Since our departure the grass has grown thin and wan, its vibrant hues bled away even as summer passed, and September, too. The apples are still crisp but the tomatoes have slowed their growth and dusk comes earlier, and Orion claims its role in the autumn sky, wedded to the Dog Star. Last light on the hills is a reflection in melancholy. The skies empty of birds.
I can still taste the hot green chiles. They graced every meal, the traditional chile rellenos and enchiladas, layered atop burgers or huevos rancheros, the base ingredient in sauces poured over everything. The very best New Mexico had to offer came not from a Mexican restaurant or generations-old taqueria in an out-of-the-way northern village but from the expert hands of my father, a gringo. His recipe showed the marks of improvisation and experimentation, ingredients crossed off, penciled in or modified. That his was the finest chile verde we tasted shouldn’t be surprising in a place of petroglyphs and ruined mission churches, living pueblos and sacred mountains.
What comes to mind most vividly is the way the October sunlight draped like a golden mantle over the straw-packed adobe walls of San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church in Ranchos de Taos. Contrasting starkly against the cobalt sky, the triple whitewashed crosses and the arced dome centered between the twin bell towers commanded the eye. Off to the side, a long shadowy cross cast against the earthen wall by the early morning sun inched past a doorway as if carried by an invisible penitente. Nor was it difficult to imagine the inlaid stones of the courtyard sprinkled with bright blood off a flayed back. This was my New Mexico, where outlawed religions yet dealt with sin and redemption in methods more akin to the Inquisition, whose reign of terror extended to these very hills. After all, blood and broken bones were the mortar cementing these walls, the foundation of a religion that introduced the Messiah on the tip of a lance. What we blindly call superstition remains the core of a belief system dating back millennia. A side entrance to El Santuario de Chimayó, crowded with discarded crutches, canes and braces left by those healed by the sacred dirt, is mute testimony to the curative powers of something beyond the unyielding dogma of mainstream Christianity.
Chimayó straddles the past and present in something like a balancing act. On the one hand there’s the sanctuary, a disjunct of freshly mudded walls and ancient timbers, and the unassuming shallow bowl of El Posito containing the miraculous sands sought by pilgrims, some of whom walk, crawl or stagger dozens of miles each year to the church during Holy Week. Catering to their earthly needs is a restaurant offering what’s advertised as the best tamales in the state, a claim sadly not substantiated during our visit. El Santuario’s popularity is evident in the numerous parking lots, concrete wheelchair ramps and chainlink fence festooned with hundreds of handmade crucifixes, but somehow its purity is lost in the mix.
The only thing approaching modernity at the San Jose de Gracia Church in Las Trampas, built in 1760 within another tiny Hispanic village on the High Road to Taos, is the cement headstone of Ramon Romero, 1840-1931. Most of the crosses springing from the bare dirt inside the courtyard are wooden, their letters faded to illegibility, the stairway leading from the dirt parking lot a series of weathered timbers interspersed with goatheads and clumps of grass. Without supernatural soil or the artistic tributes of Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams, both of whom introduced the world to Ranchos de Taos—making it the most photographed and painted church in America—renown and fame are as much a crap shoot as that offered in the upscale casinos lining the Rio Grande Valley.
Older still were the mission churches of Abó, Gran Quivira and Quarai. If northern New Mexican architecture were some kind of archeological excavation then were we digging ever deeper. The former was a thriving community when the Spaniards first visited in 1581 and lasted for another hundred years or so. Each mission had its own tale of exploitation and isolation, with an unsteady mingling of worship, creed and contested authority. After initially ignoring the native rituals, the good friars finally burned the sacred kivas and torched the Kachinas, an act that merely drove the Pueblo religion underground. Or aboveground, as the case may be. The final word was left to the Apaches and drought, one determined, the other lethal. The ruins still stand, their sanctified naves home to rock squirrels and bluebirds.
Before reaching Abó, my brother and I turned off on an unmarked dirt road and bounced into a broad grassy valley bordered by flat-topped buttes. After driving about two miles Reece told me to park. At the top of the ridge a pair of feathered serpents engraved in the black basalt stood out like sentinels, each about four feet tall. Coupled with the silence of the valley and the slanting sun, the serpents seemed alive, the gods brought to earth. In all that expanse only the road and the distant railroad tracks were modern; little else had changed in the hundreds of years since a Native American had crouched atop those rocks and hammered out the serpents, a Kokopelli flute figure, stylized birds, humans and other creatures both real and imaginary. The real surprise of New Mexico and the Southwest lies in time’s thin veneer.