THE EYE LIKES CONTINUITY continuity of line but also continuity of grain, and when it cannot have continuity it tries to feign it by filling in gaps. Thats hard, though, and the eye fatigues. Christopher Alexander writes about this among his hundreds of architectural patterns, recurring postulates he gleaned from observations of vernacular architecture in various cultures. Half-inch trim, he calls it: ornament of a size sufficient to accommodate the ocular nervous system as it jumps from the grain of stone, plaster, or wood, on essentially plain surfaces, to the bigger events of corners, doorways, steps.
Theres a lot of grain in the desert. Grain and grains. The sand ranges from almost a powder, at Sand Mountain about which more later to irregular grains recalling their origin in shell or stone. The stones themselves, worn and carried to these flat places, are of all sorts of color and texture.
But there are few flat places; the desert undulates, often imperceptibly, occasionally more certainly when washes wind across its surface. Here the finer grains have been swept away by water when might that last have happened, one wonders and the smallest grains are pebbles, the softest of them more rounded, water-worn.
Then theres the botanical grain. Im no more a botanist than a geologist; I lack names for these things another failure of grain, of lexical grain this time. The rocks are all just rocks, or pebbles, or, ultimately, sand; the plants are all just brush, or bushes, or, rarely, flowers.
But you dont need literacy to appreciate the architecture of these plants, the feathery foliage attached one way or another to sticks that have followed some hidden instinct or influence in growing by twists and curves. Or their delightful palette, finding a hundred ways of mediating grey and green.
Or, for that matter, their instinct for location. For miles there will be little vegetation, and then the desert will fill with it, plants clustering closely or keeping their mutual distance, responding I suppose to the hidden ability of the soils to retain moisture. The plants on the flat desert are often different from those on hillsides, even adjacent and under the same huge sky.
Everything you see responds to some set of consistent influences, Im sure of it; thats why everything in this desert looks right. This in itself is reassuring and restful. Perhaps theres an implication that where such things as sand, rock, and brush inevitably find their proper place, determine themselves their proper distribution, why then all will ultimately be well with humans too, even the humans who stick these absurd fenceposts in the ground, and stretch out their rusty barbed wire to mature in the desert air.
But then you come upon Sand Mountain. Sand Mountain is an anomaly: an enormous pile of perfectly soft, perfectly white sand, limestone I imagine deposited somewhere else by a glacier distant in both time and space, ground into powder by unimaginable forces, and blown here and only here by currents of wind rising only at certain times (themselves determined by some secret agenda) and responding to the contours of the surrounding hills and mountains.
You turn off Highway 50 a few miles east of Fallon and follow a gravel road, perfectly straight and due north, to this pristine thing; and as you do your heart sinks a bit, or at least mine does, at the sight and sound of recreational vehicles motorcycle-like things but with four wheels, most of them scurrying along, not particularly fast, a few feet above the base of the sandpile; or occasionally, with a more strenuous snarl, riding straight up.
At the end of the gravel road, say a hundred yard from the mountain itself, is an improvised city of campers and trailers, a community whose citizens have only one purpose: to transport themselves in these mechanized crawlers across the sand. To do this they wear protective clothing: goggles, helmets, brightly-colored synthetic-cloth shirts, gloves. Im sure they hear nothing but the unmuffled complaint of their engines; smell nothing but the hot-dirt-oil of their exhaust.
As to what they see, I cant imagine. Their view of nature must be constantly jostled and bumped; the glare of the sand and the brilliance of the sky must overcome the exquisite ocular system we humans have evolved, normally so sensitive to subtlety.
I suppose theres another layer of values in this community, a hierarchy (or at least a system) determined by the trappings these citizens surround themselves with. The Sierra Club published, years ago, a wonderful book of photographs of families posing in front of their residences and surrounded by all their possessions. This community recalled those photographs. These sand-bikers, lets call them, sit in front of their trailers and campers, shaded by improvised ramadas or patio umbrellas, coolers and things scattered about, sand-buggies parked nearby, helmets and gloves piled on their saddles or hanging from handlebars.
A glance reveals differences of economy: some of this stuff looks pretty trashy and well-used; some seems newer and fancier. But there seems no system to the distribution: this is clearly a transitional community, here for only one purpose, the strange rite of burning oil to travel purposelessly across these sands.
I write this a few days after seeing Sand Mountain and, after it, the isolated Nevada towns; the red-rock Utah country; sandstorms; the sudden nostalgic relief of the southwestern Colorado farmland; and the climax of Mesa Verde. All this has changed no, not changed, focussed the experience of Sand Mountain. Internet availability allowing, more on this to come.
THE CALIFORNIA MISSIONS, as I understand it, were built a days journey apart a day by foot and mule, of course. The towns on Highway 50, youd think to look at the map, were similarly distributed a day by jalopy, not mule. Youd also think that modern automobiles would make the trip faster, and they do. But its still a long way between them.
Until fairly recently even the automobile club was advising against this trip except for travelers with strong survival skills. Until thirty years ago we wouldnt have attempted it without a toolbox in the trunk, a spare set of hoses and belts, and five gallons of water. Today, so complacent and credible have we become, our only preparation is to fill the tank; and even that isnt so terribly necessary: one tank will get us across Nevada and halfway across Utah!
(34.6 miles to the gallon, if you want to know; 17-gallon tank. Oh: $3.09, on the average.)
In truth its probably just as well there are so few towns along this road: they take a distant second to the open spaces between them, in my opinion. The Intelligent Designer has arranged things with a better eye, if perhaps a less obvious sense of humor. But the aesthetic and philosophical rewards of Landscape arent enough for the questing human mind and spirit: one wants as well food and drink and repose, and the occasional bit of society.
Wed planned to spend the night in Ely, I dont know why roughly a comfortable days drive across Nevada but a couple of phone calls revealed there was a convention in town, and a movie being shot on the outskirts, and not a room to be had. So we stopped the next town short, in Eureka. While in Reno Id researched this a bit, gullibly, in the easy way Internet blogs offer: Man in a Suitcase1 had made this exact trip recently, though east to west, and had offered his own recommendations, with enticing photos.
If youre curious about Austin or Ely Ill refer you to him, and his comments on Eureka are interesting as well. But just how recently did he make this trip, anyway? The gourmet meal at the Jackson Houses restaurant hasnt been available for years, the girl at the visitors center told us; the place has been desperately for lease. Wed checked into the Best Western, where the only room sleeping four was a hundred-dollar suite, well beyond our normal limit, so we had little choice as to dinner: we were eating in Eureka.
I dont recall the dinner, so it cant have been too bad.
Next day we drove across the desert to Ely, where we found hundreds of motels, nearly all with vacancy signs lit up. Well, these days we reserve motel rooms from the AAA guide, so we miss all those little mom and pop motels, the twentynine dollar ones that look quaint and clean and nostalgic when we drive by, next day.
On across the imperceptible state boundary into Utah and the town of Delta, where we find a Radio Shack franchise. Maybe theyll have an adaptor for my laptop! I left the power unit back in Reno, of course, the one I bought in Glendale when I forgot to pack one for that trip, a couple of months ago... The Reno motel said, when I called, that it hadnt turned up, and I regretted the tip left for the housemaid, but chalked it up to the increasing carelessness and forgetfulness that comes with ones seventies.
Well, of course, there isnt an adaptor for the low-wattage adaptor in our car, used for the cell phone and the handheld. No matter: when we get to Santa Fe Ill be able to borrow one, and Ive ordered yet another to be sent on to Albuquerque. I can get along a couple of days without a computer but thats why this is being written three days late and the memory fading...
Looking out across Utah
THE COUNTRY CHANGES once you leave Delta, Utah, driving east on Highway 50 the loneliest road in the country. West of Delta, after youve crossed into Utah from the mining country of central Nevada, the landscape had softened into farm country: alfalfa, some truck farming, maybe a few orchards. Delta would be a provincial capital in another country; in the USA its just another county seat bisected by Highway 50, serving for twenty minutes or so as Main Street, impossibly wide.
Then its back for a short time to farm country and then the red rock begins. Id only seen southern Utah before Cedar Breaks, Zion, Capitol Reef. Central Utah shows the origin of those amazing formations. Here the flat country begins at the same time to solidify and to break down. From the automobile, at nearing eighty miles an hour, grain gives way to mass. Its no longer sand, pebbles, rocks, brush, bush; its simply red rock, white clouds, blue sky: American colors. (Yes: and Dutch, and French, and...)
From time to time the highway finds a long grade, cutting through the rock, and the geological history reveals itself: layers of white stone, grey, red again, layers put down by various forces I suppose, in eras dominated by different pollutants volcanos? shellfish? forest? And at the new level, lower, you get out of the car at a viewpoint on the bluff overlooking the coast, and look out over a vast ancient seabed.
The kids run off exploring and climbing where they dare, and you contemplate time and space so extensive, marked by change so incredibly slow, that you cannot reason it; you can only meditate on it rather, you must contemplate rather than reason. You know the general principles of geological change; you have an idea of the geological pace; but you have no way of relating it to your own life experience, not even after seventy years.
Theres none of Christopher Alexanders half-inch trim here. Everything that is not human your kids, your car, the road it drives is more than monumentally huge. Monuments are made to human purpose: this landscape has no human concern whatever. To think of it in any human terms is to be either insufferably arrogant or insufferably sentimental.
This realization is so striking its been expressed over and over. I remember being seized forty years ago by the insights in Ross Parmenters The Awakened Eye, recording his own enlightenment, by desert contemplation, beyond the human concerns of his previous years as a journalist. I apologize for repeating his discoveries here, badly, in brief and not persuasively: but the experience, like the landscape that inspires it, cannot finally be expressed verbally: one has to absorb it on site, at ones own pace.
We descend through an amazing cut in this seabed to arrive in one lower yet, though the distant horizon still looks like the end of the world, another final drop-off into who knows what. The nearer horizon is threatening toward evening, and as we approach this evenings motel we drive through a dust-storm. Ah: this is what has carved those caves and arches, what has worn away the soft earth to reveal the hard bones within it.
The road drops a bit more, to a live river, the first water weve seen in this landscape, other than a few absurdly transitional irrigation projects, in a day of driving. The Green River, which rises, I believe, in Wyoming, flows through Utah into Lake Powell, and is joined by the Colorado, a relatively minor tributary which nonetheless takes over naming rights to the Grand Canyon and the now pathetic conclusion, sapped by irrigation projects, hardly surviving to its eventual outflow in the Sea of Cortez.
At Green River we check into a motel whose pool, of course, is not working; then set out for one of the many fine restaurants the motelkeeper had mentioned when I telephoned for the reservation. There are three: a fast-food franchise; a Tex-Mex bar; the family restaurant Tamarisk. We choose the last, and are rewarded with nothing memorable.
5: Mesa Verde
Hole in the rock on the way to Moab, Utah
LETS SEE, NOW, how long has it been? Im a week behind, and things that seemed important then are fading fast...
From Green River we turned south for the first time, after hundreds of miles eastward. The country remained red-rock. At one imposing feature, a huge stone arch demands an inevitable photo. We pull off the road behind a number of parked trucks. A young woman asks us if well do them a favor.
Let me guess, I reply; Take your photo? Of course.
A couple of dozen youngsters run across the road, thankfully not all the way up to the arch, stop to group themselves, and I snap their picture. Then, watching them make their way back, I think I see a better photo for us to have:
Theyre a group of firefighters, presumably traveling home from the convention or whatever it was that kept us from getting a room in Ely the other night. We thank them for all their work and wish them well in the coming season: it isnt going to be easy, we think.
We drive through Moab, a town apparently entirely given over to outdoor recreation; then Monticello, more to my taste a town with a very nice local-history museum: How They Lived; What They Did; that sort of thing. A very pleasant conversation, too, with the museum-keeper: but afterward Lindsey remarked on something I hadnt noticed, the towns complaint with the federal government.
Mining, a staple of the Great Basin states, has gone through a number of phases. Eureka and Ely, for example, are currently the centers of a lot of gold-mining activity. Silver, lead, coal, molybdenum, gold; each in turn is mined, plays out, lies dormant, then succumbs to the new onslaughts enabled by advances in mining technology.
And by new demands: most recently, in the last fifty years, the hunger for uranium a metal for which there is, in my opinion, no use whatever.
Monticello was a farming community, the soil sufficiently fertile and the water sufficiently present to provide one of those Promised Lands to the early Mormons. But mining provides greater immediate profit, and the discovery of uranium ores changed the local economy.
Everything has its price, though even though the price may be deferred; deferred so long that those who profit can leave it to grandchildren to pay. The cancer rate in Monticello is alarming, and the citizens are upset. We wish them good luck with the current federal administration, apparently more resolved to add to the problem than to resolve it.
We drive on to the days goal, Mesa Verde. This is what has brought us across central Nevada and Utah: my original intent was on revisiting Monument Valley and the Canyon de Chelley, among the most memorable places weve seen; but wed been told Mesa Verde was even more imposing. Since you cant disagree with such claims without personal experience, weve come this way.
We followed one of those rental RVs up the long road to the visitors center, arriving late enough in the day to take only one of the three guided tours offered us. It was hot, of course; its been hot the entire trip. We drove on to the meeting-point for the tour to the Cliff Palace and waited among a passel of fellow rubbernecks for our pleasant young tourguide. We could see the Palace easily while we waited, and read about it on the descriptive panels.
How do they know its eight hundred years old, a tall young tanned athletic fellow asked his girl friend, That cant be eight hundred years old, look at it, they didnt build like that that long ago, that cant be more than a hundred years old.
Carbon dating, she explained, they test things. Do you believe that, he answered contemptuously, I dont believe any of that for a minute, they dont know anything about it, its all just theories.
The Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
THE GUIDE APPEARED, under her Smokey the Bear hat, warned us about the steps and ladders, and led us to the Palace. (I insist on those quotes: this is clearly no palace, but a small city, ingeniously built in a large shallow cave overlooking one of the fingers of valley leading up from the lower 7,000-foot New Mexico mesa into the Green Mesa weve just traveled, a fine country of pinon forest.
We begin, after a descent of 169 steps (I do have my little compulsions), sitting in the shade of an outcropping on the trail to the ruin. Here our guide answers questions patiently and informatively from the current thought on this fascinating subject. The palace was apparently a sort of community center, lived in by only a few caretaker families. At the top of the buildings is a series of storerooms; below, residence rooms and a very large number of kivas, those round ceremonial rooms dug into the earth, windowless, entered through roof openings.
Many smaller building-complexes are found in this and the adjacent canyons, perched above their cottonwood-bordered streams. It was there that the many extended families lived, apparently minding their own business most of the time, then gathering in this palace for special occasions. But what occasions? Why so many kivas?
The frustrating thing, of course, is that no one knows what went on here, or for that matter why everyone left Mesa Verde eight hundred years ago. In 1280, to be precise; and leaving behind enough food to last them for years.
I have, youll not be surprised, a theory. I would guess the Mesa Verde complex was a fair number of decades or centuries a-building. At a certain point this communitys civilization must have reached a kind of climax, marked perhaps by the completion of the Palace complex; and then a decline must have set in either a decline or a catastrophe, and theres apparently no evidence of that.
Overpopulation, then disease? Decadence, then indifference? Growth beyond sustainability?
The current headlines, about Stephen Hawkings warning that Earth may soon look like Venus, suffering from 250-degree heat and sulfuric-acid rain; and about the suggestion that wed better start getting serious about emigrating to, say, Mars, resonate with these questions about the people of Mesa Verde.
The current thinking is that they simply moved out and settled further south, in the Rio Grande Valley; that their descendants live today in Taos, San Domingo, Santa Clara, and all those other Pueblos. Todays Pueblo people, as I understand it, still lack a written language, though their spoken language is rich and precise. (Language family, actually: four languages, none mutually intelligible, and each with its own regional accents.)
They therefore have a dedication to oral tradition, and our Mesa Verde guide suggested that todays Pueblo people speak of the Mesa Verde people as their ancestors though when I asked a very bright young guide in Taos Pueblo about this, a few days later, he shrugged. Weve always been here in Taos, he said.
But why would they have made this migration? Either Mesa Verde was threatened or no longer sufficient, it seems to me, or another, preferable place had become available, whether through the decline of its own population, or the withdrawal of whatever threats had formerly made it unappetizing threats of climate, or disease, or subjugation by other civilizations.
The entire Southwest is dominated, when youre not in one of its modern urban centers, by Sky, Earth, and the continuous line that separates them; and the eternal distances always in your eye inspire a dreamy state of mind, open to influence and suggestion. This is of course much less true in these canyons. The Mesa Verde people seem to have farmed the mesa itself, and originally lived on it before retreating (if thats what it was) to these wonderful cliff dwellings.
The cliff complexes must have been more like todays urban centers. The eye isnt allowed to go far before it stumbles over a sign of human activity. Thats true even today, after eight hundred years of abandonment. Imagine what it was like when these were living communities, full of people, baskets, blankets, dogs, bones, broken pots, and the sound of children playing, dogs barking, women gossiping, men boasting.
The state of mind changed when these people moved down into the canyons. Old-timers must have noticed this and tried to discuss it not only among themselves but, in a cautionary mode, with the younger generations. Some of the younger ones may have listened and grown bored with the clutter and the difficulties of the increasingly urban life.
The entire question seems urgent to me, for we may have much to learn from this history. Crisis comes upon us quickly and from neglected quarters. Todays Pueblo seem a particularly competent people, well or at least patiently enduring the requirement that they pursue their own way within a way imposed upon them from without. This may be a lesson to the rest of us.
6: On to Santa Fe
The green roadside on the way to Pagosa Springs
DURANGO SEEMED LIKE a nice town. Moab is too Twentysomething Sportminded; Cortez is too sprawling (though it has a nice visitor center and decent espresso across the street in a nursery-garden shop-cafe). Durango, at least the old part of town, is compact, nicely balanced between tourism and history, can be walked, and has a good restaurant.
That would be Seasons Rotisserie and Grill, where we ate so well that we wondered who was doing the cooking. The waitress pointed out the chef, who was sitting at the bar, without a drink I hasten to add, tired at the end of his shift (for wed pretty well closed the place). Lindsey and he talked for a minute or two, and then I asked Lindsey to give him her card. He took it, read it, and said Oh. Well, gee, Im impressed; thanks for coming in.
No, I dont remember what I ate. I was exhausted: wed driven a long way, and then taken that excursion to the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, where wed climbed up to over 9,000 feet. At my age I take longer to get used to this altitude, which seems to affect the mind as well as the lungs and the legs. But I do remember, writing a week later, that the dinner was good, and it was nice to have a glass of Zinfandel again.
Next morning we were back in the car again for the final drive to Santa Fe, opting for highway 84 leading south from Pagosa Springs. No more red rock for the time being: we followed a valley due east from Durango to Pagosa Springs, through heavily forested country, only the narrow valley bottom farmed (mostly alfalfa, I think), past Chimney Rock to Pagosa. There Id have like to stop at a museum dedicated to the creator of Red Ryder, a comic strip that meant a lot to me as a kid (You betchum, Red Ryder!), but the right foot has a mind of its own on a trip like this.
We stopped at the visitor center, I forget why. Pagosa (an Indian word meaning healthful waters, we read somewhere) Springs (the colonizers penchant for reduplicative naming at work) struck me as an unpleasant setting, ruined by unthinking vacation-home development, sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly... Boy, do we need an active Slow Cities movement in this country! But we were soon out of it, due south, climbing to the New Mexico border.
AND THEN THAT ODD border effect. Even if the borders an artificial straight line, as it is all round New Mexico, the terrain seems to respect it immediately; terrain, sky, climate, mentality all change immediately. This part of New Mexico seems completely farmed or, at any rate, pastured. Even at this altitude, over 7,000 feet, and in this drought, going on for years it seems, the surroundings are bucolic. Not that we saw all that many animals, mind you: the pickings are pretty spare, and they must range pretty far. But theres a placidity here, a settledness; and theres no evidence for miles of any kind of tourist attraction.
Highway 84, when we were on it (I write July 2, 2006) had long stretches lacking pavement. Im used to driving the fine graded roads of New Mexico; you can maintain a pretty good clip on them. But this was different: the surface wasnt graded and compacted and left at that; it was under preparation for eventual asphalt paving. We were driving on narrow lanes, rubber cones on one side, quite a drop on the other; hard crushed rock; dust; and not one but two immensely lumbering camper-vehicles ahead of us. I was finally able to pass one but soon caught up with the next. For miles it was constant shifting between low gear and second, and when I finally passed this fellow he obligingly swung over to his own left, forcing me nearly onto what shoulder there was the first bit of road discourtesy wed seen since leaving the Bay Area.
Oh well. Pavement returned, and we were driving south toward the swing east to Abiquiu, country Ive loved since first travelling here nearly twenty years ago on assignment for a Georgia OKeeffe project. Ghost Ranch looked the same; even Abiquiu looked the same though when we stopped at Bodies General Store it had changed terribly: what was once a nostalgic western general store, where I bought the big felt hat I wear in country like this, there is now a tacky beer-and-pretzels joint, the only headgear the omnipresent gimme cap, and no bandanas for the kids.
Then, a few minutes later, came the real surprise: A real freeway has been pushed from Santa Fe all the way past Espanola. With it (I dont mean to imply causality here) has come sprawl and the kind of residential development that seems to insist on uniform buildings, what Malvina Reynolds, bless her, referred to as tickytacky. With some difficulty we managed to find that Kokoman Liquor is still there, just outside Pojoaque, and we stopped to pick up something to bring tonights hosts.
Kokoman is a fine old institution, a ramshackle building whose interior reveals shelves and shelves of anything youd want to pour down your throat, or just about anyone elses, for that matter. There was a Bandol Tempier, and over here a bottle of fine Spanish Anis, and when I took them up to the counter the clerk looked at my road-fatigued eyes and said Been driving long? And I said, from under my Bodies hat, Yup. And he said, You need a drink.
And then past Pojoaque, itself all built up and freewayed and boasting its own casino my God, the number of casinos in this country and past the Santa Fe Opera House where the sound of this freeway must be annoying, and past a highway sign curiously offering the Santa Fe Relief Road which apparently has nothing to do with government handouts but is only a bypass toward Highway 25 south to Albuquerque; and then through Santa Fe herself on St. Francis Drive, and finally to Patricks studio and a nice cold beer and his amazingly caressing paintings and his fine dog Pasky (nickname for Pascal), a little slow and creaky now at seventeen but still one of the sweetest animals Ive met.
And then down to Galisteo, our home for the next four days, and a fine soup and salad with Deborah and Patrick, and conversation into the night. Conversation, of course, bleeds writing dry; and thats why this blogs a week out of date. But it is a fine thing, a restorative, a window on truth and consolation.
And it wont keep me from writing tomorrow, and continuing these notes....
The old cemetery in Galisteo
GALISTEO IS AN OLD TOWN twelve or fifteen miles southeast of Santa Fe a very old town, now hardly more than a collection of houses, a general store that never seemed to be open, a new church, an old cemetery, a new cemetery. All those things in quotes are just to remind us that all such qualifiers are tentative.
At one side of the church is an imposing row of old mailboxes, one I suppose for every residence in town. Yes, Pat said, theres a lot of grousing about that, those are our old mailboxes, and here (pointing to an installation around the corner from them, behind the church) are the ones they make us use now. I should have photographed the contrast, for it says a good deal about whats going on around here, whats going on in the whole damn country.
The old mailboxes are mostly the familiar rounded-top drop-door red-flagged rural box, most of them white or metallic, some painted in varying degrees of fancy, most at about the same convenient height, car-window level. The new ones look like well, lets see: they look like a bank of slots in an apartment house, big metal boxes with uniform slots and spaces, color an official phony bronze. Uniform, featureless, industrial, chic, easily cleaned, anonymous.
Behind the church is the cemetery pictured above. Its gate is locked. The old walls are being repaired piled fieldstone capped with a slush of casual concrete, the pink-beige you see everywhere. The gravestones are sparse, many awry, some rather formal, many of them quite simple and badly weathered. A paper pasted up somewhere says the graveyard has been declared full, which is why it is locked, to be visited only by special arrangement. A little ways off, across the road that leads west toward Cerrillos, theres another, surrounded by a simple fence. I dont know if anyone wants burial here any more.
There seem to be a number of important people living in Galisteo; we recognize a number of names in the phone book. They live in plain, low, plastered, flat-roofed houses, behind adobe walls enclosing their gardens, often joining in associations for the various necessary utilities. Our friends, for example, occupy a house built twenty years ago or more, though theyve remodeled it extensively. The front door leads into an unfurnished room under the typical viga ceiling: cottonwood or pine logs serving as rafters, lighter poles crossing in the other direction, waterproofing of some sort above that. Two walls are open, merely screened, though perhaps windows can be put in in cooler weather; I dont know.
A screened front door leads into the long, cool living room, Pats paintings on the wall, a low bookcase filled with interesting books along one wall, windows on the other looking into the garden. Next, the kitchen, well fitted out since Debs a professional cook; then their bedroom; then a big bathroom. All those rooms in a line, with windows looking south into the garden-courtyard, other walls covered with paintings, or shelves. The floor is marvelous: adobe, straw, polish.
I suppose most of the houses hereabouts are similar. We visited one other, also the home of an artist, a woman whod given up her hippie life, moved out of her camper, sold the Santa Fe home shed been fortunate enough to have, and set up shop here in Galisteo. Hers is an old house, with old oak floors and a wide porch running the length of the house-front. But behind it shes built a fine studio for painting and, especially, ceramics; and out beyond a fine garden she reclaimed an adobe ruin, adding on to it, to contrive an excellent horse-barn.
We were there to visit an exceptionally pretty foal, two months old, born to a seven-year-old Arabian mare with an unusual freckle-red-and-grey coat; but you couldnt help admiring the woman herself, or for that matter her daughter, a beauty in the lean, capable, sleek Western style.
LETS TAKE ANOTHER LOOK at that Galisteo sky! The clouds have been remarkable, as is usually the case. Our arrival seems to have brought luck, Pat says; its rained a little for the first time in months. We drive west underneath those skies on the graded road leading over a rise ten miles or so toward Cerrillos. At the high point on the road we stop to pick up a few small rocks. I notice a rusty shackle-bolt nearly buried in the road, and sure enough not far away is a piece of leaf spring, and then another, a little longer someone must have broken an axle hereabouts, or perhaps just lost a little of an old junked car on his way to the nearby landfill.; then turn south toward Madrid, a town I recall as having fine funky antique and junk shops.
Then we join the paved road and turn south toward Madrid. Along the way we stop to wander through Tiny Town, a wonderful junk-sculpture, junk-art garden of doll houses, toy trains, broken bottles, old toasters, small automobile parts, rusting machinery, plastic signs, driftwood, bones, logging chains, bicycle parts, bottomless laundry-tubs, old stoves, oil-drums, pots and pans, old lanterns, plastic dolls, balls, broken flowerpots, rocks, aging furniture, salvaged windows and doors... you get the idea.
Pathways wander through all this detritus, bordered by glass, or chains, or bricks, or stones. A narrow river of broken glass invites us to smash another bottle or two into it. The proprietor emerges from an aging house-trailer to welcome us a woman in her fifties, Id say, weathered and good-humored and content to spend her time making a little bit of casual beauty in the desert.
Outside of Madrid we stop behind a line of cars and trucks. Whats holding us up? I get out and walk back to the driver of the flatbed truck behind me, a young man who seems content to have his day interrupted, even though he has a full load of hay on the truck. Theyre filming a movie, he tells me; Madrid is a madhouse. Sure enough, when we get under way again, we soon come to a rise overlooking the town, and on our right theres a small city of trailers, trucks, and support vehicles.
And whats this coming our way? A truck, and behind it a handsome young man smiling on his fancy motorcycle. But then we notice his motorcycle has no front wheel: its fastened by a long drawbar to the truck which is towing it along, and which carries a number of big cameras pointed at him.
Madrids one main street is littered with scores of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and tough-looking bikers stand about but their postures are wrong; something about the way they look at one another, converse, fall into little social units, says they cant be real bikers at all. Theyre actors: Disneys filming a movie about middle-aged men who drop out of their professions, buy motorcycles, and go to the desert to find enlightenment or at least bonding; and stumble on a motorcycle-infested Madrid, and rescue it from the bikers, probably by recognizing their innate goodness.
We find a few gifts and wander into the bar for a beer, shaking our heads at the false false fronts Disneys built here, and the white scrim that covers the main street to mute the strong New Mexico sun; and then turn back north again to explore Santa Fe...
8: Santa Fe
IVE BEEN READING Harvey Fergussons history of the Rio Grande valley sorry, Deborah; Ill send it back to you tomorrow and it confirms my complex feelings on revisiting Santa Fe. As I noted a few pages back, the areas grown immensely. There are tract developments around the city, and the city itself seems to be sprawling more than ever.
I imagine one doesnt notice this except at night, from the air. There are still remarkably few multistorey buildings in Santa Fe, and the low stucco houses, uniformly the color of the earth, flat-roofed, and tucked into the landscape, arent really apparent from the highways.
We werent in the area for the delights of Santa Fe herself beyond the usual tourist walkabout Indian merchants in front of the Palace of the Governors, the Cathedral, the Plaza. Santa Fes a town thats worth a weeks stay, another when you add the rewards of the country around it: but schedule didnt permit, this time.
So we contented ourselves with three cafés and three museums. The former were a necessity: I do like a second latte in mid-morning, and I wanted Internet access to post these blogs and catch up on e-mail. Life is so bland without the daily spam, dont you think? So the first morning we asked if wi-fi might be available with an espresso on the side, and were quickly given a printed list of a dozen or so wi-fi equipped cafés.
The Back Door Café sounded promising, only a block or two away at 201 East Water Street. There turned out to be no 201 on the street, though, no matter how hard we tried to find it. Finally an obliging fellow in a jewelry shop there are scores of jewelry shops in town, many between us and the Back Door looked it up in the phone book. Its at 102, not 201.
You would expect 102 to be at the beginning of the block, roughly across the street from 101; but it is not. Most of the block is taken up by a parking lot, the one we should have used instead of the space whose meter was ticking away. Maybe over here? No; now weve got onto a back alley, and now the next street...
We found it, of course, hidden behind a complex of shops at the wrong end of the block, and found a café delightful in every way quiet, convenient (once you know where it is), and run, this morning at least, by a cheerful, friendly fellow who made a fine latte though out of inferior beans, Im afraid.
Next morning the kids say Why not try Atomic. We park almost across the street, at the same meter on Water Street, I dont know why no one uses it, and try Atomic. The wii-fi isnt working this morning: a recent thunderstorm put it out of commission, and it hasnt been reinstalled. The coffee was okay.
We notice, though, another place across the street, not listed on the tourist bureaus handout. Here is the personality and connection of Back Door, the parking convenience of Atomic, and really decent coffee, so Zélé is is the headquarters from now on.
SANTA FE IS A TOWN of museums. Three big ones are clustered in a single place, for example. If its museums youre after, plan to spend a week here. We settle on only three, and begin, the day after arrival, with the Childrens Museum a sort of junior-grade Exploratorium, with hands-on demonstrations of magnetism, hydraulics, film plasma, botany, and the like, disguised as puzzles, games, a giant bubble-blowing apparatus, and so on. In the Mesa Verde museum we had marveled at atlatls; here we were equally bemused by axolotls, even uglier.
(Choclatl and aquatls had already featured on this trip, in the culinary department, so weve been getting our fill of Nahuatl.)
In the afternoon we managed to work in a visit to the Folk Art Museum, truly a marvel and a testament to the mania of collecting, for it centers on an enormous pile of stuff assembled by a single connoisseur. Here, in a room big enough for a hockey rink (though without the spectators), you look at houses, trains, farms, entire cities, ships, armies, churches, open markets, airplanes, animals, all the familiar sights of ordinary life, at least as it was lived in simpler times; all made of clay, terra cotta, stone, metal, wood, and cloth, at made by folk of different countries and in various scales but never too large for any single item to be played with, for this is a collection of toys.
Other galleries were devoted, the afternoon we were there, to an imposing exhibition of Japanese ceramics; to historical metalwork; to tools and clothing and religious objects. For years theres been an affinity for folk art among the higher art mentalities and venues of Santa Fe; here, thirty years ago, the cottonwood sculpture of Felipe Archuleta attained the position of high art, as years before Maria Martinez and others were promoted, from the anonymity of Pueblo potters, to the international standing of fine sculptors.
This is a two-way street, and one of the things I most admire in some painters I know is their openness to the humor, the apparent crudity, above all the immediacy and honesty of these folk artists. But this takes me too close to art criticism, and Im not going there today.
I think my favorite museum of the three was Las Golondrinas (Spanish: the swallows), a historical out-of-doors museum south of town, out near the racetrack. This is the farmstead of an old rico family. The ricos were the wealthy families descended from the recipients of the old Spanish land grants, as I understand it; they assembled large, successful rancherias, their economies based mainly on cattle-raising.
A room at Las Golondrinas, Santa Fe
Here are the original houses, their interiors restored to a semblance of period authenticity, and the outbuildings, devoted to specialized purposes: blacksmithing, hide-tanning, molasses-making, a saddlery, etc., etc. An authentic-looking garden of the eternal trinity occupies a fertile stretch of bottom land: corn, squash, beans. The Santa Fe River, whats left of the poor thing (its totally dry in town), runs through the place, mostly diverted into an acequia bordering the garden and, at one time, supplying a bit of energy to a small watermill.
Its fascinating to visit this sort of place after having visited the great gardens of Cordoba, Seville, and Granada; and after having read James Micheners book Iberia and Harvey Fergussons Rio Grande. One of the real rifts in the American mentality is that between the Spanish and the Anglo-Northern way of seeing things, of dealing with life and nature. Theres little of the shopkeeper or petty-bourgois in the Spanish temperament. Perhaps the Pueblo way lies between these two conflicting European influences; perhaps the eventual gift of New Mexico to the evolving American way will be to restore a sense of appropriateness in economy, worship, and community it would be nice to think so.
IN ABOUT FIFTEEN MINUTES, I told Lindsey, well drive over a low rise, and youll look down on one of the nicest sights on Highway 66.
This was a while back, that I said this. It was after 1965, because we were driving the old Mercedes; it was before 1980, because we went on to visit my grandmother in Oklahoma, who died November 1, 1979. I was remembering an earlier trip to Oklahoma, when Dad drove the Ford over the rise and there before us was the town of Albuquerque,
Ive only lately begun to wonder what that drive meant to Dad. It must have been his first trip back across those states in more than ten years. Hed arrived in California sometime in the early 1930s, crashing with his aunts Gladys and Myrtle in their little cottage in Pacific Grove, which John Steinbeck was then writing about in his novel Tortilla Flat.
Dad was born in northeast Oklahoma, where his father worked in the nearby lead mines. The family legend has been that they later settled for a time in Bisbee, on the Arizona-Mexico border, where Granddad worked in the copper mine for a time, then abandoned the family; and that Dad had to quit school in order to support his mother and let his kid brother go to school.
I dont know how much of that is true, nor how I could find out, at this point. I have some dates:
Charles Edward Shere (born Smith) married Matilda Ann Buckallew 14 August 1910All those events took place in Craig County, Oklahoma. Elsie died in Bisbee, 9 Nov 1927 (acute tonsillitis) in Bisbee: the family must have moved there shortly after her birth. Elsies death. The Great Depression arrived not long after she died, and things in the Shere family began to go downhill fast.
Charles Everett Shere (my father) born 12 July 1911
Alva Shere born 30 Mar 1913
Elsie Shere born 23 Jun 1920
divorce awarded Matilda Ann Buckallew October 1934
WE DROVE OVER THE RISE, Lindsey and I, back in the 1970s sometime, and my God, there was Los Angeles in front of us. Albuquerque was no longer a small oasis where you camped by the river. I thought about all this as I read, in Harvey Fergussons introduction to the reissue of his Rio Grande,
When I finished this book in 1930 Albuquerque was a town of about 34,000 people. Neither I nor anyone else thought it would ever be much larger. So much for human prevision. The population of Albuquerque is still a matter of estimate, but one citizen who is in a position to make a good guess says that is has not less than 275,000 and is still growing.
Fergusson wrote that forty years ago, and Albuquerques growth has fortunately slowed; the population now stands at a little under half a million. But it is beginning to be surrounded by huge suburbs, and the sprawl is striking particularly as you drive south from Santa Fe, through country thats still sparse and secretive, only the new casinos reminding you of the Indian communities hidden in valleys and canyons off to the west.
The difference between Santa Fe and environs, to the north, and the Albuquerque agglomeration is more than physical. There seems to be a different mentality as well. Santa Fe is like San Francisco, Albuquerque like Los Angeles. Or, better, Santa Fe is Sacramento; Albuquerque is Bakersfield. Albuquerque is a university town; the University of New Mexico is there, but that doesnt seem to impact the touristy Old Town, or the western suburbs.
Old Town is something like Los Angeless Olvera Street, with a good bit of San Franciscos Pier 39 rubbing up against it. Curio shops, indifferent Mexican restaurants, and the Rattlesnake Museum get a lot of the tourist action; the pretty, small plaza and the prettier San Felipe de Nero church provide welcome tranquillity. And behind San Felipe, the Church Street Café provides a pretty decent lunch, if youre not too demanding about competent table service.
But we werent in Albuquerque for museums or curios, or even bookshops or espresso bars. We were there for a family reunion. Lindseys mother was one of six children (five girls, one boy), all of them now gone; and this was a rare gathering of the clan, of Lindseys cousins, and their children and grandchildren.
Many of them were new to me. The family springs from Wisconsin, and many still live there, though a few of the younger generation have settled in Colorado and Texas. They arent northern Californians, thats for sure; but they arent red-state types either: theyre what my dad used to call the salt of the earth, good hard-working people, tolerant, with definite political opinions that agree pretty much with my own.
We stayed three nights in an inn, as its called, on the edge of a public golf course, the four of us in a smallish room on the second storey, off an outdoors gallery overlooking the 18th hole. Lindseys sister Susan lives in a house not a hundred yards away, also adjacent to the course. It was a long weekend of sun, greens, beer, dogs, kids, and cousins, all bound by blood and leisure, and a long way from the hardscrabble of our grandparents who nevertheless were there at the backs of our minds, sources and shapers, not entirely approving of what their descendants have made of the world they knew. So much for human prevision.
12: Flagstaff and home
THE GLORIOUS FOURTH dawned with the scent of distant rain; we took our breakfast in the hotel dining room; we packed and said goodbye to the few remaining relations; and we hit the road for Needles. Its 1150 miles between Albuquerque and Healdsburg, long boring miles for the most part, and Needles is short of the half-way point.
Barstow, however, is long of it, and the closest town to the central point, Ludlow, is not a town I want to sleep in. Ludlow has unpleasant memories: its the town youre stuck in when you blow a radiator hose or a tire while crossing the Mohave Desert, and whatever part you need is not in stock at any local shop, so you bunk down in a grungy motel while waiting for it to come from God only knows where.
Or such was the case years ago. Now I suppose things are different; theres a plethora of parts on hand, or theyre quickly supplied off the Internet; theres a Starbucks in town, and a Best Western, and a Days Inn; theres probably even an Italian restaurant. But all thats conjecture. I havent stopped in Ludlow in years, and I wasnt about to on this trip. We planned to spend the night in Needles, and to dine in Kingman, where wed found a decent little restaurant a few years back.
So we bravely hit the road, highway 40 as its now enumerated, nodding at the Continental Divide, at Thoreau, at Gallup where weve spent some interesting hours over the years, and stopping at the Arizona Welcome Center to find it closed in honor of the holiday. We stretched our legs in a nearby curio shop instead, kitschily housed in an enormous concrete wigwam, and then drove on again, intent on a stop in Flagstaff.
Here, a little north of town, is the fascinating Museum of Northern Arizona, one of those museums that refuse to honor conventional bounds between history, natural history, and art while dedicating themselves to the examination celebration, even of their own specific regions. We found a couple of much more modest ones a week or two earlier, in Monticello, Utah, and Eureka, Nevada. Theres a fine one in Bend, Oregon. I wish we had one here: such museums help remind the people of the ongoing history of their place, a history that should be respected if the spirit of the place is not to be violated for short-term profit or distraction.
We were not there for enlightenment, however, but for commerce: we hit the gift shop for souvenirs themselves not a bad idea, for their purpose is to contain, in a small object, that same spirit of place. I listened to a long conversation between the woman behind the counter, whod only been on the job a couple of weeks but who obviously knew the stones and sheep of the area, and a touring couple up from Phoenix: they were marveling at the price of a couple of small landscape paintings, as theyd bought one by the same artist years earlier at much less cost.
They werent self-congratulatory about this, but genuinely pleased that the artist was gaining recognition. I was pleased, though I kept it to myself, that decent paintings, jewelry, pots, and weaving was finding its market. If the stuff in the concrete wigwam was cheap and fraudulent (as much of it had been), here you found authenticity.
Where to eat lunch, I asked the woman, and she was quick to suggest Late for the Train, a sandwich joint a mile or two back toward the highway. Stepping through the front door we found a dozen or so people scattered among the five or six tables, all lifting their faces heavenward in the same direction: they were watching television the first wed seen in days and it was halfway through the first overtime period of the semifinal between Germany and Italy. Wed forgotten the World Cup!
So we lunched on very good tuna-salad sandwiches and watched the Italians steam toward their inevitable surprise victory in the last minutes of the game. Victory was further sweetened by our company: at the next table a family of German tourists looked glumly at their defeat, curiously at our elation. Weleft in a fine mood.
Then, an hour later, the storm hit: we were driving through a desert monsoon, through rain so heavy I was tempted to pull off the road and wait it out. We found intersections flooded in old Kingman, down by the railroad station, and our restaurant closed, of course, and had to settle for a mediocre steak at the Dam Restaurant, which offered little to explain its evident popularity; and then drove on to Needles for the night.
The Mohave Desert west of Needles
NEXT MORNING DAWNED CLEAR and threatening to be hot, of course; and I recalled my first sight of Needles, that trip in 1944, when it was over 110 in the shade, Mom complained, and again we camped down by the river. Needles has changed, though not as much as Albuquerque; changed enough to provide a decent breakfast to offset the lack of an espresso.
We took turns driving across the desert, stopping to investigate the lava flow and splash cold water in our faces; wondering once again at the giant used-airplane lot near Mojave; entertaining ourselves counting cars in the many railroad trains, all looking incomplete these days without their cabooses, like the lizards Emmas cat has robbed of their tails.
Theyve finally built a proper road from Barstow to Mojave; that scary two-lane stretch is mostly a thing of the past. Little else has changed all the way over the Tehachapis; that curious little cemetery with its cypresses is still neatly tucked into a hillside north of the highway at Tehachapi; the fine oak woodland, high over the abrupt drop to the great Central Valley, still speaks of Old California.
But then does come that drop. I prefer to go through Arvin, where there used to be a nice little plain-Jane taqueria; but we went through Bakersfield, stopping downtown there to try to catch the end of the German-Portuguese game but finding only a pretty decent sandwich and some necessary ice cream at the Searchlight, apparently a theater-company-cum-cafe around the corner from the old Post Office.
And then the dull straight road up the west side of the valley, smoggy fields and feedlots to the right, those beautiful low anthropomorphic hills to the left; and grassfires; and rest stops; and big-rigs; and the final descent to the Bay Area; and then we were home again, our beautiful home why do we ever leave?