Am I haunted by an old place or just by forgotten spirits?
Guadalupe sits in the hot sun by the edge of the river.
La Senora Guadalupe: Wind, cold, sand, sun and rain
have sucked the town dry leaving only a fading husk.
A wandering poet with a camera is sometimes a dangerous thing. We get into troubling places with troubling thoughts and sometimes find ourselves where we don’t belong. Such was my experience on a recent brilliant January day. I was in pursuit of an idea and ideas are hard to pin down. Eighty miles is a long way to go chasing an idea and it is a long way back again – find it or not. On this day I didn’t capture the one I was after but was captured by another. Finding a ghost town in the desert opens a new Pandora’s box.
La Ojo del Padre: the father’s spring provided fresh water.
And the water brought wildlife and hunters and Indians.
And then the Spanish soldiers and the friars and the settlers.
And then the sheep and cattle. A common story in New Mexico.
I vaguely knew it was there. I had heard stories and there is more than one lost colony out in the unforgiving desert. For some, we know how they were born and why they died. That is not so much the case with Guadalupe. Now empty, it was once home to a couple hundred people. Maybe they came for the scenery – it is stunning – but I doubt it.
I was a man possessed, but by curiosity, and I stumbled backwards
through the dusty years. In 1870 the place was a speck by the spring
on the banks of the Rio Puerco. A few skinny cows, some goats,
and maybe a wandering Diné poet chasing an idea?
I was looking for something else entirely: an old pueblo ruin perched high on a mesa. It was elusive that day and for my own good I stopped climbing. It was a long way down and I was by myself. I have tumbled off cliffs before and was always lucky but this time I was spooked. I don’t bounce like I used to.
The ghost town called me back from the edge.
The town, Guadalupe, is named after Our Lady of Guadalupe but it was also known as Ojo del Padre after the spring and was named Miller at one point by the all-knowing postal service. No idea why. The last Postmaster was named in 1952 so there were people living there in my lifetime. There are people alive who hold memories of this place. Just a few miles away there was another village: Casa Salazar, also mostly invisible today. It seems to have been more substantial than Guadalupe or at least known. John Wesley Powell showed it on one of his maps drawn in 1880. The Salazar family goes back to 1610 in New Mexico. But Guadalupe has a presence and a few melting adobe structures.
Who lived here? The town, now dead, was once home
to herders, farmers and “cow punchers” and something else.
The Ladies of Guadalupe: were they fact or mere rumor.
Who knows? They are all dead. Mostly forgotten...and gone?
There are stories about the loose women of Guadalupe. It seems like a very unlikely place for a brothel but who knows. I combed the records that I could find but there were no hints of the story. There were a number of widows with children listed in the census record with no obvious means of support. There might be a story there, maybe not. One remarkable thing was the staggering level of infant or child mortality. There must be a camposanto somewhere full of tiny graves.
Senor Cordova ran the General Store and the dancehall out in
back. There were a couple musicians by trade. Antonio was the
blacksmith. Manuel was born nearby in 1800, first under the Bourbon,
Carlos IV, and then Joseph, the Bonaparte, and then the Anglos.
That old Manuel saw the long march of history, but nothing changes. Hardly ever. The townsfolk spoke Spanish, probably the sixteenth-century dialect common in northern New Mexico. All were born here or close by. Few could read or write but some could and there were postmasters and burro-riding boy mail carriers. How letters found this place is a miracle. There was a teacher now and then – and a school for the few kids that were sent…very few. There was no priest or padre but there is evidence of a church, of sorts. Perhaps it was a Morada maintained by Los Hermanos Penitentes or a chapel visited by a circuit-riding padre. This was someone’s hometown for several generations. It would be a hard place to love as a home, but times change and so do expectations.
There is a mystery in the earliest census pages. A curious number of persons are living in families as “adopted” or tagged as “wards”. These were sometimes listed as servants or as farm laborers. Some were Indians. Slavery, as known in the American South, was a different sort of thing from what happened here. Genizaros were an ill-defined group of people who were held captive by the Indians but were purchased (or ransomed) by the Spanish settlers most often from the Comanche or Apache traders who passed through the area. They worked the farms and herds or were servants and their existence was somewhat akin to indentured workers but there were no hard and fast rules. The early census taker apparently paused and wondered what to write and settled on “adopted and “ward”. After seeing the place and looking at the records I think these people could have left on their own if they chose to and maybe did -- they disappear in later records.
I’m taken back to consider the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. Forty years is a long time – generational time. Those that came out of the desert mostly knew Egypt and the time of bondage from stories passed down. They experienced great hardship. They went hungry, ate quail and other wild things. They lived off the land as best they could. They left a trail of those they had to leave behind. They got into trouble, but they found their way. The people of Guadalupe found their way. Cattle and sheep herding were their primary occupations. They liked to dance and make the best of things. They had a hard life and it got harder. They survived two world wars and the depression. There was a CCC camp nearby. There were some Anglo workers from Oklahoma during the dustbowl years. The place is a ruin now. Somehow there was the last straw and people moved away. It is going back into the soil. The desert owns everything.
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The Home Place – 2020