Wednesday, November 16, 2016
NEW MEXICO DIARY -- J (Bernallilo -- Arkansas travelers -- New Mexico landscapes -- Jemez pueblo and canyon -- a ruin -- an encounter with a Kachina -- Los Alamos and Pojoaque.)
Bernalillo from West 550 is an interminable strip mall in treeless desert, fast food places and car dealerships and poisonous-looking little strip malls lined up along both sides of heavy traffic coming and going. No vegetation conceals the ugliness of this commerce and the bright sunlight is clinical, dispassionate, blazing off the chrome and the gaudy storefronts and the cars and trucks lined-up at the traffic lights. This seems an improbable place for a state park, but there is some open land tucked into the commercial property to the north of the highway, Coronado State Park, a historical site protecting the ruins of a large Tewa pueblo.
The place is as efficient in its blunt way as the fast foods joints and the gas stations ranked along 550. A parking lot huddles close to the visitor center. A high fence protects the site, but you can peer through the chain-links and see the wares on display – a tract of reconstructed pueblo consisting of cheerless little cells linked by crawlspaces, a kiva raised a six feet above the desert pavement where a burly-looking female park ranger is lecturing a dozen senior citizens, a loop trail running along the perimeter of fenced-in area with signs at interval identifying features worth scrutinizing; the enclosed area is barren and sun-blasted. A few Indian women are sitting in shade of a ramada on one side of the visitor center, trays turquoise jewels at their feet.
In the warm visitor center, a group of elderly tourists from Arkansas are joshing with the park ranger assigned desk-duty. She collects money for admission and repeats a little introductory spiel about the park. "There are no photos allowed in the Kiva," the woman says. "What’s a kiva?" an old guy with crooked teeth asks her. He grins; she grins. It’s complicated to explain, but she tries. These old retired men and woman are in no hurry – perhaps, they are snow-birds at a trailer park somewhere in the desolate wasteland between Albuquerque and Bernalillo. They fumble with their wallets and offer to pay for one another and talk about steak dinners at the local casinos while the park ranger says something the religion of the ancestral Pueblo and their Kivas. Coronado visited this pueblo, a thriving place in 1540, the so-called "Evergreen" village. The Spaniards were impressed by the orderly little city, its good governance, and prosperity. Someone wrote a report in which he said that "here the Indians live in complete equality."
In the fenced-in area, there’s nothing to see that you can’t view from the parking lot. The site of the old pueblo is a dusty plaza once enclosed by three-story adobe apartments. The nasty little mud-brick boxes on one side of the plaza simulate what the foundation level was like – it looks like a half-finished construction site. I stay away from the Kiva – too many old people are struggling with the wood-timber ladder that drops down through the vent on the top of the structure. I hear voices echoing from underground, inane questions, exclamations of joy or disappointment. At the edge of the plaza, I pause to look at a few adobe bricks, precariously piled heaps of adobe about two feet high, standing amid the tufts of soapweed and the agave. I’m strangely moved by fragmentary walls, so small and unprotected – it seems a kick might knock them over or effect a phase change from their solid form to drifting, wind-blown dust. The humble evidence of the past is passing away even as we watch, a fallne brick eroding into mere clotted clay.
Outside the enclosure, you can walk down to a low terrace overlooking the Rio Grande. The river’s closeness to the Pueblo was its raison d’etre – here the river makes a bend and the sun-stippled main channel, shedding glistening rivulets on both sides, pierces a windrow of water-polished pebbles. The cottonwood trees look soft from this vantage, almost wooly and, beyond, there is the mammoth silhouette of Sandia Mountain, timeless, I suppose, its lower ramparts spiked by shark’s tooth pinnacles.
A siren sounds on 550 an eighth mile away and I can see the moving red light carried like sprinter’s torch through the traffic.
550 rises imperceptibly toward a ridge marked by small volcanic vents set at intervals like chimneys on the horizon, each occupying a dozen acres of black, chipped stone. The strip malls give way to housing developments, although the road remains commercial, lined with liquor stores and supper clubs and C-stores. It’s all very horizontal and disheartening and, then, the highway crests the ridge and Bernalillo vanishes. Ahead, the vista is empty, buttes like clouds floating over grey basins and the higher sierra of the Jemez mountains rising in blue, rippled ribbons up into the blue sky. On a nub of higher land, a flattened mesa like a pier rising over some pinkish badlands, I can see the Zia Pueblo. The Zia sun sign is the emblem for New Mexico and you can see that mark on each license plate, a circle from which four rays (short, long, long, short) emanate in each of the directions of the compass.
My plan is to drive a loop through the Jemez Mountains, north on highway 4 through Jemez Springs and, then, to Los Alamos and Pojoaque Pueblo, a place about 11 miles north of Santa Fe. On the map, the loop seems to encompass about sixty miles and so I assume that I will be able to make the drive, with a few short stops in ninety minutes or so. But the map is misleading. Highway 4 is posted 50 miles per hour, but, almost immediately, dives into a dusty, red-rock canyon, where the road twists and turns under barren eroded hills. Then, the highway passes through the Jemez Pueblo, a scatter of houses stretched out long the floor of the canyon for six or seven miles, the entire way marked 20 miles per hour. This Pueblo seems prosperous – the little dwellings are well-kept with neat gardens of cactus and the tight valley is radiant with resplendent golden cottonwoods gathered along the watercourse meandering beneath the bright sunny cliffs. Some of the houses climb up the sides of canyon, linked by dusty tracks in the dry arroyos. The tribe operates a friendly and very busy convenience store and gas station on the edge of the village – the restrooms are clean and the young people behind the counter are beaming. In the parking lot, smashed-up Indian cars, barely operable, snort like mules and little kids sucking on candy stand along the roadside waiting for an uncle or cousin to come along and give them a lift back home.
The canyon is deeper beyond the reservation with sheer granite heights where mica glitters in the sun. Apparently, the road runs uphill although it follows the course of river dropping in stages from the mountains above and so the change in elevation is not perceptible. Apparently, this part of the gorge is not zoned and the effect is a bit like Sedona – rich people have built cantilevered glass cottages improbably perched atop spires of rock and asphalt driveways zigzag up sheer hillsides to other houses shadowing the canyon. A sort of ersatz Cape Cod village occupies the belly of the canyon, stretched like salt-water taffy along the course of the river that now falls with increasing violence over steps and slides of boulders. It’s all resorts and campgrounds in shadowy depths of this canyon, most of the curves marked with crosswalks and posted 15 miles per hour and, as the road climbs, the way is increasingly nothing but curves, all of them blind as the road undulates and wraps in a braid around the rushing stream. The canyon walls are sheer on the heights above, rising up to pointed pyramids of rock that are the tops of the mountains. The congestion is unfortunate, although its quiet enough today – the Shady Nook campground, the Inn of the Leaping Lizard, the Bodhi Mindful Buddha Center, the Gypsy Springs Resort, each place stick-built with Queen Ann style adornments: dentils, painted balustrades, Dutch gables and filigree eaves and houses with Widow’s Walk turrets to look down the canyon or up to the rocky summits. It’s incongruous particularly since the gorge is wild and the watercourse, although mild today and sunlit with little spurts and flashes of white water, seems potentially deadly as evidenced by boulders and heaps of stone pushed here and there in the bottom of the canyon.
At the upper edge of Jemez Springs, huge ruins loom over a sandy hillside.
There’s a parking lot next to a sloping acreage studded with red walls and enclosed by a fence. On the nearby road, traffic crawling up the canyon passes intermittently. Across the highway, a big church obstructs half the gorge, a spray of mosaic above its tall doors.
Jemez State Historical Monument protects what remains of a huge church and convent compound built adjacent to a what was once a large and thriving pueblo. The mission was built before 1630, fifty years before the great Pueblo Rebellion overturned the encomienda system and, briefly, expelled the Europeans from north central New Mexico. Events occurring before the 1680 rebellion are obscure and very little seems to be known about these massive ruins – the great walls of chipped and flaking red sandstone are a looming, well-nigh ineradicable presence, a brute reminder of something although it isn’t clear what happened here. Apparently, Spanish missionaries exploring the canyon slicing through the Jemez Mountains encountered a large pueblo at this place, Giusewa or Hot Springs Village. The Indians must have been curious about the new religion and friendly and, so, with their labor, the mission was built around the church of San Jose de los Jemez. No one is sure when the site was abandoned or why. Similarly, no one knows what happened to the populous pueblo within a stone’s throw of the church. The entire enterprise drops off the written record before the Pueblo Revolt, but, of course, the absence of writing doesn’t necessarily mean that the mission had ceased to exist or lay in ruins. In fact, archaeological studies suggest that the Indians, probably much diminished by pestilence, may have run the Mission on their own for several years or, even, decades. All that is conclusively known is that the Anglo ranchers who came to this area in the 19th century found huge and silent ruins, crumbling walls of stone with corrals and granaries and, even, Convento buildings, all collapsed into great quarries of sandstone.
An Indian girl protects the site from a desk in the Visitor Center. For some reason, the small museum smells strongly of sewage – it’s a pungent, eye-watering odor. On the wall, there is a 19th century Penitente crucifix, a haggard image of torture carved in gnarled wood and, near the foul-smelling restrooms, a blow-up of a black and white photograph of the canyon, circa 1910, the pinon and sage dusted with snow and some bedraggled-looking cattle, also snow-bearded, a bull mounting a cow in the foreground.
I pass through the door onto the acreage and walk among the ruins. The ancient church was built as a fortress and its sandstone walls are, at least, six feet thick, heaps of boulders stacked together in the shape of the rock’s natural angle of repose – that is, the walls tapering upward, pyramidal-shaped and fundamentally immoveable. The roof forty or fifty feet above is long gone, but the outline of the tower remains, a jagged outcropping poised against the sky. Excavations suggest that the inside of the church was studded with local gem-stones, selenite and turquoise, and that there were richly colored murals painted on the packed-clay walls – none of this is visible today. Soaring overhead are sandstone pinnacles, natural rock towers guarding the ramparts of the canyon. The pueblo was more gently built, less monumental and more in accord with the clay and the mud at the river banks, and nothing remains of it, except some shadows on the hillside, a rebuilt kiva that you can enter if you are willing to navigate the ladder leading down into the darkness. Before the Pueblo Revolt, the priests tried to eradicate all traces of the old kivas, regarding them as Estufas (that is, altars) of idolatry. This kiva shows signs of having been burnt at some point. More ruins, also with cyclopean walls stand uphill from the big rectangular church.
It’s sunny on the hillside and, as I am walking among the big, broken walls, a winged being soars overhead, casting the shadow of its fringed pinion over the sandstone rubble.
It takes me another half-hour to ascend to the head of canyon. The top of the gorge is narrow with dark basalt jaws and the river rages in its deep, shadowy incision in the mountain side. There is a big soda dam of travertine impounding a lake, some waterfalls, and, then, the road tears itself free of the canyon now too narrow for the highway bed, and cuts curving through meadows and low rounded hills, actually the peaks of the Jemez Mountains – this is high sierra with bright meadows and snow-melt ponds full of cattails, boggy places between the stony ridges.
After eight or nine miles of bends and s-curves, highway 4 crests another ridge overlooking a huge oblong valley. The valley is lush with tall, autumn-brown grass and ringed with steep wooded hills rearing up over the basin six or seven-hundred feet. The big open amphitheater looks something like Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park and jeep trails drop down from the highway to crisscross in the vast grassy meadow. This is the Valley of the Caldera, the where the peak of an immense volcano collapsed into itself leaving a crater now healed with tall-grass prairie and ringed by the densely wooded hilltops that comprise the rim of the volcanic cauldron. Great forest fires burned in the area in 2002 and the east walls of the crater are charred and studded with stark black tree trunks. The old caldera, I suppose, was familiar with fire and understood that element well and, perhaps, the heart and soul of the big crater was pleased to see the flames surging and writhing in the forests on its rim. Once more the crater was misty with smoke and exhaling a great sooty plume over the mountains.
The road winding along the south rim of the Valles Caldera is relatively straight, riding in and out of the shadow of the cool forests the edge the open meadows. I can drive fairly fast, sometimes reaching 50 mph. Elk are supposed to be grazing in the huge grassland, but I don’t see any. People bottled up behind me on the narrow curving road, pass by – pickups and family sedans hustling toward the hilltop and, the hairpin curves dropping down to Los Alamos. Something shrieks overhead and, then, I see a shadow the size, it seems, of a helicopter, a great black wing dragged over the landscape, and I look up and see that the condor is passing, an immense winged being only a dozen feet or so above my windshield and, as I look up, I see that the being’s feet are not talons but human hands, two clenched human fists, raw and flayed, but, nonetheless, the hands of a man that are dangling down just a little above my vehicle. I’m alarmed and feel a wave of panic, swerving a little into the oncoming lane. The winged being soars up over the center of the caldera, a black speck immobile against the vast landscape.
The east-facing mountains rimming the caldera are all sooty, dust devils of ash among the pillars of seared trees. Because there is no underbrush, no undergrowth, I can see down into the canyons radiating away from the peaks surrounding the volcanic crater – the canyons are thousands of feet deep, black and stony, frightening abysses just to the right and left of highway. In the distance, I can see the sinister white roofs of the Los Alamos laboratories. (Apparently, the work in these places is highly explosive because each technical area with its small cooling towers and white-metal sheds is separated by a mile or more from other allied labs. The facilities are scattered across the high pine-covered plateau, linked by a network of narrow gravel roads.) The road bends around the mountain in alarming hairpin turns, descending the side of a burnt gorge to the pine forests on the plateau a thousand feet below.
At the intersections all signs in all directions point to Los Alamos. I pass some of the technical areas with their tall barbed fences and sentry posts, surveillance cameras mounted on steel poles pointing toward the LANS hangars backed up into tight, cliff-edged box canyons, and, ultimately, drive along a commercial strip at the edge of Los Alamos – there is a Swedish style walking and calisthenics trail next to the highway and some Nobel laureate physicists are marching there, bespectacled eyes glinting in the bright sun, sunburn on their forearms and necks and foreheads, pumping arms up and down vigorously for a good cardio-workout.
A four-lane highway speeds away from Los Alamos and that road drops thousands of feet into grey and yellow badlands at the foot of the mountains. I get gas at Pojoaque, a pueblo on the road to Santa Fe. The loop has taken me three and a half hours to drive.