Cleveland New Mexico: Where Cars Go To Die

A shabby peach convertible hogged the front yard. It stretched out like a sunbathing teenage girl would – at a long diagonal, facing the street, just begging to get picked up.

I walked right up to her, crouching down at the battered grill, where both headlights were missing, like gems pried out of a ring’s bed. I’d forgotten how much headlights, when you’re squarely in front of an old car, look like eyes. In this case: doe-eyes, blank and coquettish.

I had just a moment to photograph; the dogs would soon bark. Whose dogs? Anyone’s dogs. Everyone’s dogs. In Cleveland, a one-street town deep in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, I could count on two things: rusty cars, crowding front and backyards, and dogs, roaming said yards, ready to bark at me.

I’d first chanced upon Cleveland on a road trip from Taos – a long, meandering ride through fields and hillsides where the chipping hoods of old sedans kept peeking out of the sagebrush. New Mexico, I’d decided, was where cars go to die.

But nothing prepared me for the Mora Valley. Here was a place with more dead cars than living people. They filled pastures and slumped down ravines, their tires folded over in rolls, windshields cracked like lightning bolts. Two hours southeast and many mountain passes from Taos, I found myself in the true rust belt of America, wondering what joker named it Cleveland.

%Gallery-171373%In fact, this town was originally called San Antonio, founded in 1835 along a skinny river, 7,000 high in the sierras, in the northern reaches of what was then Mexico. Only in 1892 did San Antonio rechristen itself Cleveland (after Grover, the American President), for the purpose of getting a US post office. Still, Cleveland belonged to the Wild West, a town of mills and saloons, murders and feuds, hidden in the mountains and guarding a culture all its own.

I tried to find out more about Cleveland by asking around Taos. All people seemed to know, though, was a story about a bear. They told it like a tall tale. Once, not so long ago, an old lady was cooking in her kitchen. A black bear let itself in and attacked the cook. One Taos man had this to add to Cleveland’s lore: “It’s the Appalachia of New Mexico.” Back in high school, he was afraid of Cleveland guys. Something about shotguns.

Still, Cleveland called me. Those cars. All that rust. I’m no automobile expert; it’s antiques – the kind not at all in mint condition – that get me. I love the earth-tone palette, history’s whisper, the wear and tear of a couple lifetimes. But it was the way these old cars mingled and merged with the desert that so pleased my eye. The once-shiny work of the factory, reclaimed by the tan earth.

So I went back to Cleveland with a simple plan: I’d walk into the yards most dense with junkers and start photographing. I counted on four things happening. One, I’d get to admire the rusty beauties up close. Two, someone would come outside and ask what on earth I was doing. Three, I’d smile, give a wave, and dial up the charm before anyone could pull a gun. Four, they’d tell what was up with Cleveland.

There’s no pretty sign welcoming you in cursive letters to Little Cleveland. Instead, a mangled white Ford sits atop a hill like a giant lawn ornament. I’d taken no more than three steps towards it, hardly lifted my camera, when the barking began.

I didn’t look at the dogs, well able to imagine their teeth. Instead, I watched a silhouette fill the doorway of the trailer just behind the car. A man. Shirtless. I waved at his fluid silhouette and hoped he’d take my side.

Rick wore just jeans, plus a great mane of black hair that would make many women jealous. His body was lean but sinewy. I was pretty sure he could lift that dead Ford with two hands.

Why so many junk cars in Cleveland? I asked.

Rick widened his eyes at me. “Because people don’t want to get rid of ’em!” he cried, like my question was all wrong. Like maybe I should be asking why anyone throws anything away in this world, certainly here, deep in the mountains, where even a humble man has plenty of room.

Rick told me about a nephew, in Colorado, who’s real handy with cars. One day, Rick hoped, the nephew would turn these pieces back into a car. We stared at the hunks of Rick’s dismembered Ford, most of them stuffed in the open trunk. A side door bent outward like a giant metal wing. The sunroof was wide open, ready to collect rain. Yes, it was raining. A little, then a lot.

Rick pointed up his steep, dirt driveway. “That’s about to be a river.”

Rain soaked the valley of dead cars while I took cover in my living car. It was a borrowed sedan with Texas plates, which could be a liability in this town. The first settlers here built their homes in a tight line to protect against attacks. The Comanches were a threat, but so were nearby Texans, who led a raid here in 1843.

To this day – and even through sheets of summer rain – you can see traces of Hispanic influence all down the main drag. The busiest restaurant in town makes a single promise outside – TAMALES – and down at the gas station, you can’t miss the assurance that red and green chilies are in stock. Sure enough, I found the local pepper for sale in little pouches, easier to reach than a Slim Jim.

The woman working the counter is the daughter of a serious junk car collector. “He’s got a ’29, a ’48, a ’49 …,” she rattled off the make of her dad’s prized vehicles, pausing to remember some year in the 1970s – the youngest of her dad’s other kids.

But why so many? I knew that New Mexico had a long past, that people here hung onto its relics, and that rust was more of an aesthetic than an eyesore. But why so much of it in Cleveland?

“They’re waiting for an offer,” the man in line behind me said.

That’s just how it looked across the street, where the peach convertible showed off her curves, top down. I’d just risen to my feet to peek in the convertible’s open (and garbage-stuffed) cabin, when the dogs began again. Yipping this time, sounding safely puny. It was just enough noise, though, to tip someone off.

“Hi there,” a next-door neighbor appeared. He was built like a cop, bulky up top, but rather than kick me off the property, he lead me right into his neighbor’s backyard, where the real beauts were – the junk cars nobody was angling to sell.

I followed my guide through weeds, over woodpiles, past an ochre van with a bedroom’s worth of clothes creeping up its intact windows; past a long black hearse of a car with a tree branch resting across its windshield like a third wiper; past a white sedan, so mottled with dust it looked scaly.

I nearly missed the car tucked behind the house, reachable from someone’s bedroom window. A tree had risen through it, wedging between car body and bumper, climbing straight towards the clearing sky.

You can look at a car and more or less tell from its curves or angles what era it’s from. There are certain giveaways: rocket-like taillights, airplane hood ornaments, grills like gangster teeth. But behold a car that a tree has grown through and you get a sense of how very long it’s been junked.

Back on Route 518, I set out to crown a junk car king. The guy with the old Wagoneers, preppy misfits in their green and navy stripes? The school bus junkie, his property overtaken by giant metallic bees?

But I knew the junk car kingdom when I saw it; anyone would. Picture an automobile show, with one classic car from the past ten decades, left to rot in a field. Both sides of the main drag were edged with old sedans and vans and one truck whose crooked grill looked punched in, like a hockey player’s teeth. And behind it all, like an afterthought, a big barn of a house.

I smelled grass – freshly-cut – as soon as I cracked the car door. Strange, I thought. In the rare places where grass grows in New Mexico, people aren’t much into mowing. Just across the two-lane road, I spotted a couple men in work gloves doing something even stranger than cutting grass. Something I didn’t think happened in Cleveland. They were throwing things away.

Luis seemed relieved to take a break from clearing junk. Dressed from head to toe in black, he wore glasses with a glare so strong I couldn’t look him straight in the eye. The whole time we talked, Luis never quit rubbing his sore, gloved hand. “You wouldn’t believe how much we’ve cleared!”

But I did. To our left was a heap of garbage the size of your standard cabin. It wouldn’t disappear until many trucks took many trips.

Luis told me how many whiskey bottles he’d chucked today, how many rattlesnakes he’d scattered today, and how the owner of this house would bristle if he knew about today’s junk clearing. Raymond was in a rehabilitation hospital, after a bad fall. If he recovered and came back, he’d find only his house here, decades of garbage taken out.

“Have you heard about the bear attack?” Luis asked.

I nodded. In fact, I’d been meaning to ask someone whether it was true.

“That happened here,” he said.

By “here,” I thought Luis meant Cleveland. He meant the big barn of a house at our backs. The bear broke into Raymond’s kitchen, attacking and killing his mother.

The scrape marks across the front door were, in no uncertain terms, the work of a large claw. The door’s glass pane, which the bear pushed through, still hadn’t been replaced. Like so many of Cleveland’s scars and bruises, these were left raw and legible – indefinitely so.

The story Luis told me got more and more bleak. The bear attack was gory, and Raymond was the first on the scene. He didn’t take care of himself, drank too much, hardly washed his clothes. I felt like I was hearing the tale of the town’s fallen man. Until, that is, we got back on the topic of junk cars.

Raymond did one thing right. He invested in old cars, rare cars, cars other people scrapped without thinking twice. He parked them on both sides of the road, behind the woodpile, between crab apple trees, and just waited it out. Recently, a couple from Oklahoma was driving through Cleveland. They made an offer on one of his junkers. From the sky fell $6,000.

“Pretty smart, right?” Luis asked, eyebrows lifting, finally catching my eye. I couldn’t disagree. And I got the sense that this story – more than the bear story – hovered over this town, fueling the hopes of car collectors. You could call the men of Cleveland hoarders; you could also call them dreamers. Keeping a junk car in view, right out your window, I realized, feeds a vital fantasy: that one day, you might just have more.

I was about ready to drive off, but wanted a moment alone with the old cars of Cleveland. Spotting an isolated lot, I gunned it down a gravel road towards a cluster of tanks, cranes and the most beautiful old cars I’d seen all day: a pair of pastel ’51 Pontiacs.

What nature had done with these two Pontiacs was about to make my click finger sore. Purple blossoms sprayed out from the open engine. Tan brambles claimed the steering wheel. A riot of weeds hid the seat cushions. And on the round, red-speckled hips of both cars, the silver insignia with a Native American profile, shone like a day-old coin.

Any minute now, the sun would find an opening in the lavender clouds cottoning over the valley. It was the perfect finale, save the sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

“Can I help you?” asked a man riding shotgun in a modern SUV. His son was driving. I sensed more people in the backseat. Jacobo, owner of this tank yard, had brought the entire family to find out what I was doing here.

“I’m just photographing old cars,” I said, ready to put two hands up. I had, though, one thing going for me: I loved Jacobo’s Pontiacs, and so did Jacobo. Fiercely. That’s probably why I hadn’t gotten shot in Cleveland today. The old cars were the town pride, and I was framing them. So I was cool, I was let in, and before I knew it, I was following Jacobo down muddy roads, past dead tractor trailers, so he could show me the army green truck just like on “M*A*S*H.”

Propped on wooden planks like a washed-up boat, the “M*A*S*H” truck was hidden behind a barn. You could still make out the Red Cross insignia, but not for much longer. Side mirrors hung on by bent twigs of metal. Just like on “M*A*S*H,” but phenomenally beat up.

Jacobo’s entire family waited in the running truck while I crept around the dead one. What else, I wondered, was hidden off route 518? A first edition limousine? Train cars? Some Rolls Royce entwined by cacti? How much potential were the people of this town sitting on?

The climb out of Cleveland was steep; my view was aerial within minutes. I looked down over the pristine expanse of green, unlittered from this height. The Mora Valley could pass for a Promised Land up here. It dawned on me, foot pressed hard against the gas, that no one had given me the most practical reason to let sleeping cars lie in Cleveland. Your grandfather’s old Chevy probably wouldn’t make it over these peaks, and any truck that dragged it would have to work mighty hard.

And yet I found an old school bus trying its best, pulled over at a scenic overlook where I, too, paused for rest. A scruffy man in oil-stained jeans sat on the bottom step of the bus he’d just bought at auction. A chiropractor, he rides through Cleveland every now and again, ready to buy. A lot of guys, he confessed, turn him down.

“They say no?” I was as amazed as amused. All those guys talking potential, quoting me numbers: I loved the image of them shaking their heads when the moment of sale came to pass.

“It’s complicated,” he told me, gazing into the clean panorama of pines. “You have to understand the psyche of New Mexico.”

I ran through all the answers I’d collected in Cleveland, reasons for the abundance of junk cars. “The laziness,” said the gas station cashier, the only woman I’d spoken to all day. Another person said sentimental value: “might be the first car their dad drove.” A shy man watching me photograph by his barn brought up scrap metal; he would one day scrap his broken bus, but first, wanted to build a shed for it (yes, a shed to protect what he planned to scrap).

As for Jacobo, whose Pontiacs are allegedly worth $35,000 a piece, he chalked it up to liberty. Old cars keep a man free, he said, unlike the computerized cars of today, which authorities can track. He preferred a car no one could follow, and that any good mechanic – a friend, preferably – could fix.

I’d given up hope that any two Clevelanders would answer alike. People seemed to use the junk car question to just tell me about their town, their ways. I wondered whether we could all do this – define ourselves, quite well, by the things we won’t give up. What other people part with – easily, ritually – and we cannot.

Talking junkers, Clevelanders painted themselves sentimental and hopeful and suspicious and proud. They like to sit on potential, uncommonly patient. They’ll wait for decades, ready for someone to make an offer, ready to cash in, or ready to say no, and keep what’s always been theirs.

[Photos by Colleen Kinder]