Listening along the Los Alamos Highway

by Tom Tredway

If you are ever in New Mexico and driving across the Rio Grande on the steep highway from Santa Fe up to Los Alamos, you should look to your right, just as you cross the river. Sitting on a level spot on the west bank, near some shallow rapids, “where the river makes a noise,” there are three old abandoned adobe buildings, none of them much larger than fifteen or twenty feet square. At an earlier time, a narrow gauge railroad, “the Chili Line,” ran from Santa Fe up to the Colorado state line. In those now abandoned buildings at Otowi Crossing, next to a bridge that carried the tracks over the Rio Grande, once lived Edith Warner, an Angla who had come west for her health in the 1920s.

Despairing of any other way to support herself, she took a job tending whatever freight was unloaded there from the Chili Line. Some of that stuff was meant for the tribal folk who lived in the Pueblo of San Ildefonso, a small reservation about two miles to the east of Otowi Crossing. To boost her meager income, Edith Warner decided she would open a restaurant to serve the Indians and the other New Mexicans living in that valley, between the Sangre de Christo Mountains, twenty miles to the east of the Rio Grande, and the Jemez Range, ten miles to the west.

When, in the early 1940s, numbers of people, Americans and Europeans, began to move up the steep road to the high plateau above the Rio Grande, Edith Warner’s restaurant became a busier place. People knew better than to ask the newcomers about their business up in the burgeoning town of Los Alamos on top of the plateau, beneath the Jemez Mountains. It was not until the summer of 1945 that it became clear that they had come to design a weapon to end the war raging since 1939, a weapon whose fallout is still rolling over us, seven decades later.

Edith Warner’s restaurant was hospitable not only to the close-mouthed atomic scientists who came down from “the Hill,” but to the equally taciturn folk of the Pueblo. Sometimes one of the men would walk alone from San Ildefonso over to Otowi Crossing. Edith Warner’s biographer, Peggy Pond Church, writes:

With the men of the pueblo she had a different bond. Among the Indians, whose life is so organized in community, there is little individual sharing, little chance for groping thought to be expressed. Degrees of kinship determine every relationship and custom governs almost completely the meshing of men’s minds. Loneliness is something that few Pueblo Indians have learned to live with — the loneliness that every man must suffer who dares to step out of the safe framework of all that he has been taught and seek his own answers to the riddle of being human… In Edith these men found someone they could talk to. She had an intuitive understanding of their loneliness.

Reading Ms. Church’s 1959 account of Edith Warner, The House at Otowi Bridge, it struck me that the scientists from Los Alamos also must have been lonely. Maybe that was one reason they came to eat at Warner’s tiny restaurant by Otowi Crossing. Like the Indians of San Ildefonso, they found themselves straitened by determined relationships and by custom that controlled the meshing of their minds. We know that after the war many of them dared “to step out of the safe framework of all that he has been taught” and to “seek his own answers to the riddle of being human.” Their leader, Robert Oppenheimer, was declared a threat to American security because he questioned and feared the way that the science and technology, which he and his colleagues had developed, was changing human life and its prospects.

And I thought too of my adolescent friends and myself. Like the Indians of San Ildefonso and the scientists of Los Alamos, we grew up in a tight, even regulated, community. The mores and morals that governed relationships and life in the fifties at Mission Meadows or Covenant Harbor or North Park were nearly as thorough as those prevailing in San Ildefonso or up at the Manhattan Project. Even today we remember which guy from Erie, Pa., dated which girl from Anoka, Minn., and which Pastor Swanson baptized their first son, Lars-Carl, after they got married.

We still track baptisms and weddings or divorces, as well as pastoral shifts from Youngstown to Mercer Island or Des Moines. More frequently of late, we try to stay up on funerals. We certainly remember the dorm hours that controlled our own date lives, such as they were, and the rules about smoking that drove certain addicts to cross Foster Avenue to the Coffee Pot, where the waitress and a few furtive Covenanters smoked together at the counter. (Back then, even before the Surgeon General warned about it, the Bible knew smoking was bad business.)

It has been my experience that many people of our now advanced age are still seeking “our own answers to the riddle of being human.” That is not to minimize the importance or the value of the certainties that we heard and learned when we were young. And it does not depreciate one bit the steadiness of those of us who have mostly kept true to those certainties.

But it is a great boon to have friends who are willing to let “groping thought” be expressed and who will listen and respond carefully and quietly to our still fumbling efforts to figure out the human puzzle. Sometimes a single person, like the woman at Otowi Crossing, can fill that role; sometimes it’s a group. The North Park I knew in the fifties had such folk in its faculty and student body. Many of them are still friends, who seem to think that questions matter just as much as answers.

Whenever we drive over the (now four-lane) bridge at Otowi Crossing on the way to pick up our grandson from second grade up in Los Alamos, I look over at the abandoned adobe buildings sitting down to the right — where the river makes a noise — and think of the range of souls who came to the restaurant to be fed and listened to, some of them with scientific secrets and fears, some with tribal. It is no small thing to have people to go to with your doubts and questions; it may be just as important as having a platform from which to celebrate your affirmations and certainties.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

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