New Mexico Book Settings: Arroyo Seco

One sunny afternoon I drove to one of my favorite villages in Northern New Mexico, Arroyo Seco (known as Seco by the locals) to photograph the town for this blog post. Seco is located approximately seven miles north of Taos, New Mexico, and sits below Taos Mountain. On October 7, 1745, the town’s inhabitants acquired the rights to the lands under a grant by Joaquín Codallos y Rabal. However, as a site, it was first deeded in 1716 to General Pedro Lucero de Godoy by the Viceroy of Mexico, but the general never settled on the land. 

Settlement of the surrounding area began in 1804 when two brothers, Cristóbal Martínez and José Gregorio Martínez, planted crops in the region and built homes. According to the Spanish Archives of New Mexico, in 1815 more people began to cultivate the lands in Seco area, irrigating their crops from the Arroyo Seco Creek and the Rio Lucero.

After wandering the quaint village with its eateries and small specialty shops, many exhibiting work by local artists and craftspeople, I headed to the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Completed in 1834, the original building had a flat roof and a dirt floor. A pitched roof and wooden floor were added in 1915, and the graves buried beneath the dirt floor were repatriated to the churchyard cemetery. The adobe structure has five-foot-thick walls at the base that taper off to three feet at the top. The ceiling has rough, flat, heavy pine vigas that rest on hand-carved wooden corbels. I snapped the photos I wanted and left the church to stroll the village, photographing my surroundings and relaxing in the small-town atmosphere.

I’ve never been starstruck, but some folks are, so keep your eyes open. Among the locals and tourists you might spot a well-known politician or a famous celebrity, as some do call Northern New Mexico (when they are here) home. If you visit, do attend Seco’s Fourth of July parade, an annual event that draws throngs of happy celebrants. You can view the celebration on YouTube. The video was shot and edited by Rick Romancito of The Taos News.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgkDARTbkkQ


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New Mexico Book Settings: Taos


This post is dedicated to artist and musician George Chacón who left us too soon. His artwork is prominently displayed in downtown Taos. The piece is signed and his signature is shown at the end of this post.http://taosnews.com/stories/taos-artist-george-chacn-has-died,39640?

In early September 1540, the first European visitors to set foot in Taos were a small artillery detachment under the command of Hernando de Alvardo. As part of Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition, they had come in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola. Alvarado’s meeting with the Tiwa Indians, who had inhabited the Taos Pueblo for centuries, was peaceful and they exchanged gifts. But over time the peaceful co-existence eroded and led to conflicts between the two cultures over religious beliefs and the treatment of the native people.

In August 1680, a revolt led by Pope, a San Juan Pueblo Indian, resulted in the expulsion of the Spanish from New Mexico. Twelve years later, in August 1692, Don Diego de Vargas led an expedition to conquer and covert souls, but he was probably more interested in locating the local silver mines than converting souls. After he conquered the land, he established Santa Fe as the capital, and the region again fell under the Spanish flag. In 1696, the proud Taos Pueblo Indians made their last stand before surrendering to the Spanish.

I’ve read several versions of how Taos came to be named. Some Spanish settlers say they heard the Picuris Indians pointing to the northeast where their relatives the “Tao” lived. Most likely, they were referring to the Taos Pueblo Indians. However, between 1796 and 1797 the Don Fernando de Taos Land Grant gave land to sixty-three Spanish settlers in the Taos valley; the town name may have originated from the grant name and was shortened to “Taos.”

I first set foot in Taos in December of 1975 during a road trip through the northern part of the state. I was mesmerized by the stark, vast landscape with its honey-brown grasslands that ran on one side of me to red mesas, and on the other, to grassy terrain that touched a turquoise-blue sky. But what really hooked me was the first time I laid eyes on the Taos Plateau, a sheet of white fractured by a massive black chasm, its jagged basalt escarpments dusted in powdery snow and falling to the icy blue waters of the Rio Grande River twisting its way through the canyons.

Late that afternoon I caught sight of Taos Mountain, rising majestically from the desert floor, snow-capped peaks brushing a cloudless sky. Behind me, undulating evergreen hills rose to the ridge top of the Picuris Mountains, the tips of the trees capped in white and dropping to a glowing copper-orange valley under a fiery red-and-violet sunset. I’ve visited the state often since 1975 and fall deeper in love with the land each time I visit, so it was a delight to set two thrillers in northern New Mexico—Brainwash in Taos and Los Alamos and Gadgets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Darcy will return to New Mexico in CLON-X and will add Arroyo Seco and Abiquiú to her travel list.

Besides some history of Taos, my main purpose for this post is photographic—to give you a sense of place. In Brainwash, Darcy catches her first glimpse of the historic San Francisco de Asis Mission Church when she meets Elena in Ranchos de Taos to discuss Andrew’s mysterious disappearance.

Front of the church and the back with its massive, mud and straw buttresses.

Two breakfast hangouts of ours: Michael’s Kitchen and Bent Street Café. Bullet loves the patio.

Out and about, shopping, gallery browsing, and enjoying all the “color.”









  Photos: Russian Sage and the Taos Plaza.

Photos: Moby Dickens Bookshop (permanently closed). Now, Op. Cit. Books. Outside the bookstore there is a bulletin board. Notice my postings: Brainwash and Gadgets postcards top right.

And I will close as I opened—Rest in Peace, George. Gone, but not forgotten.


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A Southwest Glossary: Flora, Fauna, and Miscellaneous

Aspen Trees
An aspen tree is a high-elevation, medium-sized deciduous tree, commonly twenty to eighty feet in height and three to eighteen inches in diameter. The bark is greenish-white to almost white in color.

In the US, aspens are generally found at elevations of five thousand to twelve thousand feet. Whenever I see an aspen below five thousand feet, my first instinct is to look for a house, as more than likely man planted the tree as opposed to nature.

Aspen leaves are round and the stems flat. The unique flattened stem allows the leaves to tremble or quake even in the slightest breeze. Some liken the sound to the flutter of a thousand butterfly wings. However, the sound reminds me of rushing water.

In fall, aspens put on a spectacular display with their brilliant gold leaves. At this time of year, one of my favorite things is to set out for a day trip to photograph some fall color. I head northwest from Taos (6969’) to Chama, New Mexico (7870’), on US Route 64. In Chama, I connect to State Road 17 and drive east to Antonito, Colorado (7890’), where I break for lunch, before driving south on US Route 285 back to Taos. Photo: Fall aspens with their vibrant yellow canopies and tube-like clusters of white stands, dotting the edge of a conifer forest in clusters or “clones.” Photo: New Mexico/Colorado border.

Cottonwood Trees
Cottonwoods are massive shade trees that grow throughout the US and are members of the poplar family. They have broad white trunks and bright green foliage in the summer that turns a brilliant yellow in the fall. In the spring, female trees produce tiny red blooms followed by masses of seeds with a cottony cover. Male cottonwoods do not produce seeds.

The trees need full sun and plenty of water, which is why they grow particularly well along lakes, rivers, and marsh areas. Planted in home landscapes, they create a number of problems. In spring, the cotton-covered seeds create a significant mess. Because they are fast growing, the wood is weak and prone to disease, and due to their size they are out of scale for even the largest home landscape. A young tree can add six feet of growth per year and grow well over one hundred feet tall with a canopy seventy-five feet wide, and a trunk diameter that averages six feet at maturity. Their size and rapid growth makes them an excellent shade tree, and they are often used as windbreaks.

As for lumber, the wood tends to warp and shrink, and it doesn’t have an attractive grain, so it is best suited for making pallets, crates, and boxes. Native Americans used every part of the tree. Trunks were made into dugout canoes. The bark provided forage for horses and a bitter, medicinal tea for man. The sweet sprouts and inner bark were food for both humans and animals. Photo: Cottonwood tree at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Juniper Trees
The one-seed juniper is a high desert evergreen that seldom grows more than fifteen feet tall. It dots the drier habitats of New Mexico at elevations between five and seven thousand feet, and is a slow-growing, drought-hardy native species that will stop active growth when moisture is limited but resumes growth when moisture conditions improve. While the juniper is slow growing above ground, it is rapid growing downward, setting down a tap root that can be as long as thirty feet. Mature trees can range from five to thirty feet and produce a tap root almost two hundred feet long. This long tap root makes them almost impossible to transplant with any success. Male junipers produce masses of tiny cones, while female trees produce berry-like seeds that are bluish-purple. 

After a good night’s rain, make a point of facing the sunrise standing west of a grove of junipers. The rising sun will bathe the branches in light, and the droplets will glow like a million tiny lights. Photo: Juniper tree to the left, piñon to the right and foreground.



Piñon Trees
The piñon (pronounced “pin-yon”) is a slow-growing, two-needled pine that at maturity seldom exceeds thirty feet in height. After sixty years, a piñon might be only six to seven feet tall, and the trees can live long lives, some exceeding six hundred years.

The piñon is the state tree of New Mexico, and it grows wild in the high desert mountain regions of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah in native stands along with native junipers. These vast areas of the Four Corners region are referred to as piñon-juniper woodlands.

Piñon wood burns hot, has a pleasing, smoky-aromatic pine fragrance, and is a natural insect repellent when burned. 

Despite the drought tolerance of piñons, repeated years of severe drought can stress the trees and lead to an attack by an insect called the piñon ips beetle, which caused widespread piñon mortality throughout New Mexico between 2002 and 2004. Today, the bark beetle continues to be a threat to the region, and since much of the weather pattern in New Mexico is tied to the El Niño/La Niña climate cycle—the latter is associated with dry, droughty weather
throughout the state—the beetle will continue to be a threat to the state’s piñon population until there is a shift to a strong El Niño.


A bosque is a gallery forest that grows along the banks of a river, flood plain, or any watercourse. A good example of a bosque is the forest of trees that bank the Rio Grande River. Photo: Bosque in the fall, Albuquerque, New Mexico–Vanessa Ortiz.


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