Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Land of Enchantment

I've wanted to go out West to New Mexico and Santa Fe for awhile. I envisioned painted deserts and blazing sunsets that set the backdrop for sacred Native American ceremonial dances. I wanted to see this faraway, spiritual land -- the land of artists and writers who find inspiration and freedom in the sand and mountains and vast plains. A foreign, mystical place of dry heat and ancient rituals that sparks creativity and brings peace. A wild place of cliffs and boulders, of legends and reservations.

When I found out I was actually going to New Mexico I started reading guidebooks. I learned that New Mexico is one of the largest, least populated, and poorest states. My imaginings of complex landscapes, boutique art, and ancient peoples broadened to include mountain hikes and ghost towns. I developed a new interest in Georgia O'Keefe. Now I wanted to take the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe and the High Road to Taos, to drive down Route 66 in its retro glory. My mouth watered for green chile cheeseburgers and huevos rancheros. Scenic byways and national monuments beckoned me. Soon I'd look out at the Great Sandia and Jemez mountains in the distance and watch the sun set over the Sangre de Cristo rockies.

I kept reading, envisioning the Old Town plazas and cathedrals constructed by Spanish pioneers centuries before the pilgrims docked the Mayflower or Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. I pondered New Mexico's post-multicultural society, a melding of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo ethnicities that had brewed for centuries. I fantasized about floating up in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque during the International Balloon Fiesta (the area has the world's most ideal wind conditions for ballooning) and soaking in a hot tub at a rustic Santa Fe mountain spa. I hoped to sample Frito Pie and fill my suitcase with on-trend Southwestern accessories.

My real trip to New Mexico wasn't all that different from my expectations. The first morning in Albuquerque we hopped on a bus to Old Town where I ordered a breakfast burrito smothered in green chiles at Church Street Cafe, an adobe residence built around 1706 now decked out in homey Southwestern memorabilia. At every restaurant they asked if I wanted red or green chiles or Christmas (both). I couldn't get enough of them. (They're rich in anti-oxidants! Studies have found that they dull pain and trigger pleasure sensors in the brain!) I also developed a romantic affinity for ristras, the ubiquitous bunches of dried red chiles hanging in every doorway and sold by roadside vendors.

On our way up to Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet above sea level, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees --  to below freezing. We stopped at the quirky roadside museum of Tinkertown housing the work and junk-turned-treasure collection of an eccentric woodcarver/philosopher. Up at Sandia Crest and later at Aspen Vista in the Santa Fe National Forest we hiked through flaming yellow Aspens and birches and by alpine flowers and blue spruces that towered like telephone poles wearing Christmas tree branches. We made it to mountain peaks and looked out over mountain ranges and cities from viewpoints I can only compare to peering out the window of an airplane.

Some days were so sunny that my head hurt from furrowing my brow in a deep squint, and I had to look at the ground while I walked. On one of those blinding days we followed a sandy path that wound through flat desert surrounded by hillsides covered in black volcanic boulders etched with petroglyphs, prehistoric images carved by Pueblo Indians. Other days we explored the art galleries lining Santa Fe's Canyon Road and the dozens of chic boutiques downtown selling indigenous and Southwestern art and jewelry. I bought a chunk of turquoise hand-carved into a square cross to wear as a pendant from a man with waist-length black hair and lusted over cowboy boots and silver rings. Around town Dad and I discussed what would happen if he adopted the hairstyle that nearly every New Mexican man we passed sported -- the ponytail.

Sometimes we left the city, driving for hours on straight highway stretches through dramatic wilderness of mesas and valleys, stopping at scenic lookout points, ghost towns like Cerrillos, and tiny churches. I stuck my head out the window on the interstate to snap photos of the Puye Clifftops against the big turquoise sky. We spotted a tarantula crossing the road in the abandoned-mining-town-turned-hippie-artist-haven of Madrid. I contemplated how so many Americans live in adobe rather than the brick or vinyl siding houses I grew up with. I took dozens of photos of bull skulls and rugged adobe steeples. (I periodically yelled for my dad to stop the rental SUV for a good photo op.) The colorful graveyards and crucifixes draped in rainbows of rosaries surrounding the churches were like something out of Mexico.

On a side trip to Bandelier National Monument in Frijoles Canyon we hiked along Native American clifftop dwellings and to a rocky waterfall. On another day excursion we scrambled up the Kasha Katawe Tent Rocks through lunaresque canyon paths in an otherworldly forest of bleached rock formations. Up north in Taos we learned from a Pocohontas-look-alike tour guide how indigenous peoples live in modern society at the 1,000 year-old Taos Pueblo village. Down the road we parked to cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on foot. When we made it to the middle of the fifth highest bridge in the U.S., two semi-trucks blasted toward us, rattling the entire thing. Back at the car a guy with long black hair blowing in the breeze sat beside his giant rusty blue Ford truck with the grassy plains and jutting blue mountains behind him.

I suffered my first flame face from a habanero pepper at Baja Bumblebee's Grill. I tried one, and it was so good that I went back for another. But tears streamed down my face after the second one. I don't know if the tears were an autonomical reaction to the spicy pepper or tears of pure pain. My tongue hurt so bad I couldn't touch the rest of my meal for 10 minutes. I had another traumatic cuisine encounter at the Kakawa Chocolate House where I tasted the first chocolate I didn't like, an Aztec warrior elixir made according to the original Mesoamerican recipe. I couldn't get past a few sips of the oily and spicy unsweetened concoction. But most of the local food I would eat every day if I could -- dishes like green chile and pinon nut meat loaf, blue corn pancakes, and stuffed acorn squash with mole sauce.

I feel like I filled a college course worth of history, geography, and culture into a two-week trip. After exploring a bit of Europe and South America I'm long due for discovering the vast diversity of the United States of America. I have a feeling I'll be back in Santa Fe one day -- I won't be able to stay away from that big turquoise sky and clear mountain air. And did I mention all that handcrafted turquoise and those fresh roasted chiles?

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