Out on La Otra Banda there is no water – no lakes, no rivers, no creeks and no springs. The closest water is several hundred feet down, beneath the basalt bedrock that blankets the entire plateau. The water has always been elusive.
Water does come on occasion, in brief torrents dropping from silver-tipped clouds that just as quickly pass on to the east over the lip of the Sangre de Cristos. More often than not it teases from the clouds as wisps of gray virga that evaporates hundreds of feet above the ground. It is not hyperbole to compare a virga to a broken promise.
But what did fall the homesteaders tried to snatch.
In the arroyos that line the face of Cerro Montoso or “timber mountain,” they constructed dams of interlocking ponderosa logs shaped like a series of cribs. Then they filled the cribs with soil and heaps of busted-up three million-year-old basalt and rhyolite. The land leaks, however. The water seeped through the fractured bedrock and disappeared, like the virga.
Standing over the remains of one of these cribbed dams it becomes apparent that the people who once lived here are as ephemeral as the water. They always were.
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument sprawls over more than 310,500 acres of northern New Mexico between Taos and the Colorado border. This is a truly wild land of rolling grasslands and sagebrush mesas interspersed with the forested slopes of volcanic domes and cones that harbor vast herds of pronghorn and elk. Bisecting the monument, the blue-green ribbon of the Rio Grande cuts hundreds of feet through the volcanic flows, forming a stunning gorge that hosts golden and bald eagles, several species of hawks and a river popping with trout.
It is a wild land and, as far as people go, it is empty. And yet for a brief and forgotten twenty years in the period after World War I a little community flourished in the shadows of Montoso on the west side of the gorge – La Otra Banda.
It is a short hike up. From the top of Montoso, Taos is barely visible. Forests of piñon and juniper edge the sagebrush in a crenulated ribbon. The one rough Bureau of Land Management (BLM) access road winds its way north. Several turkey vultures pick up the thermals and rise in circles over the remains of what was once the home of Dorr K. Smith and his family.
For centuries the area had been used for nothing more than sheep grazing. So when several newcomers, most veterans of the war, showed up and began filing land patents and erecting fences under the guise of the 1862 Homesteading Act, local families grew nervous.
But there was a reason that land had generally remained empty. As local Hispanics and Native Americans knew, not only was there a severe shortage of water but the local climate – long bitterly cold winters, springtime full of relentless winds and dry, hot summers – made the area wholly unsuitable for farming. Quickly the homesteaders gave up growing anything but beets and potatoes and they turned to harvesting timber along the slopes of the cerros, hauling the logs by wagon to Taos or Antonito, CO.
And then there was moonshine. Prohibition was in full swing, but that didn’t stop Americans from drinking, and the remote Montoso community made use of being somewhat off the map. They brewed beer for themselves while the moonshine went north to Colorado. There were some takers in Taos, too, and stories still drip out now and again of jugs hidden in firewood deliveries to the plaza.
The Montoso community was part of a larger cultural story dressing the landscape and dating back at least 12,000 years. A surprising variety of ethnic groups passed through the Taos Plateau through the millennia, leaving behind an extensive legacy of pit houses, tools, projectile points, hunting camps, potsherds and villages. Just a few years ago BLM archaeologists found several large and intact 800-year-old jars in a cut in the rock near a frequently used trailhead. The people of Taos and Picuris Pueblo have been here for perhaps 1000 years.
Petroglyphs are ubiquitous in the national monument. It seems that every culture that came through here left their mark pecked into tough, black igneous rock. They are beautiful and dramatic, drawing the landscape- wanderer deep into the past.
The Utes came down from the Shining Mountains in Colorado to hunt and trade across the plateau, and at one point, the Comanche came up off the Plains and for a time became frequent visitors. Most of the Comanche glyphs are faint and challenging to find. But once you adjust your eye to the subtle forms, you recognize scenes from what archaeologists call the Horse Culture Tradition. These are raiding and battle scenes, lances, shields, a mountain lion and tipis. This tradition dates to the 1700s when what has come to be understood as the Comanche Empire stretched from the Llano Estacado of west Texas well into the upper Rio Grande region.
And crosses. There are crosses everywhere. At first you might think they all date from at least the time of the Spanish, but they are difficult to date and the cross as a symbol is universal. Many of them are presumably pre- Colombian.
The BLM doesn’t reveal the location of the petroglyphs, and local volunteers regularly scour the landscape to record these sites. Part of the reason for the secrecy is to preserve the ability of the wanderer to make their own discoveries. Then there is protection. Messing with these treasures is illegal, and folks are prosecuted for disturbing cultural sites on the land.
The Ute are gone. The Comanche are gone. The ones who came before them are gone too. Ephemeral visitors, like the water.
Eventually, Montoso grew large enough to host a little school with an on-site teacher. The Smith family joined with the other homesteaders to construct concrete-lined cisterns to collect the scant rainfall. But it wasn’t enough. Water was laboriously trucked from the river in metal barrels. Several Hispanic families also set up seasonal settlements among the cerros. Moonshine still went by way of wagon and eventually Model T to the train station in Tres Piedras or Antonito to be shipped further north.
But it wasn’t to last. Relations with the local population were often tense. Relations with the land even more so.
The Montoso families began to trickle away by the late 1920s. Dorr K. and Vera Smith left with their small daughter in 1933. Bootlegging wasn’t as lucrative as it had been before the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Several very harsh winters in a row blanketed La Otra Banda and by 1938 the drip, drip of departing Anglo homesteaders was complete. The land began the slow process of reclaiming what has always belonged to the land.
— Jim O’Donnell