New Mexico’s Ortiz & Jemez Mountains Mixed with Desert


During our latest trip to the US, we visited friends in their wide open land out in the northern New Mexico countryside.  While there, I bore fleeting witness to this gentle unfolding of the Ortiz Mountains.  These mountains were once the backdrop to a four year chapter in my life, and to have them spreading out before me once again revealed at once the distance and nearness where New Mexico now sits for me.

At that moment, as four of us walked around together, it occurs to me that each of us were walking a different path.  Nancy and Tamia found themselves on a trail they had never seen before.  Andy was casually walking along the same territory he might venture out upon on any given day.  As for myself, I was passing through a place I had once considered close to home, and was now taking in everything I could during our brief tour.

The day before, we had met Andy and Amanda on the other side of another mountain range, the Jemez Mountains.  The Jemez are a long stretch of mountains lying some 30 or 40 miles west of where I was then standing, and along their north-south run there aren’t many more than two or three ways across by car.  To pull off such an unlikely rendezvous, we had set out from Santa Fe, crossing the Jemez range from their northern end.  Andy and Amanda, living further to the south, chose the way across from the mountains’ opposite extreme.  And where did we meet, but a secluded set of hot springs tucked away several miles in from the highway.

Despite being so far from the beaten path, quite a few other bathers were present that day, and after we had enjoyed a nice soaking, and intense hydro-massage from the gush of hot water issuing forth from the source of the springs, we decided to adjourn to a more private place, a meadow further down the hill.

There, we communed awhile and sipped Rioja from the bottle.  Then, as dusk began to set in, we made our way back to the highway and took the long drive to Andy and Amanda’s land.

The ride back was punctuated by bouts of curiosity as to what we had all been up to for the last few years.  I won’t say that there were quite enough hours for the whole story to be told in the roundabout fashion it was revealed, but I’d like to think we all managed to get into it deeply enough for the time being what it was.  Once we got where we were going, it was very much nighttime and past our collective bedtimes.  Our hosts showed us to their guesthouse and retired up the hill, and we didn’t bother unpacking before we climbed up into the loft bed and were asleep.

The light of the morning gave me a better glimpse at the guest house I had stayed in two years prior.  In the meantime, it had evolved in some noticeable ways:

Our guest lodging for our stay is a one room strawbale house. It’s an ongoing project carved out by an extended community of contributors who each come to the land when they can to further its development.

The first time I stayed there, (if I’m remembering well) the interior still revealed the straw walls, and the loft bed was one of the few furnishings.

Upon our recent stay, the tree mural on the left wall and a further layer of mud plaster were two of the changes to the outside.  The inside had gotten some plaster as well, and was now graced with a little woodstove, a wash basin, and also a desk furnished with a reading lamp, accompanying guest book, and some light reading by Joseph Campbell.

Another practical inclusion to the project is the water cistern:

Since our friends live off the grid, they look to the land – and at least as often to the sky – for their resources.  A big part of that means water collection.  Every roof on their land provides that much more square footage of area for capturing the rain and funneling it into storage.  As you can see, the slightly slanted roof directs water into a downspout leading to a cistern.

Lamentably outside the frame of the photo here is the destination of the overflow tube, a spiraling rock garden which (I gather) allows the water to be absorbed into the ground gently, contributing to the well-being of some nearby plants without causing undue erosion.  The ladder and other building materials laying about will further illustrate the work in progress that is the guest house.

Before I go any further, I’ll make a short aside to elaborate more on Ampersand.  A name for both their land and their project, I might say that it describes their own personal manifestation of sustainable living, and the countless, conscious ways of considering their daily lives in order to achieve it.  While they draw deliberately from the past work and research of other people on similar paths, the beauty of such nascent projects as modern sustainability is that they’re wide open to creative innovation, and many of the details you’ll see are very much their own.

Amanda and Andy acquired their land about seven years ago, not long after we met.  I recall their inaugural party on the land as a starry night illuminated by a campfire and righteously like-minded people.  Since then I’ve been lucky to spend many days and nights on that land, and while each time has been unique and distinct, I can’t say that there’s been a single time I’ve done so that hasn’t felt incredibly memorable and powerful.  I hope you’ll take the time to look at their website which I’ve linked above, especially if you hold sustainable values and live or plan to be in New Mexico.  There, you’ll see plenty of specific goals and projects going on.  Here, I hope I can present a complementary narrative that comes from my own interaction with my friends and their vision.

And so, delving back into our time on the land, we climbed the hill from the guesthouse and made our way up to their place.  I was anxious to see it, as my most recent memory of it was of a home still very much under construction.  It had walls, floor and a roof, but they were all still in the rough stages of completion.  But what we saw that morning was unmistakably a well-lived home:

While this picture doesn’t capture the full scope of the exterior of the house, which is even more striking seen from the front, it does reveal some of the functional aspects of the design.  If you look to the right, towards the rear of the house, you’ll see the solar array that provides electricity to the home.  It’s tilted so as to have maximum exposure to the sun’s rays, much like the leaf of a plant.  And even more like a green leaf, these solar panels follow the sun automatically as it crosses the sky, thanks to a passive hydraulic tracker driven by the heat of the sun.  An elegant system guided by the very source of energy itself.

If you follow the line of the roof back towards the solar panels, you’ll see a tube leading to another cistern, this one much larger than the one pictured above.  The water collected there is diverted for all water uses: washing, bathing, and gardening among them.  And for drinking water too, after passing through the attractive and functional filter/dispenser found in the kitchen.  Water for the shower is first heated, through a solar water heater that operates naturally through the principal of thermal siphoning.  Cold water naturally descends into the heater, while heated water naturally rises up into the shower or any other hot water source when the faucet is opened.

A portion of the garden can be seen above, several plants growing in containers.  An in-ground garden plot is around the front of the house, in front of a cold frame greenhouse.  Those plants are irrigated with greywater flowing from the shower and sinks from within the house, and additional water is provided from the cistern as needed.  I won’t go into too much detail about these kinds of things, as it’s all nicely laid out on their website.  But suffice it to say that an edible desert oasis can be yours, with no more than rainwater and the right kind of thought and determination.

That morning we had breakfast in their lovely home, and afterwords took a trip into Madrid, a nearby village like none other.  As it was for a time my first contact with humanity whenever I left my own little patch of high desert solitude years before, it was interesting to see it again.  Once a coal mining community, it was rescued from its fate as a ghost town in the 60s and has risen again as a sort of art community, at once reclusive and open to the public, and defies simple definition.

We stopped in to visit the community garden, managed and maintained by a small cadre of gardeners including Amanda.  On the way through town I noticed that while I could still recognize the most successful businesses – the coffee shop, the bar, the general store and some of the more prominent art galleries, namely – many of the shops had changed hands and been renamed, repainted, and born again.  All in all a look down the main drag revealed a town largely unchanged from the one I’d had in my mind’s eye, though, which was nice to see.

Then, a trip down to the garden.

When I left the area, it was more of an idea than an actual garden, so seeing how it had taken shape over the course of a few years was great.  We collected some peas and a couple other veggies but the garden was, much like northern New Mexico generally seemed to be at that particular time, overrun with mosquitoes!

While they only seemed to come out at night everywhere else, these mosquitoes were raging in broad daylight.  We did our best to ignore them at first, and then to actively try to keep them off us at any cost.  But soon we realized that we were fighting a losing battle, and our only chance at avoiding more itchy welts was to just get out of there.  Which was unfortunate, because the garden was a pleasant addition to the Madrid community and I’d hoped to relax there for awhile in the shade.  Maybe next time!

Afterwords, lunch at a new and highly recommended restaurant in town, across from the bar.  Great sandwiches, well-peppered grits, and best of all, microbrew beer.  I couldn’t help but have a couple of those.

Back up on the land, Amanda was done working and by all reckoning it was cocktail hour.  We had all the ingredients for some homemade margaritas, and so margaritas we made.  And took them down to the wash for some arroyo bocce ball.

Arroyo bocce has, over the years, become one of my favorite traditions associated with Ampersand.  One not to be missed during any visit.  Indeed, on a prior trip there, a friend sustained considerable injury to his arm during a hike among the sandstone rocks and cliffs in the area earlier in the day. Nonetheless, he soldiered through the pain and blood in order to nobly take aim at the elusive little pallino target later in the evening.

That particular day was a more leisurely outing, and we played until the evening had set in deeply enough to prohibit proper visibility.  At which point we adjourned up the hill and prepared for a tasty dinner.

Back at the house, I noticed that the floors were especially clean, to which Amanda replied offhandedly that she had mopped.  But aren’t they earthen floors? I asked.  Indeed they are.  Made entirely with natural materials and simple earth being among them, the floor was poured with mud, smoothed out and then allowed to dry and crack.  The cracks were filled in and smoothed over again and again until an even surface was achieved, and then sealed with beeswax and linseed oil.  Making it proof against a wet mop, and great to walk upon with your bare feet and toes.

We were to be joined that evening by Carl, a common acquaintance of ours.  I hadn’t seen Carl in many years and his visit that evening was a great surprise.  The fact that he brought a cooler full of nothing less than several home brewed beers made the evening that much more excellent.  In fact, the beer happened to be a light one put up in green bottles, giving it a resemblance to something like St. Pauli Girl, but with a creamier mouthfeel.  Perfect for the end of a hot day in the desert.

That night, spring rolls were on the menu, and we were all on board to roll them up.

Or rather, on the floor.  What better place than on your own hands, knees and backsides for dipping your fingers into raw, local food?  Having twisted up some burritos and what have you in my time, I greatly enjoyed the natural cling you get from a wet spring roll wrapper. And they went well with the beer.

I can’t remember what I was on about in that picture, but I’d like to think it was relevant, somehow.  Amanda was certainly giving me her attention, but whether she was truly interested or just indulging me is an open question.

Indeed, that night was full of bold gesticulating and cracking wise.  Some music was played.  And all around, good times were had.  The hour came for Carl to leave, and when he did, while that screen door you see in the background was left momentarily open during his exit, a truly incredible quantity of mosquitoes flew in the house.

A sort of mosquito slaughter ensued, us swatting and wondering over the unlikely number of pests that had gotten inside during such a brief opportunity.  At one point Andy put his ear to the screen and was amazed at the subtle buzz that could be heard outside.  If you were quiet, very quiet, you could hear the insect menace swarming out there.

Eventually, we needed to say good night and go down the hill.  We endeavored to make a quick exit once the screen door was opened.  We rushed down the dark path, determined to get home without a bite.  But then, we glanced up and saw what every city dweller in the world becomes entranced by when he visits the countryside.  Stars!  So many of them.  I knew how it was, I’d lived there before.  But that was a beautiful night sky.  Starstruck, if you will, we indulged in several minutes of shamelessly staring at it.  Sure, we sustained some welts for it, but we had no regrets.

Down the hill and in the guesthouse, we holed up for a good night’s sleep.  The next day, Andy and Amanda had business on the road up into Santa Fe, a convenient excuse to drop us off back in town.  And so that morning, we shared a car ride and a good bye.  That trip was full of hellos and goodbyes, every day.  Until we meet again!

When I met Andy and Amanda years before, I felt a certain kinship with them immediately.  At the time, I had a house in the same area and was living out, as much as I was able, a similar vision.  Seeing them again, in addition to being a great time spent with good friends, gave me the chance to see how we’ve all grown and evolved during those years of knowing each other, too.

Every day, our minds are filled with vague and random ideas, taking shape from the influences around us.  When something worthy comes to mind, we might be moved to dedicate ourselves to it, and begin making choices that bring our lives closer to that vision.  And then, over time, we might stay with it, or find ourselves compelled to move more into other directions.  In my life, I can see how my own focus has shifted from that intention of sustainability, for example.  At one point, it was a primary goal.  While it’s still something I value, I can see how it has, in my daily practice, moved to the periphery in lieu of things like travel here in Latin America, and all the things that have come with that.  I love the choices I’ve made, and I’m happy where they’ve brought me.

I see my friends on their land, where they took what was a temporary dwelling and a campfire out in the country, and built it up into a home and learning place built with their own hands.  That’s what you get when you dedicate yourself for years to the same vision.  I have great respect for them both, above all for that dedication.  Every day they can wake up surrounded by what they’ve realized of their dream so far, and take satisfaction from that.  For my own part, I still have a long way I want to go, but I can say that the fruits of my choices over the past several years bring me satisfaction, too.  Being able to express myself in a new language, and understand the people of this continent when they speak.  A few years ago, I couldn’t have said that.  Whatever your vision is, to whatever you may dedicate yourself, take pride in what you’ve done, be thankful for where it’s led you.

Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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