Welcome to the eighth week on the road with Bajada Bill and Cactus Kate. We have traveled more than 6,000 miles through the Southwest with Beatrix our 2022 Toyota Highlander, which pulls Marion, our 1979 Canadian-made Trillium.
We had returned to Abiquiu and the welcome camp at the Army Corp. of Engineers Reservoir at Abiquiu Lake. The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak wildfire was still burning national forests and had torched more than 300,000 acres, about 470 square miles, a New Mexico state record. Fortunately the west-prevailing winds kept the smoke away from camp.
Meanwhile on Tuesday May 24, while I sat at the Bode’s General Store counter for 5.5 hours writing last week’s story, I heard people come in saying there was snow on the Sangre de Cristo mountain range nearby. Good news for the welcome moisture and a small help to the fire crew.
At camp that evening we noticed virga—rain falling without hitting the ground— the ground sure could use the rain.
We parked one evening at the Rio Chama Recreation Area, which provided developed picnic sites and pit toilets along the Chama River. Folks came here for fishing and surfing. The underground velocity of water released from the Abiquiu Lake Dam created such a strong current that folks could surf on a standing wave. We watched a kayaker paddling hard while frozen in one place. Canadian geese flew out in skeins against the coloring sky. Some remained standing in the reeds along the water’s edge while dozens of cliff swallows flew acrobatics all around them, swooping and diving through evening clouds of insects.
The Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management planted cottonwood trees along the banks of the river to help prevent erosion. Man-made islands of grass farther downstream were built for Great Blue Herons to fish and Canadian geese to nibble.
The next morning we drove down through narrow red rock cliffs along the Rio Chama to the Abiquiu Elementary School. We had hoped to gain permission to walk again among the hoodoos of Plaza Blanca, one of resident artist Georgia O’Keefe’s favorite places. We had visited the area a week before the national forests closed these sites.
We knew we were in the flow when approaching the school office, a big man, the principal of the school, came walking out the door. Friendly and welcoming, we met Cliff Thompson, who told us he is married to a Navajo woman. While their permanent home is west in the Navajo Nation, during the school year Cliff stays on Shirley MacLaine‘s 7,450-acre ranch at Plaza Blanca. As of this writing, the ranch is for sale. Meanwhile, Cliff told us we cannot hike in any of the Plaza Blanca Country because it was in the national forest and all NFS land for the local three regions were closed to the public due to fire threat. He said the school currently has 65 students enrolled.
Since this was a day for errands, we continued our drive south to the working city of Española. Sonic Drive-in has surprisingly good chili cheeseburgers and their fresh lemonade is out of this world for quenching thirsts. While searching out a public bathroom, a red haired freckled young man who worked at Sonic saw our car and announced, “I once worked at remodeling a Walmart in Washington. Washington is the most beautiful state in the world!”
The Española Walmart carries organic produce, great prices on paper goods, and quality, must-have kitchenware designed by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman Cookbook fame. While waiting to turn left into the Walmart parking lot, we saw a man with very short legs asking for handouts. We gave him a fistful of dollars and he told Bill it was his 32nd birthday. We had seen him on prior visits along the main drag on Riverside Road. We think the community takes care of him. He looked healthy and clean. Bill looked in the side mirror to see a hand reach out the car window behind us and gift the fellow a couple of eggs.
Español is a town of regular folks. We liked the people we met. Stopping for gas at Alon, a gas station run by the Ohkay-Owingeh Nation, I went inside to buy a couple of cans of Peace Tea. It’s great for keeping us hydrated. I talked to the lady inside running the cash register. She had images of butterflies tattooed on her arms. She told me the large butterfly design on her left arm was for her daughter who passed away. On her other arm were butterflies for the grandchildren that were left behind. Another was to remember the husband of another daughter who passed on. Heartfelt talking to her. I shared with her that when I see Swallowtail butterflies, I think of my mom’s spirit saying hello.
Later that afternoon, we sat outside at the El Pueblo de Abiquiu Library & Cultural Center to access its Wifi. It is 100 percent community supported, since the hamlet of Abiquiu has no library budget. I texted the Sno-Isle Library Foundation, asking if there was a way our library could adopt this heart of Abiquiu. Their reply was that individuals could make donations on Abiquiu’ Library’s behalf. I will check on how to make that happen. We made donations to a library jar to help pay for our library use.
We sat watching Abiquiu’s characters drive by in pickups and cars, racing through the dusty lot up to their neighborhood. Here, across from these historic adobe buildings, and the Santo Tomas El Apostol Catholic Church, built in the mid 1700’s, there is a felt wisdom here that precedes modern science and honors earth law to maintain hozho, a Navajo word for balance. One driver made three signs of the cross as he drove by. Another pickup packed with guys in the cabin and filling the truck bed, rattled by, a black and white dog chasing along side. What a great scene.
We talked with a young man who walked up holding a rose. He is Andrew Archuleta, 28, father of a three-year-old son by the same name. We had seen Andrew a week earlier, returning a rake he borrowed from Sharon Garcia the librarian. Andrew had done some raking to earn money for his son’s birthday party. I asked him how the party went.
Surprised that we would remember him, Andrew got to talking. He showed us a silver cross he wore on a chain. It was engraved with the words ‘Forever in my heart and always on my mind.” The cross contains ashes of Andrew’s son Isaiah, who died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
An excellent calligrapher, Andrew lives with his parents and is looking for ways to earn money. He offered to wash our car so that he could afford some diapers for his son. We handed him a $20 bill and he hugged us, saying he could buy a lot of diapers with that money. Without a car, Andrew depends on rides from locals. Bill gave him a ride up to his family’s home that afternoon. We were glad to give him a hand up.
Sharon Garcia of the Abiquiu Library told us later that it’s hard for young people to try and make it here and if they can get past 18, and make something of their lives that is saying something. She’s been trying to help Andrew as much as she can by having him do odd jobs around the library.
While working on another story at the library, Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, we got talking to a man in a cowboy hat who pulled up in his white pickup truck. Another synchronicity: he is Francisco Uviña-Contreras, research lecturer, and director of Historic Preservation and Regionalism with the University of New Mexico. He was here prepping for next week regarding recuperating a root cellar nearby that will “showcase earth building technology.”
This day was a gift of simple connection, heartfelt conversation, and listening to different people we met.
A couple of nights near sunset we drove along nearby County Road 194 to the hamlet of Cañones. The road took us past stone mesas resembling Indian headdresses with our beloved Pedernal mesa as a touchstone rising above the valley.
There’s a lot of firsts in discovery of this place—the mesas, the piñon and juniper-dotted landscapes, the authentic people. As Bill said, leaving here is the more bittersweet, now that we let this country in. The land has our heart and soul. The one down side was the dozens of no-see-um bites I received during the half hour we sat looking at the lake our last afternoon in Abiquiu.They still itch a week later despite the copious amounts of Benadryl I applied on them.
Our hearts ached as we left Abiquiu, driving north on Highway 84 heading to Pagosa Springs. Just past the Colorado border, we marveled at how, all of sudden, the landscape was green. Streaming John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High album, we felt the sincerity of his love for this mountain country.
We were heading to see our friend Gordy Blair in Mancos. We first met him in 2016 while he worked as a facilities manager for the Olympic National Park Service. He is like a brother to us and we find we have a lot in common. He said John Denver’s music inspired him to move from Michigan to Colorado during the 1970’s. He lived in Boulder a long while and moved to his 8-acre property in Mancos four years ago.
Before we arrived at Mancos we stopped in Pagosa Springs. Feeling the effects of hanger—hunger+anger—we began complaining about the tourists and the traffic. Then we stopped outside of town on Navajo Trail at Two Chicks and a Hippie Café. Our waiter, Morgan, brought us back down to earth. A bit younger than us, he said he arrived here to study Buddhism. He talked about being an older guy who enjoyed being a server and the welcoming community of Pagosa Springs.
Our meals arrived within five minutes. The staff here is used to a quick turnaround. We enjoyed our eggs, veggies, potatoes and sausage made of healthy fresh food. Blood sugar equalized, we drove a little ways to Healing Waters and Spa. A local said I’d be hard-pressed to do laps in the 96° water. He was right. I could only manage half a dozen times across the pool. The slippery soothing water smelling of sulphur felt good on my skin, though.
At Gordy’s property, which is at the edge of Summit Reservoir, with a view of Sleeping Ute Mountain, we marveled at the blue-eyed grass, mule ear daisies, and wild phlox growing on his property. In the four years since he bought the land, he’s done a lot of work to upgrade the buildings–a home and a cabin–installing larger windows, removing walls and adding colorful paint, adding healthy topsoil to the clay dirt outside. I admired the way he painted cabinets with red and orange, turquoise window sills, and Southwestern-style framing around the windows. At his bird feeder outside we saw a Yellow-headed blackbird and Lewis Woodpecker feeding on black sunflower seeds.
On Saturday May 28 we drove with Gordy to Delores and visited the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum. Here we learned about ancestral Puebloan, Native American, and historic cultures in the Four Corners region. This stop gave us insight for our following visit to Mesa Verde National Park and its cliff dwelling homes that were built more than 800 years ago. We drove along a visitor’s road, being able to view the dwellings from a distance.
The following morning we met Gordy’s friend Lori Yenser in Durango at the excellent Bread Bakery and Cafe. Its logo is ‘Bread not Bombs.’ Lori seemed so familiar and we enjoyed our visit and look forward to seeing her when she travels to our part of the country in September.
Although Gordy was born in Michigan, his great-grandfather Thomas Blair has roots in nearby Silverton and Pagosa Springs. He arrived in Silverton in 1879 to be part of the town’s mining operations. He built the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, the Rosebud Saloon in Pagosa Springs, and once had a general store in a building now named Fetch’s Mining & Mercantile Company. There we talked with Gordy’s friend Scott Fetchenhier, a San Juan County commissioner for the area. It’s a half-time job, as he enjoys running the store the other half of the time. The 9,310 elevation town of Silverton is a lively place and home of the popular Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad steam train. While we walked through town, we enjoyed hearing its cheery train whistle. By that afternoon the clouds had come in and we drove back to Mancos through thunder, lightning, and sleet. Quite exciting.
Memorial Day, I went for a wonderful massage to get my arthritic kinks worked out. Gordy had found an excellent massage practitioner with more than 20 years’ experience in a host of modalities. I left her studio feeling heavenly.
Our visit with Gordy came too soon to a close. We said goodbye on the morning he brought out his 1960’s era Morris Miner car for us to see. She is impeccably detailed. Her simple engine had us marveling at the days before computer-run cars like our Beatrix.
That’s all for now. I’m writing this tale from the Wilkinson Public Library in the excellent progressive and scenic town of Telluride. Adios from Cactus Kate and Bajada Bill.