Literary arts

Book reviews: Learning from the past

Along the big river and off the beaten tract


The focus of this week’s books is on history. The first uses vintage images and essays to document the Río Grande while the second entices hikers to reach interesting historic sites.

Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande

“The Río Grande, alternately life giving and dangerous, tranquil and turbulent, has shaped the lives of the people who came to settle by her side.” So writes editor Melissa Savage in this book’s introduction.

Savage says the images that noted photographer Laura Gilpin took of the Río Grande and its people during the 1940s inspired her to undertake this project. Then she found the works of Wilbur Dudley Smithers, who photographed Hispanic and cowboy cultures in Texas, and photographs taken by others in the archives of various institutions.

The book is arranged in what Savage calls photographic bundles: “Crossings,” “Cultivation,” “Flooding,” “Los Insurrectos,” “Big Bend” and “River’s End.” Each contains an essay.

In his introductory essay, William deBuys, a conservationist and author who lives in El Valle, writes about the history and politics that have come into play for such an important source of water in the Southwest.

“It creates a narrow green corridor, 1,900 miles long, where life springs forth amid desert and near desert, including the life of human communities that have gathered on its banks from the depths of time.”

Other writers include: the late Rina Swentzell, of Santa Clara Pueblo; the late Juan Estevan Arellano, from Embudo; and Estella Leopold, a scientist and conservationist. (One photograph features her famous father, conservationist Aldo Leopold, pulling a flat-bottomed boat.)

The essays are thoughtful and well written, but the stars of this book are the vintage 81 duotone photographs artfully displayed on heavy glossy stock. Most were shot in the first half of the 20th century, although there are some from the late 19th century.

And fortunately, Savage offers generous captions for each. Here’s one for Dudley’s 1920 portrait of Jim McMahon as he carries a slew of pelts: “A notorious character who haunted the canyons of Big Bend, Jim McMahon started out as a Texas Ranger, guarding the surveyors who were establishing the International Boundary. Then, for years, he spent winters in the canyons trapping beavers and other furbearers and summers fishing for catfish and Turtles. The story was that McMahon was uniquely safe from Native Americans, who feared his albino features.”

Savage, a geographer and conservationist, is the director of the Four Corners Institute in Santa Fe.

“Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande” is a 123-page book published by the University of New Mexico Press in its “Querencias Series.” It costs $29.95.

Hiking to History: A Guide to Off-Road New Mexico Historic Sites

This guide is not so much for the nature buff, but the history buff fit enough to hike to places that have an interesting past.

Author Robert Julyan writes, “I’ve always felt that history is best experienced on foot, if for no other reason than that was usually how it was made.”

So Julyan takes readers on a jaunt to 22 historic sites around the state — sometimes accompanied by his three dogs or a human companion.

He created the list from his own interests as well as suggestions from friends. He purposely avoided archaeological sites and any spots not open to the public.

Each chapter offers a history lesson, plus sources to learn more. And to keep hikers from getting lost, he gives directions, plus GPS coordinates.

Some are well-known historic spots. Others aren’t.

Among the destinations are: the site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, aka “the Gettysburg of the West”; a hermit’s caves; and where Smokey Bear was discovered clinging to a charred tree in the Capitan Mountains.

For Taos-centric people, Julyan includes two hikes. One is to Mount Walter in the Sangre de Cristos, which at 13,141 feet is the second highest in the state.

Then Julyan finds the spot where that wagon of Ernest L. Blumenschein and Bert Phillips — among the founders of the Taos Society of Artists — famously broke its wheel in 1898 on what is now Carson National Forest land.

Julyan’s friendly writing style makes this book a fun read for the armchair hiker or the actual one who wants to find an interesting place to explore. An Albuquerque resident, he is the author of several books.

“Hiking to History” is a 209-page paperback published by the University of New Mexico Press. It costs $24.95.

Livingston is a writer and reader living in Ranchos de Taos. For more information, visit