Thursday, August 30, 2012

Who is Burleigh J. (BJ) Vinson?

When I write a novel, I constantly struggle to avoid “over describing” my major characters. This is to allow readers to paint a mind picture of these individuals for themselves. Apparently, I succeeded with BJ. When Robert Brown of Martin-Brown Publishers and Ampichellis Ebooks and I were trying to settle on a book cover for The Zozobra Incident, his business partner and wife, Sharene, proposed a dramatic cover of the head and torso of a bearded young man surrounded by flames. The cover art held a great attraction for me, but I couldn’t accept it because BJ is clean-shaven. In fact, none of the book’s characters who might be displayed in the cover art had facial hair. When I expressed this objection, I remember quite clearly that Robert said, “He could have. You haven’t given us a clue as to whether or not BJ is bearded.” So I was successful in my goal of allowing the reader to for his or her own image. Please feel free to picture the Albuquerque PI as bearded, if you wish.

Actually, I have a very firm idea of how he looks, acts, thinks, and feels. I know who he is because I created him. I know, for example, Burleigh was a family name (his mother’s father’s name, as a matter of fact), and that J. was a MIO…middle initial only. He was born September 12, 1972, and was 36 at the time The Zozobra Incident takes place in 2006. 

His parents, Robert and Frances Vinson, were both educators. They raised him with a steady, firm hand and always sought to guide rather than impose. His father was a very strong influence in his life and probably knew BJ was gay before he did. Robert was always supportive and encouraged him to play football in high school and even backed his son’s decision to join the Marines. In later years, BJ understood this was not an attempt to “convert” him, but was rather to provide as normal a background as possible to give BJ as rock-solid basis for deciding who he was and who he was going to be. 

BJ came to grips with the fact he was gay slowly, finally accepting his sexual orientation in his late teens. Since he had a strong, supportive father and a nourishing, yet not dominating, mother in his life, he came to the conclusion his homosexuality was “hard-wired.” Thereafter, he accepted who he was without obsessing over it. He neither hid nor flaunted his sexuality. As a result, he moved easily through all spectrums of Albuquerque society. 

The senior Vinsons died on January 2, 2003 in a car accident on Interstate 40, leaving their only son and heir an estate of $12,000,000. Some years earlier, they had loaned a struggling local business a modest amount of operating capital. That business later moved to Seattle and became Microsoft. By the time of their deaths, BJ had a degree in Criminology from UNM and was a detective with the Albuquerque Police Department. A little over a year later, he was shot in the thigh while he and his partner, Gene Enriquez, attempted to apprehend a murder suspect. That occasioned both the breakup between BJ and his lover, Del Dahlman, a local attorney, and his medical retirement from APD. 

Even though he was independently wealthy, he continued to live in the home his father built at 5228 Post Oak Drive NW in Albuquerque’s North Valley. The residence was located in a ’50’s middle class neighborhood, which is growing a bit geriatric by now. The home, a contemporary red brick, white trimmed, cross-gabled structure with stone foundations, had a basement—something unusual for Albuquerque at the time.  

 BJ was incapable of sitting around and living on his inheritance, so on September 18, 2005, he opened B. J. Vinson, Confidential Investigations. Referrals from his many cop friends help turn the business profitable. He hired his mother’s best friend, a retired public school teacher named Hazel Harris, as secretary and office manager. What he got was a surrogate mother, whom he suffered fondly. 

Eleven months after opening his office doors on the third floor of a historic building across the street from the Albuquerque Library’s main facility, Del Dahlman came to ask his help. He was being blackmailed. Against his better judgment, he accepted his former lover’s request and thus The Zozobra Incident began. 

We will meet BJ again in the upcoming Bisti Business and The City of Rocks. 

Next week: Still to be determined.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Better but not great

Out of the hospital after back surgery, but not functioning well. Bear with me, and I'll try to put out a decent Blog Post next week when I hope to tell you a little more about BJ.


Don Travis

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Don is temporarily sidelined. He's in the hospital having back surgery today. But he expects to be back, better than ever, within a couple of weeks--maybe sooner.

We all wish him a speedy recovery.

-- BJ & friends

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Albuquerque’s Central Avenue—once said to be America’s longest main street

Central Avenue circa 1940s
What is now Central Avenue—the main street transecting Albuquerque east to west—has been a path, a trail, or a road since prehistoric times linking Tijeras Canyon and points east with a good ford of the Rio Grande near what is now Old Town. The tribes used it as a trading route. In 1858, the US Army upgraded it to a wagon road. History buffs such as BJ Vinson (The Zozobra Incident, The Bisti Business, City of Rocks) could take those facts alone and build intriguing stories around them. Indeed, with a little imagination, he could see Native American hunting parties trudging down the canyon toward the wild river, making for the West Mesa to conduct buffalo hunts. He could conjure military supply wagons riding brakes on the long, steep descent toward the river. Well, so can I…and you, if you try.

Downtown Central Avenue in 2009
As we learned in an earlier post, the village of Alburquerque was established in 1706. When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway came to town 1880, the tracks were routed a few miles east of Old Town, thus becoming responsible for creating New Town. Many of us believe “Alburquerque” became “Albuquerque” when railroaders put a sign containing the misspelling on the depot. Of course, thereafter, “Albuquerque” became the official stop for the train. The road between Spanish Old Town and Anglo New Town was originally called Railroad Avenue, and for a period was serviced by a mule-drawn streetcar. An electric streetcar was established in 1904 and lasted until 1928.

In 1907, the City Council changed the name of this long street to Central Avenue, although a portion of it near the rail yard continued to be known—at least in the vernacular—as TB Avenue. The early 20th Century saw a host of tuberculosis patients flocking to the area, drawn by Albuquerque’s high, dry climate and a number of sanitoria along East Central. One of those was the medical complex known today as Presbyterian Hospital.

When coming south from his home at 5228 Post Oak Drive NW in the North Valley, BJ gains access to Central just west of Presbyterian. Often as he drives up the long steady grade of the road eastward toward the mountains, he notes the neighborhoods Central travels: Pres, the University, Nob Hill, Highland, and the State Fair grounds to mention a few. Had he turned west, he would have gone beneath the railroad tracks by means of an underpass (often a temporary but impassable lake after violent thunderstorms) and traveled through Downtown, Robinson Park, Old Town, Atrisco, and finally, Nine Mile Hill (although that is technically Interstate 40 now). In fact, Central Avenue now connects to I-40 on either side of the city. The street crosses the Rio Grande just west of Old Town.

Tewa Lodge - a Route 66 Motel
A Central Avenue Curio Shop
From 1937 until President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system did it in (in 1985), Central Avenue was part of the famous Route 66, as signs in the downtown area remind the traveler. According to some sources, there were around 100 motels strung out along Central Avenue in its heyday. As BJ often notes, the street retains some of the Route 66 look and atmosphere to this day. In the ’60s, Central entered an economic decline as I-40 provided travelers with a faster, more convenient route through Albuquerque. The city became more decentralized with the opening of the Winrock and Coronado shopping centers. Two large architectural gems, the Alvarado and Franciscan hotels were razed and Albuquerque High School moved to a new location in 1963, leaving its large campus on Central Avenue and Broadway (just east of downtown) boarded up.

Renovated KiMo Theater
A rebirth, of sorts, began in the 1980s. The unique, ornate KiMo Theater escaped a date with the wrecking ball and was renovated. Downtown Central Avenue has turned into a center of arts and entertainment with galleries, restaurants, some with live music. As BJ notes in Zozobra, the old gal can still put on a gaudy show at night, but the morning light inevitably reveals her wrinkles and sagging frame. But then who among us look our best in the morning? Nonetheless, this long, straight road remains “central” to the city’s life.

Next: Who is Burleigh J. (BJ) Vinson

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In this corner:

Santa Fé de Nuevo México, a province of Nueva España and the Crown of Spain. In the far corner: Po’Pay and the Pueblo Indians.

Don Juan de Oñate

Under the authority of King Philip II of Spain, Juan de Oñate traveled north from Mexico City in 1598 and established the territory of Santa Fé de Nuevo México as a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Don Juan seems to have fallen afoul of the powers that were, and it was left to others to complete the settlement or conquest (depending upon your viewpoint) of the land.

In my mystery novel, The Zozobra Incident, the first of a series starring Licensed Private Investigator Burleigh. J. Vinson (or BJ, as he is thankfully known), we get a glimpse of the contemporary City of Santa Fe. In fact, during the Burning of Zozobra, we are exposed to a tiny bit of its history when BJ explains the ritual to a companion. His explanation centered on the province’s problems with a character named Po’Pay (also spelled Popé) and his rebellion.
Don Juan de Peralta
La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis (the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi) was founded by Don Pedro de Peralta in 1608. In 1610, he declared it the capital of Santa Fé de Nuevo México. Traced through this lineage, the city we now know as Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the Union. At an altitude of around 7,200 feet above sea level, it is also the highest.

According to the New Mexico Blue Book (2001-2002), the town was laid out according to a certain set of rules. For example, towns must have a central plaza measuring 100 varas long and 75 varas wide. A vara is 33.99 inches. Streets (each 10 varas in width) ran at right angles for a distance of one league (about three miles) in each of the four cardinal directions. Tradition dictated the church entrance was from the east and faced the plaza.

Things went swimmingly for the Spaniards (if not so much for the indigenous peoples). The Franciscans aggressively pursued the conversion of Indians to Christianity, forbidding sacred dances and seizing masks, prayer sticks and effigies. Po’Pay, a shrewd Tewa religious and political leader from San Juan Pueblo (it was Ohkay Owingeh to the natives) and forty-six other Pueblo leaders were arrested and accused of sorcery. Four were sentenced to hang (three did, and the fourth committed suicide) while the others were beaten and sentenced to prison. When Pueblo pressure forced the release of the imprisoned leaders, Po’Pay plotted his revenge.

Many of the Pueblos, which did not have a tradition of cooperation, united under his leadership for a rebellion against Spanish rule. Knotted cords were sent to each village with instructions to untie one knot each day. The uprising was to begin on the day the last knot was untied. Security surrounding the planned revolution must have been pretty good. Po’Pay had to move up the date of his attack by only one day when two messengers were caught with knotted cords. He struck on August 10, 1680.

Most of the Spaniards in the territory, estimated at about 3,000, retreated to Santa Fe where they remained under siege until August 21. On that day, Po’Pay allowed all of them to pass unharmed down the Camino Real (the Royal Road) to present day El Paso, Texas. During the revolt, 21 one of the 40 Franciscan friars in the territory were killed together with around 380 men, women, and children. Some accounts put the death toll at 22 out of a total of 33 friars (which tells us something about the underlying problem).

The newly purged territory blossomed with peace and prosperity once the foreigners were thrown out, right? Well, maybe not. The Indian villages were spread over hundreds of miles and spoke eight different languages. History is a bit murky after the expulsion. Some claim Po’Pay attempted to set himself up as king and tyrant. Others say he retired from a leadership role after the revolt. Historic rivalries among the various Pueblos soon resurfaced when the need for cooperation against the invaders was no longer pressing. At any rate, Po’Pay died in obscurity somewhere around 1688.

Don Diego de Vargas
The Spanish were not to return until 1692 when Don Diego de Vargas and an army of 60 soldiers and 100 warriors under a Zia war chief retook the province and re-established royal rule. However, unrest and scattered resistance continued until the end of the century.

One would think the valiant Don who recaptured the territory for New Spain would be one of New Mexico’s greatest heroes…and, indeed, he holds a prominent place in our history. But it is the elusive, shadowy Po’Pay whose marble statue occupies one of New Mexico’s two spaces in the United States National Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. While Po’Pay’s Revolt rid the territory of Spanish conquerors for only 12 short years, the rebellion prompted the Crown acknowledge Pueblo sovereignty, set aside grants (which kept the Indians on their ancestral lands), and agree to stop trying to eradicate the Pueblo cultures and native religions. The figure of the Pueblo leader, done by Jemez Pueblo artist, Cliff Fragua, shows Po’Pay holding one of the famous knotted cords.

Why is the protagonist of my mystery series, BJ Vinson gay, and what does it matter, anyway?

When I decide to pen a book, I generally have the ending in mind before I start writing. I do not normally outline my novels, although I may sketch the bones of a few scenes to flesh out later. However, I do have a pretty firm grasp of who my main characters are and generally do a pretty detailed character profile on the protagonist and antagonist. Occasionally, I will decide right off the bat that one might be worthy of living in more than one book. As soon as I started putting skin and bones on B. J. Vinson (known as BJ to the world and Vince to those really close to him), he told me he was a Virgo, an ex-Marine, an Albuquerque Police Department detective who’d been medically discharged after being shot in the thigh while apprehending a killer. I knew right away his parents, Robert and Frances Vinson, both school teachers, had invested in some bright young people who founded a computer software company in Albuquerque, and that company had moved to Seattle and become Microsoft. When they died in a car crash on I-40 in January 2003, they left an estate of $12,000,000.

All of this I absolutely knew. He stood before me a complete man interested in life and his surroundings and the history of his state. I knew everything except I could not come to grips with who his romantic interest would be. Then it struck me. BJ might be attractive and bright and honest and ethical and all the rest, but how was he different from so many other private investigators out there in the literary world?

When I realized Virgo is the only zodiacal sign represented by a female, the idea popped into my mind that perhaps he should be gay. Despite coming from a rural Oklahoma bible-belt background, I’ve always been gay friendly. Toying with that approach gave me the idea for the first book in the series, The Zozobra Incident, when his former lover, a prominent Albuquerque attorney comes to him for help when he is being blackmailed, presumably by the handsome hustler responsible for breaking the two of them up a year or so earlier. It seemed like a winner, but still, I had reservations. So I asked a member of my immediate family for her reaction, and the question she asked, sealed the deal for me. She asked me if it was something I would want my children or grandchildren to read?

Why not? As we’ve all heard during some of the gay pride marches, “We’re here and we’re queer…deal with it.” That, my friends is a truism. All of us have gay friends and acquaintances and family members whether we know it or not. And most of the time, we do not unless they wish us to know. So BJ became a gay man who long ago fought his theological battles and came to the conclusion he was as worthy a human being as any other…straight, gay, or halfway in between. He doesn’t hide in the closet, nor does he flaunt his sexual persuasion in his neighbor’s face. We meet people in the novels who know he’s a homosexual and others who do not suspect. He moves through every strata of the local society without explanation or apology.

And to me, the author, having such a firm handle on who he is and moving so easily through a world that tends to be hostile to his lifestyle makes him different…and fresh. I hope my readers, despite their own proclivities and prejudices will look at him in the same light.

Now to the second part of the question. What does his orientation matter? Not one damned thing. He’s an intricate, complex man whose sexuality is only a part of his total makeup and his value to the society which he serves.

I am not a disciplined writer, but I strive to be a semi-disciplined editor

Let me explain. I am a history buff. That will be readily apparent to any who have read my mystery novel, The Zozobra Incident. The book is a walk through Albuquerque and Santa Fe, two places lavishly layered by the three dominant cultures of the region: Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo (to name them in the order they appeared on our local horizon). As an undisciplined writer, I regularly go off on flights of fantasy exploring, describing, living, this history. In Zozobra…

  • It’s a drive up East Central—once part of the famous Route 66.
  • Or BJ Vinson’s visit to the University of New Mexico—established in 1892 and isolated on the desert east of town; it now comprises 800 acres virtually in the geographical center of the metropolitan area
  • To a walk through downtown Albuquerque, which BJ describes as yo-yoing through time.
  • It’s the trip up the Middle Rio Grande Valley past ancient Indian Pueblos to the colonial city of Santa Fe, which has resisted the temptation to shed its Old World charm in favor of urbanization.
  • And, of course, it’s the colorful, exciting pageantry of the Burning of Zozobra, which kicks off the Santa Fe Fiesta—an annual blast that’s been going on since 1712 to commemorate the re-conquest of The City Different following the Pueblo Revolt.

The point of all of this is that only a small portion of what I write about history ever sees the light of print. You see, I have this critique partner named Joycelyn (or J, as I call her, lest I inadvertently address her as Jocelyn and end up needing a new head) who constantly reminds me I’m writing a mystery novel, not a travelogue or a history tome.

Indulging my passion in the first draft of my work is both a boon and a bane. I really get into it while allowing myself free-rein. But I truly suffer (as do most writers) when trying to purge some of this heartfelt prose (often quite poetic) so it merely slows the flow of the story instead of halting it dead in its tracks. Thereafter, I rely on J to whip me into line. Ergo, I am an undisciplined writer, but a semi-disciplined editor.

Why is history so fascinating to some of us? Because it is a road map showing how we got from there to here and what we encountered on the journey. But just as maps are flat, creased, boring sheets of paper or parchment or scraped buffalo hide to some, history books evoke the same reaction in many readers. Yet, give almost any of us a rainbow-hued, authentic setting and fill it with interesting characters and intriguing events, and the reader simply has to take an interest in the historical background.

Mark Wildyr, my fellow Albuquerque author (who also shares an Oklahoma lineage), paints a picture of a specific era to make his books (especially his first, Cut Hand) something more than simply gay erotica. I strive to do the same thing with the puzzle-plot mystery genre.

In future posts, we’ll delve deeper into some of the BJ Vinson series historical sites, but next time, we’ll try something else:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Albuquerque’s Infamous West Mesa

Petroglyph National Monument with a glimpse of the Escarpment
The huge, flat slab of frozen lava hanging over Albuquerque, known as the West Mesa—or simply the Mesa—plays a huge role in the final climax of The Zozobra Incident. The Mesa spans a huge area from the Escarpment lying west of the Rio Grande some twenty miles west to the Rio Puerco and stretches from south of Albuquerque north to Bernalillo. For the most part, it is open space, that is, there is little development on it.

The West Mesa from the Rio Grande
When I first came to Albuquerque, which was either in 1961 or 1963 (depending upon whether you believe me or my late wife), an eastern land development company had bought (or acquired rights to buy) a large portion of the Mesa lying close to Albuquerque. They bladed a network of unimproved roads and flew in planeloads of people from New York and New Jersey (and other points east) to show the proposed development and explain the tremendous financial advantage of acquiring a lot or two…or three…to retire on at some point in the future. Bad advice. So far as I can tell, there is no…or little development on the mesa south of Paradise Hills.

Geologists and geoarchaelogists speak of chert and obsidian and basalt and sand sheets, but to BJ Vinson (the protagonist of Zozobra) the West Mesa is just a big slab of lava that flowed from five volcanoes termed the Five Sisters until they got tired of acting up and simply stopped erupting, leaving an escarpment of black lava looming over the floor below. The remnants of the Sisters can be seen today. When I came here in 1961 (or was it ’63?), they were more recognizable as volcanic cones, but over the years they have eroded badly. Until fairly recently, volcanic activity was thought to have taken place around 10,000 years ago, which is merely last night in geologic terms. Of late, volcanologists figure the eruptions took place more like 100,000 years ago (or last month, geologically speaking), and some experts place the activity as far back as 200,000 years.

Whatever the date, old timers around here will tell you that snow melts more rapidly on the Mesa than it does in the valley because of the residual heat from the Sisters. That appears to be the case to BJ, but then, he’s no volcanologist.

The Mesa serves several functions for Albuquerqueans. Unfortunately, one of them is as a dumping ground…for refuse of all types. A visitor on the Mesa might drive up on trashed washers and broken furniture. Or he might discover up a human body. News reports over the years tell of numerous corpses in varying states of decay showing up. Most…if not all…were victims of foul play. The most gruesome find was uncovered when a local resident walking her dog on February 2, 2009 found a human bone. The subsequent investigation exhumed the remains of eleven women and an unborn fetus buried in the same area. The ages of the women ranged from fifteen to thirty-two, and most were believed to be prostitutes. To the best of my knowledge, the murders have never been solved. So BJ’s former APD partner, Detective Gene Enriquez had good reason to believe the Haitian thug, Jackie Costas, would turn up on the Mesa if, in fact, he was dead.

A Petroglyph at Boca Negra

The Mesa is also a place for more pleasant activities. Some 7,244 acres were set aside in 1990 as the Petroglyph National Monument, a partnership between the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division to protect thousands of Puebloan and Spanish rock glyphs strung out over places with exotic names such as Rinconada Canyon, Piedras Marcadas, Boca Negra, and the like. Most of the petroglyphs were made by striking or scratching boulders on the walls of the escarpment or on boulders that had broken off and fallen free. Some of the designs are clearly religious, others depict humans or animals. A single petroglyph can mean different things to different Pueblo cultures.

The Escarpment with a view of the Five Sisters
When Charlie Weeks, an ex-policeman who works with BJ, drove Paul’s old Plymouth to the top of the escarpment to rendezvous with the bad guys, he drove right past Rinconada, which is said to contain over 1,000 petroglyphs.

The Albuquerque Basin in the central Rio Grande Valley has a long history of human activity. There are 36 recorded Paleoindian sites on the Mesa and a total of 59 such locales throughout the basin. Many are short-term camps and processing areas likely set up after successful bison kills around shallow playa basins, some of which likely held water at the time. Stone artifacts suggest the Folsom people processed animals they had killed and mended weapons before moving on.

Peleoindian or Spanish?

The Volcanoes on the West Mesa
Like many young people, BJ spent time on the Mesa, and being history-driven, often felt the presence of these long-vanished people. He enjoyed parking at the edge of the escarpment and looking out across the broad valley to Albuquerque and the Sandia-Manzano range beyond. Sometimes he was alone. Other times, he was with a friend or friends guzzling illegal cans of beer and discussing things important to teenagers: who was going with whom, and the lame effort of the football team in last Friday’s game. They enjoyed the vivid sunsets to the west and watching the light fade from the sky and lights pop on in the valley to the east. When darkness had fallen, the vast carpet of colorful lights in the valley made Albuquerque look far larger than it actually was.

His experience has been shared by countless people over the years. With its magnificent vista and its aura of timelessness, history, and danger, it is a magnet to youngsters of all ages. Even I have spent a few hours there, giving my imagination free rein. Could the dramatic ending of The Zozobra Incident have had its genesis there those many years ago?

Sandia Mountain…or the Crest…or the Peak

Sandia Mountain from the Rio Grande
When out-of-towners visit for the first time, they usually ask, “What is that big hunk of rock blocking Albuquerque’s growth on the east side?” I usually reply it is Albuquerque butting up against that big hunk of rock’s west side. The 15 to 17 mile length of 1.7 billion-year-old metamorphic rock they’re speaking of is Sandia Mountain. Or the Crest or the Peak to us locals.

Actually, there is both a crest and a peak. North Sandia Crest is the highest point at somewhere around 10,678 feet above sea level. It is crowned by TV and radio aerials and is the terminus of NM Highway 536. It has a gift shop and scenic lookout stations for visitors which give a view of some 11,000 square miles of territory, including a fine view of the 11,305-foot Mount Taylor 100 miles to the west. Taylor is known as Tsoodzil to the Navajos, who consider it one of the four sacred mountains marking the boundaries of Dinetah. The Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni peoples consider it sacred, as well. But that is another story.

The South Peak of Sandia Mountain—separated by a wide saddle from the Crest—is slightly lower, and is reached by Sandia Peak Tramway, which lifts riders some 4,000 feet in 15 minutes by means of two cars capable of carrying up to 50 individuals. One car arrives at the peak as the other arrives simultaneously at the base. The High Finance Restaurant sits near the upper tram station.

Sandia Wreathed in Clouds
The Peak is also the access to the upper ski area located on the east face of the mountain overlooking the Estancia Valley. The ski area has a vertical drop of 1,700 feet, 30 runs, and 200 skiable acres. There are four double chairlifts and a children’s ski school.

Sandia plays an important role in the climax of my mystery novel The Zozobra Incident. BJ Vinson, the Albuquerque PI who is the protagonist in the series, can tell you all about Sandia. If you haven’t caught on by now, he’s a dedicated history buff.

He would tell you Sandia is the Spanish word for watermelon. Some say they named the mountain that because of its reddish color at sunset. But he would also know there’s a story going around that the mountain is called that because the Spaniards, when they arrived, mistook the squash growing there for watermelons. Which story is true? Take your pick. The Tiwa speakers call it a name BJ can neither spell nor pronounce meaning something akin to “Where the Water Slides Down.” The Sandia Pueblo Indians (to whom the mountain is sacred) call it Bien Mur, Big Mountain. He would also know there are ruins of ancient pueblos such as Tijeras Pueblo and Pa-ako Pueblo on the mountain.

Sandia Mountain at Sunset
BJ would delight in telling you the mountain spans four Life Zones: the Upper Sonoran, the Transition, the Canadian, and the Hudsonian. He could also tell you a great deal about the flora and the fauna and give climatic details of each zone. The mountain is part of the Sandia-Manzano (Spanish word for apple) Range, with Tijeras (Spanish for scissors) Pass intersecting the two. The old Route 66 runs through the pass, although today it is known as I-40. The mountains are a fault block range uplifted some 10 million years ago when the Rio Grande Rift was formed. K-spar crystals in the Sandia granite give the mountain its distinct pink color.

Sandia Cave in Las Huertas Canyon on the northeast side of the range near Placitas was thought to be inhabited some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago by “Sandia Man,” although that cultural classification is no longer used. There are miles and miles of trails, including the seven-mile La Luz Trail from the bottom to the top (the third way of accessing the mountain…afoot). It has climbable formations with names like The Shield, The Needle, Muralia Grande, The Chimney, and many, many more. Bikers can pedal the paved road to the bottom of the ski area and take chairlifts to the Peak.

Sandia is a busy place, but it is vast enough to find solitude, if that is what you want.

Is it Alburquerque or Albuquerque (or possibly, Albaricoque)?

It depends.

If you’re speaking of the Iberian town in the Province of Badajoz, Spain just 24 klicks from the Portuguese border, it’s Alburquerque. If you’re talking about New Mexico’s largest city and the seat of Bernalillo County, it’s Albuquerque. Then again, maybe it’s Albaricoque. We’ll talk about this one later.

Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdez is credited with founding the local town in 1706 when twelve families traveled south from the military compound of Bernalillo to a spot on the Camino Real near the Rio Grande. He named the new settlement in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Fernándo de la Cueva y Enriquez de Cabrera, the 8th Duke of Alburquerque.
Coat of Arms of the Dukes of Alburquerque

The difference in the spelling of New Mexico’s Alburquerque or Albuquerque is the subject of speculation, as is the origin of the very word, itself. It is either Arabic spelled Abu al-Qurq, meaning “father of the cork (oak),” or Latin, spelled Alba quercus, translated as “white oak.” You see, our European namesake was the center of the Spanish cork industry with cork trees (white oaks) proliferating the landscape.

One story holds that our stateside city is missing its first “R” because it reflects the Portuguese rather than the Spanish orthography. According to local history, that ain’t it a’tall. The history most of us locals learned was that the town in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo España was Villa de Alburquerque with the two “Rs” firmly fixed.

It was Anglos, those ornery late-comers, who dropped the first “R” when they established New Town, some five miles east of “Old Town.” Out of ignorance or to put their own stamp on the place? Probably some of both.

Now, how about that third spelling many of us have ever heard of before? Actually, I’d never heard of it until I read an account in Wikipedia that suggests some trace the name of the city back to the Arabic Al-Barquq, meaning “the plum,” and the Galacian derivative albaricoque or apricot. The account says the settlement of La Ciudad de Albaricoque was established near an apricot tree. Of course, those Anglo frontiersmen couldn’t handle the Glacian word and mangled it into “Albuquerque.”

Be warned: I have found no source for this third spelling and the story of the apricot tree other than Wikipedia. And we all know school teachers do not permit their students to cite the on-line encyclopedia as a historical source.

City Seal of Albuquerque
Quite a bit of my mystery novel, The Zozobra Incident, is devoted to descriptions of Albuquerque as BJ Vinson travels the city in search of a blackmailer seeking to extort money from our hero’s former lover. He regularly travels up the long grade of East Central, formerly a part of the famous Route 66 past the Presbyterian Hospital complex (originally a TB sanitarium) through the University area, on to Nob Hill with its trendy shops and bistros alive with college students, and the venerable State Fairgrounds. One of the city’s largest nightclubs, called the C&W in the book, plays a prominent role in the novel.

Glenna Goodacre's Sidewalk Society
When BJ walks the downtown streets among murals on the buildings and sculpture work such as cast images of the late US Senator Dennis Chavez and his wife on the Civic Plaza and the Sidewalk Society (a group of nine bronze statues) directly across the street and a bigger than life Pueblo couple and their child only blocks away on Marquette NW, he feels he is walking through history. Hopefully, the readers will share that sensation.

The University of New Mexico…or Loboland

In Chapter 6 of The Zozobra Incident, BJ goes to the University of New Mexico on East Central in Albuquerque in search of a professor who might be a client of the gay hustler suspected of trying to blackmail the PI's former lover. The same handsome gigolo responsible for breaking them up, as a matter of fact. BJ describes the scene as follows:

“I entered the campus at Central Avenue and Stanford where John Tatschl’s bronze of the university’s Lobo mascot stood in eternal vigilance in front of Johnson Center. As a lifelong history buff, I knew UNM had opened in 1892 with a total of 25 students in a Victorian-style building isolated on the desert east of Albuquerque. Now it occupied approximately eight hundred acres totally engulfed by the city’s inexorable march to the heights.
UNM Seal

“The famed Santa Fe architect, John Gaw Meem, designed many of its original buildings in the Pueblo style. Today, the campus is an eclectic, enchanting potpourri of primitive and modern design styles: California Mission, Spanish Territorial, modernist, and postmodern. Exposed vigas, sloping exterior walls, and rammed-earth balustrades in warm tones stood adjacent to raw concrete and steel girders. Extruded aluminum facings and colored glass walls coexisted with a Kiva and the Estufa. Smith Plaza’s broad tiered levels and massive stone fountain drew the campus together as a cohesive unit of higher learning.”

The Estufa

One of the more interesting buildings on campus is the Estufa, a historic structure built between 1906 and 1908 as a meeting room for a social fraternity. It is possibly the first building (or one of the first buildings) in the country to employ the Pueblo Style. The Estufa was loosely modeled after a kiva at Santa Domingo Pueblo (now known as Kewa Pueblo). It is roughly circular, with adobe walls 14 inches thick. The interior of the Estufa has been described as a pit with seating around the edge. The building is veiled in secrecy. Non-members are not allowed inside, and according to legend no woman has ever seen its interior (although I can’t believe at least one enterprising coed hasn’t cajoled some swain into giving her a peek). The Estufa was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

BJ gave us a decent description of the physical plant, but he gave us nothing of the feel of the place. Of the energy and enthusiasm. Of the lethargy and despair. Of the human face of a living, breathing organism that is a modern American university of higher learning.
Hodgin Hall

UNM came into existence with the passage of House Bill 186 by the Territory of New Mexico legislative assembly on February 28, 1889. It later opened its doors in what BJ called a Victorian style building named Hodgin Hall. From that modest beginning, the school has grown into a premier, multi-campus, Southwestern University system with over 22,000 students (hey, guys, 56 out of 100 are women) offering 215 degrees and certificates, including 94 baccalaureates, 71 masters, and 37 doctoral degrees through a system of twelve colleges and schools. It has over 400 student-run organizations, a radio station, a TV station, a publishing arm, (the UNM Press), and it boasts a Children’s Campus to give students’ children a healthy, pleasant experience while their parents attend class. It even has a LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Questioning) Resource Center which claims to have a gender neutral restroom.

UNM Basketball Logo
Like any University worth its name, UNM has a full range of athletic teams and activities. Its basketball court, known as the Pit, is world famous. Less so, is the UNM Football stadium which sits across the street. In the 1890s, the school colors were said to be black and gold, but because some did not believe this combination adequately represented New Mexico, one professor suggested crimson to reflect the evening glow of the Sandia Mountains to the east and silver for the Rio Grande, a silvery (sometimes muddy) ribbon winding through be valley below. The crimson was later changed to cherry, the color of a Sandia sunset. In 1895, those colors were officially adopted. Somewhere along the line, turquoise joined the spectrum, but Cherry and silver returned as the predominant colors somewhere around 1980.

While checking student comments on a UNM-connected web site, I noticed a few recurring themes: complaints about parking and the condition of the older dorms (90% of the students live off-campus), and the fact that Albuquerque is not a “college” town. That last one seemed to cut both ways.

There is another institution right across the street which is not formally connected to UNM, but figures into the student body’s activities. The Frontier Restaurant is an institution unto itself, providing a quality, relatively inexpensive, eating experience for generations of students. BJ visits the restaurant in Chapter 24 of The Zozobra Incident when the plot is building to a climax.

What’s the big deal about burning a huge papier-mâché doll in the middle of Santa Fe in September?

In Chapter 15 of The Zozobra Incident, BJ Vinson describes the history and background of the Burning of Zozobra to Darrel, a black architect who has only recently arrived in New Mexico. At the end of the noisy, spectacular extravaganza, Darrel says, “Never seen anything like it. Of course, coming from Mississippi, I don’t cotton to hoods and bonfires too much.”

To which, BJ replies, “Different time, different place, different message.”

Zozobra at Dusk
How true. Zozobra’s auto-de-fe began as a light-hearted play on the Mexican folklore tradition of consigning one’s problems to Old Man Gloom to be burned up in the fire rendering the ogre into a pile of ashes. Santa Fe artist Will Shuster conducted the first Burning of Zozobra (Spanish for Anxiety) for the amusement of a group of friends in 1924. It became an annual event that outgrew the Shuster backyard and was moved to Santa Fe’s plaza. Eventually, it became such a huge event it had to be shifted to its present location, Fort Marcy Park. Somewhere along the way, it became the opening event of the Santa Fe Fiesta on the Thursday following Labor Day of each year. Great…but what is the significance of the Santa Fe Fiesta?

Last week, we looked at the Province of Santa Fé de Nuevo México, the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish rule led by the Tewa spiritual and political leader, Po’Pay, and the significance of that revolution. Po’Pay seems to have gotten the tip of the historical hat when he ended up as one of two significant figures honored by New Mexico in the US Statuary Hall in Washington.

But the doughy Don, Diego de Vargas, who retook the province with an army of around 160 soldiers and pro-Spanish warriors in 1692, wasn’t to be forgotten. In 1712 the Marquis de Peñuelo, the governor of New Spain, staged the Santa Fe Fiesta as a celebration to mark the re-conquest of the city and province. The grand affair has been going on ever since. As BJ says to Darrel, “They say that makes it the oldest civic celebration in North America.”

Zozobra Burning
I first attended the burning with my two sons around 1970. At that time, it had the air of a big community picnic with some 2,000 or so spectators sitting on the grass and talking to neighbors and newly-discovered friends. There was no security, no angst about getting through a checkpoint with whining wands designed to discover if you had weapons hidden on your person. We wandered down to the huge puppet and stuffed pieces of paper spelling out what we considered our problems of the moment. My boys didn’t confide what woes they consigned to Zozobra’s skirts.

As a sign of the times, last year, gaining entry to Ft. Marcy Park was something akin to boarding a crowded aircraft rumored to be the target of a terrorist bomb plot. Zozobra, all fifty feet of him, was mounted on some steps it was impractical to climb, so your cares and woes were scribbled on pieces of paper and taken to the Old Man by staff of the Santa Fe New Mexican. For me, these changes leach some of the fun out of the event, but apparently 30 or 40 thousand people disagree with me each year. They continue to come: the Hispanics to celebrate victory, the Anglos to have a party, and the Native Americans to show they’re big enough to accept the verdict of history.

Next: Let’s take a look at Albuquerque.

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