Official Scenic Historic Marker Photo Tim Wong
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong
Once in a lifetime, some profoundly moving experience touches the lucky few and lets them discover what they really want in life and changes them forever. For Kuro-e, that happened many years ago on a twisty backroad in New Mexico. She had just attended a scientific meeting in Texas, and planned to spend a week driving through the Southwest to clear her mind before tackling the next round of never-ending research grant application. She left Santa Fe in early morning, taking the High Road to Taos. When her car topped a hill, a vast landscape opened in front of her, rolling pink hills polka-dotted with dark-green junipers and pinons spread out as far as eyes could see, snow-capped mountains in the background. The windshield was not wide enough for the scenery, she pulled over and stepped out of the car to take in the view. In the total silence she stood, bathed in the golden morning sunlight under a deep-blue sky, awed and speechless. There was quiet simplicity in the unpretentious austere beauty of this land. Strangely, it reminded her how she felt when viewing the famous Ryoanji rock garden in Kyoto. At that moment, she knew this was where she belonged.
Farther up the road, Kuro-e came upon a beautiful old church, its twin steeples towered over a dusty unpaved plaza. No one was in sight, except for an old dog lying in the shade watching her. Kuro-e stopped the car and walked up the steps past a weathered wooden gate to the church entrance, its heavy wooden double-door wide open. The church was empty. A short aisle flanked by 5 or 6 rows of old wooden benches led up to an equally old altar that was elaborately painted with religious figures. Old religious paintings in ornate wooden frames hung on the walls on both sides. The wooden floor planks were worn bare of paint. A crude wooden candle-chandelier in the shape of a cross hung on a frayed rope over the aisle, the only apparent source of illumination for the interior. A cast iron wood-burning stove-heater sat in a corner by the front row provided heat in the winter. Kuro-e did not know it then, that was the San José de Gracia Church at the Village of Las Trampas, built around 1760, one of the most original Spanish colonial pueblo missions.
Kuro-e took several steps onto the creaky floor towards the altar, her footsteps echoed in the empty confine. Suddenly, a teenage Hispanic girl bolted up from the front row, looking embarrassed and startling Kuro-e. The young caretaker was taking a nap on the bench! Kuro-e said hello and approached the altar to admire the old religious paintings, then paid her tribute before quietly exiting the church.
When Kuro-e stepped through the door into the sun, a handsome Hispanic man in a cowboy hat on a chestnut horse stood in the dirt plaza eyeing her. “Hola! Can I take a picture of you?” Kuro-e asked. The horseman gave a slight nod, tugged the reins lightly with one hand to turn his mount sideway, rested his other hand on his hip and turned to face Kuro-e, looking smart and proud. “Perfect!” Kuro-e snapped several pictures. “Send me one,” the horseman demanded. “Sure, what’s your address?” asked Kuro-e, fishing out a pen and a small journal from her pocket and handed them to the horseman. The man scribbled down something and leaned down to hand back the journal to Kuro-e. "Adiós!" he tipped his hat with one hand, gave his mount a nudge with his boot heels, and turned towards the road.
Before starting her car to continue the drive, Kuro-e sat watching the man and his horse clip-clopping around the curve down the road. She looked down at the journal page. The handwriting was barely legible: José, General Delivery, Chamisal Post Office, NM.”
San José de Gracia Church at Las Trampas
Pastel on paper Akiko Hirano