(For Day One, go here.)
There’s a supermarket across the way. A local outfit, with the aisles a bit bedraggled, as these rural places usually are. No olive bar, international cheese spread or charcuterie, but a couple of bucks and tax gets you plenty of hot coffee and glazed deliciousness. Bear claw and a maple log. This stuff just doesn’t exist anywhere outside the U.S.
A guy, white, scraggly, bearded, dressed in layers, probably homeless, is talking to himself sitting at one of the tables. The Latina serving me rolls her eyes. I ask if he’s a problem. No, she says, but the smell. ?Que va a hacer? What can you do? I remember the week before, chatting with a convenience store clerk in Santa Cruz, California, who was terrified of the crack head who hung out in the parking lot. She’d seen him decline over a year or so, from a hippie pothead type, to a hallucinatory shambles uttering threats to everyone and no one.
Time for a quick look at Socorro. Back to the square. The town is named for the succor the local Indians gave the first group of Spaniards staggering out of the nearby desert in 1598. A little less than a hundred years later the Pueblo Indians revolted and Spanish rule did not recommence until 1815. Socorro’s core retains a very nineteenth century look. I n an unexpected segue from Fort Apache the day before, it turns out the Socorro was the home of Elfego Baca, hero of a Disney series for TV in the 50s, “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.”
There’s enough in the area to keep one busy for days; I figure I have about fifteen minutes to spare. Some of the buildings around the square date to the old municipio. I don’t know why people say history is boring. Look at a Spanish town in North America, like this one, or Sonoma in Northern California, and you are looking at a Roman colonia.
The building style combines adobe and timber, of which there is a good supply in the nearby mountains, reminding me of Patzcuaro Iin the pine forests of Michoacan. Government offices are in new buildings off the square and the old places are occupied by lawyers, accountants, and a cafe advertising live acoustic music and poetry readings.
A stretch of interstate is unavoidable as 60 joins it for a few miles running north before heading due west again. I don’t mind because this part runs along the Rio Grande valley, the river bottoms glorious in color against the low austere mountain. , At a rest stop to get rid of the morning coffee I find a marker for the Acomila Buttes nearby. These formed a choke point on the El Camino Real(Royal Road) along the river and was a place where caravans were frequently ambushed by the Apache.
There is that about New Mexico: it seems to exist in different times simultaneously. One can feel the past here. It is part of America,and the Southwest, but there is something in the air,and the light, that sets the state apart in both space and time.
I had been in the state once before, in 71. It was October then, too, and the autumn color reminds of that time. A college drop out, waiting for my draft call up, I took to the road, uncertain of why or where I wanted to go, and spent a couple of months in the state, hitching, sometimes sleeping rough, doing a bit of day labor here and there.
Somewhere in a river valley, ranch homes along the banks sheltered by groves of crimson Lombardy poplar, and then a town. I got out at a Dairy Queen. The place was very quiet. The social tide of the 60s had left this place alone, but the war had taken the young men. A man asked me where I was going, and when I told him no place in particular, he asked if I could stand a bit of work. A neat fellow with brilliantined hair, plaid shirt, jeans and a string tie. I felt disheveled next to him as I climbed into his truck.
He put me up for a couple of days. His own son son was overseas. I wasn’t of a lot of use, but his wife fed me, and the work made me not quite a guest, but less than a beggar.
After shifting a heap of firewood, he put me to work scraping and sanding the walls of the house, which he intended to paint. Pleased with my first few hours work, I looked up to see him regarding it. His cheek twitched, and the toothpick always in his mouth shifted from one side to another. I knew I had to start over.
It would be a great story if I could write how that old boy taught me to rope and ride, but a couple of days was about all he wanted me around for. I’m still meticulous on surface preparation. I’m not sure why he took me in. After supper I was invited to watch the news on the big Magnavox in the parlor. They were particularly intent when a story came on from the war zone in Viet Nam.
“Roy’s not anywhere near there,” he said. And the woman smiled and freshened my ice tea. I slept in the bunk house. The place must have been more active once, but now there were just the bed frames with rolled up mattresses.
After two days, the rancher took me back to the Dairy Queen. We shook hands and then he handed me two twenties. I had never thought about pay and one would have been more than fair.
“Never mind, you earned it he said”, and drove away.
Right on 60, and I am alone on a glorious two lane blacktop skirting mountains and heading gently up. A storm brewing. Stop to take some pictures, and there is not a car in any direction. What a country this is, that can build and maintain these perfect roads that so few will take.
Alone. No one coming in either direction, no sound save the rising wind.
Hippie crashes in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Mescaleros, pine fresh in the morning, the plain of Alamogordo crimson in dusk.
Late one night, a state trooper stopped and asked for my ID. Perhaps no older than I, he put on an air of sternness, but as he looked through my passport ( I had no license) and saw the Asian stamps, he couldn’t contain his curiosity. He took me forty miles down the road just to hear some of my stories of far countries, and allowed he’d travel one day too.
The trooper dropped me off in Roswell, where I washed dishes for a while. Met a girl there and when she had satisfied her curiosity over the California boy, and I knew that I couldn’t ever be from there, moved on.
Finally, I see someone. A fellow riding a grass cutting machine, trimming the verge. Not only is the road surface perfect, but the shoulders are manicured. You have to have lived in very different countries to realize what a miracle this is.
Picked up one day by two middle aged cowpunchers with all their possessions in a station wagon, suitcases, saddles and tack, driving hopefully off to a new gig. Left me at the side of the road when they turned off, with the gift of a half pint of bourbon, and best wishes for my time in the service. They had been in Korea.
Taos in the rain. Braided Indian women selling baskets, kids in jacked up chevies cruising the slick streets.
Maybe looking for trouble, thumbing around with my huge white kid ‘fro and Guatemalan quetzal jacket, but treated with great kindness by people who seemed to find some small happiness in helping me on my way,
When I tired of these wanderings and with winter setting in, I went back to California, where an induction notice had arrived, followed soon by another notice canceling it. Back to real life, finishing school, work, and the long road that brought me back here this morning, once again, to the autumn Rio Grande on a New Mexico morning.
I speak a silent thank you to New Mexico, for what it gave me then, and is now. I hope all those people’s lives have been or were full, and happy. I hope the girl married well; I hope Roy came home o.k.
Driving on, the question arises:what it is it about so many rural folk that leads them to collect, and display intheir front yards,large amounts of mechanical junk. The houses I see are surrounded by broken equipment, and lots of battered trailers and mobile homes. These are perhaps, still in use as migrant housing. The ranches are not the prosperous showcases one sees in California.
The map shows that the Salinas Pueblo Mission National Monument is not far off my way. There are three sites, Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivara. Gran Quivara I’ve known about since my boyhood interest in archeology, and it is just a little too far off the route. Abo, however, is just before the the town of Mountainair on 60.
There’s a small ranger station. The ranger is out to make his rounds and waves as he drives off. There is a light dusting of snow on the red rock ruins. Settled by the Indians as far back as 1300, The Spanish Franciscans established a mission there around 1620, but only stayed for around fifty years. Historic American Buildings Survey,
Engineering Record, Landscapes Survey Library of Congress says this about the architecture:”The Mission is notable for the construction method using buttresses to support relatively thin walls, a method used in European church architecture. San Gregorio de Abo is the only example of the use of this method for a seventeenth-century New Mexican church.”
I have the place to myself. The starkness of the ruined walls against the perfect cobalt sky is overwhelming.Time weighs heavily, all the vanished unknown lives. But, I see here is one, that is happily memorialized. Don Federico, Fred Sisneros whose family once owned the site, spent his declining years caring for the site as “the nation’s oldest park ranger.” His family had once owned the land,and later deeded it to the state. This reminds me again of eh ancient roots of the Hispanic settlement in New Mexcio. Descendants of old families like the Sisneros proudly, and accurately, say that their ancestors predated the United States. Another branch of the family runs Casa de Abo nearby, producing sculptures and landscape ornaments into the New Mexican style.
On to Mountainair and as the road rises it begins to snow. I am delighted. It is a light fall, not enough to close the roads, but enough for me to see New Mexico in winter as well as autumn.
The town is a small place, and looks as if it were never too much more than a whistle stop. There is an old Santa Fe station, closed off to the public, a maintenance center now. Work, I’m sure, is scarce around here. Lucky is he – or she – who is a railroader these days.
There ‘s time for me to make Quarai and I head out of town as the road quickly descends into a nearly featureless plain, now white, totted at great distances by homesteads. Then the way turns north and east and rises again. Of course. The settlement would be sited on higher ground both for defense and access to, and control of, water from the mountains. There is a town, or hamlet, not large enough to warrant a sign, and
The nearby town of Manzano (Pop. 54) has a church, and a churchyard, as well as an automotive graveyard that appears to date from the 30s. Again, that tendency of the rural poor to collect junk.
There’s time for a quick look at the main street in Mountainair. An old hotel that has a coffee shop going, warm and inviting. The icon of every small town where a kid woke up and said I’m getting out of here one day. A
defunct Greyhound station, a local bank long gone, a John Deere place still in business.
Back to 60 . I’m following the railroad now, one train after another. There is sometime about seeing a pair of diesels pulling a long string of cars across a western landscape. It speaks of power, the raw energy that bound these immense vistas with steel.
The train are different from those I saw a child. Boxcar Willie would find no shelter, as boxcar has almost vanished, Instead, containers on flats, RORO, chemical carriers, livestock cars. And the caboose must have disappeared decades ago. The containers are all Asian: COSCO, Han IL, Yonsei. Gone too is the variety, the many logos that a child would count to while away the long hours on a cross country drive: Rock Island, B&O, Erie, Great Northern, Burlington, Northwestern, Rio Grande, Union Pacific, Wabash and so many more, so that a train bore emblems of every region of the country, a rolling history of railroad commerce for the US and Canada as well.
The Santa Fe, my childhood favorite, because it was the line that brought grandparents from back east, survives and thrives. The Chesapeake has long been CSX which just isn’t very evocative. There are occasional Canadian National and Pacific Cars. Still, the lines of cars form horizon to horizon still and thrill I wonder if this is what rolls during a time of low growth, what must it be like when times are good?
The snowy horizon extends in every direction with a few ranches until I reach the town of Willard. I’m hungry, and the roadside Willard Cafe looks like it might be just the thing. Now here it’s time for a bit of shameful confession. Like so many coastals, I know my fellow Americans from the interior more as types seen in the movies., than as real people I might actually enjoy meeting.
There is a large bar and games area, empty at this time of day, and a small, cozy lunch room. One table is occupied by four bearded guys in billed caps and camos. In the movies, they would be militia types, ready to kick some urban ass. Perhaps they are hunters, or just guys from around here who like to dress that way.
A friendly blond waitress seats me, bringing me my ice tea and a menu along with chips and salsa. The place specializes in deep fried Serrano Chiles. A green Chile combo comes a taco, beans, and sopapilla, New Mexican fry bread. It strikes me that on every table is a dispenser of Karo syrup. I haven’t seen that since I was last in the south. But then Texas is not that far, and there were Confederate militias in New Mexico.
The food is just right for a winter day, hearty, , spicy, but not fiery, satisfying for its earthiness. At the next table are two men and women, an Anglo and Hispanic of each gender. Government workers from different agencies, County, Forestry, Police, sharing lunch. The conversation switches back and forth between Spanish and English, everybody bilingual, from inter-agency topics to local gossip and family news. Their easy camaraderie adds a warmth to the room already glowing with the aroma of good food.
The room clears and I linger to chat with the waitress when she esquires as to my enjoyment of the food, which I am happy to verify. Her name is Lisa, and in fact, she is the owner. Lisa tells me that she’s worked there since she was sixteen, off and on, and after forays to Denver and Albuquerque, came home, and about six years ago when the owners wanted to retire they offered to sell he business to her. It hasn’t always been easy, but in addition rhinsto the local clientele, she has fans from road trips, stopping by like I did, to return again and again. One son helps her, another is up in the Northern part of the state, installing wind turbines. There are big wind farms in the area, and for a while, the crews brought in a lot of business before they moved on. Her son was able to get on part time, did well, and was taken up for training and permanent hire. Her pleasure in the life she has made for herself and her kids in her hometown, where here isn’t much, is warming.
Back on the road, and the terrain is in a long decline, that continental slope, which I can see in the rail line that tilts to the horizon. This is the Belen cut-off, an Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe route that once sowed settlements across this empty land, and I come to the remains of one such at Yeso. There must be some people around as there is a Porta-Post office, but I don’t see anyone, and the businesses that once sold travelers cokes and gas are in ruins. The trains remain, chuffing along, backing up and moving on, framed by half fallen walls.
One building must have been constructed very early on, and by someone with little capital. The Overton Merc. Co, which I would take to have a general store is built of undressed stone, and without visible mortar, yet it is in better shape than the frame and plaster buildings nearby. (For more on Yeso, see City of Dust, a fine blog by a New Mexican, fascinated by vanished roadside America. Eloquent writing and photography)
Then it’s another twenty miles or so to Fort Sumner. Rolling country, better watered, a bit more populated. This is horse country. It is always good for the soul to see horses watering, trotting about open pasture of an afternoon as the light softens and catches their colors.
Fort Sumner straggles along the Pecos River, and that very name is enough to evoke a another 50s series, Judge Roy Bean. Bean operated much further down the river, in southwest Texas, but I am certainly in an important site for Old West history.
Fort Sumner is where billy the Kid is buried. Probably, but exactly where is subject to some dispute. As an article in Roadside America details , the gunman and psychopath William Bonney, aka Blily the Kid, is most likely resting somewhere in the cemetery next to the Billy the Kid Museum outside of town, but whether is directly under the often filched tombstone is another question.
The museum, which looks more like what my dad used to call “tourist traps,” as he refused to stop despite all our begging to see whatever lurid attraction we were passing, was closed for the season, and directed interested parties back to a branch in town. Had it been open, I would have tarried. At one time I affected some sense of post modern irony in enjoying such places, but now I’m ready to admit, I just like them. There is also, a few hundred yards on, a memorial and exhibit to some atrocity by the government against the local Indians. I’ve decided that I want to sleep in Texas that night, so content myself with some quick pics, and move on
The low hills around Fort Sumner disappear, and I’m moving towards the Texas panhandle. On the last elevation I’ll see until I get well into Oklahoma, to the north, a troop of wind turbines claws the sky, skeletal in the fading glow as more weather moves in.
A bit of four lane and then Clovis, the concrete mushroom of the Air base control tower to the right, gas and motel strip thorough town, The first grain elevators. Entering the great agricultural heartland, the North American granary that goes form here to Canada and all the way to the Alleghenies.
State borders may be imaginary lines on a map, bu the differences are very real. Crossing in to Texas, which is just a matter of crossing the street in Clovis, from New Mexico it is immediately clear that I am in a far more prosperous place and one with very different economic organization. Instead of the small ranches of eastern New Mexico, very Big Ag. I can smell cows immediately and even in the gathering darkness there are black spills of them all across the plain on both sides of the road. Oil too. Now and then a hissing injection well lit up like a Christmas tree.
Have I been away so long that I have no perspective, so that that what seems wondrous to me is merely ordinary? Were communication masts always so tall, rising hundreds of feet, with their summits even blurred by low lying mist?. There are many of them, the cherries of their warning lights blinking off in a line to the distance. Some last light escapes from the setting sun already obscured behind an approaching storm front and the guy wires, gossamer with the last light flicker like lines of fairy dust.
The towns spread light crossways to the darkened highway like the elliptical discs of distant galaxies. And they are like worlds, with their own histories, matrices of relationships of blood and commerce, that l, as would a voyager through space en route to a distant destination, can only wonder about.
Bovina. You have to love these names. And up ahead, Hereford. Sure enough, a black and white cow on a plinth announces the town, Hereford, Deaf smith County county seat. Smith, the man who took the last letter out of the Alamo to General Houston, was someone I learned about in those long ago fifties popular juvenile histories.
A good place to stop. Another Indian run motel, south of forty a night, with a liquor store and Mexican restaurant across the street and a McD’s that will serve for breakfast.
Taqueria Jalisco has more than tacos, a near full house, and friendly, pretty waitresses.
Did I want corn or flour tortillas? I explain that this is a treat for me, there not being any real Mexican food where I live so I’m having trouble making this simple decision. Have both she says and I do with my Chile Verde. Tender pork shoulder simmered for hours in in a piquant green sauce based on jalapeno, tomatillo, cilantro and other goodies. Real beans, no healthy cuisine nonsense, cooked with lard. Sides of red salsa and escabeche to make it all even hotter.
As I pay the bill, a Sikh family stops in to pick up a take out order.
For dessert, I grab a big Stella at the liquor store. The low prices and variety of alcohol everywhere are amazing. You have to live in in Asia to appreciate it. On the cable, talk shows on cattle futures, ads for irrigation piping, and a show for women horse owners, all the little girls who grew up reading “Black Beauty,” and here in Texas actually get their own horses.
Drifting off, thinking of the day past and the next, it’s like life: you can’t know if what’s ahead will be as good, or better or worse than what’s past until you move on.