“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.

More serious, though perhaps less apparent to outsiders, are recurrent oversights, euphemisms, and avoidances, amounting cumulatively to a real blind spot on the part of the authors. No problem is more important for contemporary New Mexico than the flood of commercial encroachments that have made Albuquerque what it is today, a canker of urban blight choking on its own smog; that have engulfed Taos in a wave of souvenir shops and fast-food restaurants; that are gnawing away at the center of Santa Fe like a sickness of boutiques and hokey tourist enterprises. The same sort of desecration is proceeding, only a little more slowly, across the landscape outside town—ski lodges and dude ranches and resort communities for the diversion of New Yorkers and Texans (their swimming pools and saunas sucking dry the water table, their barely treated sewage contaminating the wells and streams downhill), rafting expeditions, nightclubs, marinas, trailer campgrounds, and all the “recreational” impedimenta that make one part of the country indistinguishable from another. That the new guide, when it doesn’t take these changes for granted, welcomes them uncritically, suggests that the authors must have taken Albuquerque, our nearest approach to metropolitan sprawl (with its more than 300,000 residents), as their norm of what the rest of New Mexico should be.

Finally, the new guide is ill-organized; its suggested tours are often strange, overlapping or crisscrossing like the proverbial can of worms. Roswell and Carlsbad both appear on Tour Seven, but Roswell is also on Tour Twelve, and Carlsbad on Tour Sixteen. In many respects, the book is handsomely designed, with clear photographs and amusing line drawings; but the idea of distinguishing side tours from main tours by a thin rule running down the side of the page was not a good one. It produces confusion when, as often, there’s more side tour on a page than main tour. The reader as well as the visitor will frequently find himself at loose ends.

Taking less than the entire state for his subject, but treating the Sangre de Cristo mountain range—which runs down into the northern part of the state from Colorado—from geologic, historic, ethnographic, and ecological points of view, William deBuys has written an eloquent, elegant, and continually informative book. One shouldn’t be scared off by the title, Enchantment and Exploitation; it’s catchy enough and not altogether inaccurate, but it doesn’t measure up to the massive strength of the mountains it describes. The source of the “Blood of Christ” name is not clear; it may derive from the priests killed in the Pueblo rising against the Spanish colonizers of 1682, or else from the rays of the setting sun, which do often bathe the peaks in a pink glow. To the south the range tails off into a row of diminishing hills near Cerrillos and Glorieta Pass, but northward it rises to heights like those of Truchas Peak (13,100 feet) and Blanca Peak in southern Colorado (14,300 feet). The further north one goes, the more jagged, abrupt, and rocky the Sangres get; in New Mexico, however, they tend to be rounded, forested up to the tree line, and buttressed east and west by irregular piedmonts that render the approach relatively gradual. They were an obvious barrier to east-west travel; the main Santa Fe trail, which ran from Independence, Missouri, had to cut south to get around them. In addition, they served as a partial bulwark against Indian raiders from the plains—Comanches, Apaches, Utes—whose depredations against Pueblos, Hispanics, and Anglos were constant and bloody. They were, finally, a source of timber, water, minerals, and wild game—a source far from limitless, as experience showed, but then early explorers were all men of sanguine imaginations.

When New Mexico was part of Old Mexico, and both part of the Spanish empire—that is, until Mexico became independent in 1821—this northern district, though but dimly defined, was commonly considered a buffer zone to protect richer areas to the south. As inducements for settlers to enter a rough and dangerous country, generous royal land grants were made—not precisely out of Indian lands (though obviously all lands were originally Indian) but with some care to avoid Pueblo settlements and their immediate surroundings. (After the 1682 revolt, the Spanish were cautious about enraging “subjects” who at any moment might be needed as “allies.”) So the little hill towns along the Sangre de Cristo mountain range were set up essentially as garrisons, and for a while surviving Indian raids from the plains was their full-time business. Later, after Don Juan Bautista de Anza crushed the Comanches in battle and killed their chief (1779), a kind of informal, uneasy commercial understanding grew up between the Spanish settlers and the Plains Indians, by which blankets, guns, horses, and whiskey were swapped for rustled cattle, buffalo hides, and captives (more properly, slaves) taken in raids on wagon trains and on settlements elsewhere. For many years Hispanics could travel more or less safely through the mountains and across the plains, while Anglos were being pillaged and massacred. Obviously this contributed to bad blood between Hispanics and Anglos when, after the Mexican war of 1846, Anglo access to the territory was suddenly rendered much easier, and the full power of the American dollar was unleashed.

Not the least of many fascinating details in Mr. deBuys’s book is his account of how the plundering of the Spanish land grants proceeded. Their rights were supposed to be guaranteed by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 ceding New Mexico to the US, but the tangle of Mexican governments couldn’t, and American authorities didn’t want to, enforce the treaty. Even under the old Mexican government, Anglo adventurers had grabbed for land grants in “partnership” with Mexican front men. Afterward they became more open, buying up timberlands and water rights wherever they could, rushing from site to site in search of rich digs, and devising for the grazing industry a partido, or partnership system, whereby the sheepherder assumed all the work and all the risks, while leaving the profits to the Anglo boss.

Then in an ultimate access of mean smartness, they worked out legal traps for getting into their clutches one member of a village with rights to the communal land (ejido). To collect this one man’s debt, Anglo judges decided, the entire open land of the village had to be sold (at ridiculous prices, naturally), and the proceeds divided. Thus families who had occupied the land for centuries, and worked it in the teeth of hardship and danger, found themselves dispossessed by laws written in a language they could not read, interpreted by lawyers, judges, and moneymen whom they had never laid eyes on. By comparison, the Pueblo Indians whom, once Christianized, the Spaniards had treated as wards of the state, and who enjoyed more Anglo sympathy, were less cruelly treated. There was one major attempt to strip them from most of their land, the ill-starred Bursum Bill of 1922, but a vigorous coalition defeated it.

A late complicating factor in the story of the Sangre de Cristos is the arrival on the scene of the National Forest Service. Its rangers were, on the whole, knowing, tough-minded professionals, but they were not, in everyone’s eyes, the good guys in white hats. Government intervention saved many of the forests, cut down on overgrazing of the grasslands, rescued some endangered species—but, in the name of “jobs” and the interests of the lumbering industry, tried to put across an incipient disaster like the Elk Mountain Ski Area. Thus, inevitably, the service bureaucratized the wilderness in the name of saving it, and put extra pressure on the little mountain communities. Their access to the national forests is now limited, if not cut off altogether; young people, facing a dreary, diminishing future, drift away to urban centers, leaving the hill communities poorer and bleaker than ever. Families are divided, farms are abandoned. That the hill towns are only dying now, not already dead, is evidence of the dogged, persistent spirit of the old settlers.

But striking a balance among preservationists, stockmen, farmers, miners, lumbermen, sportsmen, and the overwhelming conformist pressures of American society (Don’t Californicate New Mexico is a timely bumper sticker) will clearly be a long-term problem. Mr. deBuys offers no easy answers; but his rich and thoughtful book will contribute generously to future discussions. Even the less-than-closely involved can enjoy as well as profit. The book is flavored with individual portraits—of George Beatty, the last of the mountain men, of Giovanni Agostini, the hermit, of Jacobo and Eloisa Romero, twentieth-century homesteaders, and it rarely contents itself with a merely superficial glance at its subjects. The much-publicized Penitentes are usually seen as grotesque or picturesque curiosities, members of a secret lay order that engages in flagellating rites during Holy Week. Here they are given some understanding as men largely abandoned by the Mexican hierarchy, humiliated by imposition of a new, rude Anglo ruling class, and devoted for most of the year to fraternal and educational work in their villages. They were part of a village structure that had to be strong because outside it there was so little structure of any sort.

Any bold soul who wants to know more about the tangled history of the Spanish land grants in New Mexico should turn to two books in a series on this topic put out by the University of New Mexico Press. Both Victor Westphall’s Mercedes Reales: Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grande Region and G. Emlen Hall’s Four Leagues of Pecos confront an intricate subject with humor and sympathy. Neither book could be described as easygoing, and it would be idle to deny that there are arid moments. An outsider will just have to put up with much of the legal history; but there are human lives at stake beneath the skulduggery, greed, apathy, hypocrisy, finagling, and ignorance, and both authors are clearly men of wit and wisdom. The brief story of a spoiled ceremonial that ends Mr. Hall’s book puckers the mind with the acid sense of reality, rock-hard, bone-dry.

Marc Simmons is the historian of standing in modern New Mexico, and his account of the state, New Mexico: A Bicentennial History, for the bicentennial series States and the Nation, is a brief, sharp account of a long and complicated record. The major virtue of an outline like this is that it organizes disorderly details in a scheme one can grasp. Anyone can claim that this or that little episode is scanted; but Mr. Simmons was given just two hundred pages, and he got into them a remarkable quantum of both history and color. I get the impression that he is more at home writing of terrain than of people, and sometimes he comes close to racial clichés when describing the differences between Anglo and Hispanic cultures. But likely he was just dramatizing each culture’s image of the other. The best part of the book is saved for last, an account of a ride into the heart of the Rio Puerco basin heartland, told in strong, clear prose. It is an affectionate tribute to a tough countryside.

Working in collaboration with the photographer Joan Myers, Simmons recounts in a more recent book, Along the Santa Fe Trail, a longer but less challenging pilgrimage. The essay describes a trip by car along the vestiges of that important if short-lived artery, from Franklin, Missouri, across most of Kansas to a dividing point where one could go either north into Colorado and down into New Mexico via Raton Pass, or along the shorter but more arid and more dangerous Cimarron Cutoff directly into northeast New Mexico.

William Becknell first opened up the trail in 1821, when Mexico broke from Spain, and in 1880 it was rendered instantly obsolete when the railroad reached Lamy. The sixty-year history of the road was crowded with incident, some of it violent, most of it rough, but touched with moments of exhilaration and splendor. The major forts, stations, and stopovers survive, though often in ruins and desolation; on occasion the ruts left by wagon trains can still be traced across the open prairies.

Beyond assuring us that it exists, I am not sure that Simmons can explain the special mystique of the Santa Fe Trail, but it affects the susceptible deeply, and the two creators of this new book have clearly been hooked. Perhaps the land’s very emptiness of people is part of its challenging asperity; the photographs, no less than the text, make that clear. I have driven the parallel Route 64 west from Ponca City through the Oklahoma panhandle; it is the bleakest, emptiest, flattest, most wind-furrowed country I know, and I cannot explain the dramatic vividness of it in my memory.

Another sort of book about New Mexico’s past, verging on journalism but gritty and flavorful, is Ralph Looney’s account of some two dozen New Mexican ghost towns, Haunted Highways. Originally published in 1968, the book was republished in 1983, and cumulatively it makes a rough and turbulent impression. Most of these ghost towns sprouted around strikes or rumored strikes of precious metals. Loma Parda near Las Vegas began as a brothel and barroom town for nearby Fort Union, and Columbus, near the Mexican border, never recovered from Pancho Villa’s raid of 1916. But most of these derelict towns boomed and busted on dreams of bonanza findings and the harsh realities of the morning after. Mr. Looney has a good eye for ramshackle ruins, and by talking to the oldest of the old-timers he can reconstruct some of their turbulent history. Inevitably, what gets remembered in towns like these is episodes of violence—murders, lynchings, ambushes, massacres, feuds, duels, bushwhackings, and other varieties of picturesque mayhem. At the same time, it’s not infrequent for the old antiheroes of these ghost towns to blossom into straight modern heroes. The première brothel keeper of Hillsboro became in time the town’s most distinguished citizen; when the federal government bestowed a park on the broken shell of Columbus, grateful citizens named it Pancho Villa Park. How did Mexico Spring become Grant, then Ralston City, then Shakespeare? What town was known as Sodom on the Mora? How did Tyrone become known as the Million Dollar Ghost Town? Mr. Looney will tell you.

A poorly written book about the Lincoln County war of 1877–1879—a bloody feud among cattlemen, businessmen, hired gunmen, and the authorities—does good service in reducing that mare’s-nest of frontier murders to its proper dimensions. Robert Utley’s Four Fighters of Lincoln County follows the careers of Alexander McSween, Billy the Kid, Colonel Nathan Dudley, and Governor Lew Wallace, all of whom had a hand in the witch’s brew. No effort has been made to integrate the four biographies, so the same episodes turn up over and over again. Still, one can learn something of the commercial jealousies and conflicting greeds that entangled two grasping but not violent men, McSween and his partner John H. Tunstall, in battle with the Dolan-Riley trading monopoly—and then spilled over, out of anyone’s control, through southeast New Mexico. Nobody comes off very well in this story, least of all the legal and military authorities. But the mindless mystique of the gun—still rather awfully present in the state—attracted killers from all over the West. It’s doubtful that even exemplary officials could have done much with them till they did for one another. A useful contribution of Mr. Utley’s book is that it reduces the much-publicized, much-romanticized outlaw Billy the Kid to his proper size. Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed him, started the exaggeration on its way, no doubt to make him seem a worthy adversary, and the burble continues unabated to this day. A minilibrary has accumulated around the Kid, half of it adulatory, half contemptuous; Mr. Utley’s book hits the right note by showing him as both typical of a certain breed of traveling gunman and marginal to New Mexican history.

This is the first of two articles on New Mexico.

This Issue

March 12, 1987