NEW MEXICO DIARY – H
In 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam across the Rio Chama north of Abiquiu. This dam impounded a body of water called Abiquiu lake and submerged several thousand river-bottom acres in the Piedra Lumbra basin. Inundated by the lake was the so-called River Ranch of Juan de Dios, one of the original haciendas in the area. In her excellent book on the Piedra Lumbra basin, Valley of Shining Stone, Leslie Poling-Kempes describes an old-timer rowing a boat over the featureless surface of the lake looking for signs of the old River Ranch. The woman in the boat couldn’t see any of the buildings submerged under more than 100 feet of water, but she was able to glimpse the ancient cottonwoods that had shaded the old stone buildings – the trees seemed to reach their branches up toward the hot sun reflecting off the surface of the lake, a sight that the witness recalled as something that would haunt her for the rest of her life. The Rio Chama is notoriously murky and the story seems more symbolic than factual – the lake with its devastating waters stands for change, for the modern world, for forces that would inevitably swamp and alter this remote part of the United States forever.
The lake was controversial. It brought water sports enthusiasts to Abiquiu, but destroyed eagle and beaver habitats and sprawled across formerly prime grazing lands. The lake demonstrated that the old families living in the basin had virtually no power over the lands that they regarded as ancestral. Ultimately, the lake combined with other forces active in the region to result in a conflict characteristic of New Mexico, the Range War, a conflict over scarce resources waged by men emboldened by the remote and wild terrain to imagine themselves as above the law.
I drove north on the road to Jicarillo Apache reservation and its tribal capitol at Chama. The highway advances across the Piedra Lumbra basin toward an escarpment eight or nine-hundred feet high. The escarpment is wooded along its upper ramparts and there are higher cliffs and terraces rising up toward the high mesas to the north – it is a kind of escalante, a series of cliffs stacked on top of one another like stairs rising to the stony and barren heights of the sierra. As the highway approaches the escarpment, a deep canyon extends to the east, slashing through the cliff country – this is Navajo Canyon, the old slot through the northern mountains used by war parties raiding south the Pueblo villages on the upper Rio Grande. The canyon cuts through colored rock strata tilting up out of the basin.
As the highway veers to the east to follow the canyon away from the Rio Chama, the towering cliff front overhangs the llano and slabs of rock have collapsed from those overhangs, opening two water-stained cavities in the escarpment. The huge amphitheater-shaped indentations in the escarpment look vaguely like vast, empty eye-sockets. A narrow asphalt lane leads north a quarter mile to a pinon forest cupped in the hollow in the cliffside and affords a vantage of the north-east cave under the escarpment rim. This place is called Echo Amphitheater.
We are in terrain that is similar to the high island mesas in the Four Corners area – desert bottomlands lapping up around vast flat-topped mountains whose cool heights are heavily wooded. These mesas are riven by canyons, similar to the one in which Echo Amphitheater is located, and, where the four states intersect, the overhang shelters eroded in the cliffs often harbor abandoned masonry villages, elegant-looking habitations with circular watchtowers and lofty granaries inserted into crevasses in the chalky rock. These are the so-called cliff dwellings of the people once called Anasazi, but now named the "ancestral Puebloans." The dramatic shell-shaped hollow in the escarpment at Echo Amphitheater contains no ruins – by the time the Pueblo people reached this place, they were living in apartment-style walled towns similar to the Turquoise Pueblo on the hillside overlooking Abiquiu. I presume that excavations at the base of the vast overhang have uncovered ceremonial sites, hunting encampments, and other features of that sort, but there was no village here. Apparently, the sonic qualities of the amphitheater, the great smooth stone walls reflecting sound in complex reverberations, made the place attractive to orators – Pueblo speakers came here to practice their speeches, casting their words out against the huge reflective shell of the mountain wall. Indeed, the carved-out cliff-side is a natural landmark and has been a magnet for rabble-rousers of all kinds.
It costs two dollar to park inside the gate at Echo Amphitheater. An asphalt path leads among the dwarf pinon up to a point where there is a pulpit-shaped platform directly under the overhanging rock. There is a notch in the half-dome of pale salmon-colored rock rising up to the cliff-top. The notch is a pour-off where water falls in intermittent cascades down through the half-oculus of the half-dome. Falling rainwater has inscribed itself on the cliff-face as a tangle of hundred-foot long strands, black scuff marks that form a sort of scraggly horse-tail written on the stone high above. The tops of the cliff is amarillo, that is, a light saffron-colored hue, the tint of Spanish rice. The dark watermarks might be construed as a woman’s long hair, or a Medusa-tangle of snakes hanging head-down from the bright notched opening where the capstone of the arch should be – of course, that capstone has fallen, not once but innumerable times as the cliff-top has receded under the relentless force of gravity and house-sized boulders and talus are strewn around within the area sheltered by the overhang. In fact, there are cottage-shaped boulders rolled hundreds of feet downhill from the area beneath the overhang.
Some people on the trail with me had a bad dog with them. The dog was a puppy and had eaten a breakfast burrito designated for one of its owners. The dog trotted happily up the path to the pedestal-shaped outlook under the cliff-face. Voices resounded against the rock, echoing back and forth. The bad dog yipped once and heard that bark repeated by the echoing stone; this made the dog bark again, triggering another series of echos that seemed to taunt the hound into further outcries. Alarmed, the dog danced on the end of his leash and, then, lunged at the tormenting sky from which the echos came.
I climbed the steps up to the overlook. In front of me, there was a chaos of fallen rocks. The pour-off overhead pointed down at me with its thirty braided strands of water-mark. Your neck aches with craning and, looking skyward, to where the yellow cliff-top casts its shadow downward, you feel dizzy – its vertiginous to look up toward the cupped saffron hands of escarpment and see the void of the blue sky there, a hazy calligraphy of con-trails marking the firmament.
A Latino man with his wife was standing on the paved height of the vantage point. He approached me. The woman was wearing sunglasses and peering disdainfully at all of the geology exposed around her – most women aren’t too impressed with geological wonders unless they extrude turquoise and gold for their adornment. The man seemed moved to the point of tears. "Sir, sir..." he asked. "Can you tell me what happened here? How was this made? Please tell me if you know."
I could have told him, I suppose, that the lower layers of the cliff-face, appearing like salmon filets in the present light, were softer than the capstone and that this had resulted in differential rates of erosion and, therefore, the creation of a huge hollow place like this at the face of the escarpment, a phenomenon that if pressed to its natural conclusion results in the strange sandstone fins like breaching whales and arches of southwest Utah. I could have told him that the prevailing winds presumably scooped-out the hollow with the assistance of bores of water incising the soft stone from the pour-off above. I could have said that a god in the form of a mighty eagle fell in love with a Pueblo girl and pursued her across the barren plain to this rock rampart and that trapped there, her back to the cliff, the girl prayed that she might be saved and, then, the rock opened to embrace her and she entered into the stone and left only the traces of her long black hair as monument to her terror and the god’s lust.
"I don’t know," I said. "I guess the prevailing winds maybe scoop it out. You can see the pour-off up there." I pointed. The man seemed agitated. What immense and sinister phenomena could create a place this grandiose? "Could be," he said. "Could be."
I wrote a series of short stories about a great white mountain in south-central Colorado. On a plane flight from Phoenix in May, the airplane soared over the white mountain and I could see it clearly, a wilderness of sand-dunes heaped up along its western slopes. The white mountain is the eastern of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo, Blanca Mountain or, in the Athabaskan dialect spoken by those Indians, Tsisnajiini – that is, "white shell of the dawn" mountain. However, for narrative reasons, I conflated Blanca Peak with Culebra Mountain. Culebra Mountain is the only one of the peaks in Colorado exceeding 14,000 feet – it’s 14,053 feet high – that is entirely on private land; in other words, a wealthy man owns this mountain. In my short stories, accordingly, Culebra and Blanca Peaks are confused with one another and the fictional mountain has attributes of both summits.
One of the days that I spent in New Mexico, I drove north and made a loop through the high mountains around Wheeler Peak near the Colorado border above Taos. It was a beautiful and long drive. On the radio, I listened to a public-affairs station in Taos, an affiliate of the radio broadcasting from the campus of the University of Northern New Mexico in Santa Fe. To the extent that New Mexico is liberal, it is rabidly, vehemently Left-wing. Public radio in Taos and Santa Fe is not merely left-leaning – it is Maoist - Secessionist Left-wing. On one show, a public official from Venezuela berated American listeners for not supporting Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government. Astrologers pontificated upon Jung and America’s "daddy fantasies" in the context of the upcoming presidential election. Green party candidates discussed monkey-wrenching pipeline projects and other infra-structure on Federal land. And, for three hours, the university at Santa Fe broadcast a forum on land rights and community activism in the context of forty-four years of litigation involving a mountain somewhere in Colorado. Gradually, after about an hour, I recognized that the speakers who succeeded one another, each more strident than the last, were talking about Culebra Peak in Colorado. I heard names that I recognized, fabled bad guys in the fight over that private-property mountain, Jack Taylor and his son, Zachary Taylor, the Enron executives who bought the mountain from Taylor, and Judge Gaspar Perricone.
Culebra Peak was originally part of the Anza land grant from the Spanish crown in the early 18th century. Land grants of this kind vested an estate in a single individual, a sort of feudal lord, who, then, provided common water rights and other amenities to the villages living within his domain – the villagers are called Pobladores. The Pobladores have grazing and timber rights in the commons, can hunt there, extract mineral resources subject to supervision of the Spanish crown, and can gather medicinal herbs in the mountain meadows and forests. Several small Espanol villages were built on the plains surrounding the mountain and their inhabitants had Pobladore rights consistent with the Spanish land grant. The Spanish land grant was affirmed in 1806 when the Pobladore rights to the commons, the peak called "la Sierra", was reestablished by the Mexican government. The Espanol villages are to the west of the mountain and, culturally, New Mexican. Although Colorado’s first governor purchased the peak and the adjacent lands after the treaty of Guadulupe Hidalgo in 1848, in practice, no one tried to exploit the mountain and efforts to sell land to Anglos by the Costilla Land Company failed. The Pobladore villages declined in population – indeed, by 1960, several had become ghost-towns. Although a consortium of Denver businessmen owned the land, the place was remote, only seven miles from the New Mexico border, and no one paid much attention to the mountain. A local man named Delfino Salazar, the operator of a general store in Costilla, was regarded, informally, as the mountain’s proprietor. He was an easy-going fellow and anyone who wanted access was provided it.
In 1960, Jack Taylor, a North Carolina timber mogul, bought the mountain and environs and established a 77,000 acre ranch with the peak at its center. Taylor promptly closed the mountains to the Pobladores – the surviving Espanol villagers were barred from the land, told that they couldn’t venture onto the ranch, and lost their economic base, sheep herding and cattle grazing on the slopes of La Sierra. A lawsuit to re-establish Pobladore rights began in 1981. (An earlier lawsuit brought by Delfino Salazar and his family was lost in the early ‘sixties.) Denver lawyers appearing pro bono publicum initiated litigation asserting that the villagers had enforceable legal rights by prescription – that is, long history granted them all rights exercised between 1806 and 1960 on the basis of adverse possession: since certain rights had been exercised historically, those rights were prescribed to the present-day successors of the original Pobladores.
The fight over Culebra Mountain was intense and not without violence. Night-riders fired volleys of rifle shots into Taylor’s ranch buildings and his hunting lodge was burned several times. Jack Taylor died during the lawsuit and his son, Zachary Taylor, acceded to ownership. Pickup trucks and outbuildings were pierced by sniper fire. Fence-lines were cut and more buildings burned. The La Sierra movement cited Malcolm X – a woman speaking at the land forum in 2005 said that she was determined to recover her traditional rights to the mountain "by any means necessary" and, ultimately, the legal battle became a test of Latino power in the new West. During the protracted litigation, the Taylor family leased much of the mountain to a timber harvesting company and began to systematically despoil the property. The State of Colorado repeatedly tried to end the lawsuit by acquiring the land but the Taylor family declined all offers. In 1997, Lou Pai, an Enron executive, bought the ranch from the Taylors – he paid for the ranch with money that he was later ordered to pay to the Securities and Exchange Commission for wrongdong at Enron. By 2001, the ranch was tied-up in litigation between claimants who had lost money in the Enron debacle and Pai. That litigation seems to be ongoing. La Sierra’s case to enforce a prescriptive easement running to the benefit of the Pobladores ended in June of 2004. The District Judge, the Hon. Gaspar Perricone, sitting in Costilla decreed that the descendants of the original Spanish settlers in the area had rights to use the mountain by prescriptive easement – these included sheep and cattle grazing rights, a right to collect and cut timber on the mountain, a right to hike and otherwise enter the property for religious and recreational purposes, and the right to collect medicinal herbs on the peak.
The Latina woman who acted as chair of the land rights forum didn’t exactly understand the legal issues. The rights of the fee-title holders on the land, the successors to Pai and Taylor, are servient to the traditional rights granted to the Pobladores by prescriptive easement. The lady-activist repeatedly said that "the Judge ruled that Pai and Taylor are subservient to us and that we don’t have to be subservient to them." She said that she was now 64 and that the lawsuit had been initiated by her father, a relative of Delfino Salazar, when she was a young woman, only twenty years old, and studying Chicano rights on scholarship at Berkeley in California. "I am old now," she said in heavily accented English, "but God willing, I am going to climb Culebra this summer. I am going to drag myself to that summit even if it kills me so that I can look down at this mountain that has been our mother and our guardian during all the time our people lived in this valley." She pronounced "Culebra", a word meaning "harmless snake" with an "l" and "br" so swallowed that, at first, I couldn’t recognize the name, although I had previously spent some hours learning about the history of the mountain. The Court did not grant hunting rights to the Pobladores – presumably this omission was because Taylor and his successors had used La Sierra for big-game hunting and had stocked the ranch with antelope and big horn rams for that purpose. (It seems Judge Perricone’s ruling was reached on compromise grounds.)
The woman said that each family named in the class action lawsuit had been granted a key that could be used to unlock ranch gates and afford access to the peak. But issuance of these keys had created further divisions in the Espanol community – a number of families initiated suit in 1960 when the mountain was first closed. These families lost their lawsuit and, accordingly, their members were barred from participation in the second, protracted, but successful lawsuit, begun in 1981. As a result of this litigation history, involving res judicata preclusion of some of the families from access to the mountain, tensions arose in the community. The woman speaking on the radio said that this was a tragedy. But, she said, "you must use your keys." "If you don’t exercise your key-holder rights, you will lose those rights," she proclaimed
The program ended and the announcer said that the forum just broadcast had occurred in 2005. This was the year after the victory in the Costilla County Courthouse. I wondered whether the outspoken and strident community activist had reached the mountain peak. Was she still alive? Were the key-holders still hiking the mountain meadows in search of medicinal plants? Did community sheep and cattle graze on the heights now?
I reached the crest of the pass near Angel Fire, only a six-hundred foot climb through a chilly pine-forest to the hilltop overlooking the mountain meadows, an ascent by highway of two miles, but, then, another 15 long serpentine miles down to Taos. I descended through different climactic zones: the tall, aromatic Douglas fir became shorter denser pines trees, then, chaparral with scattered pinon, then, raw and dusty arroyos studded with cactus. A woman came on the air and made this announcement: "I am Cellist. I am in recovery from western civilization." She spoke for an hour about being a Luddite and monkey-wrencher. It was a little before noon. The next half-hour was devoted to a presentation about narcissism, followed by an hour-long show about the use hallucinogens and mediation to achieve inner peace.
I ended up in Espanola where all roads in north-central New Mexico converge. For a time, I drove on State Highway 106, the so-called Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway. The Yogi was a Sikh holy man who took up residence in Espanola and became a close adviser to New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson. Yogi Bhajan was a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and the spiritual founder of the 3HO Foundation. 3HO means Healthy, Holy, Happy Organization.
The Latino activism swirling around Culebra Peak had its analog in the Piedra Lumbra. The Range War in Rio Arriba county arose from a heady mixture of Civil Rights protest with a classic New Mexico clash over grazing rights, the latter th e same sort of dispute that ignited the famous, and deadly, Lincoln County War (and that made Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid famous).
Beginning in 1947, the National Forest began issuing grazing permits. These permits seem to be granted primarily to Anglo ranchers with large, industrialized cattle operations. Local communities asserted that grazing rights were being provided to the rich and powerful, but not to the Espanol shepherds and cowboys who had used the land for hundreds of years. Things came to a head around 1964, when a mysterious organization called the Abiquiu Corporation began posting no trespassing signs on National Forest Service land. The Abiquiu Corporation was a group of Latino pobladores living in the area, people who felt that they had been discriminated against by the Forest Service with respect to grazing permits. Members of the Abiquiu Corporation cut fences and barricaded forest roads. Cattle went missing and everyone armed themselves for a fight.
In October 1967, another militant group closely aligned with the Abiquiu Corporation, the Alianza Federale de las Mercedes ("the Federal Alliance of Land Grants") set up a tent city in the campground at Echo Amphitheater. The Alianza Federale was led by Reias Lopez Tijerina, nicknamed "El Tigre" or "the Tiger." Tijerina called for the restoration Spanish land grant rights to the pobladores in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest. The Alianza Federale was heavily armed and its members arrested the two Forest Service rangers sent to investigate and collect camping fees at the Echo Amphitheater campground. The two men were hauled under the huge resounding arch of the rock overhang where they were charged with all sorts of crimes and publicly put on trial for "illegally trespassing" on Spanish land grant property. Armed federal marshals invaded the camp, evicted the Alianza members, and rescued to the two Forest Service workers. El Tigre withdrew from Echo Amphitheater but, then, issued a declaration that the Alianza had formed an army 2000 strong and that the militants intended to annex over 600,000 acres of land allegedly stolen from the pobladores. On June 3, 1967 El Tigre hosted a barbecue at the tiny hamlet of Coyote on the south side of the Piedra Lumbra basin – the Alianza had declared that it was seceding from the United States to establish its own government on the Land Grant territory. Law enforcement surrounded the village and arrested ten members of the Alianza on charges of illegal assembly. The captured Alianza activists were locked up at the Rio Arriba county jail in Tierra Amarillo, the county seat. El Tigre deputized about 20 men as soldiers of the Pueblo Republica de San Joaquin, the People’s Republic of San Joaquin, as the new, secessionist nation was called. On June 5, 1967, the twenty soldiers comprising the army of the People’s Republic attached the Tierra Amarillo courthouse. Two deputies were shot, but the attack failed – the Judge and his staff locked themselves in the Judge’s chambers and wouldn’t come out. There was a desultory exchange of gunfire for a few hours and, then, at sunset the militants fled the Courthouse not having rescued their members but with two hostages in tow.
Two-thousand law enforcment officers, including the New Mexico National Guard, were summoned to the Piedra Lumbra. Headquarters were established at Ghost Ranch and machine gun posts were planted on the bluffs overlooking the basin. M-42 tanks rolled into Tierra Amarillo and Alianza sympathizers were rounded up and forced into a sheep pen at the hamlet of Canjilon. The interred men, women, and children were supposed to be bait to lure the militants with El Tigre down from the mountains where they were hiding – it was an old technique that the US army had developed to force Apache warriors to engage with troops pursing them. El Tigre and his men didn’t take the bait and so the hostages were released after spending a cold night in the open in the sheep pen. Helicopters searched the mountain ranges for the 20 armed men comprising the Republic of San Joaquin’s army. Although news imagery showing the dispute was intensely exciting – men with cowboy hats and machine guns riding horseback through the brush – most of the country was never aware of the Rio Arriba war. War had also broken out in the Middle East and everyone’s attention was directed to that conflict between Egypt and Israel – the so-called Six Day War.
El Tigre was captured sleeping in a parked car in Albuquerque. Some of his army were arrested; other valientes couldn’t be found. Two years later, in 1969, El Tigre mobilized again, sending a posse to occupy the Ghost Ranch. The Alianza claimed the Ghost Ranch was originally an Espanol enterprise and that the Presbyterian Church, now in control of the facility, should surrender it to the Alianza. The director of the Ghost Ranch camp, Reverend Jim Hall met with militants and placated them with home-cooked cookies He reinforced himself with the two Catholic priests from Abiquiu. After a tense meeting, the Ghost Ranch enterprise offered to pay $50,000 compensation in the form of underwriting a local medical clinic and, further, donated a feed lot on the premises to a local ranchers cooperative. These measures satisfied most the Alianza member and, in fact, the large and nicely maintained Los Clinicas del Norte next to the Abiquiu Inn attests to the success of the settlement. The feed lot was also profitable and conflict was averted. El Tigre was not satisfied with these measures and he was arrested a month later burning down National Forest Service signs. The militant had been released on bail pending trial for his other misdeeds. Bail was revoked and El Tigre was sent to a Federal Penitentiary.
Ultimately, Ghost Ranch was donated lock, stock, and barrel to the National Forest Service, the authority that now manages the premises. In 1975, the U. S. Government distributed deeds to Pobladores living near the Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu – land was carved out of the Kit Carson National Forest to be given to these people as homesteads. Two moradas built in the 19th century by the Penitente Hermanos, but completely abandoned in the sixties and seventies were renovated and are now functioning.