Reimaginations

by Sierra Crane-Murdoch

After we buried my grandfather behind the Falls Church and hauled the dress bags out of the attic and stacked his books into traveling trunks, my aunt, in the final throes of our archeological dig, found a sketchbook that had belonged to my great-grandfather, Donn P. Crane. The cover was marbled and brown, held together with a strip of yellowed masking tape. In the first drawing, dated March 14, 1908, an empty cradle hung from wooden rafters. In the second, a New Mexico Pueblo Indian posed with one foot forward, a hand on his hip, the other holding a bow. When I saw it, I recognized the man instantly. His charcoal portrait had hung over my grandparents' dinner table, and I had spent hours staring at it, passing childhood visits to that stale, quiet Virginia house in an imagined world made of clay dwellings and corn-husk dolls.

Before I saw the sketchbook, I had never wondered about the man's origin. I assumed my great-grandfather had dreamed him up, as he did the characters in his other drawings. He illustrated children's fantasy -- most notably the stories collected and edited by Olive Beaupre Miller in My Book House. Even before I could read, I lugged those heavy volumes from the shelf in my parents' alcove and pored over scenes of knights, monsters and forest nymphs, inventing stories from the images. But now the sketchbook held a greater allure for me, a kind of magic that fiction lacked: Here were things he really had seen. On the page opposite the Pueblo Indian, my great-grandfather had written, "Scarlet head band. Old gold shirt. Leggings -- light red … two green stripes."

When I asked my aunt about the sketchbook, she said that my great-grandfather lived in Chicago and took care of his mother until she died in 1906. Twenty-eight and deeply depressed, he saw a doctor who told him to go West -- the climate would dispel his melancholy. He boarded a train to Santa Fe, N.M., and at a stop east of the city, in Glorieta, by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, he rented a cabin. There he learned to draw.

Two summers ago, my aunt called me with another clue. She had found a photograph in a scrapbook he assembled in 1941, after a road trip to San Francisco. It depicted a man named Evon "Skeeter" Vogt standing with his wife and daughter, Barbara Mallery, on a street in Ramah, N.M. Vogt, it appeared, was the only person my great-grandfather visited en route.

I found Mallery's number in a phonebook at the Santa Fe Public Library. "I can't hear you," she said when I called. "You'll have to come over." Her house was a modest adobe with a walled yard and juniper gate. I knocked once before she opened the door. "I can't stand phones these days," she said. "If you want to take a hike with a porcupine, press one; bathe with an alligator, press four." She wore a green corduroy shirt, black pants and pink bifocals. She was 92.

She told me that her father, who had tuberculosis, moved west from Chicago on his doctor's recommendation, and in 1907 found a job with the Glorieta postmaster. At the time, New Mexico was not yet a state. Unlike the Great Plains territories, which drew settlers with promises of rain and good soil, the Desert Southwest was assuredly dry and lured its white people with other vows: That the clean air and abundant sunshine could heal the ills that medicine could not. To the plains went the farmers; to the desert, the nearly dead. Between 1900 and 1910, the population within New Mexico's eventual boundaries rose 70 percent. By 1920, tuberculosis sufferers comprised a tenth.

Mallery leafed through my great-grandfather's sketches and paused on one of the Glorieta Post Office. Vogt had worked there only a year before he partnered with the postmaster to manage a ranch. A year later, in 1909, he purchased his own sheep and eventually became one of the largest operators in the state. From the bottom of the stack I pulled another sketch, titled Our Glorieta Mansion, of a tacked-together cabin on the edge of a field. Mallery rose to the kitchen and returned with a photograph. It showed a wall tent in Glorieta, and her father slumped in a stiff wooden chair. There was a potbelly stove, books and a pair of leather shoes dangling from a hook. It was not the cabin I had hoped for. Mallery, sensing my disappointment, took me into a dim study at the back of her house. She pulled six letter bundles from a box, opening each envelope and passing me the contents. There was nothing from my great-grandfather. He hadn't even sent condolences when Vogt died.

I asked Mallery why her father never returned to Chicago. "He loved the air and the views," she said. "He was so interested in people and languages." She opened a wooden cabinet and lifted reams of ranch records onto the floor. I told her it was OK; I wouldn't find a sign of him in there. I pushed the boxes back onto their shelves, and we went to sit in the dining room.

Mallery flipped through the illustrations again, pausing on Pecos Baldy, a painting of a mountain in the Sangre de Cristo. Her eyes squinted shut. Her skin puckered beneath her nose. Her father told a story, she said, in which a prominent family invited him to a party at their hunting cabin in the mountains north of Glorieta. Vogt was treated coldly when he arrived, since he had not worn a tuxedo. Afterward, he sent for his suit from Chicago and carried it to parties in his saddlebag.

From the sketches I pulled one of a man in a tuxedo. Was this her father, I asked? Mallery studied it for a long time. "Well, he had heavy brows like that," she said.

At the very least, I thought, I could find the story behind the Pueblo Indian. Though this sketch was untitled, another, dated around the same time, depicted an adobe church with a Spanish façade and two women crossing a windy plaza. The church was, unmistakably, the Mission at San Felipe Pueblo. Pressed between Black Mesa and the Rio Grande, it had been a popular subject among Santa Fe's early painters.

I stopped first at the tribal office to ask to speak with an elder; the receptionist directed me to the senior center. There, I waited in the doorway to a cafeteria where a dozen women watched a presentation about bedbugs. The speaker paused to introduce me. "Tell her how things used to be," she said. One woman named Mary Esquivel did most of the talking. "We were poor, but things were wonderful," she said. "The peaches, the quinces, the spinach, the plums. Oh, the peaches!" She held up her hands to show me the size.

When I left, Esquivel ran after me. She wanted to know about my great-grandfather, and so I showed her the illustrations. "That's my ancestor!" she said when she came to the Pueblo Indian, and added that her grandfather had told stories about a "white gentleman" who came to stay with his family once. "I think he may have been an artist," she said, as though recalling a dream.

At the center of the pueblo, I came across a gaunt woman and her son, roasting chiles in a bed of coals. I asked for the mission, and the son pointed me toward a plaza and a church with a fresh coat of white paint. In the corner of the plaza, at the point from which my great-grandfather would have drawn the church, was a shade tree and a metal chair. I went to sit. Turning, I noticed a sign on the church's front wall: "Absolutely no sketching, picture taking, trespassing. $5,000 fine."

I've come to think of my great-grandfather as a failed offshoot of Manifest Destiny; a fly in the face of "Go West, young man"; a blow to the ego of the American-spirited. People don't write novels about those of us who go West and then return home. My great-grandfather's story is entirely unwritten; we found no journals, no letters from his years in New Mexico. The sketchbook only tells so much: He was there, and then he was not. By 1911, he had returned to Chicago, married and begun his career. Was it an unremarkable ending? It was far from a storybook one, but I would like to believe that in his going home there was no less romance.

One evening, I followed the Pecos River north into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, past hunting cabins and fishermen, and up a right fork toward Pecos Baldy, to a parking lot jammed with horse trailers and men grilling meat in Teflon skillets. I continued on foot up the ridgeline, through aspen stands and over a meadow until I could see the valley. I pulled a sketch from my pack. The valley's contours matched it exactly, but the sketch was incomplete: In the foreground, my great-grandfather had lightly penciled a figure on a horse. At times I had seen a man in the drawing, but now I saw a woman. She wore a thick dress and an elaborate hat. Her mount was faint and hardly formed, and she appeared to hang in mid-air, as though she was not real but imagined, conjured from a longing in that desert away from home. Vogt once described this longing in a letter to a friend: "Across the great silent valley of grama and chamisa comes the fresh cool pure air of morning. But how much happier I would be if I could find a girl who could fit in here. … One who could ride with me and be happy in the Great Solitude."

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a correspondent for the magazine.

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