Thursday, September 26, 2013

To Mora and Ocate -- Hi Lo or the Faraway Nearby

Ocate Peak
Grazing herd

Ocate Mesa
Downtown Ocate

Frack No!
Mora Driveway

The beetling cliff that looms over what little is left of the town of Ocate, New Mexico, comes as a distinct shock as you drive toward the remnants of the place from the south on NM 442 from La Cueva. You're not expecting it to be so high nor so dominant, especially if your eye has been caught by Ocate Peak over on the east, a round mound looming over the temporarily lush ranches of the Durans and the Montoyas where sparse herds of Angus and other breeds of cattle graze or laze in the early fall sun.

Ocate became a destination because of Ol' Abe, one of our neighbors in Sacramento. Ol' Abe was pushing eighty, and he would come over sometimes to chat about God and his girlfriend's reprobate son and he'd tell me how lucky and blessed he was to survive his strokes. He was a wonderful character who took care of Fred and Rosemary's place across the street when they were off gallivanting or kyaking or doing whatever they wanted to do in their retirement. Ol' Abe was retired, too, of course, as I was when Abe and I got to know each other better than just nodding "hello" at one another now and again.

One day we were yakking while I watered the lawn, and I told him Ms Ché and I were planning to move to New Mexico as soon as she retired. We had a house, an old adobe ranch house that we'd renovated, and we were looking forward to finally being able to live in the Land of Enchantment rather than just visiting when we could. Ol' Abe wondered if we'd ever heard of a place called "Oh-Ka-Teh" which I thought sounded like an Indian name. I told him, no. I'd never heard of a place called that. He said it was in Mora County and where his father had been born -- when there was still a town there. Before Abe was born, his father had moved up to Colorado, near Trinidad, where Abe had been born and grew up.

I asked him why his father had moved, and Abe said, "Oh, you know. Los ricos started buying up all the land, and there wasn't any work or anything else to do around there. By the time my parents left, there wasn't even a town any more, just ranches, and they didn't need hands. The people didn't have land so they couldn't farm any more, so everybody left."

Well, I told him, that sounded familiar. Things like that were going on all over New Mexico after the Anglos came in. He said, "These were Spanish ricos. There weren't any Anglos to speak of around there."

He said he liked it up in Colorado, but kept hearing about where his father had been born and grew up, so after he left the military, he took a bus through there, and sure enough, there wasn't anything left of Ocate to speak of. He moved on to California where he did farm work in the pear orchards in the Delta and never looked back.

I checked on maps of New Mexico, and I couldn't find anyplace with a name like I heard Abe say it, but then it occurred to me that he wasn't talking about an Indian place, he was talking about a Spanish one, and the name was probably spelled "Ocate," and I found on the map right off, in Mora County north of La Cueva. That's the place Ol' Abe was talking about.

Next time I saw him, I told him I'd found Ocate on the map, and that I'd go visit one day. He laughed. "There's nothing to see anymore. The town's gone."

Well, I checked the Google Street View, and there were a few derelict buildings and a church as well as some old farm and ranch houses that appeared to be occupied, so it wasn't true there was "nothing" there anymore, but a town it wasn't.

The views I saw of Ocate courtesy of the Google Street View camera were highly evocative of Ol' Max Evans' Hi-Lo Country, and when I got a copy of Evans' map of the territory he considered to be "Hi-Lo," it took in everything from the east edge of the Sangre de Cristos to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and into southern Colorado. Ocate was part of Evans' Hi Lo. So was Mora, another historic New Mexico site I had long wanted to visit.

Mora has a storied history of rebellion and destruction during the Mexican American War of 1846-48  by which Americans took the Southwest from Mexico in one of the earlier American wars of aggression. There was significant resistance only in New Mexico, and the citizens of Mora figured prominently in that resistance.

In the morning, we got on Interstate 40 and traveled east to the State Road 3 exit. SR 3 is another of those two lane black tops that criss cross New Mexico leading to little known and essentially autonomous villages and towns, many with long community histories that few outside those communities know of.

The road north crosses high desert plains dotted with pinion and tiny scraps of lakes on the way to meet up with I-25. The road twists and turns down into the Pecos River Valley where a number of villages showed extensive damage from the recent floods. Backhoes, bulldozers, and skip loaders were hard at work in some of the villages clearing mud and ruined adobe buildings, piling the debris off to the side where no doubt everything that could be salvaged would be and the rest would be allowed to melt back into the earth where it came from.

The road was mostly cleared when we passed through, but here and there it appeared the mud had probably been several feet deep. In some places, adobe buildings had been undermined and collapsed. Some of the fields had clearly been inundated, though the flood waters had since receded. This was not the first flood along the Pecos, nor would it be the last. People make do as best they can, no matter.

Yet we hadn't heard anything about the floods along the Pecos due to the recent storms. Were they secret, like the stories of what really happened during the Taos Revolt? Like Ocate back in slavery time? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

When we got to Las Vegas, we stopped for a bite of lunch, then headed out NM 518 toward Mora, site of two of the battles of the Taos Revolt in 1847. Some reports say the town had a population of 1,500 at the time, more than double today's population. A few hundred rebels were able to hold off and initially drive out the Americans, but the Americans came back with cannon and drove out the residents of Mora, burned the town and destroyed the crops.

Mora today appears to be pretty placid, and there didn't appear to be any damage from flooding along the Mora River (barely a creek by California standards), but we really couldn't see very much beyond the road, so there may have been floods through the back of town. 

Mora and much of the countryside reminded me a lot of some of the mining towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California's Gold Country -- at least the way they were in the '50's and '60's when I first saw them and before the tourist industry found them.

There were no tourists visible in Mora, nor would we see any in Ocate. In fact, we didn't see anyone at all in Ocate, just a couple of horses and some cattle. In fact, we probably saw more pronghorns in the area than we saw of horses, people, or cattle. These areas of New Mexico have earned the title Georgia O'Keefe (pdf) is said to have given the whole of New Mexico: "The Faraway Nearby."


Las Vegas is much more touristy, and traffic near the Plaza was horrendous. I've heard tell that people who stay at the (world famous) Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas hear traffic sounds far into the night, and since it seems that every driver who passes the Plaza has to honk their horn, sleep must be something of a luxury. Two tour buses were unloading their young-looking passengers at the hotel as we strolled by -- and the horns honked and the traffic roared. Sleep tight.

Wild West comes to life. ________________________________________________________________________

There was a blue pick up parked in front of a neighbor's place when I drove by yesterday. In the back of the pickup was an enormous set of antlers, the biggest I'd ever seen in my life -- the top span was wider than the bed of the pickup, and the height of the whole thing was about twice as high as the top of the cab. A man with a huge grin on his face, a man who I'd never seen before, was chatting by the truck with the neighbors who'd come out to see the sight of the antlers.

It is, after all, elk hunting season. Some people need their trophies...

"Georgia O'Keeffe: From the Faraway, Nearby (59.204.2)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)
Note: Ms Ché took all the pictures on this expedition -- except the Georgia O'Keefe painting, of course.

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