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San Jon, NM

August 22, 2010

This morning early, I was watching a documentary that I had recorded about prehistoric man’s life in the Americas. They were excavating a mammoth site and had found one small chip of worked stone-apparently from a spear point or knife. It made me remember visiting a little museum when the kids were young and we were trekking west to visit Grandma.

A trip from Ohio to New Mexico for the three of us was quite and undertaking in 1980’s. It was really important to me and to the kids that we visit Grandma Howe each summer. Thank the Lord that Louie had a life insurance policy that had given me a large enough lump sum to invest in a CD. The interest from this provided us with enough money for us to go and see Grandma every summer. She spoke no English and the only real relationship she could have with Notah and Rachael was for them to be with her physically for a few weeks. And they needed that personal presence too.

For the first few years after Louie died in 1980, sister Marjean Burrell went with me. I don’t remember how her volunteering came about, but she was certainly a blessing to me. I could not have undertaken such a long journey with two children under six without her. Oh yes, I could have driven and made plans and so forth, but for me it was important that the children be safeguarded as much as possible in the event of an accident. They had recently lost their father and for them to be stranded in the middle of the continent with their mom hospitalized or other wise was not to be contemplated. Marjean’s presence gave them that little measure of security. I don’t remember exactly how many years she went along with us. We had all kinds of fun and Marjean was a wonderful travelling companion for me and for the kids.

One year after Notah and Rachael were old enough to have developed some self confidence and independence, we began making the trip on our own, but our family in NM always asked after her and continued to do so until her death a few years ago. I don’t believe I told her that as many times as I should have over the years.

water tower

Water Tower at San Jon, NM

We always stopped here and there across the country to make the drive less boring and more like an adventure. We pulled off at strange places with unusual names and tourist traps and gas stations with rattlesnake skeletons advertized on their windows.. One year when boredom was threatening to make both kids more than a little testy, we left the interstate at a little town called San Jon, NM. Okay, the name was different but it was a random kind of choice. If nothing else it would provide some different scenery than the straight road and sage brush of the desert southwest.

As we drove down the almost deserted main street we saw very few cars or people. The interstate had, of course, bypassed the town. Although there was a ‘business loop’ provided for local people to access I-40, few of the tourists who had driven the economy of San Jon during its heyday as a stop on Route 66 bothered to stop on their way from Amarillo to Santa Rosa or Tucumcari. The drive time had been almost cut in half by the smooth straight interstate and there was no need to take any time in the little town.

We were enjoying the change as we drove through when the kids spotted a long stuccoed store front with folk art paintings of dinosaurs and mammoths and saber toothed cats as well as prehistoric vegetations. Of all the things designed to catch an eight year old’s eye a tyrannosaurus rex tops the list. And right behind him is a saber toothed tiger!

We drove by slowly, enjoying the pictures. When we came to an understated sign that said simply “Museum” there was no doubt about our stopping.

What we found inside was a wonderland of artifacts! As we walked through the door we were in a long room running along the front wall. On one side was a long counter and on the other was the front window. At first there seemed to be no one there, but the jingle of the bell soon brought a tiny little old lady. She was wearing an overly long print dress with an apron and a old fashioned sunbonnet. One of those made of cloth with a poofy crown and a wide brim that tied under the chin. Fantastic.

I’ve tried over many many years to remember her name but if I ever knew it, it has been lost in time. She welcomed us to the museum and I think it was a couple dollars a piece to visit. Then she took us into her treasure trove of bones and fossils and potsherds and photographs. To this day the huge room defies descriptions. I believe it was arranged chronologically according to her expeditions. She had worked for a couple universities in their archaeological department. I don’t know what her title was. It HAD to be something pretty prestigious for her to have been allowed to keep all of her finds! On the wall behind each of the showcases were enlarged photographs of her and others working on the various sites. Wow!

She gave us a personal tour! I think she enjoyed sharing the joy of the explorations and discoveries. And we!– We were appropriately overwhelmed, excited, impressed with each find. I can’t remember all the things to describe them. I remember a mammoth tusk and huge bones of dinosaurs that we could just walk up to and touch! There was a mammoth tooth that was like a foot stool almost. It was displayed on a stand with the lower part still embedded in the matrix as it had been found! There were potsherds all laid out and labeled as to where and when and what. There were partial pots and assembled pots. There were flint spear heads, there were bone knives; there were flint knives and arrowheads. There were fossilized trees and plants and little or not so little organisms. And the lady told us about every piece. Even better, she was patiently happy to answer the questions of a ten year old and an eight year old. It was beyond doubt the best museum tour I’ve ever been on!

We spent a large part of our day with her. By the time we left we were on, not just friendly terms, but almost family terms, with her. She asked where we were going and why and where we lived. When she found out we were from Ohio she asked if we knew of Licking County’s Flint Ridge. One of her prized possessions, kept behind the glass of the front counter, was a collection of flints from Flint Ridge. How amazing. I already knew that flint from there was traded far and wide by the early Indians. But here in her fragile shriveled hand was proof. She had found the flints at one her expedition sites! We were excited to see it there! She was excited to meet people who were actually from the area where it was mined!

We left then with fond good byes promising to stop next year. But when we went back the museum was closed. Only the murals remained as a reminder of a great old lady. We didn’t take time to stop, but hurried on to Grandma’s A few year later when we stopped for gas in San Jon I asked the older man there what had happened with the museum, He thought a bit and then said when she had passed away and all of her things had been given to the University of …?… I can’t remember what.

If you ever travel I-40 from Amarillo, Texas, to Albuquerque, NM Watch for San Jon right after you cross the TX/NM state line. Watch carefully because there is only one exit and it isn’t well marked. Get off and drive down through the desolateness that is now San Jon. Remember this tiny fragile little old lady and take a minute to regret the passing of her and those like her. It’s a loss to our fast paced world.


San Jon today

I wonder if we know what we’ve lost!

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