Death of the Old West, June 2024

Church, Pecos, New Mexico

A Week of Travel, Poetry, Sunshine and Rain in the High Desert

As I edited the images from this trip, I often decided to render in black-and-white, which emphasizes texture and tone, and helps express my ideas about New Mexico and the southwest in general.

I am not a religious person, but I photograph religious artifacts because they are prevalent in the Southwest, and beautiful.
I am not a religious person, but I photograph religious artifacts because they are prevalent in the Southwest, and beautiful.

I drove to Santa Fe at my own pace. At Tucumcari, I turned north to follow the Mesalands Scenic Byway, which was a good call. Despite a gloomy sky, I made a few images that became some of my favorites of the trip. As I drove, I wrote in my journal, “Having fun.”

New Mexico State Highway 104 stretches across a mostly-empty part of the state.
New Mexico State Highway 104 stretches across a mostly-empty part of the state.
I found this cedar decorated for Christmas under an increasingly stormy sky.
I found this cedar decorated for Christmas under an increasingly stormy sky.
A cattle guard is framed by mesas and the stormy sky.
A cattle guard is framed by mesas and the stormy sky.

As is sometimes the case in New Mexico, storm clouds made rain that mostly failed to fall all the way to the surface.

This is the Holy Family Mission Church in Garita, New Mexico.
This is the Holy Family Mission Church in Garita, New Mexico.
NM 104 climbs Mesa Huerofana for some miles, then levels off into some very lonely, but beautiful, grassland.
NM 104 climbs Mesa Huerofana for some miles, then levels off into some very lonely, but beautiful, grassland.

Arriving in Santa Fe, I had my late wife on my mind. Abby loved Santa Fe, from our first vacation out west together in 2003, The High Road, to our most recent visit in 2021, but arriving in Santa Fe this time revealed a shift from quaintness to a weird combination of failed suburban sprawl and epidemic homelessness.

It was the first of many signs that the West Abby and I loved together was dying.

I wrote, “So much Abby in my eyes today.”

I am always on the lookout for photographic moments, even in the parking lot at my hotel.
I am always on the lookout for photographic moments, even in the parking lot at my hotel.

I was up early Monday morning, ambitious to drive north to the Chama Valley and hike at the Ghost Ranch.

North out of Santa Fe has a desert beauty to it, but sprawl is starting to take it over. Farther north are the tangled intersections for highways leading to Taos, the High Road to Taos, Tres Piedras, and Chama. The communities surrounding these intersections apparently grew very quickly for a while, but in recent years, their economies collapsed, leaving at least half of the structures empty, surrounded by chain link fence, and adorned with “No Trespassing” signs.

It was a grim sight to say the least, and as I drove through it, I wondered what it would take to clean up this mess. The desert will take it back eventually, but for now, I won’t be passing though this area again.

My first photo op/stop of the day was this turnout on U.S. 84 that looks out over a bend in the Chama River. Abby and I stopped here many times in our travels.
My first photo op/stop of the day was this turnout on U.S. 84 that looks out over a bend in the Chama River. Abby and I stopped here many times in our travels.

As I got away from towns, I very much started to enjoy the natural beauty of New Mexico. For many years, Abby and I routinely stopped at a roadside turnout on a cliff above the Chama River. As I drove past it, I saw an artist with a canvas there, so I turned around and stopped.

I found Hannah Shook painting the Chama River using chalk.
I found Hannah Shook painting the Chama River using chalk.

I introduced myself to the artist, who was working in chalk. She said her name was Hannah Shook and that she was glad for me to talk to her and photograph her.

As I spoke with her, I recognized it wasn’t the first time I had met her at this spot. As she told her story, I was able to fill in details before she finished telling me about them. But I am not certain when I met her.

Hannah happily took one of my richardbarron.net wristbands. Here she shows it to me on her chalk-stained right hand.
Hannah happily took one of my richardbarron.net wristbands. Here she shows it to me on her chalk-stained right hand.

She mentioned that a fellow artist who worked at this same spot, Louisa McElwain had died by her own hand in 2013. Hannah said she one one of Louisa’s spatulas.

Hannah continues to draw with multitudes of color on her fingers.
Hannah continues to draw with multitudes of color on her fingers.
Hannah's eyes scan her canvas as she draws the Chama River. I love her stained hat.
Hannah’s eyes scan her canvas as she draws the Chama River. I love her stained hat.
You can see Hannah's canvas and the Chama River in this image looking south.
You can see Hannah’s canvas and the Chama River in this image looking south.

I was sufficiently inspired by meeting Hannah and talking to her about the times Abby and I stood in this very spot, I pulled off the road in another half mile to scribble a poem in my journal.

Louisa’s Ghost

Hannah swirls in her canvas skirt
As the sunlight crosses her small shoulders
She smiles an embarrassed, crooked-toothed smile
With a trace of colored chalk on her face

Black and brown colors her fingers
As she finds another color from the
Trays and trays and trays of chalk

She attacks the canvas again
As she tells me about her friend Louisa
Who died by her own chalk-stained hand

I tell Hannah about Abby
And the day long ago when we stood together in
This very spot

Hannah pauses and says to me
“So now we both know.”

I have stopped to photograph this formation, informally called The Sentinel, at the southern end of the Chama Valley, many times, including the first time in 1999.
I have stopped to photograph this formation, informally called The Sentinel, at the southern end of the Chama Valley, many times, including the first time in 1999.
"Ghost Ranch" is spelled out in metalwork from various items.
“Ghost Ranch” is spelled out in metalwork from various items.

I was happy to be out of town and in a desert environment. The Ghost Ranch people were friendly, and I bought a map, because I buy maps.

The day was hot but the air was dry. I chose to hike Kitchen Mesa, and once I got past the stream at the start of the trail, I never saw anyone else. It was quieting.

I again found myself pre-visualizing the scenes in black-and-white.

The sky was the deep blue New Mexico sky I love.
The sky was the deep blue New Mexico sky I love.
These cirrus clouds seemed to pause above this mesa for me.
These cirrus clouds seemed to pause above this mesa for me.
A sun-beached branch sits on the deep red soil.
A sun-beached branch sits on the deep red soil.
Despite the morning air heating fast, the clouds and cliffs continued to perform.
Despite the morning air heating fast, the clouds and cliffs continued to perform.
Back down from the trail, I spotted this impressive tree set against a deep desert sky.
Back down from the trail, I spotted this impressive tree set against a deep desert sky.
This frame was made by simply turning around after making the last frame. This tree is large, and mostly on the ground. Both images were made with my 10-20mm at 10mm.
This frame was made by simply turning around after making the last frame. This tree is large, and mostly on the ground. Both images were made with my 10-20mm at 10mm.
Ghost Ranch regulars will recall a cabin at the entrance, which I photographed once before, in 2014.
Ghost Ranch regulars will recall a cabin at the entrance, which I photographed once before, in 2014.

I was full of poetry about Abby, and stopped again to jot this one down.

Blurred Visions

I have blurred visions
Blurred by clear morning air
Blurred by shadows stretching across lonely mesas
Blurred by the hum of the road
Blurred by the flannel on her arm as I touch her
Blurred by the sound of her voice
The pearl blue sky
The brooding storm
The stark sunset
The dark
All blurred in the mirror

I was done at Ghost Ranch about midday, so I drove the few miles to Abiquiu, where I bought another map. I saw and photographed a big pink flamingo, which the map I’d just bought called, “The Big Pink Flamingo.”

Sometimes something colorful can demand a color image on a mostly black-and-white day.
Sometimes something colorful can demand a color image on a mostly black-and-white day.

I saw a few picnic tables and a sign that said “hot food,” so I looked at their menu, and ended up getting a “Goddess burger,” which was one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had.

I pulled out my new map, a topographic recreational map. I love these maps because they give me a detailed-enough lay of the land, yet show me the big picture at the same time. I consider them perishable, so I fold them up according to where I am going.

It's fun to imagine what inspires everyone creatively. Maps, real, paper maps, are more inspirational when I travel than any website or app.
It’s fun to imagine what inspires everyone creatively. Maps, real, paper maps, are more inspirational when I travel than any website or app.

I found a nearby road I’d never driven, New Mexico 554, which led me to El Rito, a very small town whose mostly-abandoned buildings hugged the narrow roadway. I found and photographed a Catholic mission.

I struggled with the light on this church in El Rito, New Mexico for several minutes, and was never really happy with it.
I struggled with the light on this church in El Rito, New Mexico for several minutes, and was never really happy with it.
Down the street from the church was the "downtown" of El Rito, very little of which seemed to be in business.
Down the street from the church was the “downtown” of El Rito, very little of which seemed to be in business.
El Rito's El Farolito Restaurant had both "open" and "closed" signs displayed. I'm thinking this might be Schrödinger's Café?
El Rito’s El Farolito Restaurant had both “open” and “closed” signs displayed. I’m thinking this might be Schrödinger’s Café?

I kept seeing an oddly out-of-place structure in the downtown area, and even from blocks away, it appeared to be an art installation of some type. I pulled up to it and introduced myself to three men standing around a pickup chatting. They told me this odd structure, labeled “Mars Polar Lander,” was built “by a veteran,” but they didn’t tell me his name, and they said I was welcome to photograph it, “as long as you’re not a Trump supporter.”

The "Mars Polar Lander" was decidedly unexpected in the New Mexico high country. I thought at the time it would make great pictures, but it didn't really.
The “Mars Polar Lander” was decidedly unexpected in the New Mexico high country. I thought at the time it would make great pictures, but it didn’t really.
A welcome wrong turn on NM 215 led to this quintessential New Mexico summer thunderstorm, featuring the beautiful light I was chasing in El Rito. This storm soon rained on me, though, like a lot of summer rain in New Mexico, it didn't fall very hard, and dried up immediately.
A welcome wrong turn on NM 215 led to this quintessential New Mexico summer thunderstorm, featuring the beautiful light I was chasing in El Rito. This storm soon rained on me, though, like a lot of summer rain in New Mexico, it didn’t fall very hard, and dried up immediately.

I found my way back to New Mexico 554, and made my way east, turning north on NM 111, but was turned away by rain and hazy light. I found my way back to 554. At the intersection with U.S. 285, I photographed a “pigs” sign, and the one person who drove past at that moment looked at me like I was crazy.

There is a lot of New Mexico in this image, from the worn sign to the beautiful clouds and sky, to the fence and the mountains beyond.
There is a lot of New Mexico in this image, from the worn sign to the beautiful clouds and sky, to the fence and the mountains beyond.

I stopped for a minute to look at my map, and the clock, which said it was just 2:30 p.m. If I turned south, I would be back in Santa Fe for a good part of the afternoon, but if I turned north, I could wing my way farther up the state and possibly find some more interesting surprises.

It might have been the most fortuitous turn of the trip.

I thought about taking NM 516 east in the direction of the Rio Grande, but the map said it became unpaved, and looking that direction, things appeared mostly empty, so I continued north.

This is the front of the Old Pink Schoolhouse in Tres Piedras, New Mexico.
This is the front of the Old Pink Schoolhouse in Tres Piedras, New Mexico.

Abby and I had passed and photographed the Old Pink Schoolhouse several times, and often lightheartedly fantasized about one day retiring, buying it and living there for the rest of our lives.

I pulled into the gravel driveway, and was greeted by a friendly, healthy white dog. Surely someone lives here… then someone came up to my truck and introduced herself as Nicole Zinn. She said she and her husband had bought the place about a year ago.

Nicole Zinn poses at the front doors of the Old Pink Schoolhouse.
Nicole Zinn poses at the front doors of the Old Pink Schoolhouse.

She shook my hand and we talked for a few minutes, and she invited me in to photograph the place.

As I was photographing this door, Zin remarked how vivid the blue was.
As I was photographing this door, Zin remarked how vivid the blue was.

Zinn told me some history of the place, including a period when it was occupied by artist Ken Nelson, who I had met briefly in 2007. She explained that most of the bright colors were Nelson’s artistry.

This is the friendly dog who greeted me initially. I can't remember her name.
This is the friendly dog who greeted me initially. I can’t remember her name.
Zinn, far right, gave me a tour of the place. This area is on the south side of the building.
Zinn, far right, gave me a tour of the place. This area is on the south side of the building.
Zinn told me this area, on the southwest corner of the building, was the school's gym. They currently use it for storage.
Zinn told me this area, on the southwest corner of the building, was the school’s gym. They currently use it for storage.

Zinn added that she and her husband John hoped to completely restore the structure, but were reluctant to repaint or restore until they were able to restore it historically correctly.

This is the kitchen at the Old Pink Schoolhouse. Zinn said the colors are leftover from Ken Nelson's tenure there.
This is the kitchen at the Old Pink Schoolhouse. Zinn said the colors are leftover from Ken Nelson’s tenure there.

Zinn also indicated that before moving to the Schoolhouse, she lived for four years in one of the nearby “Earthship” houses. She also said they loved living in the Schoolhouse, but the north-facing windows are “very porous” in the winter, so they used a lot of firewood to keep warm.

I immediately recognized this portrait of Frida Kahlo.
I immediately recognized this portrait of Frida Kahlo.
On the way out, I photographed this ladder and skull at the front door of the Schoolhouse.
On the way out, I photographed this ladder and skull at the front door of the Schoolhouse.
This is the front of the Old Pink Schoolhouse. It was good to see it occupied.
This is the front of the Old Pink Schoolhouse. It was good to see it occupied.
In this wider view from the northeast pasture, you can see my truck parked on the left, and the not-very-realistic cellular "tree" on the right.
In this wider view from the northeast pasture, you can see my truck parked on the left, and the not-very-realistic cellular “tree” on the right.
Zinn encouraged me to walk over to the historic water tower that served the steam locomotives that passed through Tres Piedras.
Zinn encouraged me to walk over to the historic water tower that served the steam locomotives that passed through Tres Piedras.
Zinn also encouraged me to photograph these derelict cars in a ditch near the water tower.
Zinn also encouraged me to photograph these derelict cars in a ditch near the water tower.
This is my final view of this interesting historic structure. I am grateful to Nicole for showing me around.
This is my final view of this interesting historic structure. I am grateful to Nicole for showing me around.

The next morning, I drove up into the Santa Fe Mountains, where I found dozens of trails.

As I was leaving my hotel, I spotted this interesting pattern of dew on the roof of my truck.
As I was leaving my hotel, I spotted this interesting pattern of dew on the roof of my truck.

Most of the popular trails in the Hyde Memorial Park area were, well, popular, and every parking place was occupied. So I kept driving higher into the mountains, toward Ski Santa Fe in the Santa Fe National Forest, which is above 9000 feet.

High country forests are beautiful, and exactly what I was trying to find on this day.
High country forests are beautiful, and exactly what I was trying to find on this day.

The first trail I hiked was the Tesuque Creek trail. It was clear and quiet and cool. The trail was steep, and I pushed hard walking up it, summoning my lungs to take it the clear, high country air.

The trail follows the creek in both directions from the campground, and the sound of the rushing water was amazing.

Aspens catch subtle morning light in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Aspens catch subtle morning light in the Santa Fe National Forest.

Ann from Colorado Springs, who had a six-month-old puppy named “Sky” with her, was the only other person I saw on this trail. She took my picture.

If I look elated and refreshed, it's because I am.
If I look elated and refreshed, it’s because I am.
The Tesuque Creek trail stays with the creek up and down from the trail head. I made this image just below the campground.
The Tesuque Creek trail stays with the creek up and down from the trail head. I made this image just below the campground.

After Tesuque Creek, I drove up to the Aspen Vista Trail, which is actually the other end of the Tesuque Creek trail.

I know a frame like this on a trail called "Aspen Vista" is a cliche, but it was just too beautiful not to shoot.
I know a frame like this on a trail called “Aspen Vista” is a cliche, but it was just too beautiful not to shoot.
Aspens reach into the sky on the Aspen View trail.
Aspens reach into the sky on the Aspen View trail.

I tried to find something to eat in Santa Fe, but it was a tangle of GPS turns that lead to road construction, ultra-gentrified capitol-district strip malls, and poverty-stricken in the surrounding areas, another sign that the Santa Fe Abby and I loved and shared years ago was dying.

I turned to The Flying Tortilla, which Abby and I loved, and it didn’t disappoint me, and I was glad to spend my dollars locally.

By midday I was northbound for Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve.

At Bandelier, I struck out on the Frijoles Canyon Overlook trial, where I only saw one other person. The sky and clouds were beautiful.
At Bandelier, I struck out on the Frijoles Canyon Overlook trial, where I only saw one other person. The sky and clouds were beautiful.
This view of Frijoles Canyon was at the end of an easy one-mile trail.
This view of Frijoles Canyon was at the end of an easy one-mile trail.
The sky and the trees were absolutely sublime.
The sky and the trees were absolutely sublime.
On my way back to the trail head, I photographed trail markers like these, rendered in color because I find it matched the sky so well.
On my way back to the trail head, I photographed trail markers like these, rendered in color because I find it matched the sky so well.

Farther down New Mexico 4 is Valles Caldera National Preserve. Abby and I never visited, but one of her favorite television shows, Longmire, used the Preserve’s cabin district as one of its filming locations, the cabin where Sheriff Longmire lived. It looked exactly as we’d seen it on television, and I couldn’t help but wish she could have seen it.

This is the front door of the cabin where scenes from Longmire were filmed. There is even a scene in the show where Longmire constructs steps that are missing from the porch.
This is the front door of the cabin where scenes from Longmire were filmed. There is even a scene in the show where Longmire constructs steps that are missing from the porch.
Cumulus clouds built quickly while I was photographing Valles Caldera.
Cumulus clouds built quickly while I was photographing Valles Caldera.
This view looks east across the Santa Fe Mountains from the cabin district at Valles Caldera.
This view looks east across the Santa Fe Mountains from the cabin district at Valles Caldera.
Few things in my mind are more "New Mexico" than open rangeland bordered by snow fence. It summons my early memories of driving to New Mexico for ski trips.
Few things in my mind are more “New Mexico” than open rangeland bordered by snow fence. It summons my early memories of driving to New Mexico for ski trips.

As I drove south on New Mexico 4, I tried to stop at several locations on the Jemez River, only to be discouraged by lightning and rain.

I love the colors of mountain streams.
I love the colors of mountain streams.
One of my most successful black-and-white renderings from this trip was this image of the St Anthony's Catholic Church in Pecos, New Mexico.
One of my most successful black-and-white renderings from this trip was this image of the St Anthony’s Catholic Church in Pecos, New Mexico.

Despite my misgivings about the towns and cities of New Mexico, the mountains, deserts, and prairies did not disappoint me. It was a good trip.

4 Comments

  1. Such beauty and narrative felt like I was right beside you. I can’t love this enough. Our trip all those years ago made me fall in love with the dessert. The dry air and views they take your breath away, the smell of earthy blends. I enjoy traveling through your words and images.

  2. Narrating adventure’s inside of adventure’s may just be your forte.
    One thing is certain… Change is a constant throughout life and you my friend have the gift of embracing the change while finding the beauty in the moment.

  3. Richard, you never fail me…. or your legions of fans and admirers.
    You have shared with us yet another spectacularly stunning, beautiful, moving and inspirational account of your off-road travels and distinctive adventures.
    I loved every image, every word and each and every memory and personal reflection.
    This is so much more “art” than one would normally expect when perusing the standard travelogue.
    Your photographs are worthy of inclusion in a coffee table book where countless others can enjoy and appreciate what your eyes see!
    I really enjoyed the mixture of color and monochromatic images. Your use of the sky and clouds add a great deal to the impact your photos have on the viewer. Serene and deep blue skies as well as dark and threatening cloud formations and even thunderstorms add depth and emotion.
    Beautifully photographed, critically edited and strategically arranged among heartfelt words make this entry among your finest.
    Thank you for including Abby to the extent that you did. I know much you miss her and I know she “accompanied” you on this recent journey.
    Thank you for this gift.

  4. Perhaps it’s the black-and-white, perhaps it’s the emotional tone. I find this trips entry To be some of the most artistic and heartfelt in word and image. There’s some real channeling of the masters. Whoever looks at these and doesn’t think of Ansel Adams is uninformed. I find your eye-scope continuing its drive into essence.
    Likewise, I’m learning our hearts break into new development. This is great work.

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