A Thousand Forking Paths to Santa Fe

We walked into a gallery that specializes in 19th-century Navajo rugs and silver jewellery. Despite their age, these rugs retain brilliant colours and designs, along with eye-watering prices.

A silvery trickle has appeared in the dry gash that runs beside Camino Real, the ancient 1,600-mile route leading south, to Mexico City. The Santa Fe River is a river again. But still, only a trickle.

A homeless man sits on the steep bank, belongings scattered on surrounding rocks, boots off, soaking his feet in four inches of water.

Where he’ll go next, after he has dried off his feet and put on his boots, is anybody’s guess. A series of forking paths, from the time before his birth, through his childhood and adolescence lead to this moment. Ahead, more paths.

I wonder at the series of events that led me to Santa Fe. Contingency and chance everywhere: My parents’ decision to emigrate to Montreal instead of Chicago or Melbourne. A fall down the stairs at Avenue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. A first glimpse of a familiar face. A mutation in chromosome 4p.16.3.

A Hispano wedding party poses in the churchyard beside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, as an intruder looks on.
Looking heavenward, in Sant Fe.

The Hispanos

On our second night in Santa Fe, I refer to the local people as Mexicans. It’s sloppy and stupid, and I feel mildly rebuked by our better-informed friend at the table.

The local people are Hispanos, and many of them are descended from Spanish settlers who came north centuries ago, long before there was a United States. They were part of large expeditions, pushing north to discover the rumoured Cities of Gold. Alas, there were no Cities of Gold, and rich Conquistadores lost vast fortunes on these expeditions.

But, by the standards of the day, their logic was sound. They had already amassed fortunes from looting and slaughtering ancient peoples to the south, so why not more wealth to the north? They came with hundreds of families of Spanish colonists, Indigenous labourers from Mexico (who built some of the earliest churches in Santa Fe), and herds of livestock.

Relations with Indigenous people in what would later be New Mexico, went sour, and they fled for their lives, back along the Camino Real (Chihuahua Trail). Other expeditions followed, and enough of those early settlers stayed on, seeding the families that still live here.

Gerald the Kid

At the New Mexico Museum of Art, I discover powerful painters I’ve never heard of. (Plus two or three canvases by Georgia O’Keefe.) The museum is small, but well curated. I wander through an exhibition of Ansell Adams photographs. Unexpectedly, most of them are portraits and prove that the man could do anything.

Near the end of my visit, I come to a startling portrait of a young cowboy in profile. The painter was Peter Hurd, who was born in New Mexico in 1904 and studied with N.C. Wyeth in Pennsylvania.

Hurd returned to New Mexico, and years later a local bigwig commissioned him to paint a portrait of the winner of the annual Billy-The-Kid-Rodeo (Billy the Kid was apprehended in Santa Fe, and a plaque at 208 San Francisco Street says as much).

The winner of the rodeo, 15-year-old Gerald Marr (above), was offered the first prize of an all-expenses paid airplane trip (in 1952!) to New York City and Washington, D.C., along with a portrait by Peter Hurd. Second prize was a saddle. The kid took the saddle.

Exterior of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Inside the museum, in one of its two sculpture gardens.

A song for Santa Fe

I’ve done a lot of dreaming and I’ve travelled some
But I never thought I’d see the day
When I ever took a ride on the Santa Fe.

(when you go travelling, it’s best for you
to take the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!)

It’s a tossup whether I prefer the Bing Crosby or Judy Garland version of this song. You can hear both on YouTube and both are pretty good.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad is now defunct. Like most passenger railroads, it was killed by the car. Just as, overnight, the railroad killed the mule trains that inched along the Santa Fe Trail and carried tons of merchandise from Kansas City, Missouri to downtown Santa Fe. The journey was 775 miles in length and took 10 weeks to cover. Or, you could opt for the mountain route, which added 100 miles but provided more water for humans and beasts.

The Santa Fe railyard today, with its handsome water tower.
Just past the railyard, a house huddled behind a fence.

Gertrude Sanchez

In Santa Barbara, some weeks ago, I sat on a bench dedicated to Leo Hawel, Jr., who sang in a barbershop quartet. This fact was enough to imagine an entire life, to populate a book.

Here, a few steps from our rented place, a sign commemorates Gertrude Sanchez. But the sign is terse. It says that Gertrude merely endured, for 96 years, right here, on this spot. And now her house is gone, too. Not a hint of whether she raised a family, taught school, sang while she cooked, loved and was loved. She lived here to the end: from childhood to womanhood and into old age, her back window overlooking a deep and swift-moving Santa Fe River, that we may never see again. And maybe that’s all we need to know.

The trash barrel adds a forlorn note to Gertrude’s legacy. The land right behind dips sharply into the Santa Fe River.

Correction: In my last post, a photo caption placed the fire station in Los Cerillos. It’s actually in Madrid. Also, in the first paragraph Santa Fe was spelled Santa-Fe. This is what happens when you don’t have a copy editor.

The Turquoise Trail

In Los Cerillos, New Mexico.

After our O’Keefe-themed day, we took another drive along the Turquoise Trail, which stretches 53 miles between Santa-Fe and Albuquerque and follows the famous Route 66. At Tijeras, “Gateway to the Turquoise Trail,” you’re invited to experience the Singing Road, which is 1,300 ft. of roadway installed with rumble strips that, when you travel at the speed limit, play “America the Beautiful.”

We missed the Singing Road, since we began at the Santa Fe end of the Turquoise Trail and didn’t make it to Tijeras, but maybe next time.

However, we did stop at Los Cerillos (pop. 229). At the Welcome Center, I read that the town was “actually considered” a potential state capital during its mining boom. The “actually” gives it all away. Cerillos has tumbled a long way from its heyday, when it attracted prospectors, investors and mine operators from across the U.S. and Europe. The surrounding hills are rich with silver, copper, gold, iron and other minerals and semi-precious stones. Indigenous people mined turquoise and other stones for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Today, the hills have been picked clean, and what’s left is uneconomical to dig up.

The Fire Station at Los Cerillos. It’s hard to get a handle on this town.

Lovely decrepitude

Cerillos is dusty, rundown, defiantly picturesque. Mostly dirt roads, ramshackle buildings and rusty barbed wire, but also a sprinkling of glossy art galleries and gated wealth. It’s hard to see whether the decrepitude is genuine or curated, as several movies have been shot here, so the Old West saloon you’re admiring may have been conceived on a sketchpad in Hollywood.

We parked in front of Mary’s Bar, whose faded sign could be the real deal (we’ll never know). Then, down a dirt road we finally locate Cerillos’s biggest attraction: the Mine Museum and Petting Zoo. The petting zoo is mostly chickens. As for the “museum,” it’s at the back of a souvenir shop, where you can rummage for hours among pieces of turquoise and other pretty stones.

A display of cheaply-made pamphlets caught my eye. Among them, one titled “New Mexico Bar Jokes.” Sample:

Q. Why did the American Siamese twins go to England?

A. So the other one could drive.

Madrid, New Mexico

The next stop was Madrid (pronounced MAH-drid). When its coal mine shut down in the 1950s, Madrid became a ghost town. Today, it’s more animated than Los Cerillos, with cafes, restaurants, shops and motorcycle gangs thundering up and down the main road.

From our spot at Java Junction (coffee and cutting boards), bikers rumbled back and forth continuously. Small packs of giant men wearing identical patches, inscrutable behind their shades. There was a Hispanic MC, as well as hard-ass retirees in gleaming too-new bikes, tricked out with carriers and lights. I wondered how the wolves and lambs greeted each other at gas stations and bars, whether they ignored one another, whether there’s a protocol.

The biggest gang on parade was hard to identify. A turf war in Albuquerque has pitted the Banditos with the Mongols. But these bikers didn’t belong to either MC. Based on their patch, I thought they were the Devil’s Diciples (note the mis-spelling), which is an established criminal gang with tentacles in dozens of countries.

But I’ve since learned they could also be the Disciples. Aside from being better spellers, Disciples are committed to Jesus. They’re a Christian MC, with the standard beards, tats and tonnage.

I can’t decide whether the patch says Diciples or Disciples.

For a better look at these guys, I strolled over to the Mine Shaft Tavern & Cantina, which boasts the longest bar in New Mexico (motto: “Madrid has no town drunk. We all take turns.”). The tavern is perched high over the main street and is adjacent to the Madrid Mining Museum.

Above me, large heads bent over plates and chewed.

Instructions near the entrance to the Mine Shaft Tavern & Cantina.

A case of O’Keefe

Near the entrance to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe.

The streets of Santa Fe are lined with art galleries and, since they can’t all fit at street level, the second and third storeys of most commercial buildings are also jammed with galleries and their well-dressed proprietors. Most of the offerings are not that good, to put it charitably, and that’s to be expected. The sheer volume is ridiculous. But a remarkable proportion is very good.

Santa Fe is drunk on O’Keefe, and for good reason. She was just one of the many artists and writers that transformed Santa Fe, back in the 1920s and 1930s, into a desert Mecca for painters, photographers and collectors. But among those first, her star has risen the highest.

On our second day here, we made a pilgrimage to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, where we viewed some fine paintings and learned about her early life, before she became an industry. Then on the weekend we visited the Georgia O’Keefe Welcome Center, in Abiquiu. Her home and studio at Abiquiu, where she lived from 1943 until her death in 1986, is just minutes from the Center, but we lacked the required tickets.

Instead, we trailed through the gift shop, where we had the opportunity to buy Georgia O’Keefe walking sticks, like the ones she carried in the desert; black, flat-topped gaucho hats, which the artist favoured; as well as the loose scarves and garments that gave the artist a gnomic presence among the rocks and rattlesnakes. We had pictures of the artist’s kitchen to look at, and a book that will make you cook like O’Keefe. There were archival-quality prints to buy, as well as stunningly produced portraits and photo books.

The lady was photogenic.

Before mandated access ramps, Georgia O’Keefe lived at this cottage at Ghost Ranch for several summers.

Ghost Ranch

To get to Ghost Ranch, where O’Keefe had a small cottage for some years prior to Abiquiu, we drove through a hot, dusty landscape of rocks and low scrub, with always a string of mountains rising in the distance. The 21,000-acre former dude ranch enchanted O’Keefe as soon as she saw it, and its owners eventually allowed her to buy the Rancho de los Burros cottage and its adjoining seven acres. She returned every summer for years, until she bought and renovated her more famous home in Abiquiu.

Today, Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian retreat and a stop along the 4,873 km. Continental Divide Trail, which begins at the border of Chihuahua, Mexico, and ends at Alberta.

Ghost Ranch has many outbuildings and places for quiet retreat. As we sat to admire the landscape, two men set up folding chairs under a tree and began tuning their banjos.
(For you non-Greeks, agape means love.)
Another view of Ghost Ranch. On the way out, we stopped at a corral where a young girl gave us apples to feed the mules and horses.
Yet another view of Ghost Ranch.

The New Mexico landscape is austere and beautiful, but also an arena of vague dread, of menace and sudden criminal violence. When your first, formative impressions of New Mexico are through TV shows, such as Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, it’s hard to get the menace out of your head. By the time you get to New Mexico, it’s already too late. For the mind is already colonized.

Nor do the Presbyterian administrators of Ghost Ranch help to declutter the mind and refocus it on nature: I find a room whose walls are covered with posters of movies filmed in the area; movies packed with six-guns, blood and murderous Indians. (On my second day in Santa Fe, Michael Shannon and I strolled past each other. Google says he’s in town on a shoot.)

The planet is burning, part 4

Yesterday, on our way home from Cerillos and Madrid, both located on the Turquoise Trail, we pulled over to take the photo above. When we finally arrived in Santa Fe, the city smelled like a house fire. At night, the lunar eclipse was barely visible and the stars, normally bright, had vanished.

The other lady of Santa Fe.

Repentance in Santa Fe

San Miguel Mission, The Oldest Church in the Continental United States (1620), stands across the street from the Oldest House in the Continental United States. No one knows how old the house is, but I’m told it’s really old.

You’ll find a lot of that in Santa Fe. The Oldest, the First, the Very First. Try telling that to the Pueblo Indians. But then, everything is in dispute today, everywhere — history, identity, truth, the very origins of the universe.

To get to The Oldest House in the Continental Unites States, turn left at Top Crust Pizza.

As I stroll along Old Santa Fe Trail, for my first glimpse of the Oldest Church, I see a middle-aged guy and two young seminarians standing in the shade. With the ecclesiastical robes and caps, it’s a classic scene of disputation. Except, the middle-aged guy is hectoring, insistent: something about “the plasticity of tectonic plates,” and the ageless, endless flow of continents. He cites academic articles, fresh research.

I respect the seminarians’ forbearance. They listen attentively, hardly speak, and when they do, I can’t hear a word they say. The old guy blunders on, hoping to bust down resistance and make his point.

I move on, embarrassed by the general futility.

The disputants, across the street from San Miguel Mission.
Another view of San Miguel Mission.
Adobe is the most democratic building material. The Oldest and the Newest buildings, separated by centuries, look identical. This might be a bank. Or a laundromat.

The planet is burning, part 3

I’ve been trying to run since we arrived in Santa Fe, but the 7,000-foot altitude is more than I bargained for. I’ve been warned to go slow, build gradually, drink lots of water. But nothing works. I feel dangerously depleted even after a few kilometres. There’s no shade, and the sun is implacable, merciless.

I run along the Santa Fe River Trail, which is just a few steps from our front door. The Santa Fe River, which flows into the Rio Grande, is an actual river only when the authorities release its precious waters from the county reservoirs. Meanwhile, the geographic feature I run along is a dry, rocky ditch with trees growing along its edges, trees that must dream of better days.

I pause beside a plaque to catch my breath, and read about the watershed and the importance of conserving water. A sentence stands out: “See the hardpack on those mountains? It’s not just for skiing; it actually feeds our glorious rivers and provides water for our families.”

I scan the mountains in every direction. Nothing but grey and brown.

This 100-year-old double cottonwood stands just in front of the Georgia O’Keefe Research Centre. O’Keefe loved to draw cottonwoods, and this particular specimen has its own email address.

The next day, after my run, I pass an old guy at his mailbox who’s wearing a blue UBC hoodie. I stop and ask if he’s Canadian. He’s not, but his daughter went to the University of British Columbia and gave him the hoodie. She’s now settled in Vancouver, has married a Canadian and just had a baby.

I congratulate him and ask if he’s planning to visit soon.

“Oh, sure, I’ll have to visit. It’s just that, well…”

“You don’t like Vancouver?”

“It’s just…too much rain. I like it here better.”

Over his shoulder, up in the mountains, a pillar of smoke rises like a vengeful god.


Atomic Tourists in Santa Fe

This one is just outside our front door. You see a lot of that here. I blame Georgia O’Keefe.

We land in Albuquerque, dazed and exhausted, which is what travel now always feels like. In the airport, a tiny cowboy walks toward me, barely five feet tall. His face is invisible under an enormous black hat, except for the tips of his moustachios. Wrangler jeans and lizard-skin cowboy boots.  Silver belt buckle. Black shirt embroidered with roses and ropes. Everything about him is small, exquisite. Except for his hands. These are large, gnarled and dark. The hands swing by his side. Boot heels click off into the distance.

I know I’m in a different place.

It was standing on the street, alone. No sign of a companion.

The planet is burning, part 1

On our shuttle ride to Santa Fe, we watch a plume of smoke rise from a distant mountain — first sign of the wildfires we’ve been told to watch out for. We later learn that it’s a small one, as New Mexico wildfires go. The big ones, to the east and west of Santa Fe, will limit where we can travel on the weekend in our rental car. Tourist sites have shut down, evacuations begun, farms dating back hundreds of years are burning to the ground. Every so often, on the streets of Santa Fe, cellphones explode with yet another amber alert. If you’re in the path, get out fast.

All is adobe. On the first day, the distant mountains were fuzzy and a yellowish cast was in the air. Evidence of wildfires.

Santa Fe Farmer’s Market

When we travel to a new place, and there’s a farmer’s market open, that’s where we always begin. In Santa Fe, we’re surprised that no one is selling bananas from Costa Rica or apples from South Africa. Instead, actual farmers selling only what’s in season, so we don’t find the tomatoes we wanted. Instead, tables are piled with fresh salad greens, radishes, spring onions, dried beans from last year’s harvest, bags of spices, fresh and dried grass-fed beef, and enormous bunches of dried peppers suspended, here everywhere in Santa Fe, like chandeliers.

Behind the tables are mostly Hispanos, descended from the first Spanish settlers coming north, hundreds of years before American settlers arrived from the east. Husbands in jeans and straw hats, wives in flowered skirts, kids helping out, grandmother resting in striped lawn chairs.

On the way back to our rented place, a guy in a long red beard is handing out slips of paper. He might be Irish, except that he wears a dark-blue turban decorated with sequins, and reminds me of the Hare Krishnas that used to populate downtown Montreal: pale, pink-cheeked kids chanting in saffron robes.

He asks for my vote. “KHALSA FOR MAGISTRATE.” I politely decline and keep walking, as I assume he’s running for Magistrate of Pneumatic Weirdness, especially as he’s handing out invitations to a fundraiser featuring Jake Jones Band and the Atomic Tourists. But I’m instantly ashamed of myself and turn back.

Actually, his full name is Devatna Khalsa, he’s a lawyer, works for the District Attorney, and has been a Sikh since 2007. Serves me right.

The planet is burning, part 2

Further on, we pause beside a 1941 Dodge pickup mounted on a concrete block. We learn that nondescript half-ton pickups just like these were used to transport secret supplies from the Santa Fe rail-yard, where we’re standing, to an ultra-secret team of scientists and engineers in Los Alamos, 50 kilometres northeast of here.

The Manhattan Project got a first taste of its strange fruit on July 16, 1945. The Trinity Test bomb (nickname, “Gadget”) was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico, as a dress rehearsal for Hiroshima, 24 days later.

The Trinity Test, 1.5 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb, was so bright it was visible hundreds of miles away, in Texas. Ten schoolgirls, at a summer dance camp 50 miles from ground zero, were thrown from their bunks by the blast. Soon after, they saw white flakes descending from the sky, like a gentle snowfall. The girls danced under this new weather, rubbed the flakes into their faces.

Only one of these girls made it to age 30, and she was afflicted throughout her life with a variety of cancers. Across large parts of New Mexico, cancer and infant mortality rates spiked. But the veil of secrecy and official denial continues.

A 1941 Dodge pickup, like the ones used to deliver secret supplies to the Manhattan Project. These kids just emerged from their art school.

Taking a Greyhound bus to the States, when I was a kid, I remember fallout shelters in every bus station along the way, in post offices and public buildings in towns and cities. You might remember the logo. Yellow and black, the colours of a hornet.

I’ve always wanted to visit Los Alamos and see where it all began, but it’s closed to visitors until further notice. The planet seems to be burning up.