A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

New Mexico Recharge

I spent last week with a friend of mine at his cabin in northern New Mexico. He goes out there every year to recharge his batteries and soak in the beauty and quiet of this part of the country.  This year, he was kind enough to extend me an invitation to join him, something he has generously done for others in the past. Although I  had the opportunity to visit this part of the state some years ago, this was the first time I was able to really explore and appreciate the richness of its natural beauty and experience the diversity of its varied cultures.

I had actually driven right by my friend’s cabin years ago and didn’t know it. When I showed him the photos I had taken on my return, he almost fell over when I produced one of the Church of Christ located about half a mile from his cabin.  Making it all the more amazing, is the fact that his cabin is a bit removed from the beaten path, located in the small lakeside town of Eagle Nest. Built in the early fifties, the cabin was always intended as strictly a summer getaway.  It has no insulation, so even the early September nights required a couple of blankets on the bed.

My friend is also a photographer (a damn good one), so there was no discussion of how we would fill up all those hours in the day.  Knowing the territory well, having made the same trip for the past ten years, he acted as resident guide, taking me to all the most photogenic spots, places he’d undoubtedly been to many times before.  Regardless, he still managed to find new subjects to focus his camera on.  The key to being a good photographer, is the ability to find a good image just about anywhere.  You don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by a beautiful landscape or a gorgeous vista.  That’s not to say it doesn’t help, but it’s certainly not essential.  The challenge is to create something meaningful with what you are given.

San Antonio Church, Black Lake

In seven days, we traveled from Eagle Nest to Taos and on to Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu.   We got a personal tour of the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron from the director of the Earnest Thompson Seton Museum
.   The land was a gift of the wealthy oil magnate and wilderness enthusiast Waite Phillips.  It encompasses more than 200 square miles and is the ultimate destination of Boy and Girl Scouts, providing a site for high-adventure training.  Scouts spend two weeks hiking and camping and trying out their survival skills in one of several areas like fishing, rock climbing, mining, horsemanship, etc.  During our SUV tour, on what had to be the roughest, most bone-shaking mountain road I have ever been on, we encountered a total of eight bears, as well as several deer, elk, grouse and various other smaller critters.


Fish Camp, Philmont Scout Ranch

The nearby town of Cimarron is home to the infamous St. James Hotel, witness to at least 26 murders during the territory’s more violent past.  A less formidable place near the St. James was a shop called The Outfitter, which catered to mountain men, as the sign out front prominently stated.  Clearly, neither my friend nor I, could ever be confused with mountain men, but since he had been in the shop before, I figured there might be something inside worth a look-see.  The place was a combination leather goods, antique and junk shop all rolled into one unique establishment.  The proprietor, a woman named Shirley, was eager to engage us in conversation and ascertain just where we were from, because it was obvious that we were not from those parts.  She pointed out several items she thought we might be interested in, but in the end, we purchased little.  I did, however, come away with a beautiful vintage black and white portrait of a woman taken in a Connecticut studio sometime around the turn of the century.  I loved the contented and relaxed expression on the woman of obvious means. The posing and lighting were impeccable.

Abiquiu afforded us the chance to get in some hiking, and to train our lenses on the same beautifully varicolored cliffs and mesas that convinced artist Georgia O’Keeffe to make her home here at Ghost Ranch in 1940.  My buddy and I hiked the Kitchen Mesa Trail and, although we didn’t make it to the top of the mesa, we really never intended to. Carrying several pounds of camera gear will tend to temper the ambitions of the most ardent nature lover.  As bad as I felt toting a 35mm camera, lenses and tripod, all I had to do to feel a bit better, was to look over at my friend who was lugging a 5×7 field camera, lenses, film holders and tripod.  For some reason, though, he didn’t seem to be struggling half as much as I was.  I think it had something to do with his conditioning with respect to the thinner air at our 6500 foot elevation.  It was either that, or his odd regimen of eating crackers with almond butter and avocado for breakfast.  Yuk!  Just give me one of those stomach churning chili burritos everyone is so fond of around here, thanks very much
Kitchen Mesa Trail, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu

During the course of a week, we made several trips to Taos.  There weren’t many destinations south of Eagle Nest that did not take us through that town.  Having photographed there previously, I decided to pass up the historic pueblo this time, but I did want to get a shot of the backside of the San Francisco de Asis, the adobe church rendered so exquisitely by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and others.  I had photographed other sides of the church before, but the rear elevation, which is the most interesting, was always obscured by cars parked in the adjacent lot.  Early one morning on our way to Ghost Ranch, we drove by just to see if we could get a clear shot.  As luck would have it, there was not a car in sight.  What a break!  My luck held as the sun was just breaking out from behind the clouds, providing soft shadows to the buttressed exterior, and a flock of birds was just taking flight.

Rancho de Taos3

San Francisco de Asis

Perhaps it was a case for saving the best for last, or maybe it just worked out that way, when we found ourselves on the High Road to Taos on the last day.  For us, the road began in Taos and wound its way down to Santa Fe.  We got on the road and worked our way past Penasco, Las Trampas, Truchas and finally to Chimayo.  After the previous day’s fairly strenuous hike of Kitchen Mesa, it was good to be able to drive where we wanted to go, and then hop out of the car for a picture when we needed to.  Between stops, we enjoyed spectacular views  of the Rio Grande Valley and the Carson National Forest.  Most of the towns we passed by were established in the 1600s and 1700s, long before New Mexico became a territory of the United States.  Each town’s most prominent structure was a church or mission.  Our first stop, at Truchas, brought us to the Mission Church of the Holy Rosary (1764).  Just outside the church, an elderly woman chopped wood with a hand axe in preparation for the hard, cold winter fast approaching.  The scene provided one more reminder of the unique challenges most people have to endure who live in this part of the country.

People tend to make do here.  Houses are modest and simple.  The vehicles they drive could have all qualified for the recent Cash for Clunkers government program.  There are abandoned cars, trucks and buses everywhere.  Once they’re no longer drivable, many vehicles are put to use for a purpose never originally intended.  Car hoods are made into road signs or used to catch water for a make-shift horse trough.  After a while, deserted cars become almost a natural part of the landscape. In an odd way, they often provide just the perfect element to complement a photograph.

Continuing on, we passed through several smaller towns before arriving at Chimayo, famous for its community of traditional weaving studios.  Despite the number of tourists and worshipers, I attempted to photograph the Santuario de Chimayo, a legendary church which is one of the most visited chapels in the West.  El Santuario de Chimayo is known (at least locally) as the “Lourdes of America.”  The crucifix, found at the site by a friar in 1810, is thought to have healing properties and hundreds of discarded crutches and braces piled in the sacristy attest to that fact.  The holy dirt, or sacred sand pit, found in the “pocito” (well) is also thought to have curative powers if rubbed on an afflicted part of the body.

El Santuario de Chimayo
A sudden afternoon storm cut short my chance to fully photograph the mission and, since no photography was permitted inside, we decided to push on.  This was the southern most stop for us on the highway, so we then backtracked and headed north taking in the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains once more.  We had bypassed the town of Las Trampas on our way down, knowing a stop here could easily kill the entire day, but with a little time left on the return trip, we decided to stop.  The San Jose de Gracia Catholic Church is located in Las Trampas.  It has often been photographed, but perhaps never so artfully as by Ansel Adams in 1951.  Since my friend had photographed the church many times before, he dropped me off here while he went to photograph something else a few miles away.  In the course of the hour that it took to photograph the church, the light constantly changed.  It shifted, intensified and diminished, then brightened again.  After a week in northern New Mexico, I was just becoming accustomed to these repeating patterns.  The days usually started bright and clear and we would pray for clouds to fill in the boring sky.  By afternoon, our prayers were answered, and then some.  By late in the afternoon, we cursed ourselves for wishing too loud as the clouds rolled in, often blocking out the sun entirely.  Exercising a bit of patience, we knew that if we just waited, things might improve, which they usually did, resulting in dramatic skies with good light and soft shadows.

San Jose de Gracia Catholic Church, Las Trampas

As I was packing up my gear, undoubtedly the oddest sight all week had to be of the two Belgian tourists who rode by the church on Segways.  Are Segways highway legal in New Mexico, I had to wonder.  I approached one young man to find out and he told me that he is handicapped.  Because of that fact, he is permitted to drive the two-wheel conveyance on U.S. highways.  After all, he explained, a Segway is only a bit wider than a bicycle and goes about the same speed.  Actually, the second Belgian was a cameraman who was filming the expedition for European television.  They hoped it would bring attention to the handicapped and how obstacles can be overcome by using technology.  The subject of the documentary admitted that they had both been stopped many times by state troopers along the way, but once they explained the purpose of their well-intentioned project, they were usually just told to be careful and to keep within the speed limit.  He admitted that the joke was wearing thin by now and they still had many miles to go before reaching their final destination.

The next morning, it was a long ride to the airport and the flight home.  The week had gone by all too fast.   One good thing about being a photographer though, you get to bring your memories back with you.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments