This isn’t my only observation from working at a newspaper, but this I do know: the great thing about it is hearing people’s stories and many times, in the best of cases, being changed by …
This isn’t my only observation from working at a newspaper, but this I do know: the great thing about it is hearing people’s stories and many times, in the best of cases, being changed by them.
Regardless of the topic, a lot of these stories end up being about “the old days.” And depending on the teller, “the old days” is really any point in time. And regardless of the time, many of these stories also end up being about roads. This is a universal truth, it seems, democratized among tellers. So naturally, I think these stories, which are stories about the way things change and how we feel about it, are ultimately mediations on death.
In a year of reporting on roads, I chose this as my topic.
For those of us new enough to Taos, the idea that the West Rim Road wasn’t paved until about a decade ago can be hard to imagine. But I still try to imagine. I think about the unpaved “old days” when I’m driving around town, taking the High Road across U.S. Hill or going north to Questa or Colorado. I think, how the hell did they to do this?
And ultimately, this is also a meditation on death.
Getting the map
My most recent mediation in this vein — a road trip, we’ll call it — took me from the convenience store in Arroyo Hondo to the convenience store in Costilla. The drive had me thinking how, even now, there’s nothing convenient about going between the two other than the road being paved.
Before 522, there was State Road 3. The former highway still bears that name but shows its age on a handful of extant roadsigns — “Old State Road 3,” some to the south end and some on the north, the switch somewhere on the north side of the Hondo Valley.
When I mentioned this in conversation I was going to check out the old highway, I was quickly directed to Corky Hawk. During his time leading the small but enthusiastic Taos County Historical Society, he walked the very roads I wanted to explore. And then some. It wasn’t like on the routes south; only a few well-used paths went north of Taos because there were comparatively fewer reasons to make the effort. The oldest path is what Hawk and historians call the Old Spanish Road, a route that hugs the slopes of the Sangres, an “ingenious ways people found to get through these mountains,” he said. The U.S. military built a road in 1876, and Taos County, three years into statehood, built another. All varied but intersected. Depending on the place, Old State Road 3 follows exactly or parallels a slightly older state highway, State Road 8. In others areas, the highway — unpaved, I imagine — was the first road to go over a particular drainage, something made possible by early dirt-working equipment. The construction of each road led the the eventual passing of the rest.
I decided to retrace the old highway between Taos and Colorado.
Maps of these roads and the places they passed through do exist, I should point out. But maps, like stories and especially stories about death, have both intriguing morsels and glaring omissions. One map listed Lobo del Agua as a community that existed between San Cristobal and Lama, while another, a map of a land grant, includes within its boundaries no roads: like a lot of things, that map depicted idea more than actuality.
For this day, and another day
It had been a dry summer so far, but the forest had just reopened to people other than firefighters. By the middle of that Sunday morning, the monsoons were starting to set up over the mountains. Say what you will about the power of prayer, but some people had theirs answered.
The first leg of the trip went the leisurely way through Hondo, first along the river, then up the switchbacks and past a little spring that lit the hill in a green made deep by the thick overcast and stark by a brittle and persistent drought. The road meets back with the present highway — pavement and all — just north of the Hondo hill. It was a leisurely reminder that there are different ways to get where you’re going. The highway, more or less, follows Old State Road 3 between there and San Cristobal where it cuts east toward the D.H. Lawrence Ranch. Visiting that place would be an adventure for another day, much like reading that Lawrence book tucked behind the seat of truck.
From San Cristobal, the old highway goes north to Lama on the grated dirt Forest Road 493, snaking up the north side of that valley.
Immediately, I was in the burn scar of the 1996 Hondo Fire. It was humbling, especially coming off a serious burn ban. Oak thickets cover the slopes as the road drops into the Garapata drainage, where on the Fourth of July the San Cristobal firefighters found a couple of guys with a campfire. Dumb. I could see only a handful of root wads turned over to the sky, one cow and no flowers, save for a stalk of purple lupine a ways down the road.
In Lama, one road heads west toward the highway, the other generally east to the Lama Foundation. A handmade road sign at the turnoff says “Yield to the present.” I wondered if this wasn’t also a mediation on death — it’s carved similar in form to the all too common roadside descansos, the tributes of a cross to the dearly departed, the memorials Catholic pilgrims take their hat off for — but of course it is.
The Old State Road 3 winds its way north, where it drops down into the last valley before reaching Questa, the expansive landscape of the San Luis Valley that starts just beyond the village. The road goes underneath the old tailings pipeline from the molybdenum mine, elevated above the road and Red River. Along the banks, cottonwoods grew old, willows grew thick and the river bent between thickets of poison hemlock and wild rose.
The road runs west of the highway in Questa, going behind the municipal hall. The only other named remnant is 20 miles to the north, a small stretch of road just before Costilla — paved, but not by any current highway standards. By the time I got there, it was starting to drizzle and seemed time to head back; Down the highway, but down the “new” one.
I got to where I was going.
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