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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Southwest 1: Three Peoples, One Land

View from a cliff-house in Bandelier Nat.l Monument

The Southwest was the theme of my recent February trip with Al, and it featured large doses of train travel, a passion for my friend ever since his frequent boyhood jaunts to the nearby San Jose train yard with his dad. We boarded the connecting bus in Chico just before 8 in the morning and after a relaxing train ride through the length of California’s San Joaquin Valley arrived in Los Angles by another connecting bus shortly after 7 that evening, sauntering out of the venerable (and newly polished) 1939 Union Station past Olvera Street a block to our hotel.

Turn-of-the-century Los Angeleno Charles Lummis claimed to have christened the New Mexico-Arizona-southern California area as “the Southwest,” so we visited his home, El Alisal, after huevos rancheros in Olvera Street the next morning. The Gold Line metro deposited us in Pasadena just several blocks from the remarkable structure he built himself—with the help of Pueblo Indian boys from the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico—in the late 1800s, using water-polished boulders from an adjacent arroyo. “Any fool can write a book,” Lummis said, “and most do; but it takes brains to build a house.”

A hundred years later, the house is still standing, surrounded by its sycamore trees (el alisal in Spanish), and still charming. Out in the wilds of Pasadena in its day, the house was filled every Sunday afternoon with all the resident and visiting dignitaries in Los Angeles, its guest book featuring John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplain, painters such as William Keith, writers such as Mary Hunter Austin and Helen Hunt Jackson, and hundreds more. Al and I added our names—in a separate, contemporary book.

Lummis knew the Southwest well, having walked from Ohio to Los Angles on foot through the length of it, sending dispatches of his adventures which were followed breathlessly by the city in the early days of the Los Angeles Times. His 1885 entry into the city (accompanied by Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, who joined him for the last week of the journey) was a public triumph. Lummis was appointed city editor for the newspaper, then founded the influential magazine Land of Sunshine in 1894, where his articles quickly set the cultural tone for the entire city and region.

Lummis fought to save the redwoods, was an opponent of American imperialism and “Manifest Destiny,” and championed the rights of the Southwest’s native Americans. Recuperating in New Mexico’s Isleta Pueblo from exhaustion after his stint with the Times, he befriended a family whose three sons had been forcibly removed from them and enrolled in the infamous Albuquerque Indian School, whose guiding policy was “Kill the Indian, educate the man.” The peppery Loomis filed a writ of habeus corpus against the school, and persuaded them to allow the boys (and other children taken from the pueblo) to return to their families.

He finished by directing the Los Angles library system for half a decade, and died of cancer in 1928, after confiding to a friend that “I am perfectly happy and resigned. I am glad I have had all that I have had, and am bound to do all I can in what elbow room is left.”

That evening we boarded the eastbound Southwest Chief at Union Station and relaxed in our Pullman car berths until the conductor turned down our beds. As the rookie at overnight rail travel, I got the bottom bunk, and watched wide-eyed as the starlit Mojave desert slid past outside the window. Shortly before ten lights appeared ahead, and with great fanfare we chugged into Barstow, our last California stop. At half past 2 in the morning the signs outside my window announced Kingman; we were in Arizona! It was still dark when the signs announcing Flagstaff, AZ appeared, where you can catch connections north to the Grand Canyon—some day I will. Our beds were folded up when we were at breakfast in the adjacent dining car—delicious omelettes with toast and tea—and shortly before noon we arrived at Albuquerque.

We headed north in our rental car, and soon were at the windswept Coronado Historic Site, an old Kuaua “pueblo” (Spanish for “village”) overlooking the Rio Grande river visited by Francisco Coronado in 1540 as he searched for the fabled seven cities of gold. The pueblo, actually a city of over a thousand inhabitants which had flourished for more than two centuries, did not survive the one-sided encounter with Coronado and the Spaniards who soon followed. Now partially restored, the pueblo offered us the uncommon opportunity to climb upon the roof of a kiva and descend the long ladder into its formerly sacred core. Patches of paintings around the curved walls depicted snakes pierced by lightning bolts, dancing figures, and one fellow pissing on his maize plants (hey, in a dry climate you don’t waste any water).

We climbed out of the kiva into an icy wind slicing down the Rio Grande valley all the February day, the temperature well below freezing thanks to the wind chill. I barely held my own under polypropylene, turtleneck, fleece vest and jacket, and windbreaker. Al, who is perhaps a bit ursine in build (and temperament), was cheerfully comfortable in a t-shirt and thin wool jacket. But then, this is a man who once paid money for the pleasure of mushing a dogsled through the snow of Minnesota in the depth of winter.

The Rio Grande, flowing here toward the Gulf of Mexico from the vast Colorado plateau is, surprisingly, the third longest river system in the United States. After long periods of wandering North and Central America, the ancient Pueblo peoples settled villages (and cities) in the river valley framed by the Sandia and Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east, and the Jemez and other mountains on the west. During the great drought from 1276 to 1299, this pueblo suddenly gained neighbors as villages in the surrounding foothills and mountains were abandoned. Surprisingly, the now-crowded valley seemed to avoid conflict among the pueblos, the occasional raiding Comanches and Apaches from the north bringing the only serious warfare to the region.

When Coronado and the Spanish began arriving in the 1500’s and 1600’s, of course, conflict mushroomed. To their credit, the Pueblo people resisted conversion to the religion and rule of the Spaniards, expelling the hated invaders during the coordinated “Pueblo Revolt” between 1680 and 1692. Guns, germs, and steel tilted the conflict toward the Spaniards, though, and the dispirited Pueblo peoples were forced to submit. On the plus side, the land was so marginal that the Spanish did not settle in overwhelming numbers, and they did bring with them a plethora of new crops and domesticated animals to complement the old established Three Sisters Garden of the Indians (maize, beans, and squash).

Partly because of Spanish land grants to the Pueblo people, and partly due to the marginality of the arid region for human habitation, when the Anglos annexed the region after the Mexican-American War of 1847, the Pueblo peoples (including the Hopis and Zunis) retained considerable reservation lands in the Rio Grande valley and surrounding areas to this day. Some pueblos prohibit visitors, but some allow it, though use of cameras is typically banned, as is entry in to the buildings and kivas, of course.

We visited the San Ildefonso pueblo, our Anglo eyes noticing the crumbling walls and complete absence of landscaping, but the children were noisily occupying their school and Head-Start program, and new pickup trucks parked in front of the adobe brick homes ringing the old plaza and its two gigantic sycamore trees. It was here in the early-1900s that Maria Martinez had recreated the ancient black-on-black pottery so sought-after these days, doubtless bringing a measure of prosperity to the pueblo ever since. Her patient exploration of technique included rediscovering that by smothering the firing blaze with pottery shards and manure from horse and sheep, the smoke would blacken the clay during this relatively cool “smudging fire.”

As we drove up the Rio Grande valley to Santa Fe, a more noticeable and common source of prosperity was evident as pueblos whizzed by to either side: gambling casinos, modern, attractive buildings with hundreds upon hundreds of cars in their surrounding lots. In Santa Fe we located and ate at the Chimayo Cafe, rated highly on Al’s Yelp site, and purchased some turquoise jewelry from the Indian artisans lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along one side of the old Plaza. After a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (more on this later) we wound along picturesque back roads to the old settlement of Chimayo in a gorgeous valley of the Sangre de Cristo foothills.

This village is famous for three features. One is the adobe Santuario church from 1816, the premier Catholic pilgrimage site in the U.S., where some 30,000 pilgrims from around the world converge during the Easter Holy Week, with another pulse of pilgrims in July’s Feast of St. James—a total of more than 250,000 year-round. Long rows of abandoned crutches in a side room attest to the healing powers of this “Lourdes of America”, which is said to have also been sacred to the original Tewa Pueblo people in the valley (long since departed). Visiting in February, we missed the crowds, but paid our respects at the chapel and sifted some of the curative tierra bendita in a side-room through our fingers (eating the dirt or rubbing it on the body is the usual application).

Chimayo’s second notable feature is the tumble-down village plaza, defined by its surrounding structures, many erected in the early 1700s. Acknowledged as “the best surviving example of Spanish Colonial plaza in the Southwest,” the plaza is now mainly overgrown with weeds, but some of the adobe structures are still inhabited; one was supposed to be a bed and breakfast for curious tourists such as ourselves. Al tenaciously explored a series of locked doors where the hostelry was supposed to be, surprising an old fellow dozing in his shorts before a Spanish-language television program, who exclaimed “What the hell?!” before Al quickly made his exit mumbling apologies—“I don’t think it was the bed and breakfast,” he commented nervously as we hastily vacated the plaza.

The third feature is Chimayo’s centuries-old weaving tradition; we descended on the Ortega gallery, where a fellow busily slammed the shuttle on a loom in an adjoining room. Rugs, vests, coats, place mats—you name it, they had it in every color and many Pueblo and Mexican designs, produced by many generations of Ortega family weavers, whose prosperity was significantly enhanced by our visit.

We spent the next two days in Georgia O’Keeffe land, staying at Ghost Ranch and passing her other home in nearby Abiquiu several times—to be recounted in Part Two of this series. We also visited Bandelier National Park, marveling at the extensive ruins in Frijole Canyon of what had been between 1300 and 1550 the home of several hundred Pueblo peoples before they relocated to the Rio Grande valley (including some to the Ildefonso pueblo). One large canyon settlement curved three stories tall (in its day; today only foundations survive) around a huge kiva on the canyon floor, while another was built into caves in the cliffs on the canyon’s north (hence south-facing) walls.

I climbed the ladder provided into one cave, and gazing out at the lovely canyon before me, wondered what could possibly have compelled the Puebloans to leave this spot in the late 16th century. Al drily educated me on a plethora of candidate conditions: drought, floods, soil depletion. Abandon the canyon they did, by 1600, reminding me that even this lovely canyon in the great Pajarita Plateau was a marginal habitat for humans.

On our way back to catch the westbound Southwest Chief in Albuquerque, we stayed in the charming Canyon Del Rio bed and breakfast in the Jemez mountains and visited the ruins of the Jemez Pueblo. A thriving mountain pueblo of several hundred souls in multi-story structures when the Spaniards arrived, the good friars over time tore down all but a single wall and recycled the material to build a huge cathedral with extensive outlaying grounds of cloisters. These Jemez folks were instrumental in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, so they were subsequently forced out of the mountains and down onto lands on the plains below, where to this day they continue to farm the land.

New Mexico and its Rio Grande valley and adjoining Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains are a fascinating blend today of three peoples: the original Pueblo Indians, still stubbornly surviving on remnants of their former lands; the Spanish/Mexican folks whose ancestors arrived in the 16th century; and the Anglos who flooded the land in the 19th and 20th centuries after the Mexican-American war of 1847 and rule it today. Among the waves of Anglo invaders were artists and writers entranced by the rugged, pristine surroundings. They came primarily from New York City and congregated in Taos and Santa Fe. Among them were Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mary Hunter Austin, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keeffe—the subjects of Part Two of this series.

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