During the summer of 1969, I read a book called Red Sky at Morning written by a New Mexico author named Richard Bradford. I had graduated from high school a few weeks before and was spending the summer session at New Mexico State University.
My girlfriend and I were separated by about three hundred miles and I labored under the belief that we could hold this long-distance relationship together because destiny had chosen us for each other. We weren’t. We didn’t. And we are both probably the better off for it.
I was captivated by Bradford’s coming-of-age story and its relationship to New Mexico. Bradford’s book took place in a different New Mexico than I knew. His was a setting in Northern New Mexico decorated by mountains and streams and a melded population steeped in the Hispanic culture.
I grew up in Larry McMurtry’s New Mexico, on the arid high plains called the Llano Estacado, a place which, at that time, did its best to deny the Mexican aspect of our state.
Driving from Eastern New Mexico to Las Cruces, though, I discovered the New Mexico I would come to love—the Hondo Valley, Ruidoso, The Mescalero Apache Reservation, Tularosa, White Sands, over the Organ Mountains and into Las Cruces, a scant forty miles from the Mexican border. During my years in Southwestern New Mexico I discovered the beauty of the Rio Grande Valley and the richness of the Hispanic culture. I wandered further west and spent countless hours backpacking in the unparalleled grandeur of the Gila Wilderness.
One of the reasons I was so captivated by Bradford’s book, I guess, is that in the end, you get the sense that the boy and the girl are destined to remain apart. In 1969 that possibility concerning my relationship awoke emotions in me I hadn’t recognized before. I’d been addicted to reading for a long time, but I’d never read something that spoke to me the way this book did.
A couple of high school teachers had encouraged me to think that someday I might become a writer. When I finished Red Sky at Morning, I thought to myself that if I ever did write, I’d want to write something like this. And that, I suppose, is where Section Roads came from. Apparently, though, I remain hostage of the little town on the east side of the state. When my story began to percolate and take form, it kept insisting on that location. Only some three hundred pages later does it meander to Las Cruces and Mexico.
The result is a sometimes-unflattering snapshot of the place I grew up, a place to which I remain uncomfortable returning. I guess it’s serendipity that the release date for Section Roads—a book about high school reunions—is exactly one week prior to my fiftieth high school reunion.
I’m still undecided whether I will go.
I don’t know that town any more. Maybe it’s different now. I’m certainly different, so it could be as well. I hold a love-hate relationship with that community, though. I disliked so many aspects of the culture ingrained in its children during the time I grew up. I couldn’t wait to leave. I embrace it, though, because of my dad. When the war was over and he’d seen so many other parts of the world, he chose to return there. He loved it, and despite the hardships it imposed on him as he grew up, he found a way to rise above the racism and narrow-mindedness and Bible-thumping dogma of that region and that era. Those were values he imparted to me. So, I grudgingly admit to owing that little town a lot.
Bradford only wrote one other book—So Far from Heaven. After that, he said, his pen went dry. Heaven wasn’t nearly as successful as Red Sky. Its story revolves around the circus that is New Mexico politics, and as a former newspaper reporter who covered several sessions of the New Mexico Legislature, I find a lot in that book to love, as well.
I’m not suggesting I am in the same league as Richard Bradford, nor that Section Roads belongs on the same shelf as Red Sky. But I’m proud that I’ve achieved the ambition inspired in me at eighteen years old to write a coming-of-age story, even if it took fifty years to do so.