On to New Mexico, 1970 by David Robertson

On to New Mexico, 1970 by David Robertson

On to New Mexico, 1970

by David Robertson


I graduated from a small men’s college in Ohio in May of 1970 and headed straight to New Mexico. God knows why a men’s college. Not to mention a church college. Maybe because it was like my boarding school except you could date women and drink and do other things.

I got a ride with a friend, from Ohio to Little Rock, then took a bus from Little Rock to Albuquerque, then from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, then from Santa Fe to Española. I still remember Johnny Cash playing on the jukebox in the Santa Fe bus station. In Española, my friend Charlie and his friend Jeff picked me up in Jeff’s black VW bug and we drove to El Rito. To this 21-year-old “kid” from suburban New Jersey, I felt like I had fallen off the edge of the earth. I recall my impression of what seemed a dry lifeless landscape surrounded by the red/orange/yellow higher country. And I know how much I have now grown to love it. El Rito was a small town of about a thousand people at about 6,900 feet elevation, with Martin’s store at one end of town and Garcia’s store at the other. It was first settled in the 1700s.

I came to New Mexico to join Charlie. He had come west from New York City earlier that year to live and work with the van Dressers. Charlie’s parents had been friends with the van Dressers in the 1930s in Florida. Peter was an early (early for the 1900s anyway) ecologist, renewable energy advocate, and back-to-the-land ‘er. He had been part of the Decentrist movement and envisioned a decentralized “biotechnic” society. He felt that the Northern New Mexico “uplands” were a perfect location to carry out his vision. Peter started doing renewable energy work in the 1930s in Florida. There was a thriving industry in domestic solar water heaters there at that time. In the 1950s he built a solar house with a wind generator in Potrero Canyon north of El Rito. Peter and his wife Florence are buried at Ghost Ranch, which Peter had worked closely with and where he had built a series of test buildings to determine the performance of various forms of solar space heating: direct gain, greenhouse , and Trombe wall.

Soon after my arrival, Charlie and I moved into the solar house in Potrero. We met the previous occupants, Peter Ashwanden and his family. He was the illustrator for the book “How to Keep your Volkswagen Alive for the Compleat (sic) Idiot”, perhaps the precursor to the series “The Idiot’s Guide To…”

We would go into town to do work for Peter van Dresser. He paid us minimal wages. He had a way of inspiring young men to come work for him for low wages. We were called “biotechnicians”. It was several miles from Potrero into El Rito. The transportation we used to and from town was Peter’s tractor. It worked great and was fun to drive too.

One day I will not forget, we got word that some people had gotten their truck stuck on the way over the ridge into the box canyon above Peter’s land that I’ll call Upper Potrero. The summer rains (we didn’t call them “monsoons” back then) had started, and the dirt road was very slick when wet. I headed up on the tractor in the rain. What I found was a remarkable sight – a couple’s pickup truck had slid off the road and was leaning up against a small tree. In my memory, the tree was maybe three inches in diameter. The truck was loaded down with what seemed like all their worldly possessions – including a nursing baby and a goat! These were true back-to-the-land ‘ers, I thought to myself. Try as I might, I could not get them out with the tractor. I went to town in search of a winch.

This couple and another couple had bought a quarter section – 160 acres – and were going to build houses and live up there. The local Spanish people who had used the land for centuries for summer pasturage for their livestock, probably never thought of building houses and living at that higher altitude perhaps 8,000 feet – and probably thought that “those hippies” were crazy.

A few years later, I and my first wife ended up building a “house” there – more like an adobe cabin. Ours was one among a handful of handmade houses. We built our house for $1 a square foot – really. The house was dug into the hillside, and we did everything by hand – digging the foundation, making the adobes, cutting down Ponderosas for the vigas and latillas. We had trees milled locally for window and door frames, and bought $50 of used windows. We hauled our water, built an outhouse, used kerosene lamps, and had a woodstove for heating and cooking. Decades later, for my 50th birthday, my niece in Utah sent me a book “Legends of the Southwest”. Unbeknownst to her – or to me for that matter – I was in it. A friend I had met in El Rito in 1970 knew the author and had taken him to Potrero. The mention of my name was brief: “and there’s David’s Hobbit house”.

There were several communes in the vicinity of El Rito. Lama was one of the larger and more well-known. It had a strong spiritual foundation. Many young women went there seeking spiritual bliss – some of which I hoped to provide. Ram Dass frequented there, and I later went to a Ram Dass weeklong retreat there. The Hog Farm was nearby. It was made famous by Wavy Gravy, who announced at the Woodstock Music Festival that he was starting a commune in New Mexico and all were welcome. Wavy Gravy at times called himself Nobody, and later ran for President using the slogan “Nobody for President”. New Buffalo was another commune nearby. Of all the communes, Lama is the only one that is still there.

Northern New Mexico was then full of interesting characters, as well as hippies from all over, many from California. For years, El Rito had been a place some went to get away from the law, drop out of mainstream society, or just live in the country. Artists, writers, potters, woodworkers, and quilt makers were there. Because of the El Rito Normal School, Anglos had lived there over the years, and the town was more “Anglified” than most of the Spanish villages, where Anglos often were not welcome. A few hippies and eccentric white people did settle in some of those villages and are now just a part of the local culture.

In a nearby town lived a man named J’wab and his family. He had been one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. He was a fun and interesting guy. He staked out some land in the National Forest and filed a mining claim – for pottery clay. He sometimes lived in a clear plastic structure that he had built on the bed of a semi truck – it looked like a glass house. He had goats that he let wander around inside his – and others’ – house. He pointed out that they were very easy to clean up after – you just pick up the pellets. Sadly, he was killed when he was driving a tractor on a hillside and it rolled over onto him.

For a time, I lived in Peter’s “guest house”, built up against the town’s original adobe fortifications. The house had always had low doorways and probably originally a dirt floor. Peter had added a wood floor. The doorway to the bedroom was then so low that I would bend over to go through it, and still graze my lower back on the top of the doorway! While I was there, Peter added a bathroom and we had to cut through an adobe wall to make a doorway to it. I and another of Peter’s workers did so with a two-man saw, cutting straight sides and an arch at the top. With some wire lath and plaster, voila!, we had a finished, structurally sound doorway. In that house, I played hours of the Japanese board game Go with my friends Jeff, Eric, and Patrick. Decades later, I play Go online with Jeff and Eric, both former “biotechnicians”.

Well steeped in Peter’s philosophy of renewables and energy conservation, Charlie and I spent much of our lives trying to live those ideals. In 1971, Charlie and I rode our bicycles 3400 miles from New York City to Santa Fe (via Florida). Charlie has devoted his life to bicycles as a form of transportation, owning a bicycle shop in Santa Fe and using his bicycle for transportation for decades. He has never driven a car. I went back to school, got an engineering degree, spent 35 years working in the public sector with a focus on energy efficiency, and built solar houses on the side.

Peter and Florence owned a restaurant in El Rito. They liked the idea of providing a low impact business to serve the locals and visitors. We ran the business sometimes. Towards the end of the summer of 1970, when they were out of town, they asked us to run it. When they came back, we had some problems. Friends of ours had arrived from New York City. Florence, a stickler for detail, was criticizing something about what we had done or hadn’t done, in her sharp Brooklyn voice and tone. Peter, looking around at us and our friends and apparently not liking what he saw, said “Get out of here, hippies, go on to your next party”. And so we did. We left and went on to Berkley California.

Thus went my voyage of discovery from the Eastern U.S. to Northern New Mexico. That summer, I was only in El Rito for a few months, but those months impacted me for the rest of my life and left me with many fond memories.

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