This week I’ve been reading a forgotten travel book. It’s called Enchanted Sand: A New-Mexican Pilgrimage, and it’s a wonderful read. It’s by an Englishman called D.J. Hall: according to his own account he was a lawyer, and in 1929, fed up and suffering from stress, he decided to leave his job temporarily and go to find an ‘outdoor life’ in the USA.
So he goes off with his wife Henrietta, and through some casual contacts they get a job for the winter, looking after a half-deserted ranch in New Mexico. The place is filthy, there are no facilities of any kind, and it turns out they’re expected to cook for a bunch of casually-employed Mexican farm workers. Their employer, an absentee and clearly a crook, never pays them.
They survive a few months and then move on to a better job, this time looking after an empty ranch house in the mountains. They get to know the local Indian community (I’ll return to the word Indian later) and when that job too comes to an end they don’t leave, they simply go to the pueblo and move in with an Indian friend.
Basically they ‘go native’, and before long white American visitors are assuming that they are Indians. They learn how to make indigenous-style pottery, form close relationships with their neighbours, and Hall is at last invited to spend some time in the Kiva, the sacred sanctuary entered through the roof into which almost no white man has been allowed.
Finally Hall and his wife have to go back home, but they do it the hard way. They buy a second-hand Buick and drive all the way across the Painted Desert and the Mojave Desert on old trails, semi-obliterated by dust storms and drifting sand, all the way to Los Angeles. They even make a detour to Monument Valley – background, with its uncanny, huge red stone mesas, to so many western movies – and decide, fortunately, not to drive through Death Valley, where they certainly would have died.
Red Rocks, New Mexico
They are, of course, completely crazy: the car repeatedly gets stuck up to its axles in sand; the radiator leaks (they had just two thermos flasks with them in which to carry water, so no spare for the car) and they get lost many times. They fix a cracked distributor head by coating it with vaseline. When the tyres puncture, they just pump them up again. And they make it to Los Angeles.
The whole book gives an amazing picture of New Mexico and the American south-west at a time when few white Americans were around; when Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque were just ramshackle collections of buildings in the middle of the desert with hardly a driveable road in or out. People are still carrying guns; they still travel by ‘stage’ (stage coach, I can only assume). There are isolated trading posts. Indians loom up out of nowhere in the desert on horseback.
‘Indians’, yes: Hall uses the word, and I use it because I’m told a recent survey of indigenous Americans found that it is, by a majority, the term they prefer. And it’s conveniently close to the Spanish indios, which is unversally used.
Enchanted Sand is a wonderful book, and finely written. I tried to find some stand-out passages of great writing to quote, but it doesn’t really work like that. It just goes on quietly from one thing to another and the effect is cumulative. I was completely gripped after the first couple of chapters. I don’t know who Hall was, I don’t know if what he tells us is ‘true’, through there are some photographs to back up some of it. But he wrote a great book, and someone really should reissue it. Quite apart from its historical value, I think it’s a classic of travel writing.
Still, I’ll try a couple of extracts. Here’s Hall; on sand:
‘Just sand,’ you say. No, it is more than that, a gargantuan palette. A loveliness of shifting hills and mountains, mesas whose colours are as fickle as they are beautiful. One moment they are orange and red; a cloud comes and they are dove-grey and gold. The cloud passes, and they have forgotten what they were before. Giant buttes, barring the trail, open to let you pass. The horizon, with its endless processions of seemingly ephemeral masses, beckons. But as you are drawn onwards, the earth spills over into space. There is permanence but no solidity, strength but no cruelty. it is as fluid as the sea, coloured like a rainbow, vaporous as a dream.
By contrast, here are Hall and his wife arriving at their first place of work:
We opened the mosquito door to the south porch. The floor was strewn with cabbages and rotten fruit mingled with dirt. A refuse-pail stood in a corner, though unnecessarily since most of the refuse was on the floor. The flies buzzed happily around a side of beef hanging in the meat-safe with the door ajar; there was a warm smell of decay. Beyond, were two rooms – on the left the kitchen and general eating-room for the ranch-hands, on the right our bedroom. That was all.
I left Henrietta for a moment and went into the kitchen. The sound of heavy breathing came from a broken camp-bed, on which, in a medley of pots and pans, lay a bearded creature fast asleep. A long table was piled with the debris of many meals, and in the corner was a rusty sheet-iron stove, the floor covered with grease-spots and filth. A tin of tomatoes had been upset, and the steady drip of the red juice harmonized with the breathing.
You just want to read on! Checking the British Library catalogue, I find that D.J. Hall, born 1903, wrote three or four other travel books and evidently some poetry, and was probably still alive in the early 1970s. That’s all I’ve been able to learn. If you know more, please tell me!