where creative minds can interact
Last week, my home state of New Mexico marked its centennial anniversary of statehood. Before that, it was a territory. And before that, it was part of Mexico. And so on.
New Mexico was given statehood in 1912. They taught us that in school, like they taught us about Coronado searching for the seven cities of gold. When you're a child, you just accept these things at face value. So what. Now, oddly enough, 1912 seems closer than it did when I was a child. A hundred years to a child is an eternity. A hundred years to an adult is a lifetime.
My ancestors came to Gallup, New Mexico in the 1880's. Gallup was just being built. It was a wild western town, built because of the coal deposits, which fueled the trains.
Though they would have qualified as pioneers in some places, in New Mexico, my family has been around barely long enough to qualify as locals. The descendants of the original Spanish settlers were there centuries before that, and the native tribes centuries before them.
Gallup sits on the huge geological formation known as the Colorado Plateau. It's one of the oldest formations on the surface of Earth. You can look at the sandstone cliffs and peer back millions of years. You can walk in the pinon and juniper covered mountains and find pieces of petrified wood from ancient forests, strewn on the ground, laying where they fell. You can find pieces of pottery, arrow and spear heads and so on almost without looking for them. It's a place where the footprint of humanity is faint, but also remarkably deep.
New Mexico has a culture all its own. It has its own cuisine, its own architecture, its own musical traditions.
More than anything, I guess New Mexico's centennial reminds me how young a country we really are. For all our world dominating ways, it wasn't that long ago the United States didn't even stretch across the continent.
I remember as a child when many of the Navajo people still rode in buckboard wagons dressed in traditional garb. To this day many live out on the Big Rez with no running water or electricity. They are not, for the most part, like the Amish or similar groups who wish to do without such modern amenities. They simply don't have access.
Probably the most famous resident of New Mexico was Billy the Kid, who more than anything represents the historical migration of people and their subsequent assimilation into the local culture. In his particular case, he was from New York City. The Kid was fluent in Spanish, and to this day is highly regarded among the many Spanish speaking people of the state, because he came down on the side of the locals fighting the big monied interests. He came down rather hard, being involved in every single skirmish that took place in the infamous Lincoln County War. His notoriety was sealed forever when, after being captured and held in a jail cell in Las Vegas, New Mexico (far to the north of Lincoln County), he tricked his guards and killed them with their own weapons, riding into what was undoubtedly a spectacular New Mexico sunset.
Billy the Kid rode to the ranch owned by the parents of his Hispanic girlfriend, and his last words were reputed to be "quien es?" (who is that?) when, upon walking in his stocking feet to a building where there was meat hanging, in search of sustenance, he noticed some strange shadows, and upon backing into the doorway whilst asking that very pertinent question he was shot in the back by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who was hidden inside. (A run-on sentence, I know... but necessary to balance out the brevity of Billy the Kid's last words.)
After Billy the Kid, there are numerous "most famous" folks from New Mexico. Most of them not really from there at all. One is the aforementioned Spanish conquistador Coronado, who rode through in the early 1500's looking for gold, converts, slaves, whatever. And finding precious little of any of those things. Well... he found a lot of whatever. Kit Carson, who built a big house in Taos, was best known for ruthlessly subjugating the Navajo tribe, literally starving them to death by burning their orchards, and then herding them south to a new reservation. The survivors returned years later, to re-inhabit their ancestral lands. And there was the artist Georgia O'Keefe, who painted somewhat sexually charged interpretations of local landscape. The Oppenheimer brothers, Robert and Frank, who are best known for developing the atomic bomb at the laboratories in Los Alamos. The country singer Randy Travis, who I believe is actually from Hobbs, or somewhere around there. Etc.
I remember Frank Oppenheimer from my childhood. My family owned a small ranch in Southern Colorado for a few years, and Oppenheimer owned a ranch down the road. During the McCarthy era he had been blacklisted during the political witch hunts, and, unable to work as a scientist, he taught physics at Pagosa Springs High School. Later he went on to build the fabulous Science Museum in San Francisco. I remember his occasionally coming by... a tall, skinny, bushy haired, bespectacled, chain-smoking, nervous but friendly kind of fellow. Another person who frequented the house was the great landscape artist Bill Freeman.
But alas, we've crossed the state line, and should come back. I always do. I go to and through there often. It's where my soul is most at peace.
I haven't seen a buckboard on or near the Big Rez for numerous decades now, except as a museum piece. The geological formation known as Camel Rock, which we used to drive by on our way from Albuquerque to Colorado is now dwarfed by a casino on the other side of the highway. The roller coaster ride that used to be the highway from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is now the very much smoothed out and less conducive to inducing sea sickness Interstate 25. And so on.
Overall, it is a state that wears its changes comfortably. It ages well. Maybe because it's such an ancient land, a century here and a century there doesn't really matter that much. The biggest deal statewide is still when the green chile crop is in, and you can smell the indescribably pungent and seductive aroma of chiles being roasted everywhere.
A few years back I was hiking up at Bluewater Lake, in the Zuni Mountains. It was winter, and the lake was frozen over. There was a Navajo man who had pulled his pickup out on the ice, and was fishing. I walked over, said hello. We chatted briefly, how's the fishing type stuff. He asked where I was from, and I told him I had lived in California for a number of years, though I was born right down the road in Gallup. I always have a convoluted story when people ask where I'm from, because my family moved constantly. So he listened patiently to my story, moving to Colorado, and back, and Arizona, and hither and yon, eventually settling in California.
And he smiled quietly and said, as if to sum it all up neatly, "yeah... but you were born here."
Indeed. I was.