Southwestward The Great American Space


Santo Domingo boasts that it is the most beautiful of all pueblo mission churches and was built fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Gleaming white against the swirling brown roadside, the church offers relief to the eye. Two painted ponies face each other on the wall of the balcony overlooking the shabby entrance below. Indian empathy with nature and native art have intruded on the white man’s Christianity. Most of the symbols here, except for the traditional altar (and that not entirely), are Indian: the contrastingly colored ponies, the base of the balcony lined with the serenely harmonious patterns you see on blankets and jewelry. The multicolored cross in the yard, its bar decked with plants and fresh wreaths, the white ladder leaning against one adobe wall, the bell in its exquisite little tower—all show some ingrained sense of form, standing out against the indiscriminate figures hunched over their piles of beads.

This aboriginal world is thrillingly designed.

I do not know these people, and they will never know me. There is an overpowering sense I get visiting Indian reservations, even here in the Southwest, where the native people are numerous and well organized under authoritative tribal governments. I am at the end of the world. I am in the country of indifference. These people have been cut off, and the only transaction between them and the likes of me is over routine bits of jewelry. Even in their pickup trucks with radios squalling, even in cowboy hats, baseball caps, and bandanna kerchiefs around their necks, the few men you see here are a race apart, accustomed to being looked at as a race apart. They do not favor being photographed by the “click-click people,” and they are so used to tourists that they steadfastly pay you no mind as you stare at them. The space between them and us is as wide and deep as the ocean.

In 1923 D. H. Lawrence came to Taos as a guest of the literary hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose latest husband was an Indian. Lawrence had tuberculosis (he was to die at forty-five in the south of France) and pursued his search for health in sunny climates all over the world. (He was also seeking a place where he could head a community dedicated to his ideals.) Mabel Luhan wrote that just riding up to her ranch from the railroad station at Lamy made Lawrence catch his breath. He was to call the Taos skyline the most beautiful he had seen in all his travels. As their car passed along the Rio Grande in the clear morning sunlight, the apples were ripening and the air was sweet from juicy apricots. Corn, wheat, and alfalfa filled the fields. There was a long final climb up the mountains to reach the tableland of Taos Valley. As they pulled around the curve at the top, Lawrence could see the Sacred Mountain, over behind Taos, “looming half-darkened by cloud shadows that hastened over it in great eagle shapes.” Luhan wrote reverentially that “the mountains curve half round Taos in a crescent, and the desert lies within its dark encircling grasp.”

Lawrence made Taos famous and, ever since, it has been a principal way station for pilgrims keeping the Lawrence cult alive. His ashes were brought back to Taos by his widow, Frieda, and her next husband. The “Lawrence shrine,” as it is called, some twenty miles out of Taos, is administered by the University of New Mexico; it features the urn with Lawrence’s ashes behind a railing.

Fewer pilgrims than usual now toil up the path to the shrine. The Lawrence cult hereabouts has not survived the English exiles and American literati who once attended him and then spent the rest of their lives writing up their reminiscences. Lawrence, of all people, is now a marker on the highway, not without use to the local economy.

Nature here is mightier than anything man does to it.

Cultural attractions seem trivial as, leaving Taos, you swing out into the Carson National Forest and run the curves along the timberline. Kit Carson dead is a tourist attraction in Taos, where he settled after his legendary exploits as a scout, Indian agent, and soldier. The Navajos in their sacred Canyon de Chelly still hate him; during the Civil War he drove out their ancestors and forced them on a three-hundred-mile “walk” to New Mexico. But what a forest the National Park Service keeps up in his name, what a riot of ever-fresh tree life along the silent empty road as you plunge deeper and deeper into the forest. There are still large packets of snow in May. Here America is still “nature’s Nation,” the last outpost so eagerly embraced by the new race of people who called themselves Westerners.