If you’re not a native, you won’t come close to the other Albuquerque: the land grants deeded centuries ago by the King of Spain to loyal subjects and then by them to others. Their descendants stayed, and many generations settled into smaller and smaller, more and more intimate semi-communal homes as their numbers grew, but the land did not.
We met Rafael as Ralph, a tour bus driver for the Herrera Company. We knew his first name because it was on a nameplate pinned to his uniform shirt. He was a wonderful driver—fast, smooth, safe, alert but always calm, good-natured. The bus he’d been given was brand new, an upgraded design, with a CD player and an engine better suited to the higher elevations and the mountain grades. Outside of Gallup, at the truck stop on I-40, the door autolocked as Ralph was standing beside it, waiting for us to return from a bathroom break. We could see the keys, sitting on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. After debating the long delay while Herrera sent out a car with a second set of keys, our guide, Karl, volunteered to climb to the roof, pry open the emergency hatch, and drop into the bus. We found a ladder somewhere—probably from one of the very amused truckers who had begun to cluster around the group at our rest stops, drawn by the ebullient women from Uzbekhistan, Turkmenistan, and other breakaway republics in the southeastern portion of the now-defunct Soviet Union. In their glittering high heeled sandals, always impeccably turned out in sundresses and exotic baggy pants and silvery tops, these women were more than comfortable buttonholing cowboys, tourist families, and truckers for questions and pictures. They chirped and clucked at Karl, and with their encouragement he scampered up the ladder onto the white-hot top of the bus, prised the hatch to its open limit—about 10 inches—and wriggled his way, feet first, into the bus. Minutes later, the door opened, and everyone applauded, even the truckers. Shortly thereafter, flush from his victory, Karl miscounted the group, and we left with our smallest, most vivacious Kazak participant still flirting with a ring of truckers, all of them hitching up their jeans over their bellies and leaning into her string of flutey talk. It took us fifteen miles to find a crossover so we could come back and get her, and when we did, she was only a little glad to see us.
When you come back down to Albuquerque on I-25, there’s a long stretch of what should be prime real estate on either side of the Interstate, a nice freeway rush-hour commute from the city, but there’s nothing there. That’s because it’s land owned by the various Pueblos, or by the feds. For an hour or more, as the sun sets and the lightning strikes the mountains on one side or the antenna towers on the other, there’s not much to see, except the periodic brilliant glow of an Indian casino complex, with its parking lots, hotel, gas station, restaurant and tourist shop.
Ralph and I were talking quietly in the front of the bus, about development along the western lands on either side of the Rio Grande River. Ralph suggested we’d like to see the area closer up, once we got in toward Albuquerque. My family has some land down there, he told me. Then he made a few calls on the cell phone, and we exited the interstate.
Turning into a walled compound past the cottonwood groves, Ralph opened the window and called out to a man and a child walking on the dusty street. They spoke Spanish to each other, and Ralph became Rafael. While the little girl waved systematically at every window of the bus, Ralph took the microphone and announced that his family had arranged a small feast for us, with dancing, but we had to promise that we wouldn’t talk about this to the Herrera people, as they might count this time as work hours and take him off shift. At that, he unpinned his nameplate, loosened his tie, and announced that he was now officially off the clock and we were his guests for the evening.
It was a memorable night. We all took turns getting driven around the land grant in Rafael’s uncle’s low-rider, a brilliantly chopped and channeled ‘40s Merc that had always been my dream car. When I told him that, it made us friends, for in America, cars mean more than almost anything else. We talked about carburetors and exhaust systems, and the question of tires. By the end of the night my hands were covered in grease and the back of my shirt was dusty from having scooted under the Merc to admire a chromed tailpipe hangar.
The others were eating and drinking at the houses of Rafael’s family, an extended clan of descendants from a conquistador of the seventeenth century. The community had long since lost its center in the hacienda and the plaza. Most of the houses were essentially similar: packed dirt floors, the earth so old and so hard that it resembled concrete, topped with rugs, often of the type you might see sold in tourist markets—Aztec warriors, stylized Puebloan and Navajo symbols, famous revolutionaries and banditos. On the walls, too, tapestries with similar motifs covered the cinderblock. The houses were low and dark in the early evening light. Windows were narrow, high under the roofline, to keep direct sunlight and its heat from entering the house during the day. Usually the houses had a single large room combining kitchen, dining area and living room, with a tv, a couch, and a couple of big chairs. Behind this was a back area, usually with two and sometimes three bedrooms and, at center, a bathroom. The bedrooms were often added on, a bit helter-skelter, as need demanded.
From the outside, the houses looked something like the low-slung pueblo compounds, like Acoma and San Ildefonso. The cinderblock had been clad in what was sometimes stucco, sometimes adobe, sometimes concrete. Often it was painted or dyed earth-brown, but the new additions tended to be gray, almost wet-looking, as they leached their newness before the final coating went on. The rooflines were flat, with desert chillers on top.
It took quite a while to assemble the entire group to leave. Rafael was reduced to honking the horn and revving the engine of the bus to get the last few hustling out of houses at some remove from our original stopping point.
Driving back to the hotel it was nearly midnight; at 6 am we’d be on the plane to Charlotte, South Carolina. Rafael had repinned his nameplate and was Ralph again, but as we headed back, he put on a CD of one of his family’s many bands, playing something close to conjunto. And we danced, illegally, in the aisle of the bus, and on our seats, as the lightning crackled along the horizon and the rains began.