American Flats


Before the pandemic hit this past winter I’d been toying with the idea of producing a collection of non-fiction stories that I’ve written in recent years. I began to sort through these essays from various print and online publications, as well as my own files, and the title “American Flats” came to mind. By mid-March many of us had started to adjust to the idea that life may never be the same. Now we know for sure it won’t. Here we are, most of us more or less confined. Many of us have been furloughed from our jobs and are worried about our financial futures. Some of us have been forced to oversee our kids’ online schooling on top of our own work. Moreover, we’re all concerned for the lives of our loved ones and fellow humans. I feel that now is the time to give away something of my own creation so I rushed this thing to the virtual press. Here it is, my FREE ebook for your Apple device or Kindle. I hope you enjoy it. Download here.

The Barber, 1935-2019

There’s really nothing quite like learning your biological father has died, especially when the last time you had any contact at all you were 6 years old and swinging haymakers trying your best to keep him from hurting your mom.

Ironically, they both passed in 2019, she was 80 and he was 84.

As I recall, when I last saw him, he had come home drunk, as had become routine, and I recognized all the signs of him growing violent. So I stepped between them and started throwing punches. He picked me up but I did not stop fighting. In his drunken and surprised state, he dropped me on a coffee table and it splintered to pieces. This was the breaking point for my mom. She grabbed me and my sister Shelby, and we ran out the door.

I never saw or heard from him again.

I have several other disturbing memories that occurred prior to this incident. I later would recount some of these in my book, Full Tilt Boogie. Some still resurface from time to time. Early childhood trauma — it’s “a thing.”

My mom remarried a few years later, and my stepdad Dave stepped in, adopted and raised us. He provided a safe home, stability, sense of family and educational opportunities we wouldn’t likely have had otherwise. This new life was a striking contrast to what we’d known, and our moves with his career crossed the country from Nevada to Northern Virginia to Colorado, where I went off to study wishcraft at the CU–Boulder School of Journalism.

My mom would not speak much of her first husband, though I knew she was in contact with some of his relatives. Over the years I heard vague stories, that he might have another son, and that maybe he even had done time in prison. I never knew if any of these tales were true, and actually I didn’t really care that much.

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Eventually, my half-brother Harvey surfaced. But even this did little to spark any interest in looking up my biological father. I suppose there was always this niggling thought that perhaps before the end he might reach out, see how things turned out for me. It seemed puzzling that this person who had been my father for six years could just vanish from his kids’ lives. It also occurred to me if he had any interest it would not be difficult to find me, the Internet being what it is.

I don’t have any pictures of him. Only those in my mind, many of them fleeting. Not all of them are terrible. Fishing from piers on the Chesapeake Bay. Discovering a cannonball in the muddy bank of the James River. Teaching me how to paint by brushing with the grain of the wood. For a while we had a pet monkey.

My natal father died on Aug. 29, 2019. In his obituary I am mentioned as his only surviving child, living in California. In his will he swears out that he had no biological children, even though it’s quite clear he had three. Whatever assets he had apparently were left to his sister’s daughters.

He was buried in a veterans cemetery, though as far as I know the closest he ever got to a war was shaving heads as a barber for the military. I also remember that I often had a crew cut as a child.

It is all like a strange dream that makes very little sense, but then so is life itself. I reckon we all yearn for some sort of peace with our experiences. Nobody gets out alive . . . or escapes unscathed. What’s most startling is to realize how influential a person so totally absent can be when you’ve spent the better part of a lifetime striving to be someone entirely different, someone apart.

Lems Boulder Boots rock

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I used to write outdoor gear and clothing reviews for fancy magazines like Outside, Snow Country and Rocky Mountain Sports. I’m no longer in the business of reviewing outdoor products and clothes even though it was fun and somewhat lucrative in terms of cash and swag, but I recently made a purchase that inspired a few words.

The purchase was a pair of Lems Boulder Boots. I chose the Timber color (green).

Until now I have been unable to find any sort of casual shoe that is comfortable, health-promoting and suits my lifestyle. I have weird feet. I’ve always had weird feet. What I found with the Boulder Boot is they let my feet do what they are designed to do, almost like being barefoot. This builds foot and ankle strength and promotes health throughout the body.

These boots are made with a big toebox that accommodates my wide forefoot and spread-out toes. They are also “zero-drop” which means there is no difference in height from the heel to the front of the shoe. However, they have enough outsole protection that rocks don’t poke through to the bottoms of my feet. They also are very flexible and in fact are advertised as “packable.”

My size is 47 (U.S. 13) yet they don’t appear huge when I wear them with jeans.

I live in the mountains, manage livestock, have a neurodiverse kid in school (which means I spend a lot of time in the school). I often find myself in situations not quite right for my Muck boots and not quite right for leather or dress shoes either. For example, I might meet with staff at the school, go to guitar lessons with my son, take a short hike, then tiptoe through manure to turn a horse out on the way home and wade through snow to throw hay to my burros.

I’ve worn the Boulder Boots hiking on the trails around here. I’ve worn them to business meetings. I even wore them while speaking about autism and endurance for life to a casual audience of about 50 people at The Back Room in Westcliffe recently.

These shoes are right in step with all that. You won’t likely see these boots reviewed in any fancy magazines which is why I mentioned them here. The only issue I have with the Boulder Boot is I now want a second pair. Maybe blue this time . . . Or black . . . Or maybe the leather model.

Don Con giving away music to fund new album

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1685076171/new-don-conoscenti-cd-making-music-that-matters


Taos musician Don Conoscenti, well known in Central Colorado music circles and a former San Luis Valley resident, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of a new music album.
As incentive for the campaign, Don Con is giving away all of his previous music — about 10 albums — as a free music download through Dec. 31. Donations of any amount are welcome.
Known nationally for his song “The Other Side,” which became popular after the 9/11 terror attacks, and regionally for his song “Beautiful Valley” about the SLV, Conocenti’s music explores the spiritual nature of life in the mountains and deserts of Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
For more information about the music and to donate to the kickstarter program, visit www.doncon.com.

Between Autism and Alzheimer’s

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By Hal Walter

Of all the holidays, Halloween is the one festivity that seems to turn out the entire Westcliffe community.

If it’s a school day the kids strike out as soon as the bell rings at 4 p.m., swarming in costume, many with parents in tow, to the downtown business district. Some of the adults wear costumes as well.

It amounts to a street party as the kids trick-or-treat the various shops and restaurants in the golden sunlight. For the grown-ups it’s a chance to socialize, and take time to actually talk with people you often only share waves with on the highway.

Over the years, the trick-or-treat routine has become less stressful. Our autistic son Harrison has gotten much better at the drill. In fact, this year in his “No. 2 costume” he often led the way in his little group of friends’ quest for candy.

It wasn’t always this way. I can still remember the first years when he’d follow the other kids into the establishments, and then quite often not find his way back out. Inevitably Mary or I would have to find our way through the sea of kids to locate him wandering around in the store or sidetracked by something inside. A couple of times he passed right through the store, through the back office and into the alley.

Some social skills are still lacking. Rarely does Harrison greet the proprietor with a proper “trick-or-treat” or say “thank-you.” We’re still working on that. But at least he doesn’t vanish inside the store.

It’s become customary for one family to host a Halloween dinner party for kids and parents. Afterwards we take the kids out to hit up some of the neighboring homes for more candy.

Actually candy and autism are a really bad mix. It’s a concession we make to allow him the social experience. After Halloween is over we toss most of the sugary GMO-laden junk.

But this year Harrison definitely ate too much of the junk early. At the party there were a couple of disruptive outbursts. Afterward, when we went out in the dark for more trick-or-treating, he did what he had not done in years — at one doorstep he dashed past a woman holding a bowl of candy and disappeared inside. His friends crowded the doorway, and I stood on my toes trying to see what was going on. Suddenly he came rambling back out the front door.

Number2 copyAt last another Halloween appeared to be over and we were driving home from the festivities. At the point where our road turns off the highway there was another vehicle out ahead in the oncoming lane moving very slowly. I judged its speed and distance, then went ahead and made the turn.

As I drove down the county road, I noticed in my rearview that the car had turned off the highway then stopped. About a mile later I noticed it was moving. As we rounded a bend it appeared the driver was flashing the brights.

I kept on driving. But the car drew closer and the headlights were clearly blinking more frantically. Here it was, Halloween night, and I wasn’t sure if it was someone needing help or whether it was some drunken crazy person, highway robber, a case of road-rage or whatever.

Finally we reached a place where there’s a sharp hill, a cattle guard and a driveway pullout on the right. As I passed over the cattle guard I cranked the car around in the driveway entrance, facing the driver of the following car and ready to roar away in the opposite direction if necessary.

What pulled up was an old man with Alzheimer’s, disoriented and lost. He first apologized for alarming us, but beyond that the discussion was muddled at best. He was aware enough to acknowledge he was lost and wanted help, but when I turned our car back around he apparently then thought he had been talking to two different people. He was 83 years old, driving a car around on Halloween and didn’t seem to have a clue where he was or how to get home.

Mary went into nurse mode with evaluative questioning while I found the miracle of cell-phone service right there and called the sheriff’s office. The dispatcher seemed to know exactly who we’d found, and said his wife had reported him missing that evening. Could we wait with him until the deputies arrived?

Of course.

We tried to make conversation as we waited. He was incredibly polite. We asked about his career life, his family; despite his lapses he was still quite sharp about these matters. Meanwhile he seemed preoccupied about his oxygen bottles. Were they in the back seat? Yes, they’re right there I told him. He asked this two more times. Once he got out and checked the bottles for himself. Then he asked me about the bottles again. It was a strange mix of memory loss and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I have struggled with most of my life and which I now am aware also often accompanies autism.

All the while Harrison sat in the back seat of our car, happily sorting through his Halloween candy. The bright but waning gibbous moon was low in the sky over the Wet Mountains and I stood outside between the cars, my son with autism in one and the old guy with Alzheimer’s in the other. One in his early years and the other surely in his final few. One preoccupied with candy and the other with oxygen bottles. One with poor social skills and a near photographic memory, the other ultrapolite but unable to remember where his house is. The differences were striking, but some of the parallels were unnerving.

Finally the deputies arrived. The old guy asked if he could drive his car home and one of the deputies courteuosly told him they wanted to make sure he made it home safely. The old gent politely agreed.

They helped him into the passenger seat and soon he was on his way.

A walk in the cold night air

I really don’t care for this time of year when it gets dark right in the middle of the afternoon.

Call it seasonal affective disorder, winter depression, hibernation or whatever you want. It seems all wrong when the sun goes behind the mountains before 5 p.m.

My ranchito is 35 acres, and it’s split between a flat pasture of about 15 acres, with another “back pasture” that borders an upscale subdivision where residents are mostly ranching “ag status” for their property taxes. The cattle tend to not be overly active grazers and so there’s quite a bit of forage left on the land.

The fence between my property and this subdivision is pretty much destroyed. The ancient cedar posts are rotted and the rusty barbed wire has been stretched and broken countless times by deer, elk and bear over the decades. Despite my attempts at repairs, the fence falls further into decay each year, and at this point it’s going to require considerable time and expense to fix it.

Because of the condition of this fence I’d declared this larger pasture a “wilderness area” in recent years and have not used it much for grazing. However, with hay availability low and prices soaring, I couldn’t ignore the grass, and began to experiment with letting my burros out to graze for short periods of the day. In the evening I’d whistle to call them back in with grain.

There were a few times I forgot to whistle until after dark. Generally I was lucky and the sound of hooves eventually gave way to their visages, trotting or galloping, their eyes bouncing in the flashlight beam. Once, I was already in bed when I remembered they were still out, and I had to get up, get dressed and go out looking for them. That time I found not only was my fenceline in disrepair, so was my adjacent neighbor’s. The burros had actually gone out my back fence, then crossed back onto that vacant 50-acre lot. When I arrived they took off running in the moonlight, back to the gate where I easily caught them and brought them home.

Then one night I whistled repeatedly to no response. I waited until late evening before dressing in goose down, getting out a flashlight, halter and lead rope, and heading out to search for them. It was 17 degrees, and a heavy frost had already coated the brush and grass. It sparkled in the Xenon ray as I wandered around, shining the light here and there, amazed at the dozens of eyes beaming back at me.

Unfortunately they were all eyes of deer and not burros.

Despite my disdain for early sunsets, I am somewhat a creature of the night, a trait shaped in part by years of toil as a nighttime newspaper editor. Somehow, walking around in the dark seemed a refreshing departure from the typical, with frost crystals glittering like diamonds and stars twinkling overhead. A pack of coyotes howled to a chilling crescendo in the not-so-distant distance. Deer bounded closely back and forth, confused by this strange whistling cyborg that had invaded their usually tranquil space. Their musky odor seemed suspended on the night air.

I found one burro, Redbo, on the neighboring property. I haltered and led him as I continued the search. I watched his ears for clues to his buddies’ whereabouts, but Spike, Laredo and Ace were not to be found, and it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I was out there searching for something other than burros. I finally brought Redbo home and went to bed. I had literally been out in the cold night for two hours and had found the experience way better than, say, satellite TV, Facebook and even some books I’ve read lately.

Next morning I drove the subdivision roads and spotted the other three burros carving out their own ag status about a mile as the raven flies from the back fence. However, I was not exactly free to move about the country. School was out for parent-teacher conference day, and for the parent of an autistic child, simple tasks like catching these burros can sometimes be a logistical challenge. This one, for example, involved a 30-mile U-turn to the daycare in Westcliffe.

Once back home, I left on foot through the back fence. The burros had climbed the steep, cactus-studded south-facing hillside, then taken a fairly rugged, snow-covered trail through the timber on the north side. I found them near the place I’d seen them earlier in the morning. When I approached they galloped away at high speed.

I jogged after them until they reached a crossfence and turned along it. I finally gained an angle on the critters, but there was a break in that fence and Spike and Laredo passed through. Luckily, I was able to get between them and Ace, and eventually got the paint burro stopped and haltered.

There was a subdivision road nearby and I had the idea of trying to drive the other two burros ahead of Ace, loose-herding them homeward. This worked. For a while. Then Spike and Laredo took a sharp righthand turn off the road and struck out cross-country at a lope. The clock, it seemed, was running, too.

Clearly outnumbered, outrun and outsmarted, I jogged Ace back home, then went back after Spike and Laredo. But they had disappeared again by the time I returned. I had now run out of time and needed to get to the parent-teacher conference.

The conference followed a previous meeting about Harrison’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that had brought the usual soul-searching about geography, jobs, real estate, special schools . . . money. Tuition at the Temple Grandin School, for example, is $20,000 — multiply that by 10 or 12 years. In the final analysis, we are pretty much where we are, for now.

At the conference we were thrilled to learn Harrison got three A’s on his report card. The D in math, his favorite subject, may seem mystifying to those who don’t understand how it’s often difficult to assess his understanding of anything through conventional assignments and tests.

When I got back from the second U-turn it was nearly dark, and by now there had been a couple friendly phone calls about the free-ranging burros. Mary could now hold down the fort while I went out to retrieve them. I easily found Spike and Laredo grazing alongside the subdivision road about a mile from home. I walked right up to Spike and haltered him. We jogged home in the early evening darkness with Laredo following all the way. I stopped at the front gate and looked at the new stars.

A slight hint of sunset was still hanging on the Western sky, and a fresh breeze was on the air. It was too early for sundown but at least I was outside. In about a month the days would be noticeably longer. The back fence could wait until I get to it.