Somewhere Near the Medicine Wheel

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It was somewhere near the Medicine Wheel
that we knew our lives had changed.
A commitment had formed, a bond unspoken,
that remained that way for months to come.
Unsaid, but forged strong for a lifetime. Silent.
We were afraid to spoil it in those days of wonder.

Now, those are hazy days in my memory,
as are many things as I look back. It seems that
for a while we were younger than our years.
But we were on the edge of uncharted territory.
The Bighorn Mountains were almost empty, then.
Things were different those forty-five years ago.

The mountains belonged to us that summer.
Miles and days passed with no intruders.
She was my morning sun and golden sunset.
I was her hero and pathfinder. We laughed
at ourselves. Who did we think we were?
I led her onward and upward with M&Ms.

I turned to help her cross a stream. She stomped
right through – splashing water – making rainbows.
We had a very close encounter with a Mule Deer.
I remember trout rising to a fly. They were so small
that we roasted them on sticks, like hotdogs.
Cloud Peak rose above us, but we were high enough.

I remember the mosquitos – she would too if
she was still here. We camped on the crest of a
hill over Mirror Lake. The breeze kept them at bay.
I recall our night visitors – polite, not destructive.
Another deer, an Elk, or Big Horns? Large animals.
One or twenty? We did not want to know.

Lost Twin Lakes and the high cirques were
not far above us on the trail. There were
horsemen heading up one day. I wanted to go
rambling the trail and the lakes — but she
was happy reading a book. She was content
just to hear my tale. That was her quiet way.

The Medicine Wheel, arrayed on the hillside
for centuries, stands as a landmark in my memory.
We went back decades later to see the place again.
It was not the same – all fences and parking lot.
It was confining – not expansive. We told our
daughter the story but she could not see it.

We have those markers in our lives: milestones.
Those are signs and we are pilgrims. There are
places where paths diverge or come together,
depending on your perspective. It was there
that our paths joined, at a different place
and time. But my memory holds it close.

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How do we get through life? Are there traces
showing us the way? Sometimes we get lost.
Sometimes someone finds us. We leave cairns
for those who follow after us: like Medicine Wheels.
They show we have come this way, who we are,  
and how we got this far.

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The Home Place – 2021

Kelly Ghost Town

Some time ago I promised that I would recount the second half of our escape from the pandemic self-isolation but many things got in the way so here I am, many months later, coming back to the subject. We were there in the summer and this is late January. Things got busy but we are still in restricted mode and the COVID-19 virus is proving to be harder to beat than many people thought. In the space of one year we have lost more people to COVID than all of the servicemen lost during WW-II. And, some people still do not take it seriously.

But I digress…or never really got started. 

The idea of a “ghost town” is like some abandoned town where the buildings are still intact but tumbling down in places. I have actually seen only one ghost town where that was the case. More likely, much of the useable parts have been carted away and repurposed. And so it is with the town of Kelly, New Mexico — or Kelly Mine  as it is sometimes known. The place now has two residents and a zip code so things have turned around a bit.

Finding for the first time Kelly is no easy task. It is not far from Magdalena in Socorro County but in mining districts it is sometimes common for roads or jeep trails to go off aimlessly into the hills. Turn south on Kelly Road in Magdalena. After a few miles you will see a large concrete flat foundation on the left — that was the site of the smelter and the clue that you are getting close. The road that goes by the little catholic church (St. John the Baptist) is the one you want. Follow it up the hill and you will start to see hints of the town.

There are a few foundations and an impressive standing wall of a commercial building and a couple tumble-down piles of stone and masonry. There is an industrial air about the place with some cables and pipes

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There are a few foundations and an impressive standing wall of a commercial building and a couple tumble-down piles of stone and masonry. There is an industrial air about the place with some cables and pipes. There are shards of glass and the usual persistent debris like rusty nails and scraps of a  tin roof.  The remaining mine ruins are visible further up the hill.

The town came with the opening of the main mine, Kelly Mine, established in 1883 for mining silver, lead, and zinc. It was the result of a buy-out or concentration  of several smaller claims in the area. It was a major establishment with a couple thousand residents, commercial businesses, banks, saloons, a medical clinic and churches. You can look at the 1900 census and get a taste for the place.  Sadie Murphy ran a hotel as did Ellen Foley. Charles Green was a saloon keeper, but so was Adolfo Torres and his son Nepomecino, and Felipa Sanchez.   Maxwell Fitch, from Illinois,  was the Smelter Superintendent and a foreman, John Limming, hailed from England. The bookkeeper was Mrs. Babcoack from Indiana — her husband was a merchant. Alphonza Strozzie, from Sweden, and his wife, Angelica, raised cattle (people had to eat and H.T. Dale was the Butcher). The Strozzies also raised kids — nine of them. John Charles Blaine was the doctor — somebody had to deliver babies and fix up the miners. Most of the men were working in the mine or were smelter workers. The town was mostly Hispanic and native-born New Mexicans. Many of the children were attending school.  Magdalens, three miles away. and had the railroad station and many miner families lived there as well. The 1900 census recorded 490 residents in the Kelly precinct.

The town site is over 7,000 feet in elevation and offers views back down the valley toward Magdalena.

The mine operation left an enduring imprint on the area. The Taylor Shaft is 1,100 feet deep and accesses ten levels, There are some thirty miles of tunnels under the surrounding hills.

the impressive head frame stands over the Taylor shaft and was designed by Gustave Eiffel and manufactured as a kit by Carnegie ironworks and shipped to Kelly Mine by rail. The masonry smelter tower still stands next to the head frame.

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It is possible to roam around the site but be careful not to fall into the Taylor shaft which is relatively unprotected near the head frame.

We were there in mid-summer and there was an abundance of wildflowers blooming in and around the town site and mining ruins.

There is a town cemetery somewhere nearby, but we did not look for it. There is a cemetery near the little catholic church. The last town residents left in 1947 so there are probably people with living memory of the place. A couple years ago, two new residents moved in further down the slope so it has a little life now. The little catholic church is in good repair and seems to be in active use.

We only spent a couple hours there, but I’d like to go back and explore a little more. Google maps shows that there is a little bit more that we did not see or recognize on this trip. 


The Prize


People who don’t know will ask…
“Why would you ever want to live in the desert?”
Or they will say…
“I don’t know how you can stand all of that brown”.

A high desert day is like a box of Crackerjacks.
Not one goes by that doesn’t have a prize inside.
Sometimes it will surprise you – take your breath away.
Sometimes it will be more subtle — sneak up on you.

People have come here for centuries – chose this place.
Artists and writers found inspiration and light.
It is a sacred place to some – there is a mythic presence.
Everyone finds gold and turquoise.

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The Home Place – 2019

Fort Craig, New Mexico

We escaped from pandemic captivity for a day and went looking for ghost towns – or something like that. We ended up at Fort Craig and later at the Kelly Mine and townsite. This is what we found at the fort.

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Fort Craig

The first stop was at the old US Cavalry fort out in the desert south of Socorro, New Mexico. This is a National Historic Site but there isn’t a great deal to see because the fort is melting and crumbling away. It will soon go back to nature except for a few more durable ruins.

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Fort Craig was established in the 1850s to protect the traffic on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the road that historically connected Northern New Mexico to Mexico City in the Spanish colonial days. This part of the road was particularly brutal, called La Jornada del Muerto, or the Route of the Dead Man, from the days of the Conquistadors. There are tales of travelers who started but never finished this section of the Camino. It is bleak and it is dry, except that the Rio Grande runs along the edge. That is were the few settlements were. This was a particularly desolate place to be stationed in the military. The soldiers based here were charged with protecting all of southwestern New Mexico to the Gila River and south to Mexico.

The fort had earthen walls and a dry moat. Some of the walls were reinforced with wooden planks. There was a central parade ground, dugout “bombproof” storehouses, a guardhouse and sally port, and a post hospital.

During the Civil War the Fort Craig soldiers, under Colonel Edward Sprigg Canby, and several units of New Mexico Volunteers (partially under Kit Carson) engaged Confederate Brig. General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s army of Texas Confederates, who were moving north along the Camino. Canby and Sibley had been classmates and friends before the war. As he approached Fort Craig, Sibley crossed the Rio Grande to avoid the fort but Canby’s Union forces intercepted him on the arroyos and mesas across the river at the Battle of Valverde.

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Commandant’s Quarters

The battle was short but bloody and intense and Sibley lost many of his wagons and provisions and many of his horses and mules ran off during the initial engagement. Sibley was too drunk to ride a horse and had to assign command to a subordinate. Both sides lost about 200 men killed and wounded. The New Mexico volunteers were pretty much unenthusiastic about the whole episode and some went home. The Union troops retreated to the fort and prepared a defense but Sibley’s forces were too weakened to attack and went further north to get out of harm’s way. They ended up pillaging for supplies and eventually moved briefly into Albuquerque (a village of 1600) and kept going north with Union soldiers in pursuit cutting off supply lines. Canby stayed safely at the fort but Union troops caught and defeated Sibley at the Battle of Glorieta Pass and the Confederates found their way back to Texas. As battles go, Valverde was significant mainly because of Sibley’s loss of supplies.

In the late 1860s African American Buffalo Soldiers were posted at Fort Craig for two years. The fort served through the Apache and Navajo Indian wars and was occupied through the 1880s. A sutler who operated a store at the fort, Captain Jack, hung on at the fort with his family for some time after it was decommissioned.

The National Historic Site is one of those places where you really have to want to be in order to go. This stretch of New Mexico desert is just as unwelcoming as it had been 170 or 400 years ago. There is a Visitor’s Center but it was closed due to the pandemic for five months but opened just before we visited. There is a gentleman who is the “host”, which is not really a ranger or a caretaker, but he is friendly and happy to have visitors. He is doing OK out in the desert but it must be a lonely job. He lives in a RV parked under a sun shade and does some light maintenance and explains what there is to see.


The Home Place — 2020

Desert Monsoon – Watching and Waiting

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I can see it approaching in the far distance.
A gift of the greatest value, bringing life itself,
it appears from nowhere – literally.
How does dry desert breed a rainstorm?

Born from the parched sand and juniper.
Building on the horizon: distant flashes,
towering clouds, like mountain peaks –
all moving across the desert, an ancient procession.

Finally, the sound of distant thunder.
Growing louder, my cat finds a hiding place.
I take my seat in the rocker under the portal.
The air changes. There is a different feel.

A breeze, a raindrop, then the world is full of rain.
Thunder, lightning, wind, rain, and hail all at once.
I think about my cat – where does he hide from this?
I move my chair a little deeper under cover.

Where do the jackrabbits and coyotes hide?
There are too few places of refuge.
The once-dry arroyos are raging toward the river.
The storm speeds off; crosses the mountain; gone.

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The Home Place — 2020