New Mexico – By Irene Butler
For miles the parched raw sienna sand dappled with dark green juniper and pale olive sage stretched in all four directions; further off the chameleon mesas rose in grandeur turning from browns to russets with the slightest change of light; mountains in the distance began in charcoals, ending in layers of misty cobalt reaching high into a true blue sky resplendent with startling white clouds; standing in the middle of a back-road time stood still, squinting against a halogen sun, heady fragrances drifted on the silent breeze. Why New Mexico is known as “The Land of Enchantment” encompassed us.
Las Vegas (NM) shimmered as we approached in the heat of day. Within moments after setting up house at the Palomino Motel, we were heading for Montezuma’s Castle on the outskirts of town. The massive red brick structure with turrets is an impressive sight perched on the slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Once a hotel, it is now the only United World College in the United States. A college with a difference, focusing on conflict resolution and community service to round out an advanced Grade 11 and 12 curriculum culminating in a Baccalaureate Diploma. Seventy-five percent of students are from foreign countries. It is led world-wide by such notables as former President of the Republic of Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Bubbling at the foot of the castle along the highway are a series of natural hot springs, the only cost is finding an access down the incline and a pool to dip in. Locating three in a tier with a cement barrier in between, water cascaded from the top filling the second pool, which in turn spilled over into the lowest level. Warned by another soaking couple, Lynda and Frank, of possible scalding in the top section, we settled in the middle pool, which was still a skin-reddening 112 degrees Fahrenheit. The tranquil setting out in the wild added to the therapeutic merit.
Wandering the streets of Las Vegas is a stroll through history. The east side has a wealth of Spanish adobe architecture, from the Spanish settlers dating back to the 1700’s. After the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny marched into the city’s Town Plaza proclaiming the United States was in possession of New Mexico; those who opposed were hung. With the takeover, European settlers infiltrated, filling the west side of the Gallinas River with a multitude of Victorian houses, some untouched for 100 years.
It is no wonder Las Vegas is a prized set for Hollywood movies. A mid-1800 Cowgirl Mural on the back wall of American West Antiques & Collectables, a treasure trove owned by Lynda and Frank Gomez (our hot springs buddies) on the corner of 6th Street and Grand, can be seen in “Red Dawn” starring Patrick Swayse (1983), who by the way currently lives in the vicinity. While visiting the antique shop, we met an exuberant fellow, Jose, an extra in the movie, who says he is now immortalized. “I’m Chicano, so thought I would be playing a Cuban, but they said I was too tall for a Cuban, so I played the Russian that you see facing the camera walking past the female star, Jennifer Grey, after the explosion scene.” So if you ever rent the movie, watch for the dark Russian, Jose.
“Red or Green?” Our waiter patiently explained “the state question” pertaining to chillies; green is hotter than red, and it would be best, with our unaccustomed constitutions, to ask for chilli on the side. The El Rialto will always be remembered for the first and best Mexican feed where every bit and bite is made from scratch in the kitchen. Quesadillas of mixed cheeses, shredded pork and Portobello mushrooms layered between grilled flour tortillas; spinach Enchiladas wrapped in corn tortillas; rib-sticking refried beans; delectable Spanish rice; all topped with large dollops of sour cream, plus guacamole of fresh avocado, tomatoes, lime juice, garlic, cilantro and seasoning; and as much red chilli as we dared. When we mentioned we had never tasted Sapodillas, two large complimentary pieces of the traditional fried bread served with honey appeared before us. Our mouths were still tingling as we walked out the door, agreeing on an 8 in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System”.
Leaving the parched lowlands of Las Vegas, Emili climbed through dense pine forests to an elevation of 6970 ft to Taos, flanked by the north end of Sangre de Christo Mountains, along the Rio Grande River. “Adobe city” is a well-suited moniker; even the major hotels are constructed of the earth-coloured clay, and hold-your-hats; an adobe Walmart.
For decades artists and artisans have been lured by the solitude and beauty of the mountains and sage plains; sculptors, weavers, writers, musicians, composers; filmmakers; with painters and photographers particularly drawn to the remarkable quality of light. Twenty-nine art galleries line the streets. Such notables as D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe found inspiration here. Students come to study at the Taos Institute of Arts.
Taos also attracts alternative healing modalities; crystal vibrations, sound therapy, iridology, homeopathic and herbalists, to name a few. Carl Jung came here often for a reprieve. It was a hippy haven in the 60’s and 70’s. Four schools of Tibetan Buddhism operate in Taos. The locals are quick to tell you of the famous people, who can no longer lead a normal life, having hide-a-ways here. Elizabeth Taylor has a home completely underground. Dennis Hopper lives somewhere in the desert, also Julia Roberts will come back to her home here to have her twins. All, who seek renewal of heart and soul flock to this Mecca.
But the Pueblo Indians were the first to find this haven. Taos has one of the oldest, continually inhabited settlements in the United States, occupied since 1100 A.D. The ancient adobe dwellings are like five storey condominiums; the units above ground level are accessed by ladders which in much earlier times were pulled up at night to safeguard against marauders. Every 5 to 7 years, to keep the thick adobe brick walls in prime condition, the outer smooth plaster layer is chipped off, crumbled, mixed with water and reapplied. It is amazing how cool the dwellings are in the heat of summer, and we are told of the warmth they provide against winter winds when the snow lies deep. Modern utilities have never been added to the almost 1000 year old dwellings. The Pueblo owns Blue Lake, the source of the river running through the village, and have tenaciously guarded this water supply against pollution. Clay bake ovens still churn out daily bread, plus cookies and cakes for the inhabitants.
St. Jerome’s Church, built in 1850, is central to the community. Catholicism and the ancestral nature-based religion are blended, but it was not always so. Approaching the graveyard, Krystal, our guide, told us the demolished structure in the middle was once a church, bombed by the Pueblos in retaliation against Spanish rule. Up against one side of the ruined wall are stacks of wooden crosses. Being only 40 ft by 120 ft, the puzzling question of how this graveyard could hold all the ancestors was revealed. The dead are not embalmed, nor buried in caskets; only wrapped in cloth. Twenty-five years is sufficient for a body to be completely decomposed. The dead are buried in layers and currently the process is in the 4th layer; starting at the top of the large plot, newly deceased bodies are buried in rows until the bottom is reached, and then the practice is started again at the top.
The society is matriarchal; the ownership of dwellings is passed down to the youngest daughter upon the death of the mother. They have their own government, police, jails and warchief. Sixty elders are chosen to sit on a council to oversee the laws of the community; another council is responsible for the condition of the wilderness areas of the Pueblo. Schools to grade eight are in the Pueblo, and children are taught the Tiwi language. Though young adults have to go to Taos for employment today, their beliefs are deeply rooted in their culture. Ta’ ah (thank-you) to Krystal and the Taos Pueblo for sharing their home.
The church of San Francisco de Asis stands with immense presence, yet with the softness of rounded adobe corners and the humble hue of clay. As we walked around the edifice to view all its unique architecture, we were invited inside by a gentleman standing at the door for a service about to begin. The interior was surprisingly unadorned, except for eight superb paintings of holy figures on canvas, bound together by a decorative wooden frame to form a floor to ceiling montage. Resounding voices filled the cavernous space in melodic Spanish accompanied by guitars. We realized the mass was dedicated to a parishioner’s mother who had passed away when a middle-aged lady stood up and shared some touching memories of her departed loved-one.
The “Mystery Painting” for which the church is known, hangs in a small building in the churchyard. Painted in 1896 by Henri Ault, a French Canadian, it had been exhibited in major European cities until it was donated to San Fransisco de Asis in 1948. In daylight, the life size painting of a barefoot Christ stands at the edge of the Sea of Galilee wearing a brown robe, his shoulders draped in a blue shawl, surrounded by wispy white and pale blue clouds. Walking from side to side before the image, we marvelled at how not only the eyes followed us, but also the feet turned to face us no matter where we stood. As we were the only ones viewing the painting at the time, the attendant left us alone, telling us to stay as long as we liked. Now it was time to turn out the lights. The transformation was astonishing; in darkness the background became luminous, the figure of Christ a shadow, with a shadowy cross, that was not part of the picture in daylight, over his left shoulder. We must have switched the light on and off a dozen times. The artist, Henri, thought he was coming unhinged when he walked into his studio at night and discovered the glowing background and the baffling cross; he could not account for either.
Neither art experts nor scientists have found an explanation for the phenomena. It was painted before radium was discovered, and further it tested negative with Geiger counters. No luminous paint has been developed to this day that does not oxidize in a short time-span, usually within five years, and this painting is over 100 years old. Scientists have tested the water, air and soil around the artist’s home and found no evidence of radioactivity. The enigma remains.
Looking down 650 ft at the narrow Rio Grande River centered in the gorge, from the second highest suspension bridge in the U.S. stretching 1200 ft across, was an exhilarating experience. We were on our way to our last inspirational Taos adventure – “Earthship”. Rick found something to put gale-force winds into his sails. Read all about it in Rick’s blog, “Ships Out of Water.”
We arrived next in Santa Fe, the capitol of New Mexico, claiming to be the highest U.S. capitol at 7000 ft; a good base for a day trip north to an even higher elevation, ending in a steep walled mesa at the foot of the Jemez Mountains and “the town that never was.” During the early 1940’s the community had no phones, no street addresses; the only contact with the outside world for those working on “the project” was mail addressed to: P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe Rural. The various departments working on “the gadget” knew only what was required to complete their particular tasks. The civilian Hispanic and Indian workers hired to do indirect chores knew even less. Eminent scientists used pseudonyms when leaving town. The details of the “Manhattan Project” were not revealed until Hiroshima and Nagasaki became burning pyres in a flash killing 300,000 citizens; levelling 100,000 dwellings and businesses.
Albert Einstein got the ball rolling in 1939, when at the request of renowned physicists, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt stating a fission weapon was possible with funding for experimentation, and Russia, who had invaded Czechoslovakia, now had control and had stopped exports of the highest grade of uranium in the world. After the appropriation of a rural boy’s school in Los Alamos, an isolated location with a low population, the Manhattan Project commenced in 1942. A town mushroomed; 37 buildings sprung up in the main town area, with another 200 in the surrounds, 620 family units, military barracks, and hospital. Major General Leslie Groves was the military administrator; Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was Science Leader of Technical Areas. Several Nobel Prize physicists, such as Enrico Fermi from Italy and Sir James Chapwell from England were on board. The excitement and elation of the project gave way to fearful hesitation by these brilliant minds with the results of testing. In early 1945, many involved lobbied the government to prevent the use of the Atomic weapons, but the US government was not swayed, their rational was to end the war with a minimum of American military casualties. August 6, 1945 “Little Boy”, equivalent to 12,500 tons on TNT was dropped on Hiroshima, followed a few days later with “Fat Man” equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT exploding over Nagasaki leaving a horror so great, Oppenheimer declared, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” History should never be buried; lest we forget.
Central Street in Albuquerque was as chaotic as we remembered main thoroughfares in India; very unlike what we know of the good old U.S.A. Traffic crawling, entrances and exits to adjoining roads blocked off, whole lanes designated out of bounds with plastic cones and manned with harried traffic directors, no left or right turns for miles where normally allowable, horns honking in frustration, cars sneaking in U-turns adding to the mayhem. Pulling off the roadway at first chance, we were enlightened by a shop owner; Central Street was the only access to the Exhibition going on the whole month of September, and being Saturday of Labour Day Weekend, it was absolutely swarming. Staying in the area lost its appeal – now – to get out of this mess. We turned Emili back into the milieu in a cranky mood from our episode, heading for the outskirts of town on I-40 to Motel 76.
A hike in the wilderness the next morning was a calming activity choice. Pulling our hiking boots, buried deep in Emili’s trunk, we drove a few miles out of Albuquerque to Petroglyph National Monument’s Rinconada Canyon. Soon enveloped in tranquility, away from the city’s rumblings, with only a handful of people on the trail, we scoured the multitude of basalt boulders rising out of the desert grasses for glimpses of times long past. An amazing array of human figures, spirals, lightening, snakes, birds and animals presented themselves, some dating back to 1300 A.D., accomplished by a method called “pecking” – striking the basalt rock with a hammerstone which removed the dark varnish on the surface. In later additions, two stones were used like a hammer and chisel, for images in more detail; some with crosses and livestock from Spanish and Mexican influence in the 1500’s. Collared lizards scooted between the sage and juniper. A vigilant eye was needed to avoid stepping on millipedes sluggishly crossing the scorching sand on the path. Not sure whether it was our imagination or real, we avoided deep grassy areas from where it seemed a rattling sound occasionally emanated. We counted seeing nearly 100 petroglyphs, but knowing it is believed by Pueblo elders that the images choose when and to whom they reveal themselves, we may not have seen them all.
Getting back in Emili, we proceeded a few miles to the other side of the Park where 8 kilometres of fissure volcanic action occurred 150,000 years ago. Magma rose along thin cracks in the earth’s crust and seeped onto the surface. Eruptions also occurred in places forming the cones called the “Three Sisters” we could see in the distance. The stark grassy terrain was only punctuated by dull greyish-green sagebrush whose aromatic fragrance drifted our way on a brisk wind off the rise between the cones. Every texture of hardened lava passed under our feet; red rock from exposure to oxygen while cooling, black and grey from cooling slower under the surface, and popcorn like mounds from blizzards of hot ash and cinders once falling to the ground.
On our last evening in Albuquerque, we walked across the street to Furr’s grand buffet. I just about dropped my glutinously filled tray as we saw Lynda and Frank walk past us. They were on a buying trip for their antique store in Las Vegas NM. What are the chances of us being at the same eatery, at the same time in a city of 448,650 people? We settled in for hours of enjoyment and discussions, solving all the world’s problems before we parted.
Between Albuquerque and Grants on Highway 22, we drove to the top of a 7000 ft mesa to Acoma Pueblo, known as “Sky City”, first inhabited around 1100 A.D. There seems to be a controversy over this Pueblo being continually inhabited since that time. During the 1800’s, when the mesa was stricken with a severe drought, the people were forced to temporarily leave the mesa, but during that time it was still used for ceremonies. Orlando Antonio, our tour guide, wove the history of his people into a poignant tapestry of grave facts, uplifting stories and humorous antidotes. Though Christianity is now also accepted by this Pueblo, the church and the cemetery will forever echo cruelty at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors. Orlando told us of the credence of Pueblo men; “Never give up”. Not knowing the meaning of surrender under forced rule, most of the men were killed, the women were made slaves and forced to build the church and cemetery. The women cleverly built the dimensions of the church to correspond with the sacred numbers of their own religion. It is built over the place where spiritual dances took place and a Kiva, a men’s sacred meeting place once stood. There are only a few pews in the front of the church; the remaining dirt floor is used to dance on; the same ground danced on by their ancestors. The old adobe cemetery walls, 40 feet high at the back slope, is filled with dirt once carried on women’s backs up the steep walls of the mesa. Currently, in its third layer of “replanting” (there is no such word as burial in their language) only elders are still replanted here.
I was enthralled in Orlando’s male point of view of marriage in a Matriarchal society. The women, of course, propose to the men. Marriage is based on respect for a women; love grows out of this respect. If, and this is seldom the case, a man is approached and there is no attraction to the women, he respectfully would say, “Can we just be friends?” Otherwise, it’s a go. A medicine man presides over the ceremony. The couple clasp left hands, the hand of power extending from the arm where a vein flows blood directly from the heart, the man commits to the women for life. A life-giving cob of corn is held by both, and later hung above the doorway. If problems occur in the relationship, Orlando says the credence of men to “never give up” comes in handy. If the wife dies, the husband waits four years out of respect before he goes on with his life. There is no waiting period for the women, if the husband dies first. The native ceremony is of paramount importance, but is not recognized by U.S. law, so a second marriage ceremony is necessary in the church.
A venture from our next home-base of Grants, found us standing on the jagged volcanic rocks peering down into the mouth of Junction Cave; a bit unnerving since we were without a flashlight, but with the directive from the El Malpais National Monument Park Service, we were confident we would not go down into the deepest part of the volcanic tube. The correct turn would take us through a short length of darkness and lead us out to an exit on an opposite side. Being a wild lava tube, there were no pathways, only sharp rocks of various sizes and stability along the bottom. A welcoming coolness washed over us as we left the sweltering 39 degree Celsius day. The light faded and we entered an eerie “twilight zone”. Ouch! In the dim light I was not choosing the best rocks for guidance with my bare hands. Total darkness enveloped us. “Let’s sit for awhile,” my voice echoed “and see if our eyes adjust.” Sitting in silence, barely audible sounds reached our ears; the tiniest plunk from the depths and the hollow whisper of a breeze far off at the entrance. Scientists divide life in caves into four categories depending on how dependent the species is on the caves environment. Troglobites live their entire life in caves and completely depend on the cave for survival; such as certain mites and worms. Troglophies, like spiders and beetles, live their entire lives in caves but never fully adapt. Trogloxens live above ground, bats and mice are examples, choose to live in caves part of the time, but do not depend on the cave to survive. Humans and moths are two specimens of Accidentals; things that find their way into caves. Determined to make it through, no matter how edgy I began to feel, we brailed our way another fifty or so feet and were relieved to see light filtering in at the other end of the tunnel. Surveying the damage of a few pieces of skin missing on my hand, and Rick’s skinned knee, being better equipment would be a good idea before succumbing to the alluring appeal of cave exploring in the future.
“Inscription Rock”, a gigantic sandstone promontory, which is now a part of El Morro National Monument, lies 38 miles west of Grants. The Anasazi people, who lived on the top of the mesa between 1275 and 1350 A.D., and later the Mexicans, Spaniards and Americans passing between Santa Fe and the Zuni and Hopi villages were drawn to the never-failing waterhole at the base of this 200 ft outcropping, which holds 200,000 gallons of water when filled. The images pecked by the Anasazi are mixed among the inscriptions. The oldest and most famous inscription by a Spanish conquistador (translated) reads, “Passed by here the Governor Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.” This predates the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock by 15 years. In 1716, Don Feliz Martinez bragged about the conquest of the Hopi Indians on his way to their villages; had he waited until the way back the message would have read differently, as the Hopi resisted domination and his expedition was a total failure. The water source was also a welcome stop for the flow of American adventurers and pioneers. The first English language inscription reads, “Lt. J. H. Simpson USA & R.H. Kern Artist visited and copied these inscriptions, September 17th 18th 1849”. This massive cliff is an incredible walk through history with over 100 markings.
As we climbed to the Anasazi ruins nature’s brush had swirled the lichen along the ledges into a masterpiece of vibrant green, bright orange, charcoal and rich browns. The Anasazi are the forerunners of the Zuni Pueblo, now living only miles away. Only part of the ancient village of 875 dwellings once housing 1,100 people is excavated. Two Kivas can be seen, one the traditional Anasazi circular shape and the other square as was common in Mogollon culture, indicating interaction between the two groups. It is not known why the Pueblo was abandoned after less than 100 years. An out of place aluminum ladder was leaning against the wall of a room. Edwin Seowtewa, a young Zuni man, appeared from a treed area with his lunch bucket. He was proudly restoring a wall of his ancestor’s dwelling to its original strength. From his home in Zuni Pueblo, he also works with his father, Alex, who has been restoring the life-size murals of Kachina (spiritual warriors) in the old mission church since 1970. He further informed us the church is currently closed due to a disagreement with the government; the Zuni are opposed to the government wanting to bring bus tours to the mission before the restorations are complete. We were not about to miss such a wealth of cultural knowledge as Edwin, who gladly answered our questions. In response to my current obsession to Pueblo burials before cemeteries were introduced by the Spanish, Edwin said, “The dead were buried under the mud floors of their homes, if there was sufficient earth. If the home was on rock, the body was placed in a room and the door was closed off with adobe. It is a comfort to have ancestral spirits near.”
A fun finale to leaving El Morro was spotting not one, but two Roadrunners at the side of the road as we pulled out of the parking lot. Rick stopped abruptly while I fumbled for my camera, to no avail; I was outsmarted as was Wiley Coyote in the cartoons my children once watched. With a tail, held in a horizontal position and almost the length of their brownish olive bodies, they streaked by on scrawny legs at full tilt. A short-ruffled plume on top of their heads looked like a bad hair day. One looked back before disappearing into the sage, and clattered at us (no beep-beep). They eat almost anything, insects, rodents, lizards and a favourite lunch is rattlesnake. These light-weight birds, of only 8 to 12 oz, peck the rattler to death with their long, blunt beak. Monogamous through their 7 to 10 year lifespan, both the male and female share the incubation duties, as snakes and rodents are only too happy to settle the score by munching their enemy while in egg form. Seeing these fine feathered friends of the New Mexico faunal community made our day complete.
New Mexico has been a rewarding experience in so many ways. With the exception of the first half-day in Albuquerque, the angst of large cities does not exist. It will always be remembered as our maiden motor trip in a living desert landscape, with mesas, mountains and both familiar and strange flora and fauna. The rich Native heritage is wonderfully intense, and mixed with the many other cultural strands woven into the tapestry, New Mexico manifests itself in an unforgettable, magical journey. As we packed our belongings and memories, we knew it would be bitter-sweet crossing the border westward bound.
Irene & Rick Butler