Short history of New Mexico as depicted on commemorative bronze plaques in the Cathedral Park in downtown Santa Fe: 1504 The first major Spanish expedition to what is now the southwest United States was conducted by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado from 1540 to 1542. Subsequent exploration and settlement of the American Southwest would follow. Once the area is ethnically cleansed with inadvertent application of biological weapons nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
These things tend to happen without any special planning. Pyramids, Easter Island Statutes or elaborate churches in the middle of Indian Pueblos. Civilizations that are on a verge of ecological disaster make this last stab at greatness and spend their meager resources on something completely impractical. If one admits that a culture can commit suicide this is surely a showy way to go. Well at least Pueblo Indians did not invent all those crazy ideas all by themselves. They were coaxed, convinced and threatened by Franciscans who arrived to teach and convert indigenous population. Scraping a living on the dry desert was always hard. Spaniards brought goods: metals, crops, animals - all seemed like an improvement. Accepting their religion might have been seen as a small price for all that bounty. And it’s not like there was any other choice.
If the land you are crossing is desolated yet captivating, then there is an excellent chance you are in what AAA calls the Indian Country. Misappropriation of the name aside the Indian country is where one comes to see incredible geological formations and to witness the progress of a 200 years experiment in civilizing natives. You may think that the concept of bringing the benefits of Western civilization to autochthons is a thing of the past, offensive to modern sensibilities. But consider the restrictions on alcohol on Navajo reservation. The federal government forbids sale of alcohol on Indian lands unless the tribe allows and the Secretary of Interior certifies it. For the rest of us the default option permits alcohol unless local community curbs it. Which is more common than you think: a waitress in Blanding, UT apologetically remarked it’s a dry town (and not because we were in the middle of the desert) when we tried to order beer with our dinner. The result, an utter lack of your favorite libation, is roughly the same but this is not a subtle distinction. Federal laws treat Indians like children. Just look at the extent of tribal jurisdiction over Indian country: the tribal court can only rule in case when both the victim and the perpetrator are Indians and only when the crime is a misdemeanor. Felonies and crimes affecting non-Indians are deemed to difficult to be left to native judges.
Recently I’ve spent six months without TV. I didn’t think I was depriving myself. Watching TV was never high on my to do list. Besides travelling feels a bit like TV. The difference is that instead of watching the moving pictures firmly planted on a couch, one observes mostly stationary world through the windows of a moving car. That of course does not change the fact that I crave mindless entertainment just as much as the next gal. Point in case: I managed to subject myself to 2 seasons of Prison Break. It’s not TV in its classic sense. Our slightly dusty set serves as a dumb add-on to a streaming Roku box connected to a temporarily unfrozen Netflix account. We get HD (which excites Damian and leaves me unfazed) and no commercial breaks. And of course we can watch it on our own schedule. Assuming the schedule calls for watching couple of years after the show has been aired.
When everything else fails Obama can take a leaf from another war and depression era president’s book and institute modern equivalent of Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only will it address the disproportionally high unemployment among youngest workers but it will give us more stone cabins and overlooks on public lands. At least this is what happened when the CCC was formed in the 1933. After 9 years and countless improvements in national and state parks former members of the CCC were drafted to contribute their skills and lives to the war effort. Obama might prefer a different exit strategy. On the other hand we already have a war or two going on so may be he just needs to backtrack on his promise to pull back troops. Instituting draft would help as well.
Bored? Looking for a new mode of transportation? Join thousands of Americans in this brand new discovery of railroad travel. No, I am not talking about switching from car to train for a daily commute. This is about train as entertainment. Everyday use of trains is in the same sorry state it has been since the demise of steam locomotive. We’ve encountered this type of diversion twice so far: in Chama, New Mexico and in Durango, Colorado. Commercial application was abandoned in the 60s due to the usual reasons of cheap gasoline and better roads. In 90s is became tourist attraction. Clearly there are enough people willing to don dark clothes (to avoid staining by airborne soot) and spend a few hours in a densely packed open-air gondola cars chatting with strangers, which is advertised as particularly enjoyable. Upgrade to an adult-only parlor class available - obviously the organizers thought about anti-social types like us who are not overly fond of children. The railroads are engineering wonders. And they traverse one of the most picturesque parts of US. But if you buy a ticket be prepared to spend couple of hours traveling to nowhere: Osier, Colorado or Silverton, Colorado. Both are ghost towns.
Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblans as modern Pueblo Indians prefer to call them lived in the Mesa Verde for hundreds of years until late 1200s. And then they disappeared. More exactly they stopped building. Quite abruptly as testified by an unfinished Sun Temple. And similarly they abandoned the Chaco Canyon about hundred years earlier. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Professional and amateur archeologists have been attempting to answer those questions for 120 years now. No theory is entirely satisfying. For various reasons including political. Overpopulation and depletion of resources, advocated by Jared Diamond, doesn’t gel with the myth of Indians as good stewards following Mother Earth principles. When it is presented to Mesa Verde visitors it’s qualified by the occurrence of an ice age at that time. Drop in temperature is strangely at odds with artists’ renderings of mostly naked Indians peppering the park sites. But naked means savage and we, the descendants of the European settlers, are used to this excuse of the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing the indigenous population. Scholars disagree if it was great drought or ice age that explains the worsening of climate and forced the natives out. But you’d never know there is a controversy by reading literature provided by National Park Service.
For a forward-facing society Americans are strangely preoccupied with roots. Not only do they qualify themselves by the country of origin of their ancestors (i.e. Irish-American or Italian-American) but also consider themselves spiritual descendants of (American) Indians. Case in point: Santa Fe. The city mandates the adobe style for all downtown buildings since 1958 and looks like an oversized pueblo. This must be ironic for Pueblo Indians, deprived of land and cultural expression for years in the name of civilization, to see their building style suddenly revered and imitated.
This is the place where the longest war ever fought on this continent started. By modern estimates over 20 million people perished. Land was devastated. Nations were lost. Biological warfare was used by aggressors. Brutal propaganda was unleashed to portrait invaded as uncivilized, cruel savages without religion, language or or farming skills. As a result Europeans have won a new rich and unspoiled continent, which they proceeded to misuse and exploit. American Indians were resettled into practically uninhabitable areas, stripped of their democratically elected governments and forced to lead substandard existence.
Today we were dehydrated. We took only one bottle of water for what we thought was going to be an easy short hike. But in pursue of an elusive silver mine site the hike turned out longer and more strenuous then planned. It went surprisingly high up a slope drenched in the unforgiving sun light. And to our dismay instead of looping back to the parking lot it veered onto the other side of the mesa: we had to retrace our steps to get back. Park service advises to drink at least a gallon per person per day when outdoor in arid climate and they have it right - we drank about that amount upon return to the car after several hours of hiking the Catwalk followed by the Gold Dust trail in Gila Forest.
We rarely stay in a bed-and-breakfast type of lodging. You never know if the owner is a sweet lady who is going to serve you fried eggs in the morning or a mis-employed prison guard who will track your every step with an evil glance and start vacuuming at 8am without bothering to switch off the deafening TV. On the subject of lodging: our friends suggested we try a place with magic fingers, but they are not easy to find. Nowadays even the oldest dump advertises its free broadband. At least this is what we prefer to think after seeing a sign proclaiming availability of a highspeed breakfast. These has to mean two separate and familiar things, right?
There is a place in New Mexico where you can sled down the hill of white sand. Differently from your normal beach sand this one is composed of small particles of gypsum, not quartz. We get here a day after a rare rain so dune surfing does not work that well, but we don’t complain. The view is stunning. A lot had to happen in the geological terms for all this to be possible. Rob, the ranger guiding the sunset stroll, patiently explains formation of the basin skillfully navigating between ignoring and entertaining 3 preteen boys. The rest of the group listens more appreciatively.
There are at least two incredibly cool things to do when in Carlsbad Caverns. And somehow - by sheer luck and happy timing - we manage to strike both. The first is to see the bats flying out. The second - to walk down the natural entrance to the big room - preferably alone. Bats flying out for the night of hunting are so spectacular that park service has built an amphitheater around the cave entrance. On Saturday evening there are so many people that we nearly give up. But we stay and endure the interpretive part. It’s not like we don’t learn couple of useful facts but the show is fine tuned to keep kids interested and public is invited to participate. The two things that guarantee I’ll be mortified cringing in embarrassment. The ranger somehow holds it together through questions like: how do bats give birth if they are hanging upside down? And: what happens if bat mom needs to give birth while flying?