Friday, December 22, 2023

Something is Mssing


Shortly before we relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico Jim was discussing our impending move with one of the members of our Newington, CT health club. “Do they have supermarkets out there?” he asked in all seriousness. Jim assured him that they did – with paved parking lots even.

Although at the time we were quite surprised by the question we’ve since come to realize that New Mexico is, to put it mildly, not a “known quantity” to a good portion of those who live outside of our country’s 47th state.

Something residents of the “Land of Enchantment” have become used to – and bemused by.  New Mexico Magazine – the nation’s first state magazine (1923) and published monthly in print, online and via an iOS app (yeah we have that out here also) – has a regular column called “One of Our 50 is Missing” wherein readers submit their own “missing moments.”

Some are probably because people just don’t listen carefully or mis-hear what is being said, e.g. – a resident of Rio Rancho, NM tried to refill a prescription while vacationing on Cape Cod, MA to be told by the pharmacist that they had no idea how to process an order from a foreign country.

Others are clearly a lack of knowledge – an article in a London England newspaper showing a map of a new luxury railroad in Utah placed New Mexico east of Colorado.

A few simply defy explanation – at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth one Santa Fean was asked if we have different stars in New Mexico. “Probably because they only have one in Texas,” the magazine opined.

And our own personal “missing moment,” which was more disconcerting than humorous. We were on the computer updating one of our financial accounts to our new New Mexico home address. The change was processed without a hitch. But we were re-classified us a “foreign investors.” We turned the problem over to our investment advisor.

And then there’s New Mexico’s imaginary cactus. Residents of Arizona are rightfully proud of their Saguaros, tree-like cacti that can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall – but only in their part of the Sonoran Desert plus the Mexican state of Sonora and California’s Whipple Mountains and Imperial County. NOT New Mexico!

That doesn’t prevent it from being used as NM imagery. Grammy-winning country musician Kacey Musgraves’ song “Dime Store Cowgirl,” includes the line “I’ve driven through New Mexico, where the saguaro cactus grow.”

Even Progressive Insurance’s ever-cheerful spokesperson Flo is featured on a mail-offer envelope amid images of a saguaro cacti and the invitation to “Enjoy Big Savings in the Land of Enchantment.”

Or maybe New Mexico actually is “missing.” Jim was explaining to guests at El Rancho de las Golondrinas that its big grist mill (Molino Grande) was once a commercial business from the 1880s through the 1920s. (It was moved from Las Vegas, NM to the museum in the 1970s.) It was unusual he said that the machinery remained intact through 50 years of non-use, especially during WWII when the U.S. was looking for scrap metal for the war effort. One visitor, clearly a local, commented, “nobody knew where we were then either.”

And truth be told we did not know much at all about New Mexico before we landed here in September 1992 looking to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in an exotic but stateside locale. Our interest was piqued by a retrospective of the New Mexican artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – super-arid deserts, psychedelic colored mountains, floating desiccated cow skulls, stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere – those sorts of things. We immediately knew we wanted to see the surreal environment inspired these crazily abstract paintings.

Other than that, our knowledge of the Land of Enchantment was pretty much based upon Jim’s dim recollection of a turquoise stone in a collection of “Gemstones by State” given to him as a child (his favorite of the set of then 48.) And what we got from the novel “The Milagro Beanfield War” by John Nichols and its eponymous movie adaptation – “the book all newcomers to New Mexico should read, offering the flavor of this place with its competing cultures and values,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.  Set in the fictional Chicano village of Milagro the “War” is a folklore fable in the Latin American magical realism tradition (daily earthly meetups with heavenly angels) where a small-time farmer is struggling to defend his modest beanfield and community against larger business and state political interests. An “earthily naturalistic, often highly romanticized, blend of the supernatural and whimsical” per movie critic Richard Scheib. (Sadly, while this essay was being composed author John Nichols died at the age of 83.)

An impressionistic landscape, out-of-the ordinary gemology and magical elements as a normal part of life – that was enough for us. So off we went with no fixed agenda other than four nights in Santa Fe and three in Taos. (We had not much vacation time available then. And weren’t totally sure we would like it enough to spend more than week there anyway.)

We quickly learned that (1) the super-arid deserts were not the vast expanses of sand we expected but rather vast expanses of “high desert” (ecosystems at high altitudes with little precipitation.) And the state’s geology also included snow-capped 13,000’ peaks dressed in pines and spruce, brilliant wildflower fields, forests of towering cottonwoods, white sand dunes and vast expanses of prairie. (2) The psychedelic colored mountains really did exist – in certain places, at certain times, in certain light – for example the Sangre de Cristo mountains at sunrise seen from the parking area at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge 10 miles northwest of Taos. (3) Desiccated cow skulls are pretty commonplace, esp. in gift shops, but never hovering aloft. At least not on that trip. (4) The stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere are intentional, put there by a secretive Catholic lay brotherhood known as Penitentes. And (5) turquoise is anything but out-of-the ordinary here – although the jewelry into which it is incorporated definitely can be.

On our mid-vacation drive from Santa Fe to Taos we passed by the village of Truchas where the Milagro Beanfield War movie was filmed. The tiny rural township looked exactly like what it was portrayed as – a tiny rural township just trying to live its day-to-day life. We did not stop to look around. So no reports on the actuality of angels dancing out of a sunrise or into a sunset. And spent our time instead in the more tourist-oriented towns of Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. All were foreign to us (as in different) – yet familiar (as if we belonged.)
Maybe it was the beige – said by some to be boring, by others neutral, calm, and relaxing.

Everything around us seemed to be a pale sandy yellowish-brown. Adobe buildings, foliage-free landscapes. All under a deep blue sky. And art was everywhere. Hispanic-Catholic folk art portrayed a comfortable, personal relationship between the artist, their religious subject matter and their faith. The hand-dug, hand-coiled, hand-painted Native American clay pottery told of their craftsperson’s connection to the land and geometric complexity of their indigenous beliefs.

With the little knowledge that we now had, we were already hooked.

On our way north from Santa Fe, driving for the first time down what we now know as Opera Hill on U.S. Route 25 we looked out on the vast expanse of Espanola Valley – beige (of course) under the boundless blue sky. No saguaro cactus for hundreds of miles. Both of our jaws dropped (at least in our minds.) Marsha thought. “this is where I belong.”
Thirty-seven years later we finally got here – and contacted our long-time homeowners and auto insurer AMICA who has a southwest office with a representative who frequents Santa Fe. It is fun to joke about living in a place that no one knows about. But not when our financial protection is involved. Sorry Flo.

Incidentally: Even Santa Claus almost “missed” New Mexico. He was not a part of Indigenous Native, Spanish or Mexican culture and probably did not arrive in any form until the late 19th century when the railroads came to town – the beginning of the end of New Mexico’s isolation. But Santa didn’t begin to catch on among the locals until post WWII, when servicemen came home inculcated with northern European influences. And not quite then even. Poet Maria Leyba remembers, “In the early 50’s we lived in Santa Fe, my Mexican mom had never heard of Santa Claus but all our vecinas [neighbors] explained to her about this tradition. Wanting to fit in she made sure we weren’t deprived of Santa. But my cousins in México celebrated the three kings and the Santo Nino, not Santa Claus!”

Nowadays Saint Nick knows the way to Santa Fe. When he looks down and sees Arizona’s saguaro forest he turns east until he comes to a cow skull floating over a Penitente cross in the high desert. That’s New Mexico.


(Found this by Google searching for “Santa Claus in New Mexico."
Apparently Santa’s Graphic Design department did not get the saguaro memo.)

The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!


It was a normal trip for Kate Messervy Kingsbury – two months of dust, mud, gnats, mosquitoes and heat, plus the occasional swollen stream, wildfire, hailstorm, strong wind, blizzard and ever-present peril of Ute or Apache Indian attack. She disliked both of her previous treks, but knew that this, her third such punishing journey, offered the last, best hope for survival. Then, just east of Dodge City, Kansas her husband John opened a crate labeled “private stores” – and inside it was a zinc-lined casket.

“The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” True crime TV from CBS’s 48 Hours or NBC’s Dateline? No. Just another tale from the Santa Fe Trail – one of New Mexico’s most historic transportation avenues.

Each of New Mexico’s major eras – Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, Mexican and United States – had its own major artery – the North-South Indigenous Trade Route, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Santa Fe Trail and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF.)

Long before the Europeans arrived the kingdoms and tribes of northern Mexico set up the NORTH-SOUTH INDIGENOUS TRADE ROUTE into present day Colorado to swap items such as turquoise, obsidian, salt and feathers with Native Americans.

Built from this original pathway EL CAMINO REAL was a 1,600 mile long road linking Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo, 40 miles north of Santa Fe. Used as a trade route by the Spanish Colonials from 1598 to 1821 and – since the mother country forbade business dealings with anyone else – THE ONLY source of commerce and culture into New Mexico.

SANTA FE TRAIL was an 800-mile wagon route connecting Missouri and Santa Fe between 1821 and 1880. (Mexico, unlike Spain, welcomed outside trade, especially from United States.) After the U.S. - Mexico War ended in 1848, it became THE highway that connected the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories – used by merchants, the military, stagecoach lines, gold seekers, adventurers, missionaries and emigrants.

In 1866 railroad expansion began in the new state of Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from there into Colorado. Three different railroads vied to serve the New Mexico market. The ATCHISON, TOPEKA & SANTA FE got there first in February 1880.

El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living History Museum, our volunteer gig, was a working ranch and camping stop on the Camino Real beginning around 1720. Its gateway exhibit area, Golondrinas Placita, is interpreted as such. The adjacent section, Baca Placita, depicts the era of the Santa Fe Trail from 1821 to 1846. Across the creek on the “Far Side” portrays late 19th century New Mexico after the arrival of the railroad.

We are given instruction and historical information on each period. And encouraged to educate ourselves further. To that end we also belong to the End of the Trail chapter of Santa Fe Trail Association (SFTA.) (Our branch’s name refers to its position as the terminus of the trade route – not to the age of its supporters.) Its membership includes many retired educators and others with an interest in studying, documenting and sharing their findings about the Trail in person and on paper. Plus local historians and archaeologists who also bring interesting subjects to the table. Such as “The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” – actual title “Death at the End of the Trail.” (Less tabloid-y. But still informative, like the lecture itself.)

Much of the SF Trail research is based on personal accounts and diaries of those who traveled that road. Among them the roadway’s founder, Captain William Becknell – here describing his virgin voyage. “The next day, after crossing a mountainous country, we arrived at Santa Fe and were received with apparent pleasure and joy. It is situated in a valley of the mountains, on a branch of the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] … about two miles long and one mile wide, and compactly settled.”

Most travelers were merchants seeking to quickly sell their goods and return home – “a short-term enterprise, with all the attendant hardships and exposure to harm, so it held no place or attraction for women,” according to historian and co-founder of the SFTA Marc Simmons. “Notwithstanding, there was a significant number of women who faced the westering experience with unquenchable optimism and, indeed, if diaries can be accepted as barometers of true sentiment, there were some who embarked with downright eagerness. The change of routine, the excitement of prairie travel, and life in the open air soon won over others who had started with dread and apprehension.

“Marian [Sloan] Russell, perhaps best representative of such women, discovered on the trail to New Mexico an exhilarating adventure that shaped the future course of her life,” As Mrs Russell phrased it, “this was a land of enchantment, where gods walked in the cool of the evening.” (Possibly the first usage of New Mexico’s nickname.)

Additional chroniclers were nuns like Sister Blandina Segale of the Sisters of Charity – “Trinidad [Colorado] has lost its frontier aspect … Billy the Kid’s gang is dissolved … The remaining men who were ready at the least provocation or no provocation (except that of strong drink) to raise the trigger have settled down to domestic infelicity.” (Is that disappointment in her voice?)

Another group was wives of military officers assigned to the forts being established in the southwest during 1850s and 60s. Alice Blackwood Baldwin made her trip in the fortification’s ambulance – upscaled for comfort. “Soft, upholstered seats that were extended when required and served as beds at night … The floor was covered with straw, over which rugs were laid to keep out as much of the cold as possible.”

Merchants settling in New Mexico to establish permanent shops often took their wives and families. Samuel Magoffin brought his new 18-year-old bride Susan Shelby – the “properly educated” daughter of a wealthy plantation-owning family. Like Alice Baldwin she traveled west in relative luxury – “one Dearborn with two mules (this concern carries my maid), our own carriage with two more mules.” They “glamped” (in modern lingo) in a carpeted tent with a bed and mattress, table and chairs.

Her carriage rolled over and the tent collapsed during a violent storm. Susan took ill in Bent Fort, CO and one day after her 19th birthday suffered a miscarriage. Reaching Santa Fe on August 31 they moved into “quite a nice little place.” Two months later, and once again expecting, the couple headed to Mexico on the Camino Real. “I do think a woman emberaso [pregnant] has a hard time of it, some sickness all the time, heartburn, headache, cramps etc., after all this thing of marrying is not what it is cracked up to be.”

In July 1847 she gave birth to a son, who died shortly thereafter. Her diary ends two months later. Samuel sold the Santa Fe business and the couple moved to Kirkwood, Missouri where Susan gave birth to two daughters, then died in 1855 at age 28.

All these individual stories made us wonder about journeyers on the Trail from our former home state. We found but one – a memoir-writing merchant with a serendipitous two-degrees-of-separation connection to the aforementioned occupant of the zinc-lined coffin.

Born in Warren, CT “James Josiah Webb was one of the most prominent traders on the Santa Fe Trail from the 1840s into the early 1860s. He made 18 trips to Santa Fe as well as maintaining a store there.” Among his partners were William S. Messervy and John M. Kingsbury – brother and husband of the casket’s occupant. In 1839 Webb and Messervy opened a store in Santa Fe selling fabrics, groceries, housewares, and hardware obtained in the northern marketplaces. Kingsbury joined the firm in 1849 spending the majority of his time until 1861 in Santa Fe. He married Kate in 1853.

Prior to her marriage Kate was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “One prescribed therapy for the disease … was a regimen of travel to more healthful climates, where fresh air and rest supposedly provided much of the cure”

Kate moved to Santa Fe in 1854 and gave birth to a son in January 1855. According to correspondence between the two brothers-in-law the child was “not perfect.” Kingsbury, concerned that Kate’s health and stamina “were weary” from caring for their sick child, sent them both home to her family in Massachusetts, where sadly the boy died.

Kate’s doctor advised them, “her lungs are past cure. All that remains ... is to get her back again to Santa Fe if possible. Her friends think different. They say if we start she will never reach St. Louis … What am I to do? She is willing to start & wants to leave here.”

Mid-March 1857 Kate, John, her sister Eliza Ann and Facunda (her New Mexican maid) were on their way back to Santa Fe. James Josiah Webb described her last night, June 5, 1857.

“Mrs. Kingsbury was at no time improved in health on the whole route … then just after midnight she seemed to realize the end was close. She said, ‘is it possible that I have come this far on my way and must now take leave of you all?’ She then commended with perfect composure, and took leave of her sister and John. She wished to assure them that the course they had pursued was in every respect to her satisfaction, and asked forgiveness for every hasty expression, or unkind word that had passed her lips during her illness, her every wish had been complied with, and everything in the power of man had been done to promote her comfort.”

John had anticipated this sad possibility and wanted to give his wife a proper Christian burial rather than leaving her in an unprotected grave at the side of the Trail. He knew that neither embalming nor ice would be available. So Kate’s body was placed in the tightly-sealed zinc-lined box to slow down the rate of bodily decomposition. Then he and Eliza Ann accompanied it to Santa Fe, covering the 375 miles in a record 11 days. She was interred at Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery, the only burying ground for people not of the Catholic faith. At the end of the 19th century, several old cemeteries were “decommissioned” and new ones placed outside of town. Sometime between 1890 and 1903, Kate’s remains were exhumed and moved to the new Odd Fellows Cemetery.

James Josiah Webb provided almost 20 years of retail service to New Mexico – most while living in Connecticut. He retired from the trade business in 1861 and died in Hamden, CT 28 years later.

The Trail Association says that Webb “left a comprehensive archive … more extensive than any other trader.” So excited about the new land, culture and people he was experiencing that he just had to share it.

Some people are like that you know.

You may ask – “Any idea how many died along the trail? No clue. No records of any kind relating to that were kept. But probably not many compared to the totality of those who traveled the Trail … many were buried in unmarked graves.” (Larry D. Short, President, SFTA)

Numerous diaries and journals of the above-mentioned travelers and others are available online or through and other booksellers – e.g. William Becknell, Marian Sloan Russell, James Josiah Webb.

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting


Recently we toured the cemetery in Madrid in the San Pedro Mountains on NM 14 (the “Turquoise Trail.”) 30 miles south of our Santa Fe home.  Our guides were three local friends – current neighbor J, and former ones L and J, with whom we get together for lunch every month or so. This was our May meetup. “But why visit that town’s graveyard?” you might ask. Well we would respond, Madrid is much more than a small community of 300 people living in the remnants of a once-thriving, coal-mining company town. It now is one of “the 12 Best Hippie Cities For Stressed-Out Progressives.”  With such a unique past and present, who wouldn’t want to see how they memorialize their deceased?  Plus its  village tavern serves a pretty darn good buffalo burger.


There are nine other towns in the world named Madrid. The capitol city of Spain of course. Plus one each in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New York and Virginia. Most pronounce it “Muh-DRID” – the way the Spanish do. Alabamans and Mainers say MAD-rid. New Yorkers accept either version.  “Madroids,” as the NM town’s residents like to call themselves, emphasize the “MAD.” 


All of these cities have their own history.  Here briefly is that of Madrid, New Mexico.


The town most likely was given its name by Roque Madrid – a 17th & 18th century Spanish conquistador who briefly became interested in mining lead in the area. “Madrid” is a “habitational surname” indicating where a person came from – meaning Roque would have pronounced both his last name and that of his namesake village in the Spanish way.  We could not find the answer as to why or when that pronunciation changed.


Roque’s interest in quarrying went nowhere. And the small village remained of no particular importance until 1822 when gold miners came to the area, found coal and used it to operate their nearby gold mill at Dolores. (There was a small amount of the yellow metal in New Mexico.)

By 1859 the New Mexico Mining Company owned the coalfield and sold the ore to military forts at Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM during the Civil War.  More coal was discovered – ownership changed hands – and in the 1890's Madrid had become a regional mining center and company town with around 2,500 inhabitants belonging to the Albuquerque & Cerrillos Coal Co.  By 1920 all Madrid homes were wired for electricity from the company-owned power plant.  Plus there were Elementary and High Schools, a fully equipped hospital, a Company Store, and the first lighted ballpark West of the Mississippi – home to the Madrid Blues, who competed with squads from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Isleta Pueblo.

Madrid’s coal production peaked in 1928 with almost 200,000 tons. And in 1943 one hundred tons of coal a day were delivered to its new primary customer, the then secret city of Los Alamos. In 1947 the A&CCC’s Chief Operating Officer Oscar Huber purchased the company becoming the sole owner of the now flourishing town.

Life was good. Until natural gas came on the scene in the late 1940s and the coal market collapsed. By 1954 the mining company had closed, all but a hundred or so residents had moved away, and an ad in the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale at a price of $250,000 ($2.8 million today.) There were no takers.

Oscar Huber died in 1962. In the early 1970s his son Joe rented a few of the old company houses to artists and craftsmen who wanted to work and live in the mountains of New Mexico. Having success he put the remaining buildings on sale – $1,500 to $2,000, sold them all in 16 days and Madrid’s population swelled to 80. Huber donated more land and a new Madrid began to rise from the coal dust. How well did it go?  In 2016 the town was named number four of “The 12 Best Hippie Cities For Stressed-Out Progressives” by ReverbPress.  “Madrid is a town reborn. Originally a coal-mining town, it disappeared along with the popularity of coal, becoming a ghost town of abandoned buildings. Those buildings have been restored … painted in a colorful array of hues [and] become home to an artists’ colony, but in a deserty, mountainous environment [and unlike SantaFe] removed from the madding crowd.”


(Actual, untouched-up photo of downtown Madrid.)


A brief stop in Madrid was a regular part of our New Mexico visits – usually after spending our arrival day and night in Albuquerque, and driving the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe the next morning. And we’ve continued these trips now that the town is just down the road from our Santa Fe home. Easily 50 or more stopovers. But we had never heard about “Madrid’s Bone Orchard.”

And we definitely would have sought it out. As we’ve indicated in some of our earlier writings we are definitely “FoCs” (Fans of Cemeteries.)  Back in CT we particularly enjoyed visiting Hartford, CT’s Cedar Hill and Wethersfield, CT’s Old Village  – interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting, 


But there were no indications of Madrid Cemetery anywhere that we had seen. Like so many things out here – you gotta know somebody who knows somebody. It this case it was our neighbor J whose former companion’s ashes are interred there.


We rode in two cars – none of us having large vehicles. We were following J. As we slowly drove into the town (posted speed limit 15 mph) she made an abrupt right into what appeared to be a narrow alleyway. But turned out to be a slightly less narrow, two-mile long, uphill, winding dirt and rock road (unposted speed limit 10 mph.) The unimproved path passed by several colorfully and artfully decorated small houses before coming to an end next to a wrought iron entry gate welcoming us to the “Land of the Dead.”

Given our two-score-plus-ten previous explorations of the town, our self-proclaimed FoC zealotry and familiarity with our friends’ overall standards we had pretty high expectations for the burying grounds. And we have to say they were absolutely exceeded.

At this point we would normally interject a little history of Madrid Cemetery. But Jim’s internet research has turned up nothing. There is no Madrid Historical Society. Not surprising in a town that died then was re-birthed in the past 50 years by a small group of people who look more to the present and future than to the past. Jim thought of having one-on-ones with locals over beers at the town’s Mindshaft Tavern to see what they might know. But under doctor/spousal advice we will instead do our own conjecturing based on what we have learned about NM cemeteries in general.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish the only funerary practices were those of the Native Indians – most involving burial, some cremation. The 16th and 17th century conquering Spanish sought to change these rituals to those of the Catholic religion – with varying degrees of success. In most instances the Native Americans simply added Catholicism to their traditional ceremonies and belief. Sometimes they carried on their old rituals secretly under the veil of their newly taught religion. Only Catholics were allowed burial in Catholic cemeteries. For non-Catholics there were no official cemeteries

When Mexico acquired New Mexico in their war of independence from Spain they invited trade from the United States, largely in the form of merchants who traveled the Santa Fe Trail. Many were Jewish or Protestant. This brought missionary ministers and Rabbis to care spiritually for those newcomers who chose to stay. And to convert those already here whose religious needs were not being fulfilled by the inadequate number of Catholic priests. Their arrival resulted in the establishment of non-Catholic burying grounds. In Santa Fe the Masons and Odd Fellows established the initial such cemetery in 1853. In 1881 the Montefiore Cemetery in Las Vegas, NM became one of the first Jewish burial places west of the Mississippi. And many Company Towns established them for their deceased residents.

So why all this background? Today’s Madrid Cemetery is actually two graveyards – old and new, side by side – both set in a totally untilled, take-it-as-it-is, high desert landscape partially enclosed by one non-continuous strand of barbed wire. To the right is a typical western rural cemetery – wooden crosses, weathered/crumbling/intact headstones and piles of stones. (The corpses are “six feet under.” The rocks protect from the ravages of coyotes, etc.) The names that we saw here were Hispanic and the dates of death from the 1920s and 30s. Some sites were being taken over by nature. Others cared for and decorated with fresh plastic flowers. One new gravestone seemed out of sync with its plot.


The layout of this section is largely freeform and overgrown. We did not wander its entirety and could not even guess at its total size. Clearly from the coal mining era – but Catholic, private non-sectarian, company provided? No way to know for sure.
However, with just a little knowledge of today’s Madrid, even a first time visitor can decipher the heritage of the new section.

If not for the adjacent traditional burial ground, and a couple of similar stone-covered sites you might easily mistake this for a sculpture garden of quirky works of folk art with an ironically titled entry portal. Until you read the accompanying signage with names and date ranges and realize that you are gazing instead at a collection of highly personalized, heart-felt memorials. A front bicycle tire and handlebars, a sewing machine, a fire extinguisher and hard-hat – phrases such as “to the butte” or an illustration of racked pool balls on the marker – a wrought-iron portrayal of someone reading on a bench. By the shape of the plot you can tell that some are resting places for bodies, some for ashes.  The new section also had a rudimentary performance stage with folding chairs leaning against its side. As well as a Maypole complete with ribbons. (It was that month.)




Interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting? Most definitely yes! And as survivors of the 1960s we would also add, “far out!”


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Crescit Eundo


The impetus for the following was a concert of Medieval Christmas Music by the Boston Camarata at Cristo Rey Catholic Church on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Unfamiliar songs, performed by a group we had never heard or even heard of, in a venue we knew of but had not been in. Both the ensemble and their selections were outstanding. The site – the largest adobe building in the United States and home of the “Reredos of Our Lady of Light” altar screen – even more so. We are not what you would call pious people. But we are very much drawn to art and architecture that depicts subjects, themes, and imagery from religion.

It began in 1997 during a vacation in Malta. We chose to go there simply because Marsha saw a magazine article about "Vacations Off The Beaten Path" one day at our hairstylist – and that was one of the places. The story showed a photo of the walled city of Valletta and she immediately said "we have to go there." Jim looked at the same picture and instantly agreed. It probably was the light. We both are drawn to almost blindingly-bright-with-natural-light locations – high desert in New Mexico, arid wasteland in the Big Bend of Texas, sand bunkers on golf courses. (Marsha not so much the latter.)  Five years earlier, with images of sun-blanched desert skulls from a recently seen Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit fresh in our own skulls, it took us about the same amount of time to decide on our first trip to New Mexico.


Our travel agent D arranged the vacation with a perfect mix of planned day trips, on-our-own-to-explore time and tour-company support. 👏

Although it was the brightness that brought us there we were attracted to one of Malta’s main houses of worship by the darkness – specifically the chiaroscuro contrasts between light and dark in the paintings of Caravaggio – “the most famous name who worked in Malta.” (St. Paul not withstanding.) Caravaggio was there in 1608 while on the lam from a shady past in sunny Italy where, perhaps unintentionally, he had killed a man. He left behind two masterpieces, “Beheading of St John the Baptist” and “St. Jerome Writing” – both on display at the Co-Cathedral of St. John

Once inside we were totally awed by the expansive ornate interior with its intricately carved limestone walls, painted vaulted ceiling, elaborate side altars and self-proclaimed "most beautiful floor in the world.”  More ecclesiastical space than we had ever been in, and seemingly none of it blank. Sure, we had seen similar images in magazines and on TV. But never before the real thing. “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Connecticut anymore.”

The experience whet our appetite for more. There are (believe it or not) 359 churches and chapels on the 122 sq. mi. archipelago. We visited a few more, but not enough. So in 2002, ten years after our first trip to New Mexico, we ventured to Barcelona, Spain on an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) program to learn more about the works of Antonio Gaudi whose Catalan Modernist architecture features organic shapes inspired by natural forms. At the top of our list was La Sagrada Famiglia Church, his possibly never-to-be-finished attempt to transubstantiate the configurations of the physical world into a manmade metaphysical monument to his God. The construction began in March 1882 and is still incomplete. Gaudi himself projected it would take 200 years. An interesting estimate since, as was his wont, he never made a complete blueprint, preferring to add the details as he saw the structure coming to life. Gaudi died in 1926 and other architects are continuing the work.



The texture and shape of La Sagrada has been described as looking like melting wax or sculpted sand. And evoked in us the same feelings of awe and peace that we feel in parts of New Mexico’s landscape – towering shapes that somehow manage to be both harshly unsettling and at the same time comforting in their soft lines and colorless color.

In addition to bringing to mind the terrain of our new home state Gaudi’s organic design philosophy also exemplified the Official State Motto of New Mexico, “Crescit Eundo” (“It Grows As It Goes”.) The expression is from a 1st century poem by Lucretius, where it describes a thunderbolt streaking across the sky, growing bolder and mightier the longer its magnificent journey continues.

Still not enough sacredness for us. So, four years later we listened as another Elderhostel Art Historian told us, “ninety percent of all the great art in the world is in Italy. And eighty-nine percent of that is in Florence,”.


The city’s churches and museums can be overwhelming in both their vastness and the sheer volume of masterpiece-level works of fine art within them. The religious buildings more so because all the artwork is done “in situ” – sometimes in seemingly impossible places. Like Malta every apparent inch of available space was used. Here, some artists’ works also hung in the city’s museums.

For various unrelated reasons our survey of the sacred art of Europe ended after our Florentine adventure. Which was okay because, while all of the above was happening we discovered something completely different in the churches of northern New Mexico.

Beginning in the late 16th century the Spanish came here with the intent of bringing their culture – and most importantly their Catholic religion – to this unfamiliar New World territory. But there were two major obstacles. There were never enough priests. And, while the artists and crafts people were here, the raw materials needed to create the familiar sacred art and architecture just did not exist locally. As a result…

“There are few iconic structures more fundamental to the culture and history of the Southwest than its adobe churches,” wrote John Benigno whose project “to photograph as many adobe churches as possible while they were still in their traditional state” can be seen at

The architects of these edifices were the European Franciscan priests and brothers who planned to replicate the dressed-stone "fortress-churches" that their fellow clergy had erected in Mexico during their conquest of that colony.  However, “carried to New Mexico, to a semiarid frontier environment where inconstant adobe, field stone, and wood replaced reliable masonry, such ideals were [quickly forgotten.] Local materials, relatively few and unskilled workmen, poverty, and isolation all contributed to a unique and, as it turned out, an all but invariable New Mexican style.” (

Still, while not what they had hoped for, adobe did satisfy “the invaders' insistence on erecting churches of churchly proportions.” Interiors would be 25’ x 80’ or more. Height never exceeded width. Most churches had windows on only one side. To illuminate the altar they used a “transverse clerestory window” – a wide low overhead opening that spanned the structure. The effect was theatrical – focusing the viewer “immediately on the stream of light descending like the Dove precisely on altar and reredos.”

Decorations were sparse. “Above the main altar, if the painted wall itself did not serve, stood the carved and painted wooden reredos, or retablo, forming a matrix for the patron and companion saints who stared out from timeworn statues or from animal-hide paintings.” There were no pews – with sometimes a bench along the wall, and perhaps a modest side altar.

Instead of gold leaf inlay there were thinly sliced pieces of straw. Tin replaced silver. “Separated from their nearest supply points in Mexico, Spanish colonial-era artists in New Mexico made do with the materials they found here. Cottonwood branches and roots became bultos, or statues. Pigments derived from rocks and insects turned into paint for retablos, the flat paintings of saints. Animal hides served as canvas. Those creative colonists gave birth to an art-form that was unique to the Southwest – and that still thrives today.” (New Mexico Magazine)

This lasted until the 1850 arrival of U.S. Territorial New Mexico’s first Bishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy (from France by way of Cincinnati.) To him these adobe churches “were lowly, obscene, utterly lacking in architectural character, like the stable of Bethlehem.” Not at all “the high architectural art whose tradition he had inherited. [He would be] a civilizer, a bringer of orthodoxy to benighted folk Catholics.”

In Santa Fe Lamy helmed the construction of the French Romanesque Revival Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis Cathedral) and Gothic-Revival Loretto Chapel with its “miraculous staircase.” His actions also led ultimately to the 1940 erection of the setting for “one of the most extraordinary pieces of ecclesiastical art in the country” – and prompted this piece of writing.

The 25’ x 18’ stone “Reredos of Our Lady of Light” altar screen at Cristo Rey church was carved in 1761 to be hung in La Castrense military chapel on the Santa Fe Plaza. Lamy removed the reredos and transferred it to La Parroquia, the main parish church of Santa Fe at the time. He then sold the Castrense. When La Parroquia was replaced by the Cathedral the screen was consigned to a small room away from public view at St Francis until 1940, when it was moved to its present adobe church abode.


It was our first time in Cristo Rey. We lived for a short time in its neighborhood during our 2017 summer of house-hunting – but its doors were never open for spontaneous tourism.

Described as the “last great adobe mission,” by architecture critic Chris Wilson the church was designed in the what is now known as the Pueblo Revival style by John Gaw Meem, who revolutionized architecture in the southwest by mixing progressive elements and materials with well-known regional architectural styles.

125’L x 40’W x 33’H, with walls up to nine feet thick the building is made up of around 200,000 individual adobes supported by a hidden steel frame. The Reredos dominates the otherwise barely adorned altar. A window above illuminates the textured form of the stone carving, while also drawing attention to the area upon which the liturgy is focussed. 14 Stations of the Cross with frames of handworked tin line the side walls. And that’s about it. Just the way it should be out here.


Over the years we’ve been able to sample several stops on the spectrum of sacred art – from Old World complexity to New Mexican minimalism. Meanwhile Barcelona’s La Sagrada Famiglia is becoming less like an outgrowth of the earth and more and more of a cathedral – iteratively transcending even our own state’s aspirationally ambitious motto. It grows, as it goes, as it goes, as it goes…

Speaking of which. Theodore Roosevelt once said “Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.” From what we’ve learned visiting and living here, that would be just perfect as an expression of New Mexico’s beliefs and ideals. It certainly has become our preferred aesthetic viewpoint.