07 October 2011

My Short History of North-East New Mexico

I travel in north-eastern New Mexico a lot, as it is the territory of my job doing computer support for the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service.  If you go to a website on New Mexico, it probably isn't really talking about this part of the state, as it is very lightly populated, and has no recreation areas or mountains (compared with Santa Fe and Taos).  It is a land of huge ranches and wide-open spaces, sandwiched between that fertile mid-western farmland, the scenic mountains, and the bleak "Great Southwest Desert" that early explorers warned travelers to avoid at all costs.  Apparently, most sane people listened to that advice!

North-east New Mexico was mostly the range-land of buffalo in the distant past.  Apache and Comanche tribes hunted here, but never made anything approaching settlements.  Water is scarce and seasonal at best and the tribes had sense enough to keep their families in more hospitable places.  The first settlers were Spaniards that were given land grants by the Spanish Government in the new acquisitions of Nuevo Mexico and Tejas.  Of course, this territory was always in the "no-man's-land" margins of both these Spanish possessions.  These settlers could only make a go of living in small settlements along the rather permanent Pecos and Canadian Rivers, which look like small streams to most "Easterners".  As the buffalo were eliminated, cattle were brought in to replace them, along with barbed wire, cowboys, the Catholic Church, and a bit of civilization.

This was part of some of the last territory in the US to be staked out for homesteading, as water is always a problem and nothing could be done about that until deep-drilled water wells were made possible at the turn of the 20th century.  Deceptive marketing and crowds of gullible fools came for "free land" that was being given away because it was essentially worthless as "farmland" at the paltry size of 160 acres a person.  With their experience of rich farms and plentiful water in the east, getting a "quarter-section" of land seemed a dream come true and tiny "boom towns" sprung up with the same regularity you would have expected for Virginia or Georgia.  It was the last great land rush and there seems to be a sucker at every corner post!

 My mother's family moved into the area in the early "naughts" and after the devastation of the Depression and the "Dust Bowl" droughts, they carved out a small ranch by buying out desperate homesteaders who didn't understand the meaning of the term "marginal rangeland".  Most of the small towns were gradually abandoned and the non-ranching people who didn't run off collected themselves into the larger settlements along the railroad tracks.  My great-grandparents were authentic ranchers, my grandparents moved into town for better pay but ranched "part-time", my parents lived in the ranch-house when times were hard and commuted to town for "typical" work, and I simply lacked the gumption to follow my cohorts off to the really big cities and "serious" employment.  This is how I got here.

I continue to live here because it is a very cheap place to live and get lightly educated, I was already around here when I became an adult, I prefer a bit of distance from others, and perhaps most of all, I have no real interest in traditional careerism or typical concepts of success.  In a short label, I am a societal "cockroach".

So, I while away my driving time between CES offices in the towns that grew up from those railroad settlements.  You can often catch me looking down dirt roads for old cemeteries and other evidence of our "prosperous" past.  If you get a kick out of ghost towns, we have them in abundance!