For this week’s column, let’s do a Throwback Thursday to a trip I took almost 10 years ago, during my formative college years.
In those days I volunteered through an ecumenical campus ministry / left-wing propaganda outfit, depending upon one’s perspective (if you were a New Yorker subscriber or a member of the local conservative Baptist church, say). We would do things like make free weekly vegetarian lunches, which often entailed some variant of crunchy rice and beans. We’d distribute petitions demanding that the state stop trying to route a highway through the local wetlands area. The campus ministry also hosted sexuality classes in the basement, where larger than life nude figures danced in paint along the walls. (Yes, this probably did little to dispel the misgivings of the local Baptists.) They sponsored alternative spring break trips; instead of going to Cancun or wherever normal students partied, we liberal do-gooders volunteered to improve communities by doing things like working in homeless shelters and picking up garbage.
I went on one such trip, to a place called Ghost Ranch, situated near the village of Abiquiu, New Mexico. Abiquiu is famous for being the eventual home of Georgia O’Keefe, painter of yonic flowers, cow skulls and doors:
The landscape out there is perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to being on Mars. “There is so much red out here it is overwhelming,” reads my journal entry from day one. Everything was colored in bold primary hues: the vivid endless sky, the rusty soil, the sun that tinged everything with gold as it parched our skin. This is the very type of nature that Werner Herzog keeps trying to warn everybody about. The world of New Mexico is stark and bleak in its beauty – the perfect backdrop for depicting the gradual, inexorable transformation of a Walter White into a Heisenberg.
We mostly spent our time helping out around the ranch and the village, digging irrigation ditches, chasing errant donkeys and uprooting unwanted cactuses. Oh, and alfafa weeds, which are by far the worst weeds. While the cactuses are definitely weaponized, the alfafa weeds have roots the girth of tree limbs which snake into the ground forever, intertwined with other root systems in a neverending series of Gordian knots. It’s a great design from the perspective of thirsty plants in a hellscape, but not so much if you are a human trying to grow things other than alfafa and cactuses. My hands grew leathered with calluses after just one day’s work of chipping away at stubborn roots with a shovel.
Daily existence is a rough grind for the dwindling number of people who still live in Abiquiu proper. Most of the population has left for other places with better work prospects; alcoholism, depression and suspicion of outsiders is rampant among those who remain. One of the ranchers told me that some villagers have a bit of resentment towards O’Keefe. While she lived there, her neighbors helped protect her privacy by shooing strangers away or misdirecting them. Then what does she (or her estate) do when she dies? Turns her house into a damn museum, attracting all sorts of obnoxious tourists and art riffraff. Luckily, the locals we encountered were friendly and welcoming, especially when they saw that we had shovels.
The locals in Abiquiu and the surrounding areas speak Spanish, but a different variant than the Spanish spoken south of the border. People are predominantly Catholic, but again, Catholicism seems different here – the iconography more gruesome, the rituals more painful-sounding. We paid a visit to El Santuario in nearby Chimayo. The tiny santuario is filled with images created in different media: watercolors, charcoal, velvet, glitter and glue – all invariably depicting scenes of Christ writhing and miserable, bleeding from his hands and even his eyes. (We were not allowed to take pictures of the objects inside the santuario, out of respect for their sanctity.)
While New Mexico was still being settled, the “official” Catholic church had limited presence in these remote, harsh towns. For spiritual salvation, people turned to the Penitentes, a brotherhood of lay priests who extolled virtue through suffering. Among other services, the Penitentes also engaged in self-flaggellation, particularly during Easter week. They hosted alarmingly realistic passion plays, making that Mel Gibson movie from however long ago seem like a total cakewalk. The official Catholics were appalled and highly disapproved of the Penitentes’ fervor. Church officials ridiculed and persecuted the Penitentes, forcing the brotherhood to become even more protective of its secrets.
One day, my friend Liz and I were tasked with helping clean the grounds of one of the Penitentes’ worship centers, a short adobe building called a morada. This duty involved finding and removing any sharp rocks within a circular path in the dirt surrounding the morada. This was in advance of Holy Week, when congregants would get on their hands and knees and crawl around the morada all day. Why were we softening up the ground for people who clearly wanted more suffering? “Some are eighty year old women,” said our team leader. “So we make it a little easier for them.” The more intense worshippers would drag their bare knees along the outside of the track, where Liz and I had been throwing the rocks we’d found.
We did a few hours of this lovely activity, in desert sun and red dust clouds, and then we were ushered inside the morada for a break. Shaking somewhat from dehydration, I tried to pour myself some 7-Up, and proceeded to spill the whole two-liter all over the table.
“No problem, just wait one second,” said the priest – I was, of course, mortified. He opened a door to a room we had not seen previously, and left this door ajar as he disappeared into another back room. Nosy college students as we were, we peeked inside the room.
Nailed onto the walls were what appeared to be two long rusted chains. The walls themselves were streaked with layers and layers of dried blood. Otherwise, the room was empty. We gawked at the walls for a few seconds and then hurriedly looked away – we were definitely not intended to have seen this evidence of private ritual. I felt guilty enough about spilling the 7-Up, let alone peeping. (How many laps should I have crawled around that morada for forgiveness?)
The priest re-emerged from the blood room, a roll of paper towels tucked under his arm. He and I silently mopped up the spilled soda. Afterwards Liz and I hurried back outside to pick up more rocks.
In the mornings at Ghost Ranch, the early risers in my group ascended a hill to observe matins. There were usually eight or nine of us, sitting in silent meditation as we waited for the sun. Some of the others were unwilling to wake up at that hour, especially with a long day of heavy work ahead, but I figured it was a good way of achieving spiritual connection without having to lash myself with chains, or crawl around in the cactuses.
On our last morning before going home, as we sat quietly facing towards the horizon, a coyote bounded right up the hill. He almost blundered right into the middle of our group, and was within two arm spans of where I sat. We all held our breaths and watched him as he watched us. Suddenly, he recognized us as human and bolted, and we broke our silence with laughter.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.