Last year one of the vice presidents of my company gave me a free round trip ticket on Southwest Airlines. After carefully looking at my schedule and the airline's available flights I decided on New Mexico for my destination. It had been over ten years since I had last been there and I planned my entire trip in a little over a week. By July 3rd I was airborne. I do not need to explain Southwest Airlines to veteran travelers. I prefer to call it the Greyhound of the Sky. Basically the no-frills flights live up to their name and since they have never had a crash they do seem to be doing something right. For those new travelers pack your own lunch and know that the seating is not assigned but first come first served. I find a bag of cut carrot sticks and some raisins usually tide me over until I land.
Post-September 11th I rarely bother to check luggage and since July in New Mexico is always blazing hot I stuck with the federally mandated one carry-on bag and one personal item, meaning a huge purse with lots of film. Another tip here is if you arrive early to the Southwest check-in or do the pre-check-in online you will be given the "A" boarding pass. Unlike old Disneyland "E tickets", which were the best, the further in the alphabet your boarding pass is lettered results in the later you are called to board. This directly effects how much luggage fits into the overhead bins. I only once nearly had my bag checked, but being handy with cramming things into small spaces from years of apartment dwelling, I avoided that horror. Soon enough my two New Mexico friends met me at the Albuquerque airport and from there I had a wondrous whirlwind trip.
One of my friends, Dan, had a single ambition for my travels. I was to have a perfect time. His personal goal was for me to see as many of the pueblos and casinos run by the pueblos near Albuquerque as humanly possible in three days. All the while there was a constant barrage of his favorite New Mexico cuisine. Since Dan is a transplanted New Yorker he took pride in showing me the New Mexico ways he had learned in the years that he had moved to the Southwest. I was more than up for the challenge of trying.
Quickly I found the most common question I was asked was, "Do you want Red or Green?" To which I would usually reply, "Christmas, please!" meaning a bit of both. The "red or green" they were referring to was the type of chili on put on the food. Red chili pepper or green chili pepper, hatch chili peppers being one of the most noted New Mexico garnishments. I was smart and purchased more than my fair share of the delectable salsas and chili peppers to ship home. FedEx is one of my favorite companies and I used them well. Christmas is a way nummy choice and a totally tourist response, but hey what did I care? The bites of red chili pepper alternated with green were so delicious and after all I was on vacation. Not like I took many of those lately.
One of the pueblos Dan decided to go and see was Acoma. The Acoma Pueblo is also called the Sky City. On the drive out we had to stop by one of Dan's favorite roadside fry bread stands. A blue tarp stretched out over the cooking area, near the vendor's car, sheltered me from the relentless midday sun while the couple who ran the stand fixed up fry bread with slices of mystery meat, chilies, lettuce and onions --optional -- of course. I stuck with just the delicious fry bread and nibbled a bit of the lettuce and chili. The prices vary from stand to stand but usually you can buy the meal for less than five dollars. The twenty minutes or so of us waiting for the food to be prepared and then eating it, yielded a wealth of information. We heard some tidbits of gossip from the lady, while she watched her husband cook, about the nearby pueblo they were both from and then their personal family trials and tribulations. We were told some local legends and before we left we had been invited to come back that evening to their pueblo for a fiesta. Very full, onward we traveled. While driving Dan also told various New Mexico stories; how the black crows were made was one such tale. The ride was peppered with folklore and music -- the music an Albuquerque station that played only old time rock and roll. The road to Acoma was windy and very picturesque. I enjoyed singing along while hearing coyote and rabbit stories.
Once we arrived at the base of the pueblo we purchased our tickets for the ride and tour. Dan and I both decided to pay for a pass to take pictures. We were handed a red ticket like you get from a small time carnival to hang on our cameras with a string. Then we received a lecture and a printed list with the main points of what we were allowed to photograph. The most important part of the list noted that we were not authorized to ever sell our pictures or take any photographs of pueblo or the people without their permission. That was fine by me as I preferred shots without people whenever possible. Solemnly we both agreed. Dan had a digital camera and I had my trusty 35 millimeter.
Up the mountain we went. New Mexico in July is extremely dry and extremely hot. Being a coastal California beach kid I was not in my element at all. There was nearly no water and it was really hot. I do not think it dipped much below 90 degrees the entire time I was there, including the nights. The Sky City Pueblo is higher than Albuquerque. The heat is felt more intensely up on the mountain as well as the sun and it was so dry I felt parched from the second I walked off the bus. And yet there is a feeling of touching a bit of heaven. A brand new guide took over the tour when we stepped off the bus at the top. He carefully explained how Acoma was a working pueblo with various families and clans that lived there year round. Then he went on to tell us that there was no running water, no sewer system, no electricity and no cable television. The lack of cable seemed to upset the twenty something guide more than the other missing comforts. He told us of his family affiliations within the matriarchal society and how his favorite cousin had one of the few generators up on the pueblo. The generator ran one of the only televisions on top of the mesa, without any cable. I was silently laughing at how this obviously upset him more than not having a flush toilet or a refrigerator. For a matriarchal system it was obvious the women were still doing all the work.
The silence of this spot is very haunting. Winds make some sounds, people kicking dust and coughing make some more. But there are very few cars most folks walk up the trails. We were told in winter that the road could be dangerous and people were used to hiking up and down the mountain. There was just the wind constantly blowing at the unsecured bits and pieces of century old pueblo homes. The unrelenting heat made the tour group go from the shade and shadows next to the cool adobe walls. Water was shared by all. The entire time I continued to snap frame after frame of what I was seeing. I went through quite a few rolls of film nearly unaware of my changing them. I listened to the guide as he told the fireside tales from his childhood. Dan later sent me a sound wave of a local radio host who retold folk stories. Some of the tales both the guide and Dan related to me were in the program and it brought a huge smile to my face and I remembered the New Mexico trip fondly. I was also able to purchase a stack of books for my nieces from local shops. All over New Mexico you can find books telling the various pueblo legends and creation stories. There is more than one story for every pueblo and I found them to be a great gift for the kids.
As we walked along in the group we came to one of the more visual spots in the tour. There was a large ladder made of round wood logs leaning against a wall going up to the roof tops of one of the abode dwellings. It was explained that this was a kiva and that only men were allowed to enter the structure. The seven steps up were to be used by the men as they went into the ceremonial place. The guide was brief in his explanation and a few women bristled at the idea they were not permitted to go somewhere. I held my tongue and waited. Soon my group wandered to the next point of interest. Yet my eyes had been caught by something I saw from angle at the foot of the steps. An image was there and I took a breath and framed the shot. A button pushed and frozen in the sweltered furnace like heat was the picture that captured the forbidden staircase.
Drained by the heat nearly all of us declined the guide's offer to use the dirt path going down the mountain that the Sky People used. A few hardy souls did decide to traverse down the thin rock strewn trail to our group's stunned amazement. By this time we were all drenched in sweat and well sunburned. The heavy application of sunscreen has little effect at that altitude. While the view from that spot was breathtaking I knew gravity would cause no end of pain if I walked or fell down the pathway. We went back to the van and breathed in the air conditioning in while heading back to our cars. The step back in time was framed in a picture as well as in my mind.
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