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.

I’ll make it easy on your eyes: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE GOOD. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WALK ON UR KNEES THRU THE DESERT REPENTING — U ONLY HAVE TO LET THE SOFT ANIMAL OF YOUR BODY LOVE WHAT IT LOVES

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.

Walk, Don’t Run

A runner along Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara.

On my last day in Santa Barbara, I decided to retrace part of my running route at a walking pace, just to see.

Down to Leadbetter Beach I went, past the marina bathrooms where I first spotted my hobos, now vanished, past the parking lot where surfer fire-fighters prep, and then uphill I went, along a winding path that skirts the cliffs, higher and higher, until houses with forbiddingly expensive views block the way, and that’s it.

At one point along my walk, I found a staircase hugging the cliff and I descended. At the bottom, a pair of young lovers on a big rock, gazing out to sea, and a family with two young kids. I walked the boulder-strewn beach along the cliff wall for a kilometre or so, hoping to see some sea lions or tigers, but saw no one except an elderly lady walking in the opposite direction. We stopped to chat and she said it was safe to keep walking, as the tide was going out. It hadn’t occurred to me to be fearful. But then I thought about rogue waves and other hazards and, when she was well out of sight, returned to the staircase, all the while scanning the horizon for signs of menace.

The tide was out but hazards were everywhere.

I pushed on, and saw a dozen surfers waiting for waves as lifeguards looked on from a pickup. Further on, three old men had finished surfing for the day and were trading war stories beside their beat-up jeeps and pickups and drying their sun-browned feet, toes knuckled and arthritic.

Surfers have their own lifeguards here.

I pushed on, and at a bend in the path, the air filled with tuneless, strangely familiar warbling. Then I rounded the corner and it all came into focus: the melody was “California Dreamin’,” by The Mamas & The Papas. A crowd of Sixties-era humans were gathered in a circle and strumming guitars, mandolins and ukuleles:

Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)…

California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day

These ancients had thin, tuneless voices — quite awful, really. But if you blocked out the whine, all you saw was bliss: eyes closed, mouths raised to the sky.

A restaurant facing Leadbetter Beach. I can’t think of a more “California” name than Chad.

I pushed on and, at the highest point of my walk, high above the blue-grey Pacific, I sat on a weathered bench to peel an orange and take in the view. From this angle, on this bench, I have plenty to feel lucky about. I’m not allergic to peanuts. I can still run.

Half an hour later, when I got up to leave, I noticed a brass plaque on the bench: Dedicated, in 1996, to the memory of Leo Hawel, Jr. by his fellow members of the Santa Barbara Barber Shop Harmony Society. Leo must have had loads of friends and good fun harmonizing with his quartet: striped shirts, straw hats, not one of them barbers. I hope to be as lucky as Leo was.

I imagine a bench, someone with a small hammer and a handful of brass nails, a fine view over a stretch of water…

The local skate park.

Berning Man

I ordered an espresso at Dune, our favourite café in Santa Barbara, and sat on a bench in the sunlight, watching a Hollywood type at a nearby table. He was older, handsome and distinguished, with a trimmed beard and a shaggy mane of blonde hair on the body of a twelve-year-old. I’ve read somewhere that the camera loves people with big heads. I can see the visual logic of this.

With him was a dachshund, which leapt on the chair opposite its master and perched with its nose near the table, as if waiting for its cinnamon latte.

The image was too good, and I was weighing whether to ask Mr. Hollywood-Handsome if I could take his dog’s picture. You can’t very well ask a stranger to photograph his kid. That’s just too creepy. But a dog — is that acceptable? Then again, dog people can be crazy.

As I vacillated, a guy emerged from Dune with a cup of coffee and sat near me on the bench. He was wearing an old Roots ball cap blazoned with a Canadian flag.

Of course I had to ask. But Steve, as it turned out, is not Canadian. He’s from Burlington, Vermont, and now lives in Santa Barbara. He played hockey at Middlebury College. In fact, played games all over Quebec. Got drunk often in Montreal. Hung out at the tam-tam on Mount Royal. Misses the northern hills ablaze with fall colours. Still burns for Bernie.

He’s a runner, too, and gets lost as easily as I do. We talked about the local running routes, the state of his country and the world.

Then we both had to go. Steve hopped on his bike and headed home, while I went in search of more things to see.

I never did get my photo of the dachshund.

I never got a photo of the dachshund. But I did get a photo of this guy, just before I arrived at Dune.

Americans get right to the point.

The Unfairness of the World

The remora, or suckerfish, has a suction-like organ by which it attaches itself to sharks for a free ride. In return, the remora services the shark by “removing ectoparasites and loose flakes of skin.” I am not making a direct comparison, mind you, but our travels often take us to places where rich folks circle and swim. These places are not exclusively rich, but close enough.

Running with the sharks

Two days ago, I went for a short run along my usual beach path and didn’t encounter a single hobo. I was disappointed. But, as I cut through a marina parking lot, a gleaming white Rivian, slow moving and stealthy as a shark, forced me stop so it could pass. I had never seen one before

Under the stifling heat and humidity trapped by the surrounding hills, I plodded along and reflected on the rich and not so rich, and on the unfairness of the world. Santa Barbara is very rich. You can see it on the streets, in the restaurants and shops. The high hills swarm with mansions, and Hollywood stars have abandoned L.A.’s traffic and pollution to live in the slopes of Montecito, just a few miles away. They descend, occasionally, to buy wine and real estate.

Julia Child also lived here, and left behind the the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. In fact, she was born in Pasadena, which disabused me of the long-held impression that she was a Boston Brahmin. Apparently, she was a California Brahmin.

Super-Rica Taqueria, in its white-and-turquoise cladding. If things go as planned, I will write a post on the use of white and turquoise in Santa Barbara.

Last night we dined at Super-Rica Taqueria, Julia’s favourite, about a kilometre-and-a-half from our hotel. We found out why Julia liked it so much, but she probably called ahead and had her tacos ready when her driver pulled up. From the moment we queued up to order, until the paper plates of food and blazing hot sauce were in front of us, an hour-and-a-half passed. Good things come to those who wait.

Arnoldi’s, not far from State Street. The main attraction is its bocce courts out back, among the tables. But we couldn’t verify this, despite the faint clacks and whoops we heard, as the rear dining area is fenced off.

The restraint of the City Fathers

State Street is the main drag in Santa Barbara, where you’ll find most of the restaurants, bars and shops. By early afternoon it’s teeming with locals and tourists, but also with a remarkable number of homeless people. A good portion of them are mentally ill. They punch the air, shout and swear. They live in unspeakable conditions, and carry about the smell of urine and defeat.

I have to give some credit to the City Fathers, who let these people be. Crazy homeless people can’t be good for business. I suppose something bad has to happen before they take action: a catalyzing event, such as a punch that actually lands on a tourist’s nose.

At Super-Rica, you’ll see all manner of pants.

I ordered the Super-Rica Especial and a Modelo with a slice of lime stuffed into its neck.

Stepping on dead mice

I ran again, yesterday, well away from the beach and into a neighbourhood of small, well-tended homes, where Mexican families live. I ran until the road began its steep ascent into the hills, and I soon became tired of listening to my own gasping. I turned around.

Several times, I stepped onto small squishy objects that felt like dead mice. But they turned out to be tiny purple-black figs, from trees planted along the sidewalk. Figs in spring! In Greece, we have to wait until the end of summer.

I saw Teslas tricked out with racing stripes and graphics, and ran by a large daycare echoing to the sounds of the Hokey Pokey. Outside a farmer’s market, an ancient Mexican man was making balloon animals, as beseeching children tugged on their mothers’ skirts and pointed.

At Ortega Park, I paused to watch some nine-year-old boys in a soccer match. In the few moments I spent beside the cheering parents, all of them Mexican, the Blue team pumped in three goals. The Blues were cruel and efficient. On the far side of the pitch, parents of the hapless Yellow team stood in grim silence. Life is not fair.

Wait, wait for it.

Running in California

This building has nothing to do with running.
But I am coming to peace with the fact that words have lost the struggle with images.

I run wherever we travel, which is a gift. I have time to absorb the slow pageantry of new places off the beaten path. Running can also mean hours of meaningless boredom and pain, but I’m used to that. And, since I don’t run with a camera, I have to trust memory — a diminishing resource — to record what I see. So before I forget:

In Long Beach, I turn right at a massive blue pyramid marking the entrance to the California State University campus, then past the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center — both alumni, and why does he got top billing? — then left on Palo Verde, and there it is, nestled in a corner of a service station: a baby blue 1968 Ford Mustang, being fussed over by a mechanic, so bright and glistening is the car, it appears newly hatched.

In Santa Barbara, I take the asphalt path by the beach road, and as I cut through a parking lot, I see a firetruck surrounded by firefighters. They’re furiously stripping off their uniforms, shrugging on wet suits, and running onto the beach with surf boards. Too many questions.

I’ve run this path now several times, and each time I see the same pair of hobos. (Is it bad to say hobos?) The hobos have the dark leathery skin you associate with living rough, a brownish mixture of sun damage and dirt. They’re sitting on the ground, propped against the back wall of a public toilet. Beside them, their towering packs. They’re reading hardcover books. They glance up as I pass: they are startlingly handsome. They could be Tom Ford models. Expensive eyeglasses, manly stubble, square jaws, gleaming smiles. Have I stumbled past a “Nomadland” photo shoot, and did the crew just break for lunch, promising to come back with egg salad sandwiches for the talent? I should stop to find out more, but I can’t imagine what I’d say.

On another day along the Santa Barbara beachfront, I pass rows of picnic tables surrounded by Mexican families. The ages range from newborns to ancient abuelas. Men stand over smoking barbecues and pass around cans of beer, as kids scurry between their legs. Women pile paper plates high with food. Years ago, I ran through a hilly park in Washington State and paused beside one such family to catch my breath. They had just finished lunch and were handing around watermelon. A kindly uncle offered me a slice and, out of shyness, I declined. My rudeness haunts me to this day.

Watch the Signs

The other day, we wandered through the grounds of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1929). It’s the city’s most imposing architectural landmark: a towering confection in the Spanish-Colonial style, dazzlingly white, imposing in size, as formal and fantastic as Ricardo Montalbán in his tropical suit. And yet, with its asymmetrical composition, its sunken gardens and wide field, where low-riders pull up and disgorge wedding parties on beautiful sunlit days, the Courthouse is also as playful and fun as a wedding cake.

The grounds have been planted with giant redwoods and other specimens, and the lawns are manicured to within an inch of their life.

As we left the Courthouse and I turned for a last look at the famous clock tower, a rat came scurrying out of some hole, veered toward me and, like a demonic toy car, passed between my feet and raced into oncoming traffic, its tiny clawed feet skittering furiously, dodging left and right between cars. I turned away, too afraid to look.

In all this beauty, a rat. The worm in the rose. The first sign.

Walking along the shorefront, a day later, I spied flat black boxes discreetly placed under each shrub. Rat traps.

It all comes together, when you pay attention.

When you start to look for the signs, they’re everywhere. A pattern, sometimes plain as mud. Other times demanding close study. As one studies the clouds, for example. Or pores over the entrails of birds. Or intercepts the sidelong glances of passing strangers.

What does this really mean? Why is he smiling?

When you least expect it, the signs multiply. Take care, you’re on your own.

Why haven’t I heard?
Everywhere you look.
When and how will it end, and to whose satisfaction?

Roses are Like Racehorses

First day in Santa Barbara, chilled to the bone and standing in front of the Old Mission, at the top of the city. The Mission was founded by Fr. Fermin Francisco de Lasuen in 1786, and it was a political act — they all are — to secure Spain’s claim to the land and to the hearts of the native people. The current building was built in 1820, following the massive 1812 earthquake that nearly levelled the three adobe churches that once stood here.

The present-day Franciscans are kindly men. They have a gift shop, tours, places to pray and study. Maybe to offer penance as well.

Behind me, on the grassy field, is the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden, founded in 1955, with a donation of 500 pedigree rose bushes.

As we watched, in near freezing temperatures, a bridal party assembled under the white tents on the left: men bundled in warm suits and ties, bridesmaids shivering in clouds of lace and tulle.

Then I wandered the rose beds, studying names that are as evocative as the names of racehorses.

Ever since I was a child, roses have haunted my imagination. I stroll past yellow celebrity roses named “Henry Fonda” and “Julia Child.” There’s a salmon-pink “Over the Moon.” The strange, off-putting pink of a “Koko Loko.” But also the more beguiling pinks of “Falling in Love,” “Pink Iceberg” and “Sweet Surrender.” There are the heart-stopping whites of “Pillow Fight” and “White Licorice.” The blood red of “Othello,” and the crimson “Betty Boop,” the latter composed of miniature clustered blooms.

But “Passionate Kisses,” at the end of my stroll, makes the best proposition of all. They’re the only rosebushes in the entire garden without a single bloom on offer. At lease not yet: just thousands of IOUs of kisses to come.

The “Colourific” (above). Many of the roses in the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden have won national awards. Some have been bred here, too. Not sure about this one, or the one below, which was nameless.

Palos Verdes, California

I am on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, twenty-five miles from downtown L.A., and immediately behind me is the Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles: Mostly men with tucked-in shirts, focusing on the ball. To get here, from Long Beach, we passed mile after mile of shipping containers, thousands of them, piled Lego-like beneath giant, idle cranes. The solutions to so many problems are locked in these steel boxes. But here, as long as you don’t turn around, nothing matters.

This lighthouse sits on Point Vicente, named after Friar Vicente of Mission Buena Ventura. Captain George Vancouver did the naming in 1790.

As we walked the beach, we looked up. On my birthday, in 1999, a big chunk of the 18th-hole fairway slid into the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the former Ocean Trails Golf Club was a distressed property when the current developer bought it.