On the question: "Why did this have to happen?"
My brother is successful. He is outgoing and larger than life. For many years, he managed large hotel properties for Hilton and Embassy Suites. He was very well-compensated for his work, single, and shrewd with his investments. By the time he was 50, he had amassed enough money to retire. Although his career placed him at the disputatious center of management and labor controversies, he was able to manage those disputes with integrity and empathy – his staff, as far as I was able to see, worshiped him. Indeed, he seems to have been the very epitome of a fair, self-effacing and effective boss. Thus, when he retired from the industry, he did so with a clear conscious – he had not compromised any of his essential principles and was regarded as virtuous, kind, and generous man.
My brother traveled widely and, from all the places that he had been, selected the Pacific northwest for his retirement. He located a beautiful tract of land near the Puget Sound, wooded, and lush with ferns and flowers. There was a majestic house on the property that he remodeled to meet his needs. (His long-time girlfriend retired a year or so later and joined him in this home.) This property is about an hour from Seattle via a scenic ferry ride – on a clear day, Mount Rainier floats majestically over the waters of the sound, a brilliant ethereal spectacle sometimes white as the harvest moon or purplish pink with sunset. His home is also about an hour from the austere glories of the Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park – an overlook onto a tumbled chaos of spiky peaks and glaciers stretching as far as the eye can see. There are awe-inspiring vistas all around. Bridges soar over estuaries in which mighty ranges of mountains are reflected and in the coves along the coast strange, green-shadowed rainforests throb with life. It is a wonderful place to live.
My brother built a shop and stocked it with sophisticated woodworking machines. He built a greenhouse with his own hands, a big gabled structure splendid with innumerable glass windows. While making that greenhouse, he noticed a peculiar, fixed, and troubling pain, accompanied with weakness in one of his legs. The diagnosis of his disease, ALS, is agonizing because the illness has to be proven by a process of elimination. That makes the disease’s onset all the more savage because it’s victim is tormented by hope. In my brother’s case, his physicians in Seattle and, then, at the Mayo Clinic systematically stripped away his hopes. His condition worsened and he became paralyzed. He is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to venture into his beautiful gardens and woods. The mountains are a memory to him. He is dying.
Is there a meaning to this suffering? Why did this have to happen?
This morning, I drove through a taco place for a breakfast burrito. This is my habit on Saturday morning.
It was four degrees below zero and the sky was very clear and translucent.
At the exact end of the road that I was traversing, where perspective made a vanishing point, I saw the full moon like a chip of ice or a faint hot air balloon hanging over the snow landscape.
This lunar spectacle reminded me of my brother’s terrible plight. Some consciousness of his illness and the enormous and brutal injustice of his suffering is always with me. The sun may rise and the celestial objects in the night may vanish in the bright, pellucid air – but those signs and portents, those reminders of the darkness of the night, are always there, merely masked by the blue enormity of yet another frigid day in Minnesota.
Is there a way to make sense of unjust suffering?
This is the traditional question of theodicy – that is, the justification of ways of God to man.
One of the leading Christian theologians arising during the new millenium – that is, after 2000 – is David Bentley Hart. Hart is a theologian whose thinking is guided by the Eastern Orthodox brand of
Christianity. After the tsunami devastated the Pacific coast-line in Asia in 2004, many militant atheists seized upon this terrible calamity as proof of the non-existence of God or worse – either God was a malevolent sadist or he didn’t exist at all, this was the proposition argued by these writers. Hart felt many of the essays written by these atheists were unfair or misguided, although he acknowledged the urgency of the problem and the passion that the unjust suffering of millions had provoked. Accordingly, Hart wrote a rejoinder to these accusations lodged against God in The Wall Street Journal. That rejoinder was controversial and engendered much correspondence, pro and con – ultimately, Hart expanded his short column into a book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami (2005). The book is elegantly written and densely argued. The question that I pose in this essay is whether it is convincing.
In non-Christian contexts, the problem of theodicy, often, doesn’t make much sense. Christianity, however, posits a loving God – indeed, a God whose very essence is defined by love. Therefore, unjust suffering raises fundamental, and foundational, problems for Christian thinkers.
Organized religion is man’s greatest pre-technological invention. Since the renaissance, human ingenuity has been directed primarily at scientific innovation. But, in the vast caverns of time preceding the last five-hundred years, the best and brightest efforts of mankind were primarily directed at developing elaborate systems of religious doctrine. There is no reason to think that Australian aborigines gathering roots in the deserts 25,000 years ago were any less ingenious or thoughtful than modern people – the emphasis of their thought, however, was directed the consideration and devoted implementation of enormously elaborate mythological and cosmological systems. There were, no doubt, aboriginal priests as subtle and brilliant as Stephen Hawkings except that their understanding of the beginnings of time were non-scientific and based upon other grammars of assent. Accordingly, any summary of theodictic thought in other religions is necessarily simplified to the point of error. Nonetheless for comparative purposes, a brief consideration of theodicy (literally - "the trial of god’s goodness") is worth attempting.
At their primordial origin, most religion seems to be primarily sacrificial. Gods were supernatural beings who required that sacrifices be made to them. Evil or disorder was thought to arise from some imbalance in the relationship between man and his gods. Sacrifice was the technique ordained for correcting this imbalance – pestilence infecting the order of the world could be eradicated by propitiating god and, in effect, commissioning the deity to remove the infection shadowing the human community. Judaism begins with this proposition as does the ancient Hindu faith. The religions of the civilized societies in the New World were also based fundamentally upon the proposition that sacrifice was the intercourse that the gods desired with human beings and that blood, often human, was the lubricant required to keep the cosmos running smoothly. In his book, Hart cites a Hindu scripture describing a field of battle between gods and the tribes that they sponsor as a great altar "arrayed for sacrifice."
Greek and Roman religions begin as sacrificial and, therefore, transactional. The problem of theodicy doesn’t really occur in classical paganism because the gods on Olympus are not perceived to be good or virtuous or, even, law-abiding. Greek and Roman gods were just larger and more powerful human beings invested with super-hero powers. They were as fickle as human beings and could be even more stubborn and malicious. Thus, if the innocent suffered, this was as a result of the intervention of unreliable and, often, irresponsible deities from whom mercy and justice could not necessarily be expected.
Old Testament Judaism ascribed suffering to god’s wrath at the breach of his covenants – that is, his laws – imposed upon his chosen people. In its most primitive form, Judaism is tribal – the suffering of those outside the tribe doesn’t matter because people not contracted to Jehovah by covenant were, in effect, godless and, therefore, not fully human. God rewards and punishes according to his people’s obedience to his law. The historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament are largely chronicles of either the compliance of God’s people with his laws, or their disobedience – history is the record of the punishments and blessings meted-out upon the Chosen People in recompense for their obedience or transgressions. (The Book of Job, of course, shows the limits of this theodicy – Job, who is not Hebrew, is punished by a malicious god in league with the devil as part of a cruel thought experiment. Are men righteous because they fear God’s punishment or does righteousness have some other basis in the human spirit? Job is accounted righteous but destroyed notwithstanding his virtue but on the basis of a perverse alliance between god and Satan. No rational justification of Job’s suffering exists and the book’s final chapters, God’s argument from the whirlwind, although astounding as poetry evade the entire question posed by the book with a serious of thunderous non sequiturs – in effect, God says, I destroy you because I can.) Two other sinister developments in theodicy arise in the Old Testament: God punishes collectively – that is, he wreaks his vengeance on the entire tribe for the fault of one or several of its members. Second, God considers sin to be genetic – the evils committed by the father are visited upon his sons. Thus, Old Testament theodicy, sometimes, suggests that the innocent suffer because they are members of a tribal group that has offended the deity or because they are related by blood to someone who has broken God’s laws.
Eastern religions rely upon the idea of karmic destiny to explain the suffering of those who must be accounted innocent of any serious sin. Because souls are reincarnated, it is possible to be punished for offenses committed in an earlier existence in this present life. Thus, debts are repaid in the present that were accumulated in earlier lives. Buddhism dispenses with the entire theodictic problem on the basis of the radical doctrine that suffering and death arise from desire (or thwarted desire); dispense with desire, then, pain vanishes. Buddhist meditation techniques and other religious practices empower the faithful to overcome their desires and, thus, vanquish suffering. In some forms of Buddhism, the individual ego doesn’t exist and is merely an illusion. Thus, a Buddhist confronted with suffering that seems unjust and unwarranted might say: suffering is just desire and desire can be eliminated and, furthermore, there is no real self to suffer in any event. Buddhist thought, to use a phrase that Hart employs with respect to Christianity, defines suffering and death as purely contingent – by this, I mean that suffering and death are not fundamental truths; rather, they are conditional epiphenomena, illusory to some extent, at least, with respect to their ultimate significance.
Christian theodicy is largely a theologian’s playground because there is very little in the New Testament convincingly touching upon the subject. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus mentions a celebrated catastrophe, the collapse of the tower of Siloam that killed 18 Galileans while they were worshiping. (Luke 13: 1 - 4). The question arises as to why tragedy befell these virtuous worshipers. Jesus evades the question, suggesting that all are convicted under the Jewish law and, therefore, guilty. "Repent or perish," Jesus says to his interrogators. The default position in Judaism, and, also, Christianity, is that all are sinful by nature, therefore, catastrophic punishment may be justly imposed on anyone at any time.
In The Doors of the Sea, Hart expresses a sneaking, oblique admiration for the imaginative world of the Gnostics. First, Hart observes that gnostic vision of a fallen world tormented by demonic forces is integral to the New Testament – Christianity develops from Gnosticism and contains within its viscera vestiges of that belief system: there is no good thing in the flesh and the physical world is the dominion, at least in large part, of the Devil and his dark forces. Similarly, the gnostic idea that creation is both Ktisis and Kosmos underlies the New Testament – by this, Hart seems to mean that there are two way in which to perceive creation: as a chaotic assembly of elements, many of them randomly pernicious or malevolent – that is as creation out of nothingness (ex nihilo) or ktisis. Kosmos, by contrast, means an orderly whole operating according to rational principles. Gnosticism asserts that the Kingdom of Heaven is a Kosmos that is implacably opposed to the fallen world of the ktisis. Christianity is more subtle and evades the dualism pervasive in gnostic thought – our world is ktisis when viewed from the vantage of the natural imagination. Viewed in light of Jesus’ resurrection, the fallen world is redeemed and, therefore, a kosmos as well. It is our relationship to the world of facts, science, and material things that makes the difference – through the lens of the Gospel, the world is both ktisis with respect to death, disease and tyranny, but, also, redeemed into a kosmos by Jesus’ resurrection. The challenge is to see both aspects of reality, and hold them in the imagination simultaneously, without allowing Christ’s triumph to conceal wholly the reality of the fallen world while, at the same time, combating the tendency to discount that triumph because of the very real and present suffering in the world, suffering that blurs the meaning of Christ’s triumph over death.
Of all arguments for atheism, Hart acknowledges that the best by far is the argument based on the ubiquity of evil. The death of a child by cancer or the slaughter of millions by tsunami pose very real challenges to the notion of an omnipotent god of love. If the Christian god is defined by justice, mercy, grace, and love, then, how can those aspects of the divinity be reconciled with the obvious enormity of human suffering (let alone, as Hart notes, the suffering of animals)? The argument for god’s non-existence based on evil, Hart admits in a televised interview is one that even he finds "intermittently convincing."
We can’t wish away unjustified suffering. Christians have attempted to reconcile themselves to this suffering on the basis of several theodictic arguments. Hart’s first order of business in The Doors of the Sea is to sweep away those arguments that he finds unconvincing or morally incoherent. Voltaire is Hart’s first target, specifically the French philosophes poem on the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake, fire, and flood. Voltaire’s poem takes aim at a sort of complacent deism that characterized the Enlightenment: the watchmaker God contrived the universe as a marvelous machine operating in accord with a precise calculus balancing good with evil. Having assembled this machine, God, then, absconds to some other corner of creation. Voltaire’s verse-essay on the destruction of Lisbon challenges a theodicy that insists that evil is ultimately redeemed by the preponderance of good that God has made intrinsic to his machine. Hart’s initial observation is that Voltaire’s poem skewers a straw-man – that is, a parody of rational and naturalistic theology that posits a detached, indifferent God in which no one has ever believed. Since Voltaire’s theology is notably remote from actual Christian doctrine – for instance, the notion of Christ’s redemption of the world or the insistance that God is love – his attack , more or less, misses the mark.
More problematic, in Hart’s view, are the arguments advanced by adherents to Calvinist "reformed" religion. Hart’s acid characterization of those arguments is incisively memorable: the Calvinists are guilty of "gelid dispassion"– that is, an icy lack of empathy for human suffering. Calvin’s arguments are based upon his view of God’s omnipotence, a power that is most powerfully signified by predestination. The evil that occurs to human beings is predestined – it has been God’s will from the beginning of time. For some reason, God desired that the tsunami smite the coasts of Asia and murder millions of innocents. The holocaust in the southwest Pacific rim was God’s will. In effect, God wills evil. Hart will not accept that a loving God wills evil – indeed, in Hart’s view, God is love and love is the energy that organizes the cosmos; if God is good, God has no capacity to will evil – what is wholly good can not will what is bad.
Calvinists evade the idea of God willing evil, by a ruse that Hart describes as "shapeless sentimentality." Those not able to accept that God desired and caused evil in the form of the tsunami, assert that in some mysterious way, the death of those legions of Indonesian children, serves the good. We are not able to see how slaughtering innocents serves the good, but sentimentalists disinclined to imagine God as willing evil (which a true flinty Calvinist accepts) argue that by some mysterious dispensation the havoc wreaked upon the archipelagoes of the Pacific somehow adds up to something that is ultimately good. Hart condemns a theodicy based in the notion that harm, even harm on the colossal scale, somehow serves the good as inauthentic and evasive. In this context, he also criticizes a metaphor that is sometimes used in Catholic circles to excuse God’s complicity in suffering. When someone suffers, I have heard clergy say, that the victim is "joined to Christ’s passion on the cross" – that is, the victim takes up Christ’s agony when he was crucified. Hart doesn’t think this formulation is necessarily wicked, but it begs the question: so what? Further, this formulation of the problem, really not solving anything, runs the risk of confusing the issue: Christ died for me on the cross, that is, for my sake; I don’t suffer for the sake of Christ – indeed, my suffering adds nothing to God in any way. Finally, Hart observes that this argument is "oddly imperious" when advanced by a Christian – the vast majority of those killed by the tsunami were non-Christians so how is there any value for them in "fellowship with Christ’s suffering on the cross"?
The most profound challenge to Christian theodicy, Hart alleges, arises in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was passionately Christian and, therefore, his concern with the problem of innocent’s suffering in this world is informed by his faith and, therefore, particularly agonized and penetrating. Ivan Karamazov adduces the story of a five-year old girl savagely beaten by her parents, punished by being forced to eat excrement, and, then, locked up on bitterly cold nights in a stinking privy. Karamazov believes without reservation in God and God’s goodness and accepts that somehow God will turn this atrocity to his ends – God can turn the child’s torture into "eternal harmony." But, on this point Hart says:
Ivan rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue (transforming the child’s pain into beatitude) – anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary. He grants that one day eternal harmony will be established and we will discover how it necessitated the torments endured by children...But, still, Ivan wants neither harmony nor the knowledge of ultimate truth at such a cost: "for the love of man I reject it"; even ultimate truth is "not worth the tears of that one tortured child."...And so, not denying that there is a God or a divine design in all things, he simply chooses (respectfully) to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom, After all, Ivan asks, if you bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?
Hart concludes his analysis of unsatisfactory theodictic arguments with this summary:
Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees – and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if it were.
Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea is a lot of fun to read. Indeed, it’s suspenseful, like a good crime novel – how is Hart going to solve the problem of evil in a way that doesn’t indict God? One turns the pages with increasing urgency as the short book comes to its end and climactic rhetorical peroration. Further, Hart enlivens the proceedings with his witty and intensely eloquent style. In his attack mode, Hart’s prose is avuncular, scathing, epigrammatic, and forensically accomplished: he chops logic with the aplomb of the best scholastic authors and devises memorable epithets of opprobrium: one writer is guilty of "inane anthropomorphism", materialism is "among the most incoherent of superstitions", a fundamentalist minister in Virginia is accused of "sadistic bellowing", and so on. In his prophetic mode, Hart’s prose style derives from John Ruskin and Cardinal Newman – that is, it is very much a late Victorian style, proto-Proustian, effortlessly weaving long and complex sentences with numerous dependant and subordinate clauses. Hart also decorates his rhetoric with little scintillant gems that require the reader to reach for his dictionary – the archipelagoes of southeast Asia are "catenate" (that is, "linked"), the interval between creation in its fullness and "the nothingness from which it was called" is said to be "umbratile" ("shadowy"); demons and other evil creatures are "delitiscent" (that is, hidden symptoms that become manifest after a disease’s incubation period has run.) Having stated the theodictic problem in the book’s first half, Hart’s prose yearns for the solution – rhetorically, the book stretches, reaches for a formulation adequately stating Hart’s conclusions, a vision of God’s goodness that is ultimately a matter of faith and not logic. Thus, Hart’s showy prose style is like a river with its sources in high mountains – as Hart ascends to rhetorical heights, the current of his prose and its rhythms accelerates and the water runs is swift rapids over translucent linguistic stream beds glittering with rare and beautiful specimens of quartz and amethyst as well as turquoise, agate, and jade...
So how does Hart conclude?
Hart’s theodicy takes very seriously the existence of evil in this world. Contrary to Calvin, Hart’s God doesn’t will evil nor does he necessarily "permit" bad things to happen. Rather, the present world is entrapped in the dominion of evil. Mutinous powers that oppose God’s will are everywhere and the work of the devil is ubiquitous. Of course, God has defeated evil and rendered it ultimately ineffectual against his creation – evil is an absurd nullity that is purely negative, that is, the absence of the Good that ultimately predominates. But this is not to deny that evil pervades the world and that, indeed, the scripture writer may have been partly correct when he defined the devil as the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4)
In suffering, we don’t see god’s will. To the contrary, we see the work of the devil. Suffering is "real, horrible, and unjust" – it is a "scandal." But suffering is ultimately insignificant in light of Christ’s triumph over death and evil. Death and pain, scripture tells us, are the last enemies that shall be defeated and, although, the war against evil has been won, it seems, that the demonic forces are allowed rearguard actions, that their retreat from the field of this world is complicated by last stands and die-hard defense and, even, perhaps, sporadic robust, if doomed, counter-attacks. In this material world, Hart maintains that god’s will can be resisted or the efficacy of his grace can be concealed by cosmic corruption. Simply stated, death and suffering are not the work of god, but the work of his enemy. The devil’s work persists because the world is broken, shattered by human sin. Why is sin permitted to exist? Because human beings have free will. Why do we have free will? Because we are created in the image of God and God is characterized by free will, by his ability to do anything that he chooses. Human beings, therefore, are equipped with volition, a will that can be deformed toward the baffling nothingness that is sin – the opposite of the abundance of being that defines God.
The scandal of unjust suffering summons in Hart three reactions: silence, perfect hate, and ecstatic hope. Silence is required by the gravity of the problem: when we encounter a person who has suffered terribly, we should not compromise the horror and dignity of that suffering by cheap advice – indeed, we should stand silent in the face of what the person (or persons) have endured. Hart counsels us to leave the question of theodicy to another day – compassion and silence on the subject of God’s will are required in the immediate presence of suffering. Anything else would be indecent.
Second, Hart authorizes us to "hate with a perfect hatred" the forces of evil that disfigure our world. We should valiantly oppose such evil and hate it with all of our heart – death is not mankind’s friend but our ancient and vicious adversary. Paradise, Hart says, is laboring in subjection to the evils that God has overthrown on the cross. "When I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of god but the face of his enemy" – an enemy that we are obliged to hate.
Finally, Hart reminds us that the material world, afflicted with armies of demons, is, also, apparently, filled with angelic hosts as well. It is a rational cosmos in which god’s glory is everywhere manifested. Since we know that god intends good for all of creation, the eye of faith (which we possess only "intermittently") sees the world as a dazzling spectacle in which light overcomes the darkness. Death and suffering hide god’s glory. But that glory, nonetheless, transcends all darkness.
Hart’s final pages are less an argument than a proclamation. The world contains the rational light of its own overcoming. Faith sees this light. In this context, Hart’s prose surges upward into a symphonic declaration of praise:
(When we behold the world "with the eye of charity")...there is in all the things of earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive. Or, rather, it is a glory not entirely hidden: veiled, rather, but shining in and through and upon all things. The imperishable goodness of all being does in fact show itself in all that is. It shows itself in the vast waters of the Indian Ocean, and it is not hard to see when those waters are silver and azure under the midday sky, or gold and indigo in the light of the setting sun, or jet and pearl in the light of the moon, and when their smoothly surging tides break upon the shore and harmlessly recede. But it is still there even when – the doors of the sea having broken their seals – those waters become suddenly dull and opaque with gray or sallow silt and rise up destroy and kill without will or thought or purpose or mercy. As such times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain: but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.
I suppose it can be said that I have written this essay in disobedience to Hart’s injunction of silence in the face of suffering. These notes originate in contemplation of my brother’s illness and it may be that what I have written is specious and superficial in light of the enormity of affliction that he must endure. Maybe, after all, it would have been better to write nothing at all.
However, there is something to be said for hating my brother’s affliction with a " perfect hate" that does not necessitate scorn for god and his creation. And, of course, a Christian has, perhaps, a duty to hope. Hart says that he rejoices that god "rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom...will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes.." So, hoping against hope, I abide in the desire that god will somehow raise up my brother and ease his pain and, in a way that I am unable to understand, make him whole again.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
Saved by the Ancient Ones
Rocks contain light. Chip away their surface and the light within is revealed.
I lifted my head, breathing heavily. The slope was steep and strewn with stumbling blocks and there were vicious little fists of cactus punching up from below. A pulpit-sized boulder crowned the hill and the shape of a bird, perhaps, a heron or crane, had been pecked into the black rock. The black rock stood among others, nestled close together like dark, broken teeth.
The ancient marks on the rock leaked light into the day.
The trail to the pictographs at Cieneguilla is steep and poorly marked. It posed challenges that I neither expected nor appreciated.
I drove from my hotel in the center of old Santa Fe, a couple blocks from the plaza, to a Walmart on Cerrillos Road south of town. The light slanted across the parking lot and the sculpted mud-colored adobe houses grazing the gravel knolls and arroyos. In the store, two Latino security guards were grading girls that they had met at a party the night before. A janitor pushing a mop laughed at a private joke. Workmen, squat, swarthy Latinos, were buying provisions for the day – energy drinks and cookies and bags of potato chips. Some of the laborers bought stocking caps and gloves. It was the first really cold day of the Fall – about 25 degrees with patches of frost on the windshields of the parked cars.
The pictographs are on broken basalt chipped off the top of a low mesa. The trailhead is three miles west of the Santa Fe airport on a winding asphalt road that passes a big landfill posted "NO SCAVENGING." Waste-water treatment lagoons like the beads on a rosary glisten in the basin and some scuffed and dirty-looking sheep are grazing thorns in the badlands. The road goes somewhere – around eight in the morning, pickup trucks and SUVs hurried past me, people on their way to work.
From the small parking lot at the trail-head, a path runs through mesquite and sage to a barbed-wire fence, brown splintery posts at intervals running at the base of a talus slope onto which rocks have slid and rolled from a low escarpment of black cliffs a hundred and fifty feet overhead. The trail dips through a couple of washes, paralleling the fence for a thousand yards. On a sandy hill, a wood marker points to a crooked opening in the fence. The trail next to the wire continues down hill to a Hispano community, eight or nine sheds with tin roofs blazing in the early morning light, buildings scattered around a dusty arroyo, some battered pickups stripped to their chassis, dogs barking mournfully among the garbage dumps clogging the ravines. It seemed a place that I didn’t want to approach too closely, a pocket of the Third World buried in the broad dusty gulch lit by golden cottonwood trees like torches.
On the cliff-side of the fence, the terrain sloped steeply up to the cliffs. A single wooden block, carved with an arrow pointed up the hillside. In the sand and dust between boulders, I could see foot prints. Barriers of anguished-looking cactus blocked my ascent and there were steep place where I had to scramble uphill bent almost double, watching carefully the stony slope and the slick embankments covered with burnt blonde grass. It was hard and a couple times, I reached places so steep that they seemed impassable. Then, I went laterally, climbing over the fields of yard-long boulders to reach another gulch, paved with stones like steps, leading upward to dense rabbit-brush, frothy gold and yellow plumage flaming upward to the shattered ten-foot high cliff at the top of the slope.
The last scramble was hard and took my breath away, but when I looked up, I saw rock shaped like a preacher’s lectern with the form of a bird pecked into its side.
I found dusty paths winding between the chest-high boulders that had dropped down from the jagged rock crowning the escarpment. The rocks emblazoned with pictographs seemed to lean forward – they jutted out of the cliff-side as if proud of the emblems carved into them. The higher rocks, more remote from the labyrinth of narrow paths under the cliff, bore larger pictographs, simpler shapes that were legible from some distance: a horned bison mask glowered down at me and there was a shield a yard across and an enigmatic head with ancient astronaut eyes and zig-zag lines of power extruding from its brow.
Closer at hand, rock panels showed lizards, dogs, hunched flute-players, schematic human figures some of them agitated with transformations into beasts, the upper half of the body twisting to grow hooves where arms should be and the head obscured under a cloud of metamorphosis. I saw bundles of arrows, spears, more squat lizards, and abstract patterns: zigzagging lines, pecked tallies, incised patterns similar to what you might see on old pottery shards, and a double spiral, curves nested fetally within curves, a mark tattooing the black skin of the rock similar to the famous calendar stone at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon.
For some reason, the presence of the pictographs made me feel like an honored guest at this site.
It took me a long time to descend the hill. I didn’t want to fall and had to choose my path very carefully. The hill was banded with steep pitches and, then, sloping terraces where fences of cactus and thorny mesquite grew. I was entirely alone except for a friendly crow dogging me from above.
I found the opening in the barbed wire fence and walked along the sandy path toward the parking lot.
A tour operator wearing a cowboy hat appeared on the trail leading two sleek, urban Jews toward the hillside. He was speaking about how the Pueblo people were raided by the Utes, the Comanches, as well as the Apaches and Navajos. "They were always under attack from all sides," the tour operator said. His clients were wearing tight-fitting and elegant trousers and wind-breakers from North Face. The garments fit them as tightly as a wet suit. The man and woman nodded politely to me, dipping their dark heads in greeting. The cowboy in the big hat ignored me.
At the parking lot, a white van was parked: it was marked with the name of an expensive spa and resort.
I followed maps north, taking a truck route that skirted the western side of Santa Fe. The air had turned cold and big, dark clouds pregnant with snow hung over the high passes in the Sangre de Cristo.
It was brighter to the west, among the deeply incised canyons splitting open the sides of the Jemez Mountains. I drove up from the Rio Grande gorge to the flat-topped mesas rising like ramparts over the pinion pines on the slopes. The wild river, tremulous with rapids, ran between big fluffy cottonwood trees brilliant with golden leaves.
A little downhill from a stop sign at the crest of the road, I found the parking lot for the ruins at Tsankawi. This is a part of Bandelier National Monument, separate from the main park. The lot at the trail-side is across from another parking lot, apparently a "Park ‘n Ride" for commuters to the Indian casinos in the Rio Grande valley and, then, Santa Fe in the Sangre de Cristo foothills.
I paid my parking fee, bought a trail guide from a kiosk, and set forth with great alacrity, crossing a dry wash and, then, zigzagging uphill to the base of a pink butte. A rough-hewn ladder marked the ascent to a terrace running along the side of the butte, a ledge covered with big, chalky-looking boulders knocked down from the steeper cliffs above.
I followed the obvious trail leading to the right from the flat ledge above the ladder. And, forthwith, I was lost.
The trail guide was no help. The place where the trail ascended was marked with a number 4 on the map, corresponding to a sign that should have labeled the the path. But the trail guide noted:
"Number 4 is likely missing." "Likely missing?" And, indeed, number 4 was not just likely missing but absolutely, positively, and categorically missing, AWOL, gone and nowhere to be found – the marker was not there in every way possible. I trekked along the ledge, skirting twenty to thirty foot cliffs, following footprints in the dust. The trail guide was not reassuring: at several points, the brochure told me that if I took a wrong turn, the way "will dead-end among dangerous cliffs" or "the wrong path will lead you to slopes that are impassable."
And, indeed, the trail rounded a little cove eroded in the rock and ended a niche with sheer cliffs rising above it. I retraced my steps back to the ladder, perhaps a hike of a third of a mile, and, surveyed the hillside for some sign of a trail upward toward the stony crest of the butte. There was no sign of any path and, so, I set forth, climbing upward by seeking the pitches in the slope that were least severe. Clumps of sinister-looking boulders that had rolled down from above barred my passage in some places and, at other locations, the side of the hill was simply too steep, powdery declivities with raw sand and white dust heaped at their bases, twisting ravines that were reasonably level underfoot until suddenly turning into narrow grottos with sheer pour-offs at their head. I opted for the open ground, angling upward at thirty degrees, the terrain all, more or less, the same: a jumble of boulders separated by slopes covered with brittle-looking pinon, ancient trees with fierce physiognomies clutching the rocky soil, rabbit brush flaring golden and purplish yellow, soft as a bunny’s fur but concealing hedges of cactus and agave arrayed like lance-tips defending the heights. After I had climbed for ten minutes, I was wracked with a sense of despair – it was frustrating, climbing upward through a landscape that looked all the same: wretched dwarf trees, lightning-struck mesquite like a dead tarantula on the edge of a drop-off, brown and tan boulders hovering over smaller brown and tan stones and pebbles, featureless ravines clogged with sand and chalky powder. My fear was that I reach some inaccessible terrace cut into the side of the mesa and, then, be unable to either ascend or descend, that I would be trapped in the middle air, hanging from the side of the mountain like a tick in a dog’s fur.
The slope leveled a bit. Then, I saw something: there was a groove in the white tufa ash comprising this elevation of the butte. I looked more closely and saw another groove, a channel cut into the volcanic ash about eighteen inches deep. The groove arched sinuously across the face of the mesa, undulating upward to the hilltop boulders. Obviously, this groove was man-made.
I hurried across the desert hillside to the groove and found that, if I was careful, and moved with a sideways gait, I could walk in the channel slashed in the flank of the mountain. A dozen yards later, I found wooden trail markers – two closely placed stakes labeled 8 and 9. The trench in the side of the mountain was a footpath worn two to three feet deep by the long-gone inhabitants of the pueblo on top of the mesa. In some places, the channel was four or five feet deep. There was something curiously feminine about the groove slicing across the rocky hillside. The trench was full of dust the consistency of talcum power and the path curved and twisted like a dancer’s hip moving upward through the bright light. When the trenched walkway encountered an obstacle, small fist-sized foot- and hand-holds were cut into the rock face exactly where logic would dictate that such a hold be offered to the traveler. The path was yielding and practical, intuitive, seeking the way upward that offered the least resistance and its edges were softly sculpted, polished smooth by generations of bare feet coming and going on the trail.
Thirty years ago, the girl-band The Bangles released a song called "Walk like Egyptian." In my mind, this is confused with Steve Martin’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in which the comedian impersonated King Tut and mimicked in dance the stiff figures painted on the walls of ancient tombs. Ascending the mesa’s slope, the tufa trench forced me to "walk like an Egyptian"; the channels worn into the soft rock were helpful enough until they became waist-deep and, then, it was very clumsy to walk heel-to-toe entrapped by the sides of the groove. My knees and hips were twisted by the unnatural sideways torsion in my ankles. I felt as if my body were a rubber band spun into a tight coil. The rut in the stone ended at chalky wall where there was another ladder and I climbed slowly onto the top of the mesa.
The pueblo was long gone.
There is a saying in archaeology: "three stones makes a wall." The mesa top was a pedestal with the monument once surmounting it long since swept away. Here and there, I saw the three stones and imagined walls. Except for the wind, it was silent on top of the hill.
Mountains ringed the broken canyon-country where the mesa was located. Long blue ridges encircled the deep, forested gorges around the Rio Grande. On a ridge three miles away, I saw some featureless white structures, part of the nuclear science laboratories at Los Alamos. The canyons were filled with pre-Columbian cave dwellings and many of the mesas were crowned with pearl-white, windowless laboratories, more scientific facilities backed up against the black jaws of box-canyons, and I could see the suburban bungalows and two-story walk-outs at White Rock scattered atop another cliff-girt hill to the northwest – there are more ph.D-level scientists in that village and Los Alamos than anywhere else in the world. The scientists study bombs. Both then and now, war is the rule of life.
A few cairns marked the site of the pueblo where a thousand people had once lived on the anvil-flat top of this mountain. I saw egg shells in the powdery sand, stooped to look at them, and, then, recognized that they were pottery shards. Pieces of pottery, mostly the size of my fingernails were everywhere. I picked up one and could see that it was painted with a black zigzag pattern. A little spit moistening the shard brought the cream-color to life and darkened dramatically the storm-cloud decoration on the shard. Of course, it would have been a federal crime to remove that artifact from the field of stones atop the mesa, but, I must admit, my will-power was sorely tested and, several times, I put the shard into my pants pocket to feel it there, nested against my leg. In the end, I set the shard on a small boulder so that others coming along the trail could enjoy it.
I came down from the sun-burnt top of the mesa via another ladder. The ladder was at the base of a low cliff pocked with hand- and toe-holds pecked into white tufa. It wasn’t easy to reach the top of the ladder and I had to slide down a steep furrow worn in the rock on my ass. I didn’t want to overshoot the ladder top and somersault into the void.
Below, more grooves channeled me down to hidden steps inside a dank, shadowy slot canyon. The steps emerged on a pale sloping boulder, also creased with handholds, a way down onto the terrace trail where I had walked an hour earlier and come, at the end of my stroll, only to the tight cul-de-sac with cliffs above and below. The routes up to the mesa top were ingeniously concealed in the rubble fallen down from the heights. Clearly, there had been war here and these dwellings were built in high, hot places, certainly uncomfortably remote from flowing water, but with immense vantages across basin and range and, I suppose, readily defended from above. I saw that the tennis shoe treads impressed into the sand that I had earlier followed were in fact not leading upward, but, rather, following a path around the top of the cliff to the first ladder and the way down, and across the dry gulch to small parking lot where my rental car was waiting for me.
On a battle and some heroes
There was a man named Pigeon. It wasn’t clear whether "Pigeon" was a nickname. Some pioneers called "Pigeon" by the name Alexandre Valle. Other records show a different name. In the western territories, a man was entitled to be called by any name to which he would answer.
Pigeon owned an inn with livestock stables at the crest of Glorieta Pass in what is now New Mexico. His caravanserai had 33 rooms for travelers and, by advertisement, offered "all types of entertainment." Historic photographs from the 19th century show rambling buildings close to the ground with wrap-around porches and thorny-looking corrals in the background. The terrain around the inn seems to be desert with a few wretched-looking pinon in the distance. The stage road runs directly between low-slung frame buildings, gouged into the dry and stony earth.
Travelers called the proprietor of the caravanserai "Pigeon" because he liked to dance. When the innkeeper danced, he rested his fists on his ribs and held out his elbows away from his body like wings. Sometimes, when dancing the fandango, Pigeon flapped his wings.
There is a way across the chains of mountains in northern New Mexico that leads to the wooded terrace where Santa Fe is built and the canyon and mesa country with its gleaming stone cliffs where the 9 pueblos on the upper Rio Grande are located. This is land fertile with chili, squash, beans, and maiz, ancient fields cultivated atop black basalt mesas and along the river bottoms. The mountains are beautiful but not particularly craggy – their flanks are rolling hills bisected by rushing streams – and a man with good lungs and strong heart can easily walk, without actually climbing, to the summit of those peaks in a day or so. This good land lies beyond the western opening of a groove in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. That groove is called Glorieta Pass and it is where Pigeon Ranch is located in the rocky channel between a high mesa on the south and northern slopes rising up to the round bald peaks of the sierra.
The pass is about twenty miles long. Since it is a trench between the mesas and the Sangre de Cristo on the north, the land rises only imperceptibly – there are no steep grades in the notch through the high country.
At Pigeon Ranch, a spine of stony terrain divides the groove through the mountains into two funnel-shaped channels. The hills are like the prominences of spinal vertebrae, each knoll separated by a depression a couple hundred yards wide and eighty to a hundred feet deep. Interstate 25, connecting Santa Fe with Las Vegas and, then, Raton Pass (and ultimately Denver) runs on the south side of the cut through the mountains – the spine of stony pinon-clad knolls forms one embankment to the freeway; the steep, cliff-crowned heights of Glorieta Mesa tower over the Interstate to the south. New Mexico S. H. 50 runs through the pass on the north side of the ridge of knolls and, north of the two-lane black top, the terrain rises ridge upon ridge to the barren heights of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
A inconspicuous shell of adobe walls under a tin roof lies very close to the westbound lane of S.H. 50. There is a ring of field stone around a deep well on the other side of the highway. The adobe structure is so close to the highway that you could reach out from your car and touch the old mud bricks. This is what remains of Pigeon Ranch.
These topographical details are important because an important battle was fought in Glorieta Pass near Pigeon Ranch in March of 1862. This Civil War battle is sometimes dubbed the "Gettysburg of the West."
There was a large and thriving Pueblo five miles to the east of the place where Pigeon Ranch was located. Before 1541, the pueblo housed as many as 2000 people in elegant field rock structures, adobe housing walling off a central plaza where there were several large and deep kivas. The pueblo was a on high ridge overlooking what is now called the Pecos River.
Like Pigeon Ranch, the Pueblo was a trade hub. Apaches came from the south to exchange buffalo hides and slaves for pottery, turquoise, and other craft goods made at the pueblo, apparently called Cicuye. Nomadic Utes from the Colorado mountains and Comanches from the llano estacado also traveled to Cicuye, sometimes to plunder the crops and raid, other times to barter. The Pueblo occupied a strategic position commanding the center of the pass between the big mountains and the escarpment of Glorieta Mesa and it was defended by, at least, 500 warriors.
In 1541, Coronado made his way into the Rio Grande valley. The Indians of the northern Pueblos told him that there were Cities of Gold in the east, beyond the "staked" or palisaded plains. They sent the conquistadors on a goose chase away from their villages into the wastelands of what is now Kansas. Perceiving that he had been duped, Coronado ordered that the Indian guides be strangled but by that time he was far away from the mesas and pueblos.
Franciscan friars followed. They converted many of the Indians in the pueblos to Catholicism and in 1620, the Franciscans built one of the largest mission churches in the southwest at Cicuye. The church had two great towers and an array of bells and a long, sleek-looking convent – the structure was more than 140 feet long and crowned the high terrace next to the pueblos. By this time, conflict among the Indian community had split the pueblo into a north and south village. The north village stood in the shadow of the Franciscan mission and was, probably, occupied by Indians more friendly to the Spanish missionaries than those in the south village, a few hundred yards down the slope from the massive towers of the church. (The great fortified walls of the structure were 21 feet thick.)
Pope, a tribal leader, conspired against the Franciscans and their encomienda system of slave labor. In 1680, the Pueblos rose in unison, slaughtering the Franciscan priests and burning their churches. Santa Fe was looted and its Spanish population fled to El Paso. But the Indian insurrection, although successful, could not be sustained. After three generations of Catholic influence, the Pueblo people were divided as to religion, language, and political governance. Under the leadership of de Vargas, the Spaniards returned and reconquered northern New Mexico in 1692.
After the reconquest, a new, more modest church was built beside the ancient pueblo and the hated encomienda system was abolished. By this time, the Comanches had become consummate cavalry Indians and had amassed an empire to the East on the high plains of Texas. Trade diminished at Cicuye and the pueblos above the Pecos were deserted in 1731 when the last people living at the place moved to the Jemez Pueblo in the mountains west of Santa Fe.
A hundred and ten years later, a force of Texans entered Mexican territory, passing under the cinder cones of the extinct volcanoes a couple hundred miles northeast of Glorieta pass. The Texans marched under the banner of their nation (at that time separate from the United States), traveling with armed horseman and infantry defending 21 ox-drawn wagons loaded with commercial goods. At least 320 men comprised the armed escort accompanying this trading party. Although the purpose of the expedition was ostensibly mercantile, it was pretty clear that the real intent of the incursion was to effect revenge on Mexico for the Alamo and other incidents in the War of 1836.
Although sanctioned by Texas president Lamar, the alleged trading mission was poorly planned. The expedition’s Mexican guide fled and none of the anglo-Texans knew the terrain. In fact, no one could say exactly where Santa Fe was located. Travel in north-central New Mexicos funnels through Glorieta Pass, following the old trade routes along the Pecos River and, then, along the roads leading to the ruins of the pueblos and the massive ramparts of the old Mission church in the ghost town of Cicuye. Indians and local Hispanic villagers harried the Texans and, upon emerging from the defile onto the plains before Santa Fe, the exhausted men saw an array of several thousand Mexican troops defending the city.
The Texans were in no condition to fight and called for a parley. A young man named Manuel Antonio Chavez, one of the scouts associated with Mexican cavalry, participated in the negotiations – apparently, he spoke reasonably good English. The Mexican emissaries from Santa Fe were proud men, the descendants of conquistadors who had pacified the area two-hundred years earlier and ultimately, the Texans agreed to surrender on the condition that they be treated according "Masonic principles" – the leaders on both side of the table were Freemasons and subscribed to the ethics of tha Order. Once weapons were laid aside, however, conditions and assurances given during the negotiations were abandoned. The Texans were bound and herded into a corral and, all night long, Mexican authorities debated whether they should be executed by firing squad – a mass killing similar to the slaughter at Goliad during the War of 1836. Cooler heads prevailed and the Texans were force-marched 2000 miles to Mexico City, imprisoned there, and, later, ransomed piece-meal. (This ill-fated expedition was one of the casus belli of the War with Mexico beginning in 1845.)
Mexico lost its northern territory Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico in 1845. Federal military bases or forts were built in the upper Rio Grande valley and the area was annexed to the United States. In March 1862, another Texan expeditionary force advanced into New Mexico from El Paso. This army, numbering several thousand men, was directed by General Henry H. Sibley, a West Point graduate and career soldier, who was also acting under the aegis of the Confederacy. The army fought several engagements with New Mexican soldiers and rough Colorado troops commanded by John Chivington and loyal to the Union. Again the terrain funneled the armies into Glorieta Pass where a three day battle was fought in the area of Pigeon’s Ranch. The Confederate forces were defeated and, after being encamped for several months, under Union guard at Santa Fe, withdrew back to Texas.
In 1949, the movie star, Greer Garson, married Texas oilman E.E. "Buddy" Fogelson. This was her third marriage. What the Texans couldn’t win by force, they acquired by wealth. Fogelson owned the Forked Lightning Ranch at Pecos, New Mexico and the couple spent considerable time there, breeding thoroughbred horses and raising Santa Gertrudis cattle. The 13,000 acre ranch encompassed the ruins of the Mission Church and pueblo at Cicuye and much of the battlefield where "the Gettysburg of the West" had been fought. In 1991, Garson, then a widow, sold the ranch to federal government and a national historic site was established at the pueblo and a few miles away on two tracts of land involved in the Civil War battle. The red-haired actress died in 1996 in Dallas.
Greer Garson, who had won an Oscar for her role as Mrs. Miniver, was public-spirited. She endowed theaters in both Santa Fe and Texas Southern Methodist University near Dallas. She required that the theaters be circular in form, that their inaugural productions be Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that the ladies’ rest rooms be large with many stalls.
There were three men standing outside the visitor center at Pecos National Historic Site when I arrived at 8:00 am. According to the web-site, two tours of the Civil War battlefield in the Pass were scheduled for this Saturday morning. One tour was 2.3 miles long, a hike across the land where the battle had raged. Another tour, scheduled to depart later in the day, traveled by van. That tour accessed several parts of the battlefield that were remote from the main section of the park – these were undeveloped tracts of land.
The three men looked like Civil War enthusiasts – they were in their fifties, with cowboy hats and boots, and had exorbitant moustaches. They stood in a tight group, gesturing at one another. Although it was early in the morning and the light was subtle and oblique, hoar-frost glistening in the underbrush or on the crystalline spikes of the cactus, the men looked animated. Something was clearly exciting them. I imagined them to be less scholars of the Civil War than re-enactors probably engaged with troops simulating the Confederate army, that is, the romantic side of the "lost cause"
The park ranger opened the door to the Visitor Center and we went inside. Coffee was brewing somewhere and, in a dimly lit gallery, I saw some old weapons, a case with full-bellied pots painted in elegant geometric patterns, a ancient saddle and soldier’s cap, and, then, a sort of shrine to a beautiful woman with bright red hair. The men from outdoors wore their sunglasses into the building.
"We will use a lottery," the park ranger said. "It seems we have more applicants than spaces."
I looked around and saw the three men quietly lined-up in front of the cash register; there was a nondescript man with a big silver belt buckle perusing the books for sale and a couple, a man and woman who had come from their long white locomotive of an RV outside, both of them fit senior citizens decorated at wrist and finger with turquoise jewelry.
"How many spaces are there?" one of the three men asked. He had a leathery face and leathery hands.
"Four," the young park ranger said.
"Well there are just three of us," the man asked.
"You aren’t fishing?" the park ranger asked me. "No I’m here to see the pueblo and the battlefield," I said. The park ranger looked relieved. He looked at the fit senior citizens. "We need the RV pump-out," the man said.
"Then, we’re fine," he said. He called the three men to his desk, opened a map and showed them places where they could fish for trout in the Pecos River. Then, he drew a map to show the fit senior citizens the way to the campground and the pump-out.
"I’m here for the walking tour at 10:00 am," I said.
"Oh, we’re not doing that," he told me. "Not enough interest."
Across the room, the nondescript fellow with the big silver belt buckle snorted. He cast a fiery look in my direction. I bought a trail guide to the pueblo and church ruins. I also bought a trail guide for the battlefield.
"When you come back from your walk," the park ranger said, "I’ll show you how to get to the battlefield unit of the park. There’s a gate on-site that we’ll ask you to open using an access code. We keep the battlefield locked-up."
I went outside and hiked up to the pueblo ruins and the great, foreboding walls of the abandoned church.
There was a trail across a grassy meadow to where several great kivas opened their eyes to the blue sky overhead. The pueblo walls made little box-shaped enclosures along a low hill-crest. Downhill, I saw the river flowing among cottonwoods like glorious golden lanterns and a silver ripple of rapids in the shallows.
The church sat on a massive plinth of adobe bricks, rearing up like a sphinx over the trail. A bird’s shadow swept across the shapely arches of crouched adobe.
It was cool and lovely on the trail. I looked up at the dark splintery vigas embedded in the massive wall and the low lintel, carved with images like lightning striking from a thunder-cloud.
Back at the Visitor Center, the park ranger was talking to the man wearing the big belt buckle. The man said something about a book that he had written. He was an author. The ranger showed me the route to the battlefield unit – a square tract between Pigeon Ranch and the steep talus fields rising up to the crest of black basalt cliffs palisading the top of Glorieta Mesa. There was a spring-operated padlock at the entry to the battlefield trail parking lot. The combination was 6488 and you had to dial the numbers to some other setting before the padlock would snap shut.
"You know, I’ve published a book about this place," the man wearing black with the big, bright silver buckle said.
There was a gate and a heavy chain and, as promised, a spring-loaded padlock latching the logging chain around the gate. The padlock operated as expected and I pulled open the gate, drove another quarter mile over gravel and parked at the trail head.
A white car followed me, but at distance of a half-mile. I left the gate open for the white car to follow me into the area enclosed by the fence. When I locked the gate behind me, I, then, went to the white car where the nondescript man in black was sitting.
"I have locked us in," I said.
"It’s okay," he said. "I have the combination."
"I’ve written a book," the man said.
I congratulated him on that endeavor. He showed no sign of getting out of his dusty white car. So I nodded in his direction and set off on the soft, pillowy pinon needles lying fox-red on the trail leading into the forest. After a hundred yards, I looked behind me. No one. I had the trail and, therefore, the battlefield to myself.
There were some steep hills on the trail and the elevation was high, about 7000 feet, and so I was panting as I climbed them. At intervals, I encountered signs describing the battle. Here the fighting was simple enough – the invasion force attacked through the pass to force their way north and east toward the roads leading to Denver and Colorado’s mineral wealth; the federal forces blocked the defile, retreating slowly under attack to the spine of high ground bisecting the pass. Battle-lines shown on a map were clear enough and the progress of the battle was schematic, a series of frontal assaults by the Confederate forces on the Union lines triggering counter-attacks. But in the forest, with small bastions of glacial erratics and serpentine arroyos, everything was confused – directions reversed and I was misled as to who was attacking and who defending. Curiously, it was much clearer in 1862 – the early settlers had cleared the land in the pass and the big stony knolls were bare except for windmills pumping water out of the earth and the troops shooting at one another could see each others’ columns advancing or retreating in the groove between the mountains and the cliff-lined mesa. The ranches occupying the defile weren’t shrouded in trees but naked to the sun and sky, disorderly compounds of wooden frame buildings, stagecoach rests almost within sight of one another with Pigeon’s big caravansarai in the center of the pass. Stagecoach stations and ranches require corrals and the woods had been hacked down to make rough wooden fences and, on the terrain between the mountains and Glorieta Mesa cattle were grazing, and there were open fields where crops had been planted, mostly corn, and little acequia irrigating the dusty land.
The Federal troops dragged six-pound mountain howitzers up to the top of the stony spine running through the center of the pass and bombarded the Confederate lines. Confederate sharpshooters fired at the artillery from behind fences zigzagging across the open country. Flags tossed above the tide of black gunpowder smoke. The ebb and flow of the battle was inconsequential – the armies were equally matched and neither could gain the advantage and the ranches, particularly Pigeon’s Inn were rapidly filling with wounded men, litter-bearers crouching against the pelting fire as they ferried bloody soldiers down to the wooden stables and dormitory buildings.
Neither side was willing to retreat except to muster for counter-attacks and so the battle went on all morning long. It had snowed in the pass and the winds were cold and the troops sheltered in wet muddy arroyos so that their uniforms were caked with red and brown clay.
There were signs where the trail crested above Pigeon Ranch, at the center of Confederate position. The signs explained the background of the battle. Henry Hopkins Sibley was a graduate of West Point, an ardent Confederate, and a drunk. Sibley formed an expeditionary force in Texas and advanced into what is now New Mexico through the barren mountains north of El Paso. He had about 2000 troops, but expected that the Indians and Mexicans would rally to his side. (In retrospect, this notion was quixotic – why would Mexicans and Indians support a force allied with the Texas Rangers who had long harried and persecuted them?) The plan seems to have been the product of alcoholic delusion, militant grandiosity, similar, perhaps, to the fanatic impulse that led John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry. Sibley thought that he could march north, his forces ever-growing because perceived to be liberators. The idea was that his army would seize Santa Fe, proceed through Glorietta Pass north and east into Colorado. Ultimately, General Sibley hoped to reach the gold and silver country in the mountains above Denver, seize that wealth, and annex Colorado to the Confederacy. The defects in this strategy were innumerable, chief among them that Sibley’s supply lines were untenably extended – therefore, his troops had to forage for supplies in the Mexican and Indian towns that they encountered, a situation that engendered intense local hostility against the expedition. Colorado wasn’t politically inclined toward the Confederacy although there were cells of Southerners in the mining country and at Denver – but, by and large, the State opposed slavery. A sizeable force of Colorado volunteers marched down toward Santa Fe, but these were Union fighters under the command of John Chivington. The popular uprising against the Union that General Sibley imagined as nascent didn’t materialize. Rather, his men were harassed by sporadic Indian and Mexican attacks.
Nonetheless, Sibley’s army continued its march and met the Union forces at Valverde, near Socorro. There was a hard-fought battle at that place and both sides claimed victory. But, in point of fact, the Confederate invasion continued its northward progress and the Union forces retreated, abandoning Santa Fe to the Secessionists. Sibley established a field hospital in Santa Fe and, then, pushed into Glorieta Pass. There were skirmishes with the Federal forces entrenched in the Pass during the two days before the main encounter. On the first day of that fighting, the Union forces ambushed the Confederates at a dusty gorge called Canyoncito on the west end of the Pass. The Confederates lost about a third of their supply train but continued their march up the Pass to the narrow strait between the mountains and Glorieta Mesa, striking toward Pigeon’s Ranch which was at the center of the Union line. Pickets on both sides stumbled into each other and, at the intersection, there was a firefight that developed into a full-dress battle.
General Sibley, it is said, was drinking heavily at this time and almost never seen by his troops. He remained in his tent, brooding upon the fortunes of war.
There was a man named Shropshire, born in Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1833. He had come to the Texas frontier at 21, founded a plantation, and made himself a prosperous man. By the time, he was 25 he had acquired 750 acres of cropland, 61 slaves, and a wife, Caroline Tait. His son, Charlie was born in 1861, a sickly little boy whose health was the worry of both of his parents.
With a loyal slave, Bill, Shropshire joined the Confederate army in the summer of 1861. He was made a Major in the force commanded by General Henry Hopkins Sibley. Shropshire is an appealing fellow – he wrote high-spirited letters wooing his wife that are full of references to poems and jaunts on horseback. During the long march across Texas and into the New Mexico wilderness, Shropshire also corresponded with his wife, Caroline, and those letters have been preserved. In his breast pocket, he carried two daguerrotypes – one of his wife and the other a small silver-printed image of his baby son.
After the Battle at Valverde, Shropshire wrote a letter to his wife about the "hard fight", listing the names of those wounded and killed in the action. Most of them were people local to where Shropshire lived in Colorado County, Texas. He remained in high spirits and was optimistic about the campaign, although he wondered about the strategic value of acquiring territory so poor and with people so wild living in towns that were comprised of nothing more than squalid huts. On the third day of the fighting near Pigeon’s Ranch, Shropshire’s command of troops advanced across the broken country driving the Union forces back onto the heights commanded by the mountain howitzers. A small group of Federal soldiers, split apart from the main force, took refuge in a maze of boulders and rocky clefts on the hillside. Shropshire gave the command for his men to attack up a muddy gully. Slipping and sliding in the wet clay, the men advanced under fire. When he was about ten paces from the natural redoubt where the Union men were huddled in the rocks, a .58 caliber minnie ball smashed through Shropshire’s head, hitting him right between the eyes. He dropped to the ground dead. The Union troops scrambled up the rocky slope leaving the Confederate infantry, now under the command of John Carson in possession of the boulders. Carson wrote a letter to Caroline Tait Shropshire advising her that her husband had been killed in action. Carson’s letter said: We were fighting in Apache Pass driving the enemy who retreated to a big ledge of rocks. I was leading the charge he was right by my side and when we got in a bout 10 steps of the enemy he was shot through the head and killed instantly. We buried him there on the battle ground. He was one of the noblest men on earth and the best friend I ever had we were mess mates and bed mates.
Shropshire was a very tall man and didn’t fit into the caskets available at the battlefield. He was wrapped in a blanket and buried in a grave with 36 other Confederate fighters killed in the battle.
Shropshire’s friend, John W. Carson, survived the campaign. Almost sixty years later, he wrote a letter to the Daughters of the Confederacy in Bourbon County explaining the death of his friend. In the sixty years intervening, Carson’s prose style had become more poetic. In May 1920, Carson wrote: he was one of God’s noblemen, his spirit so holy it would not stain the purest rill that sparkles among the bowers of bliss. I feel that I can see him now peeping through the obscured curtains of heaven, awaiting & watching for the coming of his chivalrous knights.
In 1987, a man living near Pecos in Glorieta Pass hired a backhoe to dig a foundation for a new house that he was building. The backhoe cut into a mass grave. Shropshire was identified as the tallest skeleton, buried wrapped in a military blanket without a casket. The body was exhumed and re-interred in the Shropshire family plot in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The skeleton was clad in the fragments of an uniform. In the breast pocket, the military forensic scientists exhuming the body found a much tarnished piece of silver; the emulsion of the daguerrotype had been eroded by the acids in the earth and, so, it could not be determined whether the picture showed Caroline, Shropshire’s wife, or his baby son, Charlie.
There was an overlook at the crest of the second set of hills, where the ridge running like a spine down the center of the pass reaches its greatest height. This was beyond some switchbacks and I reached the crest panting heavily and out-of-breath. A few minutes later, the man with the silver belt buckle appeared. I was marching the loop in a clockwise direction; the other hiker was taking the trail loop counterclockwise. So we had met at this place, the high point of the trail where there were vantages down to S.H. 50 and the freeway, a stony summit with some big outcroppings of basalt rock, a half-dozen signs explaining the battle and its heroes, and views up to the bald grey heights of the Sangre de Cristo range and the fluted parapets at the top of the adjacent mesa.
The man explained the battle to me briefly and said that he had written a novel about the campaign, focusing on the fighting at the Pass.
We discussed strategy and tactics. It was a fine, cool morning and the forest was dry and inviting. The trails were lustrous with fallen pine needles. Battlefields, I have found, are peaceful places, generally free from menace – the spirits of those killed in combat flee the place, abhorring the gore and fear that once stained this landscape. For a time, after the battle, the place is desolate, a wasteland, but, then, we make monuments and monuments cast long shadows of peace and, even, contentment. I suppose that it was perversely romantic, a tryst with a fellow student of the Civil War, the two of us locked away in a quiet woodlands behind a fence and gate with a logging chain wrapped around it. No one would disturb us here. (The scene could comprise the first couple chapters of a gay novel.) The sounds of cars and trucks on the freeway were muffled by distance and the great immemorial flank of the mesa, toothed with cliff, hovered over the place and gave it a particular shape – it was like being in a vast room or an amphitheater.
The signs at the battlefield highlighted the role of Manuel Chavez in the battle and, ultimate, federal victory. The author told me that Chavez, he thought, hadn’t acted from strategy, but, in fact, was lost when the decisive attack was mounted on the Confederate rear. "The sign suggests that he had scouted here in 1841 and knew the terrain," I said. "I’m doubtful," the man replied.
I asked him about his book. "It is called The Deserving," he said. "Tomorrow, I’m signing copies in Santa Fe," he added.
I asked him where this would take place. He replied: "De Vargas mall. A bookstore called —" He said something that I didn’t understand. He repeated the phrase. Still, I didn’t understand. "Do you know where that mall is located?" Oddly enough, I did know the place. It was on the route out of Santa Fe toward the open-air opera theater and on the road to Espanola and Los Alamos. I had been on that highway enough to see the mall almost daily when I was in Santa Fe and, in fact, I had bought food for a picnic once at the Sprouts Whole Food Market in the mall.
"I will try to come," I said. I asked the man’s name. He told me that he had published the book under the pseudonym, Efryn O’Brien. He also told me his real name, something very different.
We shook hands and I set off, downhill through placid meadows to the parking lot 8 tenths of a mile away. He went in the opposite direction, into the craggy rocks on the Windmill Hill.
My father was interested in the Civil War. He died in his late fifties. The man in the black levis with the big silver belt buckle was also in his late fifties. He spoke with studied composure and, even, a sort of military indifference and reserve, about the exciting events of the battle. My father had been employed as a defense analyst at Honeywell, a Minneapolis DOD contractor. For these, and other reasons, the man reminded me of my father and so I looked up to him in his paternal role, yearned for his advice and wisdom and harkened closely to his words about the soldiers and their armaments and the ebb and flow of the battle over the hills and arroyos in the Pass. But, of course, I was probably five years older than the man and my rather pathetic wish to please him and earn his admiration was misguided. I have a white beard and my knees and hips were aching a little from climbing hills and from dislocation suffered in the grooves and channels of Tsankawi and so I was walking with a slight limp, a hitch in my "get-along" as it were. I presume that the author saw me as an old man, much less fit that I should be, stumbling around in the pleasant and empty woods.
There was a man named John Chivington and he was the leader of the Colorado volunteers, rallied to the Union flag, and forming part of the Federal army. Chivington was bold and willing to risk everything on a flanking maneuver. With the two armies bedded down in the mud and blasting away pointlessly at one another, Chivington diverted 400 men to his right, withdrawing the troops from the firing line through a network of wet, steep gulches that dropped into the deep wooded trough directly below the high wall of the Glorieta Mesa. A Hispano scout, Manuel Antonio Chavez, said he knew a path up the steep hillside and onto the top of the mesa six-hundred feet above. Chavez directed the column of men along a goatherd’s path, up a chimney in the side of the rock face, and, after an hour’s ascent, the soldiers emerged on the sunny top of the mountain, gently sloping terrain with barren gulches and a scorched pinon forest. This maneuver was highly risky – the 400 men withdrawn from the firing line, were now high above the battlefield and the lines of troops in the Pass volleying at one another were beyond the range of their rifles.
Chavez led Chivington’s command toward the rear of the Confederate lines – it was, of course, a flanking maneuver. At this point, the interpretation of events occurring that afternoon varies. Some maintain that Chavez knew the way down from the mesa top and back into the gorge of the Pass. Others assert that the troop became lost. In any event, Chivington’s 400 men trotted toward Santa Fe along the rim of the cliffs overlooking the Pass and didn’t find a way to descend until they had gone several miles. The battle was now to their northeast, a billow of gunpowder smoke rising from the valley and the echo of the mountain howitzers lobbing shells at one another. Chavez pointed downhill and said that another shepherd’s trail, scarcely discernible in the boulders and talus fields, was the way to return to the valley floor. As it happened the trail dropped from mesa directly onto the lightly defended corrals and encircled baggage train of the Confederate forces.
Chivington sent his men barreling down the hill, his troops colliding with a few shocked sentries posted to supervise the big herd of mules and horses. The Confederate guards were shot down and the baggage train set afire and looted. The mule and horse herd was driven into a wild canyon, forced uphill beyond the reach of the Confederate sutlers. When the men at the Rebel firing line looked over their shoulders, they saw columns of smoke rising from their supply train. Looting was more satisfying than fighting and Chivington’s men didn’t have much stomach for advancing up the pass toward the fighting around Pigeon’s Ranch. They stayed in the rear of the Confederate lines, feasting on the food captured from the supply wagons. Some of the soldiers climbed up into the canyon and began to systematically shoot down the mules and horses stampeded there. As the night fell, it began to snow in the Pass and a blizzard swept down from the Sangre de Cristo. In the storm, the Confederates eluded the Union forces and withdrew to Santa Fe. The Union troops followed but at a desultory pace – a number of men had been killed and wounded and no one was much interested in another pitched battle. Ultimately, both armies converged near Santa Fe where an informal or de facto truce was negotiated so that the wounded could be hospitalized in facilities that were jointly occupied by both armies. Ultimately, Sibley’s expeditionary force retreated from New Mexico and the Confederacy’s bid to annex the Southwest and Colorado to their Cause had failed.
There was a bookstore called op.cit. located in the De Vargas mall. I thought that it was a very fine place, so crowded with books that it was difficult to navigate the narrow aisles between merchandise. At the front of the store, the books were neatly organized, piled high on tables according to genre, or packed into floor to ceiling bookshelves in alphabetical order. But the deeper one penetrated into the store, the more disorderly it became: teetering columns of books chest high or more blocked the way and, at last, the patron approached an impenetrable massif of books, none of them yet priced, rising upward toward the ceiling – this glacier of books was rift in place by avalanche-zones, spillways where books had skidded and slid to the floor. The collection was particularly rich with older art books, memoirs of Georgia O’Keefe and accounts of the Taos school of Impressionists.
I found a copy of The Deserving on consignment and paid 8 dollars for it. The book was self-published with pictures made by an Argentinan cartoonist. A lady poet was setting up for a reading at a card table directly in front of the glacier of books. Efryn O’Brien’s reading was scheduled for the next day.
A Peruvian restaurant was across the mall corridor. Julie and I had some sweet and savory Peruvian soup, shrimp chowder. The proprietor of the restaurant wore a cowboy hat with turquoise sequins embedded in the brim. She said that she was hoping to open another café closer to the downtown plaza where the all the tourists went.
At Sprouts, a drunk Indian had collapsed in front of the automated door. When the Indian twitched, the door soundlessly slid open and, then, closed again. Shoppers gathered around the Indian, some of them kneeling – their presence blocked the photo-eye and kept the door open. The Indian moaned. A woman stepped away from the knot of people gathered around the fallen person and used her cell-phone to call for an ambulance. The Indian looked wet and drab, wrapped in clothing that had become shapeless and dull-colored. I couldn’t tell if the person were a man or a woman.
In the old Santa Fe plaza, across from the Palace of the Governors, there is a stark obelisk. The pillar is made from some substance insufficiently resilient for the climate – wind and rain have softened the edges of the obelisk. Although initial accounts of the battle in the mountains named the place Apache Pass, official reports called the fight the "battle of Pigeon’s Ranch." But on the obelisk, one side of the upright stone is incised with words celebrating the heroes of "The Battle of Glorieta". "Glorieta" is a more euphonious name for the battle.
The other sides of the obelisk commemorate the early pioneers and the soldiers and scouts killed in battles with "savage" Indians. The word "savage" has been partially effaced and the adjective "courageous" substituted. Street food vendors sell tacos el pastor and burritos and there are sweet smelling and transient mists of steam wandering like ghosts among the sidewalks and benches in the plaza.
On one side of the plaza, an amplified mariachi band was performing to a crowd that seemed comprised mostly of blue-shirted cops. A number of police cars flanked the pedestrian entrances to the plaza. Ten or fifteen demonstrators protesting President Trump’s immigration policies stood on a flatbed trailer next to the mariachi band and there was a panel truck marked with the emblem of the local TV station. The band stopped playing and someone made a speech in Spanish and the tourists gathered behind the cordon of police officers cried "Hurrah!"
A middle-aged tourist, decked out in turquoise bangles, slipped on the cobblestones and fell down. The road was crowned a little and the slope caused her to roll and, as we watched, she slid under the back of a parked police car. The woman squealed but seemed trapped under the police car, her legs protruding from under the rear fender. The cops were a half-block away, surveilling the orators speaking from atop the flatbed trailer. The tourists on the street were afraid to approach the cop car too closely – who knew what the penalty for that might be? The woman flailed, but only seemed to sink deeper into the shadows under the squad car. Then, the mariachi band began to play again, high-pitched and brittle-sounding trumpet calls. One of the street vendors nearby, shoulders covered with a Navajo blanket, sidled up to the cop car, squatted and began to pull the woman out from under the wheels and axle. She had been crying and her make-up was running in dark rills down her cheeks and chin.
The next day I drove to the Sandia Mountain overlook via old Madrid. It’s a desert road crossing empty country intricate with badlands and innumerable desolate little canyons. The wind was roaring atop Sandia Mountain and the toy city of Albuquerque, 6000 feet below seemed to be rippling in the gale like a flag.
I came back to Santa Fe via Galisteo. The author Efryn O’Brien was at op.cit. He sat in a battered-looking upholstered chair adjacent to a card table stacked with about twenty copies of his book. He nodded to me, a look of slight recognition. Four other people had come to the book-signing: there was a Lesbian couple, gloomy and scowling, Gertrude S– and Alice B. Toklas, an elderly lady with a neatly trimmed beard, and another old man dressed like a desert rat. The desert rat was wearing khaki shorts like jodhpurs, had sunglasses tucked into his shirt collar, and sported a utility vest, like a flak jacket, over a conspicuously ripped and torn tee-shirt. The desert rat wore regular glasses that were rose-tinted and he had hollow cheeks and a cock’s comb of sun-bleached yellow hair.
Efryn O’Brien promptly informed me that I hadn’t purchased the correct version of the book. "There is a new, third edition," he said. "I got this here, yesterday," I said. O’Brien shook his head sadly: "Let me check your book." I handed him the volume. "No, no," he said, "this is not the most recent volume."
The superannuated desert rat asked the author to explain the plot of his book. O’Brien summarized the book. After he had completed the summary, Gertrude and Alice B. rose soundlessly and walked out of the bookstore – clearly, this historical novel was not something that interested them. The elderly lady said that she was the author’s next door neighbor. The desert rat boasted that he was a Hollywood producer and that they had just finished shooting a documentary near Socorro and he was now at loose ends.
The author spoke about the battle at Glorieta Pass and the Civil War in New Mexico. He described the hard-fought encounter at Valverde – "that’s near Socorro," the Hollywood desert rat said and reminded us: "I just finished a documentary production shot near Socorro." He said that his transgender girl-friend was a Civil War reenactor. "People get very involved in those reenactments," Mr. Hollywood Producer said. "My girl friend is convinced that she is a reincarnated artillery captain who died in the Civil War. She was transgender then too. She concealed the fact that she was a woman so that she could march with the troops and serve the Cause."
"So she reenacts as a Confederate?" O’Brien asked.
"Yes," Hollywood told him. "After the battle, the dead were gathered and we marched in a procession to a place where a grave was being prepared. The flags were flying and bands played sad music. It was really quite moving and my girlfiend said that it was very much like what had occurred during the real war. She remembered it from her previous life."
"It sounds impressive," O’Brien said.
"Everyone was crying," the Hollywood guy said. "You know none of the Confederate soldiers really believed in slavery. They didn’t have slaves. In truth, all the slaves were in the north. That’s what history shows: the real slavery was in the north."
"I don’t know about that," the author said.
"No, no, it’s true," Mr. Hollywood desert rat said. "These poor infantrymen just signed up because they needed a job. That’s the same reason people join ISIS today – they’re poor people who really just want a job."
I thought the conversation was becoming odious and so I asked O’Brien if he still thought Chavez had been lost when he led Chivington’s command to the Confederate supply train. This question caused O’Brien to recount the details of the Battle of Glorieta Pass. He said that he didn’t doubt that Manuel Antonio Chavez was lost on Glorieta mesa when he suddenly found that his path had brought the men directly above the Confederate camp at the rear of the battle-lines. He seemed to think the rout at the baggage train and the slaughter of the mules and horses had been an infamous way to end so glorious a battle as the fight in the Pass.
Mr. Hollywood said that most Confederate soldiers were just "poor devils" who had enlisted for the sake of a job. "It’s the same today as always," he said. Then, he reminded us again that slavery was really a northern phenomenon.
O’Brien said that he would read a chapter from his book. He picked up the book and read without any particular emphasis, as if we intoning a list of names from a telephone book. The chapter concerned the hero enlisting as a scout in the Union army. The fictional character encouraging him to enlist said that the work was perilous and that he would often be cold and hungry or burnt by the sun and thirsty and that his life would always be in "harm’s way." "But if you are game for this employment," the enlisting officer said, "it will be the finest occupation that you have ever enjoyed and you will be serving a great cause in furtherance of the rights and liberty of mankind."
After Mr. O’Brien finished reading, Hollywood said: "But that’s not true."
O’Brien looked puzzled. "It’s fiction," he said.
"But the real poor devils signed up because they needed a job, not because they had any particular ideological bent. That’s the history of the thing," Hollywood replied.
"But my character has seen slavery in the South. He’s from New Orleans and he’s opposed to slavery and wants to serve the Union for that reason."
"You should have made your hero an Irishman," Hollywood said. "There were plenty of Irishmen around."
"That’s true," Mr. O’Brien said.
"He could be an Irishman from the potato famine. Just a poor devil who needed to come in out of the cold. He made the military his home because he had no other place to call home."
"But that’s not how I imagined it," Mr. O’Brien said.
"The truth is that people joined the Civil War because they were poor devils with no job. No one cared about slavery. All the slavery was in the North."
Mr. O’Brien’s brow was furrowed. The old lady asked him about his background and he told us that he was a retired military officer. He had served abroad, but not seen combat. He had worked to negotiate Status of Forces treaties. But now he was retired and living in Santa Fe, only a few blocks from the De Vargas mall. The old lady was his next door neighbor.
"Read us the brothel scene," Hollywood demanded.
"I wrote a brothel scene, but I cut it out of the final version," Mr. O’Brien said.
"A book like this needs a brothel scene," Hollywood said. "Everyone spent all their time in those days in brothels."
"There were brothels," Mr. O’Brien agreed.
I said that I had to go and bought another copy of the novel so that I would have the author’s approved final version. No one else bought a book. The price was ten dollars – it had gone up from the $7.99 the day before, possibly because this text was the new revised version.
There was a man named John Chivington. He led the "Pikes Peakers", volunteer soldiers from Colorado who marched down the front range of the Rockies and joined the Union forces arrayed against the Confederate expedition into New Mexico. Some history books give credit to Chivington for the victory at Glorieta Pass. A year later, Chivington led Federal troops in an attack on the Cheyenne at Sand Creek. Chivington’s men were staggering drunk and they shot anything that moved – about 200 of Black Kettle’s people, almost all non-combatants, were murdered. Fifteen soldiers died by friendly fire and another thirty or forty were wounded. Black Kettle’s camp was flying an American flag when it was attacked and the soldiers also disregarded a white surrender flag.
Grisly trophies hacked from the dead Cheyenne showed up in Denver bars a few days later. An Army inquiry resulted in Chivington’s denunciation as having disgraced his uniform by committing a "dastardly massacre." Notwithstanding the condemnation, Chivington was not officially punished for his role in the slaughter. But the allegations dogged Chivington the rest of his life. He failed at everything he attempted and ended up as a Methodist lay-preacher. He died of cancer in 1894.
Scorn heaped upon Chivington for his involvement in the massacre at Sand Creek resulted in his contribution to the Battle at Glorieta Pass being retrospectively re-evaluated. Some sources now say that his role in the battle was merely "ambushing a supply train." And, some analysts assert that if Chivington had not withdrawn 400 infantrymen from the center of the battlefield, the Union would have won the battle outright.
There was a man named Manuel Antonio Chavez. He was born around 1818 in Atrisco, across the Rio Grande from the village of Albuquerque. Chavez led Chivington’s troops by a secret path up Glorieta Mesa while the battle raged in the pastures and corn and squash fields near Pigeon’s Ranch. I have suggested that Chavez was the man responsible for the Union victory in Apache Pass.
Chavez was, perhaps, the greatest Indian fighter of all time. But he is not well-known today even in New Mexico. To the Spanish speaking villagers, Chavez nicknamed Leoncito (or "Little Lion") – he is said to have been five foot seven inches tall with delicate features and almost no beard. A cameo from 1848, shows a handsome caballero with a pale, soft face like a woman. Leoncito’s face is bland and ghostly.
When he was a small boy, his father moved the family to Cebolleta, a village near the Manzano Mountains – this a small but craggy range about 40 miles southwest of Albuquerque, named for wild apple trees that grew there. Cebolleta means " little onion" and the people who lived in that small village were famous throughout the Spanish-speaking southwest for slave-raiding. In those days, it was customary for a marriage to be celebrated by a wedding gift of a Navajo child – the best gifts were between five and eight years old and the Cebolletenos supplemented their ranching income by mounting raids against the Navajo de Apache and stealing their children. (The best wedding presents were handpicked by the person making the gift – that is, the gift of the slave was most esteemed if it came from a man who had personally captured the child in combat. People not willing to make the risk could ride up to Abiquiu where there was a slave market and buy an Navajo boy or girl for 500 dollars.)
When he was 16, Chavez went west into the Canyon de Chelly territory with a half-dozen other Cebolletenos on a slave raid. The raiders encountered a large group of Navajo performing a religious ceremony on the rim of the deep canyon. More reckless than wise, the Cebolleteno’s attached the Navajo, were repelled by their counter-assault, and ended up trapped between the Indians and the sheer canyon rim. A pitched battle resulted. Everyone in the Spanish raiding party was killed except for Chavez and a cousin. Both were severely wounded. Dragging his cousin through the desert, Chavez made for a place called Bear Springs. He reached the water hole, bathed himself in the spring, and, then, passed out. When he awoke, Chavez’ cousin was dead. Alone, Chavez walked 150 miles through the wilderness to Cebolleta. This was his first famous exploit. (The story has a epilogue that is probably apocryphal – a few days after crawling back to Cebolleta, several Navajo silver smiths came to town to trade. The townspeople welcomed the Indians but secretly planned to slaughter them under the cover of darkness in reprisal for the losses suffered in the ill-fated slaving raid. Leoncita Chavez is said to have roused himself from his sickbed, and insisting upon the law of hospitality, defended the peaceful Indian traders with his own pistol and sword.)
A couple years later, a celebrated horse race took place near Cebolleta. Chavez won the race against the several horsemen riding steeds owned by the local Spanish governor. After the race, one of the governor’s horses died – the suspicion was that the animal had been poisoned to insure Chavez’ victory. Gunmen came for Chavez and, so, with his brother, Juan, he fled the territory, traveling as far East as New Orleans. Chavez and his brother took a boat up the Mississippi to St. Louis and, for a few years, prosecuted a successful trading venture between the Missouri city and Santa Fe. After making sufficient money to buy a large ranch at the Hacienda de Ojuelos in the foothills of Manzano Mountains, Chavez returned to New Mexico. He was part of the force that repelled the first invasion by the Texans in 1837 and, indeed, seems to have been the primary negotiator during that affair.
After New Mexico was annexed to the United States, Chavez continued waging war against hostile Indians. In 1847, the Pueblo Indians allied with the Apaches and some Hispanos rebelled at Taos. Governor Charles Bent, a former fur trader married to a Spanish woman, traveled to Taos to remonstrate with the rebels. The Indians thought Bent’s decrees were overbearing and dragged him into the plaza where he was scalped alive. Bent staggered into a nearby hacienda where his wife and children had taken refuge. The rebels attacked the hacienda and Bent’s family defended the thick-walled adobe house. Ultimately, the Indians entered the house, although the fighting continued room by room – when a room became untenable, the defenders used pick-axes and shovels to dig their way through the adobe walls into the next room. Finally, Bent and his family were cornered. The rebels killed Bent but allowed the women and children to leave the compound. Federal troops were dispatched to Taos where they met Kit Carson and his militia. Chavez, of course, was in the middle of the fighting and was part of the shock troops that assaulted the ancient church at Taos pueblo where the rebels made their last stand.
Two years later, the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches began raiding the pueblos and village in northern New Mexico. Again Chavez fought the Indians. After that war, Chavez retired to his ranch at Hacienda de Ojuelos. Peace was short-lived however. Chavez was on-hand in 1855 when another horse race, this time between Spanish villagers and the Apaches, led to fighting around Fort Wingate. Chavez led the defense of the fort, a place located at Bear Springs where he had recuperated from the disastrous slave raid on the Navajos twenty years earlier. Then, in 1862, as we have seen, Chavez participated in the Battle at Glorieta Pass.
Upon returning to his ranch from fighting for Union, Chavez found that his livestock had been stolen by Apache and Navajo raiders. More than 30,000 sheep as well as cattle and livestock were missing. Chavez decided to move to the Pecos country where his brother-in-law owned some land. (This man was also an Indian agent at Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo and Chavez undoubtedly thought that he could sell beef and mutton to the Indians in that area.) As he was loading his furniture and other belongs from Hacienda de Ojuelos, desperate messengers rode into the ranch with the news that the Navajos had attacked villages near Socorro. With eight men, including his brother Jose Maria Chavez, Manuel left the deserted hacienda and rode into the desert searching for the trail of the war party. The Indians had captured many sheep, but, more importantly, had taken a hostage, the small son of Matias Contreras. Six more men joined the rescue party, including Matias Contreras himself.
Manuel Chavez party was mounted on mules and, soon, they found a broad, unmistakable trail leading westward into the wild country around the Gila River. The Navajo numbered more than a hundred and they weren’t afraid of Chavez’ small band of twelve men. The Indians posted a skirmish line to their rear, fired sporadically at Chavez’ men at long distance and drew them forward into a stand of scattered juniper around several seeps called Ojo de la Monica (Monica Springs). Before advancing into the juniper, Chavez ordered his men to dismount and they corralled the mules to the rear of their position and, then, advanced forward slowly, scrambling toward the craggy, cliff-bound heights where the Navajo were concealed. Shots rang out at their rear. The Indians had flanked Chavez’ troop and snipers, concealed in the hoodoos, shot down all of their mules. Then, the Indians advanced, moving forward cautiously themselves, and directing heavy fire into the junipers ringing the round, muddy pools comprising the spring.
The Navajo encircled Chavez’ party and shot at them from all sides. Most of the men were wounded within the first hour of the fighting, crouching among the stones and small, twisted trees. Of course, Chavez was the most experienced fighter in the company and he scuttled from position to position, encouraging his men, and, indeed, firing their weapons for them – the other settlers in the group had never been in battle before and, so, they loaded their single-shot rifles for Manuel to fire at the Navajo ducking and crawling as they crept forward toward the embattled men. A couple of bullets went through Manuel’s hat and, although some of the men told him to remove a red cravat that he was wearing from his throat, he refused – he seems to acted from bravado intended to inspire the other men.
The battle lasted for hours. One by one, Chavez’ men were killed outright or mortally wounded and bled to death in the glade of junipers around the springs. Chavez’ brother had been shot twice, but kept firing and, indeed, was loading his gun when a bullet tore through his skull and killed him. As the sun set, Chavez scouted his position, creeping along the perimeter that his men had been defending. Except for two survivors, he found only bloody corpses. Tomas Braca was alive, but delirious – a shotgun blast had ripped his leg apart. Mattias Contreras was unhurt as was Chavez. The two men dragged the wounded Braca into a rock shelter on a hillside overlooking the stream and waited for the final attack. They were almost out of ammunition. Night fell and the Indians didn’t attack.
At dawn, the battleground was silent. The Navajo had withdrawn into the high country. Chavez made a litter and he and Contreras dragged Braca across the desert to Socorro. (Braca survived but lost his leg.) After the fighting, Chavez had only three cartridges left. (Presumably one saved for each survivor to prevent capture by the Indians.) A couple months later, the Navajo negotiated a ransom for Matias Contreras’ son. In the winter of 1863, a few months after the fight at Monica Springs, Kit Carson led an expedition against the Indians. He avoided fighting them, concentrating instead on destroying their livestock and burning their squash and beans and corn fields. By the summer of 1864, the Apaches and the Navajo were starving. Eight-thousand destitute Navajo surrendered in bands of two- or three-hundred and were force-marched to Bosque Redondo, a desolate place in the middle of Chihuahua and Jicarillo Apache country.
The desperate battle at Monica Springs was Chavez’ last hostile encounter with the Indians. He told his sons and the vaqueros on the ranch that it was his finest battle – the Navajo, he said, had attacked with splendid courage. He built a large ranch with plaza, chapel, and impressive outbuildings at San Mateo. A profile photograph of the old Indian fighter taken by Charles Lummis in 1888 shows an elderly man with a grey, spade-shaped beard (the better to bury you with in the cold, dark ground) and a nose shaped like the bill of a hawk. Chavez wears a battered black hat. The picture was taken in profile, probably to hide the fact that the old man was nearly blind. He has small, delicately shaped hands.
There is a story, probably legendary, that Archbishop Lamy stopped at the hacienda once when he was traveling from Grant to Santa Fe by stage and blessed the family chapel. Manuel Chavez died in January 1889 and was buried in a hollowed-out log under the altar of the small adobe chapel that he had built on his ranch.
There is a haunting story by Jorge Luis Borges called "Guayaquil." In that story, two scholars dispute the meaning of a famous encounter between the South American revolutionaries Bolivar and San Martin at Guayaquil. As the story progresses, the reader becomes aware that the scholars are, in effect, replicating the roles plays by San Martin and Bolivar at the Guayaquil conference 150 years earlier. Borges wrote another similar story: in that tale, two old women are rivals and, in the prosecution of their feud, continue the enmity of their great-great-grandfathers who perished at the hands of one another on the field of battle.
On the terrain where the Battle of Glorieta Pass was waged, I met a man. We went in opposite directions but collided, in the end, among the exhibits marking the very center of the battlefield. Later, in a book store, I listened to a Southern sympathizer argue that there were more slaves in the North than South. And, so, the conflict continues.
Nature, as Heraclitus reminds us, loves to hide. The Ancient Ones lived in accord with nature and they hid on the mesa-top until ready to make themselves manifest. History, I think, loves to caricature itself – it repeats events in patterns in ever-debasing patterns: first tragedy and, then, farce.
The Ransom of La Conquistadora
Maesta! Our Lady of Victory, Destroyer of Heretics, Virgin Most Powerful, terrible as an army with banners ...
Willa Cather’s 1927 novel, Death Comes For the Archbishop, is fiction closely modeled on the life of the Santa Fe cleric, John Baptiste Lamy. Bishop Lamy supervised the building of the current cathedral of Saint Francis in Santa Fe – the place where the effigy of the Conquistadora is housed.
Cather’s book is beautifully written and contains, I think, many of the best old stories about Santa Fe. It’s episodic in form but the tales are wonderfully narrated in highly poetic prose. Come to think of it, there’s no reason for you to be reading this essay. Set it aside, get yourself a copy of Cather’s book, and read that instead.
In Death comes for the Archbishop, Manuel Antonio Chavez is depicted as a friend to Bishop Latour, the name she gives to Archbishop Lamy. In truth, Chavez and Lamy clashed. For a time, Chavez maintained a house in Santa Fe. A boundary dispute arose between Chavez and the Catholic Church. The shrine to the Virgin of Guadulupe was adjacent to Chavez’ home and the Indian Fighter clashed with the diocese as to where the boundary should be located. Chavez, in fact, ordered his servants to cut wood in the mountains and built a stout fence across part of the disputed boundary. This enraged Archbishop Lamy. He threatened to excommunicate Chavez. Chavez was not religious. In battle, he wore a medallion depicting the Virgin of Guadulupe over his heart but wasn’t otherwise devoted to the Virgin or her Church. (One writer notes that 9/10ths of all New Mexicans, whether Indian, Hispano, or Anglo, wore similar medallions for good luck.) Lamy ordered Chavez to meet him at the Basilica where he said that unless the Indian Fighter tore down his fence, he would be excommunicated at the next Sunday service at the Shrine to the Virgin. Chavez was defiant, proclaiming that this would not happen. "Excommunication will kill my wife," Chavez said, remarking that the woman was very devout.
On the Sunday when excommunication decree was to be read, Chavez with a friend, Roma Baca, and one of his servants entered the shrine heavily armed. The three men stood at the back of the chapel bearing long guns. When the priest began to read announcements, the men slowly raised their rifles, cocking them so that they could be fired. Needless to say, the priest didn’t read the excommunication order.
La Conquistadora is a 30 inch figure of the Virgin Mary carved from willow wood. The image was made in Spain sometime before 1600. The figure has an imperial demeanor and a faintly peach-colored complexion and she stands atop a crescent moon before a lavishly decorated altar screen in a side-chapel of the Cathedral of Saint Francis. She wears elaborate clothing, including a dainty lace veil, pearl necklaces, and sports spotless white Parisian gloves.
The figure was brought by wagon to Santa Fe by Fray Alonso Benavides, a Franciscan priest, in either 1625 or 1626. In Santa Fe, the image was named "The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception" and "The Lady of the Rosary." At that time, Santa Fe was under the threat of Apache raids and reciting the rosary was thought to be effective in repelling such invaders.
After a series of outrages inflicted upon them, the nine northern pueblos on the Rio Grande revolted against the Spanish in 1680. Twenty-one priests were tortured to death and the mission churches were put to the torch. Santa Fe itself was besieged for five days. About 2500 Spanish settlers crowded into the plaza, women and children taking refuge in the Palace of the Governors, the largest structure in the city.
The Indians attacked the plaza relentlessly, at times bombarding the place with two cannons captured in the initial assault. The defenders came under fire from muskets as well, weapons lifted from dead soldiers killed in the skirmishes at the outskirts. On the third day of the siege, the Indians clogged the acequia ditch providing water to the center of the town and livestock began to die of thirst. Except for the buildings around the plaza, all of Santa Fe was burnt to the ground. The big church on the south side of the square was set afire several times and almost destroyed. As the church outbuildings burned, the Pueblo Indians sang litanies and the Mass to mock the embattled colonists. On the fifth day, the Spaniards made a desperate attack against the cordon of Indians surrounding the plaza, broke through their lines, and, then, routed them. By this time, there was nothing left to save – all the growing crops had been destroyed and all stored goods looted.
The Spanish abandoned Santa Fe, retreating to the south along the Rio Grande. The desolate train of refugees marched under the antique yellow banner of the conquest, Don Onate’s flag that had first been unfurled over the territory a hundred years before. Each Mission that they reached was ruined and the priests and Spanish villagers massacred. The refugees continued through the desert, suffering great hardships and, ultimately, took refuge in El Paso. A census shows that about 1970 colonists reached El Paso del Norte – more than five-hundred people had been lost in the fighting or died during the forced march.
The survivors from Santa Fe carried with them the 30 inch effigy of the Virgin. It is not recorded how she was dressed. It is also not recorded how much of her wardrobe traveled with her into exile.
Don Diego de Vargas was a Spanish gentleman of noble blood. His family owned palaces in Madrid and, as a young man, he was known to dress in elaborate court costume, lace ruffles and a velvet mantle trimmed with ermine. But he was devout and valiant. He fought in several pitched battles in Italy and, then, was dispatched to service in Mexico City. De Vargas was successful as an administrator in Mexico City and the government there ordered him north to El Paso with instructions to pacify the New Mexico territory. At that time, he was about 50 years old. (You can see a life-size bronze image of him standing stalwartly in the garden of Archbishop Lamy’s St. Francis Cathedral – the statue has a thin, triangular face, an exquisitely trimmed goatee, and wears a bison robe; the soldier carries a long sharp lance.)
Initially, de Vargas stirred interest in the northern Rio Grande valley by mounting several tentative expeditions to investigate rumors of quick-silver mines in that area. Then, in 1692, he marched north with the intention of reconquering northern New Mexico and restoring Santa Fe to the Christian realm. De Vargas was probably a great man, although he is now controversial. He stated that he would recapture Santa Fe without violence and would win over the Indians there by diplomacy and "gentleness." His announced plan was to re-take the area ravaged by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 without "unsheathing his sword", although he was adamant that if the Indians attacked him, he would "destroy every one of them."
De Vargas’ program for the peaceable reconquest of northern New Mexico was presumably the fruit of necessity – he has a force of less than 200 armed men. Only fifty of male colonists who had survived the harrowing siege of Santa Fe were willing to march north with him.
The Indian alliances had fallen into disarray and there was open war between several of the Pueblos. Although challenged from time to time by Indian cavalry, de Vargas didn’t attack and refused provocations to fight. And, indeed, he swiftly won over a number of the pueblo villages south of Santa Fe without any violence. Warriors from those places joined his march.
Santa Fe was heavily fortified by the Indians, most of them Tanos from the Galisteo basin or Tewa-speaking people from the Picuris pueblo at the head of what we now call Glorieta Pass. A kiva had been excavated in city plaza and the town had been rebuilt, around the charred ruins, as a pueblo village – that is, it had adobe brick tenements rising two or three stories that served as walls.
De Vargas approached the city fortifications and engaged in several parleys with the elders in the city. He told the Indians that he didn’t intend them any violence and that the priests with him would issue remittence of sins for any crimes committed in the uprising. De Vargas said that he was willing rebaptize the people in the city and would not inflict any reprisals on them.
The Indians, of course, were reluctant to accept de Vargas’ offer. To demonstrate his good faith, he removed his armor, set aside his weapons, and rode up to the city walls bareheaded. This was an impressive demonstration of courage and the Indians took note. After some more negotiation, de Vargas said that if the city remained recalcitrant, he would have no choice but to mount an attack. Returning to his camp, de Vargas had his men prepare stores of gunpowder and station cannons in readiness to support an assault on the city walls. The troops cleaned their firearms and sharpened their blades, all in the open so that the Indians could see them.
A party of Indians met with de Vargas. The Spaniard assured them that he would not harm anyone in Santa Fe if the city surrendered. He swore an oath on the Virgin that he served, pointing, it is said, to his battle-flag as well. The Indians opened the gates to the City, a solemn mass was conducted, and the priests re-baptized the population.
A few weeks later, de Vargas marched up the Pass toward Apache country and came to Picuris pueblo, then, the largest Indian city in the area. The people in that pueblo were proud and bellicose. Cadres of young men on horseback made feints at de Vargas’ column as it marched up from the river to the big pueblo and ruined church on the hill. De Vargas restrained his men and there was no fighting. Ultimately, the Picuris pueblo surrendered. The remaining malcontent Indians fled to Taos, the northernmost of the pueblos and historically the most recalcitrant.
De Vargas had accomplished the reconquest of Santa Fe and New Mexico without any loss of life.
But did he? The story of de Vargas’ restoration of Spanish colonial rule in northern New Mexico doesn’t match paradigms for stories about European and Indian encounters. Of course, at this time in our history, the paradigm for such narratives involves brutal oppression, injustice, and chicanery. Obviously, not all interactions between Europeans and Indians took this form – but it is heretical to point this out, politically incorrect, as it were. And so, there exists a counter-narrative about de Vargas that emphasizes his ruthless imposition of Christianity upon the native people, the conquistadors’ cultural insensitivity, and, indeed, later acts of brutality.
The Fiesta in Santa Fe, commencing in the end of August each year, celebrates the restoration of Spanish colonial rule to the city. That fiesta has traditionally featured a procession that simulates the return of the Spaniards to Santa Fe and their triumphal entry into the city – in this procession, someone plays the role of de Vargas and there are men dressed at conquistadors on horseback, Spanish friars, and, of course, other actors who play the role of Pueblo Indians. In the procession, the wood bulto of the Virgin Mary, dubbed La Conquistadora, is carried through the streets and returned to her niche in the Cathedral of St. Francis.
Beginning in the early seventies, the Fiesta at Santa Fe has been contested with protests aimed at the triumphal procession reenacting the entry of the Spaniards into Santa Fe in 1792. The fiesta parades in 1971 were particularly violent and resulted in much property damage. (This unrest was an aftermath to serious violence in Rio Arriba county to the north where Anglo law enforcement clashed repeatedly with Hispano protesters with regard to land rights – the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu was at the epicenter of these incidents which involved ambushes and gun battles.) Although De Vargas’ status as unambiguous hero has been challenged, he has been awarded the honor of a bronze statue in the Church garden and a shopping mall has been named after him. This doesn’t sit well with representatives of the pueblos, many of which are now fat and sleek with casino money, and there have been continued and vehement protests against aspects of the Fiesta re-creating events in 1692.
In the end, the personal will trump the political and historical. In recent years, the parades in Santa Fe have been coopted by the growing, and vocal, homosexual community in the city. The historical parade featuring the reenactment of de Vargas entry into Santa Fe has merged with something called the "hysterical" parade – this is a procession of transgender people or cross-dressing homosexuals, many of them outrageously dressed, who march through the ancient streets of old Santa Fe.
Pious people in Santa Fe still believe that the peaceful reconquest of Santa Fe was achieved through the miraculous intervention of the La Conquistadora. The bulto clad in her raiment as Queen of Heaven and Our Lady of Remedies was said to have been carried at the forefront of de Vargas’ column. The Virgin, appearing as the emblem of the Catholic faith, made the souls of the Indians gentle and quenched the desire for revenge in the hearts of the colonists.
In 1992, Archbishop Roberto Sanchez officially renamed La Conquistadora as Senora de la Paz ("Our Lady of Peace"). He instructed that a Mass of Reconciliation should be celebrated during each Fiesta. The purpose for the Mass is to effect reconciliation and forgiveness with respect to the events of the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 to 1692.
De Vargas asked the Spanish crown to award his family several estates that he coveted in Madrid and, further, asked to be appointed Governor-General of Guatemala. The Spanish crown sent him a letter of commendation but nothing else.
Northern New Mexico was mostly devoid of Spanish settlers. In 1693, de Vargas led several thousand pioneers with their livestock and farming equipment north to Santa Fe to repopulate the area with Europeans. The Tanos Indians were in possession of Santa Fe and they refused to allow the Spanish forces to enter the city. This time there was no pretense at kindness and no negotiation. De Vargas recruited a troop of friendly Indians from the Picuris Pueblo above the Pecos River and mounted an all-out assault on the city. After a day of house-to-house fighting, the Indians in Santa Fe surrendered. De Vargas had seventy of the warriors hanged as a warning to the other Pueblos.
But this cruelty incensed other tribes and they commenced an insurrection. De Vargas led forces northwest to attack the pueblo at San Ildfonso. The people retreated onto the Black Mesa overlooking their city and repelled an assault by the Spanish in a blinding snowstorm. Other pueblos were emboldened by the Spanish defeat and joined the uprising. De Vargas marched on those pueblos and systematically reduced them, destroying crops and provisions. Starvation ensued and thousands died. He, then, returned to San Ildefonso and burned the provisions supporting the people who had once again withdrawn to the top of the Black Mesa. Shortly thereafter, the Pueblo surrendered. De Vargas, then, turned west and marched on the sky-island of Acoma and other Hopi and Zuni pueblos, ultimately forcing their surrender. Periodic insurrections continued and there was fighting until 1696.
After the reconquest was consolidated, de Vargas decreed that the Indians could maintain their own political structures within the framework of Spanish rule and, further, authorized traditional religious practices to continue. The kivas were not rooted out and the Indians gradually adopted an syncretic religion combining elements of native spirituality with Catholic practices. In the 18th century, famines and pestilence almost destroyed the Indians – many pueblos that had once boasted populations exceeding 2000 people were reduced to one-tenth that number. (This was the nadir for the local Indians and their populations increased continuously throughout the 19th and 20th century). As a result of the Pueblo rebellion, the Indians of northern New Mexico (unlike the Indians in California or most of the West) retained their cultural identity and continued practice of traditional religion – Spanish did not replace native languages as was, for instance, the case in Texas.
In 1697, governmental officials served process on de Vargas, alleging that his malfeasance had triggered this second wave of rebellion in northern New Mexico. With two of his sons, de Vargas made the long trip to Mexico City where he was promptly placed under house arrest. More allegations were lodged against him, including some asserting corruption. After three years of legal wrangling, de Vargas was authorized to return to Santa Fe as the Governor.
Raiding Apaches compelled de Vargas to mount another military expedition. Near Bernallilo, New Mexico (now a northern suburb of Albuquerque), de Vargas fell ill. He was taken to the ranch of a Spaniard named Fernando de Chaves Duran and there treated for his illness. He died about April 1, 1704.
The Little Queen of Heaven is unhappy. With her wooden eyes, she peers through the loose weave of the burlap sack that encloses her. The burlap is dusty and smells of dry pinto beans and some of the dirt from the sack has worked its way between the silk seams of her dress and her willow-wood flanks. Nearby, on the vinyl upholstery of the car’s backseat, the Little Queen of Heaven sees a couple beer cans, open and drooling onto the vinyl, a brightly colored soda pop can also open with a residue of corn syrup around it rim, and a crumpled plastic bag, empty of the fritos corn chips that it once contained. The car speeds along featureless freeway, accelerating and, then, braking pointlessly and the motion makes her head ache. She is not used to this velocity. Better to be reverently carried on a miniature palanquin draped with roses, the odor of the flowers bright and luminous in her wooden nostrils, and, then, to be set reverently under the interlaced palm leaves of the ramada in the courtyard of the Rosario, clouds of incense rising around her and the sound of voices singing and the church bells in the Cathedral overhead ringing out in her honor – a parade of only a block or two but important for the believers. Even with the recent unrest and the faint odor of tear gas wafting from the Plaza that pilgrimage was not offensive to her, mostly because of the mobs of men and women and children falling to their knees to honor her. But this impolite voyage by rust-bucket automobile is quite another matter, dragged roughly from her chapel and thrown into the back of a car with that oaf, San Miguel, a heavy-set angel with dull wooden wings and a toy sword – poor company for this exodus southward and, then, east, the way clear enough to her due to her GPS (God’s Positioning System). One of the kids panics when a police car with siren blaring jets past them. They pull off the road at the next exit and imprison the little Mother of God in the trunk, next to a sooty-looking spare tire that rides unconstrained among various tools including a jack and lug wrench. San Miguel burps protests but the little Mother of Heaven is dignified herself, silent, making no protest, even with respect to this dark and dirty hiding place.
Wooden eyes are best for seeing. Pinocchio knew this and so does the Queen of Heaven: a tree’s wood is animate with vision in its every pore – it has seen the solemn roots burrowing through the earth and the column of trunk like the horn of a mighty beast and, lastly, the shimmer and glitter of the leaves in the wind, each of them the pupil of an eye turning in the breeze, sees all of these things and all at once. And, so, her vision doesn’t fail her now – she still can see the freeway mile-markers and the blue ranges of the mountains, ridges suspended above purple and yellow desert, studded here and there with a rocky summit, inaccessible it seems except to the rays of the sun and the guardian angels that flock through the air like so many sparrows. This is hasty, rude, unsettling: it’s like the flight from the burning city of Santa Fe after the siege, the smoke rising from the blazing vigas and lathe and reed roofs of the missions, then, the long march along the river and through the slot in the mountains to El Paso, an exodus sufficient to fray her little dress and this whole pointless exercise, this entire refugee adventure reversed in only 12 years, and the rough soldier’s hands carrying her back upriver, the gleaming stream with its bright cottonwood bends and twists now on her other side, the burnt haciendas and missions cool now, like extinct volcanos, and overgrown with rabbitbrush and, nearby, luxuriant fields of beans and squash and maize and the little red chili peppers ripening on the squat green plants – the ceremonial Mass, the old cathedral and the new cathedral, the wars and the periods of peace, all of this a procession made in her honor (at least as she construed things), an endless ritual march over which she presides as Queen of Heaven in her handmade doll’s dress. But this present rough trip is something quite different and the axle groans under the black trunk and she sees through the metal the twitching horse-tail of dust thrown up by the dirt roads, one after another becoming rougher and more difficult until, at last, the car can go no farther, and she is wrestled into the night, a million stars overhead, and with that lout, San Miguel carried uphill to a rubbish dump of rail and little oar-cars and collapsed buildings, trestles where water once ran, and a crushing machine with all its moving parts rusted together and, then, the boulder trail-side pecked with image of a flute-player, a little hunch-backed flute player with splayed feet, the rock seeping light from its bowels to show her the pictograph and, then, the serpentine trail to the adit, bypassing the carved boulder, the squeaking of bats greeting her, obsequious bats who stir the darkness as if to fan her veil and crown, and, then, the silver veins darting like lightning into the rock, the quartz staring at her and the cinnabar like a blood stain, like the ox-blood used to dye the old altar-screen in the old cathedral – how she missed that fine, ancient decoration with the moon-eyed saints standing at her back! – the cinnabar and the turquoise and the amethyst fangs where the obsequious bats flew loops around her and burlap-faced San Miguel.
Of course, someone will come. Even now, she is forming the intentions in others that will rescue her. And if someone does not come, then, the company of the amethyst and the cinnabar and quartz, the centipedes exploring the old cross-timbers, the voluble, squeaking bats – all of these things will suffice for a hundred years or a thousand if need be. It was only an instant ago that she was formed from the Spanish willow, lovingly carved from the green, fragrant wood in Extremadura, only an instant ago that she crossed the sea and saw Santa Fe burn and, then, be rebuilt and so these current circumstances cause her only a little bit of annoyance, some inconvenience at being stranded in this hole with the boorish, toy-sword-brandishing San Miguel, but, in the end, Christ remains Christ and, with his Father, he rules heaven, her natural abode as well, and so, all will be well, all will be well once more.
Two teenage boys hid in the choir loft in the Cathedral. When it was dark and the janitorial staff had retired for the day, the boys crept down from their hiding place and snatched the figure of La Conquistadora. With a figure of San Miguel, they carried the Virgin from her chapel and hid her.
The kidnaping occurred on March 19, 1973. Two years before the National Guard had been summoned to Santa Fe to subdue rioting in the Plaza during the September Fiesta. Perhaps, the boys had a grievance based upon that experience. Or, perhaps, their motives were different. Apparently, the boys were juveniles and their identity has been concealed and, so, nothing definitive is known about them. I am intrigued to think that they are, perhaps, alive today, approximately my age, working somewhere in Albuquerque or, perhaps, on the West Coast. Was the theft some kind of teenage prank? Was it a crime of opportunity? Or was it a premeditated response, perhaps, a radical one to the unrest between the Anglo, Hispano, and Indian populations in northern New Mexico? I would like to interview the culprits but the trail is cold now, and there is no detail about the teenage boys involved in the crime.
Church officials and the Mayor called for the return of the bulto. On March 25, 1973, the Mayor declared a day of mourning in old Santa Fe. Church bells thundered over the plazas and processions of religious brotherhoods marched solemnly through the streets. Special masses were convened and the faithful crowded the Cathedral to pray for the return of the little Mother of God.
In the second week of April, the Church received a ransom note demanding payment of $150,000 in exchange for return of the Conquistadora. The attempt at extortion was clumsy. Within days, the two teenage boys were in custody. On April 15, a search party found la Conquistadora with a carved bulto of San Miguel in an abandoned mine-shaft in the Manzano Mountains, a place about three hours to the south of Santa Fe. The Mother of God and the angel were brought back to the Cathedral. Another solemn Mass was celebrated and prayers of thanksgiving were offered. Surveillance cameras were discretely installed to watch over the Virgin. The fate of the two teenagers implicated in the extortion scheme is not recorded.
The Lujan family began as shepherds tending their flocks in the canyons and mesas near Los Alamos. Some family members worked to build the laboratories and dinner halls and residential cabins that were part of the Manhattan Project.
Ben Lujan learned steel construction in the late forties, working for contractors on the atom bomb project. He moved his family to Nambe, a village in the arroyos on the great slope that drops down from Santa Fe to the bends and twists of the Rio Grande River to the north. Lujan had several sons, most notably Ben Lujan, Jr., a congressman. (His father also served as a State Representative in the round kiva-shaped capitol building in Santa Fe). Part of US Highway 84/285 is named after Ben Lujan Sr. – this is the Ben Lujan Memorial Highway.
Ben Lujan, Sr. had several brothers. One of them, his older brother, Felix was a policeman in Santa Fe. I found this man’s obituary on-line about a week ago (he died in August 2015). The obituary showed several black and white snapshots with the policeman standing next to La Conquistadora. Ben Lujan, Jr. had been interviewed for the death notice. He said that his uncle was a "man of the people" and that, as an officer, the policeman Felix was most proud of having solved the case involving the ransom of the bulto.
Apparently, these sorts of death notices, even those illustrated by newspaper archive photographs, have a short life on-line. I was unable to locate the obituary when I searched for it later and, in fact, might be tempted to presume that I imagined the whole thing except for the pictures – they showed a slope-shouldered Latino man, no longer young, wearing a crisp-looking police uniform engaged in what seemed to be a colloquy with a 30 inch wooden virgin sumptuously clad in a garment like a white satin wedding dress. The man wears tinted sunglasses although he is indoors – Felix was missing one eye due to a childhood accident -- and his little delicate mouth is pursed with indignation and his dark hair had already turned grey at the time the photograph was made. (The family resemblance to other much more frequently photographed members of the Lujan family is obvious.) Lujan seems to be shaking hands with the figure, but, if you look closely, he is, in fact, fingering himself the rosary beads that the Little Queen of Heaven holds over her chest. (Curiously enough, there is a stick of Ban deodorant on the table-top where the Virgin stands on her pedestal among some official police manuals and statute books – a bottle of vitamins is next to the deodorant and, on the wall there are official commendations next to a framed picture of the old Palace of the Governors.)
There are no details about how Officer Lujan cracked the case. The article does note that the little Queen of Heaven was found in an abandoned mine near the town of Los Lunas in the Manzano Mountains. Nothing much is said about the boys who snatched the virgin from her chapel. An aura of ill-defined shame seem to cling to the whole affair. (Lujan himself resigned his police chief post under fire in 1974 – a Grand Jury accused him of having misappropriated turquoise and Indian artifacts confiscated from thieves by city detectives. The obituary notes that when someone tried to steal his pickup truck in 2005, Felix Lujan attacked the perpetrators, knocked them to the ground, and, then, called the police – obviously a tough hombre, at that time, he was 85 years old.)
Presumably, Lujan used some type of torture to wrest the location of the little figure from the two teenage boys. But, possibly, other mechanisms for persuasion were at work. The Virgincita is apt to make appearances and, perhaps, she came to the boys in their cell and, from within her nimbus of light, admonished them to abandon their criminal enterprise. Or, perhaps, the little Mother of God came to Officer Felix Lujan as an apparition and told him where to look. Or, maybe, the Queen of Heaven worked more subtly – did she send Officer Lujan a dream? A desert highway, perhaps, aimed like a lance at some blue mountains, a road sign, the brow of Mosca Peak overhead shaggy with ponderosa and douglas pine, and a coyote loping ahead, trotting between the rutted tracks of an old mining road, a jeep track ascending the barren hillside, jutting cactus at all angles, and, then, a jumble of long-abandoned machinery, some trapezoidal heaps of tailings showing ox-blood red, cinnabar among the crystal-bearing spoil, the coyote, now, pausing to bay at the moon that is rising like a great, gold hot-air balloon, and, then, darting up another trail steep as a ladder to a boulder where someone has used stone to peck stone, chipping the figure of a little hunch-backed flute player into the calf-sized slab beside the grooves cut in the sandy rock and the dark pit beyond, orange with candlelight where the peons and shepherds are praying a novena to the Virgin Mary, familiar words that you find yourself mouthing, your lips moving silently, even as you sleep...