On the back flyleaf of the cover of the book Great
Plains is a photograph of the author, Ian Frazier.
He is standing with his left thumb plummeted in the faded left pocket of
his blue jeans. He is wearing a
plaid shirt, holding a notebook in his right hand, has his hair combed neatly,
and is not smiling. The photo is black and white. It is 1-1/2 inches wide
and is 2-7/8 inches tall. Beneath the picture is a notation: "Author photograph
by the LeDeane Studio, Tucumcari, New Mexico."
According to the book Great
Plains, Ian Frazier ate a black cricket the size of his thumb at
his sister's wedding, moved to Montana to begin writing Great Plains, saw
the movie Rancho Deluxe eight or nine times to get the feel of Montana,
and drove 25,000 miles researching museums and historic sites for his book.
His research included articles
on Sitting Bull, Bonnie and Clyde, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp,
Bat Masterson, and Richard Read - the last man lynched in Kansas. Frazier
is also the author of another less well known book - Dating Your Mom.
Further details of the author
and editor are sketchy. The front cover of my copy has the notation, "To
Dan on your 46th birthday. Love you, Janet and Melinda."
On the back cover is another
autograph, not that of the author, but of the photographer who took
his picture in Tucumcari, James Crocker. To my knowledge, I am the only
owner of the book Great Plains autographed by the author's own photographer.
Dan Kenneth Phillips
IT IS 1,081
miles from my home in Tennessee to Tucumcari, New Mexico. It took us two
days to make the trip. We stopped only at Fort Smith, Arkansas, long enough
to see the white-painted gallows that made hanging Judge Parker famous and
we counted Tucumcari signs. "Tucumcari Tonight 263 miles." "Tucumcari Tonight
Tucumcari, during its most promising
era, boasted of 2,000 motel rooms. According to one questionable historian:
HAS, OR WILL, SLEEP IN TUCUMCARI AT LEAST ONE NIGHT IN HIS OR HER LIFE.
We arrived in Tucumcari
during a nightmarish hailstorm. Heavy gusts of wind slapped bullet-sized
hail against passing vehicles. Many of the cars were riveted with machine
gun precision, leaving a fine-line of dents scattered over the vehicles.
Ponderous rains followed. Soon, gushing waters huddled a foot deep in the
middle of the two-lane highway that led from Interstate 40 to downtown Tucumcari.
When the wind and rain stopped,
neighbors congregated in clusters jabbing their fingers skyward in a circular
motion that described the bombardment path. The explosive nature of the
storm caused them to talk rapidly, to clap their hands together, and to
shake their heads. I have never seen a storm affect people in such a strange
Tucumcari has a population of
6,831. It is an old railroad town once known as six-shooter siding. It has
a thriving cattle business and much railroad traffic. For years, it has
been a favorite haunting place for adventurers intent on traveling from
coast to coast. The remains of old Route 66 -The Mother Road as John Steinbeck
called it - stumble through the area.
Morbid motels with names like
the Redwood Lodge, the Buckaroo, the Rafter S, Sahara Sands, Americana,
Safari, Blue Swallow, Town House, Apache, Palomino, Lasso, Aruba, Royal
Palacio, and Pony Soldier still linger.
Neon signs, dancing to the hillbilly
music of Ernest Tubb, advertise rooms by the hour. These old motel parking
lots have two-decade-old cars with broken windows, bent fenders, and flat
tires, sitting idle in their parking lots.
In the whispering twilight
between rooms, one sees animated conversation between fat women
with tattoos and men with cowboy hats and broken-buttoned shirts. There
always seems to be an air of disquiet, as if someone has been cheated out
of a good-time. There is no laughter. A small bottle is often passed circumspectedly
between the victims of the shadowless night. Most of the motels need painting.
Travelers still eat under the
giant sombrero at La Cita Restaurant or the Hereford bull at Del's Restaurant.
The City Commission recently approved a resolution to change Tucumcari Boulevard
to Historic Route 66.
After supper, in our motel room
under the shadow of Tucumcari Mountain, I studied the legend of Tucumcari.
According to a June 1966 article in the Tucumcari Daily News, noted Tucumcari
historian Herman Moncus is credited with deciphering the meaning of the
After years of searching, he
accidently discovered an ancient Jemez Indian who agreed to sing the Tucumcari
Buffalo Hunting Song. This song translated from Jemez means "place of buffalo
hunt," Moncus pointed out.
The Jemez, a pueblos Indian
of the Rio Grande Valley, who hunted in eastern New Mexico before 1800,
probably learned the name from other Indians. Oklahoma Indians, perhaps
the Kiowa, translated the name to mean a dark place. The legend, as attributed
to Moncus, was found in material I discovered in the motel room and gives
new meaning to the name Tucumcari (Two-Come-Carry).
Dan Kenneth Phillips
Legend of Tucumcari Mountain
has been handed down from mouth to mouth by Indian tribes.
"Wautonomah, Chief Apache,
knew that he would soon die and was troubled over the matter of who his
successor would be. His two finest braves were Tonopah and Tocom, enemies
and deadly rivals for the hand of Kari, the daughter of Wautonomah. But
Kari loved Tocom and hated Tonopah.
So, Wautonomah called Tonopah
and Tocom to his side and said: "Soon, I must die and one of you must
succeed me as Chief. Tonight you must take your long knives and meet in
combat to settle the matter between you, and he who survives shall be
Chief and have for his squaw, Kari, my daughter."
So the two rivals met and
hurled themselves upon one another in deadly combat; but unknown to either,
Kari had concealed herself nearby, and as the knife of Tonopah found the
heart of Tocom, she rushed from her hiding place and plunged her knife
into the heart of Tonopah. Then, taking Tocom's knife, she stabbed herself
When Wautonomah was led
to the scene, he was heartbroken. Seizing Kari's knife, he plunged it
into his heart, crying in agony, "Tocom-Kari." The old Chief's dying utterance
lives on today with a slight change to "Tucumcari," and the scene of the
tragedy is now famous legendary Tucumcari Mountain."
Sitting under the shadow of
the great Tucumcari mountain, I could feel the knife burying itself deep
in my own heart. I could sense the old Indian chief's presence. With the
history of the area percolating within, I began slowly opening the yellow
pages of the phone book to find the location of the LeDeane Studio - the
place where Ian Frazier's picture had been taken.
And there it was, peeking out
between the dog-eared pages in the P section, the advertisement that I was
TUCUMCARI'S FULL SERVICE STUDIO
Outdoor Greenhouse Studio/24 Hour Processing
Classic Portraiture/ Wedding Photography
Copy & Restoration Work/
220 E. Main Tucumcari - 461-3050
The next morning,
in a fast food restaurant on old Route 66, a toothless man, smelling like
hospital medication, sat beside me while I ate breakfast. His speech was
mostly incoherent. Only a few words per sentence survived enough for understanding.
It seemed he was speaking a mixture of Navajo, Mexican, and English. I understood
few of his words, but he reacted as if I were a long lost brother who he
had discovered in a far off country after not seeing him for fifty years.
For 25 minutes he mumbled and
sputtered. I tried to seem interested between bites of scrambled eggs, but
the intense effort required failed. When I was finally able to say goodbye,
I had pieced together only fragments of his experience: that he was alone;
that he had been deserted by his family; and that he quit smoking after
47 years because of suffering a heart attack. Everything else had been gibberish.
After breakfast, I plotted my
course. I drove once more through several blocks of old route 66 looking
for Main Street.
"Why are we turning off the
main road," asked Janet. (It was certainly a definable question coming from
an inquisitive wife who realizes the foibles of a husband deranged by history).
"I'm going to visit the photographer
who took Ian Frazier's picture for the book Great Plains," I said.
Turning stoned faced toward the
right window she said, "Just leave me out of this."
When I neared the
studio, I brought out a pacifier for Janet that I had stuffed under the
car seat, a copy of USA Today. I knew it would keep her busy for a few minutes
while I talked to the photographer.
It was an awkward
moment when I walked into the LeDeane Studio. I walked up to the receptionist
with an air of confidence and said, "I would like to talk with the head
photographer about a photograph he took."
I then pulled out the book Great
Plains and showed the receptionist the final page and the note about the
LeDeane Studio. "If possible," I added, "I would like to get the photographer's
autograph, but I don't know his name."
I must admit that I didn't know
what to expect. I was hopeful of a story of enormous proportions: that the
author was an old college friend of the anonymous photographer; that they
both had dated the same woman; that the author's photograph had caused fame
for the photographer; and that the photographer was having difficulty photographing
customers because of the many inquirers, like myself, intruding into his
Standing in the corner I looked
at several old photographs of Tucumcari. Several were portraits. All were
excellent and seemed to have deeper meanings.
Dan Kenneth Phillips
a man came and introduced himself. "I'm James Crocker.
What can I do for you?" I introduced myself and told him, "I have just finished
reading a book that has a photograph on the back flyleaf of the book that
was made in this studio, and I am looking for information about the author.
Can you help me?"
blurting out my intent, he began scratching his head. A puzzled look crossed
his face. I could tell he didn't have any idea what I was talking about.
This surprised me. I would have thought that dozens of people would have
stopped and commented on the photo, especially since the book had been on
the New York Times best-seller list.
I opened the book and showed
him the picture. He began smiling and said, "I remember that man. He came
rushing in here one day and said he needed his picture taken in a hurry.
He told me he was writing a book and would send me a copy when it was finished.
That's the last I ever heard of him."
He then looked at me and began
bombarding me with questions. "Who is that man? What's the title of the
book? What's the book about? Where can I get a copy?"
Then, in a short digression
of thought, he said, "I get people like that all the time. They get their
picture made, tell me they are writing a book and will send me a copy. It
has happen numerous times. I have never seen a book yet."
He took the book, looked closely
at the back flyleaf, and began fumbling through the book. It was a poignant
moment. I could sense the pride he felt in the book. It was as if he had
discovered something about himself that no one else could understand.
"Its about strange people and
unusual stories," I said. "He wandered over 25,000 miles around the Great
Plains collecting stories." And then I added, "Funny, though. He told no
stories of Tucumcari. Wonder why he wanted his picture made here?"
It's difficult for me to describe
the next few minutes. In the corner of my eye, I could see my wife standing
outside with a copy of USA Today laying on the hood of the car. It was a
sunny day, and she was reading the entertainment section. But I could sense
her impatience. This was not where she wanted to be. She wanted to be on
the road to Sante Fe, and to her I was wasting the day. But, I knew the
moment was important. There was something about Crocker I liked. His smile.
His enthusiasm. A sense of purpose and history.
"There are plenty of stories
to tell about Tucumcari," he said. Then he took me over to the front window
and showed me a photograph made earlier in this century.
"This is what it looked like
from this window before the interstate. Many famous persons passed this
way. The center of attraction was the Elk Drug Store. Harvey
Firestone and Thomas Edison would come through every year and stop. Once,
when he was in the Elk Drugstore, Thomas Edison found an old phonograph
with his picture on it. He laughed and said to the owner, "He's not as young
as he use to be, is he?"
"Would you mind," I asked, "if
I tape record some answers to some questions I have?"
"Sure, go ahead," he said. Then
he proceeded with the true story of Tucumcari.
"This Tucumcari Mountain,
which is a Mesa-type mountain just beside the town of Tucumcari, was named
from an earlier Indian word, Tucumcari, which meant woman's breast. You'll
not hear that much because it may be offensive to certain groups in the
United States. Early Indians lived here and dealt with the Gringo outlaws
that came through here. Commancherios robbed the stage coaches. Coronado
camped out here in the 1600s. At the courthouse is a beautiful mural of
Coronado. Its very impressive. You need to go see it."
Then, he became reflective.
I could sense him reliving some sacred moments in his own life. He looked
westward toward the old Elk drugstore as he talked.
"The old Elk Drugstore was owned
by Herman Moncus, a dear friend of mine. He got his pharmacy degree by mail
order. Every morning, he had a show on the local radio station. It was a
10 minute show, and he would reiterate what had gone on the day before.
He collected artifacts, and
if someone would bring him something old, he would hang it up on the wall
and talk about it on the radio. The store was 150 feet long and 25-30 feet
wide. It was so full of the things he had collected that there was no room
to hang anything.
Now, all that's left is on display
at the local museum, all except that he sold. He thought he was going to
get $50,000 for it, but he only got $5,000. It was very disappointing to
Then he gave an unusual twist
to the legend of Tucumcari, explaining the history behind the story.
"All the old timers and chamber
of commerce people would come around and sit at the drugstore. They decided
they would build an Indian Village on the top of Tucumcari Mountain out
of old tepees. They made the tepees and stretched rawhide around them; then
they went up and salted the area with old arrowheads. It was really done
as an effort to attract tourists.
You could see those tepees for
40 miles away on that mountain. They figured that they would have to have
a legend to go along with it, so they sat there and concocted that thing
(the Legend of Tucumcari) one morning.
Each person would contribute
a little bit, and they would laugh. "Reckon anyone will believe that?"
And Herman would say, "If you
write it down, they'll believe it." And they wrote it down, and it became
fact. This story, as kooky as it is, is the one that lasted. That's it."
"You mean, the story of the
legend of Tucumcari is not true?" I said unbelievably.
big lie," he
said, and then he began to laugh.
Realizing my death was imminent
if I didn't get out of there soon, I thanked him for his time, asked him
to autograph Great Plains, and took his picture with a cheap camera.
As I was leaving, he asked again,
"What was the name of the book?" I told him and wrote down the name of the
publisher for him.
I was way behind schedule. I
didn't dare mention to Janet that I wanted to stop and see a mural of Coronado,
or that I wanted to visit a local museum to see the artifacts from the Elk
From time to time, I would hint
at the conversation that took place. There was little interest. Mostly I
listened as she told me what was in the entertainment section of USA Today.
Later, in some of the tourist
information I had collected, I found a local brochure about the Tucumcari
Museum that read:
"This memorabilia was originally
housed in the Elk Drug store which opened in 1905 and closed in 1968. Overflowing
with (Herman) Moncus' extensive collection of artifacts and relics; estimated
at 36,000 hanging from the ceiling.
In the museum are Indian
artifacts in the cowboy room, a 1900 telephone switchboard, early Tucumcari
sheriff's office, western school room, early day post office, items used
by the medical profession in the early part of this century, ration books,
confederate money, an authentic still, a restored fire truck and caboose,
and a roulette table. In 1990 there were visitors from all 50 states and
12 foreign countries. Admission. $2.00."
One thing was left out of the
brochure. It did not say, "It was at the Elk Drug Store that the tale of
Tucumcari was first concocted."
I left Tucumcari reluctantly.
For some reason, I felt very much a part of the city. I had been in a notable
hailstorm, had eaten breakfast with a man who thought I was his long lost
brother, and had enjoyed talking to a local photographer.
I could still hear Edison and
Moncus talking. And I thought for a moment about how I had surfaced here
to learn more about Ian Frazier.
And indeed, I had learned a
few things about Frazier: when he had his picture taken he was in a hurry,
if he promised to send you a book it would never arrive, and he often missed
the best stories because he was in such a rush.
That night I looked up Tucumcari
in Great Plains. It was not listed in the index. The only mention of Tucumcari
was on page 123. "Whenever I stopped for gas, I always asked the name of
the local high-school team. I never found a person working in a gas station,
convenience store, or truck stop who didn't know," said Frazier. And seven
lines later, after a list of cities and the names of their football teams,
he added this line; " Tucumcari, New Mexico, the Rattlers."
Before drifting off to sleep,
I began to laugh. "They made the tepees and stretched rawhide around them.
They salted the area with old arrowheads. You could see those tepees for
40 miles away. That kooky story is the one that lasted."
before sleep arrived, I could hear the faint voice from a local radio
station. "This is Herman Moncus at the Elk Drug Store beginning our
morning program." And just before dreamland begin, I heard Moncus' laughing
and saying to his morning buddies," "Write it down, they'll believe
Dan Kenneth Phillips
Send any comments
about The Photographer and your own experiences in Tucumcari via E-mail
Dan Kenneth Phillips
Chapter 2: The Outlaw and the Politician (Las Vegas, New Mexico )
Dan K. Phillips
109 Breckenridge Road
Franklin, TN 37067