An Encounter in the Desert

Acoma Sky City

It was our third day in Albuquerque. Martine and I were visiting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. While Martine wandered around looking at the exhibits, I stopped in front of a table covered with dozens of pieces of pottery that caught my eye. The artist was an Acoma Indian named Larry.

Now I had visited Acoma twice, and Martine, once. The Sky City pueblo shared with Old Oraibi on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation the distinction of being the two oldest continuously inhabited towns in North America. It sits atop a mesa closed to all but reservation traffic. One must take a bus from the Sky City Cultural Center and Ha’aku Museum to get to the top. Then, after taking the tour, one can take the bus back down or walk down a relatively easy trail.

I told Larry that we planned to visit Sky City in about a week or so, and that we had seen it before. I saw a pottery seed container bearing an image of a horned toad. Even though it was not cheap, I bought it because it was elegant. I explained to Larry that I liked to collect turtles and frogs because I, too, lived in the desert (9 inches of rain in a typical year); and turtles and frogs made me think of rain.

Horned Toad

This caught Larry’s attention. He recommended that when we next visited Sky City a week hence, we try to get a guide named Turtle.

As it turned out, Martine and I could not visit Sky City that next week: It was closed for a tribal religious ceremony. We were staying at the Sky City Casino on the Acoma Reservation, where I became ill. Martine had to drive me to the Indian Health Service clinic on the reservation, where I was fitted up with an IV with Solu-Cortef added. I got well quickly, as I wrote earlier.

Although we did not get to see Sky City during that trip, I felt in a strange way that I received a blessing of sorts while we stayed at the Casino. I even won a small amount of money.

 

Mindalae – A Museum of Ecuadorian Handicrafts

Ceramic Snake

My brother and I were staying on La Niña in the tourist suburb of Mariscal at the Viejo Cuba. On our first day in Ecuador, we were tired out by the 9,000 foot (3,000 meter) altitude, but we had a few hours before vegging out for the night. Right down the street, at the intersection with Reina Victoria, was a fantastic folk museum called the Mindalae. Both of us were interested in purchasing some folk art: The Mindalae provided a guide to the best of what was produced around the country.

We took the elevator to the top floor and proceeded to walk down looking at the exhibits, many of them based on pre-Columbian originals. Included were ceramics, textiles, ceremonial objects, basketry, and other crafts. Adjoining the museum is a craft store with an excellent selection of items paralleling the exhibits, and offered at a fair price.

Costumes

The displays at the museum were in both Spanish and English. If you are interested in Andean handicrafts, it is a good idea to visit a museum like the Mindalae before visiting the various local markets. You will have a better idea of what is available in every region of the country.

Dan and I enjoyed the Mindalae so much that, after Dan left to return to the U.S., I visited it a second time.

Pioneer Life in the Old West

Figure on Three Hours of Fun

One of our favorite types of museums is the outdoor museum concentrating on life as it was lived in former times. In Bishop, California, there is the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Village. In Dearborn, Michigan, there is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which I saw as a kid with my parents. And it’s not just an American phenomenon: Martine and I loved Enkhuizen in the Netherlands, and in Iceland I enjoyed visiting Reykjavík’s Arbær Open Air Museum. Finally, last month, Martine and I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village in Aztec, New Mexico.

After visiting the Anasazi ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument, we drove down the street and checked out the Aztec Museum. The more we looked, the more we were drawn into the vortex of pioneer life in northwestern New Mexico. There were toys, costumes, minerals, three barber chairs, agricultural implements, and, in the back, a whole pioneer village consisting of small-sized schools, stores, doctor’s office, pharmacy, blacksmith—you name it.

One of the strangest exhibits was the Pecos West Cyclorama, a labor of love by Valenty Zaharek which “features over 100 hand carved woodcarvings of people, animals, plants, buildings, vehicles and the high mesas and mountains of the desert Southwest. The cyclorama measures eighteen feet in diameter and slowly rotates as old west cowboy music plays in the background.” I spent over half an hour admiring the attempt to summarize the Old West in a rotating wooden display, with music no less.

Aztec Pioneer Schoolhouse

Martine and I also went into the Pioneer Village outbuiildings, which are built to approximately half scale. Above is a photo of the little one-room schoolhouse, complete with teacher’s and students’ desks, blackboard, and typical textbooks and wall displays. The same attention to detail appears in all the other buildings as well.

Originally we didn’t plan on coming to Aztec. Instead, we were going to go on to Durango, Colorado. When we were in Chama taking the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad, however, Martine was showing signs of discomfort from the altitude, so we changed our plans and went to Aztec instead. We had no reason to regret our decision.

 

A Fort from the Apache Wars

Porch at Fort Stanton, New Mexico

Not far from Lincoln, New Mexico, which saw the Lincoln County War in which Billy the Kid was involved, lies a U.S. Cavalry fort from the days of the Apache Wars. In fact, it also played a role in the Lincoln County War—on the side of the Dolan/Murphy cabal. Most U.S. Cavalry forts in the Old West were constructed of adobe and so were eroded to nothingness by the rains. Fort Stanton, on the other hand, was built of stone and faced with whitewashed stucco, and so has come down to us more or less intact.

In fact, after the Indian Wars, the fort was used for various other purposes, such as a tuberculosis hospital and a prison camp for Nazi POWs. It is now in the New Mexico State Park system and has a museum and a number of outbuildings which are open to visitors.

Cavalry Tunics in the Fort Stanton Museum

Martine and I saw Fort Stanton the same day we visited the town of Lincoln, which is only about a quarter of an hour away. The museum and outbuildings can be visited in about two hours is one is thorough, and an hour if one just wants a quick look at the museum. It’s an unusually pleasant place, with the Rio Bonito running through the grounds, and a helpful docent managing the welcome desk.

The Anasazi Moment

Doorway in Aztec Ruins

The ruins don’t have anything to do with the Aztecs. It was a common 19th century misconception, like the one about the Egyptians building the Mayan pyramids because, somehow, the Mayans weren’t smart enough to build piles of rubble and put a smooth face on them. No, the ruins at Aztec, New Mexico, are one of the settlements of the Anasazi Indians, as they made their way through the Four Corners region some nine hundred years ago.

Chaco Canyon holds the most spectacular ruins, but there are numerous outliers, such as the ruins at Aztec, Salmon, Chimney Rock, Pueblo Pintado, and elsewhere. It looks as if the area went through a period of protracted drought, sending the Anasazi southeast to the valley of the Rio Grande River, to the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, and to Zuñi. There they became the twenty-odd Pueblo Indian tribes, which still exist today.

They entered history abruptly in 1680, when they forcibly expelled the Spanish from New Mexico under a leader called Popé—the only North American peoples to successfully revolt—though they were reconquered some twelve years later. After that, when the United States marched in, they became more docile and did not require any army forts to keep them in line.

The ruins at Aztec are quite spectacular. A large kiva has been restored and even today looks very church-like in a Protestant sort of way. The Pueblo tribes still visit the ruins as they think of the paths their various peoples took to find a place where they could thrive.

Restored Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Some day I would like to return to New Mexico and spend more time at Chaco Canyon, which at one time supported a large population before the waters dried up. In the meantime, it was interesting to see Aztec Ruins National Monument and nearby Salmon Ruins just outside of Bloomfield.

Riding the Cumbres & Toltec RR

Our Train Going Over a Trestle

There are two narrow gauge steam trains relatively close to each other, both once part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western. One runs in Colorado between Durango and Silverton and is, in fact, called the Durango & Silverton. The other runs between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. That is the Cumbres & Toltec—named after Cumbres Pass and the Toltec Gorge, two of the scenic highlights along the route.

Martine and I went on the Cumbres & Toltec, and had planned on also taking the Durango & Silverton. Unfortunately, Martine came down with a headache from the high altitude and was afraid of aggravating it by taking both trains. In addition, the pinched nerve in her back was irritated by the constant lurching of the cars as the train went downhill. So, after our ride on the Cumbres & Toltec, we sought lower ground, even if it was to put us back in the middle of the desert heat we were hoping to avoid.

So it goes.

Martine on the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec ascended to the snow level at around 10,000 feet at its highest point, before going back down 2,000 feet to Antonito. At Antonito, we took a bus back to Chama. The ride took only one hour, whereas the train, on a parallel route, took five hours.

At Osier, Colorado, we were unloaded from the train to have a substantial free buffet lunch before continuing to the end.

Hopefully, some day I may yet take the Durango & Silverton, though without Martine who is puzzled by my love of trains. That love goes way back to my scouting days, when we took the Erie Railroad to Ashtabula, Ohio. Then, in college, I road the New York Central from Cleveland to Albany, New York, from where I took the Vermont Transit bus to Rutland, Vermont, and the White River Coach bus to Hanover, New Hampshire.

I love trains so much that I even enjoy taking the light rail to downtown Los Angeles.

 

Getting Sick While Traveling

The Acoma Cañoncito Laguna Service Unit of the Indian Health Service

Not for the first time, I came down sick on my travels. In 2006, I broke my right shoulder in Tierra del Fuego and received care for it at a clinic in Ushuaia. In 2015, I got food poisoning and had simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting: That time, I cured myself by taking extra Prednisone and managing to keep it down. On this trip, I got food poisoning in Acoma at the tribal Sky City Casino. It was the same diarrhea and vomiting with the addition of chills (though unaccompanied by fever). I wasn’t going to mess around this time. I asked Martine to drive me to the nearest hospital.

The front desk of the Cassino hotel directed us to the Acoma Cañoncito Laguna Service Unit of the Indian Health Service, which, luckily, was just down the street. I was very fortunate that the doctors who interviewed me listened to me and put me on an IV with Solu-Cortef and sulfur (to relieve the nausea). Within two or three hours, I was as good as new. Martine, however, was worried as she sat in the waiting room.

My guess is that I was seriously dehydrated, and that brought on an Addisonian Crisis. As I have no pituitary gland, I had to have an infusion of ACTH with the IV. Once that happened, recovery was quick. The ACL Service Unit did not have any beds, but offered to have me driven to one of the big Albuquerque hospitals an hour east. I thanked them, but refused their offer. Once they get me in a hospital, doctors like to prod and poke me for several days because of my interesting mix of endocrinological issues. I did not want to give them the opportunity, perhaps coming down with a super infection in the process.

The Indian Health Service personnel were very competent, which made me feel good that the Indians—together with one stray traveler—were getting good care.