I'm staying at Coyote Ridge, our place in the New Mexico Mountains, working on a book, soaking up some of the local history, and loving the rugged landscape. One afternoon, I drove up through the valley of the little Rio Manuelitos, through the tiny villages of Upper Rociada (ele. 7600') and Gascon (8100'), which are less than a mile apart. Remote and isolated, they are part of the vast Las Vegas Land Grant, originally awarded to settlers in 1835 by the Mexican government in order to establish control and exert its rights over its enormous territory.
In the days when the entire valley was part of Jean Pendaries' large ranch, the villages must have been lively, because the ranch hands lived there with their large families. Gascon, named for Pendaries' native Gascony, had its own post office (the mail came once a week by horse from Las Vegas, New Mexico, 30 miles away). Upper Rociada had a tiny general store and a post office in the front room of the Ramirez' home. Upper Rociada also had a church, the San Jose Mission, built of adobe and plastered with mud, in 1862. The priest might've said mass there only once a month (his flocks were scattered all through the mountains and he came by horseback), but it was still the heart of the village. Several years ago, the people of Upper Rociada got together to restore their church.
It was a challenging project, physically and financially, and an important symbolic gesture. Most of the parishioners had moved away, but they had never forgotten their village, and restoring San Jose helped to restore their deep connection to the place they still call home.
Driving through this snow-covered valley in my comfortable Honda Element, I'm only 30 minutes away from modern Las Vegas. But when the San Jose Mission was first built, Las Vegas was an arduous two-day trip over a rutted dirt road, steep in many places and cut by sometimes impassable streams. During the short summers, the villagers grew most of their own food (vegetables, fruits, and grains); any groceries they needed (sugar, salt, coffee, tea) were hauled up the valley by wagon. In winter, when the road was covered with snow, there was no travel except by horse, sometimes for weeks on end. The villagers ground their grains (wheat, rye, barley) at the mill Jean Pendaries built in 1876 on the Rio Manuelitos at the foot of the valley.
Rootedness is a quality of life that we have traded for the advantages (or so we think them) of mobility. But as I look at what is left here and reflect on the strength of the people who built it, I think they had something we lack.The villagers were rooted in these rugged mountains, and their lives were difficult. To survive and thrive, they had to be rugged themselves, durable and resilient. They knew the land. They belonged to it and were at home in it--were a part of it in a way that most modern people can never be.
Reading note: The question is not whether land belongs to us, through titles registered in a courthouse, but whether we belong to the land, through our loyalty and awareness. . . In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. Scott Russell Sanders