Saturday, May 14, 2005

Land of Enchantment

I started my New Mexico trip on Saturday, May 7. My goal the first night was Tucumcari. I had planned to stay at the famous Route 66 hotel - The Blue Swallow - but during a phone call to them earlier I learned the hotel was temporarily closed. Its neon has been recently restored and Greg had stayed there before and heartily recommended it. Later in the trip, I learned that it's for sale.

I arrived before nightfall and drove the route to take a look. Much of the neon in Tucumcari has been restored on old Route 66. There are also a couple of restaurants that date from its hey day, including Del's Restaurant, where I had dinner. The food was nothing exceptional, but perfectly passable, and it was nice to eat in a place that has been there for about 50 years.

After dinner I headed out of town toward Conchas Lake State Park to camp for the night. When I say "camp" I mean sleeping in the back of my van - safe from animals, weather and other humans. I'm not sure one can really call it "camping" but it costs $8 to do it at this campground in a "primitive" site. I really am not sure what that means, but it was a beautiful place. I discovered the next morning when it was daylight that there were wildflowers in bloom all over the place, there was a beautiful lake, and after some searching I found the showers in another part of the park. I arrived after dark and finding my way around in the blackness prompted me to get to campsites earlier in the day the next few nights.

I continued on NM104, which is a beautiful road to drive, headed for Las Vegas. The road continued to climb and when I got out of the car at a beautiful spot with lots of rock and cactus, I realized I was suffering a tiny bit of altitude sickness - just minor - but I was very lethargic. The scenery was nice, though. I adore rocks, so this was very pleasant.

I hadn't necessarily planned to go to Las Vegas, but I hadn't really "planned" any part of the trip and the night before I decided to head that way to eat lunch at a restaurant I had read about in the Moon Guide. It's the Spic and Span diner, also known as Charlie's, and the recommended dish is "Al's Special," which is what I had. It's an omlette, filled with tons of good things including ham, peppers, veggies and cheese. It was mighty good. Of course, I was traveling with Ace Jackalope in tow - what trip would be complete with the Lope?

I really enjoyed my little visit to Las Vegas, New Mexico. It isn't a place I've ever hear much about, but it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It was a great diversion and I imagine it will become a regular stop when I'm in the Land of Enchantment.

I headed on up the road toward Santa Fe.

Taos Pueblo

One of the obligatory stops in Taos is the Pueblo. I went on Wednesday, before coming home.

It was designated in 1992 by UNESCO as the First Living World Heritage Site. It's also a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register. Why? Because it is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US. This building and its southern counterpart are estimated to be about 1000 years old.

The native people who live here today are the descendants of the tribe who lived there 1000 years ago. The Pueblo maintains a restriction of no running water and no electricity.

But, as is often the case in these situations, this is an odd bit of restriction. During my visit I saw an elderly gentleman walking down the dusty road carrying a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken under his arm. It was an odd juxtaposition - this gentleman with a traditional blanket flapping in the breeze as he walked purposefully, carrying fast food.

While there is no electricity, there are plenty of propane tanks. I'm not sure those were there 1000 years ago. They say the only difference is the doorways, which were introduced by the Spanish, although the traditional roof holes and ladders remain. Somehow I think doorways are not the only change.

And I haven't even mentioned the casino yet, that you can find just a little bit away from the pueblo, which is in the beautiful foothills. Or the very modern rest room facilities that are outside the gate. Not that I'm complaining of the visitor facilities - I made use of them myself - but there was definitely running water. Thank Goodness.

When you arrive, you pay $10 for an entrance fee and an additional $5 for your still camera and another $5 if you have a video camera. I don't mind the fees. At all.

And the first thing I saw after paying my money made me very happy that I had paid the extra $5 to take photos - the cemetery.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned here before about my love of cemeteries. I've visited some fabulous ones. This one was amazing.

It is built on the site of the old San Geronimo Church. Although the church is nothing but ruins - a new church was built in 1850 - the cemetery is still in use. Now, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out if people have been living here for 1000 years and using the same cemetery, it's going to fill up in none too many years.

Well, these ingenious people came up with a wonderful solution. The system is simple - when the cross marking your grave falls over, that indicates that the space is available for use. The bodies are buried one on top of the other. It's a brilliant solution as far as I'm concerned, but I guess some Catholic visitors have had some difficulty with the concept.

People are not buried in caskets, even though the church still has the ceremonial casket placed in missions to encourage natives to conform to Catholic funeral practices. Not these folks. They still bury in native regalia, wrapped in blankets, one on top of the other. When your cross falls over, it's removed and laid on the ruins of the old church. Apparently it's about a 75 year turn over.

The fact that some are now using headstones is going to mess with the system. They're contemplating how to handle that. But, the variety of wooden crosses, all hand made, are an amazing site to see.

The religion is an interesting mix - they are Catholic but also maintain their earth worship. I wish I could show you a photo of the inside of the new church, which is just lovely, but no photos are allowed. It has the traditional niches with Mary and others, but the walls are painted with beautiful earth symbols too - the Sun and moon, corn, squash, pumpkins, etc. It is gorgeous. Stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. But a perfect reminder that these people effortlessly blend two religions while most of us can't even manage one.

The "new" church is a wonderful structure. Don't miss the hand hewn marks on the wooden support posts at the back of the church. And do leave some time for soaking up the details of the altar area with its Catholic symbols and very intact Earth worship.

It's a gorgeous setting, with a creek running through that provides all the drinking water for the pueblo. Red Willow Creek divides the pueblo into the north and south sides, with wooden foot bridges that connect them. Water is carried to the homes by pottery and pails. The creek comes from a sacred source known as Blue Lake. Because it and the surrounding area are sacred, non-tribal members are not allowed into these areas.

You can get a tour from a local college student. It was my guide who explained that the buildings are made of the adobe bricks and then recoated each year with the mud and straw mixture. You can see it crumbling in places, which is why it's redone each year. Of course, the buildings keep growing in size. Some walls are over 2 feet thick now.

The North and South buildings now have shops in the lower floors. You can buy jewelry and various crafts. It's obvious that tourism has become a business here, but it's still in its infancy.

I fear what tourism will do to this place in another 20 years.