Dead Dogs and Old Dusty Towns

Rio Arriba County, NM – You can’t fully appreciate the lunacy of cities until you’ve spent enough time in the country that you feel that full break from modernity. Rio Arriba County widens that disconnect because not only is it rural, but it’s primitive enough to feel entirely of a different time. The rhythms and sounds are different. More peaceful. Serene.

The other day, while driving along the Rio Chama river corridor, I saw a pair of guys on horseback galloping among their large herd of cattle. The dogs ran at the margins to keep the herd in formation as it pushed on toward the summer grazing grounds.

The area is considered a tri-cultural area that includes Spanish, Pueblo Indians, and Anglos.

Here, the natives live on pueblos, which is Spanish for “town.” The pueblo boundaries haven’t changed much since the Spanish arrived in 1540. I haven’t wrapped my head around all the nuance, but what I’ve heard is that after the Spanish conquest, natives were allowed to keep their lands so long as they built a church in the center of the pueblo, adopted Christianity, and named the pueblos after saints. Compared to the genocidal proclivities of the English, I thought the Spanish seemed kind in this regard.

“Really?” was the response this thought provoked from one.

Well, no, they weren’t nice, exactly. But genocide – the English way – was arguably worse than lopping off natives’ feet as punishment, as the Spanish did, though the latter, too, was undeniably cruel. One of Spain’s last conquistadors, Juan de Oñate, hacked feet off of hundreds of natives during his reign as a colonial governor of Nueva Mexico in the early 17th Century. In 1991, a statue was dedicated to Oñate for the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico. Not long after, someone sawed off the statue’s right foot, leaving a note that read, “Fair is fair.”

On the way to Tierra Amarilla last Wednesday I saw four dogs and one cat, lying miles apart, dead in the middle of the highway. They were still there on my back some two hours later. They weren’t the first or the last pets to misjudge traffic I’ve seen, but it’s not something I’m sure I can get used, as I did in Wisconsin with car-struck deer.

I see a number of dogs freely roaming about, both in the country and the city. Sometimes I’ll step out of the office while on a phone call and I’ll see a dog jaunting across the expansive gravel parking lot, its owner nowhere in sight. Sometimes you see them darting in and out of traffic, trying to cross the highways, which cut many properties in two. I haven’t seen one get struck and hope I never do. And it’s a good thing that dead dogs don’t bark, because seeing their remains rotting in the road is bad enough. It takes a while before they’re scraped off the pavement, so their corpses – baking in the sun and picked apart by scavengers – tend to be in pretty gruesome shape.

The amount of information I encounter daily is astounding.

Last week I learned that tumbleweed – that iconic symbol of the desolate American southwest – is an invasive import from Russian ships that docked in Portland.

I also met the first civilian employee of Los Alamos Nuclear Research Facility, whose employment began during the Manhattan Project days.

On Wednesday a pair of U.S. Forest Service Rangers gave me a tour of the Santa Fe National Forest along the Rio Chama corridor (rio means “river” in Spanish), near the southeastern corner of the Colorado plateau. They pointed out cliffs and mesas painted by artist Georgia O’Keefe, a fellow Wisconsin native.

They also pointed out a pair of modern lavatories paid for with stimulus money. I didn’t try them out because I didn’t have to go. But I did wonder how they’d look in one of O’Keefe’s paintings.

I was also given a tour of the county jail, which, like most jails, was a pretty bleak place, and I met a couple that runs an organic fruit orchard and farm. They grow more than 150 varieties of apples and 14 varieties of peach.

The Spanish spoken here is different from that spoken in southern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In Rio Arriba County, the language is a hybrid of Spanish and Pueblo languages. People in the north speak of how different everything is in the southern part of the state, as though it’s a foreign country.

Unlike elsewhere in the America, residents here generally see growth and development as a bad thing, insofar as their traditions are then jeopardized by outsiders.  While Española is more urbane than the rest of the county, with an active Chamber of Commerce, its own growth is restricted by virtue of being landlocked by the pueblos. Plenty of political conflicts between the county and the pueblos as political entities persist, particularly when it comes to taxes, of which the pueblos pay few of, if any, though they rely heavily on county services and infrastructure.

Residents seem generally unbothered that the county is 50 to 60 years behind everywhere else in America. That’s not to sound snobbish. It’s admirable to see people putting tradition and culture ahead of money and modernity. And it’s rare for communities, when deciding their futures, to speak on a unified front against prosperity, in the American sense. Cultural preservation necessitates resisting outside development and economic pressures. And the people in this area know a thing or two about resistance.

A large part of the county’s beauty rests in its authenticity. The fake adobes and big boxes of Española provide a stark contrast to the aesthetic of towns like Chimayó, where dilapidated buildings occupy a special place in collective memory. What developers would call an eyesore, locals call their history. Here you will find the ruins of the walls that once fortified the town as people in the area began to form villages in order to escape the dangers of being isolated.

While some pueblos in the northeastern part of the county generate revenue from natural gas and oil deposits, the county has successfully thwarted attempts to bring fracking to New Mexico. Fracking, which is done widely in Pennsylvania, relies on noxious chemicals to free natural gas deposits. Those chemicals have been known to contaminate underground water sources.

In a place where chronic water shortages leave everyone dry, there certainly isn’t enough leftover for the energy companies to pollute. And if there’s one thing residents hate more than the government fucking with their land and their culture it’s threats on their water. In most places people take water for granted, but in northern New Mexico, water is the original politics.

The ranchers, too, have many unsettled grievances with the federal government, especially as battles over land use relate to the Treaty of Guadalupe, which ended the Mexican-American War. At one point the treaty called for the United States government to honor Spanish land grants, as did the Mexican government after winning its independence from Spain, but that provision that was ultimately removed during a re-ratification of the treaty.

The government has over the years handed down a slew of regulations that ranchers must abide by, deepening the resentments. The ranchers I’ve met are some of the proudest people you’ll ever meet. They are the keepers of the frontier mentality so pervasive in the unpopulated north. It sounded silly to my eastern ears the first time I heard the treaty invoked, but it really is a document intended to, in part, codify New Mexicans’ existing land rights. In a sense, it is their cultural Constitution, albeit one that the feds seem to honor at will. Government regulations and fees are seen as a breach of that contract.

After all of these years you might say the treaty is outdated. It’s a different time. But it’s no more outdated than the United States Constitution, as a founding document, is outdated. Can you imagine being stripped of your property rights? Why shouldn’t the government honor its agreement with the ranchers and others? The distrust of Anglos is understandable and real.


  1. Aunt Linda says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post. And I got even more of an education via your Spanish translations. The pix are great and even stronger in B&W. Just these kind of experiences sound like they will make the move and the job worthwhile.

  2. Uncle Mark says:

    I concur!

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