Christmas Movies

I watch the classics this time of year. My top two balance the light and dark of everything for me.

The first is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Anyone who has ever chuckled at Chevy Chase or the jokes in a John Hughes movie likes this one. 

The other one has no connection to traditional Christmas except for snow. Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is purposefully dark and uncheery.  The town is a central character. It’s being built with the story, evolving and changing. The place is called "Presbyterian Church" with a brothel at its heart.

The film set location is lost somewhere today in the curvy single-family cul-de-sacs of West Vancouver. Somehow that fits the grim narrative about progress.

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Pacific Coast Road Trip

I hadn't seen the Pacific in decades and it had been three years since I’d flown anywhere. A good friend invited me to drive from Seattle to San Diego along the coast. Trip planning was sketchy and flexible. But a week sounded like enough. It really wasn't.

They'll pry my cold dead fingers off the Honda’s steering wheel but I have to admit her Tesla was more comfortable and fun. My back didn't hurt and it was great to drive.  It did occur to me that the fun might be limited if everyone zoomed Teslas all the time. I found the huge screen in the center of the dashboard distracting and I never did get the door and window buttons right. But the short stretch I drove was exhilarating - for me at least. Zoomies are always less fun for passengers. I drove a hairy little stretch of former logging road and really enjoyed the fun curves. But for some reason, that was my only opportunity.

The trip began the day after a King Tide and a week of big storms. There was evidence of flooding everywhere - huge trees down and closed portions of the coastal highways. The booming Pacific was unsettling, especially the first night when I thought I was hearing heavy furniture moving around the room. And it was especially impressive for a desert dwelling unfamiliar with its power. 

We blazed down the coast, stopping periodically to wonder at sights but never really long enough to fully relax. We made it to California our first night after zooming into the dark forest. There’s a giant peanut sitting beside the highway in Orick that's carved from a huge Redwood. It was sent to President Carter as an appeal to stop designation of the Redwood National Forest. It  was returned and the forest was established. We visited the awe inspiring “Big Tree” there, and many like it. In Leggett we stopped at the even larger “Grandfather Tree.” 

In the predawn hours in Monterey I woke to the unfamiliar sound of  barking harbor seals. It was Friday already. That night was Santa Barbara. Then San Diego. I would go the other direction if I had another chance. Hopefully the highway both sides of Big Sur, which we missed, would be open. And I would go north instead of south so that the population grew thinner and the trees thicker as the trip progressed. 


The Place Names of New Mexico - An Autobiography

Robert Julyan’s 1996 edition by UNM Press is the one I have. It’s pretty tattered. He dedicated the first edition to his daughter and signed this copy for my sister at a bookstore  somewhere in Albuquerque. It’s dated 2/25/96. “For Lisa, Best wishes exploring the names and places of New Mexico. Bob Julyan.”

She caught this wish and this book was an invaluable tool that traveled with us all over the state, along with the good maps. We drove our father’s 1992 white Ford Explorer, packed to the gills, and called it “Cadillac car camping,” but we may have gotten that term from somewhere else. We re-used fire rings, brought our own wood and left campsites better than we found them. We ate like queens: grilled steaks and morning bacon and eggs. Mostly we camped on BLM land before motorized off-road activity exploded. It wasn’t hard to find quiet places then. 

We decided where to go on the basis of the weather forecast, (from TV news,) and where we could be at sundown, depending on what time I could get off work or when her flight got in. Then, in route, we would consult topographic maps and this book, learning on the go.

My sister died in 1999 and I haven’t camped since. but I still use Julyan’s Place Names book for my armchair travels. 

“(P)lace names result from the fundamental and universal human need to label with words, and the concepts of naming and place identity are inextricably linked.”

Naming places reflects who we are. In this way, the book is an autobiography.

“(A)s centuries have passed, as people, languages, and cultures have intermingled, New Mexico’s place-name autobiography has expanded and undergone continuous change.”

It is good to hear from TACA board member and friend, Jerry Widdison, that a new edition is in the works. He is credited in the first edition as being a “meticulous editor, tireless researcher, observant traveler, and generous friend.” I very much look forward to a fresh crisp edition, signed by both of them.

The autobiography is still being written.



River Curves

The big westward curve of the river - the top of the Valley. That's where the big floods used to start. The Camino Arroyo, named for the road up to the mountain, swept into the valley up there from time to time, depositing muddy water and trees and boulders too sometimes. They "tamed it," along with all the other arroyos and the Rio itself. A87F3A5C-6858-41C8-9714-8B79C0FFE1DD

Some of the cottonwoods have a curve like the river. 

Up there's also where Edward Abbey began the tale of The Brave Cowboy, later made into the movie Lonely Are the Brave.  When Kirk Douglas rides his Palamino mare Whiskey into town, he crosses both the Rio and Second Street. The Big Chief Truck Stop is in the background along with decent sized clusters of cottonwoods. 

These twisted trees were probably stomped on as seedlings. This place was a park. And a dump. We thought it all belonged to us as kids. It magically morphed into private hands after construction of the drainage canals and ditches and began sprouting houses after that. 

In at least one 60s neighborhood, free-range children roamed widely and climbed the biggest trees. They urged each other on, nailing up short pieces of scrap lumber as footholds for the scariest straight parts. High trees seemed to go on forever like our high hopes. In some places you can still see steps in the tall trees. 



How History is Destroyed

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Santiago Mass Grading

Santiago today


The Ancient Pueblo village of Ghufoor was sketched by Adolph F. Bandelier in 1882. By 1931 pothunters had already begun destruction. It was excavated in 1934 and then destroyed in the 1950s by gravel quarrying. In 2006 all of the land over and around the site was mass-graded for a subdivision. Even without the known prehistory of the area, the total obliteration of the place is shocking.  This is a routine method of grading for large housing development.

For more on Ghufoor, also known as Santiago, see Dennis Herrick's  History of Santiago Pueblo -The Lost Tiwa Village.

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.


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.


Edward Abbey -The Brave Cowboy

"There is a valley in the West where phantoms come to brood and mourn, pale phantoms dying of nostalgia and bitterness."


Published in 1956, sixty years ago, favorite book was about Albuquerque and a few other things.

Favorite movie, Lonely Are the Brave, was filmed on location. Kirk Douglas crossed Second Street on spooky palomino mare, Whiskey, where Murphy's Mule Barn is today. In the yelp comments a visitor says it could be a truck stop from 1959. But it's probably a decade older from when the big Alameda Drain was dug and Second Street was paved around 1949. 

That Big Chief truck stop sign is now out on US 550 on Zia land, I'm pretty sure.

Brooding and mourning  in the valley? Not enough of it. But then I'm practically dying of nostalgia and bitterness. And pretty pale.