A Strange Authenticity: The Spirit of Johnson Mesa

How do we recharge when the world becomes too much to endure? Seeking different sights and sounds can help.

The recognizable prominence of Johnson Mesa, from Little Horse Mesa in Sugarite Canyon State Park.

Near Raton, New Mexico, a small, shabby town along I-25, a place where you can buy tobacco and school supplies on the same grocery aisle, lies Johnson Mesa. The mesa dominates the area to the east of Raton, near Sugarite State Park. NM Highway 72 clambers up the sides of it and cuts across. The world up here is different: rolling grassland with mountains in the distance and a wind that howls like someone looking for a lost soul. I’d be nervous to be on the mesa during a storm, but I am sure the show would be spectacular. Ever since we found this road years ago (at the time the mesa top was white with snow) I’ve wanted to take pictures up here.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 1: Hello

Farmers have eked out a living on the mesa since the 1880s, when coal miners and rail workers searching for a safer, more stable occupation settled the small town of Bell, which had some of the first telephone connections in New Mexico. That’s a bit ironic, considering how hard it is to get a cell signal anywhere around Raton. This plain, 2,000 feet above the valley floor, was once a place of relative hustle and bustle, with 5 schools and a post office. Life was difficult and the entire community was snowbound every winter. After World War I, Bell fizzled and the post office closed in 1933. A few families live here in the summer, but no one makes a habit of staying through the winter anymore.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 2: Barns

The old barns are magical, but the jewel is the Johnson Mesa Church. With pink pews and fake hydrangea blooms, the chapel has its share of the tacky and the provincial, but there is something more here, something enduring and reassuring. Maybe it’s hearing the mad roar of the wind outside or seeing bird’s nests solidly anchored under the eaves. Maybe it’s seeing an obviously beloved space exposed to the elements and to human experience, the door unlocked and the outhouses pristine. Perhaps these things help us feel the presence of a God too often obscured by modern noise. And if God is on the mesa, as lonely as it is, then God is in our world, sustaining and preserving and experiencing with us.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 3: Without

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Johnson Mesa, Set 4: Within

It’s been a hard summer for my family. Our home flooded for the second time this past April (we flooded previously in 2009) and my mother’s health has been terrible. Between working to get things in Houston stable and running up to Oklahoma City to help my mother, there hasn’t been a lot of time to listen or create. When I have tried to keep up with the world around me, I’ve been struck by the tragedies: Orlando, Nice, Turkey, and depressed by the incredible rudeness and lack of compassion in American politics. It is a difficult time, but Johnson Mesa tells me that something always survives, always endures. I needed to see that. Maybe you need to see it, too.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 5: Farewell



If you would like to see more photos, please check out my Flickr album. All images are licensed with Creative Commons Licenses, so you are free to download them and use them in any way that makes you happy, as long as you attribute the image to me.

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