Rocks, gods, heroes and highways

How could I not write about New Mexico after a week’s stay?

I’d been in the state  a few times before, so I knew about its magic: New Mexico is a place where things I’d never have believed in New York City, Philadelphia, Vermont or California, are, quite simply, true. I’m sure this is partly because of the Indian culture, the Mexican Catholicism, the many new age faiths, and—happily for all of us—the artists who grapple with the state’s odd beauty. It’s a place where gods and heroes still walk through town squares, where you see their work on all those oddly shaped mesas and mountains. It’s also a place where the old are often wise: they dominate the ranks of the mythical characters who populate the state.

The Sandias in winter. A photo I took in the 1980s.

When you travel to New Mexico by air, you will probably land in Albuquerque, and therefore, inevitably, fall under the influence of the Sandia Mountains. They stand tall and apart. They don’t belong to a larger, longer range of mountains; no hills fall down in heaps around them, at least not on the West side where the city lies. My sister, the archaeologist, told me that the valley where the Rio Grande runs is a rift valley. The mountains were lifted up some 10 million years ago and the rift valley was formed. The Sandia’s cliffs are 1 ½ billion years-old-granite and 300 million years-old-limestone and sandstone. The word Sandia means watermelon, which it seems to me is too sweet and light in the mouth for this place-I’d rather call them Bien Mur or “big mountain,” the name the Sandia Pueblo Indians gave them.

But then again, New Mexico has a sense of humor.

I’ve always thought of the Sandias as emblematic of the magic that is New Mexico, a place where the earth has stripped down to show us the way her bones lie and her flesh clings to them, where the colors that belong to the stone and sand, and stripe the mountains, spring from deep, deep below the superficial surface of the world we know. Even the plants—sagebrush, yucca, mesquite and cactus, pinon and juniper, pine and spruce, the cottonwoods that lean across its rivers—seem to have been shaped somewhere other than this world. The state’s bird, the road runner, must have sprung from the fevered imagination of some ancient deity. Flora and fauna must all have come from some underground place. Because that’s part of the magic of New Mexico.

My sister, pointing to one striated ridge and then to another somewhere above it, commented, “Between there and there, the dinosaurs became extinct.” Ah, I thought. Now I understand. This is a place where time has been turned into space, where it’s been made visible.

The Sandias from the tram. Photo by jimmiewayne. Under a Creative Commons license.

A view from the tram. Photo by jimmiewayne. Under a Creative Commons license.

I’d always thought of the west side of the Sandias as unapproachable, certainly not as mountains to climb up or scramble down. But this time I scaled them on the world’s longest tramway (2.7 miles). Past stone canyons and walls of tumbling rocks, we climbed over 4,000 feet in 15 minutes. I was pleased that the mountains were no less magic for the ascent; in fact swinging close to those incredible cliffs, approaching them but never touching them, made them even more of another world. But that’s exactly what’s fascinating about New Mexico. As its automobile licenses proclaim, it’s “the land of enchantment.”

At the Aztec and Salmon ruins close to Farmington in the north, my archaeologist sister and I walked among adobe kivas and rooms that belonged to the ancient Pueblo people. They thrived between AD 900 and 1150, and then disappeared. Not so very long ago by New Mexico standards. The ruins were what was left of communities that were connected by miles of broad highways to the Chaco Canyon, a central and very sacred place I hope I see on my next visit.

And now, all these centuries later, stretching across the New Mexico deserts and mountains and dipping into its valleys, are our contemporary highways.

A landscape by Auntie Rain. Under a Creative Commons license.

I was struck by how dependent we are on them, how they move us through space and time from gas station to gas station, from mall to mall. From the naugahyde booths of Sonia’s Cafe in Farmington where we ate pancakes, to the fine wooden chairs at Telofilos in Los Lunas, where we indulged ourselves in another enchilada, burrito, taco, frijoles… served with bowls of puffy sophapilas. From a sign marking the elevation to another marking the direction and mileage, and always, continually, the music of the road, the country and western tunes, the Mexican corridos, the sound of rubber on asphalt. From a centuries-old Catholic church with walls of flaking saints to a church of God in an abandoned garage, where a billboard assures us that the fetus is a living human being with a heart, these roads connect us all.

In the parking lot of a Wal-Mart I saw a truck dedicated to a man’s son—Alejandro Yazzi, killed in Afghanistan, a hero now whose life was the stuff of the legends that covered its every inch: childhood photos wrapped in the American flag that unfurled across the doors and down the sides. The dates that had mattered in the young man’s life were enshrined on the tailgate; the colors were the true colors that digital cameras have made possible, but they were also earth colors and sky colors. New Mexico colors. “Yazzi,” my archaeologist sister reminded me, is a Navajo name.

Now, I’ve been a progressive and a liberal almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I can wax as cynical as most about our consumerist culture, the nastiness of Wal-Mart and all the other capitalist chains that dot our country, and even the world, and the highways that connect them one to another like the connect-the-dots puzzles that are still served up to youngsters in some chain restaurants. But no matter how we judge them, isn’t it wonderful and fascinating, this new striping of reality, this last resurfacing of this ancient earth?

On our way from one part of New Mexico to another, we went to the Santa Fe Opera. North of us and south of us, the days had been in the hundreds of degrees, but we’d decided to share a tailgate dinner, the way people do who go to the opera on top of that particular mountain. Hardly had we opened the trunk and settled ourselves in the chairs (bought at Wal-Mart the day before), when a cool wind came up, and the sky turned interesting with piles of dark clouds with sun-glossed edges. While we ate our sandwiches and drank our drinks, lightning danced on the faraway hills.

The opera house is built like a great ship, encircled with stone walks and stairways. We strolled from one part to another, watching the opera-goers talk, drink, take pictures of a rose-and-vermillon-sunset-drenched-sky, cracked open now and again with lightning. The opera that night was Tales of Hoffman. For those of you who don’t know it, its subject is love, magic and art, which seemed appropriate to me in a place filled with all three. Hoffman is a sad poet whose attempts at love are thwarted by the devil (magic), and whose soul, in the end is saved by art. In the context of the opera a lovely delusion, I think. The plot is much more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that the production was over-the-top-funny, the way some of the figures in Indian legends are. It rained through all three acts, and through  the last, it poured.

Oddly, but then why not, it’s New Mexico, the rain stopped as the opera ended and we all made our way back to our cars to wind our way down the mountain to the highway below, where we could continue on our way, from dot to dot, to the next mystery in this mysterious state.

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