The little river with the big history.
Visitors to the Taos area readily find their way to the area highlights – Taos plaza, the much-photographed St. Francis de Asis Church at Ranchos de Taos, the breathtaking Rio Grande Gorge, and the Pueblo. These markers offer newcomers a glimpse of the ancient history of the Taos area, but there are other ways to know the place. Make friends with a river – meet the Rio Pueblo.
The Rio Pueblo is not much of a river as rivers go, especially compared to the Rio Grande y Bravo, the 1,800-mile long river that it pours into. From start to finish it is only about 20 miles, but it is a mighty river indeed, for it not only carries water to thirsty fields but it carries the hopes and dreams and stories of several cultures over a great period of time. It is the key to understanding the place.
Walk the land and listen to the rush of water, hear the frogs and red-winged blackbirds in the wetlands, hike the old road where the Rio Pueblo meets the Rio Grande. Follow the lay of the land, the bed of the river. Consider the immense Rockies, starting way up in Canada, like a long backbone of the continent.Think of Blue Lake, source of the Rio Pueblo, as the turquoise eye at the southern end of this long serpent in the Sangre de Cristos. Imagine the Rio Grande, spawned in the great mountains of southern Colorado near Creede. Follow its course to the Gulf of Mexico. It still gets there in spite of over-allocated waters.
The Rio Pueblo is birthed in secret, high in the forested watershed of its mother Blue Lake. It lies at the foot of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain and is deeply sacred to the people of Taos Pueblo. They still maintain their autumn pilgrimage to Blue Lake, but the respect paid to water is reflected in other rituals as well. Witness koshares, the sacred clowns, throwing people into the river on San Geronimo Day. More tenderly, they touch the water to an infant’s head. The water in the protected watershed is so clean they can drink from it as it flows through Taos Pueblo. From birth, when newborns are dunked in the Rio Pueblo, to death, the water of the Rio Pueblo blesses their lives.
The ability of the Pueblo people to maintain this way of life is the result of a long struggle to regain the watershed after it was taken in 1906. The struggle for Blue Lake pitted the Pueblo people against the federal government and conservationist president Teddy Roosevelt, who gave the entire 48,000-acre watershed to the American public as part of the Carson National Forest.
For 64 years, the Pueblo persisted until at last, with the help of spiritual leaders, politicos, lawyers, Anglo activists and Richard Milhouse Nixon, House Bill 471 gave them trust title to the land. There was great rejoicing on that day in December of 1970 when the law reaffirmed not only their claim to the land, but their identity as Pueblo people.
Having reclaimed their sacred spot on the earth, the Pueblo guards it carefully. The entire watershed is for their exclusive use and they feel strongly about keeping it private.
To any thinking, feeling human being here in New Mexico, water is much more than just H20. Agua es vida, necessary for all life. When the Spanish arrived more than 400 years ago, they had their priorities: build a church; dig a ditch. Spanish colonial farms grew up along the little Rio after it left the Pueblo.
In many ways, however life remains the same for these land-based people. Here, the northern Rio Grande watershed acequias, or ditches, offer a look at an irrigation system that is political, religious, social, economic and agricultural – the fabric of life itself. Acequia engineering is ingenious; what’s more, as one of the nation’s oldest democratic systems, they still function.
Shareholders on the ditch, or parciantes, follow the traditional rules for water sharing. There are, of course, social motivations for doing so. Still, it is easy to see why some parciantes are tempted to schedule elective surgeries or pay someone else to work during ditch-cleaning time. It’s hard work that bonds you to your neighbors; better to get your shovel and put your back to it.
Though many acequias have fallen into disrepair, disregard, or modern times, there are 22 remaining ditch associations on the Rio Pueblo, nearly half of those in the Taos Valley Acequia Association.
A good way to follow the Rio, once it leaves Pueblo lands, is to walk the half mile section along Upper Ranchitos, starting at Paseo del Pueblo across from the Laughing Horse Inn. lt’s a lovely walk along the stream under huge old cottonwoods. Look for the headgates on the river. Continue walking or driving along parts of the Rio Pueblo through the Ranchitos area, where the water flows through fields and pastures. A picnic on the bridge along the Rio at the historic Martinez Hacienda is a fine idea; here you can enjoy the mountains and the river while you learn more about Taos culture and history.
Past here are mostly green pastures until the river flows into deep-walled, ancient dark canyons and drops further into a spectacular gorge where it pours into the Rio Grande near the Junction Bridge.
This part is easily accessible. It was the old back road to Carson that slid into the Rio Grande about 10 years ago and was abandoned. It makes a great walk of less than two miles. To find it, go south 1.7 miles from the St. Francis Church in Ranchos Plaza on road 68 to 570 and go right. Here, head west 4.7 miles to the dead end, passing UNM campus and the entrance to the Taos Country Club. At the end is a road block, and beyond, the old road leads down through ancient rock walls. Look over the edge; you will see an old car whose owner is still alive, even though her brakes failed. She jumped out and was rescued when her Carson neighbors happened along.
This walk is breathtaking in winter with snow swirling silently through the canyon, or in summer with bird song echoing throughout. There are good fishing holes, boulders to sun on and secret places to look for magic rocks. After a mile or so, over the rock slide, there’s another road block. Past here, jog right through the sagebrush on one of the paths. There it is: the Rio Grande coming toward you around the bend, sometimes bottle green with snowmelt or glossy gray, the water smooth for a section, as if holding its breath, momentarily waiting for its wild embrace with the Rio Pueblo. Down further you can watch those crazy kids jump off the Junction Bridge on hot summer days.
Here the Rio Grande moves on, supplying water for rafters and farmers, silvery minnows, and German browns. It is not a bad thing to slosh some water on your own skull, too, acknowledging that water is part and parcel of our own blood, as well as the lifeblood of the land. Pray the river stays wet and that it continues to find its way toward the sea. lt shapes our stories and our lives and helps us find our place, in the middle of the land.
Michelle Potter is a doctoral candidate at UNM studying issues of land, water and culture in northern New Mexico when she’s not in the water.
This article appeared in the 2001 issue of HighCountry.