on the road
WITH ROBERT WOLF
Robert Wolf began his search for America at the age of seventeen when, inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac and Carl Sandburg, he ran away from an affluent home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Wolf sought out experiences among the nation’s working classes in areas of the country that had not yet caught up with the modern world. “There were two reasons I left,” Wolf told Pasatiempo. “One: having grown up in such a conformist community as New Canaan and feeling as though I lived in a straitjacket out there. There was a code; you were supposed to go to college, get a goodpaying job, get married, retire, then everyone lives happily ever after. It was a fantasy. On the other hand, from an early age — probably through the influence of movies and TV shows — I became fascinated with the West. When I was in high school I subscribed to
Arizona Highways. I had this great longing. That combined with the TV show Route 66 and Kerouac’s On
the Road — all these influences got me on the road.” In the prologue to his new book In Search of America, Wolf writes, “I determined to go in search of the American soul and look for it, not among businessmen and their wives (I had plenty of exposure to them growing up) but among farmers, ranchers, welders, fishermen, auto mechanics.” It was the beginning of a quest that would lead him — by train, by car, by bus, and on foot — on an odyssey into small backwaters with distinctive regional cultures. “In these backwaters — Hispanic villages, Iowa farms, Texas Panhandle and Tennessee Delta towns — I have found most of my close friends, the people with whom I am most simpatico,” he writes.
Wolf’s book, published in July by Ruskin Press and as an ebook by Stay Thirsty Media, is written in a conversational style, and details the author’s adventures as a young man in the 1960s. There’s plenty of thoughtful, humorous, and telling anecdotes from his journeys hitchhiking cross-country and hopping freights with hobos. In New Mexico, where Wolf lived off and on, he met and shared remembrances of some of Santa Fe’s more recognizable artists, and his stories of meeting them are intertwined with his recollections of rural New Mexico. Works by several of these artists, including Harold West and Tommy Macaione as well as some of Wolf’s own paintings, are in the exhibition New Mexico Wild: Typewriter Tales of a Santa Fe Bohemian, which opens Friday, Oct. 16, at Matthews Gallery. Wolf signs copies of In Search
of America during the reception. The idea for an exhibit came about after Wolf saw the old hand-carved wooden sign advertising Claude’s Bar — a popular bohemian gathering place at mid-century — hanging above a lintel inside Matthews Gallery, which is close to the now-defunct bar’s former location. “I started telling stories about Claude’s Bar and some of the painters they had in their gallery,” Wolf said. Claude’s was a favorite hangout for local writers and artists such as Alfred Morang, but other bars on Canyon Road also had reputations. “You know Geronimo used to be Three Cities of Spain. Just across the road from that was a really wild bar where, reputedly, someone had gotten killed. Morang had done paintings that hung on the walls there, probably in exchange for drinks.” Morang died in a fire at his studio in 1958, after a night of drinking at Claude’s. Several of his paintings are in the exhibit.
Wolf first came to New Mexico in 1963. He hitched a ride from Indiana with a pistol-packing young journalist who wanted to see Mexico. At Vaughn they headed south without a map and no real sense of the distance to the border. They drove 30 miles and stopped in Duran. “Duran looked like it was out of a Western set. I mean it looked like it hadn’t changed a bit since the 1880s. Being a romantic, I said, ‘I’ve got to come back here.’ ” At a general store he saw a sign beneath a gun behind the cash register, which read, Yessir, this ain’t the gun that killed Billy the Kid. “That clinched it. Everything out here was so different from what I had known. You were free to be yourself and to explore.” Still, he returned to his parents for several months, worked for a survey company and saved his money. Then he returned to Duran, renting a small cabin with no running water for $10 a month.
By 1966, Wolf was attending St. John’s College and living in Santa Fe where he met artist Harold “Hal” West, whose presence had a powerful and immediate impact on Wolf, as he describes in the book: “Something flashed, a recognition I have had a few times seeing certain men, something in their dress, or poise, or speech or all of these tells me these men are complete, that whatever their reality, whatever scope of the world they have set for themselves, they fill it completely, and I knew then that West was such
In these backwaters — Hispanic villages, Iowa farms, Texas Panhandle and Tennessee Delta towns — I have found most of my close friends, the people with whom I am most simpatico.
Robert Wolf, from “In Search of America”
a man.” Moreover, West was approachable, which was a big deal for the young Wolf, who was raised in a world where relaxed encounters between elders and youth were rare. Gatherings in 1960s Santa Fe were spontaneous. People operated on a different sense of time than they did in Connecticut.
Wolf met other artists and writers that year, including Shane author Jack Schaefer. With his college friends, Wolf performed in melodramas at the Tiffany Saloon in Cerrillos. One day, a friend ran into Wolf’s dorm and raved about an artist “as good as Van Gogh.” They drove to a one-story house on Canyon Road and met Tommy Macaione, whose stacked paintings, in different stages of completion, vied for space with empty dog food cans and other debris, the house reeking of dog urine and feces. He was in a dire state, hungry and concerned for his dogs who, like him, were starving, Wolf said. Wolf and his friends got him some food. Soon after their first meeting, the students arranged for him to have a solo exhibition at St. John’s.
Wolf left Santa Fe in 1974 but returned again six years later, as if to another world. “I was shocked,” he said. “I knew I was leaving at a time when the money first started coming in to Santa Fe and after I left, the flood gates were open and so much more money came in.” When he returned he went immediately to the Plaza. “Everything was stuccoed. There were portals added. It was clearly a much more affluent town, and I did not feel at home. It’s taken me a while to get used to, but I have so many friends in Santa Fe. That’s why I keep coming back, for all my friends.”
Left, Alfred Morang: Moonlight on the Acequia Madre Road, no date, oil on panel; right, Robert Wolf: New Mexico Landscape 2; top, Eli Levin: View From My Studio, 1999, egg tempera on panel; opposite page, Robert Wolf (far right) with locals in Cerrillos, circa 1960s, photo Hugh Hazelrig