ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Out in the town of Cochiti Lake, the rest of the world lies elsewhere, far beyond the juniper-dappled hills that roll out toward the horizon until they rise high into the blue stone face of the Sandias.
Here, Linda Imle can view the mountains unobstructed as sunset turns them pink. She sees countless stars at night, unadulterated by city lights. In the morning, she makes note of coyotes scuttling by, the smell of sagebrush on the wind. She greets her neighbors, most of whom she knows my name, out for a walk or a bike ride, an early game of golf, a paddle across the lake.
Here, the median age is 58, most of the residents retired folks from far-flung elsewheres. Population hovers around 500, less than the number of books in the town’s aptly named Irene S. Sweetkind Library.
Cochiti Lake’s nickname is Heaven with a ZIP Code, which is also apt.
“We just love it here,” said Imle, a retired critical care nurse who moved from Alaska with partner Angela Slingluff in 2014. “I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, lived in a lot of places. But you can’t beat this place.”
It is easy to escape the troubles and travesties of the outside world, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rancor, the rage, the suffering.
Early on, one resident tested positive for the virus, but Imle said that person had been overseas and only used a local address.
But four miles down the road, Cochiti Pueblo sealed its borders as the virus took its toll. Kewa, Jemez and San Felipe followed suit. Other pueblos and reservations were also hit hard by COVID-19.
Imle said she and Slingluff couldn’t ignore it all.
“So I thought, well, what can women in their 70s do to help?” Imle said. “And then I started looking up how to make masks.”
She put out the word on Nextdoor in early March seeking similar-minded stitchers willing to dust off their sewing machines, scrounge up some fabric and elastic and join her efforts. Several neighbors responded, many offering to donate fabric, yarn and money for the project. A core group of seven crafty women became known as the Heaven with a ZIP Code Mask Makers.
Originally, the group’s goal was to make enough masks – including crocheted extenders attached with buttons – for Cochiti Lake.
The stitchers did that and kept on stitching, crafting masks to give to folks in nearby Cochiti and Keres pueblos, Sile and Peña Blanca.
“We all work from our own homes, socially distanced, using our own patterns, our own style,” Imle said. “Some of our people make 25 to 30 masks a day. It’s been fun.”
Word of the Mask Makers’ efforts reached the ear of Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya, who has been organizing the delivery of masks, medical supplies and food to communities in need, particularly on Indian lands.
Most of the masks were being crafted by the more than 700 volunteers with Operation Bandana New Mexico.
Now the volunteers had seven more from Cochiti Lake.
Imle estimates that her group has made and distributed about 6,000 masks, both for adults and children. And her group shows no signs of stopping.
Masks these days are readily available for sale online and in stores including Target. But Imle said there is still a great need for her group’s handmade – and free – masks.
“So far, I’ve not been told by anyone that they don’t need them,” she said. “People need them.”
Imle keeps a plastic bin of masks with a sign that says “FACE MASKS HERE” at her front door for passersby. She carries bundles of masks with her when she takes a rare venture outside her socially distanced home, dropping them off at roadside vegetable stands and churches.
Recently, she took Slingluff for a procedure at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center and discovered that the center was in need of masks.
“I had 60 masks with me that day, and I left all 60 with them and promised to be back with more,” she said.
And so it goes.
During the pandemic, many in our communities have stepped forward to volunteer their time, materials and money to help others weather the COVID-19 crisis. It is a way to help in a time of helplessness, a way to reach across the social distancing and remind ourselves that we are all in this together.
Out there in Cochiti Lake, close to heaven, far from anyplace else, as long as help is needed elsewhere, Imle and her merry band of Mask Makers are there, too.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.