Day 10

Friday, January 21, 2011

We started the day with breakfast burritos and coffee from the Happy Belly Deli, a charming local hangout with a garden patio. (though it was a little chilly to sit out there)

BA getting a grip on the day

We asked these guys if we could take their picture. We’ve discovered a kind of ur-man in New Mexico– characterized by white hair (usually long), intelligence, uncommon sense, idealism (but also a touch of cynicism) and they seem to be plugged in AND tuned out…the fact that the third guy got up and out of the picture was no surprise. The ur-man is sometimes paranoid. We love the NM ur-men because they have a mysterious kinship to the landscape– craggy and weathered, and yet their eyes are bright and seem to have the crisp desert light within. What continues to surprise us is that many of them are not native to NM but relocated from elsewhere decades ago (Roger, for instance, is from our own Wisconsin). They seem, however, to have always been here.

After breakfast, we strolled around town and lamented that the junk stores weren’t yet open. Another reason to get back to TorC is that:


Not entirely true. We saw this:

and inexplicably, this:

don't know what this is, but want it in my livingroom.

We turned off the main street to get a look at the Rio Grande – it’s beautiful.

This town was called “Hot Springs” before it won a contest announced in 1950 by Ralph Edwards, host of the popular NBC radio program called Truth or Consequences. Edwards said he would air the program from the first town that renamed itself after the show. Hot Springs won the honor and Edwards visited the town during the first weekend of May for the next fifty years. This event was called “Fiesta” and included a beauty contest, a parade, and a stage show. The town still celebrates the Fiesta, and everyone we talked to feels that the celebrity the new moniker brought to the town is, generally, a good thing. But it does obfuscate the fact that there are amazing hot springs throughout the city. Here’s an acequia channeling water to the river.

It is hot, not warm, HOT

so hot our hands tingled

We kept waffling on what to do. We knew that it was about 10 degrees in Madison and it seemed like we should find a hot spring to sit in; wouldn’t our loved ones back home want that for us? And yet, we had a job to do and a trail to explore. We decided against it this time around, but picked up numerous brochures for our next visit. On the way back to the car, we met a white haired ur-man walking his sweet rescue dog named Sumac. We talked about dogs, enjoyed the funky neighborhood

check out the tree. Dr. Suess has been here.

there's stuff like this everywhere

and took in a few more sights on the way back to the motel.

A home-made shrine for the Buddha that was taller than the house. We could live in TorC.

Cool signs all over town.

We decided that our next trip to T or C would be longer.

Back at the motel, Hans came through and delighted us with several accordion songs in German and Spanish that included yodeling and clucking.

10am...where would this day lead with a start like this?!

Here we must digress and back up one hour to tell you that until we ordered breakfast at the Happy Belly Deli we didn’t really know the name of our hotelier. For all the chatting at check-in, this was one detail we overlooked. The woman at the HBD said, “Oh, you’re staying up at Hans’ place.” We were confused because Hans isn’t exactly an English name. When we asked Hans about this, he said, “Well, Hans isn’t really my name. It’s Ed. But everyone knows me as Hans, and I got tired of explaining.”

Of course we disregarded his weariness and asked him to tell us the story .

When Ed was 11 his family moved to a smaller house where there was no room for his beloved piano. His father felt badly about it, and one day came home with an accordion, which Hans taught himself to play by ear. He also taught himself to phonetically sing German songs so he had no idea what he was singing about. He fell in love with a Swiss girl and followed her to Vienna where he finally learned German. Eventually he ended up in Canada (we can’t remember why) where a guy who liked his yodeling would fly him down to Miami to sing for his birthday parties. One time, while staying in Miami he got an ongoing gig in a Bavarian restaurant. The owner didn’t think a yodeling accordion player named Ed Townsend would have enough draw, so he renamed him “Hans Steiger.” The Hans part stuck. Hans has been all over the world and has owned hotels and restaurants from Chicago to Taos, but he loves TorC for its laid back pace, beauty and uniqueness.

After a lovely concert, BA left Hans with a baby kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). He had been wanting to brew his own kombucha for a while but didn’t know where to get a scoby. Felicia was at school, but we explained the camera project to Hans and asked him to pass it along to her. We are looking forward to her report on life in TorC  (perhaps in the form of an interpretive puppet show?)

Before heading out of town, we stopped in the Post Office to mail a package. It was a well preserved Classical Revival building

with an enormous mailroom, the original, oak p.o. boxes, and one clerk –a pleasant young woman with undying patience. There was only one other customer there when we arrived, but BA stood in line for what seemed like a half-hour while the clerk explained how to fill out a passport application (apparently for the first time). Any other day this may have tested our nerves, but the thought of someone setting a journey into motion made her a kindred spirit. Chele passed the time taking photos of an intriguing painting high up on the wall depicting some kind of Native American situation.

Eventually another woman joined BA in line where she saw Chele taking photos of the painting and she began noticing it as if seeing it for the first time. She and BA tried to figure out what was happening in the scene. What was that crazy bent hand gesture about? Aside from the artist’s signature, Boris Deutsch, there was no information re: the date of completion or title. The clerk told us she thought there was info somewhere and offered to look, but we really didn’t want to make people wait any longer. Who knows how long she would spend on the task…and now there was even more of a line. Post office people are strangely unflappable.

We did some online research.

It turns out Deutsch’s painting is a “WPA” art project—part of the government’s New Deal public arts program that employed artists during the Great Depression. We also found out that the building is known as “a good example of an unaltered, small-town single-purpose post office.” Who knew there was such a specific genre of buildings? No doubt the mural, painted in 1940, is one of the things that keeps it “unaltered.”  The Indian Bear Dance, is one of 48 murals that were painted by professional artists in post offices in each of the then 48 states. They were chosen out of 1,475 submitted sketches. Apparently Deutsch’s color studies for the T or C mural, now held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, reveal an interesting change in plans. Instead of the mountain behind the figures performing the bear dance, the preliminary sketches depict a Native American chief dancing out of the path of an oncoming “Super Chief” locomotive from the Santa Fe Railway. “For some unknown reason” (as the Spring 2006 edition of the Sierra County Artists Directory puts it), the mural was redesigned, replacing the locomotive with an inert mountain. The directory also claims, “The balance of the final work is essentially the same as the studies.” I guess it depends on what kind of balance you’re talking about. It’s not that difficult to imagine why someone wanted the subject matter altered –this was, afterall, a government sponsored public mural.  But we wonder who in the chain of command took control of the imagery, and thus shifted the conceptual framework. Deutsch’s studies and a few written details are listed on the Smithsonian website but they are accompanied by annoying blank square boxes reading, “Image Not Available.”

For a larger image of the mural and a more in depth report regarding our thoughts about a Lithuanian immigrant painting a (censored) WPA mural in Truth {ahem} or Consequences about Native American ceremony in the style of a German Expressionist at the beginning of World War II, please click here.

After the post office we stopped by the Geronimo Museum. We knew we didn’t have time to see it this trip, but we figured we could get an idea of what it was about. We met a fascinating and serene woman named Cissy who worked at the front desk. She told us about the great history of the hot springs, the medicinal quality of the water, and where the best baths were. She also filled us in about the Spaceport- something we had heard about in passing. Spaceport America is a controversial project being built out in the desert on state owned property. In fact, she said, we’d go right past it if we were going to the Jornada del Muerto. The Spaceport is a publite, errr…we mean private, enterprise that was heavily promoted, praised, and pushed by governor Bill Richardson. In October of last year the runway was dedicated as “Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway.” One of the big private players is Sir Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin Atlantic. The plane, designed by Burt Rutan, that carries the spaceship to the edge of the atmosphere is called The White Knight II. The first White Knight was named for Branson’s mother Evette. Officially it is the Virgin Mothership Eve. There is something oogey about that mash-up of shining armor, mother love, virgin birth, good and evil, Freud and consequences. But thoughts on that will wait for another day.

Recently, Virgin Atlantic scored a win when the NM legislature signed into law “Informed Consent” legislation that holds the company faultless in the event of client injury or death. “Hello….just sign on the dotted line. And welcome to the Jornada del Muerto.”  C’mon people.

Cissy’s concerns were for the environment and the tax bill incurred by the residents of Sierra and Doña Ana counties. While jobs will be created, Cissy thinks that the type of clientele (tix are $200K for 5 minutes of weightlessness) that the Spaceport attracts won’t be interested in small town T or C. Furthermore, she worries that it would put incredible pressure on fresh water resources to make T or C  the type of resort town that would appeal to the VMS Eve crowd. Like so many of the people in NM with whom we spoke, Cissy thinks deeply about the delicate environment of the desert, water conservation, incessant poverty, failing schools, and the poor economy overall. Exactly how $200,000 joy rides into space address any of these concerns is hard to fathom. We wondered if we could get a look at the Spaceport and Cissy told us we could –but that they charge for site visits. So much for public land.

Three cheers for Cissy.

The Geronimo Museum book & gift shop

We took third street out of town, due east to a giant reservoir called Elephant Butte. T or C depends on this reservoir which has been shrinking in recent years. She knows it’s not PC, but Chele loves dams:

it's not a love of dams per se, but the aesthetics of the architecture

Seeing a lake in the middle of the desert, manmade or not, is surreal:

it's like another planet. trip into space unnecessary.

over the mountain we entered the valley of El Camino Real.

We had never seen a sign like this:

Indeed, the pavement did end about 10 miles down the road and about fifty feet past the driveway for Spaceport America.

go north for Elephant Butte, south for Spaceport. This was part of a guerilla sticker campaign.

Before you head south to the part of  El Camino Real that is named the Jornada del Muerto, you get to the “town” of Engle. Engle consists of a few small ranch house type office buildings, barn shelters and one small church sitting in a big dirt lot. We stopped in to see what was going on and discovered that we were at Armendaris, one of Ted Turner’s 3 NM ranches. His NM land adds up to over a million acres and comprise about half of his total land holdings. One ranch in NM is 920 square miles. Rhode island is 1,214 square miles. Just sayin’…

The goal of the ranch is to provide refuge for what is the largest herd {50,000} of captive bison in the world– ironically, they also supply meat for his chain of {46} Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants. The ranch functions as a preserve for the Bolson’s tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, desert mule deer, cougar, oryx and it is a major migration station for Mexican free-tailed bat. Though these animals seem safe from the restaurant menu, Turner Ranch Outfitters operates managed  hunting and fishing on it’s landholdings. The people in the office were professional-style nice and immediately jumped to the conclusion that we wanted directions to the Spaceport. They were a little more patient with us when we told them we were interested in the history of El Camino Real. Still, we didn’t hang out long. Engle was empty of people except for the office manager and ranch hands who must have all been out doing whatever ranch hands do (we asked but didn’t get a definitive answer–”you know, mending fences and stuff”). We never did find out what they use this for:

we want one.

About 10 or 15 miles down the road, we found the Spaceport. Without clearance, this is what you get:

a manly design

it looks lonely

Suddenly we were having a real experience on the rutted out washboard of the Jornada del Muerto! Finally!

we had to slow to 20mph

The story behind this stretch of El Camino is that travelers could cut days off their trip by staying between the San Andres mountain range to the east and the Caballo Mts. to the west. Though travel along the Rio Grande would have supplied water, it was also a route of steep ridges and canyons and it was unpredictable because the river continuously changed course cutting new paths and leaving quicksand where a previous route had been. In either case, one also needed to be mindful of the Apaches. The Jornada stretches 90 miles from Las Cruces to Socorro where the El Camino Real Heritage site is.

looking back

looking forward

where we stand

Imagine doing this at 3MPH. In temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. Oy.

We were out of Turners bison territory, but for some reason, we still thought we might see some wildlife. And then suddenly a large cat–and by large, we mean about the size of  a Greyhound (dog)– leapt from the brush and across the road in one fluid move. And then another, baby one. If we both hadn’t seen it, one might suspect heatstroke. But it’s January and not that hot…it sounds so dramatic, but we think they might have been cougars. Of course, with our limited skills, we only caught the more lumbering, bovine types on the trail,

our lame wildlife action photo

and the idea of a bird:


The desert went on and on. There are a few trails leading off the Jornada, but if there are ranches or dwellings, you can’t see them from the road. We thought we must be near  the end of the trail; we started seeing HWY 25 to our right, and to our left was the south end of San Andres mountain range:

The map shows the Jornada crossing HWY25 about 20 miles north of Las Cruces. After a while, we felt we’d gone too far and were looking for a way to get on the highway; was this a desert style on-ramp?

This goes under HWY 25. Chele thought the framing was beautifully reminiscent of old super-eight.

Hell…that didn’t work. We saw what looked like a gravel driveway, but the rocks were heaped up and the size of bricks; Chele was enthusiastically telling BA to “GO FOR IT!!!”

BA carefully guided Roxy to the high points of the rock piles so we wouldn’t bottom out. (Roxy’s been a champ on this trip!)

And then…

we saw this:

they were gesturing in a somewhat unfriendly manner...

Where were we?! Had we crossed into Mexico?

This day is only half over.

Stay tuned until next time to find out what happens to our bewildered explorers in the valley of El Camino Real on the Jornado del MUERRRRTO!

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