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New Mexico: where dogs race cars

A week ago I found myself 9,000 feet above sea level surrounded by miles of New Mexican mesa marching around a stone circle, banging a drum with the scent of burning sage in my nostrils, as my husband of two days followed me sprinkling lavender. This is a far cry from my usual daily cattle-rammed commute into London followed by hours in front of a computer. Here we were because my husband had insisted I must see “the Valley” for myself, with the kind of reverence I’d expect to hear in connection with a particularly fine Metallica guitar-solo and hence it got incorporated into our honeymoon touring the Rockies. The purpose of this ritual was to appease the spirit of an angry Indian Chief who had appeared to our host in dreams describing a series of medicine wheels which must be constructed on top of several mountains to cleanse the area.

We had met our host for the day, Thom, in a coffee shop the day before. Ventero Open Press Coffee Shop doubles as a showcase and artists’ haven and is one of two coffee shops on the road through San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado. It has wifi, a valuable asset in this remote area of fluctuating internet and mobile phone reception, and features art from local artists, in particular by the resident celebrity artist Randy Pijoan. His paintings have a distinctive trade mark, uniquely capturing light to lend radiance to the skin of his models. Randy also owns the Inn at Amalia where we stayed with our friend and is home to his private studio where it is possible to purchase a canvass. Once a month the coffee shop hosts an Open Mic night, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst the local artist community featuring musicians, comedians and anyone who wants to share their talent. You may even find yourself caricatured by one of the former South Park artists who lives locally.

Ventero is a very laidback joint where customers are free to mingle. The fact that there are only a couple of tables encourages this informality. We chatted to a couple of bikers from Alabama, a father and son, warning them to watch their speed as we had just been pulled over by the local sheriff, who clearly took his traffic duties very seriously (or was simply curious to see a black man with dreds close up, my husband being the only black in this particular village). Thom was chilling on the sofa by the window and joined in our conversation. We ended up talking about UFO sightings in the area, which are apparently frequent and other episodes of unexplained paranormal activity, of which I remain highly sceptical, but extremely interested. I asked about cattle eviscerations but he said in his non professional opinion there wasn’t much evidence for this, although we did actually see some strange corpses the following day. Thom invited us to breakfast the next morning at his farm in exchange for a couple of hours labour building a medicine wheel. Intrigued we accepted and made a date for 9 a.m. hoping that the snow of that morning would have cleared.

One of the first things to know about the Sangre de Cristo mountain range between New Mexico and Colorado is that the altitude can be both exhilarating and suffocating. Always take more water than you think you will need and drink plenty of it. Our hike up the relatively small mountain was invigorating and I had to stop several times to catch my breath, but the view of the glorious Mount Blanca with her 14,345 foot peak, majestic in a veil of snow and the black Mount Ute towering over the valley made it all worthwhile. We definitely needed the energy provided by the delicious home cooked breakfast our host and his lovely wife provided in their farm kitchen. It’s the first time I have walked into a stranger’s home and been given breakfast and yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Quite honestly I would have been happy spending the day there in the tree house bird watching.

It’s not just the fantastic scenery and hospitality of the people that makes this place special; the cross-over of cultures is very intriguing. I was wondering as we drove past one of the local graveyards what tragedy could have happened to cause so many to die so recently, drawing assumptions from the many freshly tended graves, riotous with flowers. However my friend explained that this was the way of the Mexican community, that death was a cause for celebration as it meant the end of a life of suffering. On Sunday the graveyard was full of whole families visiting their dead ones in a way that we don’t see in England. Religion plays a large part in the lives of people up here – there are many churches, Mormon communities, and Amish people. The best views of the town are from the Sangre de Cristo domed church on the hill above San Luis. As we drove through other small settlements I spotted an Amish family playing volleyball in their front yard dressed in long dresses and bonnets, which felt like being jolted into a scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village.

Another odd trait of the area is the way dogs race cars. We took Thom’s 9 year old son, Claude, in our car and he carefully watched the speedometer to see if one of his dogs had gotten faster as he ran beside us for a good stretch down the farm track at 45 mph. Sadly but with resignation he told us that all the dogs race cars here, which had led to the sad demise of one of his dogs last year who had got tangled in the wheels. Almost parallel, bounding through the dense scrub at the road side, I saw my first ever antelope. Wildlife is abundant and the area is a must for any enthusiast as well as the budding ornithologist. I was lucky enough to have two nesting long-horned owls shown to me by a resident and two mating Hudson Hawks. Our drive back from an evening in the local college town, Alamosa, which is about 50 miles away and has the nearest bar scene, brought us encounters with deer, elk and the biggest porcupine I’ve seen outside of a zoo, stubbornly hogging the middle of a road in a blizzard. Bears and mountain lions also live in the area and there are widespread rumours that Bigfoot has been sighted too – I cannot verify any of these! The most common large animal are the wild horses after which Wild Horse Mesa is named; they roam in small groups and it is easy to picture a time with native Indians riding them furiously across this windswept valley. Our friend told us that the Indians would kidnap women and children while the men worked the land ransoming them for whiskey.

This was not the only evocation of cowboy and Indian times. The highlight was seeing some early man drawings, or ‘glyphs’ as they are also called, images of men and animals etched into the volcanic rock faces hundreds of years ago. One spot beside the creek we were told was a place where cowboys would cross with their cattle, but also had sacred significance to the native Indians. Another spot we found purely by accident and was unknown to our guide. Claude stumbled upon a glyph as he sought some shade whilst we finished placing rocks for the medicine wheel on a rock with a vantage point across two valleys and down to the railway line. This was exciting enough but as we looked closer we found eight or nine further drawings of deer or cattle on the rock face. It felt as if our efforts building the wheel had been rewarded somehow.

Mingled with the ancient is the new age eco culture which is taking an experimental footing in the Valley. Take a drive out to the Rio Grande gorge and marvel at how many ages of water have chiselled out such a deep ravine beneath the bridge. Drive a little further and you will encounter the Earthships. Constructed of recycled waste and adobe, these buildings use old tyres, beer cans and bottles to form the building blocks and insulation for their walls. Set low in the ground, they are designed to operate primarily on solar power and filter their own water, eliminating the need for any external power sources. We were able to tour some under construction and get a feel for them – the walls felt alive and surprisingly warm given snow lay on the ground outside. Most fascinating to me was how plants and vegetables were grown within the building on an inner layer as if the first layer was a green house. Some of the houses were extremely inventive in their architecture ranging from simple contemporary single story to turreted Aladdin-style two storey buildings. Particularly beautiful were the bottle ends cemented into doorways refracting multi colours of light onto the pavement. It did occur to me though that as eco-friendly as these buildings were when we ‘accidentally’ drove up to get a closer look at some of those which were privately occupied most of them seemed to own 3 or 4 cars which rather contradicts the philosophy of eco living.

The ceremony involved in building the medicine wheel is a secret one so I can’t describe it in deeper detail, nor am I allowed to divulge the exact location. Still one odd thing did happen – when we tried to find north with a compass to be sure we were constructing it to face the correct direction it wobbled wildly and settled east as we placed it on the ground and then pointed back to genuine north when we lifted it. Other than that and a remarkable sense of peace and lightness so far away from civilisation and noise, my husband and I didn’t feel anything inexplicably spiritual or strange. Still it was oddly romantic, unique and a memorable way to spend part of our honeymoon, which wouldn’t be had somewhere else in the world. I did get a sense of why he felt drawn to this Valley and I felt the serenity and tranquillity it breathed. I have not been in a place so far from traffic or airplanes that when I stood still I could hear my heart in my chest.

As we drove away from our medicine mountain we found arrowheads dotted about the ground which Thom said is common. What was sad and startling given the area is of such outstanding natural beauty was the amount of rubbish people had dumped all along the railway line which wound through the valley. Part of Thom’s mission from the chief is to clear this up and so far he has organised volunteer groups to clear several tons of rubbish from the land. We pulled over at what I initially thought was some dirty carpet but turned out to be several animals which seemed to have all died in the same place but at different times. We found huge skulls of deer bleached white by the sun, one of which Claude took for a school project and then more recently departed animals with fur intact but with limbs, head and body scattered over several yards. Possibly the result of coyotes, maybe bears, perhaps alien experimentation, but most likely trains – we’ll never know for sure but it was exactly the sort of gruesome discovery Claude and I loved!

Hopefully we left behind one happy Indian Chief spirit out there and if not, there are a bunch of happy, well fed animals and a group of humans who had a rare experience, enjoyed some fabulous views and worked up a serious appetite for lunch. So explore the Valley and Sangre de Cristo mountains and you just might find our secret medicine wheel or better still some ancient glyphs left behind centuries before.

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