History, travel

New Mexico. The Deserted Village.

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Ancient

I am amazed and fascinated by the bloggers who write-as-they-go.    I mean, almost literally posting their life as it happens.

I kind of like to mull things over a bit.  Meaning, sometimes, for years!

So…it has been a few years, but I wanted to describe one day, and a night, in the Southwest desert.

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I’d visited my extended family in both New Mexico and Utah, but I had never been to the “Four Corners” region (where the northern corners of New Mexico and Arizona meet southern corners of Utah and Colorado).  This was not a vacation, but rather a traveling class, the summer after my freshman year of college — learning about the ecosystems, cultural and biological, of the Southwest.

We visited a range of places:  an old played-out mining town, several spots in the vast Navajo territory, and the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and smaller pre-Columbian sites.

After a freshman year in a tiny concrete dorm, slogging through all the “requirements” I hated, to get them out of the way, this was like a slice of heaven.  Eating Navajo fry-bread, staying in a haunted old hotel in Durango, rafting down a river in Utah, walking around Santa Fe, seeing beautiful country and towns.

The most striking element of the trip was visiting pre-Columbian sites in New Mexico and Colorado.

Visiting a deserted house always seems like an interesting detective challenge to me – seeing what information or impressions you can glean about the former residents.  The folks at Chaco Canyon, who built all these complicated homes and religious chambers, and lived here for centuries, just walked away from it all eight hundred years ago.

You almost expect they’d leave a note on the kitchen table, telling us where they went, or why they left.   Maybe a warning to us, about exhausting your resources.

 

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Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Ozymandias  P.B. Shelley

Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in this country.  Some houses and kivas date back to the 800’s.

Other than Roman sites in Europe, the oldest structures I’ve seen.  An eye-opener for an East Coast boy, growing up where everyone likes to consider themselves the keepers of the nation’s history.

I’ve walked through 17th century houses in the Hudson Valley, New England, Pennsylvania, and the south.  The history center at my college, founded during the Revolution, is in a colonial-era custom house.  All of us history buffs in the East, revere the remnants of the British days and New Netherlands, and just north in Canada, Nouvelle-France.  

But, of course, the colonial buildings in the Southwest are even older.  And then to see a native town many centuries older than any of those sites, was pretty spectacular.

485148_607045559321012_2013764659_nAesthetically, I much preferred Mesa Verde, with the dense pine forests on the mountain sides providing a more beautiful, and certainly more dramatic backdrop, than the vast expanses of brown and yellow desert of New Mexico. But, Chaco was the older site, and the start of a great adventure.

Part of what made our visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable, was that we stayed there at night.

 

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Summer in Chaco Canyon, during the daytime, is not pleasant.  The New Mexico sun is just too intense for a fair-skinned northerner. When 110 degree heat is beating down from a large and unrelenting sun, and you’re inhaling dust in airless old sunken kivas, and also discovering that some of the “ruins” had been rebuilt in the 1930’s (and not that well in many cases) made the whole complex seem less impressive.

But by night, they again became extraordinary.

Camping out let us see the solstice light shine into a special hole in a kiva, to mark the passing of the solar event,(Indiana Jones-style)

We spent a night enveloped by the most extraordinary stars.

 

The nighttime skies in the Southwest are incredible — so much clearer and darker than home, perfect for staring into the millions of twinkling celestial bodies. The”vastness of the universe” sounds corny, but it really unfolded before our eyes, making it seem even more magical to be lying a stone’s throw from the ruins of a vanished civilization.

 

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By day, the desert is foreboding, vast and seemingly never-ending.  It spread out all around us, making us feel isolated.  And desiring to stay close to camp, so as to not get lost wandering it’s vast tractless expanse.

 

25947_606798252679076_482319926_nDespite all that nearly empty land, in my mind, the heat and dryness confine us.  We’re trapped into staying with the group.  Or in a building.  Or near the road.

Heatstroke and dehydration outweigh other hidden dangers. I wasn’t too worried about rattlesnakes, we have them back home, too, and I’ve always thought they seem like pretty reasonable creatures – – I appreciate that they give us a warning, so they don’t have to bite.

 

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But at night, the darkness softened the intensity of the desert and gave a sense of release.

 

 

The ruins, impressive in the daytime, seemed far more ancient by night, lit by our fires. The campfires cast a glow on the old stones.

Do I even remember this right?  Or did I invent the memory — I think we had fires there.  Or perhaps just lanterns.  It was forest fire season, but there was so little vegetation, it was ok to build a fire in specific camping spots.

Maybe I just wanted to remember campfires, staying at a place where the home fires went out so many years ago.

We were there very briefly, and the people that built these homes, had withered away long ago.  The old phrase seemed very apt “the sands of time.”

But the stars, and the entire universe were seeming to expand before our very eyes.

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travel, Uncategorized

The Town in the Mountains

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Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”

They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.

I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger.  I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.

“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing.  Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.

And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes.  A truly nasty smell.

One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.

Or at least, turn up his nose.

And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!

I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.

actually this isn’t on the Durango line – it was taken in Utah. But good and sooty-looking.

But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.

Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town.  Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.  Summer 2012 Colorado Robbie

 

There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.

 

The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.

The hot springs felt great.  But smelled bad.  The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.

So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.

Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me.  There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.

A horse called Banjo. Best side forward, I always say.

Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier.  The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher.  Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.

Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango.  Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.

But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to TomahawkButch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.

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So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.

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Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.

As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat.  We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.

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The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams.  The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.

At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there.  The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen.  Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point.  It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.

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Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.

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So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.

 

Well, he was slouching, too.

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hiking, travel, Uncategorized

Erosion and Exclusion – An American Experience of the Southwest

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I’m a New Yorker.  I grew up Upstate — the small-town part, farms, woods, far from NYC.

So it’s funny, while I was going to college in Asia, whenever someone brought up “America,” the first image in my mind wasn’t New York, but the deserts of the Southwest.

Getting ready to study abroad in Hong Kong, I had decided to see more of my own country first. And so I went “Out West.”

IMG_7549The American West has long captured the hearts and imaginations of many.  The romantic image of it, anyway.  The Rocky Mountains, vast cornfields, prairies, cowboys, fancy boots, ten-gallon hats, sixguns, cattle drives, herds of bison, the endless expanses of range and desert, where sky and ground meet for mile upon mile.

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N. C. Wyeth. Another Easterner who was fascinated by the West.

Traveling around the West was an extraordinary experience – in many ways, it was exactly like visiting a foreign nation.  You feel a connection to the people there — one minute, incredibly different from the ones I grew up with, and the next, exactly the same. The English have certain characteristics that allow you to differentiate instantly between an American and a Brit, or a Londoner from a Geordie for that matter.  But these Westerners, it was harder to put your finger on it – they were a different sort of American, and slippery to define.

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Almost like an alternative universe. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I comprehend more clearly, what an intractable mess a President has to preside over.     He’s ruling over an area that flies the same flag as the East, and yet doesn’t live by the same rules, the same attitudes, or the same culture.In the East, where we’re familiar with the networks of money and tradition that hold the key to power and happiness, we aren’t clear how things work in the West.

 

IMG_7550 (1)A lot of people think of the American West as being…what, exactly?

Rougher.  Decadent in some way.  Spanish.  Less talkative.  Less emotional.  Unlike us.

And some truth there.  They aren’t like us.  The people I met in the West seemed odd, in unpredictable ways.  Flagstaff has cowboys who vote left. People in Santa Fe have no sense of time.  Grizzled, bearded old guys in Colorado, looking tough as hell, were really friendly.

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I think that is part of the allure of the West, it is rapidly changing and yet it feels timeless. In the east there is a heart attack-inducing, blood pressure-raising frenetic energy, as millions of people clog roadways, crowd walkways, jam cities, swarm suburbs, flood villages. Everyone in the East is in a hurry, industrious and hard-working. And yet, most of this nation’s businesses are moving west. Their cities have sprawl, pollution, traffic as bad or worse than ours, and they mostly lack the public transportation we have in the East Coast.

But as a Rule, they also Take It Down a Notch – you don’t feel harried, you don’t feel stressed out. There’s a calmness that pervades everything.

I’m sure they live longer out there because of that, in fact I’m certain that’s the key. Perhaps it’s the Spanish heritage, because I got a similar feeling in Spain.  But how much does that explain?  British origins aren’t to blame for the East Coast’s behavior — look at the chilled-out behavior of Australians or Canadians.

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But I see the appeal of the West, and why so many people from overseas view it as the true America. The character and virtues we’re known for still ride the range there – a world less superficial, and without the East’s stagnation.  A spirit of freedom and independence pervades.

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N. C. Wyeth

This was the first time I really felt like the U.S. is a nation of nations. Sometimes Americans criticize China and Russia as being too multicultural – meaning they’re unhappy, dissonant empires – and would be better off broken into a bunch of smaller states.

But maybe this is true of the U.S., too?  I don’t think a Yankee from Massachusetts identifies with a person from Tupelo or Santa Fe.  Yes, there’s that American Identity throughout the USA, but spend one day, and you know that each region interprets “American” way differently. The politic strife of this century shows that each state is still almost a separate nation, legally, but it is the regional differences that play a bigger role in many regards.

A Marylander seems no different than a Virginian, other than than cuisine. But a person from California is just not the same as a person from Connecticut.   Our regions still dominate our mindsets. We’re a transient society, and yet that hasn’t seemed to have much of an effect on the bits of culture that are distinctly regional.

I found Westerners to be better in some ways. They don’t conform to the same systems as we do in the East, systems that are familiar but limiting. There is a sense of freedom that you cannot feel in the East, a sense of optimism, open and unbridled ambition, and a down-to-earth sensibility that makes you realize, for example, these cowboy Navajo strangers know what they are doing and how to do it.

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And then I found an even deeper divide, literally and figuratively.  The biggest culture shock came from visiting the “fourth world” in the Grand Canyon.

The Fourth World is not a clear concept to most Americans, because it’s something we try hard to ignore, talk around, excuse, or keep hushed up.  Like pretending not to notice an ulcer or cyst on a person’s body.  It is our undeclared gulag system.

Basically, it is a third world nation within the confines of a first world nation.

Some reservations are nice. Really nice, in fact.  The Indians who were fortunate enough to be exiled where natural gas or oil was discovered, or who built a successful casino, live pretty well. The houses belonging to the Navajo in Northern Arizona show they aren’t hurting for money.

But go into the heart of the Grand Canyon, to see the Havasupi tribe’s last outpost. Sorry I don’t have a more clever metaphor – you just keep going downhill, literally a mile down into the earth, and hit something close to rock bottom economically.   The tribe’s Supai village, a few hundred residents, is on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It’s pummeled by oppressive heat and sand storms. There’s no road that goes there, and therefore there aren’t any cars.

Well that’s not entirely true, I saw one pickup truck, but I honestly don’t know how it got down there. To get to the village, you walk eight miles down the canyon, or take a burro, or a helicopter.  I spent one night there with some classmates.  The Havasupi have been there over 800 years.

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The town was like something you’d see in a cowboy movie, a low-budget,  black-and-white spaghetti western. Shacks, with tin roofs. Dirt streets, tamped down by bare feet. Horses and dogs roaming around.  I’ve never seen dogs that looked so skinny, sick, and diseased.  There was a post office, a “hospital,” general store, a tiny church or two.  And a restaurant, because the village is a bit of a destination for European tourists.

The store was mostly empty, and what they did stock was all bad for you. Little wonder that 90% of Havasupi have diabetes. Shirtless kids roamed the streets, and old men and women, with faces wrinkled by time and sun, sat outside – just sitting, and staring.  They look at their young people, many of them losing their cultural identity. Many of the old ones had already lost their own identity for that matter, in their day, forced into government schools to be “Americanized”.

This squalor is in an absolutely beautiful spot.  It’s an odd contrast, this decrepit village next to the turquoise waters of the Supai falls. Cool natural rock pools, with water from the stream offering a respite from the sun.

Until we realized the water was fouled by horses and whatever else was living upstream.

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The entire time I was there, I felt uneasy. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

It was partially heat- and diet-related, I’m sure of that, but I also think it was, in retrospect, the realization that this sort of poverty should not exist, anywhere. And especially not in the United States. It felt like a movie set, except that the people were not actors. We were outsiders, often met with hostile glares. I understand this resentment of course – to them, all of us Anglos [white people] were the reason that for many years, this sweltering, fly- infested valley was all they had left of their ancestral lands.

A century ago, the National Park Service, and the Navajos, the Havasupai’s much-bigger rivals, finagled and seized the canyon, leaving only a few hundred acres and this tiny Supai village as a token of their “good will”. So it was a nation inside a nation inside a nation. And it wasn’t doing too well. It reminded me of a UNICEF advertisement, except it didn’t even have a famous actress involved, telling us to donate.  They finally prevailed in court, and regained their territory, but it doesn’t seem to have brought them much joy.

I left that part feeling very confused, a combination of exhaustion, anger, curiosity and maybe even fear.  I guess sometime, most people have, at least for a second or too, looked at a textbook picture of some medical condition, a disgusting abssess or horrible wound, before slamming the book shut, yuck.

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Let’s be honest, I also felt moments of excitement, because in a weird way it was exciting to see.  And also, I knew I was going to helicopter the hell out of there.  We flew out, and the little village faded into nothing as soon as we rose above the chasm’s edge.

The only places “officially” classified as 4th World in the US are the reservations for the native peoples.  Now that I’m living in Milwaukee, it’s too obvious that the inner cities of some cities qualify.  I’ve realized you don’t have to hide the 4th World in the bottom of the deepest canyon.  You don’t need “Indian Treaties,” fences, or walls.  It can be a few blocks away and remain invisible to most people.

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