Justin, my son, and I got up early to travel to Pena Blanca to prepare my dad's burial site. My dad was cremated and we will place his ashes at the cemetery at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Saturday. He will be placed near his grand parents, the Armijos. We also installed a small headstone which I ordered a couple of weeks ago. We stopped and picked it up. They said it weighed 150 pounds. This small man at the monument factory just bent over, picked it up, and placed it in the pickup before Justin and I could help. It took both of us to get it out of the truck and place it on a dolly and then drag it through the sand to the site.
I am going to include here a small essay I wrote about Pena Blanca about ten years ago for La Herencia Magazine.
In the summers, and sometimes at Christmas, my parents, Fermin and Dixie Baca would pack us kids off for ten days to this small and humble village to stay with “Grandma and Grandpa”. My identical twin brother Tom, and my big sister Carlota and I would travel the old highway 85 in one of Grandpa’s trusty but dilapidated trucks or cars. He worked as the supervisor for the Cochiti district of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, an agency I would serve as General Manager for a short time some 25 years later.
The ride to Peña Blanca was always an adventure to be anticipated. In the 1950's the old two lane Highway, which was to spawn I-25 some years later, was as good a ride as anything one could hope for at Disneyland. There was a particular section between Bernalillo and San Felipe that provided a stomach churning topography for any vehicle. We came to call that section “the dips”. We looked forward to it and Grandpa never let us down. He worked the accelerator just precisely enough that we were weightless at the top of the mound and then picked up g-forces at the bottom.
The next obstacle to arriving at Peña Blanca was the old Galisteo arroyo crossing. If it was dry, there was no problem. If it had been raining hard anywhere north of the crossing it was downright dangerous. I recall a three foot wall of water hurtling down the arroyo after one violent thunderstorm near La Bajada. The water ran for a day before the crossing was passable and the antiquated bridge was declared safe for a few more months. Years later a modern structure was built there and that adventure was forever removed.
A few miles further through the Santo Domingo reservation, we passed over a clattering cattle guard and were in Peña Blanca. I always remember the dogs of the village running beside us snapping at the wheels. We children were petrified the car would run over these always emaciated canines, but Grandpa never gave it a thought and the dogs gave up the chase after a hundred yards to wait for the next pursuit. The next landmark was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. We would often stop for a visit and while grandma prayed we would look at the beautiful stations of the cross painted by Fray Angelico Chavez. My grandfather and many of his family were said to have been models for these magnificent frescos.
After lunch Grandpa did office work and we kids took to the pasture next to the house that held the untamable horse Grandpa had bought for us. This was the “Arabian Horse from Hell” and we spent all of our time just trying to get close to him. Carlota was the only one who could deal with this horse. We named him “Wildy”. He lived for many years and we always loved him.
I remember one particular visit to Peña Blanca at Christmas time. The village’s La Posada celebration will live in my memory forever. The small bonfires that lighted the way cast a surrealistic glow on the procession from home to home as the Joseph and Mary sought shelter. On Christmas night, we all traveled to Santo Domingo Pueblo to watch the dances. I will never forget the dancers covered with deer hides and antlers. I stood in fear as the men of the pueblo discharged their rifles into the air. During Mass all I could think about was the day’s activities and the nonstop banquet.