A rattlesnake skeleton under glass, embedded into an adobe bench in the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The artist had one just like it at home.

When I was in grade school, I learned that if I brought home a picture book about snakes and opened it at random at the kitchen table, I would be rewarded with the sight of my mother going berserk.

“But, look! It’s not a snake, just a picture in a book,” I would protest, in Greek, as she upended her chair and fled from the room, screaming, while I chased her, the book still open and fluttering in my little hands. “You can’t be scared of a picture!”

The pleasure and satisfaction in the cruelty of it was a revelation, something new. For once, the roles were reversed and the adult was an unhinged screamer, the child a voice of reason. I didn’t even need a picture of a snake. An unconvincing stick would do just fine. Or a mess of badly scotch-taped loops of paper, with a splayed bobby pin stuck on the end, representing a forked tongue.

I’d waltz into the living room and toss that on the couch beside my mother. She’d hit the ceiling. I would dissolve in laughter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about snakes recently, after I saw one in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Over a couple of anxious days, I’d been firing off nasty emails from Santa Fe to a loan officer at our bank, back in Montreal. We felt that she had been too slow in finishing up some paperwork for a house we wanted to buy — our dream home in the woods. And so my emails were peevish and impatient. You know the tone. You’ve overheard it at airports and in hotel lobbies. People in Prada calling for the manager. Demanding upgrades. Making threats. Brandishing their Platinum EliteAsshole cards.

Our loan officer replied with an apology. A colleague had unexpectedly quit the week before and, overnight, her workload had doubled. Hence the delay. Plus, well, she now had Covid. No, she wasn’t on a ventilator, thank God. And her parents weren’t at risk, as they were now safely dead. Of Covid. But still, she had to work right through her recovery at home, if she ever hoped to clear the backlog. Thankfully, her kids were bringing her orange juice and leaving it by the door. This was over the weekend.

I wrote back with a weaselly apology: “…oh, terrible for you…no idea…but of course you understand…dream home… now slipping away…but thank God for your loving children…so if you could just…” etc.

I sent the email and went for a run along the Camino Real, which follows the Santa Fe River south. About fifteen minutes in, a shape appeared beside the asphalt path up ahead. From a distance it looked like a coiled garden hose. But as I drew closer, the hose moved. Outside of a zoo, it was easily the biggest snake I’d ever seen.

The snake sensed my approach and the head turned, tongue testing the air. For a moment we regarded one another. I took a step closer. A tail emerged from the coiled mass and began to shake crazily. No-No-No-No-No-No!

* * *

On the night Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidential election, in 1981, I was squeezed into a crowded lounge at McGill, watching the results on a wall-mounted TV through a haze of cigarette smoke. We were booing and basking in our shared Canadian superiority. We watched the professional actor glide effortlessly, beat by beat: aw-shucks humility…self-deprecating quip…sobering setup…pause to let things sink in…steely glint…Repeat.

It was morning again in America.

Today, when we think of global disasters, the mind goes to uncontrollable wildfires and floods, to bedraggled polar bears drowning from lack of ice. But for me, the 1980s were far worse. A fever dream of high-waisted pants, mullets and pushed up jacket sleeves. The Eurythmics. That was a planetary catastrophe.

And another thing about the 1980s — during that first Reagan term, it suddenly became cool to be rich. Raw greed? Bring it on! Unreservedly shit on the poor? Yes, please!

I had a part-time job at a picture-framing shop, where we sold posters of couples in tuxedos and gowns swanning in front of ugly mansions and spooning caviar into each other’s mouths. The caption was, LET THEM EAT CAKE.

* * *

The snake regarded me a moment longer, sensed that I wasn’t going anywhere. The tail stopped its shivering and withdrew into its coils. In an instant, it slid down the riverbank and disappeared.

Back at our Airbnb, I googled New Mexico Rattlesnakes. I had committed the snake to memory — reddish-orange, with diamond-shaped ochre patches — but I needed a proper name for my dinner story. None of the pictures that popped up matched. I tried googling rattlesnakes from adjacent states, from Texas, Arizona and Colorado, in case my rattler had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Again, I drew a blank. Then I read that some snakes have developed a ruse. They’ve learned to vibrate their tails to fool predators. Lookee here, pilgrim — I’m just a big ol’ rattler!

* * *

By Reagan’s second term, I had graduated from McGill and was freelancing for small ad agencies around town. When anyone asked what I did for a living, I said that I worked for the Ministry of Information. No one ever laughed and so I soon dropped it. In fact, I wrote ads for industrial valves and cheese. By then, too, I had a mullet and a moustache and was driving a Soviet car whose seats were upholstered with straw. I worried about car fires, fretted about my next job.

Then one day I landed a plum. An art-director friend at a big agency recommended me for a national campaign. Two weeks later, the two of us filed into a board room to pitch our ideas to the agency’s creative director, a tall, elegant woman dressed entirely in black. She listened intently until we were finished, thought for a moment, shuffled through the presentation boards and finally landed on one headed with the word WINNERS.

“This one,” she said. “This captures the mood of the times.” It’s too long ago to remember the details, but our idea was to make the customer feel like a winner. To declare them a winner, even when there was nothing to win, not a contest or a prize. She tapped the presentation board with a long finger. “That’s just human nature, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be in the winner’s circle, not stuck outside with the losers. Okay, we’ll go with that.” She rose from her seat and left.

I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t thought about it in exactly that way: You can’t really feel like a winner if someone else isn’t there to, you know — help out by being a loser. This had never entered my mind. The ecological balance, the absolute necessity of losers.

But still, it was a win for a young up-and-coming copywriter. And a big one at that. National reach, mass media, money in the bank, a yellow brick road of billable hours stretching to the horizon. I felt like Tom Cruise, whooping and dancing in my underwear, punching the air.

* * *

You absorb what’s out there, don’t you? Even when you’re sleeping. Even when you think you’re thinking about nothing. It happens all the time. You watch TV with the sound low. A man with a folksy smile, a reassuring tilt of the head. Laughing. He says something you don’t quite catch. Something changes, and you never see it coming.

Looking up, the mind wanders in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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.

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.