Tag Archives: american west

Monument Valley

I just returned from a lengthy western road trip, including, amongst other things, 4000 photographs filling many gigs of space. I have hours of editing ahead of me. Today, enjoy some images from Monument Valley, one of the famous vistas of the American West. This lonely place is in northeast Arizona, near the Four Corners. It’s where Forrest Gump stopped running, and it’s appeared in many movies. And it’s only 6 hours from Albuquerque!

Monument Valley panorama

Just after sunset

Stars at Monument Valley

A little HDR nighttime play

Western split tone

Between Kayenta and Monument Valley


The monument valley loop


Sunrise play


Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.


As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.


Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.


There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.


Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

Mimbres Pottery

Although we think of the west as new, it’s only new to the United States. Many native cultures and the Spanish Empire traipsed across the Southwest for centuries and millennia before it was the American frontier, and their legacy remains. As an easterner, nowhere I’ve ever lived had that depth of surviving history. I still have a lot to learn.


The Mogollon (roughly pronounced MUH-guh-yun) Culture was one of three ancient cultures in the southwest, along with the Pueblo and the Hohokam. The Mimbres branch of the Mogollon lived in southwest New Mexico. The people of the Gila Cliff Dwellings only lived there for about a generation, likely driven there by desperation. Compared to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are quite small. The culture disappeared from the region shortly thereafter. But their pottery remains influential today, over 500 years after the culture that produced it collapsed.

Mimbres pottery is astonishing. Many southwestern cultures have beautiful pottery with rich design and symbolism. Mimbres pottery is different. It depicts compelling geometric abstractions of animals and people, employing artistic devices not seen in European art until this century.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque has a nice collection; I picked up a great book of designs in the gift shop, Mimbres Classic Mysteries by Tom Steinbach Jr. Most books about Mimbres pottery show photographs of the works. This book shows the designs themselves, which are brilliant. All images in this post are from that book.


Sandhill crane design, almost like something from the art deco movement.


Humorous design featuring a great blue heron, with the fishes hiding in the one place the heron’s neck cannot reach.


Intertwined ram’s heads


Man/crane design. The author suggests it looks like a Picasso. I am struck by the use of negative space.


Bat design

Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife” revisited: Considering “Cadillac Desert” and “Collapse”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s a semi-apocalyptic view of water shortages in the not-too-distant future American west. Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t buy into the central crisis of the book—a water crisis severe enough to send states practically to war with one another. Then again, I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, New York, and Virginia; I knew nothing about water scarcity. After The Water Knife piqued my interest, I read two nonfiction books about societal collapse and the history of water rights: Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Water Knife is clearly a call to action. It begs the reader to read Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here). The 1986 Cadillac Desert (with a 1993 addendum) details water-related shenanigans too absurd for science fiction. It details the construction of the LA aqueduct using mules; it reveals the snail darter controversy as a boondoggle of an evil bureaucracy; it details the pissing contest between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you know that our largest desalination plant is far from any coast? The Yuma Desalination Plant on the Colorado River ensures that the water we send on to Mexico satisfies international treaty. Thousands of miles of irrigation makes the water almost toxically saline by the time it reaches the border. It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking farce detailed in Cadillac Desert—is it the river sent over a 2,000 foot mountain to reach southern California? Is it the Teton Dam, which collapsed immediately and eliminated several towns because the engineers chose not to worry about the caves in the rock next to the dam?

I read The Water Knife wondering all the while how plausible its central conflict was. The Water Knife provides none of the lurid water history that Cadillac Desert did, just a strong message to go read that book. Usually I resist exposition in fiction, but The Water Knife ended up feeling ungrounded to me without more education. Its insistent references to Cadillac Desert were an appeal to an authority I lacked any knowledge of. Most of the United States population lives in wet parts of the country without knowledge of water rationing. After reading Cadillac Desert, the lack of detail felt even more disappointing. Many of the tales of that book, especially of the CAP (Central Arizona Project), would have provided easy fodder. Books about Mars colonies explain how colonists find oxygen with some scientific exposition; The Water Knife should have included a little exposition to orient us naive easterners.

Cadillac Desert expounds upon the ecological damage, financial waste, and altogether pointlessness of many western water projects, but it doesn’t speak much of pending disaster. It showed me how absurd and illogical the western water structure is, a point that The Water Knife relies upon. The book I read next contained a vivid reminder of the fragility of the American west. That fragility has ruined lives and cities before.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse details why a variety of civilizations collapsed, including the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Diamond explains how deforestation in the fragile desert ecosystem combined with a drought eventually led to widespread collapse of the civilization. I visited Chaco Canyon three months ago. It’s a strange place—a dozen massive ruins in a remote desert canyon. One can’t help but wonder how or why anyone lived there. Again and again, Diamond details how civilizations over exploit their natural resources, face adversity, and often collapse in the face of that adversity.

I don’t know if I believe that the southwest will collapse into a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the nearish future. As a new transplant to the west, The Water Knife strikes a frightening tone. But like the book about colonists on Mars, it need not be literally possible or true, it tells a fun story and kindles the imagination about the future of the American west. I enjoyed The Water Knife. But I was better able to feel its message after  supplemental nonfiction reading. I think The Water Knife would have affected me more if it supplied more of that information within the book. And to any other reader of The Water Knife patient enough to add another 1000 pages of reading to their list, Cadillac Desert and Collapse are excellent supplementals to The Water Knife.


Science Fiction and the West: Part 2

The western landscape is absurd. There are massive towers of rock, ancient ruins, and strange colors. There are fields of lava and dunes of drywall. In a recent post, I talked about how the west evokes much of the science fiction I read. Well, I went driving again, and I found more science fiction in the west. Specifically…

Underground kingdoms

Carlsbad Caverns lie under southeast New Mexico. At any moment, I imagined that goblins would pour out of the ceiling and down columns around me. Carlsbad evokes visions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Cthulhu, and Middle Earth. Right now, the elevators at Carlsbad are offline, so you must walk down into the gaping natural entrance. If you are a science fiction enthusiast, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are on a journey to somewhere of lore.


The Great Room in Carlsbad Caverns.


Strange pieces of history

There are some silos out west that look exactly like daleks. This one is by the city of Alamogordo. Nearby, I found a scrap yard full of derelict missiles and circuitry. Seriously, where does one find a silo shaped like a scifi creature next to cruise missiles other than science fiction and the west? (Okay, maybe the Ural Mountains.)

At first, it seemed rather extraordinary to find a missile sitting in a scrap yard a mile outside a mid-sized city, but this is the storage yard for the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Still, I prefer to think that giant daleks roam New Mexico, and they have missiles!

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A real life Canticle for Leibowitz

East of Albuquerque is the Salinas Mission National Monument, a set of three missions from the 1600s. The sites were inhabited by pueblo indians going back centuries. After the Spaniards arrived, they built missions to convert the indians. They also functioned as part of the salt trade, which is where the name “Salinas” comes from. After the pueblo revolted in the late 1600s, the sites were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the mid 1800s.

I visited the Gran Quivira site this weekend. It contains a pueblo village that once held 2000 people, a completed church, and an extremely large incomplete church that was in construction at the time of the revolt. From the site, you can see for miles around. There are a few ranches, but few other signs of inhabitance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just reread A Canticle for Leibowitz. And wow did Gran Quivira evoke the book. The ruins of a church next to a town, just like the abbey next to the town of Sanly Bowitz. From the site, one could see a pilgrim traveling the road. Overhead, the sun bakes all. Okay, so the book was set in Utah, but it felt real to me!


Salinas Mission National Monument–the Gran Quivira Site.

White Sands

Have I written about this place enough? It’s a bunch of dunes literally made from powdered drywall. I think I’m in love. It’s Tatooine, Mars, Arrakis, and Vulcan.

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And that was all in just one long weekend. If my former state of Virginia was for lovers, then New Mexico is for romance.


Getting Lost in the Devil’s Garden

The sun was falling on the primitive trail of Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park in Utah. The sandy trail was damp from heavy rain the day before, but the sky was bright and blue above. The last traces of golden hour set the massive red rocks around us aflame. We could turn back and repeat the scrambling and climbing that brought us to our current place or we could go forward on the loop, which looked sandy and tame. We had read that the primitive trail was a 3.5 mile loop– we thought from the trailhead. Rather, it was from the main trail. So when we chose to keep going on the easy-looking sand, it was for several more miles than we bargained for.

The sun dimmed, and the sand yielded to climbing and rock scrambles. Arches rock is sandstone called slickrock. At Arches National Park, people crawl and climb over every arch and rock fin. It can be a challenge to photograph an arch without including some neon-clad idiot. So normally slickrock isn’t slick. But the rain-damped sand stuck to our shoes and acted as a lubricant, like sand on a shuffleboard table. We chose the sandy path because the rocky path to this point had been a challenge. And with even less chance of turning back, we were facing it again.

At one point, we slid down a 10 foot slope into some branches at the bottom. If you missed the branches, your slide would be longer and steeper. There were other shorter slides. It was like nature’s playground.

Then we came to a point where you must cross a ledge above a drop off. By ledge, I mean a slight bowing in the side of a rock fin. Twilight was setting in. My husband scooted across and warned me that the ledge was slick. I sat down and scooted, my camera bag bulging over the drop, skewing my center of balance. I inched along. My foot slipped. I darted forward, not at all steady. I was across the ledge. I looked back. If I had slipped, I would have slid rather than fallen, but down a 20 foot, 60 degree incline with prickly trees at the bottom. I imagined myself trapped in back country with a twisted ankle and no food and water for a night. It seemed less like a playground then.

Night fell. Thankfully, it was a clear night with a bright moon; our only other lights were the flashlights on our iPhones. There were more scrambles, though none as bad as the ledge. The trail was marked with small piles of rocks.

At one point, we missed a pile marking. We turned down a canyon. It was easy and first, and covered with footprints, a good sign. But it grew narrower and rockier, and the footsteps disappeared. I slipped and banged my camera bag. Yesterday, I discovered that I dislodged the front glass piece on my favorite lens with that jolt. Humph.

The canyon ahead was even narrower, and we wondered when we last saw a rock pile. We back-tracked. At the entrance to the canyon, we saw the rock pile. We had been lost, but we were back. Unfortunately, the marker lay beyond a massive puddle. At least in back country Arches, we were pretty confident that there wasn’t much living in that red muddy murk. The puddle was surrounded by steep rock–we hoped it wasn’t too deep, opaque as it was. Tree branches poked up from the water. We hoped they were sitting on the bottom rather than floating, but it was hard to tell. We tried to scoot around the periphery. My husband slipped. The water was up to his knees. We waded through, grateful it was that shallow.

Finally, the trail settled down, and we walked through a grassy prairie. The stars came out; the milky way stretched over red rocks and prairie. Here and there, a shooting star flashed. We walked stiffly back to the main trail. Then we drove to Moab and got sushi, a bit more sandy than usual, our shoes still squishing with water. It was a victory meal.

It was a good adventure. We didn’t slip or fall and the pictures turned out beautifully. Next time I’ll be more careful reading the distance markings, though, and respect slickrock after rain. The rest of my shots from that day are on Flickr. Other than my pitfalls, mostly caused by my lack of caution, I’d highly recommend this hike. I felt very wild and saw such beautiful things.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Amongst the red fins.

Amongst the red fins.

Partition Arch in Devil's Garden.

Partition Arch in Devil’s Garden.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn't love the night hike, I'm so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn’t love the night hike, I’m so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I'm so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I’m so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Golden hour play!

Golden hour play!

Welcome to the west

I’m back online as of this week, after driving across 10 states in a compact car with my husband and two cats. I come to you now from the west, and it’s hot! This week I will get back to my regular schedule of posting writing prompts on Thursdays and regular posts on Mondays.

For the last month, I’ve been packing, unpacking, driving, assembling furniture, and creating spreadsheets of the dimensions of my furniture. I’ve been struggling all day to come up with a good topic for today’s post;  my brain is still in moving mode, uncreative but good at spatial organization. But as with writing prompts, the key to getting back into things is to start. So with this post I’m starting!

Some brief thoughts on the west:

  • Low humidity is nice. Yesterday the high was 102, but I went on a two-hour bike ride from 10-12 and did not evaporate. The humidity is 9% right now.
  • Hooray for southwestern cuisine. Charlottesville was big on the locovore movement, but that’s more about ingredients than combinations. St. Louis has its lovely paste cheese and transcendent toasted ravioli, but these are specific dishes. Here we have words for food that I have to look up: calabacitas, fideos, sopapilla, adovada, posole… Here there is an entirely different kind of food rather than a few different dishes.
  • I’m back in the land of gridded roads! Charlottesville has a handful of through streets. Windy, narrow through streets. For a town of its size, the traffic is insane. If you choose to bike, you can choose between 45 mph rural country highways with no shoulder or bike lanes placed thoughtfully between moving cars and parked cars on said over-crowded urban streets. My bike gathered cobwebs in Charlottesville.
  • Western mountains are neat. Yes, Charlottesville had mountains. Ancient, sanded mountains covered with forests. Here we have big craggy mountains. Mountains that make hikers go missing, mountains of extinct volcanos.
  • Things seem close, but they aren’t, but they kind of are. Charlottesville is 2.5 hours from DC, and 6 hours from NYC. That drive to NYC is 6 hours of eastern aggression hell. Thank goodness for the train. Here, all the cities are 6 hours away at least. But that’s 6 hours of calm, flat road. I’m looking forward to exploring the west.

Photography in the American West

This week I visited Moab, Utah. I stand-up (and fall-down) paddled on the Colorado River during a thunderstorm, I hiked in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and I stargazed. Most of all, I ravenously took pictures.


Delicate Arch from across a gorge in Arches National Park


Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National ParkMesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

Park Avenue in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park
Arches National Park

Arches National Park