by Mike Smith
Driving east out of Albuquerque along Interstate 40, the exits of the far northeast heights disappearing one by one in the rearview mirror, the mountains seem to move aside to make way.
First, the foothills: gray and brown, sun baked and stony, stark and cracked, piles of rock from taller mountains that shamble down to either side of the routes that carve themselves through the Sandias, one rock, one year, one culture, at a time. Someday they will wear away completely, and none of us will be here to see that.
Next, Tijeras Canyon comes into view with its granite cliffs, granite boulders, and a narrowing sky. Then, signs of life. Halfway through the canyon, a place with a name. A village. It feels improbable, with barely any level ground to be seen, but people live here—1,232 people, says the 2010 census—their houses wedged in among the wind-scoured spaces between mountain ranges. This is the village of Carnuel—and if you are anything like most people who regularly experience it, you may be tempted to ignore it, to just drive right past. But don’t. Slow down. Stop. Look closer.
In his 1983 Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking, Tom Brown offers the following exercise: choose a square foot of ground, frame it with sticks, and then stand and stare at it, describing it. Then kneel down and describe it from that perspective, noticing what you missed. Then get down on the ground, put your face close, and describe all you can see from there. Spend fifteen minutes or more doing all this, and then stand up and look around. The ground on every side will seem to pop and hum beneath your sudden awareness of all it might contain.
Let’s do this with an entire town—Carnuel. Let’s look closer, and closer, and describe what we see. There are the lanes of Interstate 40, the freeway built when the previous canyon road, Route 66, proved too popular for its size. There’s Route 66 itself—now NM 333—an original American highway, running from Chicago to Santa Monica—a road that brought early-20th-century Americans out to see the country or to escape the Dust Bowl, that brought gas stations and curio stores and motels and subdivisions to Carnuel, that briefly made this tiny village into prime roadside real estate.
Before Route 66 there was a smaller road, before that a stagecoach road, before that a wagon road, and before that a trail. Weedy bends of the old stagecoach road still curve beneath a canyon cliff just southeast of Carnuel, and many of the rock and adobe buildings still standing date back to that time and before—to the Mexican and Spanish eras and to Carnuel’s second founding in 1819 by residents of old Alburquerque, who grew it into a little farming community where goats would climb the steep boulder fields and graze on wild grasses.
The town had to be resettled because, four decades before that, it had to be evacuated. There’s not much left to see of the town’s first incarnation, as it was dismantled after its residents petitioned the Spanish government to please let them leave. The town, residents said, was surrounded by rock rims, making it easily accessible to the area’s Apaches, who would come in through the windows. Those very same Apaches were the reason why Carnuel had been settled in the first place, in 1763 when residents of old Alburquerque hoped their settlement would protect them from the Native Americans on the mountains’ other side.
It did not, and many Apache and other tribes in the area intermarried with the settlers during both of Carnuel’s Spanish eras. The native populations were, of course, there first. In fact, the town’s original name, San Miguel de Carnué, was a corruption of the Tiwa word Carna-aye, meaning “badger place.” Ruins of many hundreds of years of Native American settlements can be found throughout Tijeras Canyon, and rainstorms over canyon trails will still sometimes unearth beautiful obsidian arrowheads. Evidence suggests that corn once grew along both sides of Tijeras Creek, as well, in the middle of the canyon, in golden lines as wide as highways.
Tijeras Creek still flows along today, right through the center of Carnuel, mostly parallel to Route 66 and the highway. Much as they have for millennia, before any humans of any culture had ever even thought to wander near and settle down, animals still approach it to drink. Rabbits, mule deer, bobcats, mountain lions, lizards, snakes, to name just a few. Cottonwood, piñon, juniper, hackberry, and scrub oak still fringe its shores. To see a coyote pad past a cottonwood toward the creek and take a drink is to see something fundamental, a ritual with untold generations of precedence.
Though maybe everything here is fundamental. Just pick up a rock in Carnuel and you’ll see a bit of this place from long before there was any life around at all. Much of it is granite—gray and white and black, like petrified static—superheated rock cooled deep underground, almost a billion-and-a-half-years-old, so old the number is meaningless, incomprehensible. About 10 million years ago, massive blocks of granite and metamorphic rock tilted slowly up to become the Sandia, Manzanita, and Manzano mountains. As water and wind eroded them down, their foothills rose up and the future site of Carnuel came into being.
The next time you have some time, don’t just drive right through Carnuel. Stop. Look closer. And then look closer still. Afterwards, you may see this place not just as a roadside collection of buildings—scattered houses, an old motor lodge, a church—you’ll see it as a place with eras of history, a place of natural wonder, of infinite geological patience, a place where goats once clambered up the rocks and wide ribbons of corn once lined the creek. The world on every side will seem to pop and hum beneath your sudden awareness of all it might contain.
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