Friday, April 29, 2011
I headed down toward the river in order to pee. The Rio Grande flows fast and powerfully through this narrow gorge. Raft operators start their runs just a few miles to the north. I was hoping that one of these tours wouldn't drift past as I had my willy in the wind. But I was unable to actually get to the water's edge, due to a barb-wire fence enclosing a bare patch of desert. I turned and walked toward the large plastic bunnies flanking the old shack across the road. Easter was just a few days away.
We'd left Santa Fe an hour earlier, headed toward the northern border of the state. Here in Embudo Station, we often broke the 90 minute trip to Taos for ice cream. But it was early, and no one was manning the trailer. We returned to the car and continued north. Just shy of town we turned east, through a narrow valley that had a large Canestoga Wagon set against the trees. The wagon, actually a cabin, served as the home of the attendant of the RV park that was nestled here amongst some of the best ski hills in the country.
We moved on to Eagle Nest, pulling into a small coffee shop for my mid-morning cuppa. The owner wouldn't allow me to fill my own container due to the health code, filling instead one of those styrofoam jobs seen most often in the hands of cops on a stakeout. (I hadn't actually seen one of these cups in a quite a few years, but was to receive six of them by the weekend.) The owner told me that due to the lack of snow this winter, business had been pretty bad. Some of the local hotels and ski resort operators had exaggerated the amount of powder up here, to the frustration of skiers who'd taken the time to make the drive up. He didn't expect the summer to be much better, with gas prices supposed to rise to 5 dollars a gallon by summer.
We moved through Cimarron Canyon, its walls like a folded fan. When the land opened up again, the dramatically-shaped and aptly named Tooth of Time stood above all out to the east. The western horizon was similarly guarded by snow-capped Wheeler. We eventually arrived in Raton proper, its historic brick building shuttered and boarded, one step away from being a ghost town. A gas station had a sign reading "Yes, WE are Open," nearly a Japanese usage of the preposition 'wa,' to differentiate from all the other businesses now shut down. After a few false starts, we eventually found a place for lunch, one of the oldest joints in town, and still possibly considered so, if you quantify by the average age of its diner. Miki and I were the youngest customers by decades, and we found ourselves within earshot of the others as they ran through their list of current afflictions. The hallway leading to the restroom was lined by those old photos that are always peculiarly long, framing dozens of people posing stiffly. One photo was of a baseball team, swastikas mysteriously decorating the breast of their uniforms.
Out on the road again, across the plains to Capulin Volcano. After spiraling a ways upward counterclockwise, we continued that way on foot around the rim. Trees and low shrubs held contorted poses, flinching against the strong winds up here. Below, the land looked like liquid, dimpled by the ancient steam vents that had thrust upward 60,000 years before. The land beyond was open and vast, with lines extending across the prairie like spokes, the thicker ones for cars, the thinner for cattle. I could imagine the wagon trains that used to pass by on the Santa Fe Trail. How exciting it must have been to finally see the mountains again, breaking days of monotony across the featureless prairie.
Once again below, we took one of the thicker lines through the town of Des Moines. Though much smaller than Raton, it too looked on the brink of extinction. The only life seemed to be in the galleries and the cafe. These moneyed outsiders help to bring in more dollars from passing tourists and voila! the town is resuscitated for another decade. Larger Clayton was in similar straits, but had enough home-grown tourist attractions to keep it going. Necrophagically, the town subsisted on dinosaurs, dead outlaws, and the legendary cave-tomb of an Indian warrior chief. Here we played tag with Colorado and Texas, throwing a passing wink at Oklahoma. Then west again.
A turn to the south brought us officially to the Kiowa Grasslands. I'm not sure what differentiates it as such, as we'd driven 2 1/2 hours through identical landscape to admire it. I wondered what constitutes a grassland, a prairie, a plain. While thinking on this, a group of wild turkeys ran across the road. At Mills, we turned west again, down a gravel road amidst a handful of homes. In the middle of the last century, this had been a bustling community, with a population large enough to field one of the top high school basketball programs of the 1940s and '50s. You'd hardly believe it today. The road seemed a metaphor for this decay, running well-tended and smooth until eventually eroding into a rough track of tall stones and deep ruts. It was tough going those last couple miles into Mills Canyon, but we were rewarded with the promise of arriving in beautiful fertile valley, complete with a wide stream meandering through and glimmering in the sun. A century ago, this fertility had been enough to give birth to a small community which had thrived until a flood had taken away their orchards and their means to live. A few remaining structures were a testament --or tombstone-- to Melvin Mills' legacy. We wandered these ruins until the sun fell below the canyon walls, bringing shadows and chill.
Back again to paved road, which led us to Roy, a small community where Bob Wills had been the town barber before fronting the Texas Playboys and going on to be one of the biggest bands in the world at about the time that the Mills basketball team was winning all those championships. We wound back down a kinder road into the Canadian River Valley, then on to Las Vegas, NM. We'd intended to camp up at El Porvenir, beneath Hermit's Peak. But it was already 8 pm and the light was nearly gone. We found the Regal Hotel on the main drag, run by a couple from India. The wife processed my credit card beside a large statue of Ganesha. Our room was slightly run down, but cozy. It was reminiscent of some of the cheaper places we'd slept in while doing our Shikoku pilgrimage. We sat tired and quiet as we ate our camp food, under a neon sign that we supposed would've read Raja Hotel anywhere else in the world.
On the turntable: Dramarama, "Day of Wayne and Roses"
On the nighttable: Red Pine, "The Heart Sutra"