Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon

We got the roof trusses up on the house in Questa, with a large crew, some tool belt envy on the part of the amateurs as we had two seasoned pros up on the top plate. They walked as though they were on sidewalks, and swung hammers that Thor would have liked, and the rest of us just did the best we could. 

So away back down to Taos and then west through Tres Piedras and the lovely mountains of Carson National Forest, and then through Tierra Amarilla, the Yellow Earth.  I’m pretty sure this is the edge of the Colorado Plateau, the huge hunk of sedimentary rock in all the colors dirt can be, that got pushed up to erode into so many fantastic sights.  Towering yellow buttes are all around the lake where I stop for the night, and more and more of them appear on my drive across the dam and over 16 miles of dirt road. Wide grassy places along a creek that winds through the bluffs, and in all that way, I saw only a cow or two.

A bit of highway and then I am being bashed about by what has to be the worst dirt road ever.  It is flat, and seems to be graded regularly, but it has sections that have corduroy bumps so huge that no speed will iron them out. My tools leap about in the truck, and when I get to the park campground, a lot of things in the trailer are on the floor that normally ride just fine.  Mostly just a mess, a bottle of olive oil tipped over in the pantry, dirt and fuzz vibrated out of the back of closets, the printer was hanging by its plug.. The road and the distance and the lack of hook ups at the campground mean only the most hardy and determined folks will come out here, so the campground is pretty subdued.

Chaco Canyon is a wide mysterious place, mesas and buttes of yellow sandstone in a dry wash, and tucked against the walls, the great houses of the Chacoan culture. They are stone, laid in a masterful series of courses of large and small cut stone, some three stories tall, and the largest covering several acres of rooms, round Kivas, and the open plaza, all inside a low wall.  They were built beginning about 900 AD, reached a peak in    and by 1300, the whole complex was deserted including outlying houses over a huge area of this corner of the world.

No one really knows what they did here, a lot of pottery was found, and traded items such as turquoise, Pacific and Gulf of Mexican shells, parrot feathers and bones from the south. There are vestiges of roads, straight as compass lines connecting to outlying houses all over the 4 corners area.  The walls line up with compass points and astronomical points, and high on a small butte, sun light passes through slots in the rocks, framing and bisecting a petroglyph spiral, depending if it’s solstice or equinox.  As our ranger told us, they knew the sky’s coming and goings in a way that we no longer do, even the moon’s 18 year rise and descent in the sky.

It is a place full of questions, and wondering.  Why did they come here, where there is no reliable source of water?  Did they live here, or was it a ceremonial place, or a market center?  And most troubling of all, why did they all just leave and where did they go?  Theories abound and there are fascinating books and papers hoping to give answers, but the absolute emptiness and silence are all we can be sure of.

A difficult climb up a rocky slot in the canyon wall brings me out on top, where the ruins are visible from above, and the wide canyon beyond.  The complexity of the floor plans are only clear from up here, and looking out beyond onto the mesa top, there is nothing but sagebrush for miles.  Another hike up the floor of the canyon goes to petroglyphs on the south walls, some really old, made by the few folks here before the Chaco builders arrived, some done by the Chacoans and for me a first, some later Navajo petroglyphs.  These are not pecked deeply into the rocks, more scratched and linear, and harder to see. Lots of horses, some hardly more than a suggestion of running movement, with extra long and full tails, and a realistic head, once even with a bridle.  And more modern graffiti too, surveyers in 1910, early tourists, and more modern vandalism too alas.  I guess we humans like to make marks on things, or paint things, but I wish the old stuff had been left alone.

I’ve visited a lot of ruins, but this place casts a spell over you. The mighty remains of the great houses are powerful, but I think the isolation in the vast, empty high desert is the magic.  There are lizards of many kinds, and birds, and the last time I was here I saw a bobcat, and this time elk.  But even the huge effort that the great houses took to build is now a little lost and very silenced by the immense empty space.  It is hard not to ponder mortality and the weakness of human efforts in this place, but it also is head clearing and calming, a reminder that much of what we are busy with and about is of little consequence in the wide dry windy empty world.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Millicent Rogers

Millicent Rogers

Born to Standard Oil money, and with a weakish heart, Millicent roved the world, loving art, marrying, divorcing, dabbling, and then she came to Taos.  As she came up the last leg of the road’s climb, and stopped at the pull out where it all is laid out, she said “ Why wasn’t’ I told about this?”.  This regal remark was the beginning of her life in Taos, where she collected Navajo and Zuni silver jewelry, rugs, and especially the amazing pottery made by the Martinez family of the Santa Clara Pueblo.

Today this collection is in an older Taos house, along with newer pieces and some wonderful paintings by local NA artists.  I visited the museum once before, about 10 years ago, but with a group that wasn’t as devoted to all these things, so I have always wanted to return and really look at everything and read all the labels and just absorb it.  It was great, I was in a trance for about 2 hours.

I bought a postcard of Millicent. She is dressed in the velvet tiered skirt and long sleeved blouse with tiny tucks that Navaho ladies wear on special occasions.  Millicent had these outfits made by locals and her dressmaker, and decked herself out in a fortunes worth of jewelry to go with it, concho belts, at least 6 clunky cuff bracelets on each arm, several necklaces, and many rings, and silver buttons of course.  She herself is tall and Brooke Astor thin, with the cheek bones of a model and carefully coiffed blond hair in a page boy cut, with waves over her face.  In this post card, she is standing on a chair, with an apron over her finery, dying velvet in a huge pot on an old enamel wood stove.

I like the idea of her finding a place and a culture that she could embrace.  She designed jewelry and eased happily into the artsy world of Taos in the 40’s.  Another woman from back east who took one look at this western world and saw that it was the place to be.

Saturday, I hitched up and headed up to Questa, the small town where we are doing the build.  It is the first town on the Enchanted Circle, a drive that takes you from Taos up to Eagle Lake and Angle Fire where there is skiing in the winter and spruce and pine mountains, and tiny mountain streams that cut ribbons through the open grassy parkland.  Questa and the next town up, Red River, only existed on the huge molybdenum mine that shows as an enormous yellow scar on the mountains. Used to make steel, the mine opened in 1917, boomed during WWI, and has worked only fitfully since 1930.  The ore is crushed and washed, and the tailings make a huge pile, probably containing arsenic and other evil chemicals, as well as just choking dust.  All this runs down into the Red River, but a super fund cleanup has moved the toxic stuff out to settling ponds to the west of Questa.  Red River now lives on skiing and Texans who come up to the Mountains to escape the heat.  Questa is living on not much, the closest jobs are in Taos, an hour away, or maybe even further.  We are at the edge of the mountains, on a sage brush plateau.

The house is smallish, three bedrooms, two baths and a living kitchen area, a mom and her 5 daughters are the family, but only two of the daughters are still at home.  The others are all off to college!  Mom lives in community housing, where she pays rent based on her income, so as she gets a better job, the rent goes up.  Her new house will make the difference to getting on up.  Habitat is a hand up, not a hand out.  The outside walls are up on the slab, but that’s it, so interior walls will be the first order of business.

We are parked in a line, Steve in his class C, me in the AS and Ray in his class C, a motor home with another couple will turn up later.  We have to combine all our hoses to get to water to fill our tanks, and if we have to dump tanks, we will have to move over to a manhole cover over the sewer. We do have electric, lots of it, as it is the main service for the new house. 

On Sunday, Steve took me on a hike down into the Rio Grande Gorge at a point called La Junta (the junction) where the Red River comes tumbling in from its own canyon.  The sign says difficult. I was ready to just wait on top, but Steve urged me on even though I told him I was poky going down, afeared of falling, and poky going up due to old age, emergency fat stores and general lack of conditioning.  The trail drops 800 feet in probably ¼ mile, so it is one narrow switchback after another, plus a section of metal stairs and even a bit of ladder.  Some scary parts where I needed to hug the wall with a death grip, but generally a good climb down and up, although I did have to stop and puff. The rocks are mostly black, either because they are basalt or because they are dark with desert varnish.  We looked hard for petroglyphs, but without the WPA work to make the trail, this would be an unstable rock pile of huge boulders, nearly impossible to climb.

Down below the Rio Grande and the Red River are fast and muddy with the beginnings of the snow melt, and we look up at the dark walls that are mostly a tumble of boulders that have fallen, or other spots where they might fall soon.  The gorge is a more manageable size than the impossible Grand Canyon, both to hike and to understand with your eyes, and it doesn’t sport the wild bands of color of those red rock canyons.  It is more austere, and much newer geologically.

I was very pleased that I managed the hike, me and the old dog, but my muscles are going to be sad for a few days..

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Tuscon to Taos

I spent a happy week in Tucson, enjoying the warmth, and the good company.  I still find the traffic there kind of irritating.  People who live in one place, know where everything is, and more important in a town, which lane to be in for certain stores.  Tucson’s streets have complicated intersections, designed to handle a lot of traffic, but it sometimes means you have to go a ways around to get to your destination.  To get to other friends, who are only 13 miles away as the crow flies, it takes a solid 45 minutes drive.  There maybe shortcuts, next time.

Off to the interstate, through Deming, and Las Cruces, and up to near Albuquerque.  Following the Rio Grande, running full and muddy, there is a wide band of agriculture along the valley.  There are several wildlife sanctuaries along here, wide wet areas that fill with waterfowl.  Bosque Del Apache ( Apache Woods) is the largest, at certain times it has millions of wild flyers.  They take volunteers there, and I did apply this winter, but they have only 5 RV sites and folks keep returning every year.  I did get a call back, but, well, we’ll see.

The chocolate peaks of the desert and the wild flowers, bright orange desert mallows, and many cheerful yellow ones drift by, and as I go north, the rocks are blacker, dark ashpiles, and old cones of volcanoes show up. I remember up north of here, in Grants NM, where the lava is still black and crusty.  The breaks, I think that is the word, of the Rio Grande, deep arroyos where sudden storms have gouged out the land make the road swoop up and down.  We are paralleling the El Camino Real del Tierro Aldentro, the Spanish settlers came along this way to settle Santa Fe and Taos and on north.  We are reminded that it began bringing European settlers into NM 22 years before the Mayflower.  To avoid the breaks and the swamps (including quicksand), the settlers left the river at about Radium Springs, and struck off overland for 90 miles without water, until San Marcial where they returned to the river.  Known as the Journada del Muerto, this section was actually named for a disastrous retreat in 1680 from the Pueblo Revolt, although death was always there in a desert crossing.  The highway today stays close to the river, and the lakes at Elephant Butte and Caballo, but the breaks would have made this route in wagons impossible.

I stayed in a CG that is also a horse motel, so if you hitch up your trailer and go camping with your ponies, you will have somewhere to stay. Sounds like fun.  The place also does donkey rescue, and has a menagerie of ducks, goats and oddly, guinea pigs.  There must have been 40 of them, all brown and white in a pen like chickens.  Pepe and I visited with many of these critters, the donkeys were looking for snacks but settled for a scratch or two.  The wind has become fierce, and it was 90, but the 37 year old AC started right up and cooled us down quickly.

I had sort of hoped to stop at Petroglyph National Monument on my way through Albuquerque (probably after the Spanish town of that name, from white oak, or the dominant cork trees there, or maybe a corruption of the Arabic word for apricot), but the best walk allowed no pets, and it is too hot to leave Pepe in the truck.  Plus, this is pretty much downtown, and I was nervous about where to park the trailer.  Next time.

So up to Santa Fe, where I leave the Interstate, and dawdle my way past innumerable Casinos.  There is big money in Santa Fe, but once north of that, desperate poverty.  The many NA reservations seem to be doing well from the casinos, new schools, and new housing.  The casinos all seem bigger and snazzier then when I was last here, perhaps 10 years ago, and the traffic in Espanola is way worse than I remembered.  From there to Taos, you know you are off the main path, a narrow two lane road climbs up over the mountains, truck is puffed by the top, and then suddenly, the great wide plain of Taos is laid out before you.  The snow covered and magnificent Sangre di Christo Mountains tower over a wide, green valley.  The Rio Grande Gorge cuts through this, snaking its way north, a chocolate gash in the flat sagebrush and grass plain.  It is a stupendous panorama, hard to photograph, but we stop and look. I had forgotten how extraordinary this place is.

The City of Taos is a tangle of touristy shopping, and lo, the hippies are here, still. Well, not my hippies, they are all old and thinking of retiring from their jobs in the real world.  But the earnest, unshorn, creatively dressed, and hopefully healthy and artistic are still here, scaring the grown ups and dropping out.  I wasn’t really a hippie, I always had a job, and only went to one peace demonstration, and was not at Woodstock. We do have lots more natural and organic stuff these days, and more home schooling, but peace and love haven’t really arrived yet.  There is an apathetic quality to that life that never appealed to me.

I’m back at a favorite campground, on a knoll way out of town, with mountains all around, in the wide plain. The wind blew hard yesterday, raising a dust cloud that obscured the setting sun and veiled the mountains.  Dust in your teeth, dust on everything, the real west, need my bandana over my nose.