The Ghosts of New Mexico

Hello friends and family!

I am back in the true Southwest, the nexus of magic and mystery, a place where the land is too big for words and too deep for comprehension. As soon as I drove into northern New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle a few weeks ago I immediately recognized the smell of the Southwest: the citrus of juniper and pinyon, the butterscotch of Ponderosa pine, the fresh-baked warmth of sagebrush. The tagline of New Mexico is “Land of Enchantment,” which rings true. The layered shapes of buttes and mesas and mountains on the horizon lend a depth and distance to the landscape that does feel mystical. This is roadrunner-and-coyote country. This is high-altitude, thin-air country, where you can feel your heartbeat in your throat every time you climb a flight of stairs at 8,000 feet. This is volcanic country, bubbled and bulging and folded in strange furrows, where the rocks are feather-light as sponges. This is not our country – it belongs to the people who came before us and whose legacies have been left scattered all over the land.

My first stop in northern New Mexico was the Enchanted Circle, a ring of ski towns and high mountain passes that you can drive in a couple hours. I spent a few days driving from Red River to Questa to Taos, making it about three-quarters of the way around the circle. Red River is a wild-west-themed ski town, rather than the traditional Swiss Alp imitation, with false-fronted saloons and prospector cabins instead of alpine chalets. Taos is an adobe-style ski town, with boxy earth-toned villas and Spanish tilework and rustic Catholic churches decorated in vibrant sprays of flowers. It goes to show that New Mexico is a blend all its own: the strange mélange of gold panners, pioneers, cowboys, Spanish gentlemen, Mexican labourers, Indian tribes, turquoise-bedecked retirees, and refugees like me from colder climes. I think of southern New Mexico as alien country, where everyone has some sort of UFO-in-the-desert story, whereas northern New Mexico is all about ghost towns and haunted hotels. Every place seems to have a local abandoned landmark – an old mining camp or a boarded-up general store or an entire town left behind by progress – that marks the remains of civilizations and communities long gone and only half-forgotten.

A church near Taos

For instance: seven hundred years ago the Puebloan people lived in clusters across northern New Mexico. They drew water from creeks under the shade of cottonwood trees and farmed in small terraced plots, growing the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash. They lived on the land and in the land, sleeping in caves formed in the porous cliffs like birds roosting in hollow trees. Today the evidence of their existence is everywhere. Cave roofs are black with cooking fire smoke. Pottery shards abound in the dirt. Etched onto the facades of the caves are petroglyphs of birds and deer and the people that once lived there. Looking at caves high up on the cliffs, you can still see the worn footholds they used to climb the rocks. In other places, the paths that people travelled from dwelling to dwelling have worn away at the soft, white rock so much that there are narrow troughs, what I like to call Puebloan sidewalks. Some of them are waist-deep, foot-worn. You can easily imagine the thin-hipped people who travelled through these passages hundreds of years ago.

A Puebloan sidewalk

And yet, we do not even know the first thing about them. Sure, we find the corncobs and the pottery shards and the archeological remains, but do we know what songs they sung or what jokes they told? Did they laugh easily? Were they warriors or scholars or sages? The kivas, large sunken circular rooms of ceremonial importance, are still mysteries: we don’t know what ceremonies were performed there, and why, and who performed them, and at what frequency. We don’t know why these people disappeared 700 years ago, and where they went. We don’t know why they etched what pictures they did onto the walls their homes – for worship or out of boredom or to tell stories to their children. They are now ghosts of the past that haunt the present landscape of New Mexico, alongside the ghosts of copper miners and gold-rush prostitutes and small towns that disappeared when they put the Interstate in. You can feel them everywhere here. A history so thick that every step you take has already been taken a thousand times over by a thousand people.

I too am haunted by history. This is especially acute in the Southwest, because I find myself back in the same places I was exactly a year ago, back when I was raw with heartbreak and sadness after my marriage ended. It’s hard not to get lost in those memories. It didn’t help that just a few days ago I filed my divorce papers in a roadside café near Jemez Springs. It took only 10 minutes and $632 (this is too easy, I thought to myself, this should be harder). I found myself crying a bit over my burrito as I re-read the confirmation email over and over, shaken by the finality of it – it was out of my hands, which is somehow even scarier than having it all in my hands. I knew I had to do something generous to myself that day, so I hiked down to a hot spring just off the highway. Since the high plateau of New Mexico has been shaped by volcanic forces there are tons of hot springs around, particularly in the Rio Grande river valley. They’re holy places, really, places of healing and communion. Plus, it’s not often that I get a free bath, and I’ll take any opportunity to warm up after the cold nights at 9,000 feet.

The Rio Grande

The pool was warm, not hot, and was empty save for one old, naked man. We stewed in silence for a while, for which I was grateful, until he told me about the secret cave. The cave! I picked my way across the slippery stones and crouched to crawl into the cave. It was larger than I’d initially thought; I could sit up but not stand up and it was deep enough to accommodate six or seven people sitting around its edges. The water was shallow, enough to just cover my body when I laid down, and it was blessedly hot. I’d located the womb of the springs, the birthplace of its heat. I was quiet, like I was respecting the hush of a church or library. I laid down with my ears under the water so I couldn’t hear anything but the stillness of the pool and the sound of my own breathing, and I felt myself relax. I forgot about the divorce. I forgot to feel upset. I forgot to fixate on my own problems. It had been a long time since I’d let go of it all, and my body was rendered weightless both by the water and the release of long-stored tension.

Here’s what I’ve realized: I need to listen to the rules that are always posted on a signboard before you enter the ruins of a Puebloan village. Be mindful of where you are. Tread lightly. Take nothing but pictures, stay on the trail, drink lots of water, and don’t disturb the past. Acknowledge the past, respect the past, but don’t slip anything into your pockets – treat it as a federal offense to pick up a piece of the past and carry it home with you, because it will only weigh you down.

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