Sunday, December 22, 2013


Weather: Snow on the solstice, but not enough to seep into the ground; 8:25 hours of daylight today.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, prickly pear; leaves on Apache plume, German iris, yuccas, garlic, hollyhocks, winecup mallow, Saint John’s wort, vinca, coral bells, cheat grass; rose stems green.

What’s red: Cholla, Oregon holly and coral beardtongue leaves.

What’s grey or blue: Four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, pinks, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s yellow or brown: Arborvitae.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Small birds wintering in the area.

Weekly update: I’ve been driving around the past few weeks doing something I promised myself I would do someday: look more closely at the houses, walls, and outbuildings that have survived from earlier times. As I’ve tried to photograph walls, I’ve been struck by regional differences that are more related to topography than to culture or government.

When I lived in Ohio, I drove to Philadelphia several times on business related to finishing my degree. I often took Route 30 through Lancaster, Gettysburg and Chambersburg west to Pittsburgh. Roads and settlements had evolved together. Both were old, dating back to Revolutionary times.

In Lancaster, and in settlements west of Pittsburgh, old buildings survived. Barns and fences had been replaced as agricultural needs changed. But some old houses still stood. The one below, then an inn, began as a log structure. The stone building was added later, with a separate entrance.

At Pittsburgh, traffic transferred to the Ohio river. In southwestern Ohio, early settlers depended on tributaries and canals. Early houses were built on bluffs overlooking the waterways. When roads were built, the historic buildings were stranded.

Closer to the Great Lakes, the land had been flattened by the glaciers. The Northwest Ordinance decreed the land be surveyed before it was settled. Roads followed section lines. Settlers built along roads to get wheat to market. In northeastern Ohio and my part of Michigan, early houses can still be seen on rural roads that haven’t been moved or been abandoned. Houses with Greek Revival details probably go back to the 1820s in Ohio, and to the 1830s in southern Michigan.

New Mexico is arid. The earliest infrastructure efforts were directed toward building acequias to make land arable. Their banks served as thruways for locals. Roads between settlements were rudimentary.

When automobiles arrived, roadways around Santa Cruz were narrow. People moved their houses for better access. Builders widened where they could. Shoulders don’t exist today, but ditches sometimes parallel roads. Traffic is heavy. Drivers are impatient with needs to slow down. Few places are safe enough to pull over and take pictures. There aren’t even places to walk.

When they built the road to Taos, engineers avoided the settlement. The highway was routed between the river and village. Business and homes flocked to the road. Traffic became congested. Tourists balked at the delays.

Then taxes were increased to match land values. People subdivided their land. Heirs sold to developers. Before I moved here, that fluorescence had peaked. Only a few post-World War II houses or early businesses remained between parking lots for newer stores.  The pink house stands next to the building above.

North of San Juan pueblo, the highway goes through bad lands. Small roads and unmarked private drives connect them with settlements nearer the river. It may be road builders learned. The paths also may have arisen from a respect for the land. I’m told in Egypt, after the Aswan dam was built, roads were constructed along the edges of the badlands. The purpose of the dam was to bring more land under cultivation. Roads were not allowed to interfere with that end.

On the western side of the Río Grande, the railroad arrived before highways. A rudimentary road was carved along the edge of the badlands. People built new houses along the road. Whatever is nearer the river is now invisible, reachable only by private drives. Beyond that, the Corps of Engineers has taken control of the flood plains.

After the Denver and Rio Grande failed, a better road was needed north to Chama. It was built through, not beside, the badlands.

Once roads were built, something happened here that did not happen in the north. Roads weren’t simply abandoned, they deliberately were closed. The ranch road beside my house, once went to Jaconita. As soon as I put up my fence, the ranch owner had the pueblo close the road with a gate linking my fence to my neighbor’s.

It’s still possible to walk along the road - it’s only been closed twenty years. However, when you get near the ranch, the road is closed again.

People with ATVs and wire cutters don’t let fences stop them. There’s an opening in the fence. Its possible to continue walking the road. While the road to the ranch was paved with arroyo sand, after trucks made that possible, the continuation is closer to the condition of much earlier roads.

Ditches have been upgraded, but new landowners do not see them as thoroughfares. Each year, major domos have problems getting access to some. Many have been enclosed by border fences. Some have been deliberately blocked.

As I said, this is not simply a matter of culture. If you take the road to Angel Fire or Route 64 from Tres Piedras to Tierra Amarilla, the roads are like the one through the mountains east of Pittsburgh. They avoid the most valuable land. Instead, they hug the highlands, with creeks below.

Here and there, older structures have survived the weather. Topography is not destiny, but it is one of the fates whispering to the adventurer. You know where early fields had to be located, but you can’t get there. What you may see of what survives is highly restricted. Draw no conclusions. The evidence is concealed.

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