Monday, February 04, 2008

San Miguel, New Mexico or "On the Road With Dada Kuralt " (aka "The Honda Civic Diaries, part 37").

Note: The following blog is the result of two trips to San Miguel, New Mexico several months apart. The first took place last August. A small town just over the Texas border, San Miguel is one of those places I've passed through many times before on my way to someplace else. Last August, for the first time, it was my intended destination. It won't be my last.)


Heading into New Mexico on Interstate 10, the fastest way to the slower life.

One morning after editor Sam and I had just finished publishing a blog for that day, we turned on the TV and sat down for our breakfast of Frito chips doused in pico de gallo. (Sam prefers a hard boiled egg and puppy kibble, having not yet outgrown his teenage appetite for junk food.)

As I flipped through the 240 channels with blind optimism we might find one worth watching, I stumbled across a public service announcement by the Department of Homeland Security. In it, an ominous voice asked children home alone, "Do you know what to do if you're parents are away when there's a terrorist attack?"

I was blown away at the effectiveness of this PSA. That's because it frightened me. I could only imagine its effect on kids. I'm pretty sure Homeland Security was proud of that one for accomplishing their intended purpose -- scaring the shit out of little children!

That's when I looked over at Sam and asked, "What say we take a little drive; get away from this bullshit for a few hours?" I suggested our destination -- San Miguel, New Mexico. Only thirty-two miles and fifty minutes away , I was surprised when Sam declined. I concluded that's because, to Sam, San Miguel is over 230 miles and nearly six hours drive in dog miles and time -- and that's just one way! He would miss his midday nap.

Earlier I'd seen a geologist on TV studying the dormant volcanoes of New Mexico. She said because of it's pyroclastic past, walking in many areas of New Mexico is about as close as you can get to walking on Mars. Perhaps that explains the attraction, i.e., that in less than a gallon of gas I can be in an other worldly place without leaving the Earth. (I'd only need to leave Texas, but that's something I've always enjoyed.)

Unlike all those times before when on the way to someplace else we simply passed through San Miguel, this day we stopped and learned this village is more than a short 25 mph speed zone in the road to Las Cruces.

The church at San Miguel, NM

Next time in San Miguel, I shall catch the name of this pretty little church a web search failed to provide. A local volcano that erupted several million years ago provided the basalt from which it is constructed or, as I like to think maybe, from the area's hail, fire and brimstone. There's something ironic about a place devoted to getting us to heaven built of material from the bowels of the Earth.

In search of Tortilla Flats

On our many trips past San Miguel over the years, one of the things that enchanted me were a small series of adobe apartments that hug the highway, which is also its main street. I would point to these crumbling structures with a romantic fervor telling Mrs. Dada, "Someday I'm going to live in one of those."

The crumbling adobe apartments of San Miguel, New Mexico

Those were really the words of me speaking as a teenager romanticizing the lives and times of John Steinbeck's paisanos from his novel Tortilla Flats. Characters like Danny, Pilon, Big Joe Portagee and the Pirate. As a kid, these societal misfits spoke to me as outsiders continually being tempted by the ideals and endless mantra of America's dream for them.

As much as Danny and his friends lusted after her, as much as their American siren seduced them, on those occasions when they succeeded in climbing upon her bed, the resulting greed and materialsim always brought disaster. They could never perform to her expectations! They were destined to dream, but never realize the satisfaction of their yearnings.

And so, as a paisano, this is where I would live. I would have no car for everything I needed was here or just across the street. No TV either because the better dramas of life play out just beyond my apartment door. Notions like that. This probably explains why Steinbeck rendered me, just out of college, impotent in the world of insurance underwriting as the 70's began.

And so, after years of rushing through San Miguel at the posted speed 0f 25 mph, I found myself suddenly walking its street!

Just half a block from my apartment is the local watering hole (or is it a dry well?)
Always remember when entering to step up and more importantly, when exiting
after several hours inside to step down. This to avoid fouling up and falling down.

Weekend afternoons would begin in the watering hole with my
dipsomaniacal paisanos. There, several hours of jokes, arguments, and resolution of world problems across a sticky bar top of spilt beer would ensue.

As the fading light of a sinking sun is replaced by a subtle neon glow of Tecate signs emanating from the windows of the dance hall across the street, I would amble over to the Riverside for a night of entertainment and fun with the Steinbeck women like Dolores "Sweets" Ramirez or Mrs. "Butter Duck" Torrelli (as Mr. Torrelli busies himself in the back of the hall with local politics and deal making).

The Riverside Dance Hall of San Miguel where each weekend
night far better dramas unfold than anything on cable TV.


What I really found in San Miguel

Dada, with camera drawn, shooting up "Main Street" in front
of his future home? (The tourist garb would definitely have to go.)

It was a weekday afternoon when Mrs. Dada and I visited San Miguel. It was very quiet. The street was empty. There were no signs of paisanos. The local bar was closed. It's permanent state? I like to think not.

A graffitied wall getting plastered over.

Mrs. Dada and I walked the street freely, shooting pictures and capturing San Miguel's soul. We saw a new "canvas" being prepared for a younger generation of upcoming graffiti artists, although there was absolutely no sign of anyone working here at that time.

One of the few people we saw was a small boy, about five years old. Emerging from this ochre building, he ran a half block down the street and disappeared into a complimentary colored purple storefront we were soon to learn was the "City Market ".

San Miguel's Art Department and Youth Center. Training ground for budding community muralists?

Emerging moments later, this small boy ran empty handed back to his Art Department and Youth Center building. As we continued to explore the heart of "downtown" San Miguel, this same boy reemerged some minutes later repeating his sprint for the City Market.

San Miguel's "City Market" shown here in purple. It's centrally located between
the "Art Department and Youth Center" and the "Riverside Dance Hall."

The boy again reappeared moments later, racing once more back to his youth center. This time I noted a bag of potato chips in his hand. As we later learned, his first trip was for a burrito, made fresh daily and sold in the market. But he had been too late. The burritos had sold out by lunchtime.

In Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats, the market was owned by Mr. Torelli who also sold bootlegged wine to the paisanos on the side. His wife, Senora Torelli, while her husband was away, sometimes bartered commodities for other than money, "despite Mr. Torrelli's efforts to keep her pure."

Being the only place which had betrayed the notion of San Miguel as a ghost town, I decided I must enter the City Market. I would buy a soda or maybe a candy bar.

The first thing I noticed before entering was a sign on the door warning visitors to "step down." This made sense, being as how the market is across the street from the bar where upon entering one must take care to "step up." Apparently San Miguel is built on a subtle slope.

San Miguel's "City Market" is like a pleasant violation of the space/time continuum. While
there was no Beeman's Pepsin chewing gum, the atmosphere is wonderfully "last century"
and the store absolutely immaculate, leaving one pangs of guilt at the thought of removing
a dust free, perfectly arranged shelved can of anything.

The only one present was the owner who was wiping down the already spotless cashier's counter in the back of the store. As Mrs. Dada and I browsed the store shelves, we learned while staring at an old photo on the wall it was Estella's, the owner's, father who had established the City Market back in 1925! Estella, who described herself as "a Mexican who hated chile," is a most pleasant person with a wealth of knowledge of the area's history.

Sadly we learned San Miguel, while appearing off the beaten path and removed from many of the encroachments of civilization, is feeling the pinch of progress. As Estella revealed, the big wholesalers don't make deliveries to City Market anymore. It would take a thousand little markets to move the same goods they can sell in one stop at a Wal-Mart. There just isn't enough money in it to make it any longer worth their while.

The spotless counter, neatly arranged market shelves.

As a result Estella closes down the store for a few hours some days to run to city suppliers to restock her shelves. Because of this, I got a hint of pessimism but Estella is undeterred. I know this, because hearing rumors after our visit her store was for sale, I returned in December to find out. Estella looked at me dumbfounded. "Absolutely not!" Not City Market, I learned to my relief.

We had a wonderful visit. We learned after her father's passing, Estella's brother had taken over the apartments -- "my apartment" -- across the street. But having been abused by tenants, they had fallen into neglect.

As we departed, Estella invited us back the following weekend for San Miguel's biggest annual celebration -- Labor Day. We thanked her and departed. We didn't make it back that next weekend. Sometimes it's difficult enough to make it back to the same place twice in one lifetime; twice in the same week absolutely impossible!


Dada follow-up: We did return in December when I briefly spoke once more with Estella. After confirming the market is not for sale, I learned the annual pecan crop so important to the local economy was still on the trees, in danger of being severely damaged or lost due to lack of a hard freeze.

I asked if I might return again one day, visit, and learn more of San Miguel. To inquire if the bar across the street is still open. If the dance hall still swings on wee
kend nights. And, oh yeah, to learn if there's any vacancies in those apartments just across the street! Estella said "Yes!"


WeezieLou said...

good visual descriptions. the most magical place in the world to me is also in new mexico - a somewhat small town called ruidoso, known mainly for ski apache. but we haven't been back in numerous years. the last time we drove in, we saw a huge walmart, and we noticed several wonderful local stores shuttered over. even magic is time-limited, i guess.

eProf2 said...

A lovely post that does, indeed, remove one's self from the blathering. No restaurant? Did you try the burritos? Now, you can see why I'm going to spend my "rebate" on traveling the back roads a bit. Thanks!

dada said...

weezielou: Upon "induction" into New Mexico (thanks to the U.S.Army in the mid-60's) one of my earliest "acquaintances" (2nd to Las Cruces) was Ruidoso where I made many, many fond memories. I loved Ruidoso. My wife-to-be's family owned a small cabin in Ruidoso and there was no finer symbol of acceptance than being invited to join them there in that cabin for a weekend. And then there were the reservations at a hotel on the main drag (long since torn down) in Ruidoso for a grand New Year's Eve party. (I never made it to midnight, but fun was had nonetheless.)

Yes, for years afterwards, I dreamed of living in Ruidoso. It's been a couple of years since I've been up there but, sadly, the dream of living there has faded and I'm not exactly sure why.

eprof2: I was talking with my niece in Oregon this evening. During our conversation, she once more expressed envy at my openess with people, to talk to anyone at the slightest provocation. I guess it's something I've done all my life. I've learned a simple sentence can sometimes open up a much, much deeper relationship. It's one of the more enjoyable aspects of living.

I love to travel and see new places. I don't do as much of it as I'd like, but over the years in visits to places like Cannon Beach, OR and more recently (and significantly) Taos, NM we have developed lasting friendships with people through simple remarks that resulted in conversations that grew to even more.

I guess it's one of my greatest joys, unfolding these rich stories of others and I can't think of a much better way to spend one's new found wealth from the government. Great idea!

Fran said...

Sweet story of a sleepy town. What is with the metal jail doors on the youth art center? Concern the youth will be sniffing the arts glues & materials as contraband? Looks like a heavy lockdown scene. You might want to rethink those apartments. Love the purple market storefront & yes it looks super tidy.
Oh! If the wall of the Riverside Dance hall could talk!

D.K. Raed said...

Love the City Market. I could visualize myself operating it. Of course, I'd have to learn to make saleable burritos.

Dada, these little backroad trips of yours are wonderful. You see things many others miss entirely. They are kind of highlights of lowlights & I love seeing them through your eyes.

I can't imagine why Sam was so reluctant to make the trip, but of course dog naps are also a highlight.

dada said...

fran: The City Market's purple facade was an attraction difficult to resist. It's large blank canvas seemed a magnet for someone with the skills to paint a sign proudly proclaiming its name to all passing by drew me in.

Fantasies of taking brushes out of retirement are still kindled each time I see it. Or maybe with the aid of some talented local graffiti artists they could teach me to use a spray can (For painting only, of course.)

d.k. Talking about a sign on the store, I'm thinking maybe Estella might not want more business because it would mean more burritos and having to shut down the store even more to make trips to the city to keep those immaculate shelves stocked.

Actually, Sam did make our return trip to San Miguel in December. He had a wonderful day and rued missing the first trip, save for those aggravating times when he couldn't go in places like the City Market.

Border Explorer said...

Absolutely charming entry! Thank you, Dada!

dada said...

Thank you, B.E. Actually, I was revisiting Columbus, NM over on your travelblog which gave the inspiration to finally finish this one up - one that had been laying around for a couple months - so thanks for the gentle prodding.

You've also rekindled my resolve to visit the Columbus area and that City of the Sun community.

Josh said...

THAT'S My mural (First one on the left). Wow.

dada said...

Josh: As a former art student at UTEP, I tend to see every large wall as a blank canvas just waiting for art.

So, has your work been plastered over? If so, don't mourn its passing too much. Think of the replastered wall as a "new canvas."

Yamama said...

i dunno if you got my last attempt to blog.... this is my first time bloggin'.... I used to live there for 4 years.... The Church is called San Miguel... I gotta lota fam out there... strangers called me cousin....Im movin to the Art Department youth center... my 'rents own it.... its a long story... a hiatus post graduation and longing for that Mars feeling. L.A. has lost its charm. Props for posting this.

dada said...


Hi! Thanks for dropping by the blog. I've always been intrigued by San Miguel (thanks for the church name. Like, "Duh!" huh? I probably coulda guessed it maybe).

I spent 10 or 12 years in LA growing up, but it makes me claustrophobic now.

Welcome back to Mars! I hope to get back up there in the fall and do some more exploring.

BTW, I didn't get your first attempt. Later cousin.

Josh said...

We have been trying to get started on a new mural so far the house has not been completed so we haveput the attempt on hold till its complete. I will try to post some of our other work in the San miguel La Mesa and Vado areas

Dada said...

Hey, Josh! Thanks for stopping back by. Sorry to hear you haven't gotten started on the new mural.

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Dada, her mom, and a friend went thru San Miguel on way to Mesilla. I asked her to stop by the City Market, to check on Estella, say "Hi" and buy a couple of candy bars. She did. Said the City Market is still hangin' in there.

My e-mail is listed under Dada's "About Me" section anytime you care to share a few pics of La Mesa, Vado, S.M. murals. (I may even run a couple here.)

I've got to get up that way one day soon.