Thursday, October 27, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- A : A Stylized Landscape -- Mr. Archuleta -- Rustlers at the Ghost Ranch -- A Monstrous Serpent




Distance desiccates – it crushes the roundness out of things and makes them seem flat, geometric outlines against the pale blue sky. In northern New Mexico, it is arid. The foreground is also flattened, a cardboard-colored mummy, llano the hue of unfired clay stretching into the distance where there is a black butte. The butte is square-cut, a dark casket rimmed with the tiny, wiry hairs of pinon. Next to the butte, shadowy canyons open to the sunlight, their jaws wrinkled with yellow and beige badlands. Squashed by the blaze of the sun, a mountain, or a range of mountains, rises like a low-pitched roof beyond the butte and gorges. The sierra is turquoise, the color of water refined to gemstone.

This is merely generic. The spirit of a place lives in its particularity.



The man standing at the gate at the Budget rental car lot has brown skin and wears glasses that glint in the bright sunlight. The tag on his vest tells us that he is named Lewis Archuleta. He stands beside the spine of sharp spikes guarding the driveway into the lot – Do Not Back-Up: Will Cause Severe Tire Damage, a sign warns.

Mr. Archuleta inspects the rental contract for the white KIA sportage that I am driving. (The vehicle displays a Colorado license – a shame, Julie says, too bad it’s not a New Mexico plate.) Mr. Archuleta is cheerful this early afternoon. "Where are you folks from?" he asks. "Minnesota," we say. "I’ve been to Minnesota only for an hour. When I was in the air force, we flew to Minnesota but I was stationed at a base in Wisconsin."

We agree that Wisconsin is a lovely state.

Sun-Harbor, the name for the Albuquerque airport, is built upon a plateau southeast of the city. Great ramps of terrain drop down toward the modest skyscrapers of the city. To the north, the flank of Sandia mountain rises like a brooding thunderhead.

The name "Archuleta" is common in New Mexico. It is a Castilian version of a Basque toponym: aretxloeta – that is, "oak hollow." I know two stories about people named Archuleta.

When he was a little boy, Jesus Archuleta lived at Abiquiu north of Santa Fe. With his brother, he was sent to recapture some burros that had wandered away from the village. The burros had crossed a stream that the two boys knew marked the edge of the Spanish village. Beyond the stream, the terrain was forbidden to them and said to be dangerous. The little boys could see the burros in an arroyo above the creek and so they crossed and ran uphill to catch the burros. Some Jicarillo Apaches appeared from a ravine in the hillside and Jesus was captured by them. (His brother was more fleet of foot and he outran the Indians, returning to Abiquiu to sound the alarm.)

The Apaches moved quickly across the barren landscape and Jesus fell, ripping open his knee. The wound became infected and he could not walk any longer. His captors left the little boy under a tree by the side of the trail. A day later, a Ute Indian came along. He examined the child’s wounded leg and used a sharp flint to split open the tight skin sealing the poison within the swollen knee. The boy recovered and the Ute took him into the mountains as his slave.

Four or five years later, the Utes were buying rations from soldiers at a fort in Colorado. Jesus Archuleta, who was then ten or eleven years old, was sent down to the fort as a pack-animal. As the soldiers were weighing him down with provisions, someone recognized that the boy was not an Indian and so he was rescued. Jesus Archuleta returned to his village in Abiquiu and became the patriarch of a large family. These events are said to have happened in the 1840's.

Two of Jesus Archuleta’s grandsons built a rough jacal (a fortified cabin) in a box-canyon hidden in the hills northeast of Abiquiu. The canyon, although very beautiful, had a sinister reputation – witches had frequented the area in the preceding century and duels between cattle men and sheep herders had resulted in the several murders under the withered-looking cliffs. The dead men killed in those frays were left unburied and, at night, their ghosts wandered the rugged hillsides, moaning and pleading for help. A vast demon rattle-snake was alleged to live in a cave nearby and there was a spectral flying cow that floated like a balloon over the heads of men and women doomed to die by this weird apparition. Since people were afraid to venture into the canyon where the Archuleta brothers lived, the boys could keep stolen horses and cattle hidden among the maze of rocky gorges without fear of detection. And, it was rumored that they sometimes waylaid and killed travelers or invited them to their sinister jacal for a meal and rest a place from which no one emerged alive. People in Abiquiu said that the Archuleta brothers beheaded their victims and left their corpses strewn around the canyons and that, in the darkness, the ghosts of murdered men stalked around the ravines and ridgetops looking for their missing skulls.

One day, the younger Archuleta brother returned from Santa Fe with an olla of gold and silver coins, money that he had received from the sale of rustled cattle. His brother coveted the money and, so, the younger man buried the treasure on a hillside under a dead pinon shaped like an octopus sprawling across the slope. The older brother, named Juan Ignacio or Nacho, demanded his share of the gold and silver. When the younger brother resisted, Nacho killed him with an axe. Nacho dragged his dead brother’s wife and little girl from her room in the jacal. He said that he would feed the child to the monster rattle-snake that lived in one of the canyons above the cabin unless she told him where the coins were hidden. But, then, Nacho got drunk and, when the sun set, his brother’s wife and child fled, making their way to the Indian pueblo near Abiquiu.

Later, Nacho Archuleta was lynched for cattle-rustling. His brother’s wife and child nervously returned to the box canyon where the lonely jacal was decaying in the shadow of its old poplar tree. A range fire had destroyed the forest near the canyon rim and there had been landslides and flashfloods in the ravines so that the octopus-shaped dead pinon could no longer be found. All of the landmarks were smudged and indistinct. The pot of gold could not be found.

The jacal built by the Archuleta brothers sits on a knoll about 100 feet from the cottage that Georgia O’Keefe occupied at Ghost Ranch fifty years later. When I was at the retreat in the canyon, the young woman at the check-in desk handed me a map with various attractions on the property highlighted in bright pink magic marker. One of the places that I was urged to visit was "Ghost Cabin" – "it’s always open," the girl said. After hiking to the Chimney Rock, a stack of stone pointing skyward above the box canyon, I walked down to the Ghost Cabin. It is an elegant adobe structure with small dark and cool rooms. The place is furnished with antiques and there are candle-holders haloed by silver on the wall. A few placards explain that the Archuleta brothers were notorious robbers and rustlers in the Abiquiu area in the 1890's. There is no mention of the lost treasure or the flying cow or the monster rattlesnake. A note pinned to the wall explains that the poplar tree in front of the adobe house is called the "hanging tree" – supposedly, the Archuleta brothers were lynched from the branches of that tree. In late October, the tree had lost its leaves and, so, was bare and a little sorrowful-looking. My suspicion is that the story about the lynching is just as mythical as the tale involving the olla stuffed with gold.

I wanted to peep through the windows of the O’Keefe cabin but had been warned at the check-in desk that the place was rented. Artists can stay in the small adobe cottage, perhaps, in the hope that some of the inspiration that Georgia O’Keefe felt in this place might remain to enthuse them. I approached the cottage – its windows were open because the day had become warm and the bright sun flared all around me and, when the breeze stirred, a curtain patterned with the Indian sign for rain in the mountains (yellow step patterns with zigzags) billowed out over the window-sill.

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