Spring Break in Taos –  Part 1: On the road to Taos via the Acoma Pueblo

NOTE: Many of the images can be enlarged by clicking on them once or twice.

By the time I was in college I lived on a ranch south of Denver.  I loved the outdoors and the values of that world but I had learned quickly that I did not want to “grow up to be a be a cowboy” since the work was hard, dangerous, and never-ever-ending.

However, I went to the University of Denver as an undergraduate (double major in fine art and philosophy) and naturally fell in with other ranch kids, several of whom were from southern Colorado and New Mexico around Santa Fe and Taos. A few became very close friends and I ended up spending so much time at their homes, the pinyon covered hills and adobe architecture of New Mexico almost felt like an extension of the Colorado ponderosa pines and blue spruces.

So now, much as I love going back to the Colorado Rockies, I also love going back to the New Mexican Sangre De Cristos.  They are two very different cultures on the surface but of much greater importance to me, they share many underlying values and personal codes such as accountability, responsibility, integrity, honesty, and understanding what REAL friendships are all about.

When working on the “Tewa” project I lived for several years in the Santa Fe area with our motorhome parked sometimes in the Pueblos where we were working, sometimes in town, and sometimes out on the property of a major guest ranch where we helped watch things in the winters.  The upshot of all that for me is a serious affinity for that area and especially its native people. And so it was, that when the opportunity arose to head for Taos (New Mexico) over Spring break because my friend and shooting partner, Cynthia Sinclair wanted to visit the Mabel Dodge Luhan house (noted below), that gave me an opportunity to check on the logistics for conducting a Taos-based photo workshop.   I was immediately on board and raring to go.

The first day out started early and had the goal of reaching a hotel near the Pueblo of Acoma (in New Mexico) by that evening.  This was to be our one long day’s drive (12 hours or so) so I had not intended to stop for anything to slow me down… but… between Gila Bend and Buckeye, Arizona, the most incredible yellow trees were in bloom and there was no way to not stop for a shot… or two.  Or ten.

The brillian yellow-gold of the mesquite blossoms contrasts with the deep blue Arizona sky.  Canon S120

The brillian yellow-gold of the mesquite blossoms contrasts with the deep blue Arizona sky. Canon S120

I found out later these are Mesquite Trees.  I’ve seen mesquite trees all over and love to use Mesquite to smoke meat, but I have never seen them looking like this. It was as if there were giant light fixtures INSIDE the trees.

A closer look at the mesquite trees swimming on gold and yellow.  Canon s120

A closer look at the mesquite trees swimming on gold and yellow. Canon s120

Here is a close up of one of the trees just starting to blossom.  Canon S120

Here is a close up of one of the trees just starting to blossom. Canon S120

The rest of the day’s trip was uneventful and true to the schedule, the first day ended along Hiway 40, between Gallup and Albuquerque, at exit 102 on the road to the Acoma Pueblo. By the way, it is pronounced AH’– co-mah — and NOT ah- CO’- Mah as per the street name in Denver.

In their native Keresan language the name is Ha’akuu, “The prepared place”… since they were searching for a place they believed their ancestors had prepared for them as a defensible place to protect them from other raiding tribes and allow them to live in peace. The modern road in to the Pueblo provides a sweeping panoramic view of the ranch land in the foreground and then the mesa tops standing now like islands broken free from the rampart in the background.

The early morning light makes the details stand our clearly but it is still hard to see the houses on the mesa top.

Acoma Mesa in the middle ground as seen from the road.  Even with this high vantage point, an enemy would not easily see the city unless smoke from cook fires gave it away.  Canon 5D MkII.  You can click on this image to see it enlarged.

Acoma Mesa in the middle ground as seen from the road. Even with this high vantage point, an enemy would not easily see the city unless smoke from cook fires gave it away. Canon 5D MkII. You can click on this image to see it enlarged.

The people agreed to help protect neighboring peoples and at one point the pueblo’s mesa-top stronghold  housed nearly 1,100 people. Europeans called it “Sky City” since it sits on top of a mesa and historically had but one semi-treacherous path up the side of the bluff that was easily defended.

When we were leaving, Cynthia and several others took that path down but since I had done it as a kid I knew my beaten up legs would make me an anchor on the group so rode down with the guide.  While waiting for them I took the shot below looking back up at the pueblo. By the way, if you get a chance to go see Acoma DO IT but do yourself a favor and take the tour.

From the visitors center/museum you can see the houses on top of the mesa more clearly.  Canon 5D MkII

From the visitors center/museum you can see the houses on top of the mesa more clearly. Canon 5D MkII  All of the Acoma shots are taken with the Canon 70-200 f4L.  Since no tripods are allowed all are hand held, no mean feat for an antique photographer such as myself.

The original pueblo was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt when the peaceful pueblo Indians had enough of the cruelty of the Spanish and the church, but in one form or another, the current site has been continuously occupied since the 12 century AD.   Unfortunately for them, the Indians do not think like Europeans so when they succeeded in driving the Spanish from their lands – something no other tribes in the country ever succeeded in doing — they put away their weapons and straightaway went back to business as usual assuming that was the end of it.

So they were completely unprepared for the enraged Spaniards’ return and brutal re-conquest.  They were savagely butchered wholesale.

This incredible savagery happened all over the pueblo villages spread around what is now New Mexico and along the Rio Grande.  Despite its location, Acoma was not spared.  The infuriated Spaniards made an audacious attack by scaling one of the mesa’s remote walls at night and, like the Trojans discovering too late the Greeks were inside their city walls, the inhabitants were slaughtered and executed in an orgy of revenge.

A grand adobe staircase tpo an upper floor apartment.  THe graphic nature of this view was too much to pass up.

A grand adobe staircase to an upper floor apartment. The graphic nature of this view was too much to pass up.

The surviving inhabitants rebuilt it and it has been occupied ever since.  This place has seen it all, love and peace, terror and depravity, building and destruction, glorious new life and grim death.  But as they do in most pueblo communities, the people endure as does the adobe and the earth.  Stone and adobe construction will last forever if it is constantly maintained so a never-ending task is maintaining the surface and a constant state of subtle and not so subtle remodeling.

It was early morning but a vendor had already set a table with her pottery for the day's visitors.  Acoma pottery is known for the delicate lines forming complex patterns around the piece.  A "polychrome" style it often has other colors in the designs.

It was early morning but a vendor had already set a table with her pottery for the day’s visitors. Acoma pottery is known for the delicate lines forming complex patterns around the piece. A “polychrome” style it often has other colors in the designs.  A single pot can take over a month to make and no two are ever alike so they are highly prized by collectors.

While many tribal members have moved off of the mesa to more modern housing in the valley, there are still many who call the Sky City their home.  Thanks to a couple of movies that were filmed there a road was built to the top in the 20th century to allow motion picture equipment to be hauled up and now resident families can get to the top without an arduous climb up the site of the mesa wall.

Street and plaza in Acoma where inhabitants gather, work, and socialize.

Street and plaza in Acoma where inhabitants gather, work, and socialize.  In the foreground is a water catch basin waiting for the rains to fill it.  The pueblo has no well so on top water is caught in rock depressions otherwise it must be hauled from the valley floor one pot at a time.

Like most pueblo cultures, property was owned by the females but the tribal “government” was run by males. The youngest daughter inherited the property but with it came the responsibility to care for the family elders and to maintain the property in good stead to pass on down.

A pueblo "walkup" entrance and door.

A pueblo “walkup” entrance and door.

Another "street" showing houses in various states of surface maintenance.

Another “street” showing houses in various states of surface maintenance.  You can see windows from old traditional construction up to new modern pre-made glass double hung styles.

A window in one of the older apartments provides a great texture composition.

A window in one of the older apartments provides a great texture composition.

The mission San Stefan del Rey was built by enforced slave labor.  The massive ponderosa pine vigas (the beams holding the roof) were felled on Mt. Taylor, 35 miles away and then carried to the building site on the mesa top on the shoulders of the resident slaves without being allowed to touch the ground.  If they did, they were dropped and like the hapless Sisyphus, the laborers were required to go back and get another one.

The mission at Acoma.  No photos were allowed of the courtyard which is also a cemetery, nor inside the sanctuary where indian symbolism shares space with Catholic iconography over the huge open space with its packed earth floor.  They were getting ready to resurface the floor for the holiday events.

The mission at Acoma with its massive adobe walls.  No photos were allowed of the courtyard which is also a cemetery, nor inside the sanctuary where indian symbolism shares space with Catholic iconography over the huge open space with its packed earth floor. They were getting ready to resurface the floor for the holiday events.

After a morning at this now peaceful, spiritual place it was time to saddle up and again head toward Taos for the main portion of the trip.  We arrived early enough to visit the Mabel Dodge Luhan house — our main mission — and discuss the possibility of holding a Fall workshop in that storied place where Adams, Weston, O’Keefe, Lawrence and most of the Taos artist community met for Mabel’s “Salon” and dinners.  The creativity and emotional energy that was once thick in the air still infuses the premises.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos.  This was the scene of famous artistic gatherings and "Salons" in the early 20th century, hosted by socialite and art connoisseur Mabel Dodge Luhan.  Famous painters, photographers, musicians, and writers assembled here to talk art and creativity.  If I am successful I am trying to create a photography workshop based out of this place just dripping with residue creativity.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos. This was the scene of famous artistic gatherings and “Salons” in the early 20th century, hosted by socialite and art connoisseur Mabel Dodge Luhan. Famous painters, photographers, musicians, and writers assembled here to talk art and creativity. If I am successful I am trying to create a photography workshop based out of this place just dripping with residue creative energy.  Canon S120.

The good news was they were receptive to my ideas for a workshop and very interested in hosting some photo workshops so we are now chatting about logistics and costs and I need to get a feel for interest and time availability.  It will be a very special event if I can pull it together.  I would love to be able to schedule one on the break between Summer and Fall semester but that might be a little ambitious.  We’ll see.

So with a very successful and productive trek TO Taos now a memory, the next day, and in part two, I’ll talk about our adventures there.  Altogether there will be 6 parts/posts from this trip. Five more or less chronological entries and one errata post for loose ends.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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