Monday, October 25, 2010

Into the Heart of Chile Country

"Bounty of Harvest" - 8"x10" paper negative box camera image

It was a sudden, unplanned Sunday afternoon road trip, down through the heart of New Mexico, paralleling the Rio Grande, to the southern part of the state, to meet up with an old friend.

He gave me driving directions, informing me of which exit off the interstate to take. Knowing that exits are numbered by their mile marker, and knowing that mile markers on I-25 begin at the state's southern border with Texas, I knew we'd be on the road for a few hours, at least.

Driving on I-25 south of Albuquerque, one passes a hodge-podge of industrial scrap yards, auto-salvage yards, farm fields both fallow and fertile, sand dunes weed-strewn and marked by the scars of countless off-road vehicles, and billboards like cinema screens, advertising some local radio station or gambling casino or, by its blank marquee, a sign of the economic times.

The clutter and detritus of a marginalized economy soon pass as we follow the ancient path of Spanish Conquistadors, past fields irrigated by the Rio Grande's precious waters, threading its way through badlands and deserts and mesas, a geological windfall.

We pass a newly planted grove of pecan trees, on the site of a former vineyard, abutting the narrow strip of clay and sand between the highway and the high bluffs to the west. The former winery's weather-beaten building still sports a real estate sign. One wonders whether the real estate company has fared any better than the winery, in these tough economic times. I am reminded that, despite the seeming impoverishment of my home state (comparing how other states perform against each other, we seem to hover near dead-last in almost every metric imaginable), there seems to be some underlying toughness, born perhaps of centuries of tradition and the appeal of the frontier west; despite hosting the high-technology centers of Los Alamos and Sandia National laboratories, and Intel's largest semiconductor factory, there seems to remain some underlying frontier wildness to the place that refuses to be tamed, except that one remain in close proximity to the land.

Soon the highway meanders apart from the river valley, which is now miles distant to the east. Columns of smoke rise intermittently from farmer's fields being burned after the harvest, being readied for winter's arrival. In the far distance mountain ranges loom, one after the other, more like dreams than reality, dreams of lands distant and vast.

Reality harsh and cruel is never far from view in New Mexico. Whereas in many parts of the midwest, like in central Texas, myriads of small towns hide the harshness of life behind a facade of clean, neat and orderly, the small towns of New Mexico are testaments to failed dreams, the scars of brokenness clearly evident by the clutter of rusted cars and broken out-buildings, overgrown and in seeming disuse. What comes to mind is the term "badlands," of which Marty Robbins' famous song is a more gently reminder.

We stop in Socorro, at the Manzaneras Coffee House, for a latte and scone to go, and soon we're back on the road, winding our way south, past the little village of San Antonio, with its famous Owl Cafe (although we prefer the Buckhorn, across the street) and the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and in the far distance the desert where, fifty five years ago, a nuclear explosive was tested at a place called Trinity.

We pass abandoned cars along the side of the highway, while miles to the east the Rio Grande pools and collects into that lengthy recreational lake called Elephant Butte. We soon find our exit, and a mile or so later we pull up into a humble RV park along a two-lane highway. Our friend Bob meets us at the entrance, and within minutes the quietness and peacefulness of the place begins to settle the dust from the road, our minds and spirits relaxing once again. Driving the nation's interstate highways can seem more like combat these days than genteel motoring.

Bob shows us the little convenience store adjacent to the RV park, with their well-supplied stock of fish bait in the back room. We are soon on the road again, this time Bob is driving, heading down through the farmlands of the Hatch valley, past centuries-old fields of chiles, corn and alfalfa. The harvest is well underway, the tin roofs of sheds covered in bright red mats of chiles being sun-dried, and the fields still full of chile plants, their green foliage dotted with bright red pods ripe for harvest.

We take a turnoff down a side road, and stop in at a roadside market, to purchase some produce. We buy fresh green chiles, bags of red chile powder (both medium and hot) and bags of pinto beans and tomatoes. No one seems to be around to take our money so, after waiting a few minutes, we write ourselves a sales receipt on a spare sheet of paper and leave it, with our cash and a sizable tip for general politeness, and are on our way again. As we leave our payment under a metal can behind the counter, we notice other receipts already in place, from others just like us who found this roadside market a place of faith-based commerce.

Travelling back up the two-lane highway, we stop to inspect a camel, munching dried tumbleweeds in a fenced corral, and finally stop in for an early dinner at a roadside cafe. Family run, the cafe offers us some of the best New Mexican food we've had in quite a long time. The red chile sauce is dark red, sweet and hot, and the green sauce is gentle and full of flavor. We comment that Albuquerque's selection of New Mexican restaurants seems to have dwindled in quality during the last decade; we can hardly recommend a place for out-of-towners to try, they all seem so mediocre. But not down here, in the heart of New Mexico's chile-growing region, where good food, at modest prices, seems to be the norm.

We soon say our goodbyes and are once again on the road, quiet in our introspection, watching the sun setting on the distant mountains, the hills glazed in an otherworldly light that seems impossible to capture in-camera, more like the light of a distant dream from which we've yet to fully awaken from. It is dark when we arrive home, but our hearts are enlivened by our afternoon's time on the road into the heart of chile country.


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