ERNIE PYLE IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
A Biography of the Famous World War II Correspondent
TRAVELING NEW MEXICO 1935-42
Despite the hectic pace of his work, Ernie Pyle continued to relish his life of travel and freedom. He especially enjoyed traveling through his favorite states, including Hawaii, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico.1 The Pyles visited New Mexico in particular as often as their schedule allowed. Once there, Pyle wrote columns on some of the state's most famous or unusual sites. He was particularly awed by two of its natural wonders: Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands.
Although Ernie Pyle had traveled through Carlsbad several times before, he and Jerry arrived to see the town's famous caverns for the first time in April 1938. After touring the caverns with the park superintendent for most of a day, Pyle wrote to his family in Dana that the place was without question "one of the most wonderful sights I ever saw."2 While he was certainly impressed with the caverns' rocks and formations, Pyle seemed particularly struck by the darkness he encountered when the park superintendent put the lights out far below ground.
You have never known darkness until you have sat in it 800 feet below the surface. You look around for a faint glow somewhere, a shadow, a movement. There is nothing. You are in a complete solid of blackness. And the silence is as thick as the darkness. Your soul creeps, and you sit there in mental obeisance.3
The traveling journalist was visibly relieved when the lights were turned back on and his party surfaced "out into the hot, blinding sunshine of the New Mexico desert." Pyle concluded that "Life is suddenly real again, and it is impossible that this gray, rolling plain can conceal another world so near. But you will dream about it for a long time."4 Years later, when he was listing the best and the worst of every place he had seen in the coun-try, Pyle claimed that Carlsbad Caverns were "the best oneday National Park in America."5
Ernie Pyle was similarly impressed by White Sands a year and a half later. In sharp contrast to the darkness he found in Carlsbad Caverns, Pyle wrote of White Sands' "dazzling light" in which "you must wear dark glasses or...tears will come to your squinty eyes and there will be nothing in your vision but glare." Much like the darkened caverns, "out on the sands there is no sound, no perspective, no single thing to break the vast whiteness." Concluding with words reminiscent of what he thought of Carlsbad Caverns, Pyle declared that this "ocean of utter white" could both "astound you and...give you the creeps."6
Pyle also used his descriptive talent to portray whole towns, including Lincoln, northwest of Carlsbad and northeast of White Sands. Made famous by the exploits of Billy the Kid, Lincoln was found to be "remarkably preserved," although in Pyle's estimation it had begun its decline on April 28, 1881, the day of Billy's famous escape from its two-story courthouse. Eager to preserve the area's rich history, Pyle suggested that the entire townsite be made into a state or national monument.7 Pyle later wrote to Shafe that he had gotten the idea for such a monument in Mexico where the entire town of Taxco was made a national monument so that all buildings had to be "in tune with the old." Pyle liked the same concept for Lincoln, but thought that building regulations would have to be strict so that some "smart" businessman couldn't ruin everything by putting up a "Hollywood curio shop" ten feet from the town's famous courthouse.8 Ed Shaffer agreed wholeheartedly. While confessing that he didn't "know exactly how you go about making a monument of an entire community," Shafe editorialized in the Albuquerque Tribune that he could "think of nothing more unfortunate" than seeing Lincoln become "commercialized and cheapened" like a "western Coney Island."9
As taken as Ernie Pyle was with places like Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, and Lincoln, it would be a mistake to conclude that he liked all parts of New Mexico with equal enthusiasm. Thus, while he was generally impressed by Chaco Canyon, he confessed to his readers that he had no desire to "go see any more Indian ruins" because, with so many unanswered questions about their origins and demise, they all seemed quite "exasperating."10
Pyle showed little more enthusiasm for the four-corners marker at the only spot in the United States where the boundaries of four states (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado) meet. The famous reporter explored the four-corners region on a rare two-week vacation taken with Shafe in mid 1939. As Pyle later wrote in a column about the unique intersection of boundaries, few people ever ventured there, if only because few knew it existed and others had a hard time locating it since the last eight miles were "just an old Navajo wagon trail" that didn't even appear on road maps.11 Privately, Pyle wrote of how he and Shafe were "amazed at how blank and worthless" this region appeared.12
Despite his disappointment in finding the four-corners marker in such desolate terrain, Pyle could not resist the temptation to get "kind of silly" once he arrived there. In a series of antics reflecting his wry sense of humor, Pyle proceeded to lean over the monument so that one of his feet was in Utah and the other was in Colo-rado, while one of his hands was in Arizona and the other was in New Mexico; he could thus claim to have been in all four states at the same time. Next, Pyle insisted on driving around and around the marker in his car so that he could say that he had traveled through four states in record time. At lunch, the reporter "had to sit on top of the point, which made my rather scant behind repose in four states simultaneously." When done eating, he threw his banana peels and some pieces of bread into the air so that they fell into all four states; he could thereby assert that the "dirtiest tourist can't outdesecrate me."13
Pyle was hardly more impressed with the New Mexico terrain he encountered while traveling alone from Albuquerque to El Paso two years later. The reporter told his readers that there was so little to see on this route that "you don't even have fence posts or telephone poles to count, much of the time." Pyle grew so bored with his surroundings that he wanted to carve his name on a rock at every curve (they were so rare), play solitaire on the front seat as he drove along, and ride on the hood of his car, "yelling and waving my old hat at all the cacti." South of Hot Springs, Pyle reached "the end of my rope," becoming so sleepy that he had to pull off the road and nap in the back seat of his 1941 convertible--a car he praised "for slumber purposes" far more than he praised his surroundings for their stimulating scenery.14 Kidding aside, Pyle fully realized the great danger of growing tired on long hauls. On one occasion, he and Jerry "came across a car hanging by two wheels over the edge of a cliff" somewhere in New Mexico. "The driver," explained Pyle, "had simply gone to sleep."15
Ernie Pyle revealed his disappointment in other parts of New Mexico with less good-natured humor than he employed in describing his travels from Albuquerque to El Paso. Taos certainly re-ceived little praise in a pair of columns written in the spring of 1938. Pyle began his description of the northern village by asserting that Taos was "rather picturesque, but not...enchanting." Its plaza was said to be "crammed with Mexicans, Indians and poorlooking whites," while its streets were unpaved, its street lights were nonexistent, and its three hotels were small. Fires were frequent, according to Pyle, and some of the town's old adobe houses were falling apart. Taos was so inactive that it was "like a grave" by nine o'clock each evening.16
Pyle claimed that not even the town's famed artists thought much of Taos or its future by 1938. The reporter wrote that "You might hang around Taos for a month and never see an artist" because most only lived in their "fashionable...adobe shack[s]" a few months a year, while others, like Ernest Blumenscheim, discovered they "couldn't stand Taos" any longer. As a result, only two "big 'name'" artists or authors remained: Mabel Dodge Luhan (who was in New York when Pyle arrived) and D.H. Lawrence's widow, Frieda. "The rest," according to Pyle, "might just as well be [named] Smith or Jones to you and me."17
Ernie Pyle used even less flattering words to describe his experience at the Taos Pueblo. Pyle was struck by the pueblo's grand view and impressive architecture when he and his "traveling partner" drove up. However, he grew steadily disenchanted with the pueblo once he and Jerry paid a quarter each for a tour led by a guide dressed in white deerskin moccasins with a "bed-sheet...draped around his shoulders." Their Indian guide spoke little English, lacked keys to open the local church, and refused to allow them to enter any dwellings other than curio shops filled with "homemade drums, crude pottery, moccasins, [and] ears of colored corn." Little girls followed the tourists from shop to shop, calling, "Gimme a nickel," while younger children "kept saying 'Penny, penny.'"18
When the tour was half over, Pyle asked what more their guide had left to show them. The Indian replied, "Fine curio shops," to which Pyle responded, "No you won't." The Pyles "furiously...abandoned" their befuddled host, got into their car, and drove away. Feeling like he'd been made a "sucker," Pyle told his national reading audience that he had seldom "been so mad" in his life. He concluded his blistery column by advising all future tourists to simply "Drive out to the Pueblo, stop right between the two big buildings, sit in the car and look around for five minutes, ... and then turn around and drive away. You will have seen everything."19
Ernie Pyle was no more considerate of Native Americans on the few other occasions he mentioned them in his columns on the Southwest. When referring to a tribe that lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, he impertinently "asked an old cowboy about them--whether they were smart or not." The cowboy answered that he thought that the Indians were "just about average," a response that Pyle interpreted to mean that "there weren't any Einsteins down there."20 On his 1939 vacation with Shafe, Pyle wrote of "loafing Indians" with "sinister" faces who stood around an Arizona trading post, staring at strangers "like so many animal eyes around a campfire."21 Back in Albuquerque, Pyle went to a local hotel's basement washroom and found it locked. After acquiring a key upstairs, he inquired why the washroom was kept closed. "Because of the Indians," he was told. "We can't keep them out of there. They're in there all day and all night. They even go in...and take baths." Rather than trying to understand why these people might need a public source of running water, Pyle simply con-cluded that he "had always supposed the Indians sitting in the lobby were paid by the hotel" to add atmosphere to the Southwestern surroundings.22
Pyle made little effort to understand Indian life and had little respect for others who did. He belittled Ernest Thompson Seton's deep respect for Indian ways, as reflected in Seton's ef-forts to teach whites to appreciate native culture at his Institute of Indian Lore outside Santa Fe. Rather than enroll in an institute where whites were supposedly told "that they're mere punks compared to Indians,"23 Pyle preferred to agree with an oldtimer in Taos who proudly declared that he didn't know any more about Indians "than any other white man. Talking to Indians is just like writing a note and putting it in a prairie dog hole."24 In a private moment, Pyle remarked that "We didn't pay much attention to the Indians, as they are hard to talk to, and I don't like Indians anyway."25
Pyle's remarks did not go unnoticed in Taos and the Taos Pueblo. The Taos Review printed a copy of the roving reporter's faultfinding column on the town, but offered little in local reaction beyond its own suggestion that residents "take it on the chin.... This is the way the other half of the world sees us."26 Pyle may well have received far more angry feedback had Mabel Dodge Luhan, the so-called matron of "Mabeltown," been in town to respond.27 Present and infuriated, the Indians of Taos Pueblo were vehement in their reaction to Pyle's column about their ancient community. Pyle wrote Shaffer that the Taos Indians got out an ultimatum threatening to cut my dolliper off if I ever showed up there again.... But that's one complaint I didn't brood much over, because I think the column was exactly right even if I do say so. Spud Johnson, who is sort of Taos' literary set (and who, in fact, wrote the resolution for the Indians at their request) wrote me that he thought the column was justified, and he had tried to get them to change [their minds] but they wouldn't do it.28
Blinded by his own ethnocentrism, Pyle was unable to see beyond his own expectations of what the Taos Indians should have shared of their private lives and beliefs. His blatant disregard for the Indians' privacy would come back to haunt him when his own private world was repeatedly com-pro-mised in the coming years.
Ernie Pyle's observations regarding Santa Fe were even more criti-cal than his disparaging remarks regarding Taos. The Pyles visited the state capital early in their many years on the road. Although the couple was generously "wined and dined," and Pyle pro-nounced Santa Fe's ar-chi-tec-ture to be "the most beautiful ... in the world," he readily admitted his aversion for much of the community and many of its residents.29 His several columns on the "city different" reveal the reasons for his bias and distaste. Thus, while he admired Santa Fe's adobe architecture, he found "a lot of old 1890-type brick buildings oozing tastelessness .... [and] hideously out of place." More-over, while he discovered some of the finest shops west of Dallas, he also found "some that are the worst." Politics in the capital were judged even more unsavory than in his home state of Indiana.30
But these were minor criticisms compared to Pyle's chief complaint regarding Santa Fe: its acclaimed artists and authors. The town's 150 artists and authors were described as "an awful gob of genius" with a badly inflated image of themselves, despite the fact that none of them were "world-famous figures" and there were only about twenty "who were downright and permanently interesting." While a few were considered to be "genuine people," most were seen as "freaks and pretenders ... who ... like to sit on the floor and talk about 'composition' and dress up like Indians and stare into fireplaces." These pretenders had gone "to pot," in Pyle's estimation, because they were known to avoid baths, ride to parties on spotted ponies, and spend conspicuous hours at La Fonda, "the very classy Harvey house [sic] right in the center of town."31 In an unusual triad, Pyle warned his many readers that the art circle (if you participate) is a deadly thing. You're so in danger of losing your head and getting into the groove of thinking all is art, and drinking too much and looking down upon common people too much and getting to believe you're a genius and the world is a fool for not recognizing you and isn't fit to recognize you if it did, and after a while you're all washed up and nothing interests you except yourself and Good Old Art.32
Not satisfied with this broadside of early 1937, Pyle returned to Santa Fe to employ biting satire to describe the city's snobbish art colony. In a syndicated column that appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on April 29, 1938, Pyle as-sumed the persona of a pretentious artist who told how he spent a typical day in Santa Fe. Before breakfast, this fictional character claimed to have "painted a magnificent study" laden with symbolism that not even he was intelligent enough to understand. He then "rushed to La Fonda's bar in my paint-streaked overalls" where he could gaze into space "so that the rich tourists could see I was a great painter thinking about something...far over their heads."33