Where are we going?
At the start of the movie Excalibur, when rival groups of roving medieval knights go in search of the Holy Grail, the prevailing culture’s worldview has given rise to dark, heavy armor and apparel, which make the humans clunky and repulsive. As the people of that era merge with their own creations, their society reshapes the people’s consciousness in endless circles of cause and effect.
Then, a sudden revolution in consciousness occurs, and the armor and garments become elegant and resplendent. This revolution has a comparable effect on the bearing and comportment of the people and, in turn, on their aspirations and the development of their society.
Something akin has been taking place in human society with regard to the ubiquitous mode of transportation with which we negotiate the world. The vehicles in which we encapsulate ourselves, which now incorporate computer and cellphone technologies, shape the world in which we live, as well as shaping our own beings in profound ways.
It was not all that long ago when humans made use of completely different technologies for transporting our goods and ourselves. We created unique societies that possessed a particular consciousness and set of values that reflected an understanding of ourselves, our relationship to each other and our experience of space, time and the Earth.
What we know about the network of paths radiating outward from Chaco Canyon, from the running traditions of modern day Pueblo people, as well as from the unassimilated tribes of northern and central México such as the Tarahumara and Huichol, all point to the fact that running, walking, pilgrimaging and even dancing were (and for some, continue to be) integral to the lives of people, their communications, their economic activity, and especially their spiritual life.
Traversing long distances by foot was not unrelated to the sun’s journey across the sky or the effort that other living beings made to fulfill their purpose. From México came the pochteca or itinerant merchants, who carried hundreds of pounds of goods such as pottery, feathers, chocolate or obsidian, placed within woven nets strapped to the head. In the Pueblo world, there were runners who carried news from village to village or those who helped the sun rise during ceremonies.
To walk or run was to know the land in its most intimate detail and to appreciate its gifts—resins, clays, herbs, seeds, nuts, fruits, stones, wood, water, weather, animals, etc. Only with this level of intimacy among people, the land and sky could survival be certain for the original inhabitants of this continent, where no beasts of burden existed to pull carts along manmade roads as in Europe. Walking and running also made the people fit and trim and able to withstand the rigors of climate and topography. The people and the land were one in every way. Emergence and migration stories of the first peoples of this continent make this quite clear.
The horse, although native to the Americas, had migrated to other parts of the world, including Asia and Central Asia, before becoming extinct on this hemisphere several thousand years ago. When the Greeks first saw the mounted Thracians, ancient inhabitants of Central Asia and the Caucus, on horseback, they became alarmed, much as Native Americans would be three or four thousand years later at the sight of mounted Spanish horsemen. In both cases it was believed that the horse and rider were a single creature. Only because of this animal were the early Spanish explorers and conquerors able to cover such enormous distances across what seemed to be an endless continent.
Among the native peoples of México, only the Tlaxcalan allies of the Spanish were allowed to mount on horseback, until the horse was captured by nomadic tribes in northern México and what is now the western half of the United States. The horse thoroughly revolutionized the lives of the Plains tribes from Montana to Texas—especially the Crow, Sioux, Apache and Comanche. The horse enabled them to pull travois with people’s worldly possessions.
The Spanish Mexicans of this area, together with the Pueblo people, did use horses, but over the long run of centuries, they lived out a difficult-to-achieve interethnic co-existence, and made more extensive use of the humble burro. This beast of burden, of which many images still exist in the Spanish and Indian languages of New Mexico, evolved in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. It was subsequently brought to México and Nuevo México, where it became an indispensable feature of the community and landscape. On burros’ backs, woodcutters hauled firewood from the mountains, and farmers transported produce to villages whose climates were better suited to raising sheep, goats and tough grains and legumes. People also rode burros. In their comings and goings they became pacemakers in a world that moved very slowly, a world where phenomena and events took on deep resonance and meaning. We can hardly imagine that in today’s world of constantly ringing cellphones and roaring traffic.
By the early 20th century, before the advent of the motorcar, horses had become more common in northern New Mexico. The majority Mexicano population regularly tended to move around on horse-drawn wagons and buggies. The Pueblo and Navajo peoples also made use of these technologies, which greatly enhanced their mobility and carrying capacity, not to mention widening their social circles.
Illustrating this was the story my father told of his parents’ annual trip by horse-drawn wagon from their village of Las Truchas, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to Santa Fe. Only when the likelihood of snow had disappeared, would they risk this arduous trip, which took two days one way and included a layover at the home of a certain Pino family in Tesuque Pueblo. There they would be welcomed, their animals unhitched, watered and fed by their kind hosts, and they were offered unconditional lodging and hospitality.
Early the next day they would make their way into Santa Fe after tackling Tesuque Hill on roads that could best be described as rutted paths. After a day of conducting business and a night spent camping along the Santa Fe River, they would make their way down the same treacherous hill. Once again, they would seek lodging at the home of their Tesuque Pueblo compadres.
Their chance to reciprocate always took place from Aug. 8-12, around the Feast of San Lorenzo at Picurís Pueblo. On those days, the Pino family would make its annual sojourn to and from Picurís via Las Truchas. Upon their arrival at my grandparents’ home, my grandfather, Don Desiderio López, would welcome the family, unhitch their team of horses, lead them to food and water and beckon the Pinos to the family table, where my grandmother, Doña Martina, served up a big meal. They would spend the night telling stories into the wee hours, and then on the next day proceed to Picurís. Following the feast day on the 10th, the Pino family would return to my grandparents’ home and once again spend the night.
Those age-old arrangements of a cooperative inter-ethnic society, together with the unspoiled landscape of northern New Mexico, went out the window with the arrival of the motorcar. Exempt from the Industrial Revolution that had overtaken Europe and the rest of the United States, New Mexico still did everything by hand until the dawn of the 20th century. The automobile was pretty much the first machine that anyone in these parts had ever seen. In fact, “máquina,” the Spanish name for machine, is to this very day, the Tiwa name for automobile.
The first Nuevo Mexicanos who witnessed the sputtering and convulsive Model-T Fords that made their way up La Bajada were awestruck by those mechanical beasts and quick to ascribe to them the workings of the devil. They were not totally off, given the heartache automobiles have caused in the way of fatal accidents, DWIs and eternal financial bondage to lending institutions, mechanics and the petroleum industry. Not to mention the disruption of communities and despoilment of land by highways, billboards and urban sprawl.
Currently everything hinges on the car, whereas relatively recently, everything in northern New Mexico hinged on the acequia system, agriculture and economic self-sufficiency. In Española, on a stretch of a little over two miles, no fewer than 12 national fast-food restaurant chains vie for the more than 7,000 motorists that daily traverse that road. In turn, the easements along the roads and highways of Española, with a carpet of cups, drinking straws, napkins, wrappers and containers, reflect a way of life on the run, in which we live inside our cars and have lost sight of the land we once farmed and loved.
In this and other northern New Mexico communities, parking lots abound, but there is nary a park or open field. Until recently, the road from Santa Fe was a spiritual adventure with magnificent views where one could stop and ponder if so moved. With the road’s reconstruction into a superhighway with frontage roads on either side, the same journey has become a more subdued passage through a manmade landscape.
What I find to be most problematic is the danger we expose ourselves to every time we travel at such immense speeds. With a single slip-up by any one person, any of us could face annihilation at any time.
Of course, the automobile is in many ways a huge asset to the reconfigured economy of New Mexico. The automobile has made it possible to commute to work at Los Alamos National Laboratories, government offices in Santa Fe and elsewhere. It has made possible the hauling of resources still important to people’s lives, such as timber, wood, stone, clay, hay and farm animals. It has opened up other vistas and lands and made possible long trips to see family and friends living in other states. Most significantly, perhaps, large trucks now bring in imported food and goods, without which the inhabitants now cannot live, despite that before the 20th century, they never had need of these things.
To me, the question to ponder at this historic juncture of possible worldwide ecological collapse is not whether the automobile is good or bad but rather to what degree we are willing to sacrifice our open lands, our few remaining pristine vistas and community spaces to the automobile. Having observed the evolution of northern New Mexico across a lifetime beginning in the 1950s, I can vouch, without a doubt, that much of it is quickly morphing into a kind of vapid southern California, with ever-increasing congestion, omnipresent white noise, frenetic living and hazy vistas.
Perhaps some day soon we can make a significant breakthrough in consciousness that will provide us with a totally different way of transporting ourselves and our goods, one more in keeping with ecological principles and a human scale. When that happens, perhaps we will look back on the automobile age as those people in Excalibur were able to look back on a previous age in which people moved about in the twilight of human possibility. I will welcome such a time.
Alejandro López is a native northern New Mexico writer, photographer and educator.