Mountains of mystery

By Wally Gordon

People don’t just disappear. I’ve heard that all my life. But sometimes they do. One day they were there, until they weren’t. Three times friends and neighbors in the mountains where I live have, inexplicably, implausibly, just stopped being there.

A lot of strange things transpire in these mountains—the Manzanos and Manzanitas—which stretch some 60 miles from Tijeras Canyon in the north to Abó Canyon in the south. They are quite different from the adjacent Sandias to the north, less populated, less civilized and more diverse.

Life in the mountains. Photos by Thelma Bowles.

There have been cults and militias and gangs in these mountains; not only disappearances, but murders and massacres; and plenty of mysteries without any solution.

For example, there is the Torreón cabin massacre. The original Torreón Massacre took place in 1911, when 300 Chinese were massacred in the city of Torreón during the Mexican revolution. A second Torreón massacre occurred in 2010 at a birthday party in the city of Torreón when a drug cartel lined up 17 teenagers against a wall and shot them to death.

The third Torreón massacre was near the village by that name in the Manzano Mountains. A 17-year-old youth from Albuquerque his 23-year-old girlfriend and her two toddlers, boys 3 and 4 years old, were killed in a cabin in the woods, but the area is so isolated and little used that they were not found until long afterward. The couple had been shot to death. The children were locked in the cabin and starved to death after three weeks. Four young gang members from Albuquerque were charged and two of them convicted.

Nature in these parts is nearly as dangerous as mankind. Fires periodically raze hundreds, and occasionally tens of thousands of acres. A few years ago, 20,000 acres of wilderness went up in flames. A trailer next to my house exploded in flames and burned to the ground in little more than one minute. Hot ashes from a small wildfire blew onto a friend’s house and burned it to the ground. A couple of years ago, I stood on my deck and watched a wildfire burn from Kirtland Air Force Base across a ridge and advance through dense forest toward my home—all without anyone fighting the fire due to lack of communication between military and civilian officials.

This bit of mountainous landscape is a complex one. It is partially owned by the the Air Force and Sandia National Laboratories and partly by the Cibola National Forest. A large segment technically owned by the U.S. Forest Service is actually controlled indefinitely by the Air Force as the so-called “withdrawal area” removed “temporarily” from civilian control in the 1950s.

But that is only the beginning of the complexities. There is also a small state park, a beautiful locally owned fishing pond, a wilderness area, a large Indian pueblo (Isleta), several Hispanic land grants dating back to the Spanish and Mexican eras, and a vast network of pre-Hispanic Indian ruins and settlements, only part of which has been preserved in the three impressive sites of the Salinas National Monument. Thousands of ancient rock carvings and paintings survive in caves and sheltered nooks throughout the area. Although today, these mountains are no more than a byway, once they were an important trade center focused on the Salinas Lakes, where Indians as distant as the Mayas of Central America came to trade turquoise and feathers and other precious commodities for the valuable salt deposits.

Complexity, however, doesn’t stop even there. Most areas, in New Mexico and elsewhere, draw residents from a single ethnic, economic and age group. Not these mountains.

A young homeless couple wearing their possessions in shabby backpacks walk and hitchhike between their camp in the national forest and the shops in town.

Pickup trucks laden with the tools of laborers pass an octogenarian who has been running miles upon miles everyday for the 25 years I’ve observed him, and a young mother who jogs with her 9-month-old infant in a carriage with two large, protective dogs on leashes.

Just down the road from me is a large house that cost about a third of a million dollars to build a couple of decades ago. Next to it is a trailer that a bank recently foreclosed on. Across the road is a 40-acre estate, and on its edge is a tiny, dilapidated log cabin. In the other direction, a physician built his family a half million dollar house, but a little further along is one of those tiny manufactured cabins, perhaps 200 square feet, built from a kit.

Retirees live here, and telecommuters and real commuters to the city. But also we have lots of part-time residents, like the handicapped man who parks a trailer just up the road on holiday weekends. On another nearby lot, sisters, apparently illegally, brought in three trailers in pretty bad shape. A long zoning dispute controversy ensued, and eventually all the trailers disappeared.

With the area’s eerie combination of oddballs and nonconformists, violence and beauty and scandal, perhaps the mysterious outcome of my three friends is hardly surprising.

The first of the three to go away was a musician who lived next door with his girlfriend. One morning he drove away without a word. His car and his documents were later found in the mountains 30 miles away. He never showed up, dead or alive. To this day, it is not known whether he was murdered, committed suicide or simply wanted a new and anonymous life elsewhere.

The second event followed that explosion I mentioned earlier. The owner was my next door neighbor on the other side. One day his trailer, in which he lived alone, just blew up. He struck me as a peculiar man, with much barely suppressed anger. Firemen fighting the blaze blamed a propane gas explosion, although how that came about was never clear. In any case, shortly afterward, when he was walking at the State Fair, he was run over and killed by an unknown driver. A pedestrian killed at the State Fair? Whoever heard of such a thing.

The most recent of the three strange events came to light only in the past few days. A couple of years ago a man in his early 60s bought a dilapidated old house just down the road and put an enormous effort into fixing it up. He cleared away dying trees and heavy brush, repaired the existing house, added on rooms, brightened the dark rooms with plate glass windows and built decks. He then constructed several small cabins adjacent to the house. He described to me his ambitious plan to turn the complex into a tourist vacation center and rent out the cabins. He did all the work himself, and it looked good.

This guy seemed strong and healthy. He was an experienced commercial pilot who was building an aircraft from scratch. He loved to ride his motorcycle.

He told me that he liked to take long vacations in the winter to warmer climes, especially Costa Rica. Throughout last winter and spring I noticed that his house was unoccupied, his truck gone. I assumed he had gone to Central America and for some reason had decided to stay on. He was a single man and could well have found a girlfriend down there. Something like that. He lived alone and had only recently moved to New Mexico from Alaska, where he had earned his living as a pilot.

Recently a neighbor noticed that his shed beside the road had been burglarized. Investigating further, he saw the house had also been broken into. Checking with the Moriarty airport, he was told that the guy had committed suicide in December, seven months earlier. No one around here knew. It makes no sense to me. A guy who gave every indication of enjoying life, who was fully engaged in a long-term project to build a business, who was painstakingly constructing his own plane, who was vigorous and active and involved, who never seemed depressed or ill, suddenly killing himself? Maybe, but maybe not.

In any case, it just adds one more mystery to the decades of strange happenings in these mountains of mine.