Cover Stories

2022 Writing Contest Winners

Essays consider New Mexico’s land, water and sky

I was in the midst of re-reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert (the revised 2015 edition) when it came time to choose a theme for this year’s nonfiction writing contest. Kolbert takes the reader on vivid journeys to places around the globe—Shishmaref, Alaska; Reykjavik, Iceland; Burlington, Vermont, to name a few—to report on climate change and its visible impacts. “This is a book about watching the world change,” Kolbert writes in her introduction. In the final chapter, she considers the unpredictability of climate change, with human reaction being the least predictable facet of all: “Luck and resourcefulness are, of course, essential human qualities,” she notes. “People are always imagining new ways to live, and then figuring out ways to remake the world to suit what they’ve imagined.”

Summer had ended by the time this year’s writing contest launched, but the devastation wrought by the unprecedented wildfire season continues, impacting land, wildlife, water and people. With this in mind, we asked entrants to write about the natural environment in places they know. The dozens of essays and stories that emerged also took place in myriad locales—from Alaska to California to Wisconsin to New Mexico. Some also relayed catastrophes close and far from home. The summer’s fires—the smoke, the flames, the pyrocumulus clouds—appeared in several essays, along with hurricanes, droughts and coyotes. Choosing this year’s winners was difficult, as so many writers demonstrated deep passion and knowledge for the places they called home.

The three winning essays—all about New Mexico—certainly demonstrated passion and knowledge, but also queried eternality while considering facets of the natural environment. First-place winner Susan Griego writes not just of her own connection to New Mexico’s soil, but her ancestors’ connection as well, as she tells the story of her family’s annual trip from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to buy tennis shoes for the coming school year when she was a child:

“I remember driving there in a construction pickup truck, often sitting in the back, and the sandy wind stinging my face. On the way there, the dirt would change from the dirt that would eventually stain my Keds rust colored. Once we crested La Bajada hill, the dirt would expand into the mesas of Cochiti and the valleys of Santo Domingo into hues of gold, highlighting the backdrop of sage green and purple mesas…I imagine my ancestors being forced to sit in hard wood chairs separating them from the connection they had with the dirt. Their long hair anchoring them and giving definition to their faces. I see them clearly in my mind’s eye, blank stares and grinding teeth acquiescing to the demands of those who tried to conform them. They often used the dirt as yellow, orange and white clay markings on their skin to claim a peaceful resolve.”

In “La Salina,” Tamra Hays also takes a long view when considering the ancient salt lakes in the Estancia Valley: “If you were a raven,” Hays writes, “you would be able to fly out over the land and see the arroyos that carry water from the mountain to the basin, the same drainages that once carried enough water to fill the lake.” The isolated lake’s history is so distant as to be almost unimaginable, but also provides Hays a glimpse perhaps of our own hotter and drier future.

Kevin McCullough also considers the past and future as he takes the reader through his own personal journey with a portion of the Rio Grande, near Pilar. He knows the river will change—as it already has. And yet, he writes: “I can stay. I can learn. At least for now, I can always go back.”

—Julia Goldberg

Read the fiction winners here.

First Place

La Tierra de Nuevo Mexico

By Susan Griego

When I was about six years old and entered the first grade, I got a pair of white Keds. In Santa Fe, we didn’t call them sneakers. They were called tennis shoes even though I didn’t play tennis. Playing tennis was for people who had money. Every year, I would get a new pair of tennis shoes that would weather the year with me. I couldn’t wait for those tennis shoes. By mid-August my mom would have saved up enough money to get my sisters and me our shoes for the school year. We’d drive to Albuquerque to get our shoes. I remember driving there in a construction pickup truck, often sitting in the back, and the sandy wind stinging my face. On the way there, the dirt would change from the dirt that would eventually stain my Keds rust colored. Once we crested La Bajada hill, the dirt would expand into the mesas of Cochiti and the valleys of Santo Domingo into hues of gold, highlighting the backdrop of sage green and purple mesas.

The gently sloped arid terrain supports the unique dirt of this region. The dirt in this area is called Penistaja. It is a word for the sand and shale dirt that spans Sandoval and Cibola counties. This kind of dirt defines New Mexico because it thrives on mesas, cuestas and bajadas. Penistaja is a Navajo word for “forced to sit.” I imagine my ancestors being forced to sit in hard wood chairs separating them from the connection they had with the dirt. Their long hair anchoring them and giving definition to their faces. I see them clearly in my mind’s eye, blank stares and grinding teeth acquiescing to the demands of those who tried to conform them. They often used the dirt as yellow, orange and white clay markings on their skin to claim a peaceful resolve. The Natives of this land used Penistaja to graze their cows because the fertile land produces the wheatgrass and rice grass that cattle still favor to this day. The hard clay also gave creative function, as the pliable clay was used to form functional pots, after being smeared over straw baskets and left to dry in the desert heat.

In winter’s craze, the dirt is red underneath the mounding snow. The Hagerman soil of Santa Fe County is a fine sandy loam that can support the moisture of the winter months. The dirt is gritty and puddles fast. When walking home from school in puddled ice, my tennis shoes always held enough moisture to freeze over. When I was not careful and stepped in the thawing mud, my tennis shoes would turn brownish red, like the clay in the arroyos I walked in. On winter days, I didn’t like my tennis shoes. No matter how hard I tried, they would always get wet and freeze over, my toes turning blue and other days bright red. The walk was always farther than my shoes could handle but they always thawed by morning when the walk to school on crunchy crispy snowy red dirt was somehow easier, albeit colder than the icy melt. The dirt in this area is hardy and adapts to extreme temperatures, lending enough support to the ubiquitous piñon and juniper trees.

The trees that flank the National Historic Landmark, El Santuario de Chimayó, provide a welcome reprieve for the thousands of people who walk to the site every year. Here the holy dirt of the area provides healing powers to believers who trek to the site every Good Friday. This dirt resonates with the canyons and backslopes of the area’s granite substructures. Even though the dirt is profuse in this Holy land, it doesn’t extend far beyond the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. By the time I was old enough to walk to Chimayó, the worn edges and holes in my tennis shoes kept me from attempting the spring pilgrimage because of embarrassment. I couldn’t wait for summer to begin so I could go barefoot and not have to wear my worn-out Keds.

Once the sweltered dust conformed to rust in the gently powdered summer’s haze, my desire to run amok in the streams and aspen groves of the mountain basin took hold. The Santa Fe series dirt in the mountains collects where heavily sloped areas sustain soils that are well-drained. This dirt is composed of particles that have been slowly transported down steep terrain and in the water’s mirth, the large particles sparkle under the high sun. This metamorphic schist would grind deeply in and around my feet and buff my skin smooth. Walking in the mountain streams with my tennis shoes on provided a well needed washing to my Keds and protected my feet from jagged granite edges not worn to silty alluvium clay.

Aside from my Native American heritage, the dirt of New Mexico resonates with my duo culture too. I can imagine my Spanish ancestors finding kinship with the varied earth, the soft polvo blowing like fine mist through the clouds. My Hispanic roots have declared codependence with la tierra. This kinship is spoken in the way my people use the dirt. As a young girl, I remember making dirt rectangles and squares and laying them out to dry against my grandmother’s adobe house. My grandmother’s adobe house is made of this dirt. Painstakingly mixed with straw, forming and laying each brick out to dry. Many of the bricks still show her curved palms on the century-old structure.

There are other types of dirt in New Mexico too. Caliche forms from lime or calcium carbonate deposits and covers much of the Desert Southwest. The marbled white and pink rock forms many of the backdrops of New Mexico sunsets and is functional as a cement additive or hard substrate on its own. Another hard type of dirt is the pink sandstone that formed the famous natural landmark, Camel Rock. I spent a handful of my father’s birthdays at that landmark taking pictures for posterity and sliding down the smooth edges of the camel’s back using the slick worn soles of my tennis shoes for a better ride. Now the landmark is protected by fencing to keep climbing children from degrading the sandstone.

The best part of the dirt in New Mexico is that it is varied like the people who live here. Regardless of the kind of dirt, either Penistaja, Hagerman, pink sandstone, or the hard sedimentary rock caliche, dirt represents who we are as New Mexicans. Dirt defines who my Native American and Hispanic ancestors were, and it defines me. My ancestors’ experiences with dirt speak to the tenacity and resilience that resonate deep within my soul. More importantly the dirt and my ancestors speak to the softness necessary to create pacts and forge alliances for the better good of society.

In this way, the varied dirt of New Mexico and the many experiences I had in my white tennis shoes helped me form a positive paradigm. My white tennis shoes weathered the storms of my young life and, even though my shoes became worn and tattered, frozen, and rust colored, they always held up to the hard life they endured. Consequently, my tennis shoes represent tenacity in the passages of time, and the dirt of New Mexico represents hope. The same kind of hope my Native American ancestors had when they forged alliances with Spaniards. In addition, the dirt of New Mexico and my shoes helped me open passageways to my past where I claimed the fortitude and spirit of my Hispanic and Native American culture. Because of this, I focus on the beauty of my homeland instead of my destitute childhood. Most importantly, la tierra de Nuevo Mexico helped me leave behind the dusty vestiges of my past that no longer serve me.

As a descendant of Donaciano Vigil, the first Hispanic Governor of New Mexico, Susan Griego enjoys writing about the diverse and rich culture of her home state of New Mexico. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has been published in health and wellness periodicals. She lives with her husband and five dogs in an off-grid cabin in the mountains of New Mexico and is currently working on her memoir.

Second Place

“La Salina”

By Tamra Hays

We enter the lake bed through a cleft in the hills and make our way down the rocky trail. This trek, organized by the Torrance County Archaeological Society, takes us to the place for which the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is named. The entry into La Salina, the Salt Lake, has made us quiet in the way great architecture makes one quiet. We can sense how ancient this place is even as we pass the ruins of a 20th century salt packing operation and see the 21st century wind farm atop a mesa 20 miles to the south.

Once in the lake bed, our group spreads out, examining the collapsed buildings of the salt works, the asphalt-lined evaporation pits, the rusty machinery once used for sacking the dried salt, a truck without paint or seats or tires beneath a collapsed shed.

I walk out onto the rotting pier, its wood salt-soaked and soft to the touch. There are a few inches of water in the lake with a thick crust of salt floating on it. The pure white crystals are large, an indication of the length of time they have been forming. I cannot resist tasting. It is delicious. I scoop the salt into a small plastic bag.

When you are driving south from Tijeras, through the piñon and juniper trees into the ponderosas and down again, there is a point, just north of Chilili where the view opens up to the Estancia Valley. There you are able to see five long white playas streaking across the landscape. On windy days, smoke-like clouds of salt and gypsum rise from the dry lakes. These are just a few of the sixty or seventy remnant lakes, part of a much larger lake that filled the entire basin. Trees and hills again obscure the view, but if you were a raven, you would be able to fly out over the land and see the arroyos that carry water from the mountain to the basin, the same drainages that once carried enough water to fill the lake. As you move away from the mountain, vegetation changes from forest to grassland. Herds of pronghorn move across the grasslands. Cattle dot the fields. Roadways straighten out, aiming in the cardinal directions rather than following the contours of the foothills like the roads in the old Spanish villages nestled close to the mountain.

On Google Earth, the salt lakes are a feathery smudge of white at the edge of a high plateau that runs along the mountains. It is brown and barren, a place that is lifted up by the movements of continents. The green places are higher in the mountains and on the plains far to the east. Green hugs tight to the arroyos that cut across the land. Clouds drift across, but rarely release their rain. From this vantage point, La Salina appears to be fragile, insignificant, as if a puff of wind could blow it away.

Near the lake, I find a small, sulfurous spring whose trickle of water streaks the sand with shades of purple, pink, and gold, reminiscent of a sunset. The only visible plants are iodine bush and tamarisk, vegetation that thrives in the salt-laden soil. The only sound is the wind.

Geological and archaeological explorations of the lake have revealed fossils from a rainier time, traces of extensive trading routes, and the ruins of ancient villages that once ringed the lake. At one time, there was abundant wildlife because of the water and abundant trade because of the the salt. Artifacts from far-off lands—parrot feathers, sea shells—have been found and catalogued. In recorded history from the Spanish era, there are accounts of armed escorts for wagon trains that made an annual trek from Galisteo to collect salt for the people who lived in and around Santa Fe. There are records of the sale of salt to silversmiths in Mexico who used it in their craft. Today, the lake is so quiet and so isolated, it is hard to imagine it as a lively center of trade. If anything, the lake provides a glimpse of a drier, hotter future, a stark, no-nonsense place.

Native American tribes that live near salt lakes have legends about Salt Woman. There are many variations, but there are also commonalities: She is of the earth; she is old. Her skin is dry and scaly. She is misunderstood, and yet, she gives and gives the salt of her body, demanding only quiet and respect in return. She accepts, but doesn’t demand, offerings.

I had never heard the story of Salt Woman and so have brought no offerings, but I leave La Salina feeling gratitude for the day and the companionship. Looking up, I realize that the trail and the cleft between the hills at the top is an arroyo, a place where water once entered the lake. The rocks beneath my boots have been carried by the water from the mountain. I spy a potshard beside the trail, surely carried in from elsewhere, and splinters of bone in a small lair among the rocks. Life endures here, part of an ecosystem centered on the salt. I ponder over these relics, but leave them where they lie. This little bag of salt, the weight of its history, its record of climate fluctuations, the knowledge of the cultures that once depended on it, that is enough to carry.

Tamra Hays is a retired teacher living in Mountainair.

Third Place

“A River Home”

By Kevin McCullough

On a tranquil section of the Rio Grande near Pilar, New Mexico, the water flows like a liquid carpet of silver. It glistens and glitters bright white as it hugs the pebbles and flows around the polished black boulders of basalt. Undulating, bubbling, and dancing, it whispers down the path of least resistance all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve learned a lot from this section of the Rio Grande. It’s where my son was conceived, not in the literal way, but through a homespun ritual of cracking a raw egg into the water to promote fertility. A few months later, my wife and I received a phone call from our adoption agency. A boy, just a toddler, was available to adopt. He learned about frogs and tadpoles, and about squeezing mud between his toes and spreading mud on his face at the river. We learned that miracles do happen.

If I could live there, I would. It has been my outdoor home in New Mexico since 1989. I walk along its banks, wade through its shallows, and swim in its deep tranquil pools. Sometimes, I have heard it from far away, but when I get close, the sound penetrates deep in my soul. Like blood flowing through my own veins and arteries, the sound of the water resonates within me at an octave I seem to have known before I was even born.

An odd thing happened when my mother and father visited this river home of mine over three decades ago. We drove down to the confluence of the Rio Pueblo and the Rio Grande in my old, beat-up Corolla and parked near the Junction Bridge. Crouching partly in the water was an old timer with very few teeth and a big well-worn cowboy hat. By God, he was panning for gold. Sometimes, I thought, the river goes out of its way to put on a show for visitors.

You might say the Rio Grande is the watery thread that has served as the timeline of some of the most important events in my life. Not that long ago, it’s where we went to help grieve my mother’s death. On that day, the stands of red willow that bend with the wind and the water were over our heads. It took an almost herculean effort to bushwack down the steep bank, past the cholla and prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, and tangled undergrowth. The water was so high that it had washed away the familiar rocky beach where my wife and I stood 15 years earlier along with our wedding guests and family to exchange vows. Instead of a whisper, the Rio Grande roared loudly. It was hard to hear myself read aloud the short poem I brought. Again, another miracle. Mom always signed her letters with X’s and O’s, an old-school valediction to represent hugs and kisses. Miraculously, in the bright, cloudless blue sky above us, high altitude jets playfully crisscrossed paths and created several enormous, almost perfect X’s in the sky. She visited our river home that day.

Not far from this spot, my son, now a teenager, was leading the way on a hike when he rounded a turn in the trail and was greeted by four massive bighorn sheep blocking the path. No less than 15 feet away from us, they snorted and stared, hardly moving at all except for lifting their heads up and down to check out our scent. We froze in place, each waiting for the other’s next move. Suddenly, unexpectedly, two of them turned, faced each other, and bucked heads, producing a sharp crack that echoed through the canyon. I don’t think two people have ever moved so quickly while jumping and sliding over giant boulders and down a steep riverbank to get away.

We are only tiny visitors in this rugged yet captivatingly beautiful ancient landscape. It was formed about 30 million years ago when the Rio Grande rift was created in a process that split the Earth’s lithosphere apart to make a gorge over 600 feet deep and a quarter mile wide in some places. Beginning in Colorado, its course extends all the way to Mexico. Over eons of time, water has flowed through the rift then as it does now, eroding the volcanic rocks to create a masterpiece of river beauty. Lined with deep ravines and watched over by timeless tree sentinels like Cottonwoods and Douglass Firs, the river environment is overflowing with many different species of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals.

It is hard to imagine this section of the Rio Grande looking any different in the future. I know climate change and its consequences like fire and drought could have a lasting impact on this riparian ecosystem. Like any home, change is inevitable. Already, the Rio Grande was dramatically changed by human hands when it was dammed as early as 1916 at Elephant Butte, and as recently as 1975 at Cochiti.

Although we don’t go as often as we used to, I’m always surprised how familiar the river is when we visit now. It reminds me of when I was younger, and I would go back home to visit my parents after having moved away for many years to the big city. No matter how long I was away, that home always felt so close, so intimate, so comfortable. But I couldn’t stay there.

The river is different.

I can stay. I can learn. At least for now, I can always go back. For me, for my family and maybe yours too, a river is home.

Kevin McCullough is a retired Santa Fe Public School teacher who loves the outdoors, cycling, writing, and working at the Santa Fe Public Library. He has lived in New Mexico for 33 years, has a wife and son and a cat named Buddha.

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