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GP17Sep:  Wayfarers Along the Santa Fe Trail

Getting There.  From here to there is 1727 miles by road, probably less as the crow flies.  But you’ll spend the best part of a day, jet plane and all, getting there, pausing at one or more airports along the way, finally touching down at Albuquerque late in the afternoon.  It’s only 50 miles or an hour up to Santa Fe, but we recommend a pause overnight, so as to shake off the agitation from the trip and to tone down the overloaded circuits of your brain still vibrating from the string of cellphone calls that fill your days at home.

New Mexico Doesn’t Work.  We want to stipulate from the start that New Mexico is a dysfunctional state where things go awry as often as they go right.  It pays to move slowly, so you can simply smile at its many impediments, or res impedimenta, as Julius Caesar used to say.  Despite a reservation and 3 re-confirmations, our airport hotel had no booking for us in its magic computers; the young man on duty worked feverishly and found us some rooms at the inn.  Later, in Taos, we spent an hour crawling through town, because massive highway repairs had shut down the only other road--in the middle of the tourist season, no less.  When we asked a state government official for economic performance data about New Mexico, he found it too laborious to get back to us, absorbed as he was in trade negotiations with American Samoa or something of equal importance. 

This kind of thing happens every year.  We remember, on a previous visit, that express mail staggered to our door 3 weeks too late, having taken a side trip somewhere in the universe.  A line from A to B is not the shortest distance between two points in these parts.

We mention that this state that does not function very well by way of bemusement, and we are not sure it matters very much.  You will have a good time anyway.  What does it matter if you can speed down the highway, when you are not sure it’s leading anywhere.   We would even assert that its failure in earthly pursuits is part of its charm and purpose.  At its best, we think, this is a metaphysical estate or plantation whose excellence resides in its detachment from mundane, old-fashioned goals such as making the trains run on time or providing jobs for its citizenry.  Its mission comes from its missions, not from the doings of its marketplace.

Encrusted by Interlopers.  Strangely enough, we don’t think this state of affairs derives from the Spanish/Indian inhabitants who have been here for generations, but from the restless gringo newcomers who have poured in during the 20th century.  The governor himself, personable and talented Bill Richardson, is an import from Southern California of Hispanic lineage who came here to make it.  Congressman, UN delegate, Energy Secretary:  he’s possibly just stopping here a while before he goes back to bigger things in Washington. Recent host to a debate of the 9 Democratic candidates and also to assorted Texas State Senators (i.e. the Texas Eleven who are now down to ten) who were on the lam from Texas as part of their redistricting battle with Governor Rick Perry (Bush’s replacement) and Congressman Tom “The Exterminator” DeLay, he does not intend (or so we imagine) to bed down in this small burg for long.  At this moment, he’s the new chairman of the Western Governors’ Association and is offering up a big, multi-state agenda at its conclave in Big Sky, Montana.  A smart handicapper would say he has his eye on the vice presidency, or that’s what we’re smellin’, anyway.

The outlanders who have come over the years are transients, using New Mexico as a stepping stone to somewhere or something, not building a community or an economy.  They’re not investing themselves in the bricks and mortar of this needy area.  Many, in fact, do wonderful things for the nation from their base in Santa Fe, but are neither a plus or minus in local affairs.  Certainly that’s true of the 40 or 50 people we know there, all talented and worthwhile but definitely not into the gritty of Santa Fe.  

In other words, there’s not that much difference between the tourists who have settled down here for a while, like the Governor or the ex-Playboy bunny who runs an art gallery, and the flood of visitors who come through for a day, a week, or a month.  They’re often pretty restless, hoping to find something that they could not find at home, yet busy replicating their former lives here.  If you doubt this, just sidle up to the meat counter at Whole Foods where you can find them amassing the most glorious cuts of beef, importing their affluent life styles and emotional baggage into this very poor state. It’s almost amazing that special talents like Georgia O’Keefe or D.H. Lawrence, who loved this desolate, mystic land for what it is, set down here to remind us that New Mexico is about the spaces, and not about the congestion.  Only the persistent water crisis (www.sfwatercrisis.org) makes clear to us that the land cannot support dense populations anyway:  emptiness is the natural state of things.

Tourism Number One.  In fact, tourism and government are Santa Fe’s main businesses, albeit uneasy bedfellows.  The state government might as well get out of town, because all the short-shirted bureaucrats plug up the parking places and get in the way of tourist doings.  While it moves to the outskirts, it should create an independent hospitality commission for the whole state to make sure the care and feeding of visitors goes from good to better and best.  Such a body, for instance, might develop some state-run hotels, as in Portugal, to serve as models for innkeepers.  Clearly this state could do a much larger tourist business if it could manage to make visitors feel more cosseted.

A Promoter’s Paradise.  That it attracts so many visitors despite the neglect is testimony not only to the good weather but to the ceaseless flogging of an image of the place by promoters over the years.  Santa Fe, America’s second-oldest town, is today mostly a distant suburb of Texas and southern California.  Not unlike many other pleasure spots in the United States, it is a rather new creation in its present form as conjured up by real estate men and other trumpeters for railroads and the diverse interests that peopled the West.  In this vein, one should read about C.F. Lummis in American Character:  The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest.  A journalist out of  Ohio, he pumped Santa Fe and more before moving on to Otis’s Los Angeles Times and a very colorful life that included the creation of The Southwest Museum (www.southwestmuseum.org/history.htm) in Los Angeles.  Modern, museumed, romanticized Santa Fe, centered today on its agora, is the creation of Lummis and others like him who made it into a destination, instead of a stop on the trail, for Americans seeking something different.

Museums.  Museums have sprung up like weeds in Santa Fe, and the locals will tell you “we got culture and we got restaurants.”  Since we last visited, one has been started up for Georgia O’Keefe (1997) (www.okeeffemuseum.org/indexflash.php) downtown wherein we saw that she shows to better advantage when photographically reproduced than in the original copies of her work.  Alfred Steiglitz, her paramour, eventual husband,  and a camera giant, should have photographed all her works for distribution to make them more luminous and bring out their mystery.

Also new is the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (July 2002) (www.spanishcolonial.org), which quite handsomely displays a limited number of works in a most tasteful, chic way.  We would say that here old works (icons, weavings, and the like), ironically, are seen through the very modern lens of Santa Fe style, a thoroughly cerebral, rather barren, refinement of once roughhewn Southwestern culture.  It amounts to taking tribal masks out of Africa and putting them up on the hygienic walls of Jungian psychiatrists in New York City--very well displayed but very much out of context.  To find out about the Santa Fe arts scene, we suggest starting at www.collectorsguide.com, which takes one around to the objects d’art locales.

Should you be less politically correct, however, we would recommend The Bataan Memorial Military Museum and Library (see www.nmculture.org/cgi-bin/instview.cgi?_recordnum=BMM).  It’s only open a few days a week, unfunded and virtually shunned by the powers that be.  A local chap of mixed Indian/Spanish ancestry heads it up day to day, and he will share with great pride the valiant contribution made by New Mexico natives in many wars to include the Second.  We saw there a patch of the Blackhawk Division for which some of our own relatives fought, stylish motorcycles used in the Great War, and  the P-38 opener, not named for an airplane, but for the number of cuts it took soldiers to open a beer can.  Code talkers, Indians whose use of Indian language befuddled the Japanese in World War II, are also revealed here to have been active in World War I.  Some of the New Mexican military companies lost 50% of their soldiers in battle, but war is not the sort of thing newer Santa Feans like to think about.

Eating.  We notice as well that style often dominates substance when it comes to food.  Nuevo Mark Miller made his name here, and he and his Coyote Cafe are much remarked upon.  National writers wax on about Geronimo, the Anasazi, and Fuego.  Locals may drag you to a variety of quasi-Mexican joints that are passable if a little flat.

We wandered quite by accident to Santacafe (www.santacafe.com) which we’d last visited some 16 years ago.  A few blocks away from the hubbub, it’s only gotten better.  Our grilled sea bass and four cheese tortellini were great.  Best of all was our waiter, a very mannerly Hispanic fellow, whose service put to shame that of all the other establishments we visited. You can expect to see more about this restaurant and other things Santa Fe on Best of Class in the weeks to come. 

In general, if you move away from the dead center of town, you will eat better.  The farther from gallery row and museum hill you go, the more moving the art and the craft.  Perhaps the best of Santa Fe and New Mexico is not where people automatically congregate.

Holy Faith.  According to its website (www.santafe.org), Santa Fe means “Holy Faith” in Spanish.  Indeed, when you get past Santa Fe style and the cultural claims of recent immigrants, it would appear that New Mexico has a religious landscape that makes human pursuits seem trivial and the universe appear omnipresent.

This is, after all, the supernatural state where UFOs are, ostensibly, sighted and where atomic bombs are invented.  When you drift down the Rio Grande on a rafting trip, you see boulders that have thundered down the hillside and stark, geological fault lines that declare a cleavage in the earth.  This is the state where lightning from the heavens claims more lives per capita than elsewhere in the Union and where you can stay overnight at an encampment devoted to capturing bolts from the gods (see Global Sites #101 ).                

Pilgrimage.  Soon after coming into Santa Fe, it dawns on you that it’s the beginning, not the end, of a journey.  First, perhaps, you will stop at Loretto Chapel with its “miraculous staircase,” a beautiful retreat within the precincts of town.  A side trip takes you to Chimayo, where you will light a candle in its chapel, absorbing the reverence radiating from the visitors who find their way there.  Just beyond Taos, in the Taos pueblo, you will uncover a beautiful church which coexists with the spirits that inform Indian life.  There’s a spiritual journey to be had here.

American Mecca?  Perhaps there is a New Mexico beyond tourism that is destined to awaken our religious sense, much beyond the confines of traditional organized religion.  Could this state free itself of the web of government (both the State and the Feds are overwhelming here) and the predations of restless visitors to help travelers encounter metaphysical truths beyond those posed by the scientists at Los Alamos and the complexity theory crowd at the Santa Fe Institute?  As we have said, it does not do the ordinary well, so maybe it should only reckon with the extraordinary.  Right now it is denying its spiritual destiny, even if it is replete with New Age cultist activities in and around Santa Fe and Taos. It’s re-invention should be a Grand Re-Awakening.  The unseen New Mexico is the whole strength of the place.

To some extent, modern life in these Americas has drained us of reverence.  Can it be re-awakened here in view of the Sangre Christo Mountains (“Blood of Christ”) as an antidote to our heightened sense of risk some two years after 911?

It’s for this reason perhaps that many spontaneous outbursts of religiosity are breaking out in companies and institutions across the land.  Some are looking for a spiritual vacation, and we expect more retreats to be arranged for the world weary.  There’s increasing evidence that a more meditative existence is the very elixir our health and welfare most need. 

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