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America I: Following Rio Grande

A transatlantic voyage is always a special occasion. As we leave Europe, we leave behind this really particular continent, as it is true that there is no equivalent in this world and it is our big home. A home not described politically or even as administration unit, but a place which is formed by dozens of different peoples, civilizations, with any one of them to have left its sign on the Old Continent.

In Europe we learned to admire our history and culture with a sight to the past, an evolution. In America this approach is completely different. In the USA, the historical evolution is characterized by explosions, by leaps! Landing there with an airplane, after many hours of the overseas flight, the feeling is amazing, almost terrifying, as we see the American inner land.

My flight, the first that brought me to this part of the former named “New World”, arrived to a big city of Texas, Dallas. Looking out of the window, the streets, the size of the city, which is not the most famous of this country, as well as everything built by humans during the last 200 to 250 years, a huge admiration filled my thoughts. The streets, the squares, the monuments, the big infrastructure which compose the scenery of European cities, have been shaped through a passage of centuries or even millennia. Here this is completely different. People who have been in these places made from scratch a great civilization, by carrying to a virgin soil everything that humanity had created at the other part of the Atlantic.

I think that this is the only cultural shock that one can have in America. Obviously, not because we see something so different, so exotic, but after the understanding the difference of what we see with every equivalent in Europe. In order to see these differences, it’s worthy to go to some particular corners and one of those is for sure the region around the great river, Rio Grande, at the New Mexico state, where the western American civilization dominates for centuries, but there are traces of the cultural exchange between the settlers and the indigenous people, the so named American Indians, but also with Latinos, a mixture of locals and Spaniard colonizers.

So, one more flight, in order to leave the cowboy land and get to the biggest city of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where this exploration begins.

Rio Grande

Map of Rio Grande

The greatest and very probably the unique contribution of Rio Grande is the valley, into which it is feasible to build settlements, villages and cities. There are no great dams, as at Colorado river, and the water flux is not of any particular importance, as it happens in Mississippi. However, it shaped the geography of a region.

Firstly, it characterizes the political geography, as a great part of the river serves as the natural border between Mexico and the American state of Texas. If one looks on the map the borders between the two countries, the non rectangular part just follows the path of the Great River. Moreover, during 1836 to 1845, it was in its ensemble the border between Texas Republic and Mexico.

However, the most interesting for one who gets there is the physical geography, shaped by its aquatic path. It has created features and even landscapes far too different of those that we can see in Europe, by passing through huge sedimentary series, unfolded or not transformed through time, only eroded by the river. Someone can see huge canyons, tremendous sedimentary formations, similar to the sceneries of the western cowboy movies and a variety of different climates in a distance of about 3051 kilometers, about the half of Earth radius!

This natural landscape is able to petrify anyone, as we see the incredible creations of water, by forgetting any notion of time.

Rio Grande has its sources at the Colorado mountains, known as San Juan mountains and it divides New Mexico in two parts, an eastern and a western one, before finally serve as the national border, flowing between American Texas and Mexican Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

My exploration concerns the northern part of New Mexico, from Albuquerque, at the center, to the settlements of Taos, about 70 kilometers south of Colorado state.

Los Alamos

The Ashley Pond, center of Los Alamos town, owes its name to the school located there before 1941

The first stop for everything I saw was Los Alamos, a very peculiar town. In order to get there someone needs about 2 hours drive from Albuquerque. In this route, during the day, we can enjoy the sight of amazing natural formations, which make one think that this was some kind of playing with the sand, by a huge creature. During the night, this route is just the first experience with an American autoroute, really different from the European one too.

On one hand, the American highways have different shape, as they transverse great desert plains, in contrast with the European ones that pass through dozens or even hundreds of settlements and a very varying relief. On the other hand, USA is a country built in order to drive in it, with a personal transport, in the logic of the absolute liberty of moving and choices. Buses, trains, even airplanes, when it concerns short distances, are far less convenient, compared to a car. Fortunately, a 4-wheel vehicle gave me the possibility to describe the following!

Arriving in Los Alamos, if not completely unaware, someone can think how many and mostly who passed from this corner before, the contribution of this place to the history of 20th century, the notion of this strange “scientific ghetto”, which is not the same as during the WWII times, but we still feel it there.

Los Alamos used to be a forest area, not even a town, in early 20th century. Its name means “The Poplars”, characteristic of the dense forest landscape, with many small creeks which flow to the Rio Grande.

When, in 1939, Einstein took responsibility to send a letter to the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, referring the possibility of construction of a nuclear fission bomb, as well as the necessity to be made first by the Americans and not the Nazis, the new History of this place was just beginning.

Einstein’s letter to F.D. Roosevelt, where the famous physicist referred the ability of construction of a nuclear fission bomb and the demand of immediate action in order to be constructed by the USA before the Nazis.

On October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt accepted the launch of the nuclear program of USA and this was the beginning of one of the most historic research projects, under the name “Manhattan Project”. The scientific leader was the theoretical physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, whereas the military chief was Lieutenant General Leslie Groves. They should find a place where their scientific experiments can be held under total secrecy, as these were potentially crucial even for the outcome of the War.

Robert Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves at the entrance of the Historical Park, dedicated to the Manhattan Project, located at the center of Los Alamos, where the residences of the project scientists used to be.

Among others, Los Alamos was a place that met the criteria and it was also a favorite place of Oppenheimer himself, who used to go there for horse riding, exploring the amazing nature. Therefore, after moving away the only trace of western civilization, a school for children with breathing disabilities, as well as several American Indians, they built the new lab-town, starting the history of a new, very peculiar settlement.

In it, there were only scientists, coming from all the corners of the US, by accepting to leave the civilization during the war. We could say that Los Alamos was something like a scientific “Holy Mountain” of that time. A town without schools, hospitals, restaurants, courts of justice or prisons.

The Fuller Lodge Center, where the first settlers of Los Alamos were reassembling, during Manhattan Project

In fact, the non scientific activities that took part was only those concerning the scientists’ free time. In most cases this was a task that the companions of the scientists were charged of.

In order to understand the rules of secrecy, it is enough to note that this town didn’t exist on the map. The post mails for the scientists of Manhattan Project, didn’t have a Los Alamos address. If someone wanted to write to them, a mail should be sent to a postal box at the nearest town of Santa Fe. The reception office was also installed at Santa Fe, in order to give the appropriate badges to the arriving scientists.

In front the Little Boy Hiroshima bomb and on the back the Fat Man Nagasaki bomb, in Bradbury Museum, Los Alamos

The “success” of Manhattan Project is known worldwide. However, the need for research on nuclear weapons in a new world after Hiroshima and the associated fundamental research, led to the decision of maintaining the activities of Los Alamos National Laboratory even after the war. The LANL is settled today in a town that anybody knows, as it is on the map, having as goals the National Defense and the fundamental research.

However, strange things never ended there, as the disproportional high number of scientists, compared to the rest of the population, makes this town even particular today. The average education of the population is higher than a PhD degree and therefore one can say that it is a “scientific ghetto”, with bars offering trivia nights instead of cheap beer!!!

Los Alamos and its famous laboratory, are a piece of a unique experience for someone who visits them, for a short or longer period, not only to see their extraordinary past, but also to explore their strange present.

Around Los Alamos

Sedimentary formations, near Los Alamos

The region around Los Alamos is characterized by the valley of Rio Grande. Huge sedimentary formations, still staying there no matter the erosion, by avoiding the river path, create stupendous landscapes with incredible colors, with all the shades between brown and orange, mostly during the early evening hours, when sun lights the western slopes.

It is worthy to note that due to the drought, when it snows, the snow continues to remain intact for weeks at the northern slopes, whereas on the southern part only dry soil is visible, which creates an illusion of high temperature, similar to one at the great deserts of our planet.

The route of Rio Grande, as seen from the Overlook point, near White Rock

A very picturesque place in order to see the nature is White Rock, the closest town to Los Alamos. From the “Overlook” point, one can have a panorama of Rio Grande, from the Colorado mountains, to its entrance at the New Mexican valley.

Santa Fe

The cathedral of San Francisco de Asís, in Santa Fe downtown, with characteristic pueblos structures around

The closest city to Los Alamos is Santa Fe. In Spanish it means “Holy Faith” and it comes from the original name, given with its founding, which was “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís” (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi). Today it is the capital city of the state of New Mexico.

Obviously, the cathedral basilica of St Francis of Assisi dominates the city, as it is the most important monument. However, the most interesting element is that around the temple, in the historical center, most of the buildings are of typical “pueblo” architecture, where the only materials are mud and straws. Today, even newer buildings, built of other materials, tend to seem to these characteristic “pueblos”.

The “La Conquistadora” chapel, in the cathedral of San Francisco de Asís

At St Francis cathedral there is one of the most uncommon names ever given to Holy Mary, as there is a chapel of “La Conquistadora”. However, on the yard there are two elements which show the will for conciliation between the conquistadors and the local people, named …pueblos!

Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, or Lily of the Mohawks, first American Indian Saint of the Catholic Church

Next to the main gate of the cathedral there is a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, known as “Lily of the Mohawks”, who is the first American Indian Saint of the Catholic Church. Next to it, there is a square, dominated by the statue of Diego de Vargas Zapata y Lujan Ponce de Leon y Contreras, the Spanish Governor who settled peace with local populations in 1691.

Plate indicating the street as part of the historic Santa Fe Trail

At the city center there is a central square, where the historical Santa Fe Trail used to arrive. This was the main route, linking Kansas City and Santa Fe, a distance of about 1000 kilometers.

San Miguel chapel, the oldest religious structure in the USA

In Santa Fe there is also another monument of religious interest, the San Miguel Chapel, which is the oldest christian temple in the USA.

Walking through the historic city, there is an impression of being mostly in Mexico than in the US. A large number of population speaks Spanish, some of them don’t even understand English. In the mean time, the characteristic clichés of the cars with open windows and loud reffaeton, make someone feel that this is a Latin American city and not one at the Northern Hemisphere.


The Bank of Albuquerque tower, the most iconic structure of the city

Albuquerque is the largest city of New Mexico and driving there from Los Alamos, for about 2 hours with the daylight, was an excellent opportunity to see the creations of Rio Grande on the sedimental formations. It is really a pity that I couldn’t take photos from the car, as there were no places to stop on the highway.

Highlight of the Albuquerque old town exploration, characteristic of the city-entrance to the Wild West

Its Old Town is pretty similar to Santa Fe. Small buildings, in pueblo style, and many traces reminding that we are at the entrance of the Wild West. From this point western wards there is a huge desert area, crossing all Arizona, in order to find the civilization again in California. Everything on this route is mostly a peasant or cowboy land, who achieved to be part of the united country in the mid-19th century, after the revolution generated by the rapid development of railroads, the years before and after the American Civil War.

Central Avenue, part of the legendary Route 66

The most important sight to see in Albuquerque concerns also transport, as its Central Avenue, a route crossing the city from East to West, is part of the legendary Route 66, which starts in Chicago and goes all the way to Los Angeles, crossing the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. A true panamerican route, which is a life travel itself.

Map of Route 66

Today, Albuquerque is not well developed and its building and urban planning isn’t really interesting. It seems more like a quite forgotten country city, with only some skyscrapers to indicate that we are still in the US.


Characteristic point of the route to Taos

From Los Alamos, I moved to the South in order to go to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, through an interstate highway. However, on the other side, to the North, there is Taos, where things are completely different!

A small route, which follows Rio Grande, crosses settlements that are built just next to it and because of it. One of them, is the town of Española, a long but narrow town.

Taos is an agricultural area, where the majority of population are indigenous people. The first impression, when arriving there, is that we are closer to Peru, than to New York or Los Angeles. It is a region where someone can feel the cultural shock in the USA, with the impression that Europeans didn’t manage to dominate these places with their way of living.

The San Fransisco de Asís, at Ranchos de Taos

The first stop was at Ranchos de Taos, where there is a church of …St Francis of Assisi! A temple built entirely with mud and straws, the typical pueblos architecture. Around it there is almost nothing, only some ranchos whose residents stay there in order to be near to their fields. The main product is the red chilly, which is sawn almost everywhere, hung outside every house, in order to get dry and accompany almost every New Mexican plate.

The bell tower of the Taos Pueblo cemetery

The second stop was, however, even more original, as there is no similar thing in this world. The Taos Pueblo is a settlement where the residents never changed their habits through centuries, only their clothes. There is no asphalt or concrete road after the entrance in the village and from there over everything is mud. Mud shaped in streets, houses and even the bell tower of the cemetery, which is in the center of the village, just at the end of the asphalt street.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Some kilometers further from Taos, there is one of the greatest structures of New Mexico, in a point with an astonishing view. In the entrance of the Rio Grande valley, where the passage is still indicated by the deep canyon, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is built. The interesting point of view is double there: out of the bridge, one can admire the incredible construction, the steel which dominates the natural obstacles and opens the way to humans, and on the bridge, where the route of Rio Grande is visible, from the North to the South, as the bridge has an East-West orientation.

Rio Grande, as seen from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, looking to the South

A noteworthy point, as said before, is that the western slopes of the canyon, not lit except some hours by the sun, keep the snow on them, however in just some meters away, the eastern slopes are all dry.

The Black Mesa

The breathtaking formation of the Black Mesa during sunset

The last landmark, created by Rio Grande and a bit further from its actual riverbed, is the Black Mesa. In “Spanglish” it means “The Black Table”, however Mesa is also a geological term to indicate elevated fields.

It is obviously shaped by the erosion of the soil, with the river to have passed from both sides of the actual formation. Fortunately, if someone passes today from there, during the blue hours and close to the winter full moons, the relative position of Earth, Moon and Sun create a breathtaking view, which is difficult to describe in words, or even been outlined with a photographic lens.

Following the northern part of Rio Grande I was able to see very rare places, difficult to find elsewhere in our planet. About 1000 kilometers of driving was enough in order to take some photographic souvenirs and keep some memories of astonishing pictures that anyone of them can be described for hours.

Central Avenue and 15th Street crossing point, in Los Alamos

This was the first part of the exploration fo a huge and incredible country, from physical, geomorphological and also social and cultural point of view…

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