running with the wind

It feels trite, in a way, to begin a piece on New Mexico with the wind, or with any kind of weather. But its presence of late is inescapable. In the central sierra of Ecuador, in the land of volcanoes, the winds waits until August to blow. Those winds mark unsettled times, and the chance of political unrest always escalates as July turns to August. In June they celebrate the sun, the harvest, the ritual bath of waters that flow from the ever-shrinking glaciers of the high Andes. June is a time of festival. August is a time of discontent. And wind.

In New Mexico, though, the wind is an ever-present companion. It reveals not discontent, not unrest, but rather endurance. Persistence. It lays bare the desert sandstone, the tops of mesas, the dry backs of not-quit green enough tree leaves. On many days, to look out to the horizon is to see a low hanging cloud of dust. It creeps into the house through minute cracks in window sills. It’s a fine sand, almost invisible; it becomes invisible in ubiquity. But it’s there, in a blackened sneeze lest you forget. That low hanging stratum simply moves remnants from place to place, remixing the layers of a persistent past with those of a tentative present. The prevailing winds in Albuquerque are westerly, or southerly. Except when they roar from the east through the canyon that divides the Sandia and Manzano Mountains. When Costco moved to Albuquerque’s southeast, they built the entrance facing southwest, away from that canyon and towards Kirtland Air Force Base and a plot of land that eventually became the third (and final?) home of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. On one particularly windy visit, I asked the beleaguered card checker how she was handling the wind in the large, always open doorway. She said it was wearing, but that the company had studied the wind and chosen that orientation as the least likely to face it. And that’s true, except for every day when it’s not coming from the canyon, which is most.

West Mesa

To get here, the winds frequently blow across the mesa, through the volcanic boulders on the escarpment’s face that were pounded by ancient artists to frame fascinating glyphs. It roars across the tops of cottonwood stands that line the banks of the Rio Bravo del Norte, across the railroad tracks that gave Albuquerque its first taste of the particular form of future bearing optimism that’s characteristic of modernity, and back up the hill to my house. Or, if they come from the south, they blow over Tome Hill, a site of more petroglyphs and of Good Friday pilgrimages.

Tome Hill

The Rio Bravo del Norte, or Rio Grande I should say, once flowed more to the east to the base of Tome Hill, and alongside was the old Camino Real. The Spanish marked passage by Tome as they fled the Pueblo Rebellion in 1682, and also their return at the end of the century. The middle Rio Grande valley is green, extending outward a bit from both banks of the river, with fields and stands of trees. In winter, giant flocks of birds leisure the fields each day before returning to their aquatic refuge at Bosque del Apache. Neither is hard to find, as green and water are minority landscapes here.

There are three places I like to run on a regular basis in Albuquerque– on single track trails along the rio in the bosque, around USS Bullhead Memorial Park the the VA hospital, and in the Sandias. Most days its to Bullhead, a series of soccer and softball fields and dirt trails tucked behind the VA Hospital and a second hospital building that was once the clinic of Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II. Lovelace was a decorated WWII veteran, former assistant to Dr. Charles Mayo, and important figure in aerospace medicine. His former house sits across Ridgecrest Drive from the maze of trails at the eastern end of Bullhead. Ridgecrest is a strange street for Albuquerque, a diagonal in a city of squares. And it ends, almost as if pointing, to this spot. Lovelace worked with NASA and in January and February in 1959, the Lovelace Foundation ran a series of physical and mental tests on 33 pilots hoping to make the final cut of 7 who were the core of the Mercury Space Program. The Lovelace Foundation, and the nearby VA Hospital were built in neo-pueblo style, an aesthetic yearning back.

To get to the VA and Bullhead park, I run south to “Cruising San Mateo I,” better known around here as Chevy-on-a-stick. The sculpture was erected in 1991, and its turquoise and blue tile work, its title, evoke mid-century Albuquerque in the heyday of Route 66.


Chevy On A Stick

Through the arch I run between the Hospitals to my favorite dirt trails. USS Bullhead Park is named for a WWII submarine, one of the last to be sunk. In a cruel twist of that highlights the extent to which modern NM’s recent past is patterned by its own desolation and isolation, the USS Bullhead was sunk on or shortly after August 6th, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Of course, much of the development of the bomb was done in Los Alamos and the first live test explosion in southern NM at Trinity site on “the day the sun rose twice.”[1] There is little beyond the name to make the connection to the submarine, or to the unsettling days of August 1945. (Were the winds in Ecuador howling that day?) My trails at the park mark a labyrinth of sun-drenched, unprotected, wind-blown maze. There are no trees here, and lying next to manicured fields of irrigated grass, the running trails speak to reversion of condition. Left alone, Albuquerque turns to desert again. Turns to its past. There are cacti, tumbleweeds, sage, road runners, rabbits, and snakes. When we do it to our yards here, we call it xeriscaping. Left alone, the dry and the wind will do it for you.

Ultimately, mine is just a normal neighborhood run. Every place has its story. But, when I’m out there and the wind is scouring my face at 25mph, and I look around at landmarks and landscapes laid bare by that wind, the sense of place and persistence that is New Mexico to me distracts just enough from the suffering of running to put me both in the moment and and back beyond it. And then, I grit my teeth on the grains that snuck between them and run some more.

[1]: Ferenc Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Explosion (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984). Frank Szasz passed away on June 20, 2010. He was a fantastic human, and taught the graduate foundations seminar when I arrived at UNM in 1997.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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One comment on “running with the wind
  1. Janette Krier says:

    Enjoyed this, Chad! I could “almost” feel the wind as I was “almost” running!!!

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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