Travels With A Neganative, Part 2

Can the U.S. 84 Corridor Survive?

Echo Amphitheater overlooking the dry Ghost Ranch valley is easily accessible from the highway, now that the Forest Service has completed its renovation of the campground. The great resonant sandstone arch is worth the walk through the trees. It sits in the wall like a giant ear. And it has heard a lot, including the speeches of Reies Lopez Tijerina, who came to national attention when his land-grant “Alianza” took over the little campground in November 1966.

Seven months later, the Rio Arriba County Court House raid compelled news anchors everywhere to brush up their Spanish pronunciation. The raid is the most famous thing to happen in Tierra Amarilla, about 35 miles up the road. Photos of the two-story county court house in the middle of the tin-roofed adobe village went world wide. The 1918 building, with all its bullet holes, is being remodeled, but the town still has all the Sergio Leone feeling that it had on June 5, 1967.

The village of Los Ojos, just over the hill, is the home of Tierra Wools, a worker-owned weaving cooperative that celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. It occupies several historic buildings in the center of the village, including two show rooms and a workshop with rows of hand-operated traditional looms. The colors, the rough textures, the earthy fragrance of natural-dyed wools, make you want to spend the day in this other world. Los Ojos also has a coop general store with a coffee bar and a wide selection of local books and handicrafts.

The main product of Tierra Wools is original hand-dyed natural weavings. Each one is unique and carries a tag identifying the weaver. The rugs are works of art. They can make you happy. (And Tierra Wools always has a big pre-Christmas sale.)

The coop is a creation of Ganados del Valle, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the traditional agricultural economy of the Hispanic and Native American cultures of the Chama Valley. “The Ganados del Valle mission for the past 16 years,” says its literature, “has been to demonstrate how these land-based rural cultures can secure, use, and protect their ancestral land and water by developing sustainable economies and environments that strengthen the culture. It does this by helping residents form cooperative enterprises that both create jobs and preserve the region’s cultural identity. Ganados’ definition of sustainability is that pastoral cultures and environments depend on each other; one cannot survive without the other.”
Among other things, Ganados has revived a species of sheep, called the Churro, that dates back to Spanish colonial times. The thick wool is the best for traditional weaving. Ganados more recently developed a business called Otra Vuelta, which shreds old tires into strips, then weaves them into mats. The product is so strong that it works well in horse trailers and machine shops, but you can get a small one for your doorstep for a moderate price, and you’ll never need another one.

Fifteen miles up the road is Chama, with the world’s best last narrow gauge steam railroad yards, dating from 1880. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad runs passenger trains in the summer, but you don’t need to ride to get a sense of history from a free walk in the railyard. It’s like a model railroad layout, two-thirds actual size. You can see the depot, shops, roundhouse, bunkhouse, coal tipple, water tank, loading docks, scales, and miles of switching track. The restored rolling stock include an original luxury coach, boxcars, flatcars, livestock cars, hopper cars, gondola cars, tank cars and an original caboose. And there are a couple of big steam-powered rotary snowplows with crew cars and cook cars.

A group of volunteers called Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec has done most of the restoration at their own expense. During the summer they volunteer as guides, answering questions and handing out maps at the 104-year-old passenger depot.

The Friends are the equivalent, in their industrial environment, of Ganados, in its pastoral environment. And in these two organizations, plus the Presbyterian Church and the Benedictine Order, must lie the answer, or a good part of it, to saving the world along U.S. 84: inspired volunteers working (and some, praying) together.