Unfortunately, all roads in north-central New Mexico lead to Espanola. If you want to go to Abiquiu or Taos or the cliff dwellings at Puye or Bandelier, if you want to see the nuclear labs at Los Alamos or the pueblos on the northern Rio Grande or the Valles de Caldera or the Jemez mountains, you will find yourself in Espanola. And, without putting too fine a point on it, Espanola is a cheerless and confusing place, a zone of strip-malls and ramshackle housing that is poor without being charming and modern without being convenient or streamlined in its design – it is the poverty and modernity of the lower middle class, the impecunious shabbiness that I recall from the blue collar suburbs where I was raised in the early sixties. All roads, it seems, lead to Espanola, the central city and central place, with all roads leading away as well and none too soon for the traveler.
The topography of north-central New Mexico feels a little like a funnel or a drain with its vertex at Espanola. The four-lane highway drops down a slope that is ten miles long, beginning on the Santa Fe plateau and, then, descending past the opera overlooking the great arid basin, passing the several pueblos with their casinos and brightly emblazoned overpasses spelling their names in Tewa. There is an odd rock formation shaped like carefully sculpted camel and, then, badlands and, as the highway keeps descending, the land becomes dryer and greyer and, then, at the very low point, the bottom of the basin, there are some stream beds lined with flamboyantly golden cottonwood trees, a jungle-like tangle along the river, and, then, a maze of criss-crossing and, apparently, identical four-lane boulevards intersected with blurry crossroads comprising Espanola. The area’s representative to congress is someone named Ben Lujan, spelled with a diacritical mark over the "j", a Congressman so well-known in this area that the signs urging the voter to vote for him line a highway that is named after him as well – the Ben Lujan Memorial Highway. Early in the morning, huge black pickup trucks crawl along Espanola’s streets like big shiny dung beetles. A badly battered stationwagon lurches into traffic from a shack that sells package liquors from behind barred windows. The stationwagon is decorated by a pair of horns from a Longhorn bull, embedded uneasily into the dented vehicles hood. At the C-Stores, desert rats squat on the pavement, leaning up against the white bulwark of the ice-machines, trembling in the morning cold, beards dewy, eyes half-closed, their shoulders wrapped in Navajo patterned blankets. Every couple blocks there is a Dollar General store shaped vaguely like the Alamo. The Rio Grande here is fortified by its confluence with the Rio Chama a few miles north of town, but, somehow, in Espanola, the river seems withered, exhausted, paradoxically smaller than its tributaries, a braid of water flowing in field of round, dry gravel.
You will always be lost in Espanola and the town will cling to you – it will try to hold you within its network of mean streets and, when you break free, its odor will remain on your clothes and in the ventilation system of your car.
North of Espanola, US 84 runs northwest to the ancient pueblo town of Abiquiu and, then, follows the Rio Chama through its basin called Piedra Lumbra – that is, "Shining Rocks" – toward the blue ridges of the San Juan mountains.
The Piedra Lumbra basin is vast and empty, ringed by thousand-foot cliffs themselves backed by higher ranges of mountains. On the south side of the basin, the Cerro Perdenal rises like an anvil head, a northern outpost of the volcanic Jemez Mountains. To the north, canyons ascend into the mountain country of the Jicarilla Apaches. Ghost Ranch, made famous by Georgia O’Keefe’s residency there, lies amidst an intricate, fractured terrain of box canyons incised into the east rim of the basin. To the west, the plains simply tilt upward, moving from one vegetation zone to another, until, finally, vanishing into the sky at the horizon black with pine forests. A few mountains have wandered from the edges of the basin toward its center, strays it seems, and where the Rio Chama cuts through them, there are canyons bright with red, slippery-looking rock. It is a beautiful place, mostly silent, with traces of human habitation indistinct and melting away into the floor of the desert.
Ghost Ranch is about six or seven miles north of Abiquiu, above the Rio Chama canyon, a scattering of bungalows and cottages with a Welcome Center and two small museums. The place is nestled among high cliffs where the rim of the basin is notched with short, dramatic canyons dead-ending in the black, impassive mesas. I was a little apprehensive about exiting from the freeway and driving the three mile gravel road toward the cliffs and canyons where the ranch lies. But the place is friendly enough and not expensive. A plump Indian girl told me, apologetically, that the land is controlled by the BLM and that the BLM, as a Federal agency, as a five dollar a day use fee. She marked a map with places that I should visit on my walking tour and told me that, if I were still at the Ranch at noon, lunch would be served, eleven dollars a plate for very good victuals.
I walked among the unimposing buildings covered in nondescript brown siding under the steep, jagged cliffs. I passed a meeting hall where a Men’s Wellness Retreat was in session. The windows were open and the men seemed to be weeping in unison. A jovial fat man with bad hips was sweeping a courtyard between the two small museums. He put aside his broom and offered to show me baby dinosaur teeth. I followed him into a paleontology laboratory where the walls were studded with plaster replicas of dinosaur bones wrenched out of the badlands at the head of the canyons on the Ghost Ranch. A slab of stone about the size of a Volkswagen was surrounded by grating to keep people from touching the rock. The surface of the slab swarmed with bony tails and jaws – an entire school of little writhing dinosaurs had somehow died within the slab. The dinosaurs were equipped with bony shield-shaped plates in their skin called osteoderms and this meant that the animals were vividly present in their fossils – I saw not only their bones, but, also, the shape of their bodies, the coil of their tails, and the curve and arch of their rapacious throats outlined in the osteoderm plating that had once defended them. The fat old man went to answer a phone. I peered down into the slab of rock as if it were a well. When the old man returned, he said that the bones in slab were from Phytosaurs, alligator-like creatures from the Triassic period. "Why did they all die in this one place?" I asked.
"Now, that is a good question," the old man told me.
He pointed to another fossil, a chicken-sized but lithe-looking creature with long throat and tail. "That’s a Coelophysis," the fat man told me. "A species first found here on Ghost Ranch."
The sign said that the species was identified in 1947. "A very ancient, primitive kind of dinosaur," the fat man said.
He invited me to look into a microscope. I took off my glasses and peered into the objective and, after a moment or so, saw swimming into focus, little, shapely teeth, sharp and pointed as the teeth of a kitten. The teeth were smeared with something. "It’s a glue," my guide told me.
"Remarkable," I said.
The Ghost Ranch is the old hide-out of the Archuleta brothers and, previously, was called the Ranch of the Witches (Brujos). In part, this was because a great serpent was said to haunt the barren Malpais. Children in Abiquiu were told that if they were bad, they would be abandoned among the hollow and echoing box canyons and the monster-snake, the Vivaron, would come forth from its stony lair to eat them. I suppose that the presence of the serpent fossils in the exposed rock at Ghost Ranch, the long bony tails and flat snouts full of teeth, fostered these sorts of legends.
A trail led upward to the Chimney Rock, a brooding spire of rock standing apart from a cliff at the point of a high mesa rising above the canyon. The sides of the mesa form a kind of spear tip, a Clovis head, as it were, of brittle-looking rock and the Chimney pinnacle marks the place where an ancient landslide severed that stack of stone from the rest of the cliff-side. The trail to the top of the mesa was said to be 1.5 miles long with a gain in elevation of 600 feet. It was still early, about 9:30 am, and, so, I set forth on the trail, crossing a gravely arroyo and, then, scrambling up a steep rocky slope to reach a terrace a hundred feet over the valley floor.
I am accustomed to walk my dog daily, usually about a mile and a half, and, so, I thought I would be well-prepared for this hike. But, of course, it is one thing to walk along a smooth sidewalk at sea level and another thing entirely to pick a path between boulders and fist-sized, unstable stones on a stairway-steep incline at 7500 feet altitude. I became winded quickly and felt a little faint, hearing the blood throbbing in my ears and tingling in my fingertips. I paused and looked down over the valley and, then, set my eyes on the distant blue escarpments feeling grateful to be in such a place. Then, I set forth again.
At first, I was alone on the trail as it wandered over the flat mesa and, then, turned to twist its way up, corkscrewing to the next terrace and, then, the next. The terraces between steep ascents also rose steadily upward like ramps tilted to a 15 % grade rising through the cactus and dry sage, the path underfoot cut into the hilltop to form an unstable sandy trench. I reached a considerable height above the plain, probably five-hundred feet or so, and could see across the basin to the shining heights of the mountains, but a final scramble uphill, a ladder-like upward path made from outcropping boulders defeated me. I was alone on the trail and no one was in sight and what would happen if I lost my footing and fell? The prospect was too daunting to me and, so, of course, I lost heart, reversed my climb, and picking my path closely over the strewn stones, returned to the valley.
No sooner had I lost heart, then, my defeat was announced to all by the presence of a dozen, more than a dozen, intrepid hikers on the trail. I staggered down off the mountain, cheeks and ears blazing with sunburn. On the second terrace from the arroyo bottom, two genteel-looking lady hikers asked me to use an elaborate camera to take their portrait. The women wore tight spandex pants and their eyes were hidden behind round, black sunglasses. Both of them had straw coolie hats tightly tied under their chins. I took the camera from the more outgoing of the two women, holding it with hands that trembled a little bit. The women each had slender walking sticks, one for each hand, and, as they came up the dusty trail, navigating between raw boulders and washouts on the dirt trail, they moved as if they were cross-country skiers, cautiously advancing up the slope. The two women stood apart from me, posing with their backs to an eighty foot deep ravine. "Be careful," I said. The woman who had handed me the camera sniffed a little and said something like "Don’t worry." I aimed the camera but the lady to which the instrument belonged waved to me, signaling that I shouldn’t take the picture. "You can’t see her face," she said. "It’s in shadow." And, indeed, this was true. "Take off your hats," I said. The two women looked dubiously up at the sky where the icy ball of the moon was still visible in the high, clear blue. In a different quadrant of the heavens, the sun was blazing belligerently, a white radiance that illumined everything with a clinical, bright light.
"I’m not going to take off my hat," the other woman said. But she reluctantly tilted its brim back so that I could see her throat and round cheeks and white zinc-oxide painted on the very tip of her nose. The other woman yanked off her straw hat and let it dangle at her side, next to her walking stick.
I took the picture. Perhaps, the slight woman with the white nose had lupus or some other condition activated by sunlight. She pulled down the brim of her hat, grunted softly, and, then, set off, marching up the trail to the next steep climb back and around the promontory point rising to another boulder-strewn terrace a hundred feet above. The other woman peered into the camera, verified that the shot was successful, and, then, thanking me, hurried after her companion.
As I came down the last set of switchbacks, the trail turned under foot and rotated my descent so that I could look up to the mesa again, its flat top aimed like an arrowhead at the chimney rock. There on the cantilevered point of the cliff, I could see a couple hikers, tiny forms against the sky, looking over at that pillar of stone. The distance from the arrow-point to the pedestal of the chimney rock was probably about 20 feet – perhaps, a bold person, fleet of foot, could make that jump and land upright atop the stone column. But, then, there would be no way of returning to the mesa since the courageous person who had made the leap would be imprisoned on an island in the sky, no larger than pool table, and, so, without sufficient running space to launch himself back onto the mountain.
Archaeology is stories that scholars have chosen to believe, consensus fairy tales that are believed to have some relation to the truth. Of course, any story told about the past will oversimplify, reduce complex decisions and processes to binary switches either turned on or off, and, therefore, falsify what actually happened. That said, the tales told by archaeologists have their place as do the myths and folklore made by aboriginal peoples.
In Santa Fe, there is a prestigious-looking hotel called the Inn of the Anasazi. When the name was chosen in the sixties, I suppose, Anasazi was a term of respect and had a certain mystical cachet – the Anasazi were the wise, old ones, the mysterious people who built the cliff dwellings and the monumental structures at Chaco Canyon and, then, disappeared, a tribe of shape-shifters who became eagles or bison or clouds in the sky, simply vanishing into the golden expanses of the Great West without a trace – at least, that was the consensus story at that time. Today, no one would use the word "Anasazi" to describe the cliff-dwellers – the term is Navajo Apache and means something like "ancient enemies," that is, a term of disapprobation. Instead, we call the people who built Chaco Canyon and its outliers "ancestral Pueblo," and say that these Indians were the forefathers of the clans that live in the pueblos villages of the upper Rio Grande basin. The ancestral Pueblo are supposed to have migrated away from the canyons and high plateaus of the Four Corners region where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado intersect around 1200. They crossed the Jemez Mountains and established villages in the valleys between what is now Albuquerque and the Colorado border to the north.
Thus, in the 15th century, more than 20 separate pueblos occupied the hillsides and river flats of the Piedra Lumbre, or basin of the "shining stone." When the first Spaniards saw these prosperous small cities around 1598, they gave the place a more prosaic name – it was Piedra Alumbre, that is "alum stones". Alum is a mineral necessary to processes used by the Indians to dye their cloth and fabrics. (As time passed, the name elided into the more poetic Spanish phrase now used for the area around Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.) This territory was always contested land – the Spaniards built outposts in territory that had been fought over for hundreds of years by the Ute, the Jicarillo and Navajo Apaches, and the Tewa-speaking Pueblo people.
Spanish law delineated villages on the basis of the ethnic composition. Pueblos were Native American, occupied by people using a single native tongue. Espanol villages were places where the people had come from Spain or old Mexico and spoke Spanish. Jenizaro villages were an interesting hybrid – these were places where mixed race people lived, about a third of the population by 1750, polyglot by nature speaking various Indian dialects as well as Spanish. The Pueblo Indians were assiduous slave traders and made a good living purchasing hostages captured by the Comanches and warlike Apaches – most of these slaves were Paiute or Ute. In turn, the Pueblo Indians traded the hostages ransomed from the war parties to the Spanish. The Spaniards baptized these servants, or, at least, the children of these servants and, since slavery was not hereditary, a large class of half-Spanish, half-Indian (although not typically Pueblo) merchants and farmers came into existence. Snatching a word from the old Ottoman empire, these mixed blood people were called "janissaries" – the term for Christian youths supplied as tribute to the Turkish sultans, converted to Islam, and, then, serving as the elite military corps and bodyguards to the Mussulman emperors. In Spanish "janissaries" is Jenizaro – and Spanish census -takers distinguished between villages of pure-blooded Pueblo Indians and Espanol settlements and the mixed blood pueblos occupied by the Jenizaro. Abiquiu was a Jenizaro pueblo, surrounded at one time by larger, more distinguished, and more wealthy Pueblo villages.
Spanish dominion over the basin was destructive to the Kewa-speaking Pueblo people, particularly after the great Pueblo Revolt in 1680, and reprisals, disease, and ethnic cleansing resulted in the destruction or abandonment of most of the pure-blooded Pueblo villages in the Piedra Lumbre valley. Gradually, Abiquiu, with its twin Espanol village, San Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu – it is a mile to the south of the Jenizaro pueblo – became the central town in the Rio Chama valley. Indeed, this status exists today, although nothing much remains of San Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu.
Because of its distance from Santa Fe, Abiquiu was always suspected of heresy. The Christian God with his weird triune attributes was never fully accepted in these remote parts. Desert wilderness breeds all sorts of religious dissent and antinomianism and Abiquiu was no exception. Six miles south of the pueblo, a grove of ancient cottonwood trees marks the confluence of the Rio Chama with the Rio Ojo Caliente. These trees were the haunt of local witches and they terrorized travelers by manifesting themselves as will-o-wisps and wandering flames gliding through the dense woods. At Abiquiu, beginning in 1745, witch-hysteria swept through the young girls in the pueblo. Their bellies distended as if they were pregnant and the girls rolled in the dust around frothing at the mouth. This was suspected to be the work of a sorcerer named Miguel Ontiveros, called El Coyo – or "the lame one." The parish priest, Fray Toledo, denounced El Coyo and ordered him to surrender his talismans and ritual artifacts. El Coyo refused and the pestilence continued – babies died and cattle sickened. At last, Fray Toledo sent a petition to Santa Fe, demanding that inquisitors be sent to Abiquiu to haul away El Coyo and his apostles. The only way to rid the village of this plague of black magic would be burn El Coyo at the stake.
The prospect of this grisly end frightened the sorcerer and he agreed to surrender to the authorities the instruments of his power. But, even, after his medicine bundles and idols had been confiscated, the girls continued to fall prey to the demons of the air and the cattle ran mad in the fields. Fray Toledo dispatched mob of men from the village into the mountains and box canyons. Everywhere that they traveled, the men found small shrines to pagan gods, sacred trees, idols in niches pecked into the stone in the remote, echoing canyons, boulders etched with pictographs, and old mud walls fallen into disrepair around maize and squash gardens gone to seed. These shrines were smashed and the sacred trees set afire. The idols had their eyes plucked out and, it was said, that when this was done many sticks and stones shrieked with indignation, although the coyotes laughed. The rocks disfigured with picture writing were turned with their inscribed sides to the dust or smeared with soot and the priests set up forests of crosses around the ancient pueblo walls and the ruined granaries in the overhang caves in the canyon. In this way, Abiquiu’s plague of witches was brought to an end. But to this day, another name for Ghost Ranch is "Ranch of the Brujos" – that is, Ranch of the Witches.
Driving back from the Ghost Ranch, the highway crosses a high llano studded with pinon, each spherical evergreen crouching close to the clay and spaced at exact intervals from one another, the distance determined, I supposed, by the aridity of the soil – the spacing of evergreens gives the landscape an aspect of haphazard and negligent pointillism. From an overlook above the canyon, the traveler looks to the south and sees the Rio Chama, a robust river with broad shoulders rippling as it flows over small windrows of polished stones. Unlike most streams in New Mexico, this river is big enough to divide around a couple of acres of island, the cottonwood trees flaring like an accumulation of the purest gold. This intersection between autumn-resplendent leaves and red sandstone badlands cut through by the big river silver with reflected sunshine is an unique landscape in this dry country and makes the Abiquiu valley seem particularly fruitful, blessed, a proud place where nature’s forces are assembled in a particularly propitious way.
Abiquiu pueblo is concealed behind a veil of trees. The Abiquiu Inn and Café where Georgia O’Keefe spent her winters shares a parking lot with the strangely large and modern Los Clinicas del Norte, a medical facility. Tourists are sitting on the veranda of the Inn and Café. The restaurant is famous in New Mexico, four stars or five in the guidebooks with a menu featuring such things as Green Chili Relleno, Blue Corn Cake Lake Trout, and Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Bisque. I stopped at the Café to inspect the gift shop where travelers can buy medallions of various saints, cards featuring those same saints hand-painted on papyrus, books, and upscale souvenirs – Indian pots and hand-woven fabric. The place smelled of the luncheon underway and it was a sweet, intense odor. The Inn seems welcoming enough in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast way and dowagers in white slacks and breast-plates of turquoise stood among the displays of souvenirs gossiping. Somewhere in the complex, there is a windowless room with adobe brick walls and a door that locks from the outside – this was the place to which Georgia O’Keefe retired to avoid intercourse with unwanted visitors. The people in the old house called the place the "Ute Room", a reference to the fact that this was where Indian hostages were imprisoned in the first half of the 19th century, a sort of holding tank for slaves destined for the markets in Santa Fe and Taos.
A mile south of the Inn, a squat, heavy-set ruin rises among dusty mounds where the houses of the Esapanol village once were located. Nothing remains of the Spanish-speaking village any more – a couple of adobe shacks stand among an unkempt orchard and there is a car-port where a half-dozen derelict vehicles are awaiting their disassembly; a path more like a foot-trail than a road meanders down to the river.
The ruins are what remains of the church of Santa Rosa de Lima. The roof is long gone and little, noisy sparrows are playing atop the stone walls – this is no longer a building, but only the fading memory of building, the idea of a building: four walls chest-high, a pyramidal facade of field-stone that once supported the church’s tower, an entry-way under a hoop-shaped arch of wood reconstructed to delineate sacred space from the terrain outside. At the head of the nave, someone has made a small shrine. A doll-like image of Santa Rosa rests on a heap of rocks and there are some bubble-gum colored plastic flowers near the effigy, a tiny white plastic figurine of the Nino de la Atocha standing on a mud sill. A half-dozen hand-painted crosses lean casually against the stacked rock in the wall and someone has piled up a small knot of rosaries set on a fallen brick. A white six-foot tall white cross stands in front of the church’s entry, plugged into the hot, dry soil the way you might plug your cell-phone into its battery-charger. The sky overhead is limitless blue crystal – a con-trail hangs at the zenith like an inverted white candelabra.
The fat old man at Ghost Ranch told me to look for a tiny parking lot on the west side of 84 two-hundred yards on the Santa Fe side of a new Dollar General store under construction. This parking lot is at the head of a mile-long trail uphill to a ruins of an old pueblo that once occupied the high, brown terrace overlooking the river.
I found the place and walked up the hill, climbing sixty or seventy feet, to a flat, stony terrace. Passing through a crook in the fence-line, I encountered several signs warning me to stay on the trail. According to the markers, I was traversing the fields where corn and beans had been grown for the pueblo and that the rocks strewn about to the right and left of the cinder trail marked ancient plots. I looked for alignments among the stones but couldn’t detect any. Beyond the pinon dotting the plateau, I could see a clear area scuffed by some dirt roads. The trail zigzagged uphill another thirty or so feet to flat shelf marked with an interpretative sign. The clearing that I had glimpsed from the gardens below was, in fact, the place where the pueblo had been built. The patches of scuff that looked like rutted dirt roads were all that remained of the pueblo’s apartment walls. "Once about 1000 people lived in this pueblo," the sign said.
A jackrabbit flushed and darted down hill. The shadow of a large dark crow swung across the cleared space where the bare dirt paths marked the pueblo walls.
The trail ascended another sixty or seventy feet to the top of a steep dome overlooking the valley. On all sides of the height, the land fell away precipitously – the trail had curled around the steep sides of the hilltop to reach its crest. In the scatter of pinon at the hill’s crest, there were some small, round ditches. From this point, the exact outlines of the vanished pueblo could be seen as well as a couple of mounds in the plaza marking the kiva. Another marker said that the archaeologists didn’t know what the pits and old walls on the top of the hill meant. In fact, the view down the river valley from the height was impressive and, it seemed clear to me, that the rounded summit was a look-out and, probably, some kind of fortified redoubt. The spiny agave and cactus clinging to the sharply descending hillside and the isolation of this foothill from the surrounding mountains, grey and blue rising several thousand feet higher, suggested that the pueblo’s location was fundamentally defensive and that the hilltop look-out was a refuge, a place to which people could retreat in the event of an attack on the pueblo on the terrace below the steep conical mound.
Markers called the village P’Oshu ouwingeh – that is, ruin (owingeh) of the village above the muddy river (P’Oshu). The Tewa named the Rio Chama, the "muddy river" because of its characteristically murky appearance. As I later learned, the actual name of the pueblo’s ruins in the late 19th century was "the Turquoise House." In those days, knee-high walls of adobe were still standing and, if you kicked at the dust in the old plaza, turquoise would glisten back at you, as wet-looking as a spring in the desert. The town, inhabited by a thousand people in 1450, was burned by enemies and evacuated with such alacrity that most of the village’s pottery, stored grain, and fine-worked turquoise was simply abandoned. For this reason, the place was heavily looted. It was excavated by archaeologists in 1919 and the scuff marks on the terrace were all that remained of the big, three-story walls stacked with living quarters that had once surrounded the bright, yellow sand of the plaza.
It was a lonely place, no pinon tall enough to afford any shelter against the white incandescence of the sun, and, therefore, scorched. The name for the house used by the people in the Jenizaro pueblo of Abiquiu was suppressed, I suppose, to keep hikers from being tempted to wander around in the rutted ruins themselves, plucking at the uncommunicative earth to make it yield carved gemstones and shards of painted pottery.