Route 66: Trap at Cordova

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Martin Milner (left) and George Maharis (center) in a scene from ‘Route 66: Trap at Cordova’, which first aired on May 26, 1961. 

I have spent a lot of time driving and hiking around northern New Mexico, especially in Rio Arriba County, which takes its name from the upper waters (‘arriba’ in Spanish means ‘upper’) of the Rio Grande. Travelers through that region today will know it as the home of Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists who began to be drawn powerfully to the area in the early twentieth century. But for well over three centuries after the Spanish first arrived in what is now New Mexico, the Rio Arriba area remained largely untouched by Europeans. The land was spectacularly beautiful but poor; it was almost entirely dominated by various tribes of Pueblo Indians and considered unsafe for European settlement; and the farms of wealthy landowners and the military outposts which protected them were all located much farther south along the Rio Grande and closer to communications with Mexico and Spain. For these reasons and others, tiny villages like Cordova remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. If you go there today, you will still find it so silent and behind the times as to be positively otherworldly.

Cordova is located on a short spur of road which descends into the relatively unknown Quemado Valley, off State Route 76, which is also known as the High Road to Taos. In 1961 it became the setting for Episode 27 of Season One of the popular TV series Route 66, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, an episode you can view on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwtbEgB6zCo. Cordova has about 400 residents, most of whose families have lived in the area for centuries and use the peculiar form of 16th century Spanish specific to northern New Mexico as their native tongue. The original name of Pueblo Quemado (‘Burnt Town’) refers to an ancient Indian pueblo which had once been reduced to ruins by fire. Europeans did not fare well there, due to Indian attacks, but the place was permanently resettled by 1750 and renamed Cordova after a prominent local family. Cordova today brings in revenue from some small farms and is well known in New Mexico as the home of the ‘Cordova School’ of woodcarvers. When Martin Milner and George Maharis filmed their Route 66 episode in Cordova in 1961, the community seemed to be dying and could not get the state to provide funds for a school. Milner and Maharis (known as Todd Stiles and Buzz Murdock in the series) are taken prisoner by the villagers and forced to teach school. If you go to Cordova today, you can, like Milner and Maharis, visit the little church of San Antonio de Padua, which appears extensively in the episode. Built in 1832, it is known for its large altar screens and icons painted by José Raphael Aragon in the 1830’s. If you’re unfamiliar with New Mexican iconography of the period, you may be quite pleasantly charmed.

Carl Redin painted the Cordova church in 1934. Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1892, he emigrated to America, arriving eventually in New Mexico in 1916. He is known for his lively and colorful landscapes of the West. It is images like Redin’s, which to me are an odd combination of Realism, Modernism and rather extreme Romanticism, along with my own long familiarity with the rustic charms of the region, which make me think it would be pleasant to end one’s days in a place like Cordova, or even in Cordova itself. I know that Milner and Maharis would not be passing through town in their ’61 powder blue Corvette, but there are many other, and much more lasting reasons to draw one to Cordova than that. 

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             Carl Adolph Hjalmer Persson Redin. ‘Cordova Church’. Oil on canvas, 1934.

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