Four Corners, Part 3 (Towns)

While the great outdoors flavored many of our decisions across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, we also spent some time in "civilization" too. I tied to stay at least two nights in each place to create a little mental anchor. Otherwise we’d feel adrift in a vagabond existence. That offered time to explore a few towns along the way to complement amazing National Park Service properties. Nothing here should be confused with a comprehensive city guide. Sometimes we did the tourist thing and sometimes we avoided it. Twelve Mile Circle didn’t necessarily cling to conventions.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe fell along our direct route. I figured we needed to stay near its historic Plaza (map) rather than a generic chain hotel out by the highway. I don’t mind cookie-cutter hotels ordinarily. It’s just a bed. However, Santa Fe always seemed to be one of those magical places best experienced in person. We needed to nestle near the action, an obvious choice for an extraordinary location.

The Santa Fe Plaza dated back to its earliest days as a Spanish outpost at the farthest reaches of the colonial empire. Don Pedro de Peralta served as governor of New Mexico and founded Santa Fe in 1610. Consider that for a moment. At that same time England barely maintained and nearly lost a foothold on the Atlantic coast at Jamestown. Meanwhile, the Spanish pushed their domain deep into the North American interior.

Santa Fe began as a walled fort to tame New Mexico and protect the Governor’s authority. The Plaza occupied a central space within that original fort. Santa Fe remained tremendously important continuously thereafter, with roads such as the El Camino Real and Santa Fe trail terminating there. It became and remained a capital city for much of its existence, and seemed a natural choice for the capital of the U.S. state of New Mexico. Albuquerque grew larger although Santa Fe never ceded its crown.

The Plaza didn’t disappoint either. Pueblo-inspired architecture ringed the perimeter, filled with the art galleries and jewelry stores that typified Santa Fe. We didn’t buy anything. We’re cheap. I enjoyed people-watching though. A row of stalls staffed by Native Americans selling traditional crafts defined its northern edge. Buskers of all types filled the square, my favorite being the men beating drums rhythmically accompanied by chants in traditional languages as sundown approached.

Los Alamos

Bathtub Row Brewing

Los Alamos offered a complete contrast to Santa Fe. It didn’t exist on a map until the Second World War ended. Even today only twelve thousand people lived there, many associated in some manner with the nearby National Laboratory. Everything seemed sleek and modern. No patina of age appeared on buildings, streets or landscapes. We didn’t stay overnight in Los Alamos although we stopped for lunch and toured the Bradbury Science Museum. There we saw artifacts from the Manhattan Project and replicas of the atomic bombs created in Los Alamos during the war. We also saw a curiously-named byway in the heart of town, Bathtub Row (map).

The United States government needed a remote, secret location to develop its atomic bomb. New Mexico met the criteria so the government seized the campus of the Los Alamos Ranch School. The most important scientists working on the Manhattan Project occupied homes on the vacated campus that once held the school’s teachers and administrators. Everyone else — the vast preponderance of workers — lived in temporary shacks or barracks. Only the original homes contained bathtubs. Everyone else used showers. Bathtub Row became shorthand for the the street where all of the bigwigs lived.


Durango, Colorado

Durango seemed a bit of a tourist town although we enjoyed it anyway. Once again, staying at a central location at the heart of town seemed to be the best alternative for us. Most of the action lined a half-mile stretch of Main Avenue east of the Animas River (map). Imagine a stereotypical "Western" town straight out of the old movies and that pretty much described Durango’s appearance. I’m not sure what drew me there other than its proximity to Mesa Verde, not that I regretted the decision. I liked waking up early each morning for a stroll through its quiet residential neighborhoods. It seemed like a well maintained and prosperous place.

Someone will be sure to ask if we rode the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Most people seemed to come to Durango for that express purpose. Our hotel sat within walking distance of the terminal. I’ve even enjoyed tourist trains in the past (e.g., the White River Flyer in Vermont; the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad in Kentucky). Still, we didn’t do it. I think we were all at the point where we’d seen enough scenery for awhile. Our boys also needed some downtime after continuous activity all week long. Plus, I’ll be honest, the six nearby breweries and brewpubs within Durango city limits might have influenced the decision.


Denver Zoo

I’ve been to Denver more times than I can count. We stopped there so we could spend some time with friends before heading to the airport, not to see anything specific. Our kids behaved themselves so well during the trip that we wanted to do something just for them. My older son in particular loves animals. He decided awhile ago that he wanted to visit every zoo in the United States and collect a map at each one. Hmmm… I wonder where he got that compulsive need to count things and look at maps? That’s how we ended up at the Denver Zoo (map). Our friends seemed up for it so they decided to tag along. I’m not sure they expected to spend six hours viewing, literally, every animal accompanied by a full set of stream of consciousness commentary. However, that’s how my older son roles. He earned it.

Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Sandoval Exclave

A small wedge of Sandoval County, New Mexico hovers off its eastern edge, fully disembodied and totally separated from the remainder of the county. It is an orphaned exclave.

Sandoval County Map
The exclave can be seen within the red circle on the right side. SOURCE: Sandoval County website

Google Earth captures this exclave rather nicely. Roughly it’s triangular, with a right angle on the northeast corner. Santa Fe County borders the shorter leg along eastern edge while Los Alamos County borders the northern leg and its jagged hypotenuse. The Sandoval shard extends perhaps a couple of miles at its greatest length so its total area is perhaps a square mile or so if I’m recalling my junior high school geometry correctly.

Sandoval County Exclave Map
The exclave is labeled on the bottom, right. SOURCE: Google Earth screenshot

Next, let’s take a look at Los Alamos County, particularly towards the eastern edge where I’ve drawn the blue arrow. Indeed, the Sandoval exclave fits neatly into the Los Alamos gouge like a perfect piece from a geographic jigsaw puzzle.

Los Alamos County Map
SOURCE: Los Alamos County website

The border between Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties formed roughly a straight line prior to the existence of Los Alamos County. Look at the Los Alamos map again and mentally re-draw the original line along that straight portion of the eastern border (by extending it further south). Everything to the left of the line came from Sandoval County excepting the exclave which remains part of Sandoval. Everything to the right of the line came from Santa Fe County.

Los Alamos County is a recent creation as far as counties go, with its roots dating back only to 1943 and the Manhattan Project. The Federal government toiled urgently during those dark days of the Second World War, creating a nuclear arsenal in total secrecy. Military leaders needed to find a remote spot away from prying eyes but not completely without infrastructure, so they seized the Los Alamos Ranch Boys School and its surrounding land by eminent domain. Los Alamos fell under the control of the Manhattan District of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission practically overnight. It would become the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Since this was a Federal action in support of a vital military mission during wartime, the commanders in charge didn’t much consider niceties such as county boundaries or personal property. The entire site became a heavily restricted, highly classified atomic research facility for the duration of the war. A military town arose alongside the Masters’ Cottages of the former Boys School to house the scientists and researchers as they toiled on their nuclear mission. It remained a "gated community" closed to unauthorized visitors even until 1957 according to the Los Alamos Historical Society.

The Federal government loosened its grip and returned these seized lands to state control in 1949. At that point, New Mexico decided to create a new entity, Los Alamos County, rather than return the territory to its two parent counties. The town of Los Alamos became its county seat. This would provide a closer focus on the highly specialized purpose and nature of the Los Alamos laboratories and the needs of its inhabitants. As an odd byproduct, it simultaneously created the Sandoval County exclave by default, a strange leftover arising from the original Federal territorial seizure.

The existence of the Sandoval County exclave is clearly without doubt, and is recognized explicitly in the maps produced by Sandoval County itself. However, it’s less clear exactly why the exclave exists. Wouldn’t it have made as much sense, perhaps more so, for this tiny sliver of land to have become part of Los Alamos County rather than remain territorially with but distinctly detached from its parent county? Perhaps this detail from a Department of Energy map of Los Alamos, 1943-1945, provides a clue.

Los Alamos in 1943-1945 with Sandoval Exclave
SOURCE: Detail from a Department of Energy Map

There are two important points to be drawn from this map. First, the Sandoval triangle was never included within Los Alamos even at its inception in 1943. Second, it’s labeled unmistakably as a "Sacred Indian Ceremonial Land." So now things are beginning to make a little more sense: it’s associated with the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo and it holds a special meaning to them. It was handled with deference as Los Alamos rose from the mesa.

Perhaps the government concluded that separating an ancient community from its sacred land would have created a natural incentive to sneak through a security perimeter. On the other hand, I would like to hope that they kept the triangle outside of Los Alamos’ boundaries for empathetic reasons. Either way, it happened by design and took place from the beginning. Nobody expected Los Alamos to become its own county when it was seized. This was a "temporary" wartime measure.

So then, why not just append it to the county immediately to the east, Santa Fe County? I don’t know why exactly but as we’ve seen many times in Twelve Mile Circle, once a chunk of land becomes geographically isolated from its parent, the parent will continue to hold onto it if it can (for example, Carter Lake, Iowa and Kaskaskia, Illinois). While I don’t have the evidence to prove this conclusively, I do think it’s a reasonably plausible explanation. I invite rebuttals and would be happy to add a better explanation if evidence contradicts this supposition.

I also invite comments from anyone who may have visited the Sandoval exclave. Given its sacred nature I’ll respect its boundaries, so while I consider this an interesting curiosity I’m unlikely to visit it personally.