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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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