Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Journal of a Mud House

[Illustration from Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's "The Journal of a Mud House," Harper's Magazine, March 1922]

Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wrote "The Journal of a Mud House" for Harper's Magazine which serialized it in 1922, and I was struck on reading it this past week at both how much and how very little has changed in New Mexico ever since.

Not that I know that much about it, understand.

According to the biographies I've found, Sergeant was a wounded war correspondent who went out to New Mexico from her Massachusetts home in 1920, perching up at Taos where she became part of the Taos artist community then becoming a force in the world of both visual and literary arts. D. H. Lawrence and all that.

Well, but this story is about her purchase and rehab of a "mud house" -- apparently it was just a three room adobe ruin -- on a couple of acres in Tesuque, which is just north of Santa Fe, not Taos at all. And very fashionable now Tesuque is too. Even more so than Taos.

About six years ago, we purchased a six/seven room adobe ruin a good deal south of Santa Fe, in what's known as the East Mountains, not at all fashionable -- at least not to those who worry about those things. But then, neither was Tesuque in those days when Sergeant and her friend Gertrude bought their place in the '20's!

No, Tesuque was a handful of scattered ranches, mostly in Anglo hands, a "Mexican" village, and an off-the-beaten-track Indian pueblo back then. All of which, to a greater or lesser degree it still is.

In those days, Tesuque is described as six miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, which ought to have made it very close in, but it was not easy to get around back then. Sergeant bought a Ford to get from place to place on the few graded or paved roads there were, but she also had a couple of horses just in case, and most of the Native people (both Indian and Spanish) used the ubiquitous burros to carry loads; they walked beside their burros most of the time.

So six miles from the Plaza was a much-of-the-day trek out to Tesuque or back into Town. It's now a really nice 45 minute drive on a nearly empty road through some of the most gorgeous high plains and mountain territory on the continent from our place to the Plaza in Santa Fe, or in the other direction (that is to say west) about the same length of time, much of it on the remnants of Route 66, to the Albuquerque Plaza -- which isn't quite as old (a hundred years newer! But still more than 300 years old), which is if anything even more pleasant than Santa Fe's ancient Plaza.

The difficulty of getting from place to place has an effect on the way you see the world around you. In New Mexico, in the 1920's -- as well as long before that -- it was not impossible by any means to move around, to go places, to do things and see the sights. Not at all. On the other hand, it was a challenge to get from here to there, and once you got to wherever it was you were going, it was not an easy thing to just pick up and go somewhere else.

Thus, once you were wherever your destination might be, you tended to stay put. At least for a while. Typically a good long while!

Of course there are freeways and really very fine state highways through New Mexico now, so it's not that hard at all to move around and to see the sights if one wants to and has a car or a truck as the case may be. And can afford gas. Insurance. The usual impediments. But once you get off the main highways, the roads in New Mexico are often unpaved, sometimes barely graded tracks through the wilderness, and in Santa Fe particularly the custom is not to pave the local roads and streets, not even to name them in many cases -- "you just have to know your way around" -- which leads to clouds of dust and puzzled confusion, but also to slow travel, or even staying put, rather than peripatetically driving around. As one would do, say, in Los Angeles. Or most of the rest of California for that matter.

I find myself being rooted in place when I'm in New Mexico. Our place is not on a main road, but it is on a paved street, one that even gets plowed in the winter time (whoo-hoo!) and it is no great distance from the front door to the street on our gravel drive way. Yes, these were all considerations when time was. You grow up in California and you expect certain conveniences.

But then when Sergeant went out to New Mexico in the 1920's, you didn't have a choice. There weren't any conveniences to speak of except for the railroad -- which was of course how you got out to New Mexico in the first place. But once there -- and it wasn't necessarily all that easy to get there even with the railroad, as Sergeant documents from the "Chicago Train" which faces a washout near Pueblo, CO, and so travelers must be diverted through Kansas and Oklahoma and Texas to get to Albuquerque and thence up to Santa Fe. Well, Lamy. And thence the 18 miles to Santa Fe. Good luck!

There's a new train these days called the Railrunner (with a wonderful roadrunner logo emblazoned on its side) that runs from Belen in the south to Santa Fe's Railyard District in the north passing through Albuquerque on its way. There is talk of extending it every which of a way because it is really such a nice ride for one thing, and it is such a Green travel mode for another. But New Mexico is now in thrall to a Republican administration, so the likelihood of doing anything to extend the Railrunner is approximately none for the foreseeable future. But that's as may be. One learns to wait.

To Be Continued

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