still trapped

In this adaptation of material drawn from his award-winning book River of Traps, author William deBuys finds that even a new house and the passage of time can’t weaken the connections to land and community in a tiny New Mexican mountain village—or dim the lessons learned from a wise norteño neighbor.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2008 Su Casa

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Just a few of the old stakes are left. If I go down to the river and look along the near bank, I can find their gray and weathered stubs half-hidden among the sapling cottonwoods and the tall grass. When I see them, I feel my age with a poignancy that I don’t much want to indulge, but the sense of time is friendly, not at all discouraging.

I was in my late 20s when I sledgehammered those stakes into the ground. It was almost 30 years ago. That spring, fueled by warm rain and heavy snowmelt, the Río de las Trampas—River of Traps—metamorphosed from a placid creek to a roaring liquid dragon that swept away trees and bridges and devoured the land along its banks. You could hear the sinister clack of boulders as they collided, tumbling unseen beneath the chocolate waves. And you also heard the discouraging plash of great hunks of meadow soil, bigger than a wheelbarrow load, falling from the undercut banks and vanishing into the roiling waters, their long grasses swirling like the hair of a drowning victim before sinking out of sight.

My ex-wife Anne and I pounded the stakes into rain-soaked earth and tethered bundles of juniper branches to them. We threw the bundles into the river, and the tethers of baling wire snapped taut, and the water seethed as the bundles sank, and the bundles pressed hard against the eroding banks, which now they shielded from the worst of the torrent. We worked for hours in the rain, sodden and shivering, but finally as the evening light grew dim, we heard no more plashes of destroyed meadow, only the roar of the main current and the hiss of floodwaters boiling through the juniper bundles.

On our own, we would never have figured out how to protect our land from the flood. The idea of armoring the bank with brush came from our 80-year-old neighbor and mentor Jacobo Romero. In this instance, as in many others, we simply followed his instructions.

In the past 30 years I don’t believe I have known anyone as irascible, sly, insightful, reliable, mischievous, wise, or funny as Jacobo. He was a man of extraordinary capacities, dressed in worn denims, and working a simple hay and cattle farm in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Several years after Jacobo died, the photographer Alex Harris and I produced a book about him. We called it River of Traps, and the story of the flood figures in it importantly.

Alex knew Jacobo as well or better than I, and he knew him in the same way. We’d arrived together in northern New Mexico several years earlier—both as research assistants for the psychiatrist and writer Robert Coles, but in 1975 when by various routes we moved to the village of El Valle and met Jacobo, we were both still new to the land and culture of the “Deep North.” Jacobo became our guide to living there. He helped us find our place, literally and figuratively, and if he were alive today I think he would be pleased that neither of us has moved far from the place he led us to.

For more than 30 years Alex and I have shared a farm in El Valle and tended it together. It provides the location in River of Traps where Jacobo taught us the art of irrigation, where we fought the flood of 1979, and where Anne and I built a simple, two-room adobe cabin. We equipped the house with electricity, but we hauled in our water. Anne painted a sign for a neighbor’s shop and traded it for an unused outhouse that we refitted and set up 50 yards from the casita. Showers were easy to rig outdoors during the short mountain summer, but the rest of the year sponge baths over a tarp spread on the bedroom floor had to suffice. Total out-of-pocket cost of construction was only $6,000, or $10 per square foot. Of course, none of us has seen numbers like that again.

Alex and his wife, the writer and photographer Margaret Sartor, built a house at another corner of the property in the early 1980s—with plumbing. It nestles into a hillside overlooking the farm, and its broad outdoor deck has been the scene of many long, relaxed evenings with children of both families scampering about, teasing dogs and marveling at the hummingbirds that quarrel constantly about the Harris’ feeder. But in truth the kids don’t scamper anymore; they are teenagers and young adults. The decades keep rolling by.

Jacobo died in 1985. His widow Liza passed away nine years later and their eldest son Olivario, known as Lalo, followed eight years after that. (I wrote about Lalo in another book set in El Valle—The Walk, which appeared in 2007.) Like Jacobo, Liza and Lalo epitomized what is meant by buen vecino—good neighbor—a phrase that is freighted heavily with meaning in northern New Mexico. It connotes more than civility or even a willingness to provide assistance. It suggests a special kind of loyalty and mutual obligation. The mere fact of geographic proximity doesn’t account for it, but it is something that a lot of norteños seem to have in their bones.

Alex and I and our families were fortunate to count Liza and Lalo as close friends. Both of them played important parts in the making of River of Traps, and both were part of its life after publication.

A year or two after the book came out, Karl Kernberger, a producer at KNME-TV, the PBS television affiliate in Albuquerque, approached me about doing a program on the origins of the book and the places and people in it. It would be, he said, a tribute to New Mexico’s rural Hispanic traditions and to the durability of the northern villages. A few days later I presented the idea to Liza and Lalo, saying that I was pretty sure the program would be thoughtfully and sensitively made but that the decision on whether to go forward with it was entirely theirs. They said they would think about it.

A week passed and I visited them again. Liza was cooking, and Lalo was in the kitchen with her, along with his sister Fabiola, whom everyone called Fabby.

We talked about the weather and other usual things. After a while I asked, “What do you want me to tell the television people in Albuquerque?”

There was a long silence. Liza stirred her skillet. Lalo put another chunk of piñon in the woodstove. Fabby gave me a knowing and kindly smile. I had the sense that they thought what they were about to say would disappoint me.

“It’s okay with me whether we do the program or not,” I said. “I will be happy with whatever you decide.”
“Well,” said Liza. “The book is nice. I think maybe it is enough.” She turned back to her skillet. “We don’t need to do the TV, don’t you think?”

And that was that.

Perhaps there were other families in 1992 in the media-intoxicated United States who would have declined the attention of a sympathetic and admiring lens, but I doubt there were many. The decision was simple, final, and altogether admirable. So was the idea of “enough.” They had no desire to be seen and heard by tens of thousands of people they had never met. What would be the point of that? And they had no desire to invite strangers into their house who would point lenses and microphones at them, taking control of their lives for who knew how many days (when there was so much else to be done!), only in the end to offer up fragments of their stories, their clothes and furnishings, the sound of their voices and the look of their faces and their distinctive manner of speaking, about which they were habitually shy, to the scrutiny of the world.

Not long after the discussion about the television program, the kitchen in which we had been sitting underwent a major change. Liza got a new refrigerator, a giant white humming box as big as a closet. It turned out that the refrigerator was an artifact of River of Traps.

Alex and I had begun working on the book in earnest in late 1986, a year and a half after Jacobo died. Although Jacobo wasn’t available to join us in the effort, we always thought of him as a third partner in the making of the book. It wasn’t just that he was the central subject. Our relationship with him always had the feel of a partnership or collaboration, even if we never talked about it in those terms. We helped Jacobo brand his cows, harvest hay, and handle countless other chores, and Jacobo helped us with our projects, mentoring us on horseshoeing, felling and hauling vigas, and the whole gamut of skills required to tend a small farm. Jacobo was also an active participant in Alex’s photography, at times posing for lengthy portrait sessions. He enjoyed accompanying Alex in the darkroom, and as he watched his own likeness emerge from the developing bath, he would mutter in mock-seriousness, “Ooh, what a handsome man!”

Although he questioned the utility of my spending so much of my time in front of a typewriter, he seemed to take a more than casual interest in telling me stories of the old days, scraps of the oral history he’d grown up hearing. I was writing a history of the mountains in those years (which eventually appeared as Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range), and a chapter’s worth of Jacobo’s stories wound up in it.

In the aftermath of his death when Alex and I began talking about composing some kind of tribute to him, it seemed the three of us were still working together. Whatever we produced would feature his image and include many more of his stories. Accordingly, when the time came to draw up a contract for publication, it seemed logical to specify that royalties should be split three ways, with Liza receiving Jacobo’s portion.

There was also, however, self-interest in our decision to divide the proceeds into three shares. After a certain amount of experience and a few dashed dreams, writers and photographers develop a pretty good idea of how much money there is to be made from their crafts, which is not much. It might be said of both fields that they are occupations in which a few people make a killing and almost no one makes a living. But people outside the actual doing of such work sometimes look at a handsome publication like River of Traps and conclude that it must have created a river of money. Such an impression in El Valle could have placed a heavy weight on our relations with our neighbors. The last thing we wanted was to become known as “the gringos who took advantage of Tío Jacobo and who got rich from what he gave them for free.” The village had become our home; we aimed to stay, and if we temporarily left for practical reasons, like going to graduate school or earning a living, we always aimed to come back.

So it was a good thing when a copy of the contract arrived in the Romero mailbox and when roughly a year later and every six months afterward a royalty statement and an extremely modest check followed. Moreover, what the large Romero family knew, their friends would also know. No crazy rumors would circulate about what the book was worth. We also shared with Liza the small amount of prize money that the book earned. One prize check transformed fairly rapidly into a refrigerator. It seemed the right sort of thing for a down-to-earth story like River of Traps to have produced.

It is summer again, the 32nd summer that I will have irrigated our hayfield, excepting a handful of years when I lived outside New Mexico. According to Jacobo’s stories and a few available scraps of historical documentation, irrigation of this particular piece of land probably began in the last decade or so of the 18th century, about 220 years ago, give or take a decade. This means I’ve been the guy with the shovel opening the compuertas of this particular field for roughly 15 percent of those years. That seems like a pretty big number, and although I wasn’t born and raised here, I don’t feel as much like an outsider as I used to.

Maybe that’s why I finally mustered my resolve and my resources to build a house with indoor water next to the old casita. We built it last year. Contractor Matt Ribas of nearby Ojo Sarco and my El Valle neighbor Adam Beucheley did most of the work, but my son Dave was on the crew until he left for his senior year at college, and so was I until my day job—teaching at the College of Santa Fe—called me away. As work began, I soon learned that being the oldest, least brawny, and least skilled, I was the lowest ranking member of the work crew—that is, until it was time to write a check, and last year I wrote a lot of checks.

The result is a delight. Architect Beverley Spears, who is a scholar as well as a practitioner of northern New Mexico vernacular style, and her associate Glen Gollrad developed the plans for a compact two-bedroom, two-bath house of 1,500 square feet. We built the walls with insulated concrete forms, or ICF—hollow Styrofoam building blocks that one fills with reinforced concrete. We sited the house to settle into the landscape and gave it a steeply pitched roof of old-fashioned corrugated sheet metal and a deep portal that overlooks the hayfield. The detailing is hardly fancy except that we took two large Rocky Mountain junipers from the property and cut them into boards without trimming the edges. Matt used the juniper, bright with red heartwood, to case the windows and let the natural edges of the wood run free. We matched the heartwood with red Colorado sandstone for the sills.

The old casita is now my office and writing studio, and my library is divided between the two buildings. A satellite dish hauls in the Internet. Wrens still nest in the plywood bluebird box I put up 20 years ago, and the western flycatchers that used to nest on a ledge under the casita’s portal have found an even better site where two rooflines of the new house come together. From my bathroom, I have a beautiful view of the snowcapped Truchas Peaks—I check it every morning as I brush my teeth—but the house is not oriented to frame that view. Instead, it faces down the field toward the riverside cottonwoods and the cañoncito where the river exits the valley.

My favorite feature of the new house is the way the kitchen channels you to the dining and living space. You have to pass between an antique stove and a long work counter and, and as you do so, you pause and notice that the window on the far wall of the living space perfectly frames the aforementioned canyon mouth and cottonwoods. It is down there, in the bottom of the view, that the river flows. It is there we fought the flood, there that Jacobo, leaning on his canes, told us what to do. It is from that place that the first sentence of River of Traps takes its form: “We lived at the bottom of the village where the river squeezed between two hills and vanished in a canyon.”

It is all still there.

Wiliam deBuys is the author of six books including Enchantment and Exploitation (1985) and River of Traps (reissued in 2008), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. An excerpt from his most recent book, The Walk, which is set in the same mountain valley as River of Traps, recently won a Pushcart Prize.