Hunting for treasure

Harry Golden, the comic columnist and masterful essayist, used to describe his home state of North Carolina as a vale of humility between two mountains of vanity, Virginia and South Carolina. Something similar could be said of New Mexico, whose humble virtues tend to be outshone by the outsized egos of California and Texas.

Those virtues, modest thought they may be, are nonetheless real. We may not have a Big Bend or a Yosemite national park, or big seaports on the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, let alone an economy that shakes the world or politics that alters the destiny of nations. But we do have treasures of history and beauty that are bright enough to illuminate our lives.

A few days ago my wife and I combined some of those modest treasures into a day’s outing for an out-of-town guest. Taken as a whole, this day showed off not only what New Mexico once was but, despite recession that won’t stop hurting and crime that won’t stop threatening, what we still are.

Our first stop was at the old Hispanic land grant village of Manzano, where we paused at Manzano Lake, an unusual community-owned but state-managed park. Large cottonwoods shade idyllic picnic spots surrounding the small lake. It used to be a popular swimming hole for area kids, and is still stocked periodically by the state. Several young men were “fishing” while we were there, including a couple of guys who had driven all the way from Luna in southwestern New Mexico, near the Arizona border.

I put “fishing” in quotes because like most who come here, relaxing, napping, conversing, picnicking and bird watching are the favorite preoccupations. Fishing rods lie on the ground propped up against rocks, and baited hooks rest undisturbed in the calm water. If a fish bites, that’s a bonus. If it doesn’t, the day has not been a waste.

Two nearby roads head up into the Manzano Mountains. One goes west through Red Canyon. While hiking along the small stream there, I once happened to look up and see a mountain lion on the canyon rim looking down seriously at my passage. We made a tacit agreement not to molest each other.

The other trail winds northwest to Capilla Peak, where there are multiple possible walks—a very short one to the fire tower where writer Dixie Boyle watches for wildfires while producing her quirky little books about local history. A somewhat longer walk ends at the cliffside site from which Hawk Watch for years tracked migrating raptors. A still longer trail—anywhere up to 22 miles—extends north and south along Manzano Crest.

Continuing south on N.M. 55 we detoured a few hundred years west to Quarai, one of the three dispersed ruins that constitute the Salinas National Monument. It is, in a word, stunning.

Mission of San Gregorio de Abó looms mysteriously over the surrounding grasslands. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

The red rock, roofless church soars above the rolling green plain like a mirage. Once a year, de Profundis a capella male chorus performs a free concert in the building, whose acoustics remain a marvel. Hundreds gather. It is memorable.

Adjacent to the 17th century church, the ruins of an even older and once-thriving pueblo dot the landscape. A currently dry stream bed circles sensuously through a densely wooded bosque with several kinds of edible berries. A huge cottonwood and two smaller sisters shade a half dozen picnic tables.

Back on N.M. 55 we head south to Mountainair and stop, as I do every chance I get, at the Alpine Alley Cafe for a homemade pastry. Several customers are preoccupied with their computers while others chat in nooks or on soft sofas. It’s my favorite spot in this old, rundown, remote, impoverished but with it all, thoroughly charming small town in the middle of nowhere.

Passing up a chance to head 25 miles south to Gran Quivira, another unit of the Salinas National Monument, we head west on U.S. 60, the oldest and longest of the transcontinental highways, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific, Virginia and California, while avoiding most modern metro areas in favor of farms and villages.

The highway closely parallels the BNSF railroad. Despite recent, and controversial, double tracking, mile-long trains are still stacked up end to end. In Abó Canyon we jog north to another of the Salinas ruins with another 17th century church and the remains of a large and long-lived pueblo. For centuries the 800 residents made a good living for themselves as a trading hub between the sedentary pueblos to the west and the nomadic plains Indians to the west.

Like the other Salinas pueblos, Abó was abandoned in the late 17th century when the triangular conflict between Spanish colonists, puebloans and marauding Apaches and Comanches became intolerable. Location and water made living in Abó possible, and pools of fresh water still dot the arroyo through the site like pearls on a string.

Tearing at the fabric of the Salinas pueblos, however, was more than ethnic conflict. The two local Spanish authorities, district administrators and Roman Catholic Church prelates, could not agree on much of anything. And the Native Americans, virtually enslaved in the system called encomienda, were endlessly trapped in the resulting tug of war. A society coming apart at the seams hardly seems a sound basis for creating a civilization. Does this bitter, sometimes vicious and even deadly 350-year-old dispute in the Manzano Mountains have something to teach us about the woes of America today? Maybe. You be the judge.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from Abó and continued west on U.S. 60 and then northwest on a byroad to Belen, where we picked up I-25 to Albuquerque.

Completing the day, we stuffed ourselves on spinach enchiladas at the Range Cafe, another of those treasures you almost have to be a New Mexican to know about.