From: (David Sewell)
Subject: A Loop Trip and the Meaning of New Mexico
Date: 19 Aug 1995 22:02:15 -0700

These are some miscellaneous notes on a loop trip through New Mexico that my wife and I took from 11-17 August, mostly to visit places we hadn't ever seen or had previously seen too hastily. Rather than repeat descriptions of things you already know thoroughly or can read about in any guidebook, I'm focusing on lesser-known sites and on encounters that were personally meaningful or that said something special about New Mexico and the Southwest. The notes turn into a meditation toward the end, because I can't ever seem to travel without trying to convert movement into meaning.

The route, by overnight stops, was Tucson - Lordsburg - Three Rivers - Taos - Chaco Canyon - Socorro - Silver City - Tucson, a mix of motels and camping.

Steins Railroad Ghost Town (just across the state line on I-10). We'd never pulled off here before, probably because of prior experiences with commercial ghost towns that take their cues from Disneyland and Hollywood. But a few months back the local PBS station had done a show on town owners Larry and Linda Link that made it clear they were motivated in their restoration/research project by love for the town and respect for historical accuracy. We reached Steins around 5 p.m., and were the only other people in the little general store where we found Larry behind the counter. He greeted us with a bit of packaged presentation and for-the-tourists humor ("It's been so dry the cows are giving powdered milk!"), but as soon as he realized we had some background in regional history we launched into a freewheeling conversation (well, granted, mostly a monologue by Larry) that lasted over an hour. Larry's the genuine item--rugged individualist, Ed Abbeyish (he says he ran the National Historic Site folks off when he found out what conditions they stipulate for getting into the registry), profoundly attached to his corner of the world. What else can you say about a guy who raised two suckling javelinas whose mother was killed by a car, and who guided a group of Apache elders to a pictograph site he had run across in the Chiricahua band's original range that the Arizona tribes had forgotten about?

Deming. We stopped in the Luna-Mimbres museum not expecting much, and were blown away by what they had. They've recently acquired a couple of private collections of Mimbres pots, and all in all, what they have on display equals or surpasses the more established display up at Western New Mexico U. It was impressive, too, to see how much material the townpeople have donated (old cowboy paraphernalia, Victoriana, flapper dresses from the '20s, antique business machines, you name it). (I don't know just what it is about Deming, but the Florida Mountains grabbed me on my first cross-country drive through there, and I've had a warm feeling about the town ever since I pulled off there en route to Austin with a portable CD player about to burn out on account of a DC cigarette-lighter adapter with the wrong wattage rating, and practically the first thing that met my eye was a Radio Shack in one of the little old turn-of-the-century downtown buildings, when I'd thought for sure I'd have to drive on to Las Cruces to find an electronics place.)

La Mesilla. Ron Green had recommended La Posta as a place to eat, saying it rated a 'B' in his book. Ron, if that's only a B, what counts as an A? An Arizonan simply has to bow down in honor of the New Mexican's mastery of the chile. The best Sonoran cooking does things with masa flour and cheese that no one else comes close to, but the aesthetics of chiles in New Mexican cuisine is something we can't touch.

On Ron's recommendation again, we turned off at Aguirre Springs in the Organs, which confirmed the Organs' high status on my "must hike" list. (How much of the summit peaks and ridges are reachable without technical climbing?) Skipped White Sands, even though we'd never been there--with apologies to its partisans, if you've been in the Mojave dunes you don't quite see what all the fuss is about. (Imagine Crocodile Dundee holding up the 700-foot-high Kelso Dunes with the craggy Providence Mountains rising a mile out of the desert behind them and saying, "Now *these* are dunes!")

Quarai Ruins near Mountainair: here we first encountered buffalo gourd, massive patches of it, which was great excitement for me, since I've been growing its near cousin coyote melon in Tucson as part of my effort to replace invasive European weeds with indigenous ones. Since the winter rains this year my bible has been Kittie Parker's "An Illustrated Guide to Arizona Weeds" (I've identified 18 species around my house, all but 3 non-native to Arizona), so it was a kick to find horseweed and prickly lettuce growing around Quarai. I started pulling some of it up while we were picknicking, figuring I'd extend my crusade to New Mexico, which mildly horrified Meg (she was relieved that I at least didn't try to pull up any of the horseweed I saw at Taos Pueblo).

Taos was supposed to be a major destination for us, since we hadn't been there in years and thought maybe we'd spend most of a day around the plaza. But we should have known better; it measured about a 2.5 on the Sedona scale, so we wound up on the road by early afternoon. (1 Sedona is the standard measure of the amount of time it takes for a crowded, trendy tourist magnet to drive you away screaming crazy; approximately equal to one hour. On this trip the winner--or loser--on the Sedona scale was Madrid at .05, since we couldn't even find parking there.)

Coming south out of Chaco Canyon we stopped for lunch at Crownpoint: mediocre mutton stew and watery red chile beans. I used to have this theory, based on the Navajo and the English, that sheepherding cultures were somehow genetically linked to bad cooking, but the existence of Greek food kind of blew that one to bits.

Acoma: last time we drove to Sky City, the pueblo was closed in preparation for religious ceremonies. This time we made it up to the top. But the high point of the visit was finding Marus Chino back at the visitor's center selling pottery. I'd seen his work at a show in Casa Grande, Arizona, three years ago: he had developed a unique hair-thin brush-stroke style of painting jars which had already earned him honors at the Santa Fe Indian Market and Casa Grande. Since I had been genteely unemployed back then, the $400 jar I thought particularly beautiful was an extravagance I couldn't afford, but this time we decided we could manage a somewhat smaller jar with a circular lizard motif that reminded me of a style I couldn't quite put a name to until I noticed that Chino's flyer mentioned influences in his art from M. C. Escher. Then something clicked, and I said, "For that matter, Escher's lizards look kind of like Mimbres designs," and Chino smiled and said, "So it comes full circle, then."

If there was one theme to the conversations we had or heard this trip, it was of paradise lost--which is, of course, *the* theme in the West. (Wallace Stegner once wrote that "the typical western writer loves the past, despises the present, of his native region.") We heard it from a woman at Taos Pueblo, one of the craftspeople selling pottery out of her house, who talked at length about problems in the pueblo, particularly with kids who no longer respected elders, wanted their parents to spend all their money on Nintendo games, and were starting to pick up urban gang habits ("You hear this *whistling* at night now, I think it's some kind of gang thing. Five years ago I never locked my door, but now sometimes I'm afraid to go out.") We heard it on TV in Socorro, on an Albuquerque news broadcast reporting results of a poll in which 85% of respondents agreed that the quality of life in New Mexico is getting worse. (One of the sound bites: "Too many Easterners and people from the West Coast are coming here and ruining the environment.") We heard it from the owner of O'Keefe's bookstore in Silver City: I had mentioned to him the line I'd heard that "Silver City is like Prescott was 20 years ago" and said I wondered if people would be using Silver City for that comparison in another 20 years, and he said, "More like 5 years, the way this town is growing. It's going to be totally unrecognizable.")

Still there were abundant signs of pride, hope, and powerful sense of place, maybe nowhere more so than in a fellow named Nuñez we met at Lake Roberts, in the Gila NF north of Silver City. We were vacating our table after a picnic lunch; thinking it might be because his large family was just setting up for their own lunch, he said he hoped they weren't driving us out. I'd noticed his California plates, so to make conversation I asked whereabouts in the state he was from, and when he replied Riverside I said that I'd grown up mostly in the L.A. area myself. "Oh, but I'm *from* around here," he said; "went to school in Deming and Silver City." He was back showing his kids and grandkids some of his old haunts, and had passed through Globe to visit his father's grave on the San Carlos Reservation ("I think he was some kind of Indian" was his phrase, obviously containing a large untold story). He'd move back to the area if he could manage it financially; it was a little to early for him to retire yet. He agreed with me that the Riverside smog was bad, but said the biggest problem was with the people, the distrust, the unfriendliness. "You meet someone there, you probably can't just talk to them. Like we're doing right now!" We told him that we had picked up and moved to Tucson without jobs but knew it would be harder to do that in a smaller town; he said he figured one way or another he'd manage it.

The first time I drove through New Mexico, from Clayton to Shiprock 15 years ago, I barely noticed any humans there, so powerful was the landscape. This trip the land was a by-now-familiar given, and what strikes me most is the tremendous variety of people we found ourselves talking with easily and freely: Anglo Forest Service and art gallery employees, Hispanic tourists and museum guides, Pueblo Indian artists and single mothers. We weren't wearing rose-colored glasses--one couldn't overlook the homeboyz in their camo pants and shaved heads next to a burned-out car and the State Police on the high road to Taos, or the worlds of difference between the tourists in Taos plaza and the locals with food stamps in the Furrs down the road where we bought a cheap dinner, or the news stories about charges of racism behind criticism of the African-American police chief of Santa Fe. Still I think the Southwest's greatest strength is its commitment to diversity and multiculturalism--not because they are politically correct, but because they're centuries-old parts of our history.

It has been like a slow return to health to live in a city where no one thinks it odd to see a 40-year-old Anglo guy driving a car with a license plate in O'odham listening to a radio DJ called the Manic Hispanic play a bilingual mix of Tejano exitos and "cruisin' classics", after growing up in a middle-class LA suburb that was literally divided from the East LA housing projects by a single street that might as well have been the Berlin Wall, and where "California's Spanish Heritage" was a joke we paid lip service to a couple of days a year in school. Which is not to say that Tucson's perfect, and when you look up north to Phoenix you see a city at least as divided as LA and far more stupidly complacent about it.

Despite its history of Pueblo Revolts and ejido battles, New Mexico is the one place in North America that has most clearly managed to turn historical antagonisms into a powerfully creative cultural fusion, and that's more than ever a model this country needs.

All of which, if it doesn't make perfect sense, is at least a good excuse for me to take vacations and head east more often. :)


David Sewell              ||  Where the earth is dry,
  Old Fort Lowell barrio, Tucson, Arizona     ||  the soul is wisest and best.
  U of Arizona:  ||     --Heraclitus
  WWW:  ||
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