We had a visit last week from some old chums from America, Albuquerque in fact. My chum had been a pedeatrician and had retired at 65. I got the impression that he found retirement difficult, this despite telling me what a pleasure it was to read in bed in a morning and not to get out of his pyjamas until late in the day. I was not convinced and I’ve written elsewhere about reading in bed in the morning. Anyway, good news, he seems to have found a retirement calling. He has joined the board of a school that works with victims of child abuse. In his usual, most un-American, style (i.e. he is very cynical) he told us of his meetings with politicians completely uninterested in what the school was doing and only interested in selling themselves / telling him about what s/he had done. As he said what do you expect in a state that is either first or fiftieth in all statistical measures of social or economic success. First in levels of child abuse and fiftieth in funding for social welfare and so on. On the several occasions we have been to visit them (in the days when we used to travel and pre-Breaking Bad days), we had always enjoyed the South West, New Mexico particularly. It’s quite close (relatively) to our land near Durango. Their visit reminded me of a blog I wrote quite a few months ago for another blog site and as something of a counter-balance to the above negativity, I decided to share it with you. The reason for the photo above will become clear and should address the concerns of the critics of my previous blog photos. Read on.There’s no doubt that initially, and for a long while afterwards, our experience of America was East Coast based. We lived in Rockville, Maryland for a year while on exchange as a teacher. Our weekend jaunts were into DC., to snow bound cabins in West Virginia, trips to Annapolis and Chesapeake Bay and our first out-of-state trip was to the North East, starting in New York along, for us, the legendary New Jersey turnpike. We’d come to look for America but only as far as it was located in this North East quadrant. So it was for pretty much the whole year until our cross country trip to the West coast at the end of the year. Subsequent visits in the next few years were confined to the North East and a couple to the North West where I had relatives.
Our exchange year trip gave us our first brief experience of the South West but not, at this point, of New Mexico. In fact although we had an offer to stay with the sister of a work colleague in Albuquerque, we decided to head from the Grand Canyon straight to LA. The South West in summer was too hot for our British blood, we wanted to feel some ocean breezes on our face. So no New Mexico in 1979 for us, even though, in that year, we visited over 30 states , New Mexico was not one of them.
In fact, a few years later, New Mexico came to us, moved in next door in fact. Strange how things work out sometimes. I’d better explain. The house next door, when we first moved in to our house, was owned by the, soon to become, Bishop of Durham but, as he was then away in Durham doing bishoply things, he rented his house out. In this year (about 1988, I think) he rented it to an American couple with two children. The male half of the couple was a paediatrician on sabbatical to Leeds University. Truth be told we were not very neighbourly people and Stewart and Veronica had been living next door for about half their year before we spoke to each other. After that we got on like a house on fire as the saying has it, in fact, shortly after they left, our house was on fire but that, as they say, is another story and one that connects the bishop with York Minister and the serious fire there (see Wikipedia entry under David Jenkins (bishop)). There was a theory that God was aiming for his house but ignited ours instead. The bishop had, in some people’s eyes, an heretical view of the resurrection of Christ- yet another story. What the heck has all this got to do with New Mexico you ask?
Well, the point is that Stewart and Veronica came from Albuquerque and, as we became friends – still are, – shortly after their stay here we went to stay with them in their wonderful adobe house and our affection for the South West began. It was, and is, very different from New York and New England but it impressed us. As I suggested, in my last blog on this site, my affection for the South West, New Mexico particularly, was boosted by my discovery of the marvellous Tony Hillerman introduced to me by Stewart. His novels were quite difficult to get hold of in the UK at that time, still are, worth the effort though. This, of course, is where the magical Shiprock (see image above and at end) enters my story as it figures in so many of his books about Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. On one of our subsequent visits to stay with Stewart and Veronica we made a trip to Shiprock the monolith, as opposed to the town itself, which was memorable in quite a different way. So for me the experience was a literary one, for my wife it was an artistic one. She loved the red earth and blue, cloudless skies (which she rediscovered when we lived in Australia), I loved the spiritual / Navajo connection. I’ve always enjoyed ghost stories, that’s why I write them for my blog site www.the summerhouseyears.com and Hillerman’s stories often have a ‘ghostly’ subtext.
Before Shiprock and in the time we spent in the Four Corners area we visited Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde and our interest in Navajo culture took root. I was proud of the little knowledge that I had of the Navajo. I remember explaining to one local that hogans were round so evil spirits could not hide in the corners. Perfectly sensible it seemed to me. But talking of evil spirits it was Shiprock that really took hold of my imagination. Not for nothing is it described, in some quarters, as a cathedral. One of the things we do in Europe is visit cathedrals so we knew what we were looking at.
We had seen Shiprock in the distance driving up, what was then, Route 666 now renumbered / renamed I believe to reduce its satanic associations. It was a nervous drive for us up from Gallup. I am not a man to tempt fate by scoffing at other people’s spiritual beliefs. Shiprock felt, even to us as Brits, like a sacred place which it is to Navajo rather like Uluruhu in Australia is to the Aborigines. Shiprock, in the distance, is both majestic and foreboding at the same time. We knew we had to get closer which, on our next trip, we did. In fact we got as close as we dared. Does that sound alarmist? Perhaps so. As we took our photos I, and I know this sounds a bit silly, I had this sensation of somehow being on hallowed ground. I felt the spirits in the air and dead beneath our feet – you can see why I write ghost stories. It was unsettling. We left with our photos, for me to print and put on my wall at home and for my wife to use, along with other images of the South West, as inspiration for her paintings. I have included examples of both in this blog. In the case of my wife’s art I have included a variety of her work from the Four Corners area generally (sadly this is not true it’s just my photos but then her art gets plenty of exposure on this site). I love them but maybe I am a bit biased. As for my photos, well if you’d asked me what I would do when I retired at the time they were taken, I’d probably have said develop (no pun intended) my photography. Hasn’t worked out like that though.
Of course if you’ve read my last blog, you may spot the connection between Albuquerque and the land we bought near Durango in Colorado (not the one in Mexico that Bob Dylan sang of). It was from Albuquerque that we set off to drive to the Four Corners area and discovered another wholly different but equally memorable aspect of the South West. As you will know we bought the land and in this way cemented our relationship with this part of America. Not what we would have predicted when we first came looking for America. Incidentally in one of these blogs I will tell you about how my ‘obsession’ with America began. All we need to do now is work out how, with our pups taking up so much of our life space, we are going to reunite with this favourite area.