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.

Woo-oo-ooo!
(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.

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