Definers of Geography

Like much about New Mexico, the Rio Grande is modest, but it has its charms.

The bike is a great tool for the study of geography, because it allows you to cover sufficient ground to make generalizations, but at a sufficiently slow speed that you can get a feel for the thing.

Albuquerque started as just one of many river villages, some Anglo, some Hispanic and some Native American, strung along the Rio Grande through New Mexico’s midsection. Urban growth has mostly obliterated the rhythm of the old geography, but on two wheels and slowly, the shadows are still there.

Today I rode north with friends out of town past a string of those old villages, from Albuquerque to Alameda to Sandia Pueblo to Bernalillo, and finally up toward Algodones before we grudgingly looked at our watches and the wind direction and decided we needed to turn around.

The river once defined the place’s geography, until it was supplanted by the railroad. Today it’s the Interstate instead that serves as the anchoring feature on the landscape, and there’s a great stretch across Sandia Pueblo where there are farm fields and the river to the west, the train tracks to the east, then the Interstate up on the bluff.

Late this afternoon, I took Mom and Dad out for a drive and we ended up back in Alameda, where there’s an old highway bridge that they left for horses, bikes and walkers when the built a modern bridge to the south. It was in the 50s, the warmest day we’ve had in a while, and the place was mobbed – people fishing in the ditches on the west side, a steady stream of bicyclists, walkers, a couple of bird people with binoculars like me, all drawn to the river on a faux spring afternoon.

The late afternoon light made the reds and yellows of the plants’ winter plumage that much redder and yellower. (Sorry for the mediocrity of the picture, all I had was the cell phone camera. It doesn’t do the scene justice.) It’s not the river’s functionality any more that defines its sense of place, the way it did when generations from prehistory built their villages here. It was just a nice place for a walk on a warm January afternoon.

updated 1/18/2010: added missing “not” to penultimate sentence


  1. John – you knew I’d post, right, after writing “geography” in your post title? In any case, this is interesting, but would humbly disagree that the river is no longer defined by its “functionality.” Sure it is, you have evidence you share: hikers, bikers, and fishers. That’s its current function to a good share of the urbane, non-land based population in the Middle Rio Grande and they are the majority.
    I’m not saying it should be RE-defined by them, for extra “hiking water” as some of the NM Dialogue people seemed to be implying, but it’s still a function.
    After all, a “resource” is simply something you use. And movement and leisure are simply using those resources in an aesthetic-kinetic sense, but not for a livelihood. Interesting post. epp

  2. Eric – Yeah, I realized this was bait for you. 🙂

    You are right of course, and I was glib with my definitions.

    I’ve noticed what I think is an interesting change in the almost two decades I’ve been here regarding this community’s attitude toward its river. When I cam here in the early 1990s, relatively few people went down to the river. It was almost ignored. I used to run on the dirt levees and routinely have the place to myself. No longer – which I view as a good thing. The river is a fabulous place, and I’m happy a lot more people are out enjoying it.

    You’re right, the sort of uses we now put the river to – birdwatching and the like – are “functionality”. That’s a helpful correction to my thinking.

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