Santa Fe is really an amazing town. It should be on just about anyone’s bucket list. I have a particular history with the town. The first time I visited was in 1998, with my then-girlfriend, who would eventually become my ex-wife sixteen years later. We would visit the city three more times. Once for our honeymoon, once with my former mother-in-law, and the last time in 2013.
And even those experiences couldn’t ruin the magic of Santa Fe, NM. It is a crossroads of the real world, superstition, wonder, and the senses.
It is the oldest capital city in the US, being the location of the Palace of the Governors during the years New Mexico was part of New Spain. It was a trading outpost for the indigenous peoples, Europeans, and all points in-between. When the American government took over, the US Military was saturated throughout the area, even dispatching forces during the time of Billy the Kid and Poncho Villa.
Today, it is a living example of what people recognize as Southwest or Santa Fe style, with blocky adobe buildings that match the color of the surrounding desert. Ristras and Kokopelli adorn the front porches of just about any building here. The Latin American influence is heavy with calaveras and Oaxaca woodcarvings in just about any shop, just as much as turquoise and silver squash-blossom jewelry. However, New Mexicans are proudly New Mexican first.
The state flower really should be the Green Chile. I’ve gone on at length about the wonders of this uniquely New Mexican dish. It is ubiquitous, appearing in anything from burritos to milkshakes. But in Santa Fe, there is so much more. If for any reason you come to this city, the arts, the galleries, the history, the aesthetic…you have to try the food. Eating in Santa Fe was felt like how the first people to see a color television must have felt after twenty years of black and white.
Carne adovada. Learn it. Love it. Live it. I haven’t had a bad order in the city yet, try as I might. Carne is a stew of slow cooked pork in an adobo sauce. It goes good on eggs. In a chimichanga. Or just by itself. Often imitated, never duplicated.
On my way back home I got to stop in Santa Fe for the night. The first thing you notice when you get to the Plaza is the scent of burning mesquite. It saturates the air, perfuming it with a sweet and smoky aroma that will stay with you the rest of your life. Years later, the same smell will awake memories of food and quiet nights walking among the adobe buildings and narrow streets of downtown. A city platted with the medieval mindset of the Old World which has since then been built upon by centuries of continuous habitation. A narrow alleyway still stands as the place where caravans of mules and donkeys were deployed on the Santa Fe trail.
Downtown, tiny shops filled with anything from French pastry to chocolatiers, silversmiths, boots and leather, clothing, toys and games, and museums and galleries occupy every nook and cranny. At the Palace of the Governors, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute vendors display their goods on handwoven blankets just as they have for hundreds of years. The boardwalks, plazas, and architecture are like stepping into another world. A place that is older, richer, and even magical.
This place is so captivating that I even had a lot of fond memories of times there when I was married. But without the regrets. Without the bad taste in my mouth. Somehow, this place was left mostly untouched by those thoughts. It was no longer “our” place, but mine. Santa Fe was like an old friend who had seen a cross section of many rough years, only to see me again in a new light, and I saw it there as well. I think the city saw that I was doing very well.
Other than broad strokes, I really cannot do the place justice. Dancing at La Fonda hotel to live bands, brunch at a French bakery, pinon fudge at Senor Murphy’s. You’ll find rugs from tribes in Afghanistan. Antiques. Outdoor outfitters. And even further down Cerrillos Road to Jackalope with its carvings, pottery, and rugs.
At night, I wandered the streets, taking pictures of old churches, cathedrals, storefronts, and just drinking in the architecture. The last time I had been here, it was the chaos of a rough marriage. This night, I was alone and just taking in the experience. That is until the calls started coming in.
The last installment, I might have mentioned that I was trying to stay awake on the road, well at about 10pm, all my chickens came home to roost and so the calls started rolling in. People wanting to visit. Wondering if I was okay. By then, I had decided something in my life needed to change, and when I talked about my decision with such bright eyed enthusiasm, some of my friends freaked out for me. And not in good ways.
On the drive, and sitting in front of the statue of St. Francis (one of my faves of the Catholic not-a-pantheon), I decided my life as an aspiring writer/data entry clerk was uninspired and frankly depressing. I decided to start this website and work hard to become a travel writer. I could go places, which I love, and write about them, which I also love. Who knew that such a decision could be so scary for some. I was warned off from it. Lots of talk about “What about your retirement?” “Wait until you are retired to do this!” and plenty of justification to stay the course–at a place that is literally killing me every day.
Unfortunately, this kind of talk rattled me. The next day, I returned to the Plaza to see it in the daylight. I walked the sidewalks and talked to other people. I helped a young woman carry boxes of coffee to her car at the LaFonda parking garage. I watched the congregation of the St. Francis Cathedral spill out into the brick streets after service was finished, listening to the old bronze bells pealing their music.
I sampled Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and visited with the shopkeeper there for a while. Next, I stopped off at Nomad, an outdoor equipment store, and chatted with a nice young lady (J) there for at least half an hour. Our conversation turned from suggestions on daypacks for my upcoming trip to London to tips on just how to act while traveling abroad. J’s hair was full, dark brown curls, which she constantly ran her fingers through, piling the ringlets on top of her head, which she then let fall back down to her shoulders like a murmuration of birds, ever-changing and mesmerizing. I learned that J’s mother was Polish and her father American, yet well-traveled, and from an early age, they instilled in her a very Continental attitude when traveling. Be open to new experiences, be friendly, and don’t go waving your attitudes and preconceptions around.
I told J about my plans to get into travel writing and she was very excited for me. When I told her about the conversations the night before that had shaken me up, this 24 year old woman said, “I think it speaks more to the fears of your friends than your own. What is it that you want?” Such wisdom from someone so young.
Next time, I will need to check out GRRM’s theatre, Meow Wolf, and many of the new places. But this stop was a lot like just dropping in on an old friend.
With Santa Fe submitting to the low hills and pinon forests, I set out for the last six hours of my journey with renewed confidence, tempered with the knowledge that the road ahead would be long and difficult, but in the end, I think it would at the very least put new life in my soul.
Santa Fe does that to you too.
A few weeks later, my employer started laying people off. I was “spared” but I couldn’t help but think of how some of my colleagues who didn’t make it lost all those years they had put into retirement, and about how they had slogged through year after year with the Big Picture in mind. How many years wasted in a place that showed its appreciation with a pink slip at the end. It lit a fire under me.
As it is, I work at a place that won’t even trust me to edit a memo, much less do anything that requires using my brain. Of all the books published by faculty that sit in the display case in the hallway at my job, mine isn’t among them because I don’t have the prefix of Dr. before my name. I have talent. I have skills. And as much as this place has tried to beat it out of me, I still have a dream. In spite of the arrogant, condescending pecking order I watch from the seat of my desk every day.
If I was going to be next, I might as well start my transition to another chapter in my life now. Rather than attempt it in a haze of desperation as I collect unemployment checks after the next purge.
So concludes the Roadtrip to Tucson series. I hope you have enjoyed!
Clinton A. Harris: Writer. Dad. Adventurer. Who’s with me?