Spring Break, 2013. Normally I would be very excited about a chance to go to New Mexico, especially anywhere near Santa Fe. But this time I was making the trip to see an old friend who had recently been diagnosed with “The Big C” and expressed a desire to see me. Now that sort of request is not something real friends walk away from so Saturday had me with cold weather clothes and camera gear stuffed into the Jag and pointed east.
I gave a good friend a lift to Albuquerque to visit friends and was very grateful for the company. The car ran perfectly. On a stretch from Meteor Crater to nearly the New Mexico state line, I was allowing a new Dodge Charger to set the pace at about 100-110 mph. It was a delightful stretch. We hit Albuquerque not long after 8 pm local time but I was too fried to go on. That was less than 12 hours including fuel and food stops. But 12 hours at speeds rarely under 80-90 mph in untrained traffic requires a constant state of focus and attention that, at least now in my ripe old age, is energy draining and muscle cramping in the extreme. I spent the night and then drove on to Jim’s Sunday morning.
Jim’s place is south of Santa Fe on the edge of a plateau overlooking the Galisteo Basin to the north. The weather there was cold and windy… really cold and really windy. His house is about a mile from the edge of the plateau and there is nothing to stop the wind as it sweeps east from the Ortiz and Sandia Mountains. It is an old 1950s vintage ranch house, the latest in country living in its day, heated mostly by wood from a fireplace and a wood stove. Now it seems to us like such poor living but when this house was new it represented a major – and I mean major – improvement from life in the old homestead cabin shown below. (The bull buffalo skull above is on his wall overlooking the fireplace in the living room.)
Jim greeted me at the door. He was weak from the chemo treatments so we spent most of the time sitting by the fire, swapping yarns, lies, and tales from the old days. It was wonderful to see him but hard to see him in this kind of shape. Jim has been an outdoorsman all of his life. Growing up on a ranch in Colorado he spent a lot of time as a boatman running famous big water such as the Grand Canyon. He is also an incredibly accomplished silversmith and jewelry maker. He and I have ridden together, hunted together, went to college together, in short, over the years we’ve been partners in a number of adventures.
The rancher who owns the surrounding land uses the periphery for a parking lot for tired/retired vehicles including trucks and even a boxcar. So there was much to occupy my camera when Jim had to take a break to lay down. Somehow, the “junk yard” genre, photography’s answer to the “ash can” school of art, was far more in keeping with the mood I was experiencing as I watched this old friend struggle with the “treatment” that was trying to kill everything in his body but doing so just barely short of killing him… or at least that is the plan. There was a metaphor of sorts at play with these old items that with a little bit of mechanical attention might roar back into life… or blow up when hit with power.
As I walked around the property I could not help but think of the impact these old vehicles, now parked in the sun and wind, had when they were new on the proud owners of the latest and greatest equipment. To gain the money for such grand mechanical help ranches and farms were put as security all in the hopes of cooperating weather and minimal disasters such as prairie fires to wipe out any chance of repayment. These were people totally at the mercy and whim of nature and yet they persevered and refused to give up. Many did fail, however; overwhelmed by bleak odds and intractable opposition beyond their abilities to cope. Lives and families and futures were wiped out constantly under these hard conditions. Sitting with our ear buds constantly attached or glued to the smart phone, we simply are clueless and have no workable points of reference. Most of my students would have less trouble analyzing the lives of Martians than understanding the lives of these pioneer ranchers and farmers.
But some, like the inhabitants of this house and the homestead before it refused to just walk away and somehow managed to survive. I wondered if, on bright moonlit nights with no one to hear, if these old trucks reminisced about the good old days like Jim and I were doing. “I carried the cattle to market!” one might say while the old cement truck boasted of hauling in the foundation material for the new house. A family pickup said, “Yes, but I carried the Mrs to the hospital and back with the new young’un and hauled groceries for years.”
Everything possible was used and recycled or re-purposed in circumstances where power tools and construction materials were not readily available. This old boxcar shown below, for instance, became repurposed as ad hoc storage.
Now faded and far from the nearest remaining track it still is viable cover and protection though n longer dancing down the singing track, logo declaring its ownership.
The old door locks were still strong and unless someone wanted to burn it down there would be a lot of work involved in opoening it.
Internet access through my Verizon Mi-Fi device was sporadic and unpredictable (in fact my cell phone had ZERO signal) so although I had my computer with me, when not chatting with Jim the unreliable access forced me to largely ignore email and just work on shots or on this post. I have students who would have been utterly in a state of shock and trauma to find themselves in a world of “not-so-long-ago” when cell phones and internet access were things only dreamt of.
Nearby is the site of the old original homestead. The main house and barn are barely standing up on their own. It seemed appropriate to do this shot in a sepia toned look.
From the other side you can see some additional detail of those old structures.
Not far from the main cabin the tower for a windmill still stands but the motor and blades are long since gone. It is as if these structures reach some critical mass and then just collapse. The dry high desert air helps to preserve them here longer than in the mountains where heavy winter snows finally break the backs of the supports and they collapse.
We modern weenies whine about trifle irritations but truly have no idea what tough living is and when we do think of it most likely some 3rd world country comes to mind. But not all that long ago here in this country folks had to be far tougher than we can dream of just to survive. This dry land farm/ranch is testimony to tenacity and drive to scratch a living for one’s family from an unmerciful land. These people understood with startling clarity what modern folks forget if they ever knew: their futures and happiness were not to be found at the store or supplied by others. It had to be found in themselves, in their successes and even in the educational experiences that came from their failures; in short it had to be found if it was to be found at all, within and based on their attitudes and acceptance of the challenges set before them.
The creaking of this old mill as it tried to bring water to a parched patch of ground in the never-ending wind was a constant auditory backdrop to the people who lived here. No music from orchestra or even rock band filled the air to break up the moaning of the wind. Only this old windmill with wooden spindles endlessly complaining about the wooden axle turning under it and proclaiming the constant need for more grease.
Inside, their poor hearth was both heat and cooking appliance as the flames from scrub pinyon and juniper mixed with cow and buffalo chips to fill the house with a pungent odor of wood, food, and dung. And when the wind blew the wrong direction, filling the house with the acrid smoke as well. The fantasy world of TV showing the colorful life on the frontier was lost on these folks as they watched the skies for rain clouds which rarely arrived and watched the horizons for Comanche who came all too often.
This little house was on the prairie to be sure, but it saw mostly hard unrelenting work and a sort of survival aimed grit that makes strong men and women but makes for very poor TV entertainment. It is from such stock that real westerners, like Jim, have drawn strength and endurance. To be laid low by tiny unseeable cells run amuck is a cruel irony.
As I said above, Jim is a superb jewelry maker and extraordinary silversmith. One day we went in to Santa Fe to see one of the galleries displaying his work and to have dinner at our favorite lunch spot, The Shed in Sena Plaza.
The Shed was the first place, eons ago, that I had blue corn tortillas though at the time I thought perhaps they had been left in the sun a bit too long. The Indian-based cuisine in New Mexico is very different than the Sonoran or Tex-Mex style food available in San Diego. To my pallet it is also far more tasty. The red in red chili, for example, does not come from tomatoes, in fact there are no tomatoes in it. It comes solely from the chilies. I had a large bowl of Chile Con Carne and just now my taste buds are coming back to life…
While there he took me to one of the galleries that sells his work and while walking around, remembering our years living there during the Tewa Project, I took a shot of the Plaza with the famous Portal of the museum as a backdrop.
The shot below is looking along San Francisco street. One of Jim’s primary outlets is the gallery of James Reid. The sales lady looked at my bracelet and exclamed how unique and beautiful it was. I loved telling her it was an early piece from the same smith now standing beside me. She was blown away.
This was a trip to visit a friend and not a normal photo trip. Most of the shots I took are more of the “I was there…” type with a few potential keepers tossed in. But on the ride into Santa Fe is a great view looking west down the Galisteo Basin through the property of the San Cristobal Ranch. The whitish cliffs in the center are laden with ruins and signs of ancient occupation.
One morning I got up intending to take a dawn shot of that view but my clock was still on Pacific time and I was an hour late for the best light. Irritated but not yet beaten by the poor timing, especially since it is not that it was somehow getting UGLY, I decided to try one anyway. But it was miserable out. The wind was howling and it was quite cold so I tried a silly thing out of abject laziness and a profound desire to get back in the warm car: I did a 4-frame HDR panorama… handheld. I’m paying for it now because it is not a sharp as it needs to be for a big print but it does work for the blog.
On Thursday morning I packed up, made my Adios, my Vaya Con Dios, and turned the Jag back to the road toward Albuquerque and the west. I originally intended to spin through some canyon country but my heart was no longer really into it. I was very happy to have made this trip but it took a lot of fire out of me. Once again, mortality had slapped me in the face and demanded I pay attention. If, like my old friend, I woke up one morning and realized I had an unusual lump on my body that turned out to be a tumor and was forced into “treatments” that left me weak in both body and mind, that robbed me of my mobility and my ability to quickly use my brain on creative problems and simple daily routine processes, how would I deal with it and looking back over my life, now on the line, what would I think of what I had done with it.
The time to ponder those things is not when it happens and it is too late, but now, when those areas of regrets at undone projects, unspoken feelings, unresolved issues still have a chance of correction. What are those loose ends of life that we all have and for which, as the end approaches, we will bitterly regret not addressing or solving? It is with such thoughts that I loaded up our gear, and turned the ignition key to bring the beast to life and headed toward what is now my home.
We went through some incredible country on the return trip, most notably the Malpais country on NM 117 just south of I-40 on the road to Quemada, Salt River Canyon east of Globe, Arizona and the desert garden areas west of Miami, AZ. The time of year was perfect with desert wildflowers in full spring dress. But there was neither time nor, to be honest, the “eye” available for me to see the beauty of the scenery as a photograph.
I was lost, mentally and emotionally, in thoughts stirred up and brought to a simmer by the time with Jim. Had I spent my life in such a way as to be proud of it… at least SOME of it. Had I made it count? God has granted me the time and opportunity to follow my passion, develop my skills and abilities, but have I used that time in such a way as to demonstrate my gratitude and make it worthy of the gift? I have done so much in my life; but was I in danger of looking back as Cyrano did and crying out that, “I have been all things… and all in vain!”
So though I saw great beauty, I simply drove on through, marking the spots in my mind as places to return under less emotionally draining circumstances.