Saturday, July 15, 2006

12: the journey home

The Mohave Desert

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. It’s 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: it’s the town you’re 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; there’s a plethora of parts on hand, or they’re quickly supplied off the Internet; there’s a Starbucks in town, and a Best Western, and a Days Inn; there’s probably even an Italian restaurant. But all that’s conjecture. I haven’t stopped in Ludlow in years, and I wasn’t about to on this trip. We planned to spend the night in Needles, and to dine in Kingman, where we’d found a decent little restaurant a few years back.

So we bravely hit the road, highway 40 as it’s now enumerated, nodding at the Continental Divide, at Thoreau, at Gallup where we’ve 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. There’s 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, who’d 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 they’d bought one by the same artist years earlier at much less cost.

They weren’t 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 we’d seen in days — and it was halfway through the first overtime period of the semifinal between Germany and Italy. We’d 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.

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 Emma’s cat has robbed of their tails.

They’ve 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?

But leave we do, and will again in a week, for Ashland this time. See you there!

11: Albuquerque

Summer, 1944. We had been driving from Flagstaff or thereabouts, at the speed limit -- 35 mph -- and it was hot and dusty. Below us lay the surprising green valley of the Rio Grande, an oasis in the desert, the first green, the first water, the first trees we'd seen in hours. The city, what there was of it in those days, lay beyond the river. We parked under a tree on a riverbank and prepared our sleeping bags for the night. Mom took me to the zoo, I remember. Next day we drove on east...

IN ABOUT FIFTEEN MINUTES, I told Lindsey, we'll drive over a low rise, and you'll 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,

I've 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. He'd 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 school.

I don't 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 1910
Charles Everett Shere (my father) born 12 July 1911
Alva Shere born 30 Mar 1913
Elsie Shere born 23 Jun 1920; died 9 Nov 1927 (acute tonsillitis)
divorce awarded Matilda Ann Buckallew October 1934

All those events took place, I'm told, in Craig County, Oklahoma, so I conjecture the move to Bisbee followed Elsie's death. The Great Depression arrived not long after, and things in the Shere family began to go downhill fast.

That's Granddad on the left, clearly a hard man. Grandma is at the right. Dad wears the mattress-ticking overalls and the cap; his brother Alvie is on his left; Elsie's not yet born. I don't know who the other woman is; perhaps a visiting sister of Grandma's -- her husband would have taken the photo, I suppose. Now that I study the photo, it occurs to me she's one of my great-aunts, Gladys or Myrtle; I think I recall seeing that face, much older, when I was about the age Alvie is in this photo.

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 tHarvey Fergusson's 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 Albuquerque's 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 that's 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 doesn't seem to impact the touristy Old Town, or the western suburbs.

Old Town is something like Los Angeles's Olvera Street, with a good bit of San Francisco's 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 you're not too demanding about competent table service.

But we weren't in Albuquerque for museums or curios, or even bookshops or espresso bars. We were there for a family reunion. Lindsey's 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 Lindsey's 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 aren't northern Californians, that's for sure; but they aren't red-state types either: they're 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 it's 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. Lindsey's 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.

Albuquerque: San Felipe de Neri

Sunday, July 09, 2006

10: Leaving Galisteo

RESONANCE IS AN OVERUSED word, and that's too bad, because I do like resonance. I like the kind that set in when, a week after taking a morning walk along the Truckee River in Reno, we took an evening walk along the Rio Galisteo, a thousand miles away.

"Bosky" is an underused word. Now that I'm home, almost two weeks after that evening walk, and have my books about me, I can tell you it's from the French bosquet, "grove." There doesn't seem to be a current noun form of the word in English: all we have is "thicket" and "bush" in the collective sense. The former seems too specifically local a word, referring to s single isolated batch of shrubbery; the latter is too specific in the other direction, suggesting Australian or South African outback.

The Spanish language has bosque, whose pronunciation is so close to "bosky" that I doubt my etymological dictionary. I think it's Spanish, not French, that reinforces the American use of the adjective.
Maybe we don't have a noun for the thing because there's something in us that doesn't like the thing. The English seem to turn bosks into lawns and topiaries; the Americans send in sheep and cattle to munch them into extinction.

Whatever the case, our evening walk took us through what Pat called the bosque, what I'll always think of as the Bosque Galisteo. The river's pretty low, of course, or was two weeks ago -- I hear New Mexico got quite a bit of rain as soon as we left, a week ago. But there was water; we Californios would call it a creek; and it was set about with cottonwoods and, I think, alders, and lots of bushy plants unknown to this botanical illiterate; and it was quiet. All of Galisteo is quiet, of course; there's not a lot happening here of a public nature: but down in this ravine, a sort of common area running along behind many of the houses, stray wind-borne sounds were cut off; there was nothing to hear but our own footstes, our conversation, an occasional insect of bird, the occasional murmur of a rill.

The river must make a wide curving sweep here, for on one side there's a bluff cut into the sandy-clay bank, the river has cut about fifteen feet down into this mesa. Henry and Isabel couldn't resist this challenge and climbed up to run along the edge.

Another resonance: I recalled seeing a Navajo Indian run up the side of the Canyon de Chellly, decades ago when we visited that magical place -- run up an invisible seam in the rock, the canyon-width away and then some, running up using those hardly seen hand- and toe-holds our guide had pointed out to us a few days ago in Mesa Verde.

Pasky walked along with us -- old at seventeen, tiring, no longer a rabbit-chaser, but still fond of Nature and company; and Lindsey and Patrick conversed; and I sort of zoned out as I seem to do so often these days, the distinctions of Time pretty much erased, living in this moment, and Mesa Verde last week, and Reno a week earlier, and the Canyon de Chelly twenty-five years ago, and the nameless creek that ran through the oak grove on our place when I was in the sixth grade, and similar sites and experiences from long before I existed, at least in the sense I know.

Resonance leads to Avatism, if I may coin a word, the feeling process of, while staying in one's own body and moment, simultaneously reaching back to bodies and moments of distant times. Not everyone is comfortable with this, or even perhaps aware of the possibility: I am. Maybe it's just part of my general evasiveness.

If the bosque encourages this sort of thing, perhaps that's why we Anglos clear it away. We're a practical people, eager to turn an immediate profit out of whatever we come up against. We'd rather reap than dream. This may be another distinction between the Northern, Anglo mentality and the Southern, especially the Hispanic -- which reaches, after all, not only back to Rome and the Mediterranean, but to North Africa and Arabia.

I suppose I was thinking of things like this, while following Pat and Lindsey, and looking up occasionally to make sure the kids were still on the edge of their precipice; and then they came running back, and our stream found a bridge, the one next to the Vulture Tree; and before long we had all climbed out of the ravine up to the mesa and looked southeast out across the plain to a low mountain in the middle distance, new peach-colored stucco houses on our left, older colonial-style shed-roofed ones on the right.

I wanted to build out here at first, Patrick said, but... And I could imagine that I would not want to build out here on the open land, partly in the knowledge that others would inevitably build nearby in my view, but more because of the feeling of exposure, of vulnerability. Georgia O'Keeffe is said to have loved this; the two or three years she spent, eighteen to twenty, living on the deserted Texas plain near Amarillo, and to have been permanently informed with this sense of openness and exposure: but it's not for me.

Next day we packed up and left. Sadly, at least in my case. These two friends are so easy, so semblable and simpatico (why does English lack these words?) that I always feel I'm leaving myself behind with them. And we trucked back into Santa Fe for another latte, another wi-fi, a little more shopping; and then it was down the highway to Albuquerque and a completely different stage of this year's Southwest Adventure.

Friday, July 07, 2006

9: Taos

The Rio Grande at Embudo Station

TWO ROADS LEAD TO TAOS from Santa Fe: the slow high road through Tesuque and the highway along the Rio Grande. I prefer the high road, particularly in summer when there is no danger of snow and ice; but we took the fast road, stopping for lunch at Embudo Station, as Deborah suggested.

What a wonderful stopover! You'd almost think you were back in the 1970s or beyond. There is a gift shop, but it was closed, I don't know why. There were a number of people at the restaurant, but they seemed to be locals. The parking lot was cluttered with expensive new cars, for the most part: but they were scattered about any which way on the informal unpaved parking lot, tucked into the shade of big cottonwoods where possible, otherwise casually set about on hillside or flat, obligingly leaving room for others to maneuver.

Tables and chairs are set about on a patio outside the restaurant, but Deborah had said we could take our sandwich down to the riverbank, and that we did, sharing it with a couple of boys who'd apparently wanted similar distance from the hoi palloi. The river is low, of course, but it could have been lower. Upstream it arrives in a bend shaded by the tall omnipresent black-barked cottonwoods with their alarming green leaves; flecks of "cotton" were just beginning to fall -- early, it seems to me; perhaps due to the drought that's killing off so many piñon pines here.

Closer to there are fewer trees, and down here by the water the open sky was welcome, not too hot or oppressive. The food was good enough for me to congratulate the cooks when leaving. We bussed our empty plates back to the cashier, inside the restaurant -- which looked like it would be welcoming on a cold or rainy day, in its simple, old-time comfort, and resumed our trip.

Not too much has changed on the Taos Highway. It's still fast but narrow, with an overlook here and there if you want to relax with the wide beauty of the mesa, once you've climbed out of the valley. The river still lies in its implausible gorge off to the west, an amazing slot etched deep into the mesa, utterly unphotographable in its remoteness. Even the little community of Ranchos de Taos seems about as it did ten or twenty years ago.

The church there has been fixed up. It must have been a slow day: there was only one person taking photographs, and he was in the little gardened courtyard at the front of the church, which turns its famous back on the road. We went in, to find a typically pretty country mission church, nicely stabilized and fixed up. Across the street there was the expected gift shop -- postcards, calendars, plaster saints, CDs of liturgical music, but also rather charming little amateur paintings of saints and landscapes; and a friendly woman tending it all and not too disappointed when we only bought a couple of notecards from the sale bin.

Next to the gift shop, a large wooden trough, one end propped up off the ground, on which lay a couple of shallow wooden boxes lacking tops or bottoms, all this apparatus caked with mud the color of all the walls and buildings hereabouts: in fact, equipment for the production of adobe bricks. Mix the mud with straw, pour it into the box-like frame, let it dry, pull the frame off, carry the new brick away to be stacked on the others.

Behind all this was an old adobe wall not six feet tall, near its top the ends of wooden poles showing a shed or something lies beyond it. It's made of brick, the outside plastered with the same mud; and at the top it seems to be protected by a layer of adobe mud to which a small amount of cement has been added. Behind this shed, attached to it, a two-storey building begins to suggest the grouped built-on architecture familiar from the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and to be revealed in a couple of hours at the Taos Pueblo.

It's not the only really old wall hereabouts. Ranchos de Taos seems to be a small community scattered about its church. The roofs are low, the doors and windows small, often framed in milled wood painted a turquoise blue -- said to bring good fortune, said one of our guides somewhere; said to repel flies, say other guides in Provence.

I'm often reminded of Provence here in the southwest, of old Provence, really old Provence -- the stone and informal brick, the low roofs, the dry landscape. Of course the high desert climate is not at all Mediterranean: but the piñon forest aroma and the loose sand-and-gravel footing recalls the French maquis. And the history of human occupancy is similar, when you take the long view -- successive waves of people coming in, from Greece or Mesa Verde, Old Mexico or Rome, Swiitzerland or New York, hunting and foraging, settling, farming, "developing," finally touring.

The church at Rancos de Taos

TOURISM HAS REACHED the final stage of a three-stage progression I first thought of when I was an art critic, a lifetime ago. The progression begins in worship, continues as art, ends as entertainment. Art seemed to me inevitably to follow that downward curve, from the religious significance of painting and sculpture at the dawn of civilizations, through the high art of the Renaissance, to the successive waves of art styles in the Twentieth Century.

So did dining, much more quickly. Everything happens more quickly: cultures accelerate themselves to death, as Matt Matsuda points out in his epochal book The Memory of the Modern. Food was (though unconsciously) a matter of worship, of the most significant kind of worship: that of ordinary daily life. It was elevated to art in the 1970s, and became Show Biz not long afterward. (I'm not entirely kidding.)

Same thing with tourism. It began with migration, I suppose, which was or must have been a matter of economic necessity, but it was also a matter of religious pilgrimage. I suppose you might argue that the wealthy always practiced it as entertainment, but I'd demur a bit; for many of them it was a matter of spiritual or at least aesthetic practice. So it was for us, when we began serious traveling in the mid-1970s, and so it remains: but there's no doubt an extensive industry has grown up around Travel, an industry that depends on the leisure- or entertainment-quotient it represents for the majority of tourists.

The church at Ranchos de Taos has been an icon for decades, photographed by the likes of Ansel Adams, painted by the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe. The first thing I did, last week, on parking the car behind the church, was to take a photo; and after walking round to the front of the church, and looking inside, and visiting the gift shop, the last thing I did before getting in the car to drive away was to take another photo, from what seemed to me an unusual perspective.

Then we drove on to the Pueblo. Lindsey and I had been there years ago and remembered it as intriguing and rewarding but also ragged and dirty -- dogs, garbage, rags, unkempt doorways and the like. All this has changed. Like every reservation Taos Pueblo has its casino, and these casinos, say what you like about their exploitation by non-Indians, about their contribution to the moral laxity of our country, these casinos seem to be bring a measure of prosperity to the tribes who lend their names to them.

Taos Pueblo is clean, orderly, and, in its way, developed. We went on a tour, guided by a handsome young man recently voted by his peers the Tourguide of the Year, and a little embarrassed but proud of the honor. He couldn't take us on the complete tour, as a hailstorm broke out en route, and our group, say fifteen or eighteen tourists, took cover under someone's garage-shed roof to pepper him with questions, all answered easily and good-humoredly.

I hadn't taken the camera along -- not to save the five dollars's fee, but because I always feel uneasy taking photographs in such places. There must be plenty of photos online, if you're interested. The buildings and the setting haven't changed since our previous visit, so many years ago: a three-storey adobe complex to the north; a two-storey one to the south; between them, the narrow Taos River, with two or three foot-bridges to ease the visitor's walk from one curiosity shop to the next.

We talked for a while to a potter, attracted by a truly excellent large delicate bowl out in front of his shop. We stepped into jewelry shops, and talked to an old woman who'd run out of fry bread but welcomed us nonetheless to her small display of postcards. Everyone was polite, well-dressed, direct. I don't remember seeing any dogs at all: I can't imagine where they've gone.

Another thing: the Pueblo was clearly less densely populated than before. Our guide told us that few families remain on site; most have moved to more up-to-date quarters, in newer houses, still on the reservation, only a few hundred yards away. There they have electricity, high-speed internet access, garages for their cars. Perhaps that's where the dogs have gone, too. Perhaps this is a modern analog of the more final move away from the pueblo at Mesa Verde.

What touring always reminds me of is the transience of human activity. Homo sapiens seems destined to be a migratory animal, though his migrations are slower, their cycles more infrequent, than those of songbirds, whales, and the caribou. Like them we are driven by economic necessity. Unlike them, as far as I can tell, we tend to elevate that necessity to religion; to make art of it; and then to continue as an antidote to boredom.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

8: Santa Fe

A room at Las Golondrinas

I'VE BEEN READING Harvey Fergusson's history of the Rio Grande valley -- sorry, Deborah; I'll send it back to you tomorrow -- and it confirms my complex feelings on revisiting Santa Fe. As I noted a few pages back, the area's grown immensely. There are tract developments around the city, and the city itself seems to be sprawling more than ever.

I imagine one doesn't 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, aren't really apparent from the highways.

We weren't 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 Fe's a town that's worth a week's stay, another when you add the rewards of the country around it: but schedule didn't 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, don't 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. It's 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 we've 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, I'm afraid.

Next morning the kids say Why not try Atomic. We park almost across the street, at the same meter on Water Street, I don't know why no one uses it, and try Atomic. The wii-fi isn't working this morning: a recent thunderstorm put it out of commission, and it hasn't been reinstalled. The coffee was okay.

We notice, though, another place across the street, not listed on the tourist bureau's 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 it's museums you're after, plan to spend a week here. We settle on only three, and begin, the day after arrival, with the Children's 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 we've 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 there's 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 I'm 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.

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, what's left of the poor thing (it's 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.

It's fascinating to visit this sort of place after having visited the great gardens of Cordoba, Seville, and Granada; and after having read James Michener's book Iberia and Harvey Fergusson's 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. There's 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.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

7: Galisteo

Galisteo: the old cemetery

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, there's 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 what's going on around here, what's 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, let's 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, there's another, surrounded by a simple fence. I don't 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 they've 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 don't know.

A screened front door leads into the long, cool living room, Pat's 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 Deb's 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 who'd given up her hippie life, moved out of her camper, sold the Santa Fe home she'd 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 she's 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 couldn't help admiring the woman herself, or for that matter her daughter, a beauty in the lean, capable, sleek Western style.

LET'S 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; it's 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, I'd 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. What's 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. They're 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 there's a small city of trailers, trucks, and support vehicles.

And what's 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: it's fastened by a long drawbar to the truck which is towing it along, and which carries a number of big cameras pointed at him.

Madrid's 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 can't be real bikers at all. They're actors: Disney's 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 Disney's 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...

6: On to Santa Fe

fourth day, Green River-Durango, Mesa Verde


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 we'd 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, I'm impressed; thanks for coming in.

No, I don't remember what I ate. I was exhausted: we'd driven a long way, and then taken that excursion to the "Cliff Palace" in Mesa Verde, where we'd 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 I'd 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 colonizer's 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 border's 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 there's a placidity here, a settledness; and there's 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. I'm 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 wasn't 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 we'd seen since leaving the Bay Area.

Oh well. Pavement returned, and we were driving south toward the swing east to Abiquiu, country I've loved since first travelling here nearly twenty years ago on assignment for a Georgia O'Keeffe project. Ghost Ranch looked the same; even Abiquiu looked the same -- though when we stopped at Bodie's 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 don't 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 tonight's hosts.

Kokoman is a fine old institution, a ramshackle building whose interior reveals shelves and shelves of anything you'd want to pour down your throat, or just about anyone else's, 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 Bodie's 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 Patrick's 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 I've 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 that's why this blog's a week out of date. But it is a fine thing, a restorative, a window on truth and consolation.

And it won't keep me from writing tomorrow, and continuing these notes...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

5: Mesa Verde

The "Cliff Palace," Mesa Verde

LET'S SEE, NOW, how long has it been? I'm 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 we'll 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:

They're 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 isn't 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 hadn't noticed, the town's 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 day's 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 we've seen; but we'd been told Mesa Verde was even more imposing. Since you can't disagree with such claims without personal experience, we've come this way.

We followed one of those rental RVs up the long road to the visitor's center, arriving late enough in the day to take only one of the three guided tours offered us. It was hot, of course; it's 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 it's eight hundred years old, a tall young tanned athletic fellow asked his girl friend, That can't be eight hundred years old, look at it, they didn't build like that that long ago, that can't be more than a hundred years old.

Carbon dating, she explained, they test things. Do you believe that, he answered contemptuously, I don't believe any of that for a minute, they dont know anything about it, it's all just theories.

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 we've 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, you'll 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 community's 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 there's apparently no evidence of that.

Overpopulation, then disease? Decadence, then indifference? Growth beyond sustainability?

The current headlines, about Stephen Hawking's warning that Earth may soon look like Venus, suffering from 250-degree heat and sulfuric-acid rain; and about the suggestion that we'd 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. Today's 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 today's 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. We've 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 you're 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 that's what it was) to these wonderful cliff dwellings.

The cliff complexes must have been more like today's urban centers. The eye isn't allowed to go far before it stumbles over a sign of human activity. That's 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. Today's 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.