Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Magical Trip Through an Enchanted Land (Finale)

J and I headed north up the mountain from Battleship Rock on NM Road 4 full of anticipation. Our goals of enjoying New Mexico’s fall mountain foliage and finding J’s favorite picnic and hiking area had been so fulfilling I wondered if our expectations of Valles Caldera would live up to my memories. J had never seen the place, and I hoped I hadn’t over-billed it.

Again, we traveled through familiar territory, one that held so many family memories. Betty still rode with us. We entered Dark Canyon, a place where the ground on the right side of the road fell away sharply, giving only glimpses of the Jemez River rushing below. We passed an area where what we called “hippies” at the time bathed nude in the cold waters and then climbed the hill on the other side to find exposed spots to sunbathe. My sons always made sure the binoculars were at hand as we approached the place, but we never stopped, despite their protests. 

This was the road where one August day we came barreling down the mountainside to find the left side completely washed out, eaten away by the monsoon rains. August was when we got most of the annual rainfall at the cabin. During that month, I often had to find a place to park my car in the lowlands. Betty and the boys would drive down to meet me in the Blazer. We had a winch on the front bumper and figured we could go anywhere in that plucky vehicle. 

As J and I emerged from the canyon, we encountered larger numbers of aspens shimmering among the dark evergreens in the light breeze. They are always a delight, whether they quake with the gold of autumn or the two-toned green of spring and summer. I say two-toned because their leaves are dark on top and pale on the bottom. 

Then we had our first glimpse of the massive grassland of the caldera. As we rounded the curve, the depth and breadth of the place was revealed, and I knew I hadn’t made a mistake. There was no way to oversell this place. As I’ve said, it is the most beautiful spot in the world…at least to me. The Grand Canyon and a hundred other places might be more dramatic, but for pastoral peace and serenity, the Valle Grande (the front portion of the caldera) cannot be surpassed. 

When my family and I had passed by the place on the way to and from the cabin, Valle Grande (as it was known then) had been a privately owned ranch, so we were unable to visit the place. Now it is a National Preserve open to the public. Finally, after all these years, I was able to nose my automobile down the long, winding (and somewhat rough) road onto the property to a modest visitor’s center in the middle of Valle Grande. And “modest” is an appropriate description since it leaves little imprint on the place.  

The Valle Grande Portion of the Valles Caldera National Preserve
Source: Wickipedia
The Valles Caldera (or Kettle) is a volcano fourteen miles in diameter (175 square miles) that exploded some 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago and then collapsed in upon itself. The eruption spewed up 150 cubic miles of rock and blasted lava and ash as far away as Iowa. It was estimated to be 2,000 times as powerful as the Mt. St. Helens explosion. The cabin my family and I owned was on the back side of the caldera, meaning over a mountain range or two. Often, as we walked the forest, we’d come upon huge boulders that had no way of reaching there…unless they had come from the sky. 

The Bear Paw as seen from above
Source: Wickipedia
The caldera is made up of a vast expanse of grasslands free of any trees and mountain country covered by Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The grasslands had been badly overgrazed in the past, but seem to be recovering well. The timber had been heavily harvested for some time, but many of the old growth trees still remain. As you approach the visitor’s center, an odd knoll appears in front of you...a 250-foot, pine covered bump sitting in the middle of this vast meadow of yellow autumn grass. This is Cerro La Jara, a Rhyolite dome created by the pressure of magma underneath area. It is one of several such domes that, when viewed from the air, create a pattern resembling a bear’s paw. The area remains geologically active, as demonstrated by these building domes and numerous hot springs in the vicinity.

Archaeologists tell us the Jemez Valley has been occupied for 4,500 years. Camps have been found where natives of the area came to work the obsidian stones thrown up by the volcano. The local Santa Clara Pueblo Indians still come to collect these stones and consider the area…particularly nearby Redondo Peak and the adjoining Redondito…to be sacred. 

Recorded history begins when a sheepherder named Baca in the vicinity of present day Las Vegas, NM complained to authorities that his large Royal Land Grant was being encroached on by others. The dispute dragged on until after the old man’s death. In 1876 his five sons were given 500,000 acres in five different, non-contiguous tracts in exchange for permitting others to graze their original land grant. Each son took one tract. The 100,000 acres encompassing the Caldera was designated as Baca 1. The son who took this tract grazed sheep here until he traded the property to another sheepherder named Otero. In the 1930s, Otero traded the tract to Frank Bond, an Espanola sheepherder, who grazed as many as 30,000 sheep on the place. 

In 1963, the Bonds sold the property to Pat Dunigan, a rancher from Abilene, Texas. While Dunigan ran cattle on the caldera, his primary interest was in developing an electrical power plant using the geothermal activity beneath the surface. Several wells were sunk, but he could never develop sufficient power to support such a plant. He began to look for a buyer for the property, and considered the federal government as the most likely purchaser. The feds finally bought 95,000 acres (5,000 acres were deeded over to the Santa Clara Pueblo), paying over $100,000,000. In July of 2000, the Valles Caldera Preservation Act created the Valles Caldera National Preserve and opened it to the public on a limited basis. 

Cerro la Jara, a Rhyolite Lava Dome
Source: Wickipedia
For the princely sum of $5.00 each, J and I boarded a van with nine other sightseers and enjoyed a forty-five minute tour of a small portion of the property. (These guided tours are conduced only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The ride-along was worth every minute and every penny. We saw the homes of all four of the owners, one of which was being used as headquarters for elk hunts going on at the time. Permits are extremely limited and by lottery only. That particular house is currently being used as the home of the sheriff on the TV series Longmire. Scenes from the program regularly feature vistas from the caldera. Several movies and TV programs have been made in part or in whole in the caldera. 

In July of 2011, the Las Conchas Fire, which ultimately consumed 158,000 acres, burned 30,000 acres of the Valles Caldera. Rows and rows of trees to the west of the Valle Grande stand black and naked as a result of the wild fire. Some of the grasslands were burned, as well, but recovered quickly. That same fire consumed about 60% of the Bandelier National Monument in nearby Frijoles Canyon. 

I do not have the words to adequately describe the beauty and serenity of this magical place, so I encourage readers who live or travel in this part of the country to experience the place for themselves. On the way to the caldera, J and I talked more or less incessantly. On the return to Albuquerque, the cabin of the car was silent more often than not. I attribute that to our awe of the Valles Caldera. 

Next week: Nostalgia

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Magical Trip Through an Enchanted Land (Continued)

Last week, I took you through the first leg of the journey my friend J and I took three weeks ago. On the second segment of the trip, we entered the Jemez Valley, a place that has seen human habitatation for something like 4,500 years. You understand, of course, I cannot vouch for that personally.
J's Photo of some of the fall colors
We departed San Ysidro on NM Road 4 and almost immediately encountered what was the first of our stated goals: New Mexico’s vivid fall colors. Mother Nature displayed some of her finest raiment for us, especially along the Jemez River bottom off to our left. The gradual (but continuous) climb to Jemez Springs was a pleasant drive on a gently curving paved road. We knew we were getting close when we passed Jemez Pueblo, from which the town of Jemez Springs takes its name. This Towa reservation (Traditional Name: Walatowa) is a closed Pueblo. Outsiders are allowed on the reservation only during feast days, which are announced with a minimum of fanfare. The tribal authorities welcome visitors to the Walatowa Center, but claim they do not have facilities to accommodate tourists on the Pueblo, itself. The tribe is known for its excellent distance runners. One of the Jemez Runners won the race up Pike’s Peak several years in a row. 

My family and I once attended the wedding reception for the niece of a woman I worked with in one of the Pueblo homes (by invitation). My sons were small at the time, and I recalled them being excited at the prospect of seeing some “real Indians.” While we ate delicious home-cooked native dishes, my elder son, Clai, went outside to play with some other kids. Later, we looked out the window and saw one blond head amid a host of dark-haired children. As we were leaving for home later, Clai complained he hadn’t seen the Indians we promised. When we told him he’d been playing with them all afternoon, he wrinkled his nose. “No, I mean real Indians with feathers and flowers in their hair.” 

And speaking of hair color. One young man at the reception took a fancy to my late wife, Betty…or probably Betty’s bright, coppery hair. As we pulled out of the driveway he walked beside the car holding onto her hand and staring at her wistfully.

J and I pulled into Jemez Springs, a peaceful village spread out along the Jemez River. It is a place famous for hot mineral springs. The Catholic Church has placed its imprint on the town with the presence of the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete and the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. Among its other functions, the Congregation is said to receive and counsel errant priests. The Kiowa author, M. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn, maintained a retirement home here until 2011.

Soda Dam on Jemez River

We drove through the town to Soda Dam, where a centuries-long buildup of minerals has virtually blocked the Jemez River and formed a waterfall. I used to stop there with my wife and sons so the boys could explore the area and watch venturesome swimmers slide down the waterfall into the pool below. Then we would soak our feet in the hot sulphur spring across the road before either leaving for home or proceeding into the mountains to our cabin.

J's Photo of the prow of Battleship Rock
Farther to the north of the dam, we rounded a curve and caught a glimpse the impressive Battleship Rock. It truly does look like the prow of a mighty sea vessel…probably of a warlike nature. The picnic and hiking area J wanted to visit was at the base of the Monument. Unfortunately, I parked in the wrong place and we had to walk down a pretty steep trail to reach the area. Readers of this blog will recall I had a back operation to repair a herniated disk and to relieve my severe stenosis of the lower lumbar region about two months earlier, so I was still walking with a cane. My doctors and physical therapist would have been horrified when I tackled some steep steps made of stacked railroad ties (with no handrail), but I maneuvered them without mishap. When we reached the bottom, the area was as enchanting as J had said, but the thing that caught my immediate attention was the paved road snaking through the park.

J's Photo of her favorite picnic and hiking area at the foot of
Battleship Rock
This was our second goal, and it was as worthy and rewarding at the first. Peaceful trails meandered up either side of the river rushing down the mountainside. We walked (J much farther and faster than I) along the trails and among picnic tables and covered pavilions with fire places. We had the park virtually to ourselves and enjoyed the gently swaying trees, a few squirrels and birds. We watched a fascinating play of reflected sunlight dapple a black basalt rock at the riverside. My contentment with the place was marred only by the thought of mounting those rough steps on the way back. In the end, we elected to follow the road which met the highway a quarter of a mile or so to the south of our parked car. I was tired and leaning on the cane more than usual by the time we got there. But it was worth the effort.

Then we headed north to accomplish our last goal.

Next week: Valles Caldera

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Magical Trip Through an Enchanted Land

Two weeks ago, my friend and critique partner, Joycelyn (hereinafter known as “J”), and I drove out of Albuquerque on Interstate-25 for a trip through New Mexico’s Jemez Mountain country. We had three goals: to take in the beautiful, vivid autumn mountain foliage, to spend some time at a picturesque picnic and hiking area J knew north of Jemez Springs, and to visit the most beautiful place on earth—the magnificent Valles Caldera south of Los Alamos.

Sandia Pueblo Flag
Less than fifteen miles north of home, we passed Sandia Pueblo, a fourteenth century Tiwa Indian village, which still bustles today. Its traditional name, Na-Fiat, meant the “Place Where the Wind Blows,” although today, the natives referred to it as the “Green Reed Place.” This was a reference to the two hundred-mile grove of cottonwoods lining the banks of the Rio Grande known as the Bosque, which ran through part of the reservation. 

A few miles up the road, we forsook I-25 to drive through Bernalillo, a town formally established by Don Diego de Vargas in 1695, although it was a center of Spanish and Pueblo trading long before this date. This was the village from whence the intrepid souls set out to found Villa de Alburquerque (see my post of August 9, 2012 to learn how we lost the second “R” in Albuquerque). 

Upon departing the town via US Route 550, we crossed onto the Santa Ana Pueblo (traditional name: Tamaya). There were the three distinct villages on the reservation, and most families, I am given to understand, maintained two homes…the second of which was in the Old Pueblo some eight miles northwest of Bernalillo, a place mainly used for traditional ceremonies and rituals. 

From there, I turned my 2002 Buick LeSabre up 550 toward our destination. I should explain at this point that my late wife, Betty, and I had a cabin in Los Pinos Canyon deep in the Jemez Mountains, so I had driven this route weekly (except in the winter months) for a number of years. During the summers, Betty and my sons, Clai and Grant, often remained at the isolated cabin weeks at a time while I drove back and forth on weekends. There was (and is) a Blake’s Lottaburger just outside of Bernalillo where we stopped both coming and going because they had the best hamburgers in the state. I must admit, I felt my Betty riding along with J and me on this Sunday excursion. I remembered so many things we had done and places we had explored when my two sons were small and there was no hint of illness or death on the horizon.  

Zia Flag with famous Sun Symbol
A few miles up the highway, we passed Zia Pueblo (Tsi’ ja in Keres), often known as the invisible pueblo. The village actually sat in plain view on a knoll to the right of the road, but it blended in so well with the environment it was difficult to see. But once you spotted the church, the rest of the village began to take shape. Its inhabitants are known for their fine jewelry making. The village may be hard to spot, but its Sun symbol is everywhere you look in the State of New Mexico. We took this traditional Zia symbol as its official symbol. It is everywhere from our state flag to our road signs. 

A church in San Ysidro
We passed a small white mountain which was mined for high-grade gypsum for a number of years. The ore was hauled to an Albuquerque wallboard manufacturer. There the road took a long curve to the north, and crossed a bridge over a dry Rio Salado before entering San Ysidro. This old Spanish village was established in 1699 as a farming community by one Juan Trujillo, who named it after Saint Isadore the Farmer…or San Ysidro. The village sat at the southern end of the Jemez Valley at the junction of US Route 550 and New Mexico Road 4. The latter was the gateway to the Jemez Mountains and our stated goals. 

That’s a lot of history, folks, and we haven’t yet achieved any of our three stated goals. 

Next Week: Entering the Jemez Valley

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bisti Business Cover Art

Well, folks, the second BJ Vinson mystery is out. Above is the cover art for the book. I kinda like it. Hope you do, too. It's available as an ebook or in paperback form through Amazon and Barnes and Noble (online).

Have as much fun reading it as I had writing it!

Sorry, I had to put in a plug for my work.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

More Excepts from the Next BJ Vinson Novel

A BJ Vinson Mystery Novel

Chapter 1 (Third Installment)

I returned to the visual meditation of the landscape outside my window. As nature’s glow dimmed, man-made lights came alive: amber lampposts, white fluorescents, flamboyant neons, yellow vehicle headlights reflecting off wet pavement, and far in the distance a tiny spot moving slowly across the sky—one of the aerial trams hauling patrons up Sandia Peak’s rugged western escarpment to the restaurant atop the mountain.

By leaning forward, I caught the faint, rosy underbelly of a western cloudbank, the lingering legacy of a dead sunset. Was that what had drawn Orando and Dana to the Land of Enchantment? Spectacular scenery and surreal sunsets? Or was it our rich heritage of Indian and Hispanic art? The two were history majors, and Albuquerque had a long history. It was approaching its 300th birthday, while Santa Fe and many of the nearby Indian Pueblos had longer lifelines.

Beyond my line of sight, the city’s original settlement lay to the west where one- and two-storied adobe shops—some ancient and some merely pretending to be—hearken back to their Spanish colonial roots. Now known as Old Town, it was founded in 1706 by Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez as the Villa del Alburquerque—some say Ranchos del Albuquerque. In either case, the Spanish colonial outpost was named in honor of New Spain’s Viceroy in Mexico City. The second “R” of the Duke’s name disappeared in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to New Town, located two miles east of Hispanic Old Town, a signal the Anglos had successfully wrested the heart—if not the soul—of the community from its founders.

It seemed as though a similar battle was being waged between Dana Norville and Anthony Alfano for the heart and soul of Orlando. Papa Alfano had given me cell phone and pager numbers for his son. He kept his pup on a short leash—or tried to. Not only that, but the old man had checked Norville out at the first signs of a budding friendship between the two. I’d bet Alfano was accustomed to throwing his weight around, railroading or buying whomever he wanted, including his son. My instinctive dislike of the homophobic bully made me wonder how far he would go to “turn his son around.” Maybe Orlando went on the run to get out from under the thumb of his tyrannical patriarch.

Spinning back to the desk, I went on the hunt for information over the Internet. According to Dun and Bradstreet, the Alfano Vineyards’ net worth was somewhere around $100,000,000. Although California is notoriously anal retentive about releasing it’s criminal records, the Superior Court websites I searched revealed nothing on Alfano, but that only meant he wasn’t a known murderer, rapist, or kidnapper. He would have bought his way out of anything less than that. Orlando, on the other hand, had a sheet in Los Angeles. From the limited information available, it looked to be nothing more than a couple of disturbing the peace charges. Norville’s record was about the same, leading me to believe they had been activists in their early university days. Maybe they met while agitating for some cause or the other. Gay rights? Voting rights?

There was no answer at their room in the uptown Sheraton. Well, no surprise there. The call to the kid’s cell phone went to a message center. I left a callback on the pager without much hope. Things are never that easy.

I had finished dictating instructions for the Alfano contract and was reaching to snap off my old-fashioned, green-shaded banker’s lamp when the telephone rang again. Maybe I’d caught a break. I hadn’t, but the sound of Paul Barton’s baritone sent my energy level soaring.

“You still at work?” he asked.

“Just finishing up. How about meeting somewhere for a late dinner.”

A deep chuckle. “Meet me at 5228 Post Oak Drive NW.”

“You’re home?”

“Yep. And I have a surprise for you.”

“Let me guess—green chili stew and warm, buttered tortillas. Uh…what’s for dessert?”

“I’ll leave that to your imagination.” He hung up in the middle of a wicked laugh.

This is the end of Chapter 1. For the Prologue and previous installments of Chapter 1, please see the prior three posts.

Please feel free to comment. I encourage feedback from readers. Thanks.

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