Saturday, November 30, 2019

In like a lion

The back Forty at twenty.

Here in Taos we’ve been hit by three snowstorms in as many weeks. And with the early onslaught has come mid-winter temperatures. Saturday we had a low of 5 and the high has been 30 for several days. That’s the price a guy pays for the glistening beauty and cinematic skies for which we’re famous. Better yet the Ski Valley opened on Thanksgiving to ten inches of fresh and I don’t have to write much. The images will tell the story. Or so I say.

Wagon, La Hacienda de Los Martinez, Taos, NM

Cattle in falling snow. Arroyo Hondo, NM.

Puffs of snow. La Morada de Valdez, Valdez,NM.

Here rests Bernardo Salazar, Valdez, NM
Yesterday we had a ground blizzard. That’s a term I’d never heard till Melissa, our favorite server at Taos Diner II, described the gusting snow Saturday morning. She said that she hails from South Park, Colorado where the phenomenon of gale force winds blowing fallen snow horizontally is called a ground blizzard. Earlier I had seen the wind blowing the snow on our pasture northward at daybreak. It was almost enough of an impediment to keep from my Huevos Rancheros. Green. Then again nothing keeps me away from food.

Frolic, El Prado, NM
To our north I-70 traffic was paralyzed all the way from Denver to the Kansas border and 125 miles south of us Albuquerque had record snow for November. From the Sierra and the Rockies, across the plains and up the coast to New England has been a video game of spinouts and 50 car pileups. Travel ground to a halt some places and thousands of flights were cancelled. We, happily, were basking in the warmth of friendship and an extraordinary Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks for the memorable evening to Jamie, Elizabeth and Bob.

Take heart Taoseños, it’ll be 46 by Tuesday. Maybe we’ll go to Palm Springs.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

El Rancho Grande

Elena, the manager of the Riata Motel in Marfa, told me that she was from Valentine, Texas. Her hometown lies 36 miles north on US 90, It's on life support, but it is the location of the fabled Prada Store art installation. No, it is not in Marfa as you have been led to believe. It's in an even more unlikely place. Valentine is as far from Milano as you can get without leaving earth. 

When I asked Elena about the changes she’d seen in Marfa. She said, “This was nothing but a ranch town when I was growing up. And now it’s a suburb of Austin.”

Marfa still a ranch town at its heart. It’s but a speck on the broad Chihuahuan Desert and all that surrounds it are ranches. The real economy of the Trans-Pecos is ranching and always will be. The Border Patrol must be second. Its green and white trucks riddle the landscape like Halliburton vehicles that dominate the roads in Wyoming. They are also green and white. Who modeled whom? That’s my question.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Marfa Live

Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Marfa, Texas

The target of my four-night sojourn was the tiny art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Or maybe Marfa was an excuse for a road trip through the part of New Mexico called “Little Texas”, a sprawl of ranch and scrub that looks, feels, smells and votes like the Lone Star State. Along with ranching and the frontier mentality that comes with it is Big Oil. Southeastern New Mexico is exploding thanks to due to massive oil reserves in the Delaware Basin that runs six miles from Ral to Carlsbad. These riches have created boom town conditions that have driven real estate through the roof and created a housing shortage that has forced drilling companies to build workers camps with temporary housing made from shipping containers and with 24 hour security to keep out hookers and drug dealers. $100,000 a year jobs abound for low skill workers and so does simmering resentment for taxes that mitigate real estate taxes and pay for much of elementary and high school education throughout New Mexico. New Mexico is now the third largest oil and gas producer in the country after Texas and North Dakota. And by 2023 the Permian Basin in Texas and the Delaware Basin will combine to be the world’s third largest oil producer behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. It’s a very big deal.

The Palace Theatre and the Presidio County Courthouse

Just south of Carlsbad, the epicenter of Little Texas, I drove south through the Guadalupe Mountains, sped through the lamentable Van Horn, Texas and dodged the gauntlet of green and white Border Patrol trucks that line the road to Marfa. The Border Patrol is a huge presence on the highway and on hillsides that overlook migrant routes in ribbons of arroyos that point north into the United States. Hidden by a stand of Mesquites ten miles south of Van Horn were two young soldiers with semi-automatic weapons at the ready. It was a chilling moment. 

Then 37 miles past the famous Prado store in Valentine I was in Marfa and found the antidote for the heartburn I contracted in Little Texas.

The Saint George Hotel

The Hotel Paisano

To have a hipster enclave in the middle of no damn where Texas is quite improbable. There really is no there there and yet it seems to work. The town enjoyed a flicker of fame when the film Giant was filmed there in 1956. Its Hotel Paisano co-starred in the movie and was Marfa’s first claim to fame.

Donald Judd's concrete installation at the Chinati Foundation

In 1971 the Minimalist artist Donald Judd from New York City fell in love with the Chihuahuan desert and rented a house for the summer. When he needed more space to produce and display his large scale art he bought two aircraft hangers at the WWII era Marfa Army Airfield. Then he bought two ranches and in 1979 acquired Fort D.A. Russell which became the Chinati Foundation which exhibits the work of modernists Ingólfur Arnason, Don Flavin, Claus Oldenburg, Choose van Bruggen and IIya Kabakov along with Judd.

Marfa Books in the Hotel Saint George

Clearly, Judd’s Chinati Foundation was catnip for the wave of artists that have descended on Marfa. The Lannan Foundation has established a writers-in-residency program. There’s a theatre troop and the Marfa Ballroom shows art films and hosts live music. Marfa Myths is an annual music festival that has its roots in the stark landscape of Far West Texas. There are 19 galleries in the town of 2,000. And I do mean 2,000. There are no suburbs and the nearest towns of any consequence are 20 miles away.

On two warm October days Marfa felt a little like Southern California, a touch of Palm Springs and a whisper of Santa Barbara. The simplicity of the architecture and of the contemporary art scene was somehow freeing.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

But for the railroad

Abandoned gas station, Vaughn, NM.

When I finished with photographing lovely Encino, I continued on US 285 to neighboring Vaughn, NM. That’s 16 miles that follow the course of the BNSF Railroad. Unlike Encino, Vaughn is still breathing. There’s a gas station and convenience store, a Standard Oil bulk plant and a thriving burger joint, the Chuckwagon. Compared to withering Encino it’s the picture of life. It lies at the junction of the BNSF and the Union Pacific Lines and boasts a population of 400 isolated souls. It was 888 when the town was founded by the railroad in 1920.

The shuttered auto repair shop that adjoins the station.

The Standard Oil bulk plant in Vaughn. A bulk plant is a distributor of petroleum products.  

To my delight Vaughn has its share of derelict buildings. The discarded buildings aren’t old by New Mexico standards and seem mid-century modern with a southwestern bent. The architecture suggests that Vaughn’s heyday was the 1940s and 1950s.

Later, I back tracked on 285 past Encino where the BNSF railroad tracks cross the highway. I turned southwest toward Corona and on to Carrizozo, Tularosa and Alamogordo. In the postage stamp village of Corona alongside the railroad tracks is the shell of a handsome general mercantile store.

The old general mercantile store in Corona, NM

The connecting thread of these villages is the railroad. It’s no revelation to recognize that the iron horse really did build the American West and by extension America itself. When you drive just a few of the blue highways of New Mexico and West Texas as I have recently done the importance of the railroad is writ large. Even Marfa, the hipster haven, lives in the middle of no damn where, began as a water stop for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad. Today the Sunset Limited passes through Marfa three times a week but doesn’t stop.

The railroad connects far flung communities that have few residents across great swaths of prairie. Marfa is two hours from El Paso, the nearest real city, and 20 miles from Alpine where there’s a an honest to God supermarket. Neither Encino or Vaughn has even a mom and pop grocery store. As far as I can tell you have to drive to Roswell 70 miles distant to find such a treasure. Talk about a food desert. And to think we besmirch rural Mississippi.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The more things change

First sighting, Encino, NM, 2019

When I left Rudy Mauldin at the ranch I was totally exhilarated by my good fortune to meet the gentleman cowboy at the side of the road. The encounter proved, I thought, that hitting the road and being a vessel for whatever comes your way is a key to finding stories, maybe even life. My chest was full of high desert air and Rudy's story launched me full tilt toward the adventure just around the bend. I can't express how alive I felt in that moment. I haven't found the words though I've written and rewritten them in my mind all week long.

It reminded me that the most memorable moments in travel are those where you connect with another human being. Certainly, the thirty minutes with Rudy were the highlight of my four-day photo safari through southeastern New Mexico and far west Texas. The handful of images that are keepers pale compared to meeting him and learning his story. It's the people that make the memories.  Like Mimo, our world wise driver in Rome during our inaugural trip to Europe or Carolina, the owner of Por Que No the tiny bar near my Spanish school in Antigua, Guatemala. Her rags to riches tale enriched my life. That she greeted me like her long lost uncle after a three years absence is the foam on the cerveza obscura that I happily quaff. The bonds we make leaven the bread of travel and keep us hungry for more. Or thirsty, for that matter. Without them a trip is just trip.

I stayed on US 285 and crossed I-10 at Cline’s Corner, the big sign for the storied truck stop looming above me to the right. I followed the highway south to the fading railroad town of Encino where I lingered for at least an hour photographing the residue what once was. My search for the forgotten and forlorn continues. And I’m not even talking about photography.

Good Luck, Keeler, CA, 2005

There’s not much left of Encino. It's nothing but a tumbledown railroad siding built by the BNSF that's hanging on by the thinnest of threads. There are no retail businesses left in Encino. There is a church and a high school. I didn't see a soul. I photographed on US 285 which is Encino’s Main Street. Then I drove every single street in the burg in search of my relic del dia. Two blocks north sat a promising aluminum trailer. Trailers, as you know, loom large in my pantheon of pathetic objects. One of my trailer shots in fact, the one called Good Luck from Keeler, California is one of my top five selling images according to my ever present abacus. So, I am understandably drawn to the metal clad dwellings.

Trailer, Encino, NM, 2019

Terminus, Encino, NM, 2009

Terminus and Tree, 2019

I wandered west a couple of blocks where I met this school bus for the second time. In the ten years since my last encounter with the vehicle a tree has grown beside it. This exemplifies that subjects don’t have to be new to be worthwhile and that capturing the evolution of something is worthwhile, too. Several years ago I heard from a west coast photographer who told me that all that’s left of the trailer captured in Good Luck fourteen years ago is the facade of the poor thing. So, corollary to observing change and really knowing a subject is the maxim that photographing the subject in the first place is a good idea. It may not be there the next time.