Nowhere, New Mexico
A trip to Nowhere.
The town of Nowhere popped up out of the high desert in post-war New Mexico and marred the face of imperfection forever.
That was it. That was the hook. The line that was supposed to snare you into reading the book. First lines are critical in novel writing, the experts and gatekeepers say. I don’t know. A great hook doesn’t mean the book will be good. I can bang out a couple better than that right now and I’m not even drunk yet:
“The evening sun, orange-red and glorious in its setting, painted the patio a deep, dusky amber and a wisp of a late autumn breeze ruffled his hair as Chet sat down to eat the last plate of his dad.”
You’d want to read that one. Somewhere in the book Chet eats his dad.
“Corabeth didn’t know if her shoulder would be up to the strain, but she dug in her toes and hiked up her dress and apron before exploding forward and pushing Mr. Godsey out the third-floor window to his death.
That last one is a Waltons television show deleted scene I just made up right now, but you get the point. Ken Halberson was planning on writing a book about Nowhere, New Mexico, and this is how Ken’s book would have started if he’d ever written it. Which he didn’t. Now I’m writing the book, so I might as well start it the same way.
I found Ken Halberson’s notes a year ago stashed in a vintage 50s era Samsonite hard-sided suitcase (brown) at the Bonneville mid-century modern furniture store in Coleman, Texas. The suitcase was brown unmarred leather, and it was locked.
Wes is the guy who runs the store, and he knew the notes were in there,
but the suitcase was locked, and he sold it to me anyway.
“Aren’t you even remotely curious what’s in here?” I said.
Wes, generally good natured except on the days when he’s surly, shrugged. “I was curious,” he said. “because I’m not an idiot. I opened it and looked at the stuff in it. It’s just a bunch of paper. Worthless stacks of typed notes from the 50s. Some on copy paper and thousands of words handwritten on bar napkins and on the backs of hamburger sacks. Some college kid’s dissertation notes maybe, I don’t know. I didn’t read it. It looked like nonsense. What do I care about it? I’m surprised no one dumped it all thirty years ago. Must have been stuck in someone’s attic somewhere.”
My eyes widened even as I tried to mask my excitement. A suitcase with a manuscript inside! Was I holding Hemingway’s lost bag? And what if in the bag was Hemingway’s manuscripts from when his wife Hadley lost everything he’d written on a train car in 1922.
Can you imagine?
In December of 1922, Hemingway was in Switzerland, still a correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. He hadn’t yet published anything, though he wrote constantly. He’d written dozens of short stories and poems, not to mention a full novel. In ’22 he was in Switzerland at the Lausanne Peace Conference and while there he’d given some small tokens of his writing to the editor Lincoln Steffens. Steffens asked for more of his writing, so Hemingway sent a telegram to his wife Hadley who was at their home in Paris. She dutifully packed up all of Hemingway’s writings, everything she could find—even carbon copies, which back then were laboriously maintained as the only backups to a manuscript—and placed them into a satchel to deliver them to her husband.
Hadley boarded the train in Paris and while waiting for the departure had exited the car momentarily to buy some water to drink on the trip. When she returned, the satchel containing her husband’s life work as an author was gone.
If you are not a writer you probably cannot imagine what a disaster this was, but as a lover of literature you should have an inkling.
Only a few works survived. A short story had been sent to an editor and another was buried in a drawer at their apartment, so Hadley had missed it. Hemingway was wiped out, and history shows that he never fully forgave his wife who was devastated by the event.
Everything Hemingway had written up to that point was lost forever.
Was this that satchel?
Well, no, because this ain’t that story. No way Hemingway had his
manuscripts in a hard-sided Samsonite 1950s era suitcase.
“It’s not Hemingway’s lost novel, genius,” Wes said, as if reading my thoughts. This was one of his surly days.
“I know. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.”
“Just a bunch of notes someone wrote on bar napkins. Probably a manifesto. Like the Unibomber. It’s all free with the suitcase. You want it?”
Of course I wanted it.
Wes was wrong, but he didn’t know any better. The work in the bag wasn’t just a pile of notes. Sure, some of it was scribbled on bar napkins and hamburger sacks like he’d said, but it wasn’t nothing. Ken Halberson was planning on writing a book about a small town in New Mexico, a town I’d never heard of. In fact, it was a town that no one alive had ever heard of as far as I could tell. I couldn’t find any information on the town at all. Anywhere.
But I found Ken Halberson.
Halberson was a decorated World War II vet who went to work for LIFE Magazine after the war as a special features writer. Edward Kramer Thompson, LIFE’s editor-in-chief at the time, sent Halberson to Israel in 1948, Indochina in 1952, and to Nowhere, New Mexico (instead of Korea) in 1954. I have the letters on LIFE letterhead to prove it. In Indochina he had his leg nearly blown off when a soldier he was shadowing stepped on a landmine and was killed. Halberson, gravely wounded, recuperated in Japan and after 13 surgeries he flew home to a hero’s welcome, a big bonus from LIFE, and the bad news that he’d be getting no more dangerous assignments from the magazine. He was crushed when he found out he wouldn’t be covering the Korean War for the magazine.
It was at this time that he began drinking heavily, and that’s notable, I guess, if you’re looking to study Ken’s life. You see, there’s a gap in Halberson’s story. A huge chasm in his biographical data online that was partially explained by what I found in the suitcase and nowhere else.
Halberson wrote a few books after 1960, mostly about baseball and politics, and he became a New York Times Bestselling Author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cuba during the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961 (he went there without LIFE’s permission; they paid him anyway) and according to Wikipedia he was killed in a car accident in Albuquerque in 1974. If you only look online, there is no clue in the extant information about this famous journalist that he ever made it to Nowhere, New Mexico, that he ever wrote an article or
book about the town, and, like I said, even that the place ever existed.
But Ken Halberson was somewhere in 1954. He just disappears from the record from 1954 to 1960.
No, there’s no evidence out in the wide world that Ken Halberson ever made it to Nowhere, yet, I have over 300,000 words and notes, many of them handwritten, from Halberson’s time in Nowhere and I cannot deny by reading them that he either a.) certainly lived there for a time, or b.) was absolutely crazy for a good part of the middle 1950s, but was then sane enough to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in the early 1960s.
Ken Halberson was tall, ruggedly handsome, erudite, inquisitive, and single. He was the old 50s version of the confirmed bachelor before that term came to hint at homosexuality. According to the biographies of some of his famous cohorts in journalism and literature, the people who knew him, and according to his own biography sent by him at the request of the Pulitzer people in the early 1960s, he never married, and he was happily heterosexual. The Pulitzer writeup doesn’t mention his sexuality, but there is strong evidence from his own writing and from mentions of him by his author friends that he was straight.
Journalism was his life and love and he moved from job to job chasing the story. Women were an occasional delightful sidelight. At least, that what I thought until I read his notes from Nowhere.
What we can gather from the suitcase writings, merging those with what I could learn from the information available online, is that sometime in early 1954 Ken Halberson left his home in Schenectady, New York and took a plane to Albuquerque, New Mexico searching for the town his editor had sent him to write about.
His plan was this… find the town, live there for a while, and write about it.
Rumor had it that a town had sprouted up out of the post-war desert sands and by all accounts—that is by the only rumors he could find—it was a modern utopia. The perfect town. That’s all there was. That was the seed of the story. Edward Kramer Thompson, in his telegram dispatching Halberson to New Mexico had this to say:
They say there is a perfect town in New Mexico. Called Nowhere. Utopia. Doubt it is. Go find out. Take all the time you need. A year or more if need be. Rest, dig in. Have fun. Send us the bills. We want 10k words.
Halberson’s notes from February 1954 were clear, and when he left Schenectady, this is what he knew: The rumor that the town existed, and the rumor that it was perfect. Here is what he did not know: He didn’t know where Nowhere was located, and, if it even existed.
The investigation started before the journey to New Mexico, and Halberson kept notes of his inquiries. Nobody alive who’d ever published through the AP or any of the other news wires knew where the town was. A few had heard of it. Roger Claussen of the Chicago Tribune claimed to have heard of it but had never been there. A bartender Halberson asked during a layover said he’d heard of the place and that Ken’s information was wrong. It was in Old MEXICO, the barman said. Not NEW Mexico. There were no other records to be found. No high school sports teams ever competed against any team from Nowhere, New Mexico. There were no birth records, no death filings, no marriage licenses, no church records, no record of auto accidents, no lawsuits, nothing. If Nowhere ever existed, it had been expunged from the public memory.
Halberson was supposed to write 10,000 words on a town he couldn’t even prove existed. He wrote more than that. Way more. But he didn’t write a book. At best he wrote an article that only a handful of people ever read.
I’m writing the book.
So, here’s how I’m going to handle this.
You know, writing another man’s book, it’s not plagiarism. I’m not going to use Halberson’s words verbatim. I’m writing my own book. I’ve studied the notes. I’ve spent hundreds of hours putting them in some sort of order. I know the story. I’ve analyzed bar napkins and hamburger sacks and the backs of receipts and reams of typing paper bound together by string or stuffed into manila envelopes. Some of the notes are extensive and explicit as to the details and conversations. Some are almost impossible to discern. Halberson got drunk quite a lot, and when he did his writing suffered. I sometimes get drunk too, so I’m not judging the man.
I can tell you this, though. Nowhere wasn’t a utopia in the literary sense. I know this because Ken Halberson was in it. Imperfect Ken Halberson. Just like our world isn’t a utopia because we’re all in it. Imperfect us. There is no utopia this side of heaven, so we ought not take that term too seriously. However, an investigation into a utopia seems to be a worthwhile endeavor, so I’ll have to finish Ken’s work, which is a confusing thing to do.
At times I’ll be writing as me and you’ll know it’s me. Sometimes I’ll write as Halberson, and you’ll know that too. Sometimes, like now, I’ll break the fourth wall. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes I’ll fill in missing stuff with my own imagination, like watching a movie that’s “based on true events.” What you’ll get, though, is true, and probably truer than if Ken Halberson wrote it, because I’m not biased by falling in love with the town, or with Kate Laird either. Hopefully, when we get to the end, it’ll all ring true enough.
—Michael Bunker, Brownwood, TX 2021