Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Nother Change of Pace -- Blue Highways, Cholame, and Hellmouths

We take NM SR 41 from our place in the Estancia Valley to Santa Fe -- well, to the junction of 285 near Lamy, then to I-25 in El Dorado, then to the Old Pecos Trail which connects to the Old Santa Fe Trail which leads right into Santa Fe and to the Plaza -- if you don't get lost in the warren of narrow streets lined with adobe haciendas and compounds...

NM SR 41 is a Blue Highway, a road less traveled, and really one of the most pleasant in some places one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives in New Mexico -- rivaled perhaps by NM SR 550, but 550 more heavily traveled by far. I love to drive 41 to and from Santa Fe. Ms Ché loves to drive it too, and she's not much of a driver all in all.

The Estancia Valley is a flat plain surrounded by mountains on the west, quirky hills and mesas on the south and east and a ridgeline on the north that cuts it off from snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains which can be seen in the distance. It's mostly given over to ranching and farming, with some suburban outposts of Albuquerque, but the population is very light, under two thousand in our immediate vicinity, and under 15,000 in the whole area. This is said to be about the same population density that was here during the Pueblo period, from the 1100s or 1200s until the last Pueblo people abandoned the region just before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

The ridgeline on the north separates the Estancia Valley from the Galisteo Basin, one of the most remarkable landscapes in New Mexico. The first time one sees it from the top of the ridge, one is taken aback, for depending on the lighting, it doesn't really look real. It looks more like a diorama of some ancient landscape. The mountains -- the Oritz on the west, the Sangres and Jemez on the north -- stand out in waves, in sharp or soft relief depending on the weather. There are interior ridges called "crestons" that are the remnants of lava dikes perched high on hills. They look like ancient and impossible stone walls which must have been built by giants long ago. The crestons cut across the basin in what at first appear to be nearly straight lines, but from above, they are neatly arced, almost impossibly so -- at least for something that wasn't built by the hand of man.

The surfaces of the crestons are covered with petroglyphs, some of which can be seen from the highway that roils through the basin, others requiring an up-close view -- a view which requires a strenuous hike up the talus slope to get to the rock-wall of the remnants of the ancient lava dike...

The petroglyphs, of course, were done by the ancient residents of the Galisteo Basin, Tanos among them. There were prior residents as well, going back who knows how far into pre-history. Their pueblos dotted the Galisteo, but evidence of them is now very limited and -- unless you know what to look for and where -- the evidence is hard to find. Their ruins melted back into the earth from which they had been built.

There is now one little town in the Galisteo Basin -- called Galisteo or The Pueblo of Galisteo -- famous for decorative but non-functional mailboxes, with a few hundred residents, mostly posh people who seek a refuge from the hustle and bustle of tourist-ridden Santa Fe, surrounded by vast ranches that stretch into the distance, ranches which are home to herds of cattle, mustangs and antelope. As empty as the Estancia Valley sometimes seems to be, there are ranches and settlements and even some light industry -- including a private prison in Estancia itself -- scattered all over the Valley. The Galisteo Basin is not like that at all. Except in and near Galisteo itself, there appears to be no human habitation at all in the Basin. The only exceptions are a mansion (we call it the monastery) on a ridge overlooking the Basin toward the south and a movie set that peeks over a ridge just outside the village of Galisteo, a set used and re-used for the many motion pictures and television shows that are made in New Mexico (most recently for the Adam Sandler comedy that many of the Indian cast members walked off of in disgust.)

There are a few ranch haciendas well off the road and barely visible as you pass by. There's a double descanso made of horseshoes -- one painted white inside a fence line, one left natural on the fence itself beside the white one -- honoring a "Longmire" crew member who was killed last year on his way home after an 18 hour day working on the set. He was killed, they think, when he fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his truck into a ditch. We passed by the wreck one morning on our way to Santa Fe not knowing at the time what had happened, but it was obvious from the crumpled condition of the truck -- still upside down in the ditch -- that it was the scene of something awful. There were State Police directing traffic around the wreckage and doing their measurements and whatnot, but there was no ambulance; the crewman's body was no doubt already gone.

In that area, the highway rises and falls and twists as it passes over hills and around obstacles. It is not a road you can travel while falling asleep. But when you're awake, it's gorgeous during the day, mysterious at night.

Often enough when we're traveling back home along NM SR 41 at night, the moon will be hanging near enough to the eastern horizon to serve as a beacon and a smiling silver visage observing our transit. Other times, when the sky is particularly clear at night, the stars visible through the windshield can be overwhelming, and because it is so dark, the stars may be seen all the way to the horizon.

When we lived in California, we would fairly frequently take another SR 41, this one from Kettleman City off of I-5 ("the Five" as it's known in SoCal) to its junction with SR 46 which has a western terminus at Hwy 101 ("the 101") in Paso Robles. This is a significant junction because it was near here in 1955 that James Dean was killed when his Porche t-boned another vehicle driven by Donald Turnupseed who was in the middle of the intersection. Dean was unable to stop in time to avoid the wreck. Dean died on the spot, his co-driver was thrown from the Porche, badly injured and yet survived the wreck.

The current junction of CA Highways 41 and 46 is in a slightly different location than it was in 1955, so the location of the wreck that killed James Dean is not well-marked or known, but the current junction was named "The James Dean Memorial" in 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of his death. A mile or so west of the current junction  is a restaurant called the Jack Ranch Cafe, just off "the 46" in a place called Cholame (pronounced "Show-Lam").  Next to the cafe is a huge old Chinese tree of heaven with a scar on the side of its massive trunk. Around the tree is a stainless steel, concrete and gravel memorial to James Dean created by a Japanese artist in 1977.

Pilgrims come from all over the world to reflect on James Dean's legacy and leave small tokens and flowers on the memorial which serves as a kind of descano, though not at all like those found along the roadsides in New Mexico. This memorial is hard and cold and shiny, and inset along its base are gold medallions now (or which were the last time I saw them) barely visible under cloudy sunburned lucite. There are various tributes and quotes engraved on the stainless steel borders of the memorial, and as I recall, there are pictures of James Dean, some of them very famous, hanging on a nearby screen.

We would stop there whenever we traveled from Sacramento to Santa Maria or Paso Robles on vacation or to work or just to visit friends.

James Dean is an iconic figure to me and to Ms Ché as well. I recall seeing "Giant" and "Rebel Without a Cause" when I was a child at a movie theater -- probably the Covina Theater where I'd be dropped off for the kiddie matinees on Saturdays and where my mother and I would frequently go for the "grown up" movies in the evening. In 1955 and 56, I think it was probably the closest movie theater to our home. I don't recall seeing the one other James Dean movie, "East of Eden" until many years later on television, but I may have seen it when I was a child and no longer remember.

"Rebel" was a fascinating -- and terrifying -- movie to me. It was fascinating because of its location filming in Los Angeles, particularly the scenes at the Griffith Observatory where I had been not long before the release of the movie. Griffith Park and the Observatory had made quite an impression on me, and to see it in the movie, to see Plato the character Sal Mineo played, actually killed by police at the Observatory was startling and frightening to me. Though I saw a lot of movies when I was a kid, I didn't pay a lot of attention to most of them -- and so I don't recall them now -- because I didn't understand them, or the characters didn't resonate, or for some other reason. "Rebel" was different. I could and did relate to the characters -- "delinquents" -- and especially to the locations.

Even later viewings of "Rebel Without a Cause" will trigger all kinds of memories and emotions from my childhood, including being shot by a neighbor boy -- and of moving away from Los Angeles not long afterwards. There are many scenes and themes and characters I can relate to in the movie, and James Dean in his iconic red jacket is -- and was -- the most compelling. I doubt I had ever seen such teen-aged angst and ambivalence on the screen before. I was not a teen-ager at the time I first saw the movie (I was only 8), but because of the way I'd been brought up, I felt much older than I was. I was expected by my parents -- and to an extent by society -- to be much more mature from a very early age than I was.

James Dean died before the release of "Rebel" so I first saw the movie after his death. I don't recall hearing about his death at the time, though I'm sure I must have. It's quite possible that I didn't relate to his name. "James Dean" the actor probably didn't mean much or anything to me at the time. "Jim Stark" -- his character in "Rebel" -- probably meant more.

Later the actor would become more meaningful to me as my own teen-age angst came to the fore. Jim Stark was considered a delinquent by his parents and authority but there was nothing particularly bad about him. He was simply misunderstood, a misfit, a nonconformist at a time and place where and when conformity and fitting in was necessity and a requirement for social acceptance. Or dire consequences would ensue. As they did.

We would stop by the memorial in Cholame and contemplate, sometimes leaving a token of our own before driving on to the Coast to work or to visit or to vacation. Paso Robles, the western terminus of Highway 46, we found was quite literally a Hellmouth. When there was an earthquake there not too long ago, much of the downtown was destroyed, and the earth opened up. A sulfurous pit was revealed, and one of the last times we went to Paso Robles we stopped at this Hellmouth to gape and wonder. The wreckage from the earthquake was still apparent, and the Hellmouth stank and fumed near the City Hall. It was taped off, but we got close enough to witness. And then got away from it as fast as we could, shuddering a little at what this stinking hole might represent.

My sister had died in Templeton a few miles south of Paso Robles some ten years before... and I wondered... she wanted to live near where she'd grown up on the Central Coast, she loved that country and saw it as her home place. Templeton lies between Atascadero (where she worked at the prison) and Paso Robles. She was born and spent a good deal of her childhood and adolescence in Santa Maria some fifty miles to the south, closer to the Pacific Ocean, but not quite on the coast. Templeton was about as close as she could get and find work in her therapeutic specialty in prisons. She'd transferred from Susanville when a position opened up at Atascadero.

And too soon she died, the victim of a particularly brutal take-down of a prisoner she was working with. The last time I talked to her a few days before she died, she said the prisoner didn't hurt her at all, and she said he probably wouldn't have. But he became agitated while she was counseling him and as a precaution, she called for back-up. Four officers responded and they took him down despite her pleas that they not interfere with or assault him. She was between the prisoner and the guards and was smashed into a table during their assault on the prisoner, shattering both of her kneecaps. She had surgery to begin repairing her injuries and died from an embolism the next day.

Atascadero, they say, is one of the most brutal of California's very brutal prisons, in part because it houses prisoners considered to be criminally insane, and mental illness and/or insanity has long been treated with as much brutality as can be mustered by authority. My sister was collateral damage, I suppose. She got in the way of the guards and so she died.

Jim Stark was traumatized in "Rebel" when he saw his friend Plato killed by police at the Griffith Park Observatory. Jim had tried to protect Plato by taking the bullets from his gun. Police, seeing the gun in Plato's hand, kill him anyway -- while Jim is screaming, "I have the bullets!" It's just another day's work for the LAPD. Some throw-away kid got killed. Oh well.

This was in 1955. Not a whole lot has changed since then, as "throw aways" (kids and no) are still killed by police in Los Angeles seemingly every day, whether they are character players on Hollywood Boulevard, homeless men on Skid Row, or panhandlers in Venice.

LAPD kills, it's what they do. It's their mission, their purpose, their reason for being.

I've come to think of LA as home to a killer-culture, and I have no urge to be there, not for a visit, and certainly not to live there. It's not just LAPD's trigger-happiness, killing and destroying people is widely practiced throughout every aspect of Los Angeles society and culture. It's particularly apparent in the motion picture industry and its absolute adoration of hyper-violence and the wreckage of human beings it feeds upon.

But it's not just LA, not just Hollywood, not just movies.

Something fundamental about America has gone over a cliff, something like the "chickie-run" scene in "Rebel Without a Cause."

Most of us are at the bottom. Nearer to the Hellmouth....

NOTE: This post was inspired by a poem Ms Ché wrote in 1986, "To the Cholame Tree" which she read to a group of writers in New Mexico at a meeting last week. The response was very interesting...

The poem deals with imagery from "Rebel Without a Cause" -- including Jim Stark's iconic red jacket. The imagery is triggered by a stop at the Cholame monument to James Dean that is described above. A swirl of images from the movie, from James Dean's life and his death nearby, as well as the 1981 death of Natalie Wood, and the 1976 death of Sal Mineo pivot around the tree and the monument and memories.

I hadn't heard it read in a long time, and I was moved by it, perhaps even more than I had been when I first heard it decades ago. Of course I had been to the Cholame Tree many times, and I had plenty of memories of Jim Stark and Plato and Judy in "Rebel" from when I was very young as well as later memories from when I saw the movie again.

Interestingly, the New Mexico writers who heard Ms Ché at that meeting were... unmoved. Not only did the poem and the imagery not resonate with them, one even said that she hadn't seen "Rebel" in a very long time, and she didn't remember much of it. What they wanted to talk about though was whether Natalie Wood was murdered by Robert Wagner and if he got away with it. 

Ms. Ché took it in stride, explaining what she knew about the untimely drowning of Ms Wood after she fell off a boat while her husband and friends continued socializing. If the writers she was meeting with were unmoved by the Cholame Tree, so be it. So be it.

There are so many places we've been that carry a psychic and emotional energy that seems to be transmitted into and sometimes through us. New Mexico and many sites in New Mexico are among those places, but there are many others, including the little wide place in the road on Highway 46 in California between Bakersfield and Paso Robles where a tree beside a cafe is wrapped in a stainless steel monument to the memory of James Dean -- who was killed in a car wreck on September 30, 1955, about a mile east of this tree when a car turned in front of the Porsche Dean was driving and Dean couldn't stop in time to avoid a wreck.

This video is of a driver following the route James Dean took on Highway 46 that fateful day, passing the junction with Highway 41 near where the wreck occurred and stopping at the Jack Ranch Cafe beside the Cholame Tree -- the Tree doesn't figure in the video at all, however. But the video gives you an idea of the landscape along the route.

This video shows the view from Highway 41 and Highway 46.

Testimony from the last surviving witness to the crash. Accompanied by the Lizard King...

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