Autumn in New Mexico
I have just finished reading an entertaining novel by Joseph Kanon – Los Alamos – which reminded me of my time in that part of the USA several years ago – certainly PT (pre-Trump) – but George Dubbya, president at that time, was perhaps just as bad. My journey had started more or less in Hyderabad just after heavy rains had caused part of the highway flyover to collapse, killing two people, injuring many more … and delaying the car a colleague had sent to meet me at the airport.
A few kilometres later, a few airports later and half a world away, over mountain ranges dotted with aspens and other trees turning gold for autumn, was Albuquerque. The Sunport Airport (http://www.abqsunport.com), a few kilometres south west of the city was, in the words of Jonathan Kellerman in his 2003 novel The Murder Book “low-profile and blessedly quiet, done up in earth tones, turquoise and mock adobe, and riddled with talismanic hints of a decimated Indian culture.” More about the Native American population later … but Kellerman’s words sum up my impressions of the airport nicely, except that it was anything but “blessedly quiet”.
I had not been able to reserve a hire care before I arrived and found that my arrival happened to coincide with the region’s biggest festival of the year – so there were crowds of people, no cars to be had, and noise and chaos everywhere. Avis finally managed to kit me out with a sporty little Jeep SUV that I stalled four times trying to drive out of the parking lot, across serrated iron teeth barriers to stop drivers from coming IN the OUT gate.
- Hi Chris! Come in. I’m out the back
So read the little yellow Post-it note on the front door of Yvonne’s lovely little Bed and Breakfast. Around the corner of the house I trotted and found a cheerful and very naked Yvonne in the swimming pool. Oh yes – the Mi Casa B and B (http://www.micasabb.com) is a naturist place and apparently the only one in New Mexico. She was an excellent hostess, providing huge breakfasts, local travel hints and taking me to a local Italian restaurant for dinner.
Adobe Gift Shops
Albuquerque’s Old Town is quite pretty and dates from the early 1700s. It has been renovated and prettified and touristed, with modern adobe facades added to Victorian-era buildings. Most of the old houses are now gift shops, art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, hot air balloon memorabilia (see later), gift shops, cafes, day spas, gifts shops and gift shops … all patronised by fat people (see later) off organised coach tours.
Despite the artificiality of it all, the area is quite picturesque and when I was there the local church’s dance troupe performed a very energetic “traditional” dance in the street in front of the church (see large pic Left). I looked in at the Pueblo Culture Centre and was initially disappointed but then found the small museum downstairs, which was excellent. Apart from that, however, it was just a huge commercial space with lots of artists or vendors flogging their pots, paintings, turquoise bracelets etc … but the museum made it worthwhile.
Albuquerque is in the middle of a vast flat plain surrounded by tall mountains. In my few days in New Mexico I drove over 400 km to Los Alamos, the Bandelier National Monument and Santa Fe … but did not reach the small towns of Cuba, Las Vegas (another one), Bernalillo, Aztec, Gallop or Grants: what lovely names!
For many miles drivers could cruise at 70 mph along the Interstate 25 or the I40, but once onto Highway 4, past San Ysidro, the road shrinks and winds its way – at 40 mph – besides creeks, through autumn forests and over rocky ranges, “…past old adobes settled in cottonwood groves, shady and cool, and when the outskirts of the town were behind us, the landscape opened up again, with miles of country stretching off to the Jemez Mountains on the left.” (Los Alamos Joseph Kanon 1997)
En route I saw the Pueblo of Jemez (pronounced HAY mess) where the Walatowa Visitor Centre offered lovely authentic Jemez rugs – woven in India. Some of the houses did feature authentic touches – such as bunches of red chillies hanging outside. Signs forbidding photography in the pueblos are dotted here and there, and at one point when I was in the middle of nowhere and on a public highway I stopped to take a photo, only to have a car marked “Tribal Elder” suddenly materialise beside me.
- No photo! Can you not read?
- Sorry – Yo no hablo Jemez!
The Jemez people have been in the area since 1541 and of course suffered at the hands of the Spanish and the missionaries. In the Bandelier National Monument (130 square kilometres of forests, preserved village ruins and hiking paths) I visited a couple of historic sites, one a circular village that had once featured two- and three- storey houses, and the other a cliff-side village where the Indians carved out holes in the cliff face and also adding adobe structures on the face of the cliff. Long ladders were used to gain access – and to provide security, I guess – and at one of the caves I met a remarkably sprightly ninety-two year-old palaeontologist making his way gingerly up one of the ladders to explore the caves beyond.
Although my brain is a lot younger than 92 years, it is a lot fuzzier.
I had seen road signs for Los Alamos and my fuddled thinking had dredged up the old battle cry:
- Remember the Alamo!
… but I thought it was “Remember Los Alamos”. Silly really. One (the Alamo) is in Texas and was where Jim Bowie (he of the famous knife design), Davy Crockett and others were wiped out by marauding Mexicans in 1836. Perhaps Trump’s proposed wall could have saved them … The other (Los Alamos) is in New Mexico and was where I was heading. No beleaguered mission station here, but as I passed Bikini Atoll Road and Oppenheimer Drive the penny dropped.
So did the bomb.
Los Alamos was where the USA developed the atomic bombs that were subsequently dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The novel Los Alamos is a work of “faction” cleverly blending historical facts and real people – such as Oppie himself – with fictional events and is set in the weeks leading up to the final testing of the bombs. Nuclear research continues in the area – and there are not too many signs of Texans fighting Mexicans … or the local Native Americans.
In the 1980s legislation was passed recognising the sovereignty of Native American tribal lands. This has led to – amongst other things – the creation of hundreds of casinos across the nation generating almost thirty billion dollars revenue every year. One of them, the Sandia Resort and Casino near Yvonne’s house, lost $35.00 when I had a flutter on the poker machines, and I imagine the casino’s revenues are still reeling.
My ill-gotten gains soon disappeared in the restaurant where I had dinner. The seafood buffet is very popular with tables laden with just about everything that ever swam, especially crab legs – of which an astounding 1,200 kg are eaten every night. While that figure seems almost impossible, the sight of grossly obese people staggering from table to table with plates filled to overflowing with crab somehow suggests that it is an accurate figure. These people had oversized napkins tucked into the folds of their necks, and clawed their way through the food, scattering bits on the tables, the floors, themselves and their neighbours. Revolting. As were the legions of people puffing as they pulled poker machine handles and stuffed their mouths with even more food.
On a happier note, however, was the festival I mentioned earlier. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (http://www.balloonfiesta.com) is the city’s busiest week of the year with hundreds of hot air balloons and their crews landing (literally) in town. On the first Saturday after my arrival in Mi Casa the fiesta officially opened with a spectacular mass ascent at dawn.
I drove down a block or two from Yvonne’s house and joined the scores of spectators – some well set-up on armchairs on the back of flat-tray pick-up trucks, with flasks of hot coffee, telephoto lenses on their camera and rugs over their knees.
This year’s fiesta will take place once again from 7 – 15 October – so book your car and accommodation in advance!
My all-too-short time in Albuquerque flashed away. I had telephoned Amtrak to check that my train (the Southwest Chief from Chicago, via Albuquerque and on to Los Angeles) was on time but was told that it was running about an hour late. So I leisurely packed, returned car to Avis and looked forward to a quiet G&T before the train arrived … only to be thwarted by the wonders of trans-continental US trains. The beast had somehow caught up its lost time, and arrived – and departed with me on board – just a few minutes after I got to the railway station.
Yes – I will remember Los Alamos – and will have to leave the Alamo for another visit.
- Journey: October 2007
- Text © Christopher Hall 2017. All images from Internet
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