Saturday, November 06, 2021

One, Two, Three


We recently came upon the grave of American frontier legend Kit Carson. No, not on one of our daily walks on the trails in our community. We were in Taos, NM on our first overnight out-of-town jaunt since a February 2020 trip to the southern part of our state with CT friends D & P and new New Mexico friends S & P. A vacation that wrapped up minutes before the Covid lockdown began.

We’ve been visiting Taos ("place of red willows” in Tewa Native-speak) since our first trip to NM in 1992 – hiking in the nearby wilderness areas, exploring its museums and buying works of Folk Art from local Santera Lydia Garcia. A “Santera” (female) or “Santero” (male) is a creator of religious depictions of Saints (“santos”) – either “retablos” (flat painted images) or “bultos” (statues.) So we were well aware of the legendary frontiersman’s presence there.

(A portion of our “Lydia Wall”)

The public park in the center of town is named in his honor. The Bed & Breakfast we were staying at is on Kit Carson Road, just up the street from the Kit Carson Home and Museum at which we took a self-guided tour a couple of years ago. Jim has read Hampton Side’s “Blood and Thunder,” an account of Kit’s place in America’s western expansion – and in Taos. “An illiterate mountain man who twice married Indian women and understood and respected the tribes better than any other American alive [and yet] a cold-blooded killer who willingly followed orders tantamount to massacre. [His] almost unimaginable exploits made him a household name when they were written up in pulp novels known as ‘blood-and-thunders,’ but now that name is a bitter curse for contemporary Navajo, who cannot forget his role in the travails of their ancestors.” ( But we had never seen his final resting place.

After breakfast on our first morning we strolled down an unpaved roadway that led from our B&B towards what we assumed was the park. From the end of the street we could see dog walkers emerging from a small, semi-fenced, semi-mowed grassy area dotted with a handful of headstones. It had the appearance of the small family cemeteries we’ve seen on the backroads of rural North Carolina.

The names on most plaques were unfamiliar to us – except for that of Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson. We later learned that he and his third wife Maria Josefa Jaramillo both drowned in 1868 in Boggsville, Colorado and were interred here one year later. Further research showed that noted-people-wise this is the Taos equivalent of Hartford’s park-like Cedar Hill Cemetery – resting place of luminaries such as Katherine Hepburn and Samuel Colt. However, although located near the beach-volleyball courts of a public recreation area, this cemetery is definitely not “park-like” in the sense of a Victorian “rural cemetery.” And the monuments are way smaller.

Established as “The American Cemetery” in 1847 for U.S. soldiers and civilians killed during that year’s Taos Rebellion, it was at the time the only burial ground for non-Catholics. When the Carsons arrived it was renamed in Kit’s honor. Also interred there are servicemen of the 1846 Mexican War, Indian Campaigns of the 1850's, Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI and WWII as well as many of the early Taos traders and merchants, plus members of old Spanish, French and American families. Trust us, it does not look anywhere big enough for all that.

As much as we love historic graveyards however, that was not why we took this trip. Our itinerary was threefold: (1) to drive the “High Road to Taos,” (2) to see the “Santo Lowride: Norteño Car Culture and the Santos Tradition” exhibit at the town’s Harwood museum and (3) have lunch at the Sopapilla Factory in Espanola. Plus, we hoped, a couple of surprises.

(1) The "High Road" (actually NM Rtes 503, 76, 518 and 68) winds slowly for 60 miles or so through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and villages such as Chimayó with its traditional weavers and 19th-century Santuario (sanctuary) known as the "Lourdes of the Southwest"; Cordova, Truchas and Ojo Sarco with galleries selling woodcarvings, pottery, rugs and other local arts and crafts; and Las Trampas with its 18th-century mission church San Jose de Gracia. It then climbs through the Carson National Forest to Ranchos de Taos and the frequently photographed and painted San Francisco de Asis Church. “Dramatic and varied geography, from low deserts and sun-baked pastures to piney mountain passes, wide sandstone cliffs, and river valleys dotted with tin-roofed shacks,” per A lovely and peaceful drive to put us in a laidback New Mexico state of mind – it is our preferred route to the northern New Mexico artist colony.

After checking in at our B&B we strolled into town to see what was new since our last visit, had BBQ Pork Ribs at a restaurant overlooking the town plaza and relaxed and read in the B&B’s courtyard. The next morning, after our graveyard discovery, we headed off on foot to the second entry on our things-to-do list.

(2) “Just as [New Mexico’s Santeros] seek a physical channel between the heavens and their daily life, the lowrider [car] has evolved as a modern-day vessel for the belief systems of multicultural Norteño  communities...[this exhibition shows] how these two art forms share subject matter and religious function, binding them across past and present peoples.” (Harwood Museum of Art)
“During colonial times New Mexico was completely isolated from the outside culture and had a whole different and unique set of influences – Franciscan piety and spirituality, local folk traditions and the indigenous cultures of the area...for many years when there were very few priests in New Mexico, these paintings and statues were the New Mexican peoples' primary connection with the spiritual domain.” ( Likewise the artwork on the lowrider cars of Northern New Mexico are much, much more than just colorful decorations.

While we are really hooked on this style of folk art – cars included – we don’t claim to experience that same linkage to the divine when we look at them. They do however speak to us in a different way than the other genres that we see hanging on museum walls, or even in our own home.

The Harwood Museum of Art is located on Ledoux Street, a one-way, narrow curvy roadway lined with adobe shops, galleries, museums and studios – many with country flower gardens and wall murals. Like similar roads in Santa Fe it probably was once a pre-automobile dirt trail. An Historical marker says it, “was named after the French trapper and guide Antonine Ledoux, who settled in the area around 1844 [and the street was] developed in the fortress style with gates at each end.”

Next door to the Harwood is the Ernest Blumenschein Home and Museum, which we decided to visit knowing only that its owner was one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists in the early 1900s. (In 1898 Blumenschein was traveling through the Southwest with fellow eastern artist Bert Phillips. In northern New Mexico, a wheel from their carriage slipped into a deep rut and broke. Blumenschein lost the coin toss and rode 23 miles into Taos to have the wheel repaired. They became so entranced with the beauty of Taos Valley that they decided to make it their home.)

According to the institution’s website the house “is maintained much as it was when the artist and his family lived here...filled with a superb collection of the Blumenschein family's art, a representative sampling of works by other famous Taos artists, fine European and Spanish Colonial style antiques, and the family's lifetime of personal possessions [that] illustrates the lifestyle of Taos artists in the first half of the twentieth century.”

From the outside the adobe building appears to be u-shaped. But, as is frequently the case with such homes out here, the inner reality does not seem to reflect the outer appearance. Rooms enter directly into other rooms in a pattern that seems to bare little resemblance to the path that was indicated from the outside. And the interior appears to take up more space than the exterior walls can hold. We entered through the kitchen whose utensils and appliances reminded us of Wethersfield Historical Society’s Hurlbut-Dunham House, for those of you familiar with it. The remaining spaces were like a well-curated small museum of furniture, crafts and artwork. Interesting tour through some nice digs – even if it is made of mud.

On the last day of the trip it was time to check off our third itinerary item.

(3) The Sopapilla Factory, like the Cheesecake Factory, is not a manufacturing plant, but rather a restaurant. Its eponymous menu item is a kind of fried pastry found in areas with Spanish heritage. Hollow inside, and puffier than fried dough or Indian Fry Bread, sopapillas look similar to French beignets and taste a little like American donuts. Here in New Mexico they are eaten with honey and/or butter.

In addition to several sopapilla-based entrees, each meal at “the Factory” is accompanied by a basket of them, much like Hush Puppies might be served in the south or bread in the northeast. As you might expect each eatery has its own variation. This, IOHO, is the best one. Nonetheless, deep fried dough, no matter how light and fluffy, is not the best thing for septuagenarians to indulge in on a daily basis. Thankfully the restaurant is 35 minutes away so we only stop there when we are already in the neighborhood.

Or, as in this case, plan our day around being there at lunch time. Which we did by taking the “low road” from Taos along the Rio Grande to the town of Alcade and the 148-acre Los Luceros Historic Site – whose 5,700 sq. ft. Territorial-style 18th century adobe hacienda “Casa Grande,” chapel, Victorian cottage, carriage house, guesthouse, and farmyard were once the home grounds of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, founder of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. We walked enough of the property, and absorbed enough history to work off most of our B&Breakfast, and build up an appetite for lunch.

This visit’s food of choice was Pueblo Tacos – “chicken, ground beef or shredded beef with whole beans. Served on a round sopaipilla with onions, sour cream, garnish and red or green chile.” Plus two sopapillas in a basket – our dessert. We ate half of the entrees at the restaurant and took the rest home for dinner – with a couple more “sopas” to go. (BTW, other than BYOScissors, does anyone know the secret to opening those single packages of (in this case) honey without breaking a sweat, or a fingernail?)
Then we headed back to Santa Fe. Three goals accomplished. Two nice surprises. One good mini-vacation.

As he was writing this essay one of those images – a kind of apparitional painting of a lowrider in front of El Santuario de Chimayó – spontaneously started appearing on Jim’s IPhone screen. Marsha took the photos with her SLR camera – then downloaded them to our photo library in “the cloud,” to which both of our IPhones have access. His device was locked and inactive each time that it happened. Kinda makes you wonder.

Brief PSA: For those of you in the Greater Hartford area who have not visited Cedar Hill Cemetery, or taken advantage of its programs and events we urge you to check it out.

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