The small space was rife with a sense of the sacred. The sights and silence spoke. Out of the harried and into the still. Mary and Jesus. The Virgin and the Christ child. What drew me here? Why did God avail himself, now?
Taken aback by the presence of something other, yet I. Images, memories, both past and present, were now enmeshed in an harmonious cacophony. Hope whispered and healing began. The often tortuous and troublesome were quelled.
That “peace that passes all understanding.”
He came “like a thief in the night.” Out of the darkness and into the light.
The highways that led to “The Land of Enchantment” were familiar and well worn. Atlanta to Birmingham to Memphis, and beyond to the mysteries that would unfold in the beauty of the desert.
What is it about the purple sage? The scrub brush? The cacti? The wind?
The path to God is short and straight yet long and winding. It can lead one around the world only to deposit him or her back home. Home, where the familiar comforts and keeps. Home offers a sense of security but the call of God beckons one toward the unknown.
Across the rice fields of Arkansas and into the bluster of Oklahoma. The boredom of the Texas panhandle transforms gently as she sweeps past the border of New Mexico. Yes, enchantment, and a sense of coming home. A spiritual home. Like a sailor coming into port or a cowboy off the range back to the ranch. A place of respite, peace and contentment.
Albuquerque, Roswell, Ruidoso, Santa Fe, Taos, and Tucumcari.
It was in Tucumcari that I made my first stop upon leaving Texas. I almost lost my life, that summer day in 1999, in Amarillo and was relieved to put that city, in extreme northern Texas, in my rearview mirror. Now it was time for some lunch. What would it be? It’s not like the choices in Tucumcari are plenteous, but they are a welcome sight for hungry eyes. ($1 to Merle Haggard).
Ah! A Lotaburger! First spot on the left after the exit off I-40. ‘Blake’s LOTABURGER’, to be exact. Lotaburger is a fast food chain indigenous to New Mexico with all but two of the seventy-five locations to be found there. The other two are located in Texas, I hear that a new spot will soon open in Arizona.
So what will it be? Burger? Chili dog? Maybe a chili Frito pie? Hey, there are burritos as well! But, when push comes to shove, you gotta go with the Lotaburger combo, don’t you? Indeed!
Sitting alone at this pitstop, which proved to be an oasis of refreshment, the town’s name, Tucumcari, provided a spark of association to the Little Feat tune ‘Willin’. The lyrics now assimilated my my brain, which is almost always continuim of free association and melodies.
“And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me, weed, whites and wine
And you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’ to be movin’ “.
And it was time to be movin’ again. I wanted to make Albuquerque by mid-afternoon. I emptied my tray into the large red trashcan, emptied my bladder in the acceptable facility, settled into the black, two door, ’98 Saturn Coupe, and continued west toward the capital of the state.
But before pressing on to Albuquerque, I’ll take you back to Amarillo and my brush with a potential tragedy. I was blowing through there, amused at the numerous billboards encouraging travelers to come and attempt to eat around four or five pounds of steak, singing and playing flute along with Jethro Tull. The cruise control was on and we wuz rockin’!
I was in the far left lane passing an eighteen wheeler when he decided to move over to my lane. No signal. No warning. No NOTHING! I had no place to go. I immediately attempted to tap my brakes and slip into the small emergency lane that was, fortunately, there. The Saturn was equipped with a manual, five-speed transmission and, in my panic I found myself furiously pumping the clutch. I continued to haul fanny while weaving between cars, changing lanes summoning my best Dale Earnhardt.
I don’t know how I managed to work my way out of that pickle, GRACE, but I did. I soon realized I was not actually reaching the brake, found it, righted the car and wound up safe and sound, headed west, and ALIVE.
“In the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath, comes the all-time loser, headlong to his death. He feels the pistons scraping — Steam breaking on his brow — Old Charlie stole the handle and the train (Saturn) it won’t stop going, no way to slow down.”
I didn’t even scrape anybody AND I didn’t have a heart attack! (That would come five years later and will be dealt with in time).
And finally, back toward Albuquerque. Having consumed the, most satisfying, Lotabuger combo in Tucumcari, I was now sassy and satisfied.
Albuquerque (and beyond)
I made the Holiday Inn Express, on the north side of the city, by the time three of us AAA Inspectors had agreed upon. It was there that our trio divvied up the files, yes we were using paper for work of our hard copies back then, plotted our courses and said our goodbyes. The areas I lobbied for, and received, were Santa Fe/Taos, Ruidoso and Roswell (insert UFO/alien joke here).
My dear spouse, Melodye, AKA “Paul”, has family in Roswell. Her Uncle, aunt and first cousin live there. Uncle Judson, Mel’s mother’s brother, met Aunt Wanda back when he was stationed at Walker Air Force Base in Roswell. After marrying, they dwelled a few years in Lower Alabama where he was a football coach and spent at time in Uniontown and Sweetwater. Thomaston, or Magnolia really, is where he and his siblings grew up. It was there that “Paul” spent her four years of high school.
I loaded up my files and made my way, northeast, toward Santa Fe and beyond. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the backdrop for this area of the state. It would be difficult to overstate the depth of their beauty and the power of the ‘Spirit’ that this thin space holds.
The first time I took an assignment here was two years prior, in 1997. I was completely captivated by Santa Fe, Taos and the surrounding desert. It struck a chord deep within my soul. I think of this sacred place frequently and my spirit often longs to return.
Sangre de Cristo.
In english, ‘The Blood of Christ’.
“In the 1800’s, when the Spanish dreamed of conquest, they wanted it all from the native peoples – their land, their gold, their soul. Spanish entradas, entrances, into the lands almost always included armor and friars. It is during one of these early explorations into present day San Luis Valley that a legend was born.
Virginia Simmons in her book, The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six Armed Cross, recounts the legend.
An exploratory party had reached the mouth of the Rio Grande. Father Francisco Torres, a missionary from the Pueblos, looked on to the majestic valley and called it, El Valle de San Luis, after the patron saint of Seville, Spain. As was the custom, the Spanish brought with them natives who were essentially slaves. Weary of their treatment, they rebelled and in the process wounded the dreamer, Father Torres.
Wounded though he was, he and the Spanish party fled down the mountain through the great sand dunes and onto the lake, which is today San Luis Lake.
The party quickly produced a makeshift raft and sailed onto the lake for safety, but it was too late for Padre Torres. His wounds were too deep, and he lay dying on the raft. In his last hours, the sun was setting on the beautiful mountain range. He, no doubt, saw Mt. Blanca and the other peaks that towered over the giant sand dunes. The setting sun hit the snowcapped mountains creating a burst of red – as so often happens to this day. With his dying breath, the Padre soulfully exclaimed, ‘Sangre de Cristo, Sangre de Cristo’ – that is, ‘the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ.’ ”
After spending a week in Santa Fe, I made my way up the winding road to Taos. I landed at El Pueblo Lodge which is just north of the plaza, the heart of this captivating village. I unpacked my luggage, portable stereo (Tull could never be far from me in those days) and files. It was a Sunday and I thought I would take a walk and get a feel for the “place of red willows.”
When I hit the sidewalk , I glanced south toward downtown and then my gaze shifted to the north and Taos Mountain. My spirit stirred and quickened within me. The sacred spoke quietly as if saying, “Welcome back, my son.”
My consciousness returned to ‘anno domini’ 1999. The Best Western was almost immediately across from me. Doug Sahm, of the Texas Tornados and the Sir Douglas Quintet, died in a motel room in Taos in November of 1999. I later learned that it was here at the Best Western.
I blinked and one week of work had come to an end. Eske’s Brew Pub and Eatery had become my go to, after dinner spot in those five days past. There is an outdoor beer garden on site and it is a wonderful place to spend time on a summer night sampling the specialty beers which are served up cold from the tap. The Scottish Ale comes to mind.
Saturday morning! Free time! The lure of Taos Pueblo was strong. I hopped in the Saturn for the very short trip north.
“This Pueblo Indian settlement in northern New Mexico, consisting of ceremonial buildings and facilities, and multi-storey adobe dwellings built in terraced tiers, exemplifies the living culture of a group of present-day Pueblo Indian people at Taos Pueblo. As one of a series of settlements established in the late 13th and early 14th centuries in the valleys of the Rio Grande and its tributaries that have survived to the present day, Taos Pueblo represents a significant stage in the history of urban, community and cultural life and development in this region. Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited and is the largest of these Pueblos that still exist, with its North and South Houses rising to heights of five storeys. Taos Pueblo and the people of the Pueblo itself claim an aboriginal presence in the Taos Valley since time immemorial.
Taos Pueblo, whose culture and community are active and thriving, shows many similarities to settlement sites of the ancestral Pueblo people that are preserved in nearby places such Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. It is nevertheless unique to this region and not derived from Mesoamerican precedents. The property includes the walled village with two multi-storey adobe structures, seven kivas (underground ceremonial chambers), the ruins of a previous pueblo, four middens, a track for traditional foot-races, the ruins of the first church built in the 1600s and the present-day San Geronimo Catholic Church. The Taos mountains (Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains) provide the setting for the Pueblo. Within these mountains is the 19,425-ha Taos Pueblo Blue Lake Wilderness Area, a resource of critical importance to the Pueblo’s living culture and agricultural sustainability. The Sacred Blue Lake, intrinsically linked to the Pueblo’s culture, is the source of a stream that flows through the settlement.”
Taos was one of the primary locations for the shooting of the iconic movie, ‘Easy Rider’. Taos Pueblo was one of the major locations utilized in its shooting. Dennis Hopper, like many of us, was also enamored of Taos and the surrounding area. Hopper lived, off and on, in Taos for several years and is buried in nearby Rancho de Taos. His funeral was held here in San Francisco de Asis (St. Francis of Assisi) Church and he is buried in Jesus Nazareno Cemetery.
I later, in June of 2013, made a pilgrimage to Taos and this church and cemetery. It was then and there that I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.
The drive from Taos to Ruidoso is is a long and lonesome one. Hank Williams was deemed a fitting companion. He and I moaned and groaned our way south to the the resort town of Ruidoso which is nestled in the Sierra Blanca mountain range in the heart of the Land of Enchantment.
Ruidoso in in Lincoln County which was the old stomping grounds of one William Bonney. That took me back to my childhood days of playing ‘Pat Garrett an Billy the Kid’ around our house and in the yards of our neighbors. The question was, always, who would be Pat Garrett and who would get the privilege of playing Billy the Kid.
As you drive the roads of Lincoln County, you begin to feel a palpable sense of Bonney and the Lincoln County War.
“The Lincoln County War was an Old West conflict between rival factions in 1878 in New Mexico Territory. The feud became famous because of the participation of a number of notable figures of the Old West, including Billy the Kid, sheriffs William Brady and Pat Garrett, cattle rancher John Chisum, lawyer and businessman Alexander McSween, and the organized-crime boss Lawrence Murphy.
The conflict arose between two factions over the control of dry goods and cattle interests in the county. The older, established faction was led by Murphy and his business partner, James Dolan, who operated a dry goods monopoly through Murphy’s general store. Young newcomers to the county, English-born John Tunstall and his business partner Alexander McSween, with backing from established cattleman John Chisum, opened a competing store in 1876. The two sides gathered lawmen, businessmen, Tunstall’s ranch hands and criminal gangs to their support. The Murphy-Dolan faction were allied with Lincoln County Sheriff Brady, and supported by the Jesse Evans Gang. The Tunstall-McSween faction organized their own posse of armed men, known as the Regulators, to defend their position, and had their own lawmen, town constable Richard M. Brewer and Deputy US Marshal Robert A. Widenmann.
The conflict was marked by back-and-forth revenge killings, starting with the murder of Tunstall by members of the Evans Gang. In revenge for this, the Regulators killed Sheriff Brady and others in a series of incidents. Further killings continued unabated for several months, climaxing in the Battle of Lincoln, a five-day gunfight and siege that resulted in the death of McSween and the scattering of the Regulators. After Pat Garrett was named County Sheriff in 1880, he hunted down Billy the Kid, killing two other former Regulators in the process. The war was fictionalized in several Hollywood films, including Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Left Handed Gun in 1958, John Wayne’s Chisum in 1970 and Young Guns in 1988.”
You can see where the old jail was from which Billy escaped and his alleged hiding place in not far away in the local mountainous country. He was laid to rest, at the age of 21, in Fort Sumner cemetery after being shot and killed by Garrett.
Capitan, in Lincoln County, is also the place of Smokey the Bear’s birth and death. Smokey Bear Historical Park is yet one more place in the fascinating lineage of Lincoln County history.
If you are ever in Lincoln County, be sure to check out all of its historic sites and stop by El Paisano Restaurant for some of the best green chili stew you will ever eat.
And then, there is Roswell. Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico, is the county seat of Chaves County and is most widely known for? You got it! UFO’s, aliens and the like. But the UFO’s and aliens, too often, steal the headlines from what is, also, a most interesting place.
Notable Roswellians or Roswellites?
John Chisum, Demi Moore, John Denver (born here), Pat Garrett, Nancy Lopez, Robert Goddard, Tom Brookshier and ET (NOOOOO!!!) Lol!
The Roswell Museum and Art Center is a must if your travels happen to carry you near the area.
And, of course, there is the Roswell UFO Festival which is held around the Fourth of July weekend. There is also a UFO museum and many local shops which will be happy to sell you some UFO/Alien related goods.
But, the thing that makes Roswell special is my wife’s family, which I am now very proud to call my own. Her uncle Judson, Aunt Wanda and first cousin, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s husband, Steve, are very good people who have meant more to us than words can tell.
Now if you REALLY want something special, outside of Martin’s (pronounced Mar-TEENS) enchiladas, you would have to imbibe on one of Aunt Wanda’s famous ‘Bulldogs’. Bulldogs are known by most as ‘Colorado Bulldogs’, which are essentially White Russians, with a dose of Coke. Now she makes them STRONG, and sometimes without the benefit of anything non-alcoholic, if the mood so strikes her.
One night, in particular, was a special one for “Auntie” and me. We were, per usual, being graciously hosted by Dorothy and Steve. I was working the surrounding area for AAA and had gone to bed at a, somewhat, decent hour. But I couldn’t sleep so I wandered into the kitchen to find Aunt Wanda and her busy self, sweeping the floor.
I startled her as I had my hair down and my bedclothes on. Initially, she might have thought I was one of those supposed aliens that had made its way to the western outskirts of Roswell in search of a drink. “Nanu, nanu!”
She literally jumped back and we both had a good laugh, a great conversation and more than one Bulldog. It remains, in my memory, one of those special moments when two people connect.
God bless the Browns. Everyone should be so lucky to have “outlaws” such as these.
AJ and Wan. I love you both so very, very much.
There are other peoples and places that also make New Mexico what she is. There is White Sands, Cloudcfroft, Carlsbad Caverns and so much more.
‘The Land of Enchantment’, indeed.
All of the above are so important in my ‘relationship’ with New Mexico, but none more meaningful than the last trip Melodye and I made to there, in June of 2013.
Goin’ Out West
We had made the trip on I-20 West, for what seemed, countless times in the past. They began when I was a seminary student in Ft. Worth and continued, of and on, over the succeeding thirty plus years.
Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe, Shreveport, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth. The trip to New Mexico continued to somewhere around Big Spring, TX and then it was off the interstate, the remainder of Texas, across the eastern border of New Mexico and on into Roswell.
I had just retired on June 1 of MMXIII. This was our first trip following that day of liberation. I loved my job with AAA but it was time to move on to new horizons. I had NO idea.
We stopped in Brandon, MS to visit special old friends, Tony and Teresa Martin. It was a grand reunion. Tony and I went back even before I met Melodye at Troy State University, as it was known back then. He and I spent a lot of time there and at Southwestern Seminary after Mel and I were married and he joined me as a student there.
We had dinner, returned to the Martin abode and laughed and talked until the wee hours of the morning. It had been twenty-seven years since we had visited and we picked right up where we left off.
Something in my soul was aroused that night. Again, I had no idea.
We took it on in to Ft. Worth the next day. A Whataburger in Louisiana for lunch and then the final stretch to our destination. We settled in to our quarters for the evening on the northside of town in Fossil Creek.
From there we taxied to Cowtown, the Stockyards and old stomping grounds like the White Elephant Saloon. We had BBQ beef and ribs at the H3 (Hunter brothers) Restaurant and then it was off to some night life ( “Ain’t no good life, but it’s my life…” 😉 ) at Billy Bob’s Texas.
Mark Chesnutt happened to be playing on that night and that’s what drew us to Billy Bob’s for the entire evening.
Mark had recently had an accident, surgery was imminent, and he sat for the duration of the show. He kept a bucket of beer at his side and also made reference to the pain pills he was taking. A good time was had by all. Especially Mark.
When the concert concluded we were standing on a corner, attempting to hail a taxi, I heard the shout of one of Billy Bob’s patrons, “Hey Willie!” I have been called Willie on many occasions. It was no surprise. My long, braided hair and broken nose give me a slight resemblance to the red-headed stranger, but I’m certainly not a dead-ringer for him.
Up the next day and off to run by some old landmarks and an In-N-Out Burger (If you detect a burger pattern here, you are correct. We were in search of the best burger on our trip). The Metroplex had just become one of the latest to offer these tasty burgers which can only be found far west of the Mississippi. Yessir!
Now back on to I-20 for the, not so scenic, drive to Alienville.
As always, we had a great time with Uncle Judson, Aunt Wanda and Dorothy. It happens to be the last time we have seen them in-person. We ate the stacked enchiladas from Martin’s with both red and green chilis. Oh my! There was a salad on the side and I got choked on a rubber band which was, somehow, buried deep in the bagged greens. I had to extract it myself. No fun but I found it humorous, nonetheless.
One day, of our three there, we had lunch at the Cowboy Cafe. I had been instructed, by Melodye, to be sure and not let Auntie pick up the check. Therefore, I secured the bill and placed it securely between my legs on the high top stool on which I sat. As we neared the completion of our meal, Auntie reached under the table, as quick as a road runner, and whipped that ticket from what I thought was a safe place.
“You didn’t think I’d go there, did you Bird?” She barked as we all sat in amazement. Another moment I wouldn’t trade for the world.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but that time came as we had planned to trek northeast to Santa Fe for lunch and then on to Taos for two nights.
Hunting For Hopper, Finding St. Francis
For the remainder of that first afternoon we reacquainted ourselves with Taos. Mel hadn’t been there since 1997 and I since 1999.
After we secured our room, on the south side of town, we began to walk up the main drag toward downtown. Taos Mountain rose dramatically into the brilliant blue sky where slight wisps of sugar white clouds dancing around her.
Is that a tear? I felt as though I was muddling my way to the cusp of a new adventure. Would adventure be the right choice of words? Or was it be more like a mission? Or a search?
There was a festival, of some sort, just west of the town plaza, that afternoon. There was music, arts and crafts, food and more. We enjoyed all but the food as we had plans to dine at Lambert’s later on.
Lambert’s was highly enjoyable with some fine food and drink. Green chili stew, a seafood enchilada (New Mexican style) and a bottle of Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon. A stroll around the plaza, on an idyllic summer night, and it was back to the motel (NOT the Ritz!) for some rest and repose.
Day two began with with some more time in shops and art galleries, Taos is a noted art colony, and then to Orlando’s for some of the best New Mexican food you could possibly hope to enjoy.
After Orlando’s we went out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Taos Pueblo was next. Mel had never been. San Geronimo Mission Church summoned with a whisper. The Virgin Mary, robed in pink for summer, stood as the centerpiece at the altar. The Pueblos honor Mother Earth in this manner. Father Sun is just to the right and peeping from behind one of the many saints honored here. A few moments of reverence completed our silent time there.
One of the big events of the day was to be the short, six mile, trip to Rancho de Taos to visit the grave of Dennis Hopper.
When we got to Taos we parked at the small town Plaza which is located adjacent to the St. Francis of Assisi Church. I had driven by here before but never stopped.
We were both struck by the beauty of the beautiful adobe building and its grounds. There was also an adobe fence, flowers, trees, a fountain and statues of St. Francis and St. Clare. Clare was a convert of St. Francis and later joined a convent of Benedictine nuns in Italy, not far from the town of Assisi.
As we walked the grounds and took it all in, the “Spirit” began to move. Mind you, at this time I considered myself agnostic but always open to the next experience or encounter of enlightenment or growth or whatever one might term it.
The feeling became more intense as we entered the church. Christ hung at the altar before us. The presence of the “Spirit” became almost audible. It had been a very long time since I had found myself in such a situation. Words failed me as the Divine made its presence known.
The silence was deafening. I was moved, deeply.
But it was a mood of wonder and excitement. What was going on? I felt as though I had been ambushed. My mind raced back and forth.
We made our way back outside and I turned to Melodye, and asked, “What’s going on?” Does God want me to be a Catholic priest? I then realized I had just uttered the word God.
The shop next door seemed to beckon us. We browsed around a bit and I wound up buying a book on the story of St. Francis. It then occurred to me that I had also purchased two driftwood, hand-made crosses from a local hispanic vendor at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge that morning. They both now hang in our home, along with the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
Yes, we did find Hopper’s grave at Jesus Nazareno Cemetery. That was also a nice moment. A denouement, if you will, to the monumental proceedings that had transpired just before.
Two months later, on August 14, Christ, with a great deal of help from St. Francis, completed his awakening of me back into his fold. I would later find that others, most notably Thomas Merton, had experienced what is termed, a second conversion. They tend to come later in life, often in one’s fifties. I happened to be sixty at the time.
In hindsight, I realized that God never left me. He/She cannot leave us. He lives in each and every one of us. It is by the Divine that we are born and that spark is never extinguished. Read the first chapter of John. There are times of awakening and times of doubt and even unbelief, but the flame is NEVER extinguished.
She is always there, waiting patiently, ready to listen, to comfort, to heal, to save and to love us.
God is love. Perfect love. Our lives are a dance with that Love, God.
Dance Me To The End Of Love – Leonard Cohen
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.”
Care to dance?