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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

Today my heart will have harmony; My spirit singing the songs of happiness.

I am reading a novel called Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Written in 1927, it is a fine example of classic American literature and it is written about the establishment of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. For a novel that, for all intents and purposes, is based on historical fact, Cather doesn't shy away from touching on subjects such as violence against women, the excesses of members of the clergy, and the conflict between the settlers, the Spanish, and Native Americans. But most importantly, Cather has captured the spirit of New Mexico; her descriptions of the harsh landscape are so vivid, that I can almost recognise the landscapes. I do wonder whether I feel this way because I'm currently travelling through New Mexico and the spirit of the place and the novel are resonating with me.

I had intended to return to Santa Fe and spend my remaining days exploring the beautiful city and visiting the places on my list I've not yet seen, like Canyon Road. But sometime between the end of Michael Martin Murphey's concert and this morning, I decide to backtrack only as far as Taos, before venturing into the desert.

I drive the 57 kilometres from Red River toward Taos, branching off at the sign to the Taos Pueblo. This is one of the most-visited communities in North America. It has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years, and today, one of the only concessions to the 20th century is the connection of propane gas by some of the inhabitants. There is no electricity or running water. Water is gathered from the flowing stream that intersects the northern and southern parts of the community. I wait at the church for a tour guide. When he arrives, I'm surprised at how young he is. A university student, working as a volunteer, he enthusiastically shares part of his ancient culture with us. Of course, an hour is an inadequate amount of time to fully appreciate the culture, but this young man manages to provide an overview of the history of this place and of his people in a manner which is respectful to all.

We walk over to the site of the old church, the first of which had been built in 1620 by Spanish Jesuits. The Native Americans fought against the building of the church and the teaching of the Catholic religion, resulting in cultural tensions between the two groups. By 1660, the Native population had killed the resident priest and destroyed the Church. It was rebuilt and destroyed a second time during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By the turn of the century, the Church was rebuilt for the third time and the Pueblo inhabitants and the Spanish worked together amicably for a time. However, by the end of the Mexican-American War in 1847, the Taos Revolt resulted in the destruction of the Church again. This time, rebels, the elderly, women, and children were sheltering inside the Church when it was destroyed, killing most of those inside. Our guide tells us a story about a little girl, afraid that the statue of the Blessed Virgin would be destroyed in the melee, dragged the statue out of the Church and toward the stream running through the village. The place where she had collapsed in exhaustion is the spot where the new Church was built in 1850. The ruins of the old church stand as a reminder of the plight of the Taos people, and their fight to retain their own religion and culture. Interestingly, there is an adjoining cemetery, and I did wonder whether the local people had been buried according to Catholic traditions. As these questions circulate through my mind, our guide tells us that the Pueblo is closed to the public on All Souls' Day, when they gather as families at the cemetery to honour those who have died. I now see that some Catholic traditions are practised.

We move to the shade of a structure behind one of the homes. Built of local mud bricks and rendered with a layer of adobe, the dwellings typically have two rooms, one for living and sleeping, and the other for cooking, eating, and storage. A horno or oven is located outside. Shaped like a beehive and built of adobe, it is used for cooking everything. However, due to the amount of wood required and the time it takes to heat up, many homes now have a propane gas tank connected to the living area, which is used for general cooking, whilst the horno is used for baking bread. The structure we are standing beneath isn't a carport as I first thought; racks along the top are used for drying meat naturally in the hot sun.

As we walk to the stream flowing through the town, the large, five-storey adobe building, which is reportedly about 1,000 years old, is pointed out. Along with many of the Churches in the region, this northern pueblo is one of the most photographed structures in New Mexico, and possibly in America. Originally built to protect the inhabitants from marauders, it is like an apartment block, each two-roomed house is connected by internal ladders. Should the pueblo be attacked, exterior ladders to the roof had been able to be lifted, thus cutting off access and protecting everyone inside. There is a similar building located at the opposite end of the pueblo.

The fast-flowing stream provides all fresh water for the pueblo and our guide points to the small bridges that connect the two parts of the village. Since this is the only source of drinking water, we are reminded not to walk into or otherwise pollute the water. In the early 20th Century, President Roosevelt had taken 19,000 hectares (48,000 acres) of mountain land that the people held sacred. It had been included into the Carson National Forest, thus preventing the Native Americans of the Taos Pueblo access to their sacred water source at Blue Lake. Through lobbying the Federal Government for many decades on the basis that their religious freedom had been compromised, the original 19,00 hectares were returned to the people in the 1970s by President Nixon. They have also been given a further 309 hectares of land on the western side of the Blue Lake.

It is the end of the tour and as I wander through the Church, I try to imagine what it would be like to live simply in a small home with no modern conveniences. I can understand why many of the Taos community live outside the walls of the Pueblo. The novelty of not having basic amenities would wear off after a while. Perhaps it's similar to going camping or a trip to my grandparents, which felt like an adventure into 'the olden days'. But as much as we had enjoyed it, it was good to return home after the holiday.

Some of the homes are open for visitors to explore. Some are small cafes, offering coffee and freshly-baked goodies, whilst others offer many hand-crafts, such as pottery, musical instruments, and beaded goods. There is just one other item on the list Renee gave me, apart from Canyon Road, which I won't have time to visit. I wander through the small establishments until I find what I'm looking for.

The old adage, 'If it tastes good, it's gotta be bad for you', is probably true as I purchase a piece of 'frybread', a small, flattened, deep-fried bread. And it must be really bad for me because it tastes so good. Like our Australian damper, it is a dough typically made up of flour, water, a small amount of sugar, lard, and a pinch of salt. That is where the similarity ends, as this is not wrapped around a stick and shoved into a fire, this is rolled into a ball, then flattened with the hands and dropped into boiling oil, producing a lovely, tasty crisp bread.

Sated, I return to the car and reset the GPS for my next destination. After a short while, I leave the mountains behind me and enter beautiful lush countryside before it starts to flatten and the further south I travel, the drier the landscape becomes. I stop briefly in Las Vegas (not THE Las Vegas in Nevada) and continue driving for almost five hours through this harsh landscape. It reminds me a lot of parts of Australia, with long distances between towns. In fact, I pass through just a few almost-deserted villages since my last stop; hardly a car on the road.

Then I see it in the distance. A huge cutout cowboy pointing accusingly across the road. My eye moves to the other side of the road, where an equally-huge cowboy cutout seems to be saying,

'What have I done wrong now?'

I have to stop and take a photo. Fortunately I stop in a location where I can get both cowboys into the photo. Then drive slowly toward them so I can see them close up as well. I later find out that they represent the two brothers who own the land on each side of the road. I'm intrigued with them enough to later find out that they are works of art by Californian highway artist, John Cerney I'm almost embarrassed to mention that somehow I somehow miss his other installations on the road into and out of Roswell, which is my final destination for the next two nights.

But I have an excuse. I've left the most beautiful mountain village this morning, travelled back almost 1,000 years to life in a Native American pueblo, before briefly passing the iconic Santa Fe Trail and Route 66, and arriving in the centre of Alien country in the late afternoon. I don't go looking for a hotel. I just pull into the first reasonable-looking place I find and book in for the next two nights and hope that I'm not beamed up into some weird spaceship before I explore tomorrow.


TITLE QUOTE: Howard T Rainer

GIANT COWBOY CUTOUTS: US Hwy 285 Vaughn, NM. They are located about 22.5 miles east of Vaughn, on both sides of the road, between mileposts 184 and 183.

ACCOMMODATION: Comfort Suites, 3610 N Main St, Roswell, NM 88201

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