Mortimer Sánchez

A road less traveled

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San Esteban del Rey de Acoma Church has stood atop the Acoma mesa since construction began in 1630, Within its walls are the bodies of those Acomans who died building it.

As I-40’s blacktop floated across the rolling plains between Winslow and Albuquerque, crosswinds and semis buffeted my truck enough I had to white knuckle through a few stretches. I slowed down as one lazy trucker flirted with disaster. His trailer swayed dangerously close to jackknifing in the turbulence of a passing flatbed. It didn’t reassure me that his left arm hung limp out the window as if he’d dozed off.

Enough. With Albuquerque just 70 miles away, I pulled off at the town of McCarty. The sign for Acoma Pueblo had caught my attention. I’ve passed it a half dozen times in my life, but never had time to stop. Now it was the perfect excuse to avoid getting tossed around on the highway.

Down a quiet, motionless road, I quickly learned that New Mexico’s beauty is hidden on these byways. You can’t see it from the impersonal high-speed thoroughfares cut into the landscape. Here a traveler can interact with people and feel a close contact with the wilderne.. “Splut!”

My eyes shot to the rear view mirror. I’d just run over a sunbathing snake. Make that ‘really close contact with the wilderness.’ I decided to focus a little more for the remaining 10 miles to Acoma.

As I entered the Acoma visitor’s center, they rushed me into the waiting tour bus. I’d forgotten the hour time difference, and their final tour was about to start. The bus groaned its way up a road carved in 1941 out of the sheer wall of a sandstone mesa for a movie called “Sundown.” The locals seem to believe it was a mysteriously non-existent movie with John Wayne in the 1950s.

At the top, we began wandering the streets of one of North America’s oldest continuous settlements. Sadly much of its architecture was torn down in the 1680 pueblo revolts against harsh Spanish rule. But the church remains, largely because the bodies of those who died constructing it are buried within its walls. If only I could’ve taken pictures of the simple earthen beauty and altarpieces inside this cathedral. Nobody is allowed to photograph their holy places or their dead.

While munching on fry bread and waiting for the more annoying tourists to buy trinkets from locals and take what pictures they were allowed, I turned to the tour guide, Michelle. Small talk might pass the time.

She’d only been giving tours a couple months, but shared a recent story. On one tour a village dog got playful with the children. Somewhere in the melee, the mutt made off with a necklace for sale on one of the tables. A scuffle ensued. Sightseers stood mortified as the artisan snatched up the dog by its scruff and shook it vigorously to free up her string of beadwork. Damn! A week late! I’d have bought that necklace.

At last we boarded the bus after one tourist with an overpriced super-zooming Nikon took pictures of Porta Potties next to a 10 mph sign. I’d criticize but I sat there with white sugar from the Indian fry bread all over my black shirt, like I’d sneezed in a coke house.

Life along a road less traveled

The morning of my return trip from Albuquerque, I sat in Lindy’s Café to charge my camera battery and enjoy a big breakfast of sloppy huevos rancheros. I recalled the winds on I-40 and how nice it had been to visit Acoma. I decided another way back to Phoenix might be more enjoyable.

This ice cave near El Malpais is said to be at least 3,500 years old. Photo courtesy Jeff Alford.

Before long I was winding down the sparse remains of Route 66, and the I-40 frontage road, avoiding the main highway as much as possible. At the town of Grants I turned south on the 53 and into the black volcanic countryside of El Malpaís National Monument.

The region boasts dozens of extinct volcanoes, a natural arch and sandstone bluffs rising up out of the jagged lava flows and blanketed with pine and juniper.

At the park’s information center, a ranger rambled on about the Ice Cave and Bandera Crater Park and how sweet the family that owned them was. I had to see for myself.

These landmarks are on private land, but not swallowed up by the state park. The land has been run by four generations of the Candelaria family, since the 1930s. Nobody has any intentions of taking this livelihood away from 87-year-old owner, David Candelaria.

The family does seem genuinely nice, and I felt some pleasure in paying entrance for a family that was considerate enough to temporarily bury film producer Michael Todd’s scattered plane wreck by hand in 1958, to prevent people from taking souvenirs before Todd’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor, could arrive.

The cinder cone of Banderas crater is one of the better preserved remnants of a volcano in North America. Photo courtesy Jeff Alford.

Still, the sweaty hike to a volcanic cinder cone was wonderfully offset by lounging on the observation deck of a large sinkhole, where centuries of water had collected over 3000 years to stay frozen year-round, and the brochure says temperatures never rise above 31 degrees.

I swung up my camera to photograph things. But when the camera didn’t turn on, I realized its battery was still charging at a small café in Albuquerque. I’m blaming ancient Anasazi spirits. But the Candelaria family proved their kindness by promising to send photos.

A stop at the Ancient Way Café produced another interesting character. Mutton-chopped artist “Maqui” escaped from Michigan in the late 1970s and found his way to New Mexico after helping start a Radical Faerie Sanctuary. What that is, I don’t know, but the rainbow coffee cups and pagan wall art gave me some idea. More important, from the smells and the compliments coming from his café, it may well be the best meal for miles around. Maqui belted out Janis Joplin lyrics with the radio and talked about the home he has built out of sandbags. He served everything from incredible beef brisket to apple-green-chile-piñon pie.

Though time as worn away the carvings on El Morro’s sandstone walls, and earlier attempts at preservation such as the blackened parafin wax in some inscriptions, the names of history still grace its sheer cliffs. Above is one from New Mexico’s first governor, 15 years before the pilgrams landed at Plymouth Rock. “Paso por aqui el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.”

To walk off my meal, I stopped at El Morro National Monument. This sandstone bluff has sheltered a pool of water that was the only reliable source for miles over the past few centuries. Giving proof that graffiti is genetic, 1,000 years of writing has been etched into its sheer face like a sandstone history book; Indians, conquistadors, miner 49ers, army generals. Even a camel train stopped here to drink and carve its story. One Spanish governor took the time to etch out an entire poem dedicated to his ego, er, I mean to his passage through the area.

Atop the mesa sits partially-excavated Atsinna Pueblo. A steep but easy trail climbs up over the valley, revealing a beautiful little box canyon. On the windswept top of the sandstone mesa, my hair tousled as I all but danced across the worn trail and carved steps toward the ruins. It was a thrill and I promise the wind gusts won’t blow your children over the cliffs. At least I didn’t see any kids blow away.

After two hours on El Morro, I had to make up lost time. That meant passing up the Wild Wolf refuge at Candy Kitchen. I rolled on through small towns, ranches and Zuni land. I had some hope for Zuni Pueblo. But on a quiet Sunday I was unable to spot the museum and moved on.

After 20 minutes, I realized I hadn’t seen a car. I’d crossed a few miles into Arizona before one appeared. I’d finally found that elusive empty blacktop we travelers seek. Then I found one last surprise as my hidden highway ended at the 191, going south to St. Johns.

Witch Well Tavern stands quietly at this dusty fork in the road. A small windmill outside turns slowly. Inside are two juke boxes and a very country juke box. An old faded news clipping tells of 157 bullet holes riddling the ceiling, and of legends of rough life in the middle of nowhere for this 50-year-old building. No less than 25 miles from … anything.

I sat down to some small talk with the bartender, a Zuni woman who watched bad soap operas and greeted a couple in Shiwi’ma as they entered. They racked up balls on an old pool table, and the juke box came to life with Merle Haggard. I sipped on a Sprite and gazed at the junction out a small liquor drive-up window. No semi trucks. No anything. Perfection.

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