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Across the New Mexico Outback
[Small Town America] US 60 Part 11
Email Article  Print Article David McLane (davemclane)    
Before leaving Hereford, Texas, and heading on to Clovis, New Mexico, we had a look at a feed lot near US-60. We didn't know if it was a big one or not, but since 3 million cattle pass through 126 lots each year, each holding cattle some 110 - 150 days, on average, each lot holds about 8,000 cattle at any one time.

The questions for me was: how do I show, visually, 8,000 cattle? We drove along the road next to the fence, stopped at a likely looking place, turned on Pachelbel's Canon -- which usually piques their curiously -- and shot a few frames.

They looked like nothing.

Very slowly, I climbed up on top of the van and shot a few frames. Nothing.

Walked up close the fence very s-l-o-w-l-y and shot a few frames. Hopeless.

We moved to another spot where the feed lot access road hit the main road and I climbed up on top of the fence holding on to a utility pole and shot a few frames. Still nothing.

Only looking at the LCD I thought maybe if I included the fence stretching out to the horizon the way it did it would be a hint that the cattle you see near the camera go on forever, which they do. Maybe not, but best I could do.

Feedlot, Hereford, Texas
©2009 D. McLane

With that we headed toward Clovis. It wasn't long before we came on a packing house, just as Pearl Salines at the Deaf Smith County Historical Museum had said the day before, and it also had a long fence, this time a kind of "Green Mile" along which cattle are taken to their execution.

Packing house, Hereford, Texas
©2009 D. McLane

JUST OVER THE BORDER INTO NEW MEXICO, we came on an information center where we picked up a couple of brochures and a good map.

While talking with the staff, we got into a conversation with somebody who knew something about Clovis. They said that part of the economic base is Cannon Air Force Base, which was scheduled to be closed in 2005 but in 2006 it was changed from the Air Combat Command to the Air Force Special Operations Command.

In addition, this person -- who said they didn셳 want to be identified as it might blow back on them -- said the town has become polarized compared to 20 years ago; you "can no longer speak your piece."

I don't know if the change to a Special Operations base has anything to do with it, but it's good to know which way the wind is blowing.

OUR MAIN REASON FOR STOPPING IN CLOVIS was to revisit what we think of as the Buddy Holly Museum, as we'd been there before back in the 1990s. However the actual name of the place is the Norman Petty Recording Studio which is on the old US 60, now replaced with a bypass.

The sign on the fence in front of the Studio explains the confusion:
At thirteen, Norman began cutting records in his father's filling station. With money earned from the Norman Petty Trio's "Mood Indigo," Petty converted a family grocery store next door to a modern recording studio where he experimented with echo and microphone settings. In 1957, Petty made rock' n' roll history recording Buddy Holly and the Crickets' "That'll Be The Day." The sound influenced a generation, and his techniques are still used today.
Buddy Holly is considered to be an early pioneer of rock and roll even though his success only lasted a year and a half before he was killed in an airplane crash.

Buddy grew up in Lubbock, Texas, a just 100 miles (160 km) from Clovis. Seeing Elvis Presley sing live in Lubbock was a turning point and he began changing his style to what would become rock. Buddy would come up to record his songs in Norman's Studio which was divided into three main sections: the studio where performers and their backup made the music, the recording room containing Norman's equipment, and a living area people could eat, sleep, and congregate.

Norman grew up in Clovis and began playing piano early on. He and his wife, Vi, founded the Norman Petty Trio, along with guitarist Jack Vaughn.

In addition to success with his own records, Norman is famous for making 78 and 45 rpm singles for singers such as Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Carolyn Hester and Buddy Holly, all of whom became famous.

By 1959 Buddy had married Maria Elena Santiago (after proposing on the first date) and was living in New York but went on a tour of the middle West. He was killed when the small airplane he'd chartered crashed taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959. Don McLean referred to it as "The Day the Music Died" in his song "American Pie." Norman Petty died in Lubbock, Texas in 1984 of leukemia. His wife, Vi, died in 1992.

That much is common knowledge. What isn't are the details we learned by talking with Ken Broad, the person in charge of tours of the Studio (call +1.575.763.3435 to book a tour).

Ken was a minister when he came to Clovis with his wife, Shirley, for his health. He had difficulty speaking after he'd had a tumor removed on his vocal cords. Norman built him special "voice enhancement" equipment which was designed to "only strengthen natural tones" and they became friends. Ken began doing Norman's bookwork, and eventually became his business manager. He still functions as the Rev. Kenneth Broad sometimes, but his main work is the Studio.

Ken said that one of the main reasons Norman became the go-to guy by fledgling artists was his policy of charging only $75 for one side of a record, no matter how long it took as Norman "didn't believe in creating by the clock." The living quarters were there for that purpose as it often took a long time to get things right. The state-of-the-art recorders at the time only did one track, thus mixing was done live and when it was done, it was done.

Ken took us into the recording room which, like the rest of the Studio, is just as Norman left it.

Ken Broad shows Norman Petty tape recorder, Clovis, N.M.
©2009 D. McLane

Everything was in mint condition albeit quite old. To give you some idea of how old, later on we came on a Grundig Wire Recorder which was state-of-the-art when I was the go-to-film-recorder operator in Junior High School in 1949. It could have been Norman's first recorder as he was 22 at the time.

Next, Ken took us into the studio where performers and their backup made the music. The mics, the piano, the canvas-backed chairs for Norman and Vi, are all there. You get the feeling they셱e on break back in the living quarters and will come through the door and continue any minute.

Ken Broad shows original microphones at Norman Petty Recording Studio
©2009 D. McLane

We'd heard a lot of this when we were there before, but Ken added two completely new things. He said he'd visited Norman in the hospital on July 14, 1984, one month before he died, August 15, 1984. Norman told him that he'd been writing all day listing everything that could be sold to support Vi as he was concerned she wouldn't have enough to live on as all she had was the money from the recordings they'd made.

But Norman didn't want anybody, especially Vi, to know about the list as they thought he might recover while he felt he was going to die, soon. So he gave the list to Ken and told him to keep it until it was needed.

When Norman died a month later, there was great concern as nobody knew the details of the business. Ken revealed the list and everything worked out.

The second thing Ken told us was that Vi was in a coma for her last 58 days before she died in 1992 and hadn't made any provisions for her cats. All 38 of them were left for Ken to deal with, and most of them were sick. Vi had picked them up and tried to nurse them back to health, but failed, and Ken had to have most of them put down.

I don't think Ken ever gave up being a minister, the Studio became his church.

ABOUT HERE WE NEED A GEOGRAPHY LESSON. As I've said, my wife and I had been to New Mexico before. Most of the time we went east along Interstate-40/Route 66 to Amarillo, Texas, (Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Santa Rosa, Tucumcari), south-west along US 60 to Clovis, south-west along US 70 to Interstate-10 (Roswell, Alamogordo, White Sands) and then west on Interstate 10 (Deming, Lordsburg) to where we'd started.

We'd never gone west on US 60 to Arizona on the other side of the state which is definitely not a Scenic Byway, but more like a New Mexico outback.

It's 450 miles from Clovis, near the Texas border, to Springerville, near the Arizona border. Along the route there are only four towns of any consequence: Fort Sumner, Mountainair, Socorro, and Magdalena. With a population of some 18,000, Socorro is the only city and is on the Rio Grand River at 4,600 feet (1,400m); the others have populations around 1,000. Clovis and Fort Sumner are at an elevation of some 4,000 feet (1,210m) while Mountainair and Magdalena are at 6,500 feet (1,980m); Springerville is at 7,000 feet (2,130m). Beginning to get the picture?

Traveling east to west as we were, you leave Clovis and climb up through Fort Sumner to Mountainair, then drop down to Socorro on the Rio Grande, and then climb back up again to Magdalena and Springerville.

There are smaller towns between Clovis and Socorro, each about 60 miles (100km) apart as the original Santa Fe railroad steam engines could only go that far before they needed water. There used to be a spur line from Magdalena to Socorro to ship cattle from the Plains of San Augustin. The line has gone and the Plains of San Augustin is now the site of the VLA (Very Large Array) that appeared in the movie "Contact" starring Jodie Foster. While the movie was fiction, when you stand on the plains, it's easy enough to think those huge antennas are listening to messages from the great beyond, not just radio waves from outer space.

ON THE WAY TO MOUNTAINAIR, WE ONLY STOPPED IN ONE TOWN: ENCINO. The sign said population was 94 but we didn't see anybody and none of the stores looked open. The name, Las Penas Groceries, had been painted over but was still somewhat visible. (Not absolutely sure, but Las Penas means "The Rocks" and there is a rock and ballast company in Encino and a rock and ballast quarry a short distance away in Pedernal.)

Las Peñas Groceries, Encino, N.M.
©2009 D. McLane

MOUNTAINAIR IS A LIVING, BREATHING TOWN. We arrived late in the afternoon and saw a grocery store, gas station, cafe, Chamber of Commerce, art gallery, National Park Service information center, and RV park.

The RV park looked like it would cost more than we'd be willing to pay so we went on down the road and found a place to camp and returned first thing in the morning to have breakfast at the Ancient Cities Cafe. Not a lot of people, just what looked a road or railway work crew silently eating breakfast.

Workers eat breakfast, Ancient Cities Café, Mountainair, N.M.
©2009 D. McLane

On the far wall was a mural showing why it was called the Ancient Cities Cafe.

Mural, Ancient Cities Café
©2009 D. McLane

After breakfast we went to the National Park Service information center and found that it administered three nearby Salinas Pueblo Missions. The short story is that Spanish Franciscans came to the area early in the 17th century and developed the missions. However, the entire district was depopulated of both Indians and Spaniards by 1677. What's left are four mission churches, at Quarai, Abo, and Gran Quivira and the partially excavated pueblo of Las Humanas. Some of the missions were quite far away but the one at Abo was close to US 60 a few miles west of Mountainair so we decided to stop there on our way to Socorro.

The ranger on duty was born in Texas, not far from Clovis, and said there was dry land farming east of Clovis but west of Clovis there wasn't enough water for anything. When I asked him about the deer-like animals we'd seen, he said they were prong horn antelope but more like a goat as they have cloven hooves. They don't need any shelter but can survive in open country as they can outrun predators at speeds up to 54 mph (86 km/h).

Curiously enough, the ranger said that while only about 50% of the people in Mountainair are Hispanic, there are many small land-grant communities in the area established during the Spanish period and given by the Spanish King in the 17th century. Controversy over land-grants continued into the 20th century and from what I could learn, there are still some problems.

Across the side street from the Park Service information center was a mural showing an original Sante Fe steam engine hauling freight.

Sante Fe Mural, Moutainair, N.M.
©2009 D. McLane

Across the main street from the Park Service information center was Cibola Arts, a cooperative gallery with 12 artists and five visiting artists which has been in operation since 1995. I had a brief chat with one of the artists, Addie Draper, who does pastels and oils, who showed me her work and took me around to the other works on display.

While we were looking at the various paintings, sculptures, wood turnings, and raku pottery, we met LeRoy Simmons, a blacksmith, who invited me over to his forge see what he was doing.

When I got there, LeRoy was helping one of the other artists, Susan Aulde, who does art and functional glass, turn a piece of railway track into an anvil. The rough work had been done and Susan was polishing it.

Susan Aulde polishes anvil, Dragon Ash Forge, Mountainair, N.M.
©2009 D. McLane

Meanwhile, LeRoy was over at the forge making individual leaves for a larger decorative piece. He showed how he could take a rather ordinary piece of iron, heat it in the forge, hammer it into the basic shape, and add the details with frequent reheatings.

LeRoy Simmons making leaves, Dragon Ash Forge
©2009 D. McLane

I went over to the larger piece to see how it was coming along and saw that even though LeRoy didn't have any mechanical pattern, all the leaves looked the same enough to be on the same plant, but different enough so they gave the feeling of being organically alive.

Before we headed west, we stopped at the Turner Inn motel and RV park, an authentic 1950's style "auto court" motel made famous by Route 66. Talking with Ruth Turner we learned that up until a short time ago all available rooms in Mountainair were taken by workers at the High Lonesome Wind Farm in Willard, about 14 miles (22 km) away.

When the Wind Farm becomes operational, 40 2.5-megawatt wind turbines will generate a total of about 100 megawatts of electricity -- enough to supply power to about 30,000 homes.
I will also be posting this story to Open.Salon a few days after it I've sent it to OMNI and will then send a newsalert containing links to both websites to my mailing list.

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