BURY ME OUT ON THE PRAIRIE by Dr. Donal W. Key
In 1902, the railroad began construction of a series of trestles up Abo Canyon, the first and largest at the western base of the Manzano Mountains where the confluence of drainage enters Abo Wash on its way to the Rio Grande some twenty miles across the prairie.
Three smaller trestles on the north side of Abo Wash were put in place approaching the curve in the rail-line crossing the wash. To undertake this massive endeavor, the railroad hired some 700 men, mostly from Kansas and China. Right-of-way for the project cut through a large cattle ranch where water wells had been dug to an abundant under-ground water source.
The railroad made a deal with the rancher to set up camp on the east end of the ranch and south side of Abo Wash, very near the largest trestle. A corral, expansive enough to hold 500 mules and horses, was constructed near-by.
As the work progressed, so did the difficulties of camp life. With a little money in their pockets, and not much to do after hours, the men gambled and otherwise entertained themselves by settling disputes with force. Those who did not survive these rough encounters were buried inside the corral under the cover of darkness, so that by morning, all evidence of the graves had been thoroughly stamped out by mule and horse hooves. No record or remaining evidence exists of the number of men buried inside the corral.
At some point during construction, or shortly after the line opened to rail traffic in 1906, a family of five traveling by covered wagon got caught in a massive snow storm, taking refuge under the smaller trestle. They did not survive. Their bodies were discovered by a rail worker, and they were buried on a slight rise within the railroad right-of-way on the north side of the track, about fifty yards from where they died. Their graves were marked with natural stones and the area was fenced to preserve this family’s private cemetery, protected to this day by the railroad.
La Puerta Natural Burial Ground lies on the south side of the tracks about 500 yards to the west of the site where this family was buried over a hundred years ago. A half-mile to the south and east of La Puerta, across Abo Wash, is the location of the mule corral that became a cemetery of unmarked graves. In the spirit of the history and the choices made to honor the dead, La Puerta allows graves to be marked by natural stone or native plant, or to remain unmarked.
The setting of La Puerta is peaceful, beautiful, and historic. The Manzano Mountains rise to 10,000 feet on the northeast; Abo Wash is a short distance to the south. The two 100-foot railroad trestles that cross it are always in view, with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains coming and going at close intervals throughout the day.
The canyon is home to Bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lion, and birds both large and small. At several hundred feet of elevation, crystal clear spring water flows from inside the mountain to collect in natural rock basins, while vegetation growing on the upper banks allows a hidden and cautious approach to the stream, providing a rich wildlife meeting place. Life and death are close neighbors.
Standing in the sunlight near the stream, the mountains rising sharply a thousand feet on either side, a feeling of serenity is unavoidable. Flying through the pass from east to west, the earth drops away sharply and the expansive view ahead widens abruptly fifty miles in every direction. Being held close by nature or soaring free in the space above it causes something to awaken at the core, reaffirming how valuable each moment truly is.
JOHNNIE RAY - BURY ME OUT ON THE LONE PRAIRIE - YouTube
1.) Harvey House Museum, Belen, NM
2.) Robert Bilbry, ranch owner south of La Puerta
3.) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad
THE JOURNEY with Dr. Donal W. Key, Natural Burial New Mexico
Every individual life matters, or nothing matters at all.
In a series of writings, my intention is to share stories of an individual nature in the hope of inspiring those who read them to give value to their own unique experiences and to find meaning at that level, as well as collectively.
For thousands of years humans have struggled with making sense of their evolutionary journey. One of the major components preventing clarity of understanding has always been the brevity of time allowed for personal experience. In other words, life is too short to sort it out.
For this reason, as a species, beginning long ago we placed our trust in structures spanning longer duration. We have been taught to embrace numbers, large numbers. If a belief, a thought, a perspective can endure over a large number of years, it must hold more value than individual ones. The larger the number of people embracing a value, the greater the proof it must be so. Without a doubt, there is something to be said for deference to those collective concepts.
However, there is much to be lost if life only has value at this level. In fact, a central point has been overlooked – life is lived one life at a time, not collectively. We are not born together, we are not experiencing life the same, we die as a single life extinguished, even if we die together in some mass event.
Yes, every individual life matters, or nothing matters at all. Please read on -
It was a warm, early summer day. Dad was in the lead carrying a toy boat he made for the occasion. Mom brought up the rear, avoiding the thorny branches on either side of the narrow trail. From the right, just a little way off came the gentle sound of a stream meandering through the forest undergrowth. The trees were tall and had been racing each other to the sun above their canopy. Over the briars, Yaupon, and grape vines was an unobstructed open space where small birds flew this way and that, calling to each other and meeting up on the branches above them. The deep blue ones, Jays, and the bright red ones, Cardinals, could be seen and heard above the others. Way off, crows chattered to each other, and flew above the top of the forest to destinations higher up on Gee Mountain. Cottontail rabbits were everywhere, scurrying across the path to crouch motionless just out of reach, watching as we passed by.
We came to a small grassy clearing where the world became bright again and the hidden stream collected itself into a deep, narrow sandstone pool. Near the bottom of the pool, yellow and silver-sided perch, lazily opening and closing their gills extended their fins periodically to hold themselves in place in an invisible current.
Our farm house was a few miles south on higher ground, cleared a generation before to grow corn. The soil had already lost much of its richness and the rains didn’t come consistently. Soon my dad would be forced to take a truck-driving job in town to make ends meet. Our way of life would change and we would move from this place to a boarding-house apartment some sixty miles to the north. Another world entirely.
But, not so fast. Stay with me on Briar Branch. Here, all nature seemed to have what it needed to thrive; the sounds joyful, the setting peaceful. Life was everywhere.
Dad helped me put the boat in the pool and we followed along the bank as it slowly drifted to the far end and stopped, waiting to be carried back for another trip. As the boat moved along the surface, its shadow, clearly defined, followed along the bottom some eight feet below, passing over the fish and pebbles. Neither moved.
Over the years of my life, I have returned to that day again and again. There, walking between my parents listening to their voices – calm, natural, and expressive, as though the present moment, this present reality, would always be, would never end. I had nothing to fear.
As you know, everything changes. My mother did not stay twenty-three, and my dad did not stay twenty-nine, and in a few months, I was no longer four years old. As time moved on, Briar Branch, as I experienced that day, ceased to exist. All of that rich bottom land fell prey to the oil boom. The trees were dozed, the stream became mud-laden, and the spring that fed it dried up. Later, the land sold to a large ranch and where all that nature had been, only cows grazed on what was left of the grass. Gee Mountain turned out to be a hundred-foot-tall hill with an abrupt rock outcropping on the north side overlooking the stream below.
This may seem like a sad story, and in some ways, it is. But, what would be truly sad would be to have never experienced that day; to have that place never exist, to not know about a reality so well-balanced that everything seemed possible. What a gift my parents gave me. The gift did last a life-time.
If you are afraid, you may need to run. Know when to do so. When you run, run under briars, not into the clearing. When you are well out of reach, crouch down and watch for the danger to pass. Never run through the briars, as they will cut you. Learn to live in the middle; in the open spaces between the dense undergrowth and the top of the forest. That’s where you can truly fly and sing your own song. While at rest, if a cloud passes over, don’t panic. It may only be a small boy’s toy boat sailing on a clear day over the surface of a perfect world.
Living kinder, gentler, and better produces the greatest possibility of a finish one can feel good about.
Natural Burial New Mexico has its origins in the promotion of a kinder, gentler, and better life. We feel that concept should be extended to include all of life, all the way through to the ending.
The seminars and speaking engagements that we do are all about living well in spite of the disappointments, failures, illnesses, tragedies, unexpected events, discomfort regarding mortality, and uncertainties about the future.
We welcome the common ground within science, philosophy, psychology, spirituality, and the developments in the exploration of consciousness.
We believe in the possibility of better based on:
Opening La Puerta del Cielo
Natural Jewish Burial: A Jewish woman died in Albuquerque last week. She was not just anyone; she was a very special person with whom Abq Jew became acquainted, alas, only after her death.
When a Jew dies in Albuquerque, his or her remains are usually delivered to a local funeral home, where those remains are prepared for burial.
The funeral home usually works with a local rabbi to schedule a funeral service, and often (not always) calls in the Chevre Kaddisha (Jewish Burial Society) to wash, purify, and dress the deceased, and place him or her in a kosher casket.
The deceased is then usually transported to a local cemetery, where the funeral service is performed and the deceased is buried.
All of this is done with dignity and respect.
And all of this (except, of course, the services of the Chevre Kaddisha) costs money.
The family of the special person whom Abq Jew met last week did not have enough money to follow the "usual" procedure.
In such a case, what is the responsibility of the Albuquerque Jewish community? And how does the Albuquerque Jewish community fulfill that responsibility?
Respectful treatment and burial of the dead
is one of the greatest mitzvot.
When the family of the deceased cannot perform this mitzvah for financial reasons, the Albuquerque Jewish community - through the Jewish Federation of New Mexico - steps in.
Through the JFNM's Indigent Burial Fund, the mitzvah of
kavod hamet כּבוד המת (honoring the dead) is fulfilled.
The JFNM's kosher pine caskets are usually procured through Fathers Building Futures, a local organization that helps
ensure parents and families experiencing barriers from incarceration have the best opportunities for stability - emotionally, socially and financially.
This project has been inspired by the courageous men who have, and who will continue to, overcome obstacles in order to succeed as providers for their children and community.
And JFNM's burial plots? While Fairview Memorial Park in Albuquerque and Vista Verde Memorial Park in Rio Rancho still have some plots available for Jewish burials, there is a new alternative: La Puerta Natural Burial Ground -
a 40-acre private, serene, conservation burial site at the base of the Manzano Mountains. Fully certified by the national Green Burial Council, La Puerta's mission is to ensure low cost, environmentally sound, and respectful burial for all.
La Puerta is located about 15 miles southeast of Belen. That's about an hour's ride from downtown Albuquerque - about half an hour on I-25, a quick swing through Belen, and then onto Highway 47.
Yes, it's a bit of a schlep, but the reward for those visiting La Puerta is blue sky, beautiful mountains, acres upon acres of magnificent open fields ... and trains.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway runs through Belen and then heads southeast, crossing Highway 47 just north of the La Puerta turnoff.
The 40-car, 60-car, 80-car freight trains that move across the tranquil La Puerta horizon - silently and powerfully - only add to the serenity of the place. The trains convey continuity - a feeling that, whatever happens, we will go on.
For the very special lady Abq Jew helped bury last week - well, her family (also very special) said she would have been pleased. Which is all we can ask for.
The JFNM has been proud to assist in the proper Jewish burial of several indigent New Mexicans during the past few months. But -
The Indigent Burial Fund is almost empty.
Can you help the JFNM perform this important mitzvah?
Click here to donate to the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, and please direct a portion of your contribution to the Indigent Burial Fund.
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Some twenty years ago one of my sons gifted me with a Blue Merle Australian Shepherd puppy named Kaci for my birthday. Kaci’s mother, Katie, belonged to my son, and Kaci’s sire was a Red Heeler. Kaci was only six weeks old and a beautiful bouncing ball of fur.
Kaci began her life with me sleeping every night against the top of my head on my pillow. During the day she rode with me in the pickup truck everywhere I went. In warm weather, she loved to ride in the truck bed, running from side to side, with the wind blowing in her face. In bad weather she rode up front in the passenger’s seat, watching the road ahead without moving a muscle and a very serious look on her face. I accused her of not trusting my driving.
Kaci grew up with me at a time in my life when I sorely needed her kind of company. She and I lived in a log cabin on the side of a mountain. Our nearest neighbors were deer, elk, bear, and cougars.
On warm evenings, when the moon came up full, Kaci would lie outside the cabin and watch it slowly rise over Mt. Nebo across the valley. Watching her take it all in made me wonder what she was thinking, and I wished she could tell me.
Kaci has been gone for several years now. I still miss her and have a difficult time talking about her. Conversing with people about La Puerta Natural Burial Ground has given rise to discussions about what to do for animal companions like Kaci. In answer to that question, Natural Burial New Mexico has established a pet cemetery adjacent to La Puerta. All those we love deserve our respectful care in life and in death.
For thousands of years coyote has observed the comings and goings along the arroyos and canyons surrounding La Puerta Natural Burial Ground. He has been one of the most adaptable, cunning, and ubiquitous life forms that inhabit this diverse landscape. He has been man’s closest neighbor, unafraid to help himself to dinner at the expense of the sheep herder or rancher, and vocalizes his assessment of conditions in a very taunting and audacious manner. He has gained status in folklore, with human qualities attributed to his character by one who knows him best, the Native American.
Coyote’s flexible character, comical antics, and ability to survive those who would put an end to his kind has contributed greatly to his unabashed lifestyle amidst all the chaos and controversy around him. He dances to a unique musical expression with infectious laughter that demands an outlet.
To join Coyote in the experience of life in this landscape is to join a long journey through time surrounded by the spirit of all those who were here before and who live here now. The awareness changes us; causes us to see the world differently, and to look not only at the past, but at the present. Looking at the present through that lens forces us to consider the impact of our lives upon those who will join us in the future. It also causes us to look for ways to dialogue with all those along the endless path.
La Puerta Natural Burial Ground is a special place, dedicated to memories, myths, and transformations.
Memories: In 1933, when my father was eighteen years old, he jumped a freight train in central Texas and rode an empty box car to Mountainair, New Mexico to work in the bean harvest. In his free time, he explored the Manzano Mountains, Abo Ruins, and Abo Canyon. I remember the many stories he told me about that time when I was a boy.
Myths: Before any of the ruins were excavated and preserved there were local myths about mournful sounds produced by the winds as they passed over small openings in the buried rooms of the Ancient Ones.
Transformations: The railroad continues west, dropping into Abo Canyon on its way to California. For years this single tack caused a bottle-neck where trains moving through the canyon had to wait on each other to pass. Around 2008 a second track was built through the canyon, transforming the flow of freight moving along the line.
La Puerta lies at the base of the Manzanos where Abo Canyon empties out into the desert. The burial ground is bounded on the north by the railroad tracks and Abo Wash a short distance to the south. It is arguably one of the most peaceful places on earth. And, for me, the one place I feel closest to my father. For those reasons, it is my final resting place. Bury me out on the lone prairie, where the coyotes howl, and the wind blows free. Cowboy Ballad, 1910