New Mexico Journey


(Note: Clicking on any image in this travelogue will bring up a full screen version of the image.)

Thursday, March 12: Flight to Albuquerque

I'm certain that a couple of years from now, when I go back and re-read this Blog entry, I will see it as much a story about the Great COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 as it was about a trip to New Mexico to do a couple of concerts, visit a couple of old friends, and do some Southwest sight-seeing. Which is what it was supposed to be when I started out.

Longtime friend Margaret met new friend Dave a couple of years earlier here in New Jersey, and they hit it off, and became an item. And when Margaret retired from her job as a minister, they decided to set up house together in New Mexico. So they went shopping for a house that would be suitable for holding house concerts. They found one, and shipped out to the greater Albuquerque area in early 2019. They immediately found the local folk music scene, and inaugurated the Rio Rancho House Concert Series with a concert by Bill Staines. They invited me to come out and do one for them some time. Sounded good to me. So we set a general target for March 2020. I shopped around for another gig in the general vicinity that would help make the trip pay for itself, and found the Second Saturday Community Concerts about 40 miles east of them in Edgewood. And my Grand Southwestern Tour was all set, with 2nd Saturday on Saturday the 14th, and Rio Rancho on Sunday the 15th. I'd fly out Thursday, hang out with Dave and Margaret and go sightseeing on Friday and Monday, do the gigs on the weekend, hit a local open mic on Monday evening, and fly home on the red-eye on Monday night.

It might seem a little excessive to fly 1,900 miles to play two concerts for a total of maybe 50 to 60 people. But under normal circumstances, that would more than cover my travel expenses. I'd be staying with Margaret and Dave, and they would be supplying local transportation, so I would come home in the black for the trip. No, it wouldn't be enough of a profit to pay the mortgage if I were doing it for a living. But I'm not doing it for a living, and my (10-year) mortgage was paid off in 1990. So it would be more like a paid vacation.

Well, that's the way it seemed until early in the week I was scheduled to fly. That's when the gravity of the COVID-19 situation started to actually sink in to me, and to the rest of the country. Until then, it was just news about bad stuff going on across the ocean. Stuff to be ranked with people killing each other in Syria, and massive strikes in France, and widespread starvation in Yemen. Serious stuff. Tragic stuff. But stuff across the ocean. But then NEFFA got cancelled. And then South By Southwest got cancelled. And then the NBA and the NFL seasons. And Broadway went dark. And suddenly it was upon us. And in Seattle. And California was on lockdown. And New York City was wondering if they had the hospital capacity for the coming plague. And it was real. And it was here. And it was scary!!

All week I was getting news from Margaret and Dave about attendees cancelling their reservations, and the hand-washing station they were going to set up outside the front door, and stuff like that. Between the time I went to bed on Wednesday night and the time I finished breakfast on Thursday morning I had changed my mind about three times as to whether I would actually make the trip or pull the plug myself. I finally said, "WTF. Let's do it." In retrospect, it was probably the wrong decision. It wasn't the worst decision I ever made in my life. I didn't get sick. I got to hang out with Dave and Margaret. I got to see some interesting stuff out there. But the worry and the hassle put a constant damper on my enjoyment all weekend. And in the end, the actual attendance at both gigs was down to, as Jethro Burns once put it, "a crowd of nearly several."

I had been unable to find a direct flight from Newark to Albuquerque. And changing planes is particularly irksome when toting a guitar in a heavy flight case. But I did find an inexpensive flight out of JFK that would get me there and back. The down side was that the trips to and from JFK would be skirting the New York City rush hour at both ends of my journey. Bill Henderson, my usual airport chauffeur refuses to drive into New York. So I asked my friend Larry Flanigan to do it. He was game, but his car was less than fully reliable. So we arranged to ride together in my car to JFK, and he'd take it back home. My flight out departed at 7:45. So not wanting to hit the rush hour at its peak, we left around 3:30. The ride out was not too bad. Traffic was heavy, but moving for most of it, with a little bumper-to-bumper along the misnamed Whitestone Expressway. We made it in about an hour and a half. I was born and bred in that briar patch, B'rer Fox. I learned to drive in New York City traffic, and learned to drive stick by driving my first car (a 1963 VW Bus) home from the dealer in bumper to bumper traffic on the Cross Whitestone. So, while it wasn't exactly my idea of fun, I'm not intimidated by heavy traffic. I betcha it wasn't Larry's idea of fun driving back home either. Larry is a good friend indeed. Thank you, Larry.

Going through security went pretty smoothly. I had signed up for TSA Pre-Check the previous summer. Of course the security guys wanted to open up my backpack and check out the diabolical looking device that showed up in the X-ray. (My concertina.) As I left the security area, I asked the officer who inspected my backpack if I could bum a pair of latex gloves from her, and she willingly gave them. The flight was not completely full, and I had room to bring my guitar on board the plane, and stow it in the overheads. I guess people had started to cancel travel plans in significant numbers by that time. A precursor to what I was to encounter on my flight back home just three days later.


Friday, March 13: Albuquerque, and the Telephone Museum of New Mexico

010. Left to right: Ben, me, Margaret, Doc, and Dave

Margaret and Dave were the most perfect hosts. As I had a lovely guest room of my own, and a bathroom for my exclusive use right outside my bedroom door. They were solicitous of my preferences regarding food, temperature, entertainment, privacy, and other environmental conditions. The dogs, Ben (poodle) and Doc (spaniel) are loud, boisterous, and lots of fun, up to the point where they can sometimes get to be too much fun, and need to be banished. Margaret is an autoharp player and advocate (read "evangelist") and Dave is an avid intermediate mountain dulcimer player. Dave is also a geek, and therefore near and dear to my heart. He's the guy who owns, and let me play with and disassemble his original World War II German Enigma Machine about which I wrote in my August 2018 Blog entry. And being a dyed in the wool engineer at heart, I instantly fell into step with him. He asked me what sort of sights I'd like to see while I was out there, and I responded that my taste ran to techie-type attractions. He suggested, among other options, the Telephone Museum of New Mexico. Hey! Right up my alley. Let's go!

Margaret took a rain check on that trip.

Telephone Museum of New Mexico

100. The building

110. Tom, the docent. (He doesn't have to obey signs.)

120. The Great Seal

130, Old phones

140. Old phones

150. Old phones

160. Less old phones

180. 1878 New York Telephone Directory

190. Circa 1950 company switchboard

170. Even less old phones

200. Watson

210. Bell and Watson, 39 years later (Everyone had big eyebrows in 1915, it seems.)

240. Strowger Connector Switch closeup.
Click here for video.


220. Teletype

230. Strowger Connector Switches


The museum is situated in an industrial area in Albuquerque. It is located in the old Albuquerque Telephone Exchange building, built in 1907 (Photo 100). The Museum is run entirely by volunteers. Our docent, Tom (Photo 110) worked many years for AT&T in capacities ranging from lineman to various office jobs. He led us through many exhibits on three floors of the building, pretty much going through the entire history of the telephone from its invention by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to the present. In the photo, Tom is standing by a typical switchboard that might have been used in a small office during the mid 20th Century. The company operator would manually plug cables connecting one phone in the office to another, or to an outside line on request of the caller.

Photo 120: This is one of three (as I recall) enormous cast bronze seals that were inset into the floor of the headquarters of AT&T at 195 Broadway in New York City. In the original installation, it was kept bright and shiny by the shoes of the hundreds of people who walked on it every day. Now they have to polish it by hand every couple of weeks.

Photos 130, 140, & 150: Old phones in use from the late 19th Century well into the 20th Century in some rural areas of the country. They are characterized by the crank handle, used to produce a ring at the far end of the line. The voice and the ring signal were sent over the same wires. But the ringer was designed to operate at a much higher voltage than was used to carry the audio signal. Turning the crank operated a magneto that sent 90 volts down the wires, which was enough to operate the ringer. (And give a healthy jolt to any lineman working up a on pole if he hadn't taken care to isolate the portion of the line on which he was working at the time.) When the earpiece was on the hook, it threw a switch to disconnect the electrical line from the earpiece to prevent burning out the speaker coil, and connect it to the ringer instead.

Photo 160: These phones, some of them still pretty old, were used when automatic switching systems came on line. These used a dial to connect to another party, rather than asking a live operator in the local exchange to connect to the other party by name. These phones and the ones in Photos 130, 140, and 150 coexisted in the nation for many decades as automatic exchanges slowly came on line across the country.

Photo 170: Now we're into the 50s and 60s, as the country started transitioning from dial to pushbutton phones. One thing I remember from the early pushbutton phones: Each button produced a chord of two tones; one corresponding to its row on the touchpad, and another corresponding to its column. And if you pressed two buttons in one row, the tone corresponding to the column was suppressed, producing only a single tone, that of the common row. And similarly, pressing two buttons in one column would produce only the single column tone. And by judiciously pressing the appropriate pairs of buttons in sequence, you could play bits of simple tunes, like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Yankee Doodle"..

Photo 180: Yes, this was the entire New York City Telephone Directory in 1878, two years after the invention of the telephone, listing the numbers of every phone in the city on one (admittedly long) page.

Photo 190: A larger version of the switchboard shown in Photo 110. I think this one might have been one used at the telephone exchange itself, rather than with a private company.

Photo 200: Watson. This is one of a pair of adjacent dioramas, the other of which was of Alexander Graham Bell, reproducing the famous first telephone message from Bell, saying "Watson, come here. I need you." Unfortunately my photo of Bell was corrupted, and I can't display it. The story goes that Bell's message was more of practicality than of a test message. He had apparently spilled some acid from one of the batteries used to operate the system on his hand.

Photo 210: A diorama depicting a restaging of that first phone message on January 25, 1915, celebrating the stringing of the first transcontinental phone line. Reportedly, Watson replied, "I'll be there in a week." Actually the transcontinental line was opened half a year earlier on June 17, 1914.

Photo 220: Early teletype, permitting text to be transmitted over phone lines, vastly improving the speed by which news could be sent across the country, and giving birth to the wire services. From the clothing, I'd guess somewhere around 1915.

Photos 230 & 240: Strowger Selector Switch: This was the device that replaced human switchboard operators at the phone company with direct dialing from one phone to another. (What follows is an explanation for anyone born after the year 1973 or so.)

If you wanted to dial the number 5, you'd put your finger in hole number 5, and turn the dial counterclockwise until your finger hit the stop. Then you'ld remove your finger, and the dial would return to its rest position propelled by a spring. There was a cam attached to the dial inside the phone, which consisted of a disk that had bumps along its rim, one bump per each hole. Those bumps would operate a switch as the dial unwound to rest. So in the example above, 5 bumps would activate the switch, sending 5 pulses of electricity down the line. When those pulses reached the Strowger Selector Switch, it would move a contact vertically one step for each pulse. Then, the next number dialed, let's say 4, for example, would cause the switch to rotate four steps, connecting it to a unique contact for that sequence of 5, 4. A number of these Strowger Switches were daisy-chained in sequence, such that the call would be connected to a unique wire going out to somebody's home, corresponding to the entire sequence of digits in the phone number. It's more complicated than that, but that's the general gist of how it works. You can watch the switch react to the dialing of 5,4 in this video. In the demo at the Museum, each two digit pair corresponded to a particular device that made a particular noise, or did something flashy to amuse the kids who came to the exhibit. I remember as a kid I used to amuse myself by trying to create the pulses manually by tapping the button that was depressed when you hung up the phone the appropriate number of pulses in sequence. Sometimes I got it right. More often, I dialed a wrong number.)

I was fascinated by the whole experience. And Dave was in 7th heaven, having worked for AT&T for many years until it was broken up in the 80s. He and Tom had a great time talking shop. But all through the tour, the specter of COVID hovered over us like the Ghost of Christmas Future, tending to make us avoid our fellow visitors, and look over our shoulders.

We grabbed some lunch and went back to the house, where I caught up with some sleep and some correspondence. Dave and Margaret had reservations to take me to dinner at a fancy restaurant atop Sandia Peak, accessible by cable car, and well renowned in the Albuquerque area for its stunning views. But the restaurant called us up and told us they were cancelling dinner that night, purportedly because of cloudy conditions. So we dined at a very nice Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe instead. The restaurant was almost empty.


Saturday, March 14: Second Saturday Community Concerts

We didn't do much of note during the early part of the day on Saturday. I took Dave out to breakfast. (Margaret slept in.) And I think I caught up on correspondence. The Folk Project was hemming and hawing on how to cope with the oncoming corona virus issue, and we were in discussion that eventually led to our shutting down all of our operations, at least until mid April, when we'd revisit the situation and make decisions about May. Meanwhile more cancellations were coming in for the Sunday concert at Margaret and Dave's. Dave received word that the Monday Night open mic we had planned to attend had been cancelled. And I got a call from the Second Saturday folks that the opening act that evening had cancelled, leaving me to fill the time with a longer set for myself.

Second Saturday Community Concerts is not the sort of gig I would have taken if it were close to home. It is primarily an outlet for local performers, produced by the Woods End Church, and free to the public. There is a small stipend for the performers, plus a donation basket. But it was a listening room, which is important to me. And in an area where my name recognition was pretty much nonexistent, it was nice to be able to play to an attentive audience. They had an adequate sound system, and a surprisingly elaborate 3-camera video set up. The videographer post-processed the three camera feeds into a very nice edited video of my full performance, and sent it to me later. It was a creditable performance, but I am reluctant to post any of it on YouTube. One doesn't want to be seen doing a concert to a big room occupied by seven or eight people sitting around two tables.

My contact person at Second Saturday is a TSA officer in her day job. She's not on the line peering into passengers' luggage; she has graduated into the position of training such officers. And is very much under the pressure that such a job might impose these days. I needed to be at the venue by 4:30 for a light supper and sound check. Dave drove me, while Margaret stayed home to prepare the house for the following night's concert. Dave has a new Prius plug-in hybrid, and we spent some of the trip discussing the merits of that sort of vehicle for someone in his lifestyle. Most of his driving is short trips. He told me he hadn't filled the tank in over a month. (As I write this now in early April, I realize it's been a month since I've filled up as well. I simply haven't had anywhere to go these last 2 weeks.) The person bringing the food had not arrived yet. And wanting to get supper out of the way before I started attending to concert preparation, Dave and I went across the street to a Dennys, where I picked up a sandwich. Dave had volunteered as a sound tech at the Troubadour before he left New Jersey. And it was good to have an experienced set of ears who knew my material and style in the room to make suggestions to the sound man. The concert went well, and I even made a few CD sales. That was gratifying, as it's getting pretty rare these days, and the house was, as I observed earlier, very small. One woman even said she'd come to my concert the following night at Rio Rancho. (She cancelled the next day.)

Sunday, March 15: Gisewatowa Ruins, Rio Rancho House Concert, and home

I woke up Sunday morning resolved to cut my visit short, and fly home that evening instead of the following night. The open mic on Monday evening had been cancelled, and it appeared that the whole world was beginning to come apart at the seams. Who knew if the airlines would still be operating by Monday? My flight was scheduled to depart at one minute before midnight, and there would be plenty of time to make it to the airport after the concert. The airlines had waived cancellation fees in the impending crisis. I made some phone calls. Yes, there were seats available on the Sunday flight. Yes, Larry would be able to pick me up on Monday morning instead of Tuesday. OK. To quote Yul Brynner as Pharaoh, "So let it be written. So let it be done." Jet Blue told me that I would not be able to "reschedule" my existing flight. I'd have to cancel the ticket, and purchase a new one. And when I did that I found that there was an added fee for purchasing less that 24 hours in advance (No fee for cancellation. Just for purchase on short notice.) and that there were no "Economy" seats available, and I'd have to get the next level up. (Which turned out to be completely bogus, as the flight was less than half full. It wound up costing me an extra $175 for my no-fee cancellation. Pretty sleazy, there, Jet Blue. You got my $175, and paid for it with a couple of grand's worth of negative advertising.)

So, what shall we do to occupy ourselves during the first part of the day? Dave suggested a drive up Route 550 to take a look at some mountain scenery. OK, sounds good. We missed da vistas (Sounds better than it reads.) when the Sandia Peak restaurant closed. Let's see them by car.

Dave and Margaret love the area. They love the long horizons and play of color of the changing light on the distant mountains. And I can see what's to like. But no, I wouldn't want to live there. I would really miss the green. Yes, there are colors, but they're mostly variations on a theme of brown. Brown that whispers in my ear, "What are you doing here? This land is not fit for human habitation."


Desert Highways

280. Highway 550

290. Highway 550

300. Highway 550

310. Route 4

320. Route 4

330. Route 4


So we set off. Dave retraced the route we took on Friday night when we went to dinner in Santa Fe, on Highway 550. It's a wide open 4-lane that heads north out of Albuquerque. He wanted to show me the scenery I had missed in the dark on Friday. As we drove, I remarked that while it was scenic to drive through, what charm the scenery offered was not something that could be captured in a photograph. It requires the whole of one's peripheral vision to take in this particular bluff, or that specific crag, or the other far peak in its full context. I took about a dozen photos, but I think Photos 280 and 290 are pretty indicative the countryside, and any more would just be repetitive and boring. (Maybe even just those two are enough to be repetitive and boring.) I thought maybe a video would capture it better? (Video 300) Maybe a little bit. (The chattering noise you hear from time to time during the video is the camera's auto-focus reacting to objects getting closer as we drove.)

After a few miles, the road began a shallow but steady climb through a pass to a higher plain. The colors of the rock strata on either side of the road, were pretty, but again, not particularly photogenic. Dave had noted a turn-off onto Route 4 that he and Margaret had taken on the way to a musical gathering last year. He remembered that the 2-lane wound through some hillier country that might be more interesting. So we went back down the pass and turned onto Route 4. Pretty much the same. It wound through some pretty scruffy country with various scruffy dwellings along the road. A lot of the territory we drove through was Native American Reservation land. One interesting attraction was the ironic road sign that appeared around 20 seconds into Video 330. It was particularly ironic that shortly after we passed the sign, the camera caught two cars coming from the opposite direction; practically the only other vehicles we saw along Route 4..

Gisewatowa Ruins

360. Gisewatowa Ruins Welcome Center

370. The Mission

380. The Nave

390. Self-taught masonry

400. Masonry

410. Masonry

420. Contemporary Catholic Church across the road


About 20 miles up Route 4, we saw what looked like an interesting roadside attraction. There were a lot of old masonry ruins with a Visitor Center (Photo & Plaque 360) and a parking lot, so we pulled over to check it out. It turned out to be the Ancient Ruins of Gisewatowa Pueblo, a Jimez State Monument. It is what remains of Church of San Jose de los Jemez, started by the Spanish in 1621. The Pueblo (Native communal dwelling) of Giusewa on this site preceded the arrival of the Spanish by two centuries. And the Spanish built the church in a largely unsuccessful attempt to convert the natives to Christianity.

Interestingly, the first thing we came to along the path leading to the ruins was a reconstructed ceremonial structure of the original indigenous dwellers. (I don't remember what it was called.) It was a circular masonry structure about 25 feet in diameter, extending about 5 feet above the ground, and 10 feet below ground level. It was roofed over with timber and wattle with a crude ladder giving access from the ground to the top of the roof, and another ladder through an access hole in the roof to the floor. There was a fire pit below the hole in the roof, and a masonry flue outside the circle down to the floor level to provide combustion air to the fire. Signs requested that we not photograph inside the structure.

Beyond that were the ruins of a large stone church, many outbuildings, and a cemetery built by the Spanish missionaries. (Photos 370 - 410). Rather than describe them myself, I've included photos of the plaques with text about the photo where available. The labor and skill of the missionaries, unschooled in any masonry practice before their arrival on the site, is impressive. There is also a modern contemporary Catholic Church across the street from the ruins. (Photo 420).

More Sights of Interest Along Route 4

430. Soda Dam

440. Soda Dam explanation

450. Battleship Rock

We left the pueblo ruins, and continued up Route 4, until we came upon a rather unusual rock formation with a plaque describing it as a "Soda Dam". (Photos 430 and 440) The plaque gave an explanation as to how it formed, which I don't quite understand. It says it was formed by calcium carbonate deposits from a spring. Like stalactites, I guess. But the water flows under the deposits, and the formation looks like it would have been formed by water flowing over it. Maybe during periods of high water? But I should think that late March would be likely to be a high water period. Anybody who can offer an explanation, I'm keen to hear it.

After we had driven a few more miles, we came to the aptly named Battleship Rock (Photo 450).

At this point we figured it was time to head back for home.

We got some lunch on the way home. did what packing I could, and grabbed a little shut-eye before the concert. The concert went well, but to an attendance of only 11 including Dave and Margaret. It was difficult to work up a lot of energy to so small a number, particularly with the seats spaced well apart from each other. The gathering was pervaded by an underlying sense of worried anticipation about the weeks to come. Everyone seemed to realize that this might be the last gathering of people they would attend for a long time.

I felt rushed to pack. I really wasn't able to get much into the suitcase before the concert, because there was a lot of stuff I needed to use for the concert that couldn't be packed until it was over. I did several idiot checks when I was done, each of which uncovered another Item I had neglected to put away. Finally it was done, and I said my good-byes. One of the attendees who lived in Albuquerque near the airport offered to drop me off there. We reached the airport at 10:30 in plenty of time for my 11:59 flight. I needn't have rushed. There were maybe 3 other cars unloading at the terminal. And when I reached the security check, I was the only person on line.

500. Airport Security

So much for TSA Pre-Check.

The flight home was little more than half full, and I was able to stretch out full length along the three empty seats of my row, and catch a little sleep. The plane arrived a half hour early, but Larry had checked the airline, and was there to meet me. Sleep on the plane was not all that sound, so I let him do the driving on the way back home. Traffic was surprisingly manageable.

I have the feeling that these were the last gigs I'll have for a long long time.

Post Script: April 6th

Well, it's been 3 weeks since the trip, and I am showing no COVID-19 symptoms. Looks like I'm in the clear. I'm hunkered down for the long haul..