Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"A" is for Anasazi

It all started somewhere. Pretty much everybody agrees - but where?.

a) The Big Bang? Scientifically likely but ultimately unprovable.

b) Prime Mover? Philosophy, Aristotle's in fact, but still just so much intellectual speculation.

c) Eden? At best a myth designed to make a point - or many different points depending...

d) The entry point to the Fourth World from the three underworlds of the Navajo creation story?

e) Six miles from El Rito Campground on New Mexico State Road 559? Yep, that's it!

It's not like we haven't been given clues as to the importance of the land of Enchantment: The one and only guaranteed authentic (however involuntary) personal appearance by Extra Terrestrials in Roswell. What were they really looking for? The first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity Site in White Sands. Why not pick someplace truly dispensable, like New Jersey.

The ETs and PhDs clearly were seeking "THE SOURCE" - or the humidity-free, sunny weather and largely unpopulated lands - but more likely "THE SOURCE". And now Mars and I have found it.

Not that we were looking for it. But New Mexico is the kind of place that you've just got to get out and walk around in to really know what's there. Which we did. And look for the signs - which sometimes are so obvious you have to wonder why no one noticed them before.

Next time we will start our trek at Mile Zero and hike slowly and observantly towards the freestanding mountaintop "E". With luck and good perception skills we should happen upon at least one of the first four letters of the alphabet and be that much closer to the start of it all.

We will keep you informed as events warrant.

("E" photo by Mars)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Aga Redux

In a 10/22/07 comment to my "Santa Fe Style" entry Sherry said "Jim, any more news/stories about the jewelry lady? If memory serves, Mars had bought some amber pieces. Just wondering if the shop/woman/jewelry were still functioning."

A few weeks before Mars, our friend Sandy, and I went to New Mexico a health club colleague taking his first trip out there asked us for some Santa Fe tourist suggestions.

In the shopping section of our "guide" we included "Amber by Aga" - a shop that has been one of Mars' favorites for the past several years. Some of you may remember the "Aga Saga" detailing a good portion of that history. We wanted to include links to the websites of all our recommendations. Everyone except Aga seemed to have one.

We did visit Aga's shop in the main square of Santa Fe. She of course was not there nor was her sister Angelique. Instead a woman of about our age was tending the store. Mars asked if Aga had a booth at the Santa Fe Flea Market. (The upscale bazaar is the place where our son Bram first discovered her and the site of our last personal contact with a member of the Aga conglomerate - in this case her sister who promised Sandy that they would replace, at a charge, one of a pair of Aga earrings that Sandy had lost. It didn't happen.) The sales associate seemed surprised at the question, answered "No" and went on to say that "[she the clerk] had not been to the market in at least seventeen years."

Sandy decided to make a purchase. Mars stayed to watch. I went outside to photograph the flora and fauna of downtown Santa Fe - driven into the more public marketplace by the lack of what it was that gave shopping for amber that unique frisson of excitement.

It was an obvious case of Aga-oraphobia.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

So, what's your sign?

Even though Mars, Sandy and I began every day in New Mexico with a check of our horoscopes in the Santa Fe newspaper I really don't believe in the science of astrology. I do however think that other signs are important.

New Mexico state highway signs for example. Other than a few side streets in Santa Fe and Albuquerque virtually every road in the Land of Enchantment, regardless of length or surface condition, seems to be identified by black numerals in a red-on-white Zia sun symbols. State Road 414 in Ojo Caliente, the site of the mineral spring spa at which we stayed, is a one-quarter mile, tar-covered turnoff connecting downtown Ojo (two restaurants and an herbal store) to the eponymously named resort. We walked the complete length of it several times - past its two retail shops into town for lunch and again for a photo shoot. A publicly enumerated five minute stroll seems strangely antithetical in a part of the country where a hiker can trek for miles on a barely discernable trail and see absolutely no signs of humanity other than the faint print of a lug sole in the dry dirt.

Pretty much a right-turn in place from the SR 414 sign is the Ojo Caliente cemetery. Like other small town New Mexico graveyards most interments seem to be near or on the surface of the dry, high desert hardpan and are marked mostly by single crosses (normally wood or metal) and decorated with artificial flowers and what appear to be personal items that were important to the departed person.

This somewhat lumpy bodily placement gives me, a New Englander used to burial places that ensure the deceased is totally out of sight, a slight feeling of incompleteness, a signal that the dead ones are not totally gone - which of course is the belief behind Day of the Dead ceremonies and the subject matter of many Magical Realism novels. To further confuse my sense of non-separation between these two planes of existence some of the gravesites are reserved in advance by name allowing people to visit themselves in their future home.

One of the merchants on SR 414 was talking to me about the new ownership of the Ojo Caliente Spa. "They brought in an outside manager to fire all the locals." He, a self-professed local himself, told me. "Someone tried to run her off the road one night. She quit shortly after that. That's just the way people are out here."

Two days later we took a trip to the nearby town of El Rito.

1: Start out going NORTHEAST toward US-285. 0.1 miles
2: Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto US-285. 1.5 miles
3: Turn LEFT onto NM-111. 3.0 miles
4: Turn LEFT onto NM-554. 9.1 miles
5: End at El Rito, NM US

We went there ostensibly to try and create our own "El Rito Art Tour" which was scheduled for the weekend after we left for home. Mars and I really went for the New Mexican small town ambiance. And I personally wanted to photograph the local signs which I figured would be mostly homemade since "That's the way people are out here."

The three of us walked through the town; lunched at its one restaurant; bought ice cream sandwiches at its one grocery store; and photographed its one Catholic Church. I was about to take pictures of a sign-laden pickup truck that seemed to be telling, at great length, of the overstepping of authority by the state's Child Welfare Agency in regard a family member of the vehicle owner when he arrived on the scene and began to amplify, with great emotion, on the story. After a few minutes a friend of his drove up to negotiate the delivery of a mattress and distracted his attention - which I took as a sign (and an opportunity) for us to leave.

In other parts of northern New Mexico I found some additional notices that seemed to speak for themselves - which actually is what all good signs should do.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Santa Fe Style

There was a cartoon poster on the kitchen wall of the casita in which Mars and I stayed during our recent visit to Santa Fe. It showed a woman dressed in western blouse and flowing skirt, bedecked on wrists, waist and neck with large pieces of turquoise and silver jewelry, lying supine on the floor of a southwestern decorated room, unable to get up because of the sheer weight of her adornments. At the bottom of the picture were the words "Another victim of Santa Fe Style."

I actually consider myself an aficionado of this particular southwestern look. I believe that the art of a city is not just on the walls of its museums but also in the style of its citizens. And I am an observational fan of feminine foot ware.

Therefore, as I have done on previous journeys, I spent a portion of my photographic efforts attempting to document that particular aspect of the Santa Fe fashion statement - while at the same time avoiding being arrested for stalking and, more importantly, keeping Mars convinced that my motives were entirely journalistic (something which she allows me to believe that she believes).

Several years ago Mars began purchasing southwestern Native American jewelry decorated with inanimate objects that were worshiped for their supposed magical powers. More recently we have together begun collecting similarly themed small, carved stone images.

Since Mars already has several of her own, and we have even more that we share as a couple, it seems only fair that now I should have my own New Mexico fetish.

At least until we move out here and Mars redefines my idea of Santa Fe Style - and all SHE will need are a squash blossom necklace and a concha belt.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Remember The Javelina

Mars and I saw our third New Mexican Tarantula on our most recent trip to northern part of that state. (We saw a fourth one on an Elderhostel trip to central Arizona. But that one was in a glass container and presented to us by a lecturer on "Poisonous Animals of the Southwest" who no longer included venomous snakes in his educational talk because he was almost fatally bitten by one at another Elderhostel - he showed us the resulting photos. The tarantula was now the "Big Kahuna" of the show.)

This Theraphosidae Mygalomorphae was sunning himself on a rock in the Plaza Blanca area near the town of Abiquiu. We were hiking out there with our daughter-in-law Monica, son Bram, and traveling companion Sandy. It was the first "Big T" sighting for all three of them.

"In the [Rio Chama] valley below sits the natural wonder known as Plaza Blanca, also immortalized as 'The White Place' in a 1940 painting by O'Keeffe. The sandstone cliffs, spires, and oddly shaped rocks create an otherworldly, contemplative retreat that glows golden in the late-afternoon light. Allow yourself some time to linger as the spot gently embraces you with its ineffable sense of peace and timelessness." (New Mexico Tourism Department)

The land is owned by the Dar al-Islam Mosque that allows day hiking and (with permission) overnight stays. Mars and I heard about the spot a few years back while lolling in one of the public mineral spring baths at the "nearby" Ojo Caliente resort. The mosque and the mineral springs are about fifty miles apart - nearby by New Mexican standards. What initially caught our silently drifting attentions were the words "chocolate wine" (two of the five basic food groups combined in one convenient serving) but by the time we came conscious enough to be aware of the conversation it had shifted to Plaza Blanca. (We did later find out about the candied vino and have since purchased several bottles - the first ones after our initial trip to the white place.) The directions were somewhat vague, not because of any geographic lack in either the speaker or the listeners but due to the general indefiniteness of the New Mexican landscape once you are outside of a city - and a lot of New Mexico is definitely outside of a city. It still wasn't much easier to find on this our fourth trip there.

Bram accurately describes the geology of Plaza Blanca as "lunar" and the venue as somewhere that you don't so much hike in as wander around. He and Monica spotted the hairy arachnid after the other three of us had already meandered past the stark white rock on which (when pointed out to us) the fat dark body and eight legs so obviously rested. There is an old Stephen Wright comedy routine about a spider crouching down on a white tile shower wall and being convinced of its invisibility. Apparently sometimes it works.

Suddenly there were five people and four cameras all firing away. None of us were really sure whether the stories about tarantulas jumping at their victims were merely urban legends, or sound advice that we should have been heeding. (They don't)

We did however have our snakebite kit with us, something that we purchased early on in our fifteen year history of New Mexico trips. The venom-sucking syringe might not have done anything against a deadly spider bite ("where are those damn little bite marks?") But it was at least more than the above-mentioned Arizona poisonous animal expert carried with him. Perhaps because the venomous video victim was actually enjoying its "Brittany Spears Moment" there was no untoward movement on its part.

Mars and my initial tarantula encounter took place on our first trip to the Land of Enchantment in October of 1992. We were hiking on Devisadero Peak near Taos on what looks from our photos to be a cloudy day. One of us spotted the black, hairy monster hiding under some dried brush on a rock. At that time we did not yet have our snakebite kit and had heard the jumping tarantula rumors. To compound the problem our cameras at that time, both SLR film ones, had a close-up device called a "macro lens" that required the photographer to measure the distance from the subject with a short strap that was attached to the camera. That distance turned out to be closer than either of us wanted to get - even though a good case of venom poisoning would have gotten us first boarding on our return flight home. And probably special private seating since no one would want to be placed next to an over-inflated, blue-hued fellow traveler.

Mars had me take the picture with the conventional lens getting as close as I dared - crouched down, inching in closely as I focused and darting back to what I considered a safe distance as soon as the shutter snapped. We were both quite excited about our good luck and bravery.

We came across our second desert spider in a parking lot some years later after we had completed another hike. I'm certain that we photographed this one too but I have been unable to locate that print in our archives.

Mars and I have also seen a wild Javelina - something else that Monica, Bram and Sandy have never experienced. This sighting was on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa (West) Texas. We had been told that these wild pig-like animals frequented the property in search of food and we actually laid in wait at times and places where others had observed them. But no luck.

On our last day there we went for a farewell walkabout. Having spent every waking moment since arrival looking at the area through our camera lenses we decided to leave both of them at home. At the farthest point out in the hike we turned a corner, heard some defensive snorting, and espied an eighty or so pound peccary attempting to see us - they are incredibly nearsighted. With no photographic device to be found we attempted to mentally fix the image in our brains for future telling to non-believing listeners.

Now, whenever we are about to go anywhere where a camera might be needed we "remember the Javelina".

That thought, combined with our newly acquired knowledge as to the lack of tarantula acrobatic capabilities and our ever-present snakebite kit, should guarantee even up-closer and more personal hairy spider photos

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hard Core Urban Hiking

While we were in New Mexico for the past two weeks the Santa Fe newspaper reported that Canyon Road in that city had been named as one of the "Ten Top Streets in America". Neither Mars nor I rate thoroughfares - or too many other things for that matter. We do however agree that this particular venue is one of our favorite places on which to partake in the sport of urban hiking.

We first went to northern New Mexico fifteen years ago for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. And learned that what we thought were abstract distortions of the high desert - in the works of Georgia O'Keefe for example - were instead mostly mildly exaggerated excisions of the blanched landscape or modestly enhanced snippets of the wildly refracted colors that prevail in this starkly lighted part of the country.

And we discovered for the first time the joys of hiking.

New Mexico is the type of place that you just have to get out into in order to experience. But the high altitude and unremitting sun rapidly takes its toll on shade loving, sea-level dwellers. As an antidote we developed a regimen of alternating a day of trekking in the desert or mountains with one of traipsing through the city - sometimes almost as arduous as its country cousin and just about always as satisfying in its own unique way.

But not every metropolitan walk qualifies as an urban hike. To earn this prestigious designation the trek must have certain attributes. Obviously one of these is length of time. Recently I've seen articles on personal fitness that emphasize that the important aspect of a walk is its duration - not necessarily its speed. The time span of the urban walk must be sufficient to invoke at least a minimum feeling of "hike-ie-ness".

More important than the physical aspects however are the aesthetic elements of the journey. Not every long city walk is an urban hike.

Since Mars and I are both avocational photographers our hikes are as much quests for good pictures as for exercise. As we wander, rather than taking in the background in its entirety, we start to dissect our surroundings into photo-bites - trying to look at the environment as if through a camera. Thanks to the wonder of digital visual image recorders capable of holding a seemingly infinite number of photos we snap most of these scenes - deleting later those that don't quite pan out. The outdoors of the desert southwest - particularly when we first saw it and even now having still seen so little of its vast expanses and changeable lighting - makes the cadence of our best hikes more of a ten-steps-stop&point&shoot pace than a steady movement forward.

Finally the architecture and public art of the urban hike setting must be in harmony and synchrony with its distant outdoor surroundings. If you're walking in the desert southwest, wherever you are, it should feel like the desert southwest. A walk through a city that could be anywhere in the world, not matter how long or how pleasant, is definitely not an urban hike.

Encountering wildlife is a bonus.

Here are some photos from our most recent Canyon Road urban hike. Although we did encounter a tarantula in the wilds (our third), our normal domestic wildlife sighting - elk medallions on a luncheon plate - was not available this year. Maybe next time.