Tuesday, February 5, 2013


New Mexico landscapes have served as settings for innumerable movies and television shows for many years and they continue to do so today. Often when we go into town, we encounter some crew setting up for some movie or show, and even out in some parts of the country we've seen movie location crews hard at work. There's a very active native film and television community -- local people who work in the business and who make their own movies and videos as well.

Up in Santa Fe and Taos, of course, there have long been film-people colonies. Greer Garson was one of the first movie stars I associated with New Mexico, but there are many, many more. Some have ranches, some carry on in their urban/suburban compounds, some even make movies in New Mexico. It lends a superficial glamour to the place quite apart from the artist community which has its own sense of glamour.

Our place is in the unglamorous central region of New Mexico. This is such an unglamorous area that is typically ignored altogether when mention is made of New Mexico in the travel and tourist press, in the Tamalewood listings (Abq is known as "Tamalewood" by some of the film folk), and often enough, it's ignored even by locals. You could think of it as New Mexico's Empty Quarter. Not many people live in the area, something like 15,000 or so in the entire county. It's not the smallest population county in NM, but close to it.

Nevertheless, we live in a pioneer ranch house, one of the first, if not the first, Anglo houses built in these parts, the original wing dating to about 1900. Ironically, we were told that Toney Anaya grew up in this house -- I don't believe it, and I've never had the chance to ask him directly -- which somehow doesn't seem to fit his Hispanic heritage at all. This house is a very Anglo adobe. The Anaya Ranch is not far away, to be sure, and there are plenty of Anayas in the area (Toney himself lives in Santa Fe these days), but I've been unable to make a connection between this house and the former New Mexico governor. (To be clear, I don't know Toney Anaya, though I have met him. His family is an institution in New Mexico.)

Neighbors know nothing about it. Typical.

Given how early non-Indian settlement started in New Mexico -- Coronado's exploits in the 1540s, Onate's in the 1590's, Santa Fe itself founded adjacent to an Indian pueblo in 1610, Albuquerque in 1706, etc. -- and given the fact that there are pueblo ruins all around this area, from Galisteo in the north, Pecos in the east, Abo and Grand Quivira to the south, and numerous pueblos in the mountains to the west, the literal absence of people in this area during the 19th century when New Mexico became part of the United States is striking.

I shouldn't say complete absence, because there were a few people in these parts through most of the 19th century, though they were very widely scattered and were seemingly quite isolated from the Rio Grande communities. Communications weren't impossible. There are rather easily managed passes over or through or around the central mountain chain to the Rio Grande Valley, and the route to Santa Fe from here is no great challenge.

The isolation was mostly, I think, due to the fact that this is very different country, geologically, environmentally, and in nearly every other way than either the foothills of the Sangres where Santa Fe is situated, or the broad expanse of the Rio Grande Rift where the silvery river flows and cities, farms and ranches spread out against the dramatic backdrop of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains.

I'm just getting to know about the Rio Grande Rift, one of the true geological wonders of the United States (and part of Mexico) -- or it would be if anyone were paying attention. When you first encounter it, it is breathtaking. But you don't necessarily know what you have encountered. It seems strange to think that that tiny silver river, shallow, lazy and sometimes nearly gone, carved a 40 mile wide valley extending from the western mesas to the Sandias and Manzanos on the east. Well, it didn't.

The Rio Grande Valley is a rift zone, where the land is being pulled apart by forces from below, well below, and its spread of forty or more miles is the consequence of the uplift and extension caused by rising magma from the interior. There are volcanoes on the western margin of this rift, some active fairly recently, and one, the Valles Caldera, an explosive monster that rivals the Yellowstone Caldera.

In the far west, residents of Albuquerque can see Mt. Taylor, a sacred mountain to the Navajo and other Native peoples, which is a huge stratovolcano, its top blown off long ago. Not far from Mt Taylor is El Malpais, a flood volcanic region that goes on for miles.

Once you realize that the Rio Grande Valley is actually a rent in the fabric of the land and not (for the most part) a feature carved by flowing water, the implications of what we see today are quite profound.

The Rio Grande Rift is comparable to the East Africa Rift, one of the most striking geological features on the globe. Dramatic as it is, particularly around Albuquerque, the Rio Grande Rift is not quite as obvious as the East Africa Rift, however, in part because so much of it is filled in with miles deep layers of debris washed off the mountains. There is a layer of light-colored limestone at the top of the Sandias, for example, now at an elevation of some 11,000 feet. That same layer of limestone is found some 8,000 feet below the current level of the Rio Grande River. The mountains rose, while the valley fell, leaving a vertical span of nearly five miles between sections of what was once a flat layer of limestone laid down at the bottom of a broad shallow sea that once covered the interior of the continent. Fascinating.

The Rio Grande Rift borders the Colorado Plateau on the west; eastward of the mountains, the central portion of the Continental Plate gradually descends and flattens into the Central Plains, once known as the Great American Desert. Traveling east on the Interstate, the change in altitude and the flattening of the horizons becomes very apparent as does the change from mountain and forest to grasslands and plains.

Our place is in an area that is something of an introduction to the plains landscapes further east. It looks very much like the plains of Texas or Oklahoma or Kansas or Nebraska or what have you, but the elevation is still quite high (6,200 feet), about 1,000 feet higher and Albuquerque and 1,000 feet lower than Santa Fe.

We have pretty spectacular mountains on the north and west, somewhat less spectacular peaks on the east and south. It is very clear we live in a valley. What's not so clear is that this valley was once a huge mountain lake that dried up not that long ago; in fact, remnants of it are still apparent to the south and east as Las Salinas, the small salt lakes that have been mined for centuries.

When people first came to this area, perhaps 20,000 years ago or more, the lake was apparently at its full extent. The lake level rose and fell many times over the next several thousand years as water drained from beneath it to the south while fresh water flowed into it mostly from the slopes of the mountains to the west.

Exactly when the lake almost completely disappeared -- and why -- is not fully understood, though consensus seems to gravitate to the notion of climate change at the end of the last ice age significantly reduced rainfall, leading to much reduced runoff from the mountains, leading to much more rapid evaporation from the surface of the lake, while tectonic forces from below opened channels beneath the lake for water to drain to the south as if from a bathtub. By the time the native pueblos were first being established, perhaps 1,300 years ago, the lake was gone or nearly so, with only the salt pan remnants in the east of the valley pretty much as they are found today.

But I wonder. All of the main pueblos were established on the west margin of what was once the lake. Some were established well above the highest lake level, others were close to the shoreline of the supposedly absent lake, while much later, it is thought, one small or perhaps a few tiny pueblos were established near lakebed springs after the lake disappeared.

The "near shoreline" pueblos were the only ones that lasted after the arrival of the Spanish. They are now all abandoned and in ruins, but they were occupied until the 1670's -- just a few years before the Pueblo
Revolt -- and some pueblos to the north were reoccupied for a time after the Pueblo Revolt, finally being abandoned in the 1740's or even later.

The abandonment of the pueblos in the 1670's was due to drought and starvation. The abandonment after the reoccupation of some of the northern pueblos was due to raiding by Plains Indians and population decline due to disease.

By the time this area became part of the United States (at one time, it was claimed by Texas), there were only Plains Indians who had no fixed settlements in the area (though they used some of the abandoned pueblos for shelter from time to time), and a very few Spanish cattle and sheep ranches.

There were a number of competing Spanish land claims in this area to be sorted out by the Anglo land commissioners charged with certifying Spanish land grants -- or stealing the land from the Spanish claimants if that seemed feasible, which it so conveniently often was.

This area, however, was mostly closed to Anglo settlement due to the competing land claims by both Spanish grantees and some Anglos who purchased grants from them. There were a few Anglo squatters, but not many.

The claims were eventually settled by denying all of them and opening the whole area to homesteading and settlement in 1900. The railroad came through promptly thereafter, opening stations all along the new line from the Santa Fe tracks in the south to Lamy in the north starting in 1903.

I've counted about 8 original adobe houses relatively near our place. Ours may not be the oldest, though some neighbors say it is. I suspect one about half a mile away is older, but not by much, though I haven't asked the people who live there, and even if I did, they might not know.

The railroad ceased operations and the tracks were torn up many years ago -- I believe it was in the 1940s 1970's -- but it's still easy to trace the line of the tracks when time was. The town site that once existed here is pretty much gone, though. The depot has been restored, and one of the warehouses is still standing and there are maybe two or three of the original town buildings still existing -- though they are abandoned. Most of what once formed the town, however, has long since been demolished or burned down. There is almost no sign there ever was a town as such there. There are a number of other townsites along the former railroad line that are just as nearly-not-there -- if not more so.

Our place was originally not in town, but it was not far out of town, either. It was an easy walk or buggy-ride to the depot and the shops in town, less than a mile. I've found some artifacts on the property from that era, though surprisingly few. Some time in the 1950's or early 60's, the ranch that this house had been the center of was broken up and subdivided into residential lots, streets were laid out, graded and paved and suburban houses were built. Our house is now in pretty much the center of a familiar seeming suburban residential district. Well, except it's out in the country, surrounded by range land. There is a "new town" a couple of miles away that was first established when Route 66 was realigned in the 1930's, but there really isn't much from that era still standing (again, much of what once was there burned down or was demolished.) A "new-new town" was then built to service the Interstate which was run parallel to Route 66. There are two truck stops on the Interstate, soon to be three.

It's not remotely glamorous; it's the opposite. It's dusty, gritty, and real.

But there are stories here, oh my are there stories!

The King and the Anaya families are legendary in the area and in New Mexico for that matter, but there are other area ranching families that have a growing reputation and who may become legends in the near future. Cowboying and ranching is a way of life out here, and like everything else, there is nothing glamourous about it. It's hard and sometimes crippling work. Some of the ranches are being turned into... civilian, school kid or tourist destinations of one sort or another. There is one ranch up the road to Santa
Fe that was intended as a movie ranch, or at least that is what I was told, but for years now it's been idle because its owner is in jail, or so they say. That story is murky at best.

Much to learn, very much.

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