IN ORDER TO BECOME a bona fide New Mexican, it is best to submit to a number of initiation activities. A short list would include: hunting for piñon nuts in scrubland hillside forests of the north in the fall, digging out an acequia in the spring, making adobe bricks in the summer, and building your own adobe house. Add: learning at least a few words of the unique norteño patois of northern New Mexico. And, perhaps lastly, going to a large public meeting concerning the actions of a federal bureaucracy in order to raucously hassle your elected or appointed officials. Do not fail to invoke the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

I arrived in the Embudo Valley, midway between Española and Taos, in the fall of 1969, in full hippie regalia, which included a ponytail and VW camper van. My Australian-born wife, RoseMary, was probably thinking, Could this be Mars? Our Irish-born son, Adam, a little over a year, was in tow. We were refugees from the drug-addled and anti–Vietnam War turmoil of the Bay Area. After six months of stunned silence and writer’s block at the culture shock of returning to the States after seven years abroad, I ended up dashing out the first draft of the best novel I have ever written. For two weeks we camped out with friends in Embudo; we were two couples with seven kids between us, back of an old rented adobe they had christened “The Nucoa Ranch: the Low-Cost Spread.” (Nucoa, as some octogenarians might still remember, was white margarine sold in a plastic bag during World War II; to color it yellow, you had to puncture a little packet of yellow food coloring and knead it throughout the gelatinous mass.)

The run-down property was owned by Byron Harvey III, a Rolls-Royce-driving heir to the Harvey House fortune who lived in Scottsdale. In a sense, this was a matter of Old Railroad Tourism Money subsidizing Moneyless New Hippie Tourism, which was partly inspired by the scent freshly laid down by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Within days our hosts had taken us up toward Taos, to the hills above Talpa in the Pot Creek area, and instructed us in the tedious gathering of piñon nuts. This served to explain the mystery of why cars and pickups are parked at random along certain isolated stretches of highway in the north, in October, at the edge of piñon-juniper forests—such as the Taos highway and US 285 north of Ojo Caliente. Important rule: If you came across a nest of nuts stashed by a squirrel or other rodent, you were not supposed to take them all.

SPARSELY POPULATED EMBUDO, where we first stayed, is two miles downriver from Dixon, which nestles in the charming, narrow Embudo Valley, with a straight-shot view to the east of snowcapped Truchas Peak and La Jicarita; files of cottonwoods mark the presence of the Río Embudo and the eight acequias that irrigate the valley’s fields. At the time, Zellers Store—where you could get gas and shop not only for groceries but hardware and livestock feed and used furniture taken by old Doc Zellers as payment for unpaid bills—served as the commercial hub. Three schools served the educational needs of the area: the public, the Catholic, and the Presbyterian. Twice a day, the red-and-silver Trailways bus, on its Denver–El Paso run, drove into Dixon from the main Taos highway and ponderously turned around in the Zellers Store parking lot. If Dixon didn’t have everything, it certainly had enough of what we needed.

Original thoughts of renting a house in Santa Fe faded away. For $30 a month we moved into a sprawling old adobe with running cold water and an outhouse. Built by a woman, the house was once a shop, like many houses in what was formerly a commercial hub of the area that connected the upstream villages to the Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge station at Embudo. There was a garden plot between the back porch and the acequia, a four-foot-wide irrigation ditch channel that slipped under the Montoya fence to the east and snaked across our future backyard, around an old apple tree, before passing under the Martinez fence to the west. An artificial stream in this arid place. I was entranced.

It was some years before I learned that acequia is an Arabic term, which accounts for the fact that it does not conform to the rules of Spanish pronunciation: The accent is on the second syllable, not the next-to-last one, the i. The very term evokes the splendid water gardens of the Alhambra in Granada. I immediately fell in love with the little irrigation channel, but it was several years before I understood the uniqueness of the acequia as an institution governed by venerable Iberian customs—a unique institution that had somehow slipped under the radar of the American cultural steamroller. There were somewhere near a thousand acequias still functioning in New Mexico.

Ditches are ditches, and they need to be dug. My upstream neighbor was old Mr. Montoya, and one summer morning he summoned me to come help dig out the acequia following a flash flood that had silted up a hundred yards of the channel. I was using the acequia water to irrigate our small backyard garden. Mr. Montoya was the mayordomo of the Acequia del Medio. Mayordomo was another term it took me a while to figure out—with no inkling that one day I would eventually become a garlic farmer and mayordomo myself and, what’s more, write a book-length account of my long experience, with the term as the title. Anyway, with a half-dozen of my neighbors and their sons, we dug out the silt. Silt? No, more like milk-chocolate-brown slimy mud, which stuck to shovels and boots and hands. Surely, I thought, there must be a better method. I was still a ways from learning that in New Mexico, there is probably no better way than what has been done for the past several hundred years.

Nor did I have any idea of how soon I was to be covered in mud while building the first rooms of our adobe house, over the course of several years. But I had already become a student of the first Whole Earth Catalog and Ken Kern’s The Owner-Built Home, which showed how to evolve myself into a serious back-to-the-lander. At the same time, writing income was rapidly declining. The financial lifelines to affluent America and Europe were beginning to wither. What to do?

New Mexico offered a solution, a house-building subsidy in the form of a generous allotment of food stamps, which in the day were not actually stamps but currency-size coupons. In rural villages, they were the illicit currency of the poor. Food stamps fed us and our friends while we learned how to make adobe bricks and how to build the first rooms of our house, on land bought with the last of the movie money my first novel earned. (The movie has never been made.) But how did we learn how to build our adobe house? Simple: Our Hispanic neighbors taught us. Virtually everyone in the valley over a certain age had been involved in building or expanding or repairing or restoring an adobe house. Ruins of adobe houses, of which there were quite a few scattered around northern New Mexico, usefully revealed how they were put together. This was before the epidemic of mobile homes. This was before building inspectors dared to sniff around the back roads.

NORTHERN NEW MEXICO IS unusually rich in vernacular traditions: the acequia, adobe architecture, agriculture, cuisine, and the archaic dialect of Spanish still spoken in this once isolated northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire and its Mexican successor. Except for the last, the traditions brought over by Spanish colonists meshed nicely with Pueblo Indian practices; New Mexican cuisine is made up largely of New World ingredients, including corn in various forms, tomatoes, chile, calabacitas or squash, and beans, with rice and beef and chicken being the Old World contributions, plus wheat flour for tortillas and sopaipillas.

I am no expert in the Spanish of New Mexico and have failed to master its idiosyncratic turns of phrase, but through my long experience of working with ditch crews cleaning out the acequia in the spring, I have come to appreciate its singularity. Norteño Spanish very much belongs to its people, and many of my ditch workers at the time never completed school; it’s a dialect that doesn’t belong to the school or the government or a cultural King’s English elite. It belongs to la gente, and it’s theirs to form and play with and use to mock the greater outside world, an argot not open to outsiders. As mayordomo, I have spent whole days supervising ditch crews who passed the time joking and punning and spinning tales in their private language while they worked, richly mocking the powers that be—including, no doubt, myself. One of the traditional sayings, or dichos, passed up and down the ditch crew was one we adopted for household use: “En boca cerrada no entran moscas”—“Flies don’t enter a closed mouth.”

An outsider, a gabacho, güero, uno de afuera, can of course never become what true New Mexicans are born into, within the embrace of the extended family. Even our daughter, Kate, or Katya, though born in the now defunct Embudo Hospital, has had her status as a native questioned. But we can learn to understand the unique traditions of the area, and participate in them when encouraged to do so.

I know that I am a New Mexican, at least to a degree, whenever I go away for a time, either on vacation or to teach or to write. That is when the iron filings of my psyche align themselves along an axis that points back toward northern New Mexico, where I miss the familiar menu of any of a half-dozen Española and Santa Fe restaurants, most with women’s names—JoAnn’s, Angelina’s, Tomasita’s, Tia Sophia’s—with their menus that list enchiladas, tamales, tacos, flautas, tostadas, burritos, red or green or Christmas chile (not chili), and sopai-pillas, atole, posole, and bizcochitos. And I think, simply, Bueno, bueno.

Stanley Crawford writes and farms in the Embudo Valley. His new novel is Village, published by LeafStorm Press of Santa Fe. Learn more about him in “Storytellers,” p. 8.