You think it’s going to be the cliffs, the canyons, or maybe even the petroglyphs. You think what will astound you about Santa Fe and its surrounds will be the Grand Canyon landscape, the moonstone hardscape of the desert, or the balmy waves of heat coming off the land.
But then you look up, and there it is: It’s the sky that knocks you over. The sky in Northern New Mexico is—there’s no other way to say it—just huge. It’s a big blue bowl over your head, and there’s nothing in the way of the dancing shadows and luminous white clouds that play with the light and sweep across the land like the arms of God.
The sky is so huge you can see whole weather systems come and go, and once you ascend up in altitude, the movements of the sky begin to play with the earth, painting giant abstracts for the eye. The phrase “sweeping view” must have been invented in New Mexico.
And then there’s the wind, flirting with the sky as if it’s a musical instrument and beckoning the beholder. The wind is a whisper, a whistle, a wall of breath so insistent you’re sure it’s a mystical call from another world.
It’s no wonder so many artistic souls have come here to paint or write, and no wonder the Native Americans thought so highly of the holiness of the place.
When we began driving out of Albuquerque at about 5,500 feet and started the climb to Santa Fe (at 7,200 feet) we felt it, wide-open expanses of land—dry, for sure—but with stretches we suburban Californians are not even remotely attuned to. On our northern west coast, we have mountains, sun, fog, and greening hillsides, and it’s all very green and lush. What we don’t have is expansiveness. We don’t have vastness or grandiosity or a sense of personal freedom in our landscape. We don’t—as the cowboys once knew—have a sightline that calls us to roam.
It only took one day in New Mexico before my husband (a film professor and a huge fan of Westerns) started offering historic details of the wagon trains, the Santa Fe Trail, the US Mail treks across the unsettled West, and, of course, the lawlessness that was the thrill of the barely settled territories in the first place. We sought to have our own taste of it, so once we settled into our digs in Santa Fe, we took our time and wandered the roads of the outskirts and beyond, searching for the feeling of the lovely freedom the unsettled West once brought to the soul.
It was called the Wild West for a reason—and even today the mix of cultures tells a story. While the rest of the cultured country was busy with its social mores and its rules, the West was being settled by people who didn’t play by them, mingling even through its wars. Native Americans, Mexicans, Spaniards, and colony settlers all came here looking for their Shangri-la, and their footprints are everywhere present.
Camus once said a brilliant thing. He said we do not travel to stay safe; in fact, we travel for just the opposite reason. We travel to shock the soul into seeing anew, to feel the earth in all its vastness, and to come home a newly altered person.
“What gives value to travel is fear … we are feverish but also porous … the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity….” – Albert Camus
Our first venture out was to Santa Fe’s local scene, an eatery named La Choza. We prefer to go where the locals go, and this is where they go. The spices in a simple plate of chicken enchiladas or chili rellenos will wow the senses, the margaritas will please, and the tortillas will melt in your mouth. But it’s the posole—a dish made from dried then boiled corn, sautéed in a red or green meat sauce—that is out of this world.
Downtown the next day, we took in the broad doors of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe that our friend Thayer Carter carved, then headed to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, then to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Museums abound—both small and large—and we only had to step around the corner to find the next one. What we found in them was the history of the land mixed with art, sometimes traditional, sometimes luminous and contemporary. A walk along the square brought us to rows of local Native American jewelers with blankets full of silver treasures for sale. We stopped halfway through the day at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi for drinks and a quick guacamole between sites; it’s a lovely inn to stay at if your budget permits.
A car is necessary to discover the Santa Fe sites and its surrounds—you’ll want to just book one at the airport—and it’s a must to take the drive on “The High Road to Taos.” The High Road refers to the non-highway, back roads route up the mountainside to the art center of Taos. But what astounded us was the number of galleries along the way.
Every ten miles or so, there is another town consisting of a small, historical church, a few run-down buildings, and, as if by magic, two or three lovely galleries, and often some terrific historical sights. See the plaza at Nambe, stop at the Santuario (built in the early 1800s), find Cordova’s woodcarvers (Frommer’s guide will take you step by step), stop in Truchas and Las Trampas, and you’ll get the flavor of the arts scene in Taos long before you get there, along with the history of a magical land. Don’t miss the Cardona-Hine Gallery, just off the high road in Trampas: lovely abstracts and inventive color-landscapes that will please the eye and the soul. And the owners/artists are a genuine delight.
Once in town in Taos, splurge a little and have lunch or dinner at Lambert’s. My husband’s enchiladas were flavored with a spice called carribe, a warmer version of cloves, that knocked the flavors out of the park. Wander from gallery to gallery and enjoy the landscape; there’s everything you could want here artistically. Our favorites were the Ortenstone Delattre Fine Art Gallery and the Inger Jirby Gallery. Later, we ate at the famous Doc Martin’s in the Taos Inn, and though the bar and music scene was terrific, we preferred the food at less-popularized eateries. The Wagner Casitas was a delightful and authentic place to stay, with cute cottages just off the main center of town.
On our third day we took bikes and drove to Santa Fe with our longtime local friends to ride the cycling trail that borders the botanical gardens. It’s called the Bosque Trail, and we rode for a good two hours on a well-paved trail that’s safely off-road. On the ride back, we stopped at the authentic Barelas Coffee House on 4th Street in Albuquerque (also historic Route 66) for some terrific green posole—worth every effort of getting there. Our cycling was blessed by early-June hot sun, warm but not yet blasting.
The next day, we took the car and began to explore Georgia O’Keeffe country. When we pulled up to Abiquiu—home of her first visits to the area—we found not much of anything. We thought to turn back, but it was in the local gallery, closer to the road, that we heard what we needed to hear. We met two lovely people from Marin County who were building a house just up the road who told us not to miss the scenic beauty of Ghost Ranch where O’Keeffe did much of her work. We took their advice.
We passed by a drying lake, and then turned into the ranch and saw and felt the magic; it’s not in the housing structures or where she lived, it’s in the cliffs, the hues, the textures, and the whisperings from the land to the soul. It was ecstatically beautiful. The cliffs rise; the colors dip in and out of oranges, yellows, and violets; the sun plays with the light; and it’s all incredibly magical. It is mystically evident all across this land how the earth inspires art.
Heading out of Santa Fe the following day, we drove to the Rio Grande, stood on the bridge, and took in the gorge that historically marks so much of our American lore about the West. Then later, at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, we soaked our traveling bones in the arsenic, soda, and iron hot pools, leaving all of our traveler’s tension behind. The hot pools at Ojo were once a sacred Native American spot, now modernized, but still with the broad flat rock surfaces that mark the uniqueness of the place. The Artisan Restaurant is spectacular after a good long soak. (Don’t miss the deep fried green chilies, the trout with garlic and pine nut paste, and the fried spinach that’s light as air.) Overnight stays in the lovely inn are reasonable and well worth it.
For a more touristy twist, we took the next day and explored Bandelier—the national park that was home to Native American cave dwellers for some 400 years. What’s amazing about the caves is we could crawl inside them, view the gulch from the cliff sides, and still see—and touch—the carvings on the walls of the caves. It’s a nice hike up into the caves, and you can trek farther up the path if you choose for a great view of the canyon. (By now I was in love with green posole, and even the snack bar at Bandolier had a terrific bowl of it for about $6.)
Our last venture was north to El Valle, where our friends have built a small custom cabin. Northern New Mexico begins to feel like California, greening up and rising into smooth, rolling hills, with pine trees and a lush higher altitude landscape. After a hike on the land, a walk in the creek, and an outdoor meal, we were in love with the place.
On our very last day, we trekked the shops and galleries of Canyon Road, the incomparable arts-centric neighborhood of downtown Santa Fe. A nice walk from the square, Canyon Road is the hip-dom of the town’s arts scene. Much of the artwork and craftwork—if you’re buying—is still really affordable. And there is much to choose from. We went home with boxes of art objects and several good pieces to frame.
At the end of our trip, back in the La Choza bar, we both agreed: the spectacular heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is something beyond its incredible art, beyond its culturally rich history. It is something no human could have managed to invent or create. It is, in the end, the great dome of the sky in its brilliant expanse. In Santa Fe, the sky rules the world. And the majestic movement of it across the landscape, the mystical breath of the wind as it whispers through the spirit and soul filled us with a blessed and sensual pleasure that will last for days and days to come.
When you go…
El Farol 808 Canyon Road Santa Fe, NM (505) 983-9912
La Choza 905 Alarid Street Santa Fe, NM (505) 982-0909
Pranza 540 Montezuma Ave Santa Fe, NM (505) 984-2645
Ojo Caliente Artisan Restaurant 50 Los Banos Drive Ojo Caliente, NM (505) 583-2233
Black Mesa Winery 1502 Highway 68 – Mile Marker 15 Velarde, NM (800) 852-6372
Lambert 123 Bent Street Taos, NM (575) 758-1009
Café Grecco 233 Canyon Road Santa Fe, NM (505) 820-7996
El Farolito 1212 Main El Rito, NM
Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi 113 Washington Ave Santa Fe, NM (888) 767-3966
Hacienda del Sol 109 Mabel Dodge Lane Taos, NM (866) 333-4459
Wagner Casitas 114 Padre Martinez Lane Taos, NM (877) 588-8267
Inger Jirby Casitas 207 Ledoux Street Taos, NM (575) 758-7333
Hot Springs With Accommodations:
Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa 50 Los Banos Drive Ojo Caliente, NM 87549 (505) 583-2233
Ten Thousand Waves, Resort and Retreat 3451 Hyde Park Road Santa Fe, NM (505) 982-9304