviews lined up, not to mention a strong lead to do research with a nationally recognized OB/GYN doctor, who is a friend of the doctor Lisa worked for at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. I am the problem, since, as a poet friend in my doctoral program recently said, “They don’t want writers. They all want composition and rhetoric specialists. If you shake that woodpile over there, half a dozen comp specialists will fall out.” At the time we were loading Max’s U-Haul, one year before this story, as he was heading out into a similar fate in North Carolina. Since then I had read articles in the Journal of Higher Education talking about the glut of Ph.D.s on the market. On the east coast they are called “gypsy professors” because they have to string together adjunct teaching jobs at two or three different schools. On the west coast they’re called “freeway flyers.” I don’t know what they’re called in Denver. I do know I have $15,000 in school loans which I will begin to pay off in nine months. We’re still paying Lisa’s nursing school loans. On the other hand, Denver will place us next to mountains, rivers, and skiing, and the city will have professional sports, restaurants, and real bookstores. It’s a risk that seems worth taking.

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