SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO – THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT
Where to begin? It was so beautiful in Santa Fe (named after my favorite saint – Saint Francis of Assisi) and with so much to explore, we extended our stay from seven days to ten. We found the perfect camping spot that had a 360 degree view of the mountains in every direction, which meant lovely sunrises, breathtaking sunsets and clear, starry skies most nights. The sky here has a special quality that’s hard to describe – not only does the sky seem bluer but when there are no clouds after the sun sets, the sky glows for what seems like an hour. One of our new practices is to ask people what brought them to the area (Santa Fe has many transplants). The first person we asked in Santa Fe worked at the Visitor Center and she told us she was from Washington state and called New Mexico the “Land of Entrapment”. She came for a vacation with friends and ended up staying. Most of the people we asked this question had a similar story – they came on vacation, to visit someone, or for a job and fell in love with the place.
This area has an interesting mix of old and modern art, Native American history, Hispanic history, Wild West history, as well as some serious poverty. Santa Fe, being the capitol of the state, has more resources than some of the outlying towns (including Taos), so the poverty isn’t quite as evident but it’s still there – especially once you get off the main roads. Speaking of roads, we’ve never seen so many roadside memorials than in this area. Some actually looked like graves and many were heartbreaking. One memorial we saw had five crosses and four of them had little white teddy bears on them. We drove by many cemeteries and they were intriguing too in that they were all fenced but there were almost always a few graves outside the fenced areas too. Each time we saw this, we wondered what the story was. Fascinating.
One of my favorite parts of Santa Fe is the adobe architecture and all the old churches. We saw the San Miguel Mission which is recognized as the oldest church in the United States (built in the early 1600s by Tlaxcalan Indians of Mexico). It is next to the De Vargas Street House also known as the “The Oldest House” in America (this classification seems to be disputed but it is definitely ancient!). The De Vargas Street House started as a pueblo in the 1400s and was continuously added upon and occupied by many different cultures until the 1920s. We also saw the Saint Francis Cathedral and the most charming church in Santa Fe which was the Loretto Chapel.
The Loretto Chapel is a church famous for its all wood spiral staircase that was built under “mysterious” circumstances without nails or (apparently) a central support. It is an incredible feat of engineering to be sure – even Bob, engineer extraordinaire, was very impressed. It’s a beautiful chapel with lovely stained glass windows and of course, the amazing staircase. One of the sweetest parts of the church though was two little trees standing outside the chapel that had hundreds of rosaries hanging from them. Lots of prayers in those little trees.
The food in Santa Fe was great too. [mmm… Hatch chilies! …BR] Another of our new practices is to ask people what is their favorite place to eat. Our goal is to eat at as few chain restaurants as possible though I must admit, I’m really missing an In and Out Burger! So far, we’ve been really lucky and have found some delicious restaurants. Our favorite place in Santa Fe was a chocolate bar (as in drinking establishment) called “Kakawa Chocolate House”. Kakawa is an Olmec (first major civilization in Mexico) word for chocolate and they serve up THE BEST hot chocolate anywhere. It’s not like any hot chocolate we’ve ever had – so thick it was almost like eating a truffle and with different ingredients than I would ever even imagine like blue corn flour, coconut, or unusual spices or sugars. Of course, they had other wonderful chocolate creations (truffles and candy and brownies – oh my!) of which we happily partook and even purchased some hot chocolate mix in bulk so we could enjoy it on chilly evenings while on the road. Finding that place was a great discovery!
We also went to the Santa Fe farmer’s market. We love farmer’s markets and are going to try to go to them in every city we visit that has one. This one was typical of many markets we’ve gone to except much pricier. Great art to look at but not as many food choices as we'd hoped and surprisingly not as much produce as we expected. The seasonal timing probably accounts for that. We did foolishly purchase a small basket of “French” strawberries for $7. They looked very pretty, though petite and not shaped like regular strawberries, and the man selling them made them sound delicious so we went for it. They had an interesting flavor but did not taste near as good as they looked. At least we tried something different which is what this trip is all about. Win some, lose some.
Beyond Santa Fe, we explored the surrounding areas. Our first stop was Cerillos where we went horseback riding on some overlook trails through hills dotted with turquoise and copper mines. It was a fun ride, dusty and smelly, but the views were worth every sneeze and muscle ache. Cerillos is a ghost town – the only open businesses were the post office, “The Broken Saddle” (where we went horseback riding) and a dilapidated trading post. Evidently, many artists live there but for the most part, it looks very abandoned. “Young Guns”, which we haven’t seen, was filmed there. “Wild Hogs”, which we have seen and enjoyed, was filmed in Madrid which is three miles south of Cerrilos. We stopped by to check it out and have a yummy lunch at “The Hollar”. Madrid is a cute, quirky town with lots of art galleries, restaurants and gift shops including “Maggie’s Diner”, which is not really a diner but a set built for the movie and is now a souvenir shop.
We took an amazing drive out to Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe spent a good portion of her life. I could totally get a sense of why she picked this location to live and work. It’s truly beautiful and peaceful. It’s also very isolated which is why outlaws originally picked that canyon to hide in and they started ghost rumors to keep people away. I’m not a huge O’Keefe fan but I do like a few of her pieces and learned on this trip what a great sense of humor she had. I have a more rounded picture now of who she was and what she contributed to this area.
We next took an incredible drive up to Taos. Taos, itself, was a bit disappointing but had its own charm. It’s probably a bit more charming in the Winter season or even Summer. Our timing wasn’t great as a lot of places in town were closed – either due to the off-season or because it was a Monday. The Taos Pueblo was not open until May so we missed that too. We did take a side trip to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (a suggestion from the gal we met at the Santa Fe Visitor Center) which is just outside of Taos and that was a great tip. It took our breath away seeing how deep the gorge was. We saw more rosaries hung along the bridge railings and wondered again what the story was.
We followed the Rio Grande for many miles on our way back to Santa Fe and at a few points stopped to take some photos as the river glittered in the setting sun. At one stop, as I walked towards a ledge, I lifted my camera and a giant golden eagle swooped down so close to me, I almost dropped the camera and ran. He hovered for about five to ten long seconds and I could see his eyes, his large beak, his open talons and all his glorious feathers backlit by the sun – it was actually almost frightening how huge and how close he was. His wing span must have been at least eight to ten feet and he was only about that same distance from me. I didn’t even try to photograph him – I knew I would miss the moment of just taking it all in so I looked at him as long as I could before he flew off. What an adrenaline rush!
Aside from my brush with a golden eagle, another cool part of our trip to Taos was that we took a wrong turn on the way up and ended up driving through Truchas, which is a very old town. It was the first time we felt like we were in a completely different country – a single lane dirt and gravel street with few markings, run down or closed businesses, many decaying or collapsed buildings and houses. The only life we saw were dogs lying in the street like they owned the place. Once past the little town, the countryside was so pastoral, it was like heaven but we finally had to turn around and head back to reality – past the same sleepy dogs and sleepy town. We found out later that this is the little town in which Redford’s great film “The Milagro Beanfield War” was made.
We also made a trip to Los Alamos – on Bob’s bucket list of places to see. It was another beautiful drive and the town history is very interesting. We went to the Bradbury Museum which covered the history of Los Alamos in regards to The Manhattan Project (aka Project Y) which was the building of the first atom bomb. The museum also covered the history of WWII and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which, in many people’s view, basically ended WWII and saved more lives than if the war would have continued. We’ll never know, I suppose, if this is really the case but what’s done is done and hopefully, there will be no other bombs dropped. It’s definitely a scary world out there… The museum did a good job of conveying the history and all sides of the war as well as the continuing debate on whether the bomb ended the war. It was very moving – I cried through most of the exhibits but am glad we went.
The highlight of our trip to that area, for me, was hiking the Tsankawi pueblo trail near White Rock. We hiked and climbed up to some of the living spaces where Indians had lived about 600 years before. It was so easy to imagine how it was back then – I could almost feel children running around me playing and sense women working in the fields below. Again, the views were amazing which is probably why they picked this location. You can see who is coming, there was water (long since dried up) for crops and good shelter from the elements. What more can you ask for? [Air conditioning…BR]
One of my favorite memories of our time in Santa Fe, other than the gorgeous scenery and relaxing a few minutes here and there in our fabulous camping spot, was our visit to Santuario Chimayo. This is a little chapel in Chimayo known as the North American Lourdes – famous for its healing dirt (as opposed to Lourdes in France which is famous for its healing waters). Fortunately for us, we went a couple days before Good Friday or our visit would have had a totally different flavor. When we went, there were very few visitors but this is a famous pilgrimage site for many people all over the world on Good Friday, so the traffic and crowds would have been a challenge.
This is one of the sweetest and most moving little chapels I’ve ever been in. The church grounds were filled with crosses placed by the staff or by some of the visitors. There were also rosaries and hand made stick crosses hanging everywhere there was a place to hang something. Even the large stone crosses at the edge of the property had names and prayers written everywhere there was a blank space and there were little trinkets and notes stuck in many of the crevices. There were large walls of photos both outside and inside the chapel of people who were being prayed for – living and passed.
When I first entered the little chapel, there was a beautiful painting of the chapel in the alcove that seemed to have a light of its own (see photo gallery for a photo of this painting – beyond the alcove, photography was not allowed). Once entering the actual chapel, it was like many of the little mission chapels we’ve been coming across but a little more rustic. It was interesting and surprising that at the front of the chapel, above the crucifix, there was an image of a dark, brooding Christ in which it’s hard to decide whether his eyes are open or shut. It’s not a typical picture of Jesus, and it's one I used in a photography class final project book describing the many faces of Jesus. I sat down on the far left front bench to pray for a few minutes and noticed I was sitting next to an old, open bible on a stand and another surprise was that it was open to my favorite picture of Jesus (a more typical, white-bread image) of him praying at the Rock of Gethsemane. For some reason, that picture has always touched me.
To the left of the altar area there was an entrance to another alcove which contained some historical artifacts, a small altar, and another wall of photos of people being prayed for. On this wall, there was a section devoted to photos of those in the military and this was especially moving. There was a little room off of this alcove – called “El Pocito” or “The Little Well” – this is the room with the holy dirt which is located in the center of the floor and it had two little shovels in it. The room was sparsely decorated but there was a poem hand written on a scrap piece of board on one wall. It was a tender poem, written by a visitor (George Mendoza of Las Cruces) about visiting there and how he felt about the place. The only lines I can remember – probably because they really choked me up – are about little children with brown faces smiling and that when sun falls asleep, it is with no regrets.
There was a family in the little room when I entered it – a father, mother and young teenage son – and the mother was on her knees filling five or six small boxes with the holy dirt. She then put some dirt on her forehead and over her heart, made the sign of the cross, and whispered a little prayer before standing and then they silently filed out of the room. The son walked behind his mother and father and unknown to them, he bent down and picked up a little dirt and put it in his jacket pocket and mouthed a little prayer. I’m getting weepy again now remembering how heartrending the whole scene was and I prayed that their prayers would be answered. I then knelt down myself and picked up some holy dirt with my hands so I could feel the texture of this dirt that is so revered. It was very cool to the touch and not gritty at all – it reminded me of perfect brown sugar. I put some of the holy dirt in a little tin with prayers for someone dear to us who is bravely battling cancer. Who knows – maybe it will be just what little more magic – what little more prayers to heaven – is needed. People just really want their prayers answered and this place shows the great lengths people will go to in order to have their prayers heard.
Our time in Santa Fe was wonderful. There are not enough adjectives to describe how beautiful, how moving many of the places were that we visited. It is truly “the land of enchantment”, but for us not yet “the land of entrapment”.
So, on to Carlsbad, New Mexico and the Caverns with a quick stop in Roswell. Hope we’re not abducted by Aliens! [That might be interesting though!... BR]