Elaine Gilmartin lived for many years in what she always called the Big House — today's 1300 "G" Canyon Road. Just before she found "The Hill," she had been involved in the production of what became a legendary book: John Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.
"That book was born with a cup of coffee at my kitchen table," she said. "John lived in San Miguel de Allende and he'd come up north in the summers and all of his friends would need him to fix our VWs, so I said, John, you've got to write a book. It was the first of the 'You can do this yourself' car manuals." In 1971, the book had been published. Gilmartin was renting a house at 517 Hillside Avenue. "We had 7,000 books in the garage and my landlord came knocking on the door and said, 'Gee I'm sorry but you gotta go because I sold the house.'"
One day not long after, she was on her way up Canyon Road and saw a little dirt track going up the hill. She drove up and ended up in the middle of a compound. Her heart was thumping and she started looking in win-dows. The place seemed abandoned except one house in the middle that had smoke coming out of the chimney.
"I went to the door and Mrs. Lorence, the daughter of Gregorio Gonzales, came with a piece of paper in her hand. Hi, How are you? Do you know about this place? And she said, 'Oh, well, you know, I was just reading this letter from a grandson of Gregorio. They own the house but they live in California and they're too old, they can't come back, and they were asking my help to sell it and I was just making a little prayer.'"
"Everyone I knew said I was insane, it was too hard, but I was young and a New Mexican, you know: God gives you dirt and a stick and you do the best you can, and of course it's going to work out. The house was in ruins. There was one room that was good and we fixed it up and that was the office for John Muir Publications.
"That whole area was ruins that had been abandoned for 15 years. It originally belonged to Benecio Rodriguez and that family owned land all way to the Plaza. When I came, one side of that house was falling down. I was a young woman with a year-old baby and I thought I'd just whip it into shape in a year. Well, it whipped me into shape for many, many years.
"The house next to it, which was occupied by Mr. Rodriguez' grandson, I think, and Mr. Gregorio Gonzales who had worked on that house when I rolled up my sleeves and was throwing down all the dirt from the roof in order to fix the roof, he was out in front of his south-facing wall warming his old legs, and he was laughing and said, "Oh, you pretty good woman. I threw that dirt up there 50 years ago."
"The little house, I think it now belongs to Sorrel Page, is where I lived, because it was the only stable habita-tion, and I went to work on the Big House. It took everything I had, and I actually had to borrow $1,000 from John and Eve to drill the well."
The first spot was chosen with the aid of a dowser or water witch. "The drillers came and they start to drilled and then it was, 'Hold the pickles, lady. Oh, my lord, you've witched a shitter.' It was an old outhouse." The second spot she tried hit gold and she had wonderful water at just 153 feet deep.
In the well-drilling project, she saw a beautiful white clay that she later test-fired at Priscilla Hoback's pottery and found it to be Cone 5 quality. That clay, she says, is the reason that the gas company called the dirt road Camino de la Tierra Azul.
When she bought the place, it was "13 acres and it was three old Spanish deeds." In about 2000, she had it re-surveyed to create two solid, useable lots. When the surveyor was finally done, her taxes had gone from $288 a year to $1,200 on each lot. The rising taxes was one reason she couldn't stay much longer.
"I ended up having six children and needed to go where there was more support for raising my children, and we lived in Ashland, Oregon. It was hard to leave, because Oregon is civilized; it's much easier to grow old there. This is the wild West, the tierra. It's what I grew out of. My grandchildren are the 7th generation of my family in New Mexico. My mother didn't learn English till she was nine."
There was also a period when Gilmartin lived at Celo Community in Northn Carolina, when her son Josh at-tended Arthur Morgan School. She tried to hang on to and take care of The Hill, but it was all too much. "I thought I'd be buried on The Hill, but life changes everything," she said.
In an email, Gilmartin, who has lived in Pena Blanca since 2009, jotted down more memories of The Hill: "Out in the full-moonlight sifting sand and dirt for the next day's plaster, burnished with my little trowel; mixing and pouring mud floors, sealing with Chevron Standard Floor Hardener (incredibly beautiful!) ... discovering the Prin-ciple of Leverage halfway thru the struggle to lay an oak floor that had been a pile of sticks in Phil Hawes yard in Cerrillos for fifteen years, then in my yard for fifteen years...
"Regretting that I didn't mention the Garcias to the south and Abeytas on the west — they're related to Neme-cio Rodriguez and there LOONG before this Girl came! Lots of history before us anglos. Also, the little Ojito up the south arroyo, now dry, was Water for many, years before I came — there was still a bit in the Olla after long drought ... now long gone, a Sacred Place."
Gilmartin offered her blessing for those who come after: "Live lightly, go kindly, give back generously. The Hill is a VERY special place."