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It’s Not Chicken Canyon, and Our Future is Bright

Contributed by Judy Beil Vaughan

Gallinas River, photo by Mike Root

Gallinas River, photo by Mike Root

             As I write The Sweet Scent of Horses, the Wind in the Pines, my memoir about growing up in the Gallinas Canyon near Las Vegas, New Mexico, I recall a conversation I had with countless visitors.

            When newcomers encountered the name of my home river canyon, they were apt to pronounce it “Gal-EE-nas” or even “Galin-ASS.” They would scowl. “Isn’t that “chicken” in Spanish?”

            Gallon ass? I gave a little lecture on the dignity and historical importance of the Gallinas River, whose water made possible the meadows for which Las Vegas was named.

            “It’s pronounced ‘guy-EE-nas,’ I’d say, “and one translation is indeed ‘chicken’.”

            “Why would anyone name a pretty creek Chicken Canyon?”

            I’d explain. The name referred to wild turkeys, still common in the canyon. “Gallina” was a more general term for fowl in the language of the Spanish colonial settlers of the nineteenth century. “Gallina de la tierra” meant the wild fowl, literally fowl of the earth, the ground.  They may have picked the name for the same reason that Colorado had so many Deer Creeks and Clear Creeks; it was important to convey where a pioneer could find food or clean water.

            They’d ask about Hermit Peak, the mountain that dominates the scenery for miles around Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Hermit Peak, photo by Mike Root

Hermit Peak, photo by Mike Root

             Hermit Peak had several names. Its current name honored a man of faith, who lived in a cave near its summit during the nineteenth century.  El Solitario, an earlier version, meant “the hermit” in Spanish.

            As I grew up in the canyon, the origin of another place name, “El Porvenir” was especially intriguing to me. My father named his horse breeding business Porvenir Morgan Ranch. Everyone agreed we lived “in El Porvenir.” But that wasn’t like living in a place as discrete as a town. The name referred to a region dominated by Hermit Peak as though in its figurative shadow. It included El Porvenir Creek that joined the Gallinas a mile above our ranch.

            As I was writing my memoir, I wondered if Hermit Peak had ever been called El Porvenir. Why would a Spanish Colonial name any place El Porvenir? The name is used all over the Spanish-speaking world. There are towns called El Porvenir in Spain and in Chiapas, Mexico.

Seen from the size, Hermit Peak resembles a man's profile

Seen from the size, Hermit Peak resembles a man’s profile

            Jennifer Lindline, in her article about Hermit’s Peak in Geology of the Las Vegas Region suggests that the name El Porvenir was a reference to the Biblical prophecy of the return of Christ. Anyone who looks at a map of the Southwest sees that the Spanish named more of their places with religious references than practical ones. The shape of Hermit Peak is seen by many as the profile of a man’s face, further suggesting an allusion to Christ. “El Porvenir” refers to “He of the Future,” the Christ who will come again. But I couldn’t document that the peak was ever named El Porvenir.

            In the 1960s, Porvenir meant something more personal to me. I foresaw a bright future for the foals that frolicked on our pastures, and for my parents’ life at their mountain home. For myself, I would carry the joy infused by a pristine place into a larger world.


Western Life Camp New Mexico – A New Zealander’s Narrative

By Martin Brown, husband to Mary Kay Root, co-owner of Western Life Camp.


Russell in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I first met Mary Kay in New Zealand when she came to stay with our family as a Rotary exchange student back in 1979. Mary Kay joined our family as my Rotary “sister”. Unbeknown to us both, as fate would have it, we are now married and living together in the Gallinas Canyon, just a stone’s throw from Western Life Camp.

Western Life Camp has long been a place where young people gain an appreciation for the outdoors.  Mary spent her childhood summers at WLC hiking, horseback riding, swimming and gaining a deep appreciation for outdoor sports and Nature.  Learning what to do when the power goes off or the road becomes impassable and you are snowed in for a few days are all important life skills on how to get by in the great outdoors (or suburbia) when the creature comforts of home are absent.

The Southern Alps of New Zealand

The Southern Alps of New Zealand

For me back in New Zealand as a youngster in my early teens I went hiking, camping in the bush with a friend and we were quite at home sleeping under the stars and hunting for our food cooking this over an open fire. We shot possums and rabbits with our slug guns and made terrible stews (because we never seemed to get all the pellets out) but we didn’t mind at all. We were just glad to be out there ‘doin it’. Outdoor experiences certainly install in one a confidence for the later years ahead as you discover the ‘can do – don’t mind’ capability. Yeah it can be wet and cold and you poured salt over your breakfast instead of sugar but so what. Cubs and Scouts were also the order of the day at home and these groups also helped round out our outdoor education.

During my later ‘teenhood’ my family In New Zealand were privileged to share camping, boating, diving, fishing and all manner of outdoor experiences that my home country has to offer with my then Rotary sister, Mary Kay. My parents ensured over time that their children would understand the value of the outdoors and for many years we travelled to the ‘Jack N Jill’, a public beach camp in the Bay of Islands.

Here our family met up with other family groups with whom we developed long term friendships lasting many years (one such family friend was Master of Ceremonies at our wedding which we held in New Zealand in the Bay of Islands in 2013).

Mary Kay and I went to high school together in New Zealand, we looked after each other in our teenage years and we always ‘just got along’. The upbringing of both our families, our experiences in understanding the great outdoors and the other folks you meet along the way I know has helped Mary Kay & I to develop, as my sister-in-law puts it in her blog, into “can do” adults.

As it turned out our respective New Mexico and New Zealand families both were familiar and grounded in being able to experience, respect and enjoy the values of understanding the natural environs.

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Our wedding in July, 2013

Our families stayed in touch over the next three decades, and, feeling strong ties to my parents,  Mary returned  to New Zealand for my father’s 80th birthday and we were reunited, once again after 31 years now as mature adults. I came to visit New Mexico and her family’s ‘jewel in the crown’ reclusive Western Life Camp in 2011. Here the Root family offered outdoor experiences to many varied groups over the last 40 years. No wonder Mary and I got along so well back in the day  as we were raised to respect the environment and become self-sufficient.  Experiences that I believe is not sufficiently promoted today for our up and coming youth and our future societies will be poorer for it.


Mary collecting shells at Hokitika on the South Island of NZ

So some things never change, whether it is boating, fishing, diving, swimming or tramping in New Zealand or camping, tramping, fishing, hiking or swimming at Western Life in New Mexico, there is the opportunity to gain access to personal development for all ages that stand the test of time.

This is our personal story and testament to how important disconnecting from the grid and reconnecting with friends and family can be life changing and beneficial.  It illustrates how long lasting relationships and friends can be developed and maintained through such a facility as Western Life Camp.

Today Western Life Camp has many repeat family reunion groups, church retreats, sports groups and we often meet folks who attended WLC as youngsters and come up to reminesce about their past experiences.

I think my New Mexico sister-in-law expresses my feelings about coming to Western Life Camp and Mary and my life time experience has been “become part of who you are and who you will become”, come visit us.