Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Big Money

I've returned with Layne from driving (well, she insisted on that; I navigate, gripe, and fume) about 5200 miles the past three-plus weeks. It was a loop, as I gave a paper on the Minnesota-based writer J.F. Powers to the American Conference of Irish Studies at their meeting sponsored by the University of New Mexico in Santa Fe. So, the day after classes concluded and a non-teaching (cannot call it a two-month sabbatical as my rest means only no classes, not no meetings or "other duties as required") stint commenced, we were at ABQ Sunport. The rental car secured, off to SF, uneventfully on the interstate. Both cities sprawled much more than we recalled from our visit twenty years ago, with our then tiny firstborn in a stroller. I had taken him from the same hotel where the conference convened, to ferry him around the State Capitol building a few blocks away, one of the few without a dome.

Before I deliver a presentation or teach my first class meeting of a term, I am still nervous. Perhaps a good sign as I take it seriously, or else an indication of my anxiety and my introversion, as well. But the paper went well, laughs were procured, and even if I seem to get in any paper I deliver few if any questions compared to my colleagues, I did get some follow-up conversations about Powers' oddity.

His parents and sister had moved circa the 40s to Albuquerque of all places, although I could not find out details in my research of his life and the letters, about which I have written on this blog often. I would find myself soon following in a few of his footsteps, as Layne and I began our own roadtrip. After the conference ended, we had some time with our dear friend Bill, who came out by train (as the Powerses must have) from his adapted home of Kansas City, where Royals fever soared as that team finally made it back into the playoffs, just missing the World Series win to a certain team from the other side of California that cannot be mentioned. One more tie in was that the team that can had its AAA farm team in ABQ since time immemorial, but now, the Isotopes will lose out to OK City.

The Isotopes win my contest for a great moniker, and I wonder how much the atomic and then the Intel age accounted for the endless beige subdivisions that clogged the streets of the state capital. The endemic presence of the artsy and well-heeled around so much of the northern reaches of the Land of Enchantment does account for air of privilege plus pinon in the mile-high-plus atmosphere. Staff resent you; despite its tidy setting and its period furnishings, the mood conveyed by staff (and later a supervisor) at the Santa Fe hotel we stayed at was the gloomiest I ever encountered. My bill increased with many add-on "resort fees" and high city taxes exacted, and with no snacks provided us at the conference or breakfasts included, the tally worried me, on my expense budget. Restaurant prices float up and the aura of you paying but tolerated floats around the food, admittedly with fare a bit better than I expected. (Truchas/ trout at the Cafe Chimayo was outstanding, and the Rio Grande Green Chile beer tasted exactly like it's labelled, a novel combination.) Other meals in NM while they hit the starving spot swam in marinas of beans, rice, sauce, green chile, grease). The hotel boasts of being owned by Picuris Pueblo, but wealth does not appear to be divvied out much to its workers. Yet at night, walking with Bill and Layne around the venerable city, around the capitol building, after getting discombobulated along the dull side streets and highways across from chain stores and coffee cafes, as well as the hallowed plaza with a dignified cathedral, with its statue of Father Lamy and a new one, bold, blacker and bronze, of America's first native saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, I imagined peace. But must one banish to its shadows any lingering aura of traditional beliefs, not missionaries?

As well as looming skateboarders-street kids lurking in the plaza doorways when few of us tourists remain; Bill had to beg the largesse of a waiter in one of the few restaurants still open past nine, to use the bathroom. We sensed the scruffiness behind the polish of this old city. As with ambiance in Santa Cruz or San Francisco, in my experience, the class divisions endured as darkness returned. Those of us passing through, certainly, add to this, and I realize the contradictions of swanning past this scenario and being implicated in it, as yet another tourist, grumbling about the other tourists.

We had a tasty first night's meal across from the hotel in a restored rail yard at Tomasita's, full of what seemed to me at least some locals. As I will dutifully list some of my meals and libations, just for the culinary record, the sopapilla platter and the Santa Fe Brewery nut brown ale were fine. The next dinner at the hotel restaurant, which seemed not bad when we had eaten there long ago, was strange. The salmon was o.k,, but the waitress, older than me, affected a French accent and dressed in a black-and-white outfit a schoolgirl might doff for Mardi Gras. This annoyed Layne and me no end.

On Sunday, we drove the High Road to another tourist destination. I feared turquoise-bedecked denizens with grey hair flowing and/ or beards waving over denim, tie-dye, and/ or boots/ Birkenstocks. But Layne, on her visits before, assured me I'd like the Taos Pueblo. The road up took us around what in retrospect I realize may have been where our boy had fry bread and then his diaper changed by the side of the road in the trunk of our rental car, way back, at the Nambé Pueblo. That community, never conquered by another power, was modest at least then, and the meal very friendly.

Leaving what is now the heroin-low rider mecca of Espanola, a pleasant drive under falling leaves took us up to the village mythologized in recent Hispanic culture, the site of a 1930s chapel with dirt acclaimed for healing powers, at El Santuario de Chimayo. Sunday Mass was in progress, so while that prevented us from seeing the main chapel, we could hear Communion and the priest's softly repeated "The Body of Christ" to each communicant. As Layne and Bill remarked, the legacy shown in rows of one crutch and not two displayed as proof of the miraculous soil attested to some pilgrims hedging their bets, perhaps. I recalled that hole, where old people crouched, ladling dirt into little containers, but neither the chapel nor what is now a large layout, recalling lines for rides at Disneyland, surrounding an outdoor site, complete with frozen treats and the inevitable gift shop. It was windy, starting to rain, while Layne tried with her new video GoPro camera to shoot the moody vision as gold leaves fell across our sightline in the courtyard and storm clouds stirred up the foliage.

We were cold, so we raced back to the car and made it slowly up to vertiginous Truchas, where the John Nichols novel The Milagro Beanfield War was set. I had read his trilogy in college; chapter one of the final installment, The Nirvana Blues, to me caught the aftermath of the hippie dream and the coming of the Reagan Revolution very well. I heard Nichols speak at UCLA when the film version came out, in the mid-80s, but all I can summon about the movie now was that Sonia Braga co-starred.

We took a sharp left, as if going down an alley rather than the main road. For miles, as we went down into pines, I feared we took a byway and would find ourselves in the ponderosas, one-way, miles on. But it turned out that despite appearances, this was the High Road. I wondered how hippies survived here, or anyone previously or since, as we saw hamlets pass every ten minutes. How much pottery or amulets can one craft to make a living, however free-spirited? No other commerce popped up, save an inevitable New Age spa. Suddenly, in Las Trampas, a striking old church of adobe loomed, and then a forested slice of sluice, filled with mountain water, as we edged up towards the next village.

That Picuris Pueblo's home turf emerged, but it looked much humbler than their Santa Fe digs--which have a separate hacienda for the truly upscale clientele, Layne told me, with butlers and spas within.
We made it past a depressing pattern to be repeated infinitely on our journey, a line of burger joints and the usual franchises you see anywhere now, into the core of Taos (we bypassed the town square despite our efforts to find it). It's smaller than I envisioned, and left behind more rapidly. We entered the tribal land that surrounds Taos Pueblo. The gracious young man staffing the parking told us that we had to take a van in, but at least the fee was $10 and not the $16/person usually taken. While we waited for the lift over there, I stalked around an abandoned cabin, surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, and I wondered who had lived there and when. Cottonwoods shared shade in a glaring sun.

In photos, the two pueblos look enormous, but in person, three or so recessed stories were modest, the size and yes the tone of many of the condos and tracts crowding Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We wandered the grounds, we sampled cookies and a great apple tart. Naturally, we stayed clear of the many no-go sawhorses protecting much of the settlement from our gaze and intrusion. While the Taos nation numbers almost two thousand, the Pueblo communal grounds, a UNESCO heritage site in existence a thousand years, being without electricity (but I did hear songs broadcast from a shop) or running water (but food is somehow stored there at least, before being sold), holds few permanent residents. The statistics say 150, but I sense they may often camp out for ceremonies, in dwellings which families pass down. The cemetery repeats: Lujan, Vigil, Archuleta, Romero, many veterans.

The cemetery also repeats another tale: uprisings against the colonists. The first killed priests and burned down the sanctuary. The second was crushed; the ruins of the tower rise over the cemetery. The pamphlet given us on admission states, roughly: "The tribe holds its culture and traditions very close to their hearts and their oral traditions and native language is unwritten and unrecorded. Much of their history, rituals and traditions are considered sacred and therefore off-limits to non-tribal members." Layne asked me how the people, whom the tribal website claims are 75% Catholic, balance that allegiance against their traditional customs and rituals, the reason for the no-go zones all around. I thought of William T. Vollmann's treatment of clashes between European and native beliefs. He may return to this theme as his "Seven Dreams" series is set to conclude in this same Southwest.

The drive back lacked any high road. We detoured up to see the grand gorge over the Rio Grande outside Taos, after passing a giant brewery in a hanger, and various smaller structures such as a soap-making factory Layne titled "trust-fund" enterprises. Another kind of funding must underwrite the subterranean dwellings, whimsical tops and turrets out of a fantasy novel's pulp cover, of Earthrise, visible from the road that took us to the junction at Tres Piedras. Unless its 178 or so inhabitants benefit from the big money in drug smuggling, I wondered how they sustain themselves so far from any tangible trade. Going south, we followed the road and that river, which there as later would not be as dramatic as it must be down by Texas. As in Chimayo, the autumn leaves and the sun combined happily as the tony spa at Ojo Caliente made me again muse about how much wealth lurks somewhere in this state, if hidden to us as behind the walls at Galisteo or the hotel's hacienda. A commonplace observation, but as with the prisons we'd soon see, or the pueblos with collapsing churches, such evidence of haves and have-nots surrounds us, and nags me with history's lessons.

It's always some big money, the Wal-Marts crushing the mom-and-pop stores, as those merchants in turn survived in frontier burgs where natives fled or were enslaved or killed off by the pioneers or the conquistadores. At the conference whose theme was "Ireland and the Indigenous," I heard in the first session that the Irish, as enlisted men, cowboys, generals, speculators, and/or adventurers, tended not to regard the colonial ambitions which lured or smothered them with any ancestral or instinctive sympathy towards the natives they encountered in the Americas. Certainly the priests had to take the side of the powers that sent them, even if some must have intervened however boldly or cautiously to protect their charges. The conference presenters agreed that a few--not the clergy at least in the papers I heard, but others--took the side of the natives. Most did not. An eminent professor from the U. of Montana opined: "Poor men will always fight in another nation's wars." Most Irish appeared content with a paycheck or plunder. As with Celtic castles, many now marvel at forts as picturesque, but to those not long ago, they must have stood as prisons; churches as castles, symbols of big money. We must dash along, where the interstate paves over the old road, and the hotels replace bungalow courts.

We had to leave Bill next day. We missed him, after not seeing him (but Facebook eases the trauma or drama of face-to-face encounters these days) since our baby boy had accompanied us to Kansas City as well as New Mexico. Bill had arrived via the fittingly titled station at Lamy, near Santa Fe, named after the mid-19c. archbishop acclaimed by both cathedral statue and Willa Cather's novel. I wanted to cue it on audio, but as no version exists, Layne and I began the great trilogy of the first thirty years of the last century, John Dos Passos' USA. We played The Big Money on our very first trip, up California's coast. Thanks to Audible, we downloaded it all (rather than heaped cassettes) to play in the Prius, the black companion we'd spend many hours in as we entered the heart of the continent.

First, we went south, past a big prison at the head of the Turquoise Trail, a more scenic byway to the main highway we'd driven with the little one. Again, Madrid filled its miners' cabins with hippie crafts and hipster garb but failed to halt our journey south, as we returned one rental car to Sunport and picked up the Prius, which was a bait-and-switch by Budget who promised us a non-existent Smart Car for the rate secured; the guy at the counter claimed the Smarts were on "another level" but the parking lot lacks such. Anyway, we climbed in and took off for what proved a poor choice of a spare room on Air B'n'B. Construction site outside, hosts' dirty clothes strewn inside. We ducked out within an hour, wrangled thanks to Net marvels a cancellation request, and met our host, Layne's college friend Rachel, who for decades worked at UNM and now writes for the Nature Conservancy. She was on crutches after a tumble, but our dinner at the Los Ranchos stand formerly known as Sophia's Place and soon as Eli's nearby proved rewarding, even if I missed a beer to grace my fish tacos. She lives in a great house, with a cottonwood tree, facing green fields with cattle at the end of a cul-de-sac. My kind of place, peaceful and calm, and I welcomed that her neighbor wasn't selling out.

Our stay at the bargain Baywood Inn next to some interstate was not that bad, really. Bigger room than many we'd see ahead, and with waffles we'd also see many times--but they disappointed Layne. I ate my first of many bowls of Raisin Bran, as well as the packet of instant oatmeal, but my fruit would be the bits mashed into yogurt, at best, for weeks to come during "continental" breakfasts. The woman in the dining room, disgusted by the trio of stolid Teutonics old enough to know better who littered their table and then left the mess behind despite a nearby trash can, told Layne that as a half-black woman, her grandmother told her never to put your fork on a black person's plate. This was the most enduring, arguably useful piece of folk wisdom I'd hear on this trip or many before. 

We cued up Dos Passos to begin The Big Money, with the wonderful episode of the traveling salesman and the callow young Feeny Mac in the prairies we'd soon enter. We found those plains flattened out once over the mountain pass, and we'd veer back from them after twenty minutes stranded by highway work in a true middle of nowhere (defined as no Google Maps) between Stanley and Galisteo. The latter looked very New Age, a giant faux-adobe McMansion and guesthouse for sale from some start-up scion on the horizon, small church looking forlorn, but the heart of the hamlet appealed to me, with elegant compounds, unfortunately next to the main road, however less traveled.  Mud monstrosities rose in a gated subdivision near Lamy, similar to Hank's home in Breaking Bad.

A different kind of dwelling must be imagined up the highway. Leaving the interstate, passing at Gloriana the site of a Confederate defeat that sealed off their hopes of taking over this territory, the national monument at Pecos Pueblo commemorates the ruins of earlier loss, a vast settlement. A few bricks are all that remain. If not told, you'd miss this hint that two buildings twice as tall as those at Taos had filled with seven hundred people. A reconstructed kiva allowed me to climb a steep ladder down into a sacred site, where the sipapu intriguingly connects the underworld to the present one. I'd been re-reading Prue Shaw's Reading Dante on the plane over and in hotels, so it resonated with me.

We clambered about, seeing how the church walls here, much higher than at Taos, towered over the grounds, set dramatically on a mesa affording the pueblo views of both the Rio Grande and a western pass. Hard to recreate the force of the massive sanctuary that imposed itself over the pueblo, but easier to imagine why and how the natives rose up in rebellion against the Spanish here too, tearing apart the adobe they were forced to cook and haul and lift into place. But soon the empire struck back and stuck around, and by the 1830s, incursions by whites and tribes displaced by them ended Pecos.

Only one other couple, a ways behind us, shared the day. It was bright and blustery, well over a mile high, and while the altitude never effected me or even felt apparent on the trip into the high plains, the sun kept me cautious, more intense with fewer clouds, if prettier ones, wandering the blue skies.

We passed the iconic marker for the pioneers who'd signalled the end to the Pecos and the dreams of the rebels at Starvation Peak and went higher, slowly. Yelp gave a couple of suggestions in the nearest town of numbers, the other Las Vegas. By the time we downloaded direction, we'd bypassed the historic core, the highest number (900) of Victorian edifices in the nation, but I found this out weeks later. What we found was Section 8 housing until we wound up in a raw parking lot, gravel. But lunch at Kocina de Rafael in NM style was filling. The sopapillas were excellent, even if the puffed-up bread failed to wow Layne. All around us, definitely locals, full of Bronco gear and fans.

Raton Pass signals Colorado. Miles before, billboards bombard you with the outdoors fun (casinos too) to be had at or near an off-ramp named after a mouse. But descent into the Centennial State at sunset proved scenic, and gave Layne soon got the hang of the ECO mode in downward Prius pose.

We'd seen recently a (to me endless) CNBC show about transgender people, one long hour of which documented how a doctor had left Portland or some such likely city for the former mining town of Trinidad. It has become a draw for those, like her who once was a him, undergoing sex changes. It looked half- chic, half-desolate. Faded mining structures crowded streets as we saw from the elevated highway. But we pressed on, determined to get closer to our next stop, as night on the Plains hurried.

But, apropos for the radical themes of Dos Passos we heard narrated, a glance at a roadside sign found me insisting on a sudden turn off a quarter-mile. Cattle lowed and the sky tinted black from rose. A younger couple left the gate open for us as we entered a small gated enclosure. It reminded me of the lunch tables under metal awnings at many a grade school. These tables, however, surrounded a closed aluminum-clad white meeting hall and a statue. It depicts huddled figures, young, female, male, at the exact location (next to a cellar door in earth) where Rockefeller's thugs machine-gunned striking miners from the train in 1914. Women and children suffocated in that cellar where they had fled the tents full of their defiant men that frigid afternoon. A colorful iron plaque asks that "God Bless the Miners of Ludlow." Their story can be seen in this link. The massacre at Ludlow galvanized labor unions, such as the mineworkers, to agitate, educate, and organize. Even as the war, as Dos Passos dramatizes in the characters of Wobbly Feeny and Ben Compton as a labor organizer and hounded agitator, cut down any "threat" of anarchist resistance to Great War profiteers.

A train passed, on cue around six o'clock. I waved to the engine, like the kid on the tracks I used to be, for the rails passed more than one place I lived. My father and both grandparents worked for the railroad, and they belonged to unions. Far fewer may today on or away from that once-thriving industry. We witnessed this as our journey often crossed the tracks, in cities turned towns, where the interstate we prefer replaced a depot, and left the downtown of many towns declining, and depressed.

You can see this pattern perfectly preserved in Canon City. We got there late, Pueblo the city seeming to take up a large chunk of the night, suburban lights spreading in four directions. A bit of a shock repeated, the eerie space of the interstate at night replaced by the same few logos, streetlights, cars.  Thomas Pynchon's description of San Narciso resonated daily, hourly along the journey. It's from The Crying of Lot 49: "She drove into a neighborhood that was little more than the road’s skinny right-of-way, lined by auto lots, escrow services, drive-ins, small office buildings and factories whose address numbers were in the 70 and then, 80,000s." We passed this scene, come to life, day and night.

We sensed a big emptiness that was a lake, past prison complexes, some of the thirteen surrounding the town we'd stay in, at Travel Inn, one of those motels that struggles where the Baywood Inns tempt. Cut fruit and yogurt assembled from the local market (not the Wal-Mart the tired, aging German-accented woman in a wheelchair at the Inn's counter first mentioned for victuals) served as our fare. The temperature had dropped, we were near the Rockies if not quite up in them truly. US 40, one of the main arteries east-west, was as many interstates and highways under construction (all that stimulus money we taxpayers were told to pay, while we funded the banks who made off like TARP bandits). Truck traffic thundered a few hundred feet away. It must have eased sometime in the night.

Asphalt simmered, jackhammers pounded, orange work vests proliferated as we went for an early walk to the downtown area the next morning on Main Street, now a frontage road. We passed horses in a pasture, an abandoned trailer park, and themed cul-de-sacs, matching houses and tidy lawns. But we never got all the way to the center of town, so we doubled back, over rail tracks near a quarry terminus. For we had to check out so we could visit the Colorado Prison Museum in that same center.

That replaced the women's prison, tucked under the massive sandstone walls of the state's oldest one, very much in operation. The barbed wire and guard tower warn you. We parked under the edifice, and a young woman in steampunk garb (I assumed for upcoming Halloween rather than as period costume) welcomed us to the first of many museums we'd enter. A couple of people wandered in, but we saw nobody else. Our visit raced by; each cell told well part of the story of almost 150 years of the state's incarcerated and those guarding, or in the case of at least one warden who used "The Old Grey Mare" sawhorse) to punish over his two decade tenure, whipping men. I wondered about the case of fierce, eyepatched John Docherty #792, the first Colorado man to be sentenced for his role as a frontier abortionist. The Irish were also around at the local Benedictine abbey; Fr. Patrick O'Neil tried to lug dynamite to blow in the formidable wall during an infamous 1929 prison takeover, but the charge failed. He was still acclaimed for his bravery; I wondered about any Irish (and all the others) huddled inside there. 1939's Mutiny in the Big House based on Father Pat sensationalized this exploit. The town-{striped] gown tie tightened with Canon City in 1948 about a '47 mass breakout. The latter noir, shot on location, featured a semi-documentary look, by the great cinematographer John Alton.

It's still a dramatic setting, the dead-end of the prison looming next to the main drag at one end of the town wedged into the canyon. The historical core struggles to hang on, but as with so many, the Wal-Mart a mile or so away, near Holy Cross Abbey Winery, shows the contrasts of once-rustic and now-exurban occupation. Rachel later told us her good friend runs the Abbey's sales of its high-end vintages; that Abbey and school were directly across the very busy highway from our hotel. We felt discouraged tackling any entry onto U.S. 40, as that meant facing cones, big-rigs, and unmarked asphalt and crews who, as so often on our travels, slowed, confused, and/or annoyed our progress.

Nearby, near the end of Pynchon's Against the Day, Scarsdale Vibe imagines above Denver where the strikers are to be mown down or driven off what may not be so much prescient ten decades ago as predictable: "Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage monies will be paying to build for us." (pg. 1001)

Downhill into that scene, we skirted another ubiquitous presence in much of the settled West, military occupation. Pynchon, from Gravity's Rainbow, clashes with this placid panorama: "every assertion the fucking War has ever made--that we are meant for work and government, for austerity: and these shall take priority over love, dreams, the spirit, the senses and the other second-class trivia that are found among the idle and mindless hours of the day....Damn them, they are wrong. They are insane.” Fort Carson sounds romantic or rugged, but it's nothing but a vast spread over twenty miles at least, not far from the Air Force Academy, as you glide down wide highways designed for tanks and trucks, reminding me of the original Cold War intent for the Interstate system. Leaving the Front Range behind, Pikes Peak, tipped white, receded in our rear mirror. We faced only the Great Plains ahead.

Photo credit: Mom or Dad, snapshot of the writer as a birthday boy, a harbinger of my wanderlust in proud hand. Girl on right is my one-time neighbor Nancy Potenza; the girl on left may be another, Charlene McTaggart. Circa the Laugh-In era, two blocks from beautiful downtown Burbank CA.

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