Missions in the Middle of Nowhere | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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March to Nowhere
It was always hot. His head itched in the sun under the heavy morion, the open-faced helmet topping his suit of heavy armor. But it was always better in the morning. By a few hours after sunrise, the sweat pooling at the small of his back would cause the quilted undergarment to chafe as the armor stuck to it and rubbed against his skin.

Purisima Concepcion Mission at Quarai - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Purisima Concepcion Mission at Quarai, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Ahead stood a three-story mud-adobe pueblo, its residents milling around like polinating bees. He and the other soldiers had been walking through cultivated fields for awhile now and knew they’d arrive before long.

Franciscans and Mission Churches
Early Spanish explorers first saw the Salinas Basin as they headed north from Mexico in 1581. There were at least nine pueblo villages there. Three became missions over the next fifty years. The Spaniards removed the old gods, then forced the Indians to build churches and convert to Catholicism. During the 17th century, the Indians were often caught in the middle of the conflict between the Franciscans and the civil authorities, both of which wanted power over the missions.

Quarai Mission east side - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Stone walls – built by hand

The Franciscans and civil authorities agreed on one thing – the need to build huge stone churches with Indian labor. Quarai’s Purisima Concepcion was the third mission church in the Salinas Basin, built under the direction of Fray Juan Guitierrez de la Chica between 1627 and 1632. The initial architecture proved drafty and in places awkward to use, so it was remodeled slightly over the next 30 years.

Quarai Mission and  Manzano Church - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Quarai Mission on the hill – Manzano Church walls in foreground

A combination of disease, drought, famine, and Apache raiding led to the abandonment of Quarai in 1678. Settlers returned in the early 1800s and started building the Manzano Church in the shadow of Purisima Concepcion. But public protest and Apache raids in 1830 left the new church unfinished. Wall remnants may still be seen southwest of the main ruin, which still stands, roofless, today. Quarai is the smallest of the three missions protected inside Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

The ruins of the three Pueblo missions are a little less than two hours south of Albuquerque, separated by a few miles. Detailed directions may be found here.

Quarai mission church interior - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Purisima Concepcion Mission interior – Quarai

Shot Notes
Given a choice, visit on a day with some weather. Cloudy skies give you painterly wide-angle compositions, and softer, lower-contrast light. I also prefer winter for low-angle sun.

I chose 16mm when there was enough storytelling detail to fill the frame. I ended up partially correcting perspective in Lightroom for shooting upwards. I’d have preferred my 24mm f/3.5 TS-E for perspective correction in the camera, but didn’t have it with me. It also would have restricted composition – there’s a big coverage difference between 24mm and 16mm. Canon’s 17mm f/4 TS-E would be an ideal wide tilt-shift corrector, but I can’t justify its price.

I chose “near and far” compositions, with strong foreground detail and features leading a viewer’s eye around the picture to a commanding background. I also wanted to show the isolation of Quarai in its wild setting. To Spanish explorers and settlers heading north, Quarai and its sister missions at Abo and Gran Quivara must have seemed like civilized outposts in a lonely country.

More Information
“In the Midst of a Loneliness”: The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions, accessed from https://www.nps.gov/sapu/learn/historyculture/upload/SAPU_hsr.pdf

Salt, Societies, and Spirituality: A Tale of Two Cultures accessed from https://www.nps.gov/sapu/index.htm

Quarai, accessed from https://www.nps.gov/sapu/learn/historyculture/quarai.htm