Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Real Desert

This month I'd hoped to finally finish a piece on Drawbridge, California, the ghost town in a salt marsh, but time has moved too quickly. So, rather than let City of Dust go dark for all of November, I thought I'd post this tale. While it contains no ghost towns or historical content whatsoever, it does feature the desert as a main character. The photos were taken earlier this month, mostly in Salton City, on the west shore of the Salton Sea, in the Colorado Desert of California. However, the last two shots are from the South Bay Salt Works, the second-oldest continuously operating business in San Diego, CA. See you in December!


I’m spending a few days out in the desert again. I can’t tell if I’m moving towards something or moving away, but that’s nothing new. Whatever the case, I’ve got some time and a little bit of money so I’ve based myself out of the Whispering Sands Motel, and each morning I set off in a different direction down some desolate, windswept two-laner.

Sometimes it can be hard to find food out here and when I pass a pizza place in what looks like a wooden shack I make a u-turn, park the rental car in about five inches of sand, and go inside. They’ve got some pretty fancy slices for the middle of nowhere and the twenty-something girl behind the counter in Daisy Dukes, tank top, and tattoos seems genuinely thrilled to tell me that the caprese has been drizzled with locally-sourced balsamic vinaigrette and the Greek has real Kalamata olives. This country seems to not actually make things anymore, so I guess we’re going to see if we can float an entire economy on craft beer, pour-over coffee, medical marijuana, tattoos, and artisan pizza. Still, the slices look good and I get one of each. The girl hands them to a large, sweaty guy in the kitchen who pops them in the oven. His tattoos look like they probably cost less than hers and didn’t take nearly as long, either.

There’s no one in the dining room except for five guys in the back who have brought in a couple of their own six packs. They’re discussing “bands that are popular but not super-popular,” and, thankfully, I haven’t heard of most of them. But even so I quickly understand that they have bad taste. I grab a copy of “Sunrunner: The Journal of the Real Desert” off the rack by the door. The subtitle seems a little audacious, but there’s a story about a highway that sounds even more godforsaken than the ones I’ve been traveling. Thus, they get my attention.

The girl brings my slices out on paper plates and starts talking to the guys. At first it seems like maybe they all know each other and she asks them what kind of music they want to hear. I instantly wish she wouldn’t have.

“Do you like Zeppelin?” she says, when, happily, no one suggests anything.

That doesn’t sound terrible to me, but I guess I don’t get a vote.

She flips through her phone for a few more seconds. “How about Glen Campbell?”

Given the surroundings, that sounds better, if stranger. Don’t kids have their own music anymore? This stuff wasn’t even my music.

More silence. “Who?” asks one guy, finally.

“You know, ‘Just like a rhinestone cowboy...,’” sings the girl, only a touch out of tune.

The guys erupt in laughter, one louder than all the others, naturally.

“Nah, nah,” the loud one says, shaking his head and taking a pull off his beer. “I’m good.”

Then another suddenly looks intently at the girl. “Play your favorite song,” he says. “What's your favorite song of all-time?”

The girl is quiet and, after some obvious thought, replies, “That’s hard. That’s maybe something I’d tell somebody after we’d been together for, like, three months.”

The guy raises his hands in front of him, palms up. “What? Don’t we know each other well enough now?”

The girl takes a step backward toward the kitchen just as the guy’s phone rings. He answers, listens for a moment, frowns, then says, “I’m with the bro’s,” and hangs up, much to the amusement of his friends. It’s getting hard to focus on the story about the highway, but it seems to pass mainly through towns named after scientific elements, which is always a good sign.

“No, seriously,” says this guy, starting up again. “Play your all-time favorite song. Let’s get to know each other better.”

“I don’t think so.” The girl takes another step toward the kitchen. “It just seems, like, too personal to me.”

Now the guy lowers his voice. “Come on. I could learn some things about you that are more personal than that. Why don’t you let me? Then maybe you’ll play me your favorite song, too.”

His friends laugh and drink as the girl turns quickly and goes into the kitchen. I can hear the chef talking, but can’t make out the words. I take a few last bites of my balsamic-drizzled caprese, grab my Sunrunner Magazine, and step out the door into a blinding wall of heat and sun.

After a couple dozen miles I decide that I need a palate cleanser and stop at an AM/PM. Spending lots of time in the desert makes me crave salt, so I usually buy Payday bars. But this time I go for a Skor. As I’m reaching down for it a black man comes right up next to me and leans over, too. “Gotcha a little sweet tooth?” he whispers, almost in my ear. This is startling, but the man smiles at me so good-naturedly that as we both straighten up I’m disarmed. He’s wearing a filthy t-shirt and swaying. He seems a little drunk.

“Yeah,” I reply, also whispering, feeling conspiratorial for some reason. “Sometimes I just need a little dessert.”

He grins and blinks his eyes in a funny way before going into his pitch. “Hey, man. You don’t have maybe five dollars I could borrow for gas, do you?” He gestures weakly towards the pumps where he surely has no car. Or truck. Or ATV, for that matter. But I like this guy more than the bro’s, so I give him a dollar, trying to not draw attention from the cashier, who is looking warily in our direction. I tell the man to take care. He tells me to have a nice night and seems to really mean it.

Outside the sun is beginning to set over the spiky mountains, yet it somehow feels hotter. I don’t know how that happens in the desert, but every now and then I notice it. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Now I’m planning on doing a little off-road exploring the following day, but I didn’t bring any sunscreen. Despite my fondness for blast-furnace landscapes, I really hate suntans. A sunburn seems an affront to myself of my own doing, like spitting in my own face. So I drive further into this little town, the softening purple-blue horizon thick with mountains, reminding me why I’m out here in the first place. I begin looking for a drug store.

The first place I come to is Wal-Mart, of course. But they tend to put me in a bad mood. Since I’m pretty much already in a bad mood, I press on. Next, oddly enough, is a K-Mart. Where America shops. The red-headed stepchild to Target’s good son when I was growing up. K-Mart’s seem increasingly rare and I find no reason to ask why as I wander the ravaged shelves under brutal fluorescent lights with a handful of other spaced-out-looking customers. Finally, I find Health and Beauty and choose my protection.

Back outside it’s getting dark and as I head to my car another man sees me across the sand-strewn parking lot, sunscreen swinging in the plastic bag at my side, and begins to walk quickly over. I can feel the heat radiating off the asphalt as I slow down and then come to a full stop. I decide to wait because the man is wearing broken-down cowboy boots with thick, dingy green sweatpants tucked into them. He’s also got on a vest that looks like something a Boy Scout might have made, covered in patches and badges, and cut crudely out of a dark felt material. Underneath the vest he’s bare-chested, his skin the tone and texture of old leather. Finally, he’s sporting a crumpled, sweat-stained, black Stetson, but it’s too large and sits too low, barely above his eyes. As he approaches, he pushes the hat up.

“Hello, sir. Could you spare any change for a burger?”

My curiosity is probably obvious. “Isn’t it a little hot for sweatpants out here?”

The man laughs with seemingly genuine mirth and strikes a pose. “I’m a…a…a…”--he waves a hand theatrically, searching for words--“cock-eyed cowboy.” Crossing his ankles he tilts to one side and then seems to almost curtsey.

I tell him he’s got an interesting look.

“Thank you,” he replies, nodding his head. “Everyone wants to be interesting but nobody wants to pay the price. Me? You can see I paid the price. I may have even paid too much.” He laughs again. “All I can afford now are some ratty-ass sweatpants, a vest I found in a box, and a hat that’s too big for my head.”

I like this guy best of all and give him whatever cash I have left, which turns out to only be $3.72. We wish each other well and go our separate ways into the still desert night, the stars blinking on one-by-one overhead, the waxing yellow moon just clearing the jagged peaks, bathing us both in a gentler kind of light.

But soon enough the warring sun will rise again, and back at the hotel I tell the manager I’ll be checking out the next day. I take my copy of Sunrunner up to my room so I can read more about that highway I’ll be driving in the morning.

Friday, October 23, 2015

No Rattlesnakes/No Pinto Beans: Cedarvale, NM

Let’s stay in central New Mexico for one more post and add yet another piece to the picture of a region that in the 1920’s was the country’s largest producer of pinto beans. While you probably aren’t going to drive through without reason, as you might Mountainair, nor are you going to find it in most ghost town guides, as you will Claunch, Cedarvale was an important dry land farming and ranching community from the time of its establishment in 1908 until the Dust Bowl and Great Depression combined, along with overgrazing and farm consolidation, to force many of its residents to search for their fortunes elsewhere…yet again.

It was Ed Smith, William Taylor, and Oliver P. DeWolfe who chose the site for Cedarvale and requested that it be surveyed by the U.S. government. The town would be along the route of the New Mexico Central Railroad. Lots were sold through the General Land Office and a post office was soon opened. The new place was named Cedarvale after Cedar Vale, a town in Kansas from which the founders hailed and was also located in a valley with cedars (i.e., junipers).

Soon hundreds of homesteaders from other states arrived on “immigrant trains,” following the lead of Smith, Taylor, and DeWolfe. Most were looking to plant pinto beans. The relatively high altitude (6,384 ft) and short growing season of central New Mexico was good for the beans, which could be dry farmed and were in demand, particularly once World War I began and pinto beans were used to feed soldiers. Come fall, the harvest was stored in Cedarvale’s three elevators.

The population of Cedarvale would eventually reach about 500, but is now perhaps half that, and there are no functioning commercial concerns. The post office closed in 1990. But what impresses one most as they approach from the northwest along Highway 42 is the looming wreckage of the Cedarvale School. Initially, the school in Cedarvale was a typical one-room affair, but as both the town and Torrance County grew more space was needed. So, Oliver DeWolfe donated 20 acres of land and, on August 25, 1917, the Torrance County Board of Education approved a bond issuance in the amount of $5,000.00 to construct a new school.

The school was finished in 1921 and an addition made in 1935 via the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By then, the building seems like it would've been surprisingly big for the area, containing four large classrooms, each of which contained three grades and about fifty students. Children attended kindergarten through eighth grade and were then driven in the back of a truck a few miles southeast to Corona for high school. No fancy Bluebird busses here!

Aside from continuous and dire warnings about rattlesnakes, the massive gymnasium remains perhaps the most striking feature of the Cedarvale School. This was clearly a gathering place for the entire community, as well as a basketball court (complete with raw wooden backboards still in place) and, judging from the design, probably a theater. I’ve heard it hosted some bingo games, too. Despite taking the warnings fairly seriously—signs are even painted on the walls of the school—no rattlesnakes were encountered on this trip.

The school closed in 1953 and is now falling down quickly, the years finally overcoming its sturdy construction. The large wooden beams are impressive, and I’m told the Cedarvale train depot was built to the same hardy specifications. The depot no longer stands, but the materials were re-purposed and used in a home in Albuquerque which is owned by the daughter of a man who helped build both the depot and the school. I’m pleased to have been able to walk around on that historic lumber recently!

There are still many people that have fond memories of growing up in Cedarvale, as is true for virtually all the small central New Mexico towns in which the train once rattled through constantly and the whoosh of pinto beans pouring from the elevator heralded the end of one season and the approach of the next. These are sounds which may yet perhaps be heard, if only faintly, in the startling quiet of places like Cedarvale.

As I said, there ain’t much out there on Cedarvale. David Pike’s “Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers” has a good synopsis of the town’s founding and the history of the school. You can glean a little bit more from “The Place Names of New Mexico” and its similarly-named predecessor, “New Mexico Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary.” Beyond that, you’ll have to hope that maybe someone that was there will tell you what it was like.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Pinto Beans and Singing Conventions: Claunch, New Mexico

Of all the places we could go from long-lost Centerpoint, New Mexico, which we visited last time, perhaps it makes the most sense to simply continue south down Highway 55 and follow it through a few sharp turns until we get to Claunch, something less than 30 miles away. Claunch’s position in central New Mexico put it firmly within the pinto bean empire of the early part of the 20th century, when neighbor Mountainair was proclaiming itself the “Pinto Bean Capital of the World” and soldiers fighting in WWI were eating beans that had been grown in the fertile Estancia Valley.

Back around 1900, when Claunch was being settled, it wasn’t known as Claunch. Instead, it was called Fairview. Or perhaps DuBois Flats, after Frank DuBois, a local cattle and sheep rancher. Or maybe it had been called both. I can find no certainty on the matter. (UPDATE: Claunch was formerly known by both names, with DuBois Flats the earliest, dating to the 1890's.) Whatever the case, Claunch became Claunch near 1930, when the town was big enough to warrant its own post office and a DuBois, NM already existed. Or a Fairview, NM existed. Or both did. But a new moniker was definitely needed and L.H. Claunch, who ran the nearby Claunch Cattle Co., agreed that his surname could be used for the town. Later, he would firmly refuse to let his name be attached to the Claunch Saloon, which thus never opened.

Claunch flourished in the 1910’s and 1920’s, before it was actually called Claunch. However, by the early-1930’s, just as Claunch had gotten its name and post office, the Great Depression and the relentless drought of the Dust Bowl began to hit farmers in the Estancia Valley hard. Within a few years a Works Progress Administration (WPA) school would be built, but as more topsoil was carried off by the howling prairie winds it was already becoming too late. The school closed in the 1950’s, but its skeleton yet sits on the plains.

Where it's been said that there was once a homestead on every 640-acre section in the area, by the late-1960’s it was more like one homestead for every 20 sections, and only six or eight close-knit families inhabited Claunch. These are numbers which have certainly not increased in the last 50 years and the place remains isolated, the nearest towns, as ever, being Mountainair, 37 miles northwest, and Carrizozo, 42 miles southeast.

While Claunch is largely quiet these days, if you listen closely you might hear voices on the breeze, for singing once echoed loudly across the gravel roads. At first, there were gatherings in people’s homes, but then, in 1916, under a brush arbor not far off from town, the Torrance County Singing Convention was born. These were not informal get-togethers, but true events rooted in long religious tradition stretching back to the remote forests of New England in the 1700’s. Ralph Looney, relating his attendance at a convention in Claunch in “Haunted Highways,” even describes learning of shape-notes, a tool intended to aid those who can’t read music, which has a rich history in a unique type of hymn singing in the Deep South often referred to as Sacred Harp.

The Torrance County Singing Convention attracted people from all over the region and even those from other states who had moved away. A yearly state-wide convention could bring in as many as 1200 singers. In DuBois Flats/Fairview/Claunch, the singing convention “year” began on the fourth Sunday in April, with another convention held in June, August, and October. And, as with Sacred Harp “sings” in the South, food--and lots of it--was required to sustain hours upon hours of music in which everyone participated. So, after two hours of singing in the morning, it was time for lunch.

Ralph Looney describes a spread he saw in the mid-1960’s, years after one might’ve assumed Claunch was forgotten: “Meat loaf, fried chicken, roast chicken, ham, beef roast and pork roast. Turkey, molded fruit salads, slaw, tossed salads. Vegetables like pickled beets, green beans, wax beans, mashed potatoes, potato salad, candied yams. Homemade yeast rolls and cornbread. Chocolate cake, angel food, vanilla cake, white cake, apple pie, cherry pie, blueberry pie and so on and on and on and on.” Then would follow at least another three hours of songs such as “Joy is Coming,” “Then We’ll be Happy,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I’ve been assured there is still fine music being made in Claunch, if not on quite so grand a scale. And the post office is open yet, and operating as a library, too. You can check a book out or swap for one of your own. But as you walk past the old pinto bean elevator, with Ye Olde Dance Hall still faintly visible on the front, and a sign for a museum which it’s probably best you not wait too long to open, it is the past you feel, remarkably soothing--which is not always the case in such places--and somehow alive and singing.

It is perhaps worth adding a short postscript: Claunch lies about 40 miles northeast of the Trinity Site as the crow flies. Given prevailing winds on the morning of the world’s first atomic bomb blast, it was directly in the path of potential fallout. People from the region still talk of cows that turned white after the explosion and were then shown off at local fairs as curiosities to ponder over. It's a strange and unsettling footnote in the history of the little town of pinto beans and singing conventions.

Ralph Looney’s “Haunted Highways” provided a wonderful description of Claunch in the 1960’s, while “Ghost Towns Alive” by Linda Harris revisited the town over 40 years later. I grabbed a little info from Robert Julyan’s “The Place Names of New Mexico,” as I tend to do, as well.

Next time we’ll just see where we end up. I’ve got a backlog of locations that only seems to grow larger.