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January 2018

Cerrillos Journey With Jerry

He was driving this time. We see more when he drives because he drives very s l o w l y. As a general advocate of this I’m surprised at how nervous it makes me. I fear someone will run into us or get angry. But no one does and no one is. Perhaps the slow pace is just unusual. People smile and wave.  

We walked to some old mines in the Cerrillos Hills State Park and then hung out at the turquoise and mining museum. Jerry remembered stories about the big old Palace Hotel that burned down in 1968.  President Ulysses Grant stayed there when he came to the area during territorial days to look at mining prospects.

Thomas Benton Catron and his business buddy Stephen Benton Elkins of Santa Fe Ring fame had interests in Cerrillos coal mines and land and owned the town site itself in 1871. Cerrillos boomed into a lively place when the mines were open passenger rail connected it to the rest of everywhere. Amtrak still goes through town today but it's so fast you might miss it.

There used to be a wild little dinner theater and bar right there in the center of town. Places like that were popular with my parents and their friends. This was called Tiffany Saloon and Melodrama. A lot of people remember it but I mostly remember the long drives and sleeping in the back seat and pretending not to wake when we got home so my father would have to carry me inside. I also remember a lot of those places burning down within a few years of each other in the late seventies, some of them suspiciously.


El Caracol

Chapter Next in a fictional account of a fictional place.

El Caracol Bar and Grill was built after Alva burned Perea's down. Some architect from Chicago - well that’s what gave them the idea. It was supposed to look modern and sleek and like a seashell. But Alva's partners did it on the cheap and it mostly just looked like a big arch over a little building. It was dim and disappointing. There were no windows and it smelled like rancid grease, beer, and cigarettes. Sometimes worse.

It was popular for a couple years when Connie was running the grill. Then Johnny took over and the place got shabby fast.  He was too cheap to pay anyone to clean. Cleaning is important. Damned if it isn’t more important than the food. You can serve bad food but if you serve bad food that makes people sick, well that’s different.

When it was at its worst, a couple of letters had fallen off the sign so instead of El Caracol it was "El Ca co " which means thief. Then some genius made the ‘o’ into an ‘a’ with spray paint, which means shit. Perfect, both.

By then Johnny was storing marine equipment there. Middle of the desert and he had a thing about boats. I guess you'd call him a boat hoarder. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood in wherever back east. He'd let anyone leave boats there and pretty soon they left anything. The parking lot filled with junk. That got him in trouble with the County before the bad food did.

So there was a salvage boat yard at one end of the village and an auto salvage yard at the other end. In between was the vacant gas station with the leaking storage tank and the "motor court" cabins and garages that were in serious decay.  Transporation trash.

Uncle Johnny died there, at his bar. His bodyguards and women and everyone else quit him when he went broke. He was sitting on his favorite stool and didn’t even fall off. The bartender found him the next morning, one hand around a glass of scotch and the other around a bottle. In front of him was a foreclosure notice for his bar. He ran out of money and ran out of life at the same time. 


Old Road Trips

We stood on a low stone pile as traffic sped by.

Jerry has an encyclopedic knowledge of New Mexico’s old roads and routes, mines and settlements. The stuff of the west. In the spirit of, “I haven’t been out that way in a while,” he can be coaxed to go anywhere. Even where we probably shouldn’t.

He recalled being at Paa-ko as a boy before the war. It was a State Historic Monument then, on the old road maps. There was a full-time caretaker who lived right about where we stand, he says. It was a two-room stone house. One room was museum - a cracked-glass cabinet of arrowheads and broken pots, and a guest book. The other room was the caretaker's living quarters where he heated and cooked on a wood stove and slept on a single cot.

Ruins were of keen interest to tourists in the days when road trips were new. Now they're consciously hidden to draw attention away from them for fear they’ll be destroyed. It’s a reasonable concern. Attention can be destructive. But so can forgetting.

It was June and windy and cars zoomed by headed to big subdivisions of big houses.


Journeys with Jerry

He tells me of places he’s been. Many are lost, long ago places. Some are no longer accessible for this reason or that. We try to go to some that are. Sometimes we picnic at ancient Pueblos.


First stop on our big day trip, The Range in Bernalillo at the crack of 11:30 a.m. because Jerry’s not a morning person. Food is important to fussy old people. In this case it’s me. He’s happy eating anything or nothing, but especially unhealthy anythings that old people with bad hearts shouldn’t eat.

“Ham and eggs!” He pronounces his choice defiantly. Even the waitress looked a little surprised. I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “I can handle it.” Like dietary fat is a steep climb.

I had salad.

Fretting over the condition of Jerry’s car is another apparent ritual of mine. It has a lot of wear and is full of items in the back that would surely kill us if it ever rolled. One time he had a flat tire and it took about thirty minutes to get to the spare.


There was once a place - New Mexico’s largest swimming pool - with a Pueblo Revival-style adobe bath house built by a guy who worked on La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe. It was on the State Historic Register, I think. But now it’s gone but for the cracked slabs of aqua and weeds. A kidney shape visible west of Tucumcari in a park no one goes to anymore. Sad, really. The old bath house was torn down by a restless city employee with a bulldozer and too much testosterone and under the guise of safety because the city wouldn’t pay to fix up its crumbling walls. Maybe the big lake they made to the north reduced demand for the swimming pool. Maybe it was just too costly to pump the bazillion gallons of water it took to fill it. Maybe realignment of Route 66 made it too far off the road for convenience.


Big bead
There is an ancient defensive structure built by the Navajo on top of a tiny remote mesa that Jerry hiked to many years ago. It is on public land but is nearly impossible to get to without crossing closed-off private land. People do, somehow. There’s a  YouTube video (isn’t there always?) by a guy who probably trespassed to get there. He demonstrates many “don’ts” of videography as well as his apparent fear of heights with dizzy panning, most of it aimed downwards. But you get a few tantalizing jittery glimpses of distant volcanic necks and cones. The mesa narrows and steep cliffs edge both sides of trail. Our Youtube hero (we are cheering him on) is evidently impressed and as he progresses toward the rock structure fortification and single doorway he gets shakier and shakier. At one point he loses focus completely and spends minutes on fossil close-ups like a stoned geologist. He never makes it to the doorway, stopping a full shaky thirty feet away, saying nothing. There’s only the sound of constant wind and his labored, frightened, breathing.


Salinas National Monument

On another day journey with Jerry at year's end we loaded lunch into the old two-wheel civic sleigh and headed out from Albuquerque through Tijeras Canyon and then south toward the first, northernmost of three mission sites in Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Quarai Mission Church doorway
As usual we over-prepared. Both of us being veterans of remote New Mexico travel we know to bring water and food. There was hot cider in the thermos, tea in cups, water, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, avocado and vegan cheese on bread, apple slices in lemon juice and cinnamon, and some incredibly sweet little cookies that Jerry insisted on eating to the near exclusion of the rest of it.

JerryWiddison at Quarai
We set ourselves up on a sunny picnic table next to the visitor center at Quarai which was closed "for lunch" when we arrived.   I wondered where the Park person might go to eat before seeing several lively looking restaurants in Mountainair. No doubt they rely on visitors to this and the other Park properties for much of their business. 

Well-fortified, we set out to explore the Quarai ruins with the guidebook. It was a very fair day and there were quite a few others, including several German speakers marveling at the place.

We spent too much time in the visitor center, which was open when we finished the walk. We stared at the scale model of the pueblo, itself an antique, and flipped through books and maps. Jerry will often find himself or his work mentioned in an index or bibliography - such is his vitae.

It was a bit late too late in the day to travel to the most distant of the ruin sites, Gran Quivera. So we left that for another picnic and spent more time at Abo instead. There were quite a few visitors there too, it being the least remote of the three places.

Abo Mission Ruins

 The warmth of the day belied its short length. We wanted to return to Albuquerque before dark and just made it, stopping again only to wait for a long freight train to cross 47. We'll go again soon.  I'll also chronicle other Journeys with Jerry here in future.