Monday, July 25, 2005

Striped Mesas and Turquoise Skies

We were recently lamenting the fact that we don't have any vacation plans this year, but Bryan has vacation time to use up. This is mostly due to the fact that our vacation fund is sorely lacking in, well...funds. Big wishes and little bank accounts do not reconcile very well. We decided that we should "play tourist" in our own backyard and see some of the attractions we've not visited or places we've not seen in many years. Bryan took last week off and we in turn took off for points out yonder each day.

It has been many years since we've ventured further west than Acoma, so we packed a picnic and embarked on the drive to Zuni Pueblo. From Acoma onward the vistas stretch out into infinite skies. Passing El Malpais is always interesting, the miles of rough, black lava rock a forbidding and yet beautiful landscape. The conquistadores traversed this vast stretch of dangerous territory in search of the Cibola, the fabled seven cities of gold. It is jagged and sharp, with lava tubes, caves, and sink holes, making it very treacherous terrain. To the north Mount Taylor looms large over the landscape. Mount Taylor's 11,300 foot peak is considered sacred by the Navajo who call it Turquoise Mountain.

Turning south put us into mesa country, with the rock formations rising up along the horizon. The road unrolled itself through the mesas as we approach El Morro National Monument. The sky was completely turquoise and punctuated with bright white, puffy clouds. There is an almost-spiritual feeling in the landscape here. Ancient. Creation. Beautiful.

El Morro National Monument is identifiable from the distance, a huge sandstone rock juts up above the desert floor, beckoning. It beckoned travelers of old with its refreshing natural pool in the shadow of the bluff, and they left their marks on the sandstone, carving their names into the rock. Most begin "Paso por aqui..." I passed this way. Some are elaborate with swirling script. They are a chronicle of the various groups who entered the New Mexico territory...the conquistador and colonizer Don Juan de Onate with the oldest inscription from 1605, Army regiments, passing settlers, they all incised their names on the walls, alongside timeless Anasazi petroglyphs.

Further along the road the striped mesas appear, the striations in the rock colorful against the deep turquoise sky. Graceful rock spires, separate from the larger formations, jut heavenward almost like church steeples and, with the stripes in the rocks reminiscent of several Italian cathedrals we have seen, the impression of a spiritual quality of this landscape deepened. All was silence until a passing truck rumbled by.

The visitors centers for both El Morro and El Malpais were very uncrowded. It is off the beaten path and yet there are miles of trails, a section of the famed Continental Divide Trail passing by here. But it was very hot, in the mid 90s and with nearly full sun exposure, it is still a forbidding landscape, which makes it an unspoiled landscape as well. No developments, no roadside kitsch, nothing to mar the expansive vistas.

We motored into Zuni Pueblo, one of the oldest, the largest, and most traditional of New Mexico's nineteen pueblos, yet unlike many of their tribal neighbors, they are an open pueblo and allow visitors to wander freely. After stopping at the tribal offices to purchase a photo permit, we explored Halona Idiwan'a, the Middle Village, one of the historic residential communities where the Old Zuni Mission and the ceremonial plaza are located. The traditions passed down from time immemorial are still carried on in Zuni. We walked the dusty paths that wind among the stone dwellings; we passed rows of hornos where the oven bread is baked. The Old Mission Church is in serious need of repair, the money the State has allocated will not cover the necessary renovations, we were told.

As we strolled the village, windows would be thrown open with people beckoning, asking if we wanted to buy a kachina or a painting. Zuni is still very much a community of artisans with cottage industry making up the bulk of the residents' livelihoods. The Zuni visitor's guide states that 80% of the pueblo population is involved in artistic endeavors, and they are reknowned for their intricate jewelry designs and their hand-carved fetishes.

We visited a pueblo-owned cooperative which sells jewelry-making supplies to the artists as well as consigns finished products for purchase by visitors. During our stop we witnessed the exchange of several artists with the manager, asking for their wares to be consigned. Some met with success, others received a firm but kindly, "Ummm, I'm going to pass on that one today." The old ways still prevail. I purchased a gorgeous and unusual pair of earrings, as did my sister, hers displaying the famous Zuni inlay of stones. Both items were accompanied by cards of authenticity and the name of the artist. They are, rightfully, very proud of their high quality craftsmanship.

We retraced our route homeward, thoughts lost in the starkness of the picturesque landscape here. These striped mesas and turquoise skies are magnificent, timeless, inspiring. No wonder the Zuni are famed for their works of art; they have daily inspiration.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Chill of Summer

An inventiory of my closet recently reminded me of several summery dresses and skirts I possess but haven't worn in quite some time. I couldn't remember why they were languishing in my closet, and the temperatures being in the high 90s, I decided now was the time to extract them and put them to good use. I started with a little sleeveless denim, above-the-knee number. Cute, I thought. Why haven't I gotten this out sooner? Summer's been in season a while now. This is perfect.

Out I went into the arid fiery day. I met my sister for lunch, looking summery and cool. The sun beat down but I felt well-dressed for it. Entering the restaurant I was suddenly reminded of the reason the airy little dresses were hidden away. Like an arctic blast, the air conditioning pounded down on me, rendering me with goosebumps. It was 97 degrees outside, yet I stiffened and chilled like celery in ice water. Oh yes. The ol' freeze-ya-to-death-in-the-middle-of-summer routine we are forced to face every year.

Now, don't get me wrong...I'm grateful for air conditioning. I don't know that I could live in this high desert environment without it. Our swamp cooler is running constantly throughout the day during this season while we await the cooling monsoons. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am much more well-tolerant of heat than cold, and I'm usually good to about 93 degrees, then the heat overtakes me and I start to feel wilty and cranky. Air conditioning helps that condition. I just prefer logic be utilized and the air be conditioned, not iced.

A swamp cooler is a pretty basic contraption, actually. Water is pumped onto birch pads and a fan blows over it, forcing the cool air through the vents into the home. Almost ingenious, really, and normally pretty effective for a desert locale such as this. Swamp coolers, though, were a new mystery to us when we first moved to New Mexico. Coming from the humid, muggy midwest we couldn't fathom that moisture would be put into the air to cool a home. In our first, teensy efficiency apartment there was a switch to turn on the air and a thermostat, so ignorant little Ohioans that we were, we turned on the air to cool the stuffy flat and went to bed. Some time in the middle of the night we were shocked awake by the blaring, incessant and hellacious beeping of the smoke alarm. It turned out that swamp coolers don't turn off when the air reaches the desired temperature, they're a manual device. The air had gotten too cool, the thermostat registered and turned on the little wall-mounted heater, which in turn started to smolder an afghan which was thrown over the back of a chair next to said heater. We jumped up and threw the poor afghan -which was painstakingly handmade for me by an elderly aunt- into the shower to extinguish the smoke, pulled the batteries out of the smoke alarm and peeked outside to see if our poor, elderly neighbors were needing emergency attention due to the heart-stopping noise our alarm elicited. Our landlord came and gave us a crash-course in swamp cooler function the next day.

More educated now, we utilize our swamp cooler efficiently and regularly. So the fact of air conditioning is not an issue for me. It is the fact that too many business establishments set the air at glacial chill that bothers me. Why, when it is 97 degrees, must I tote around a sweater? Wear long pants? Forego the adorable little sleevless tops I possess, which are perfect for hot weather, I may add. Why? Why the extremes of temperature? It's a mystery. I may never figure it out. It seems not only illogical but ineffecient energy usage, too. I know I'm not the only one. I've seen other women yanking on jackets or sweaters to fend off the interior shivers. Then, when we depart, we are hit with the reverse blast-the sizzling outdoor air-and with one accord we quickly peel off the coverings, the hot air actually welcome relief.

It's silly. I call for common sense! I ask for a logical temperature to be utilized! I want to wear my sundresses and my sleeveless tops! I'll get the chance soon, when winter arrives and the same establishments have the heat cranked up.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Independence Day, Village Style

July 4th in's a hot experience. Temps always hit the mid-90s and people must scramble for shade as they line the main road waiting for the parade to start. We have watched the parade mushroom from an animals-and-kids-on-bike affair to a full-fledged parade. Animals do still play an important role, though.

Corrales was founded in 1706 and retains an air of its agricultural heritage, despite the burgeoning housing imposing itself onto the previously farmed fields. The village is trying hard to retain its rural roots and maintain small-scale farming. We have apple orchards and chile fields along the main road, and a few vineyards in the village, too. So it's no surprise that the main event of the July 4th parade is the tractor section. Lots and lots of tractors.

Horses are ever-popular, too. Because most residents have an acre or more of land, horses and other barnyard animals are ubiquitous. In our own neighborhood there are horses, llamas, and chickens, all of which were represented in our hour-long parade.

Painted Pony
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Decked-out Llamas
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Kids scrambled in the street to pick up the handfuls of candy being dispensed more freely than water, though water was dispensed by some floats and entrants through super-soaker squirt guns. The Boy Scouts, ever entrepreneurial, walked the street with rolling coolers of bottled water that they sold for $1.

There was the local VFW group, who received applause and standing ovations along the entire parade route. There was a float by a nearby tattoo parlor displaying their various forms of human artistry; an original "chair brigade", a group of women marching with folding lawn chairs performing synchronated moves and marches (yeah, you had to see it); a kazoo band; and lots of Harley riders. Not many politicians this year; I guess they don't turn out when it's not an election year.

And of course what would a parade be without the pooper scoopers?

The streets were packed with smiling faces and happy kids. It's a little slice of life, village style...the simple pleasures of Independence Day.

Too hot to cook, we joined with millions of other fellow Americans in lighting up the grill. Potato salad, grilled chicken, baked beans (in the Crock-pot, did I mention it was really hot?) and white sangria...a much more "all-American" meal than I normally prepare. If only I hadn't forgotten the watermelon.

Fireworks exploded the sky to the south of us with spectacular color. The view from our courtyard afforded us a full show. Independence Day, village style.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider