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People, Places, Stuff

Hanging Tough in Las Vegas, NM

On the Plaza, Las Vegas, NM

One night last month, TV news was reporting that 57 people in New Mexico had tested positive for Covid-19, including one in San Miguel County. By Monday, it was 87.

That was nothing compared to other places: New York locked down with refrigerator trucks serving as morgues, Italy where tenor Andrea Bocelli's "Amazing Grace" echoed over an empty Piazza del Duomo in Milan on Easter Sunday, and some Asian countries now facing a second round.

We in Las Vegas still had to entertain our kids—out of school for who knows how long—care for the old and vulnerable people we love and make sure there was food in the frig. Some of us were laid off and had to figure out how to pay the bills and file for unemployment.

But living here in Vegas, we were at a distance from the deepest pain other Americans were suffering. We have fine big spaces around us and a lot of wind to blow bad things away.

At Highlands, where I teach English—online since spring break—I asked students in my Composition I class if they had found anything good about these Coronavirus times. Lots of them were happy to be able to sleep late since they didn't actually have to come to class in person. College students never change. Others, at home with their families, said they have had a chance to get closer to a brother or sister. Some have been working extra hours in essential jobs. More than a few are actually finished the work they needed to do to pass my classes, even though it couldn't have been easy for them to stay focused and motivated.

Before NMHU closed, my English Comp class was studying True Grit, an under-appreciated Western classic by Charles Portis about a 14-year-old girl who ventures into the Oklahoma "Indian Territory" just after the Civil War to take her own vengeance against the outlaw who killed her father. She doesn't trust the American justice system to do it for her. Instead she hooks up with a tough but morally dubious Federal Marshal to help her. Rooster Cogburn was played by John Wayne in the 1969 film version of the book and by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 re-make directed by Ethan and Joel Coen.

The films are good choices for Coronavirus streaming, not least because we're in the book. "I found myself one pretty spring day in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in need of a road stake and I robbed one of them little high-interest banks there. Thought I was doing a good service. You can't rob a thief, can you?" says Rooster.

He must have been here on a spring day when fruit trees were blossoming along Douglas Street this spring and bulbs were revealing themselves as flowers above ground in my yard.

I told my students that some, but not all, books have messages, that giving advice is no longer thought to be the purpose of literature. But I also had to ask them if they heard any messages in True Grit. By and large, they did. They admired Mattie Ross's implacable quest for vengeance in a place American justice couldn't reach.  

To them, she's a courageous western heroine. "I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with un unpleasant task," she says after identifying her papa's corpse at the undertaker's.

I, myself, think that Mattie's a teenage vigilante. But if, in the face of the Coronavirus, my Comp I class learned not to "flinch or crawfish" when they meet adversity, they deserve A's. If the rest of us don't flinch, we all do.

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Little Las Vegas

A strange, but wonderful coincidence took me to little Las Vegas, NM, last summer.

I'd stayed at and loved the historic Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ. I even covered it for the LA Times.

When I heard that Allan Affeldt had bought two more historic hotels in LV, I visited and did a story.

Along the way I fell in love with funky LV, its singular history, location right on the border between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Great Plains, and its vintage American architecture.

I got a one-year posting to teach English at LV's New Mexico Highlands University and moved into a Sears catalogue house nearby.

Students from my Travel Writing class created an Insider's Guide to Las Vegas website. Check it out.


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Contest launches at the
Institut Catholique de Kabgayi, Muhanga, Rwanda

Some 75 primary and secondary school students from the Muhanga District (and beyond) will share their dreams by giving speeches in English at the first annual SPEAK UP! contest, to be held on Saturday, June 23, 2018, from 9am to 1:30pm, at the Institut Catholique de Kabgayi (ICK) in Muhanga.
The contestants will be welcomed by keynote speaker, Peter H. Vrooman, Ambassador of the United States of America to Rwanda.  Read More 
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An Applied Linguistics Research Paper

When We Practice to Deceive:
Features of Fake News
Susan Spano
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Susan Spano is a Master’s Degree candidate in the TESOL Department at Middlebury
Institute of International Studies.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Spano, Middlebury
Institute of International Studies, 460 Pierce St., Monterey,  Read More 
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Susan Spano, U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer
Ashtarak, Armenia
May-December, 2015

Ashtarak is a town of about 20,000, located in central Armenia about 30 miles north of the capital. It sits on the southern flank of Mount Aragats—the tallest mountain in the country—and  Read More 
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I hear there’s a drought in California. The worst in recorded history.
Don’t blame me. I used to suck up a lot of California water, never could train myself to turn off the faucet while brushing my teeth. But last year I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Armenia, where I  Read More 
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Big Sur on the Fly

Smart travelers headed for Big Sur book their weekend getaways early, because
hotels are few and far between—especially in terms of price, ranging from $800
for a double at the ritzy Post Ranch Inn to $80 for a tent cabin at Fernwood. So I
count myself blessed to have snagged a room at the last minute (think Friday night
at 6 p.m.) at Glen Oaks for the in-between price of $275.
Up until a couple of years ago, Glen Oaks was an old motel on Highway 1 next to the one of the coast’s only gas stations. It’s still next door to the Big Sur Shell, but
a recent renovation transformed the place into a stylish midcentury modern, Asian-
redwood fusion hideaway. Most desirable are the cabins in the redwoods alongside
the Big Sur River, but I got number 16 just up from the road. Peace and quiet
descended once I entered through a big wooden door leading to my own private
walled patio. The room had a low platform king bed with a Pendleton throw kept
toasty-warm by a glowing gas fireplace. I also appreciated the mini-frig with a
pitcher of filtered water, yoga mats, heated stone floor in the bath and copy of Big
Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, by Henry Miller, thoughtfully provided
for insomniacs.
I had dinner at Deejen’s Big Sur Inn just down the road from Glen Oaks. It’s one of my favorite places on the California coast and this meal didn’t let me down: a nice glass of pinot noir with a crazy-good cabbage and peanut salad, followed by seared duck breast that made think of France ($65). I doubted I’d want much to eat the next morning, but at the stylish Glen Oaks restaurant—a.k.a. the Big Sur Roadhouse—I couldn’t resist the special house breakfast: an egg with grits on a bed of long-cooked greens, accompanied by two handmade sausage patties ($11). It’s a beautiful thing, the way grits soak up butter. Lunch followed, made up of leftovers from both meals—free and even tastier picnic-style on a Big Sur headland.
Actually, the whole reason why I went to Big Sur was to hike to Soberanes Point in
Garrapata State Park. I didn’t do the whole 7-mile loop that mounts 1,200 feet to a knock-out overlook in Santa Lucia Mountains and then returns to the coast by way of the Soberanes Canyon Trail. I just went straight up and back, rendering my legs wobbly and my inner self joyful.
I’m left contemplating several questions. Should you plan ahead to make sure you’ll have a roof over your head when you travel? Yes, by and large. But there are special existential benefits that come from winging it. I’d never have found Glen Oaks and grits at the Big Sur Roadhouse otherwise.
And why do I only have to say the words Big Sur to break out in poison oak? Read More 
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Asilomar at 100, LA Times, 7/7/13

The 100th birthday of the Asilomar Conference Grounds is being celebrated this year with a full slate of events, including lunch and lecture series, guided walks, chef-led cooking demonstrations and holiday guest packages.

All are designed to welcome back folks to the historic meeting grounds designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1913 as a YWCA summer camp on the Central Coast between Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove.

The old girl has great bones thanks to Morgan, the first female architect licensed in California and best known for designing Hearst Castle. She put her rustic, Western Arts and Crafts signature on 11 buildings at Asilomar (a National Historic Landmark), with its creaking wood floors, weathered shingles, overhanging roofs and yawning stone fireplaces, all set in a gnarled Monterey pine forest and bordered by 25 acres of rolling sand dunes.

Asilomar has completed restoration to rid the dunes of non-native invasives and eradicate a disease that threatened to lay waste to the woods.

During the last few years Aramark, which manages the center, has spent more than $20 million to upgrade some of Asilomar’s architectural crown jewels.

That includes Morgan’s signature Social Hall, where guests check in, play pool and sit in rockers by the fireplace. Wheelchair accessible stone walkways are being laid.

The center has a cellphone tour and Wi-Fi.

“You won’t find another California state park with that amount of improvement and no state funding,” said Scott A. Wilson, sales and marketing director at Asilomar.

Things have changed in 100 years, but not the important ones. If you walk into Dodge Chapel where a window above the altar looks out on the dunes, you may still see a sparrow flying from beam to beam. Read More 
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WPA Murals in Monterey

Just relocated to Monterey, California, I was beguiled to find a series of WPA murals on Central Coast subjects at the historic Stevenson House museum downtown. They date from 1934 and include The Artichoke Pickers by Henrietta Shore (pictured to the left), Fishermen by August Gay and Trailing/Cattle Drive by Will Irwin. As if this place wasn't already beautiful enough....  Read More 
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Jalama Beach, LA Times

By Susan Spano
May 26, 2013

Wild and lonely, on the Central Coast about 45 minutes southwest of Lompoc, Jalama Beach County Park is one of those places that puts the golden in the Golden State. Getting here over mounded hills and through moss-bearded oak thickets is glorious enough, and then you see the beach stretching for miles from Point Arguello to Point Conception. The 23.5-acre park, donated to Santa Barbara County in 1943 by the Richfield Co., has a small restaurant and store, a handful of cabins and camping sites, but nothing more to break the spell of clashing coast and ocean. Swimming is allowed, but the surf is often rough, better for body and kite surfing, fishing and beachcombing. The tab: Two nights in a prime tent-camping spot, $86, plus a $6.50 reservation fee. A cooler full of beverages and snacks, $50. Two dinners and breakfasts for two at the grill, $75. Plus the cost of gasoline to get here.

The bed

Campsites 53 to 64 ($43 a night) are prime, directly overlooking the beach. There are seven cabins ($110-$210 a night) and 109 sites for tent campers and RVs ($23-$43), each with a grill and picnic table; 31 of the sites have electrical hookups ($38-$43). Reservations are accepted no more than six months in advance; there are minimum stays for weekends and holidays (www.sbparks.org/reservations, [805] 736-3504).

The meal

Sure, you can cook out; that's what the fire pits are for. But for my money ($5.95), if I never eat another hamburger in my life, let my last be a "World Famous Jalama Burger," served at the Beach Store & Grill. McDonald's empire builder Ray Kroc once called it the best burger he'd ever eaten but was rebuffed when he asked for the top-secret sauce recipe. The grill also serves tasty fries, halibut burgers, homemade clam chowder and a variety of breakfast burritos. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The find

When the tide goes out, a Whoville of sea creatures is revealed among the rocks and reefs that punctuate the long stretches of empty beach. The fascinations are endless, including living sea urchins and stars, clam colonies, sand dollars and the occasional beached baby seal. Consult a tide chart first to make sure you don't get stranded by incoming waves.

The lesson learned

Spring is the windy season, drawing deliriously happy kite surfers. But camping, I had to pile boulders in my tent to keep it from blowing away; to sleep, ear plugs and a sedative were required. For reference: Summer is the busy high season, winter sometimes inclement. Best time to visit? September and October.

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