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On the Trail of Santa Fe

New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State Project Administration.

for the American Guide Series by the Writers’ Program of the Works
Hastings House

New Mexico: A New Guide to the Colorful State

by Lance Chilton, by Katherine Chilton, by Polly E. Arango, by James Dudley, by Nancy Neary, by Patricia Stelzner
University of New Mexico Press, 640 pp., $17.50 (paper)

Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range

by William deBuys
University of New Mexico Press, 394 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Mercedes Reales: Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grande Region

by Victor Westphall
University of New Mexico Press, 356 pp., $24.95

Four Leagues of Pecos: A Legal History of the Pecos Grant, 1800–1933

by G. Emlen Hall
University of New Mexico Press, 367 pp., $14.95 (paper)

New Mexico: A Bicentennial History

by Marc Simmons
Norton/American Association for State and Local History, 207 pp., $14.95

Along the Santa Fe Trail

essay by Marc Simmons, photographs by Joan Myers
University of New Mexico Press, 183 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Haunted Highways: The Ghost Towns of New Mexico

by Ralph Looney
University of New Mexico Press, 220 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Four Fighters of Lincoln County

by Robert M. Utley
University of New Mexico Press, 116 pp., $19.95


How did you come to settle in New Mexico?” It is one of the most frequent ice-breaking questions in Santa Fe circles. It takes for granted that nearly everyone who lives here comes from somewhere else; and in Santa Fe, where there’s very little business and hardly any industry, it’s likely to produce a great many different, not to say freaky, answers. My wife and I, native New Yorkers, first looked on New Mexico with the eyes of prospective inhabitants in 1968, when after nearly twenty years of teaching at Cornell I found that university pointedly reluctant to go any way toward meeting an offer I had received from UCLA. Given a free summer to arrange a transfer from the East Coast to the West, we took a leisurely survey of what wasn’t yet known as the Sunbelt.

Still in the grip of Eastern parochialism, we were sure we wouldn’t settle permanently in California (had we known that part of the world better, we might not have been so uppity); we were leery of racial complications in the deep South; and committed by past history to a climate with seasons. New Mexico appealed because of its Spanish and Indian heritage—it seemed less Amurrican. It appealed because of its poverty; in those days it could be thought of as the Vermont of the Southwest. It appealed as an oasis-and-desert terrain, the most sparsely populated of any of the contiguous forty-eight. It possessed a high, sharp atmosphere that seemed to make every dawn a mental challenge; one got the same sense from its marginal ecology. For rootless or at least uprooted people like ourselves, it was a good place for quiet cultivation of the self. It was a place that one could live in but also leave, and we planned to do a good deal of moving around. The countryside was hard, bleached, and beautiful. We settled into it, and have not been seriously tempted to move since.

Some elements are deliberately missing from the above account. We did not come to New Mexico to experience the dark community of blood that Mabel Dodge and her friend Lorenzo sought in the society of Indians; we did not respond to the feeling many people seem to have that this is “holy ground.” Upstate New York is supposed to be holy ground too; we didn’t recognize it there, and don’t here. We didn’t come to study the archaeology of the region (which is rich and interesting), or to write about the Penitentes, or to live a primitive life, or to improve our health (which was and is perfectly all right), or to Get Away From It All. We were not, and still are not, much impressed with Santa Fe as an art center; much of the stuff purveyed here would be right at home on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. We came here, in the words of the quiet man, to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles. As for what that business has been, it falls under the second question we are asked repeatedly, “What do you do all day?” It’s not an easy question, but one blanket answer covers most of it: in fifteen years we haven’t ever, for more than half a day, found time hanging heavy.

Santa Fe isn’t by any means the same town today that we moved into. On one of our first visits a black bear wandered into the plaza overnight, climbed a big cottonwood, and had to be maneuvered down by the fire department. Evenings, we used to be able to hear from our back porch the yapping of coyotes in the hills, and occasionally on a back road we would see one of the dusty gray, longtailed hunters slinking off into the sagebrush. No more. Santa Fe is being “gentrified” at a startling rate—by multiplying art galleries, pseudo-French cafés, mini-malls, maxi-malls, boutiques (also known as crud shops), hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, condos, office buildings, and tourist buses disguised as old-fashioned trolley cars. Retired people like ourselves, second-home owners (who can’t all be from Texas, though it seems that way), commuters from Hollywood, lawyers, brokers, psychologists, and real-estate agents have driven up property values astronomically.

There has been, there still is, intermittent protest, but most of it is ineffectual. A clumsy pseudo-adobe First Interstate building went up downtown; for weeks the simple, eloquent word UGLY was painted every night on its slab sides (and overpainted every morning). The architects protested that their project shouldn’t be judged until it was complete. The second half of the hideous complex was just as bad as the first, and worse, because it made the monstrous hulk twice as big. In other forms, the same struggle continues across town. A blatant Eldorado Hotel disgusts everyone who remembers the decent hardware store and lumberyard that used to stand there. On a house fronting Saint Francis Drive in the barrio, a resident put up a sign, NO VENDA SU CASA. He was discouraging his Hispanic neighbors from selling their houses to developers, who would convert them to yuppie condos. The city fathers (controlled, of course, by realtors) tried to get the sign removed, but they could get rid of only half of it. The other half still stands: NO VENDA. The right people know what it means.

Long ago, so legend has it, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, sixty miles to the south, were disputing the possession of two state institutions: the penitentiary and the university. Santa Fe got to choose first, and took the pen—not altogether unreasonably, since there were more people in town qualified to be guards, cooks, and pot-wallopers than professors and researchers. The lack of a substantial academic community, with a good library, a student theater, and a cluster of lively young people, still plagues the town. (The two small colleges, one run by the Christian Brothers, the other by the Great Books program, are both hermetic in their different ways.) The Santa Fe Opera is splendid, the chamber music series excellent, and there are several museums, from below mediocre to intriguing. But a proper university might have given the city the sort of intellectual center that at present it lacks entirely.

Bourgeoisification, deplorable as it is, has good points too. There’s more variety in the food markets than there used to be, better movies are occasionally to be seen, a sporadic life flourishes in the fields of theater and dance. For a town of this size, the musical life is first-rate. Though the downtown area is largely ruined, the exodus of “real” stores has left very little reason to go there—one tends to live on the fringes is the countryside—the Pecos wilderness, the high country above Chimayo and Ojo Sarco, the Jemez road across and beyond Valle Grande. Nothing is completely unspoiled, and there are ominous encroachments along the road up toward the ski basin, as well as along the Taos highway. But most of the woods, parks, and crags seem likely to last our lifetimes.

The fact is that over the course of our years here we have fallen in love with the countryside—not just its picturesque or dramatic features, but its brown austerities and spiky, arid solitudes. The “ornery” chamisa bush, which blossoms in yellow glory by roadsides and on sand hills, but refuses to be transplanted into better surroundings, is like a mascot. We take a little perverse pride in the fact that New Mexico leads the nation in the incidence of bubonic plague and in traffic fatalities per thousand miles driven. Better if it didn’t, but we understand and, in a way, sympathize. We are exhilarated by the wild, drumming hailstorms that blow up once or twice every summer out of a hot sky. We no longer try to raise in the back yard interesting or distinctive plants; if anything is already growing in our brickhard soil, another specimen of the exact same sort may have a chance—imports, never. Every year we invest less energy in a lawn that’s doomed from the start; only the apricot tree, with a perversity that delights us, flourishes without care or cultivation, and deluges us most summers with a flood of superfluous fruit. We miss the variety of wildlife that flourishes in less arid climates, but enjoy respectful encounters with a family of horned toads homesteading somewhere on the property.

The very twists and turns of social prejudice have something ridiculous and endearing about them. Some years ago, two men, one Anglo, the other Hispanic (we don’t use the word chicano in New Mexico), went before a jury, accused of conspiracy; the Hispanic was found innocent, the Anglo convicted—of a one-man conspiracy, no doubt. Up near Espanola a farmer was accused of improperly diverting water from an irrigation ditch (acequia). The mayordomo who controlled the water rights in the ditch tried to cut off the flow; they fought, first with hoes, then hand to hand, and in the process the mayordomo bit off the farmer’s ear. The matter went to court, and the mayordomo was acquitted. In defense of the water in his ditch, he was entitled to commit mayhem, battery, whatever. That’s part of the landscape too—that bitterness, amounting to desperation, over a little trickle of water in our dusty, forbidding, cactus-flower state. So that’s why we live in New Mexico; and, living in New Mexico, why I’ve tried to learn something about its past and present. The best of the books I’ve explored lately are here.

Though it’s more than forty-five years old and hopelessly out of date, the WPA guidebook, New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, published as part of the American Guide Series, still makes splendid reading. (Out of print for years, it has to be picked up secondhand.) As a guidebook, it has two major virtues: it is tidy and it is leisured. The three divisions deal with the general history of the state, with three central towns (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos), and then with eighteen short tours that take one to the byways and corners of the state. In addition, the book takes time to recite some Indian and Spanish folk tales, to linger over the memory of Old Bill Williams, Black Jack Ketchum, Uncle Dick Wootton, and the story of the Perpetual Motion Ranch, which by a crafty childish trick appeared to have an infinite stock of cattle. New Mexico makes a more than usually untidy subject because its towns and villages have pronounced characters and separate stories, but the WPA people must have had splendid editorial leadership, for their book is consistently entertaining and surprisingly coherent.

The New Guide, published in 1984, stands in direct line of succession from the WPA volume, but inevitably departs from it in various ways, not all of which are due to changes in the life of the state itself. It has, for one thing, only two sections, one of general essays, the other of tours. Albuquerque and environs are given generous coverage, about thirty pages near the start of Tour One; Taos is given half as much space in the middle of Tour Three, and Santa Fe relegated to about fifteen pages at the start of Tour Eleven, toward the back of the book. Apropos, one observes that four of the five authors of the new guide (all Anglos) are Albuquerque residents, and the fifth lives in its suburbs. Given the historic antipathy between south and north, Anglo and Hispanic, it’s only natural that this imbalance should produce a few weak sarcasms about Santa Fe architecture, a perfunctory dismissal of the Santa Fe opera, and an all-but-complete ignoring of the Santa Fe Fiesta, with its ceremonial burning of Zozobra.

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