A Yankee Girl Visits the High Desert: Part Three

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Part Three: The Journey to Taos and
the Magic of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House 

I left Santa Fe how I imagine most people do-with a desire to stay longer. But I also had plans waiting for execution and the first included taking the high road to Taos.  Like most things in Northern New Mexico, "the high road to Taos" has an almost mythical quality to it, both for the religious towns that dot the way north, and also due to the shifting terrain through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The towns are living remnants of Spanish colonization, with names that would never be found in New England, names like Las Trampas, Ojo Sarco, Truchas, Cordova
The one I looked forward to knowing was Chimayó

Chimayó exists not too far from Española, where one turns sharply east to continue up the high road on route 76. Most go for religious reasons: the village is home to the El Sanctuario de Chimayó, a Catholic church and shrine that is now a National Landmark. Some people say it's one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. I believe it. When I went on a beautiful Friday morning, it was packed with visitors, the majority of which seemed to be present due to spiritual inclinations rather than a tourist's curiosity. The place has a long history dating to the early 19th century and is a somewhat sprawling site, filled with lots of small adobe shrines and even trading posts, like the one pictured above, selling things like holy dirt and other sacred materials. Despite this commercial aspect, it felt untouched by modernity, which is remarkable given how many people visit each year. I didn't linger long-there was another place in Chimayó I wanted to see for myself, and that was the shop of the Ortega Weavers, a family who has been weaving for centuries. Chimayó has a strong weaving tradition - the Ortega family is not alone- and I'm fascinated by how this one particular craft defined the town, not only in the 18th century, but even still today. I, of course, left with a few beautiful pieces that serve as a daily reminder of my trip, now so many months ago. 

Afterwards, I continued my journey north, imagining how incredible this land must have appeared to the once Spanish settlers. Many times, I felt propelled to pull over, take pictures and record the transition from the more arid, high desert to rampant forests that seemed more appropriate to the nearby state of Colorado than New Mexico. The road was indeed winding, and one I would not like to find myself driving during a winter's night. This road is meant to be enjoyed at the height of the day, when all it's glory is bathed in sunlight.

And then I reached Taos. My first stop was to see the famous Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a place not for those fearful of heights. It's the seventh highest bridge in the country and I've never seen anything like it before. Of course, the bridge itself was a beautiful feat of engineering, but it's the gorge below that's the main attraction. People stop, park their cars, and walk across the bridge to view it from all angles. It's hard not to be a tiny bit nervous, even if you feel exhilarated by what you see. It's a long way down. 

The town itself is charming, and is home to the native Pueblo tribes, celebrities and hippies, among others, of course. I heard one person say that Taos plaza reminded her of what Santa Fe used to be, before it became such a tourist destination. But I found the same type of shops and restaurants in Taos that Santa Fe offers, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The experience was unique in Taos not because of the historic plaza, but because of the landscape. You can almost touch the mighty mountains with your hands. 

I could behold those mountains from my room at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, the other highlight of my trip further north. I couldn't wait to arrive. I had read the memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan before my trip, a woman who had once entertained the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather, among scores of others. She was quite a wealthy patron of the arts and had both the liberty and luxury to move to New Mexico as soon as she first set her eyes upon it. It was love at first sight. She had lived and moved through the artistic circles of Florence and New York, but chose the beauty that Taos had to offer and never left thereafter. Instead, she invited everyone she knew to venture west for a taste of her 'escape to reality,' as she called it. With the help of her new husband, an Indian man from the nearby Pueblo tribe, they built the house that now serves as a conference center and inn, a house I couldn't wait to see for myself. 

It was truly glorious. If Mabel's intent was to create a nest of inspiration that was both stimulating to the senses and comforting, then she succeeded. Even all these years later, one can move through the rooms of the inn feeling energized by its atmosphere, created by not only the stuff of the architecture, the furniture, etc, but also by the legacy of creative souls who visited here. Two nights for me was not at all enough. I don't think a week could have been. To pass through a space that writers I've long admired and loved also knew was thrilling. In a way, it felt like home. 

A Yankee Girl Visits the High Desert: Part Two

Monday, October 20, 2014

Part Two: Abiquiu

Abiquiu is a place befit for epiphanies. It exists on its own accord, defined by its hard, red earth floor and the cerulean sky that overlooks all below. It brings to mind the Jurassic Age and life of an altogether different kind, though the man-made lake at its center is evidence of our own footprint. Located about an hour northwest of Santa Fe, Abiquiu is an easy trip to make and one I personally looked forward to with great eagerness. I went for the same reason that most people go : to follow in the steps of Georgia O'Keeffe. Once she had discovered the almost mystic spell of New Mexico, she let it charm her better sense for the rest of her life.  Abiquiu was her playground, the ultimate environment in which she could realize her full artistic potential. "It's the most wonderful place you can imagine. It's so beautiful there. It's ridiculous," she wrote of New Mexico in 1945. I felt her presence strongly at Ghost Ranch, what is now a retreat center but once was home to the artiste herself. Now the site is dotted with buildings that serve for various educational uses, but it's also covered with trails that one can take by foot or by horse. Alone on the trailway to Chimney Rock, I felt what Georgia must have always known in the years she lived there-a sense of complete liberation from the modern world. The mountains seemed to speak to each other, as if in constant conversation, and I was privy to their chatter. A thunderstorm threatened in the distance, but rain never fell in my path. I never felt so far from my Boston reality as I did in Abiquiu, and the distance was intoxicating, in the way that dreams can be. That red earth, so unabashedly naked, could not have been more different from the shy, dense forests of New England that I hold in deep reverence. I have no doubt that this exhilarating difference was part of what enthralled O'Keeffe. Development is scarce and frankly, it's a relief. It's a relief to know that visitors can still feel the full effect of this great land, and that locals can live their lives defined by it. 

A Yankee Girl Visits the High Desert: Part One

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Part One: Land of Enchantment

In the middle of August, I took myself west. My mind left many months earlier, however, and part of it is still there now, roaming the high desert.  Up until recently, the all great American West existed in my mind as a myth, a vast area less of a geographical reality and more as romanticized vision, which largely kept to images of covered wagons and the pioneers who walked the way beside them, with all the tales of their trials and tribulations. I keep to those stories because in truth, I love them. The stories of how the west became American are not fairy tales in the least, but I've had a love affair with them my entire life. And still, my travels have always taken me eastward-to Europe or beyond. My American life has been spent overseas or strictly in the Northeast, leaving anywhere west of the Mississippi to the domains of my imagination and historical understanding. 
But on my vacation, I only went to one place. And when I write, "one place," I mean one particular region of one state, so the 'west' of my August in the year 2014 was northern New Mexico, land of enchantment. I chose it as my destination not because I was drawn by the history of the state, but rather because I was intrigued by the history of my parents, who went in the years they were married. In fact, I knew very little about the particulars of New Mexican history, let alone geography-which brought to the surface so keenly the Northeast's preoccupation with self, not to mention New England exceptionalism. One thinks of the desert as they envision New Mexico, and he or she would be right to do so, but they do not know of the altitude. With delight I marveled at the peaks of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos. The fact that Santa Fe is the highest state capital in the country seemed to shock everyone I mentioned it to. More often than not, people were bewildered at my choice of destination. 
Once I firmly decided to go, I wasted no time in conquering my long-serving ignorance of the area, which had only made an exception during the times I read of Georgia O'Keeffe's life there. I started with travel guides, which gave me brief overviews of history, politics and sightseeing. I scoured the web for anything to watch, including Smithsonian's 'Aerial America' episode on New Mexico; C-span's collection of short videos on Santa Fe landmarks; and multiple re-viewings of Ken Burns'  documentary"The West." One day during my lunch break, I stumbled upon the wonderfully penned,  Land of Enchantment: Memoirs of Marian Russell Along the Santa Fe Trail in the always reliable Brattle Book Shop. Somehow I had managed to remain unaware of this book until that moment, despite a class I once took in college called "Women's Literature on the Frontier." Marian Russell's recollections placed me right on the Santa Fe Trail in the second half of the 19th century, with all its violence and significance. From there, I was reading Mabel Dodge Luhan's memoirs of a half-century later, when she invited the creative luminaries of the age to her house in Taos, including the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, and scores of others. I read the essays collected in Tony Hillerman's "The Spell of New Mexico" and naturally Cather's "Death Comes to the Archbishop." I daydreamed of my future travels. A lot. I planned what I would bring with me a month before, including newly purchased items like a wide-brimmed black hat -perfect for the cowgirl I am definitely not- a Midori Traveler's Notebook, and the hiking boots I would wear in Taos Ski Valley. I savored with each and every day the steady sweetness of anticipation. My New England adventures dropped to a minimum. I was too pleasantly distracted by the planning and intellectual preparation  for my journey to fully appreciate summer's arrival in Massachusetts. And suddenly, it was time to go and actually experience all I had thought about for months on end. At least part of me wanted another week to prepare. Though I embrace spontaneity in my local travels, I strongly believe in the necessity of place preparation, but then I am a lover of history, art and literature, which collectively form so many of the reasons an area is unique unto itself. 
Let me be the first to tell you if you don't already know : New Mexico is truly unique.


One may question the practicality of a summer vacation in New Mexico, but I found the dry, mountain air just as refreshing as the New England sea breeze that I left behind. The altitude, however, was a force to be reckoned with and one that left me feeling seemingly tipsy in the middle of the night. The heat of the sun bothered me only once: on my arrival day hike at the glorious Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks Monument.  Despite the blaze of the sun, it could hardly succeed in distracting me from the majestic rock formations, the result of volcanic eruptions several million years ago. The place felt quite isolated, and because of that, all the more wild. A few other hikers were nearby, but on the whole, the site was quiet, as if to say, left to itself. At one point, a rattlesnake made his presence known on the trail, inviting us humans to watch as he feasted on his chosen prey. That seemed a natural turning point, and my travel fatigue made the better of me. I left and took off for Santa Fe.   

My temporary place of home was at the utterly charming Madeleine Inn, a rare piece of Victorian architecture in the land of the adobe structure, and  one covered with ivy like the Boston buildings I pass every day. I couldn't have chosen a better place to stay and for this particular traveler, that meant a kind staff, comfortable room and very good breakfasts. From the inn's location on E. Faithway Street, I could walk anywhere I liked in the city of Santa Fe. And so I did. 

In many ways, I was predisposed to liking Santa Fe-first by my genes and then by months of research. However, I'm certain that even without those two predetermining factors, I would have fallen for the place. It has aged remarkably well and is so comfortable with itself, like the towns and cities of Europe whose identities have long been established. We, Yankees of the North, revel in the history of our forefathers and take pride in the footprints they've left behind, all with a sort of smug satisfaction in the belief that our streets and houses are the oldest of this country. How refreshing it was to find the stamp of the Spanish on Santa Fe and the residue of the 1500s! Before it was hailed New Mexico, it was the northern capital of New Spain. And before that, it was land used by the Pueblo Indians. After the Indian revolt of 1680, Pueblo Indians held Santa Fe once more, but only until 1692, when the city was re-captured by the Spanish. So the city was Spanish, until it became Mexican, and then it became American, but not a state until 1912, which seems shockingly late given that it was a territory in 1848. Thus, New Mexico is a place where multiple traditions mingle and yet still flourish, despite the passing of time. Santa Fe is its best example. The result of this mixed history is a city so beguiling it's hard to believe it's real. There's shadow play on the Plaza and courtyards with hanging chilies; churches with spiral staircases and rows of doors painted blue. There are more museums than one has time to see and literally hundreds of art galleries, most of which live side by side on the famous Canyon Road.  People watch opera as thunderstorms roll through the valley and in the winter time, luminaries cover the streets. 

And though it is a cliche, I now know where enchantment is found: in the high, American desert. 

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