With Ken Saville in the High Lonesome

CABEZON ROAD--"There are two kinds of people in this world," he said.  I looked at him as he leaned backwards in his chair.  It was 1967 and I was visiting someone I barely knew on his houseboat in Sausalito.  A real Paul Klee hung on the wall behind him.  Still, I doubted he would say anything memorable.

"There are two kinds of people in this world," he repeated, sensing my inattention.  "Horizon people and jungle people.  Which are you?"

Those words stuck with me for 44 years.  There really are horizon people and jungle people.  There is the story of the busload of tourists from Tokyo, refusing to get off the bus somewhere near Chaco...it was just too empty.  And then there is The Artist Ken Saville who yearns for nothing more than the Big Nothing itself...the Hi-Lo Country...the High Lonesome.

Me?  I'm with Ken.  Last weekend we trucked up U.S. 550 almost to San Ysidro, turning left at the big white mesa onto Cabezon Road.  Right after the turnoff the road to the gypsum mine on top of the mesa veers off to the right.  We went left, out past the Ojito Wilderness, out near the gas line road and down Milpas valley.

We passed places we knew...campsites, old dumps, abandoned prospects, buried pueblos.  We went by what we call Bomb Mesa, where bombers flying out of Kirtland Field dropped their practice bombs during WWII.  We passed near where dinosaurs left their bones eons ago.

Are you familiar with Wallace Stevens' poem The Snow Man?  He would have loved it out here.  I watch The Artist Ken Saville wander from crack in the ground to ridge top and keep thinking of that poem's last lines.  We are so very small in this big world, and what we see in every grain of sand is time itself.  And there is Ken Saville, examining those rocks, "and, being nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

But people did live out here.  There are several homesteads to explore.  Most have been built, abandoned, and rebuilt several times.  We stopped to look at one.  Like almost every homestead out here, the cabin was built of stone with a dirt roof.  This one showed signs of family life...like the plastered walls painted green.  A cookstove was still there, shot full of holes of course.  I couldn't open it up, but assume it was either kerosene or propane...probably kerosene.

Some of the vigas were milled lumber with decorative grooves along the undersides.  These were undoubtedly salvaged from what must have been a very nice structure and reused here.  A newer room or enclosure of jacal construction looked to be only 10 or 20 years old.  It was fastened together with phillips head screws of the sort used by a power drill.

I have heard that many of these homesteads were abandoned in the 1950's during the Eisenhower administration.  His "soil bank" program, an effort to raise farm prices by taking some agricultural land out of production, was used by many of these marginal farmers as a way to move to the city and still receive some income for not growing anything on this barren landscape.

Some of these structures were reoccupied during the counter-culture years around 1970.  And to be honest, I think I actually had lunch in this very cabin with its fallen ceiling about 1973 with my wife and another couple as we wandered around between Albuquerque and Cuba.

These cabins may have been used as summer dwellings primarily, but I cannot help but think what it would have been like to grow up in one of these, especially during the 30's and 40's.  Talk about being alone!  Basically there was no dependable way in or out...and probably no school either.  For almost anybody, the thought of living one's entire life out here is a little unsettling.  It is no wonder that so many of the autobiographical frontier stories were written by people who eventually found their way back east.  I am thinking of Agnes Morley Cleaveland and her book No Life for a Lady, for one.  Pie Town Woman for another.

But generations of ancient ones inhabited these mesas and valleys as well.  I assume it was wetter back then.  But who knows what the ancients thought?  We found a few artifacts near a cliff face:  a pottery fragment, a piece of chipped rock.  What stillness there must have been out here.  Even now one can feel it.

Except, of course, for the gun shots echoing in the distance.  There are shell casings scattered almost everywhere.  This whole area is used as an informal rifle range.  The remains of targets lie shattered in every little canyon:  pieces of orange clay pigeons, broken bottles, punctured faces drawn on plywood.  Even old TV sets have met their fate out here miles from electricity...blasted into smithereens.  Whether this happened for the sake of Revenge, Art, or the plain old Urge of Destruction is unclear.

Finally we left.  We didn't have to.  Dry camping is always an option.  But we left...left for the buffet at the Santa Ana Star.  It is pretty amazing that this otherworldly landscape and journey through the wormhole of time is less than an hour from home.  It is a day trip, basically, into the millennia of occupied space, and into eternity itself.

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Comment by chantal on March 29, 2011 at 9:19am

Horizon person, for sure. 


What a beautiful photo essay and tale of the wilds. Thanks, JM.

Comment by Ron Da Bomb on March 29, 2011 at 2:05pm
Good read Johnny. I'm getting the yearning to throw my sleeping bag in the back of the truck and pick a direction.
Comment by mjh on March 29, 2011 at 2:49pm

Lovely, Jon. It is a great area. Last time I was there, I got close to a porcupine who was waddling along, far from any trees or water.


Comment by Benny the Icepick on March 29, 2011 at 2:53pm
Part of the reason I love Albuquerque - plenty of horizon, with just a smattering of "urban jungle" when that big open sky feels a little too overwhelming.
Comment by Amanda Sutton on March 29, 2011 at 3:43pm
A horizon person myself, I loved your piece! It's fun to vicariously live your outdoor wanderings, John.
Comment by K on March 29, 2011 at 3:45pm
Great job Johnny and great pictures.  It is classic New Mexico landscape which provides those open mesas and vistas for the cleansing of one's soul.  I have been jonesing to get to the Ojito to do some hiking - that's a great area out there on Cabezon Road.  Just a great area that's a 45 minute drive from 'burque. Enjoyed it.
Comment by Clifton Chadwick on March 30, 2011 at 9:14am
Sounds like a typical half hour ride into nowhere - can't wait to try it!
Comment by Carmen on March 30, 2011 at 3:48pm
I was born a horizon person and I'll die a horizon person. If I'm away from those vistas for any length of time, I get claustrophobic! It's awesome the way mother nature created the perfect spot for each of us!
Comment by Andy Keatts on April 2, 2011 at 12:24pm
Thanks Johnny. It's good to see the "unc" every once in a while. He has always been a camera hound and his pix go well with your story. He could probably actually pass for someone you ran across while you were there instead of taking him with you! Thanks again- great story!


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