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Friday, September 28, 2012

Speaking of Santa Fe: The Spiritual Highway

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Another installment from my 1989 chronicle of cross-country travel. This was our longest stop during the month-long journey, and remains the city I’m most eager to revisit. As previously noted, I’d just read a collection of Ernie Pyle’s travel writings and sought to capture some of that spirit. Between 1935 and 1942, he and his wife drove endlessly around the country and he filed six columns per week about the stops they made. When they eventually bought a house, it was in Albuquerque. Which says something about the appeal of the desert (that house is now a library and museum). The piece below was written Sept. 22, 1989.


THE PALACE OF THE GOVERNORS has undergone structural alterations to suit each race that used it and each era of its use. But it’s still the oldest continually-used building in the United States.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM
Such historical awareness is fairly recent, given the structure’s age: it’s been a museum for only 80 of its 400 years.

Its porch is lined with Native American vendors displaying jewelry and pottery with sleepy determination. And it looks onto the square, a plaza now used for lunching or sketching or simply relaxing, but where not many years ago the Mexican custom of the promenade was undoubtedly carried out.

The promenade was a twice-weekly custom during which the town girls would walk the square, two or three abreast, while the boys stood in a ring on the outside to get a look at them. If he saw a girl he liked, a boy would then walk beside her, in step—all properly chaperoned of course. Generally there was music involved. It’s not too different from what still goes on in junior high school gyms all across America several Saturdays a year.

There is a prevailing attitude in Santa Fe of easygoing survival. I’ve made it for this long, say the people and buildings and even the mountains, so why should I worry about tomorrow?

A friend in town suggested that there’s a kind of spiritual highway linking Santa Fe with Santa Cruz, California. That makes sense. We were in Santa Cruz a few days earlier, and it’s another of those places where you could show up intending to stay a week and suddenly realize that five years have slipped by. A thunderstorm moved overhead as we lunched in a Santa Cruz bistro. Each peal of thunder brought a round of applause from the customers.

Actually, it’s more of triangle, our friend continued. The third point is Maui. That’s where you wind up if you don’t make it in the other two. We’ll later see a Toyota with a Maui bumpersticker and wonder if it means the owner is thinking ahead or looking back.

With an altitude of 7,000 feet, Santa Fe requires some physical adjustment. But that air has something you won’t find many other places in the country: flavor. You can tell it’s good for you just by the first few breaths.

Chiles are a New Mexican obsession and Santa Fe makes good on the commercial appeal of the product. Several shops in the historic downtown area sell the peppers and pepper-related items, ranging from cookbooks and aprons to little chile-shaped miniature light bulb ornaments. There is chile jelly and chile chutney and salsa of every intensity.

At Tomasita’s, a restaurant that has a nightly line of waiting customers, the gringo is greeted with a sampling of the chile: a small dish each of red and green is served with blue corn chips.

Not only are the peppers rich with flavor (once you get past the heat), they also are addictive. Maybe that’s why so many people choose to stay.

Santa Fe drivers are insane, worse even than those in Boston, and they perform their dangerous maneuvers both in a historic area in which the buildings are set too close for any street-widening, and on Cerillos Avenue, the forever under-construction main drag with a traffic light every block or two.

But Santa Fe people, removed from their cars, are as nice as can be. They’ll tell you to eat at Tomasita’s even when they plan to show up and fight for tables themselves. They’re proud of the city, nutcases and all.

“Did you see the guy in the slip?” we’re asked. No, we must have missed him. “Oh, too bad. He’s usually around the Plaza. Wears a jacket, high heels and a slip. Sometimes paints his nails.”

We did see what at first appeared to be a scraggly-looking gent reading a newspaper while sitting on the double yellow line of Cerillos; turned out he was selling papers, sitting on the day’s pile, holding a sample in front of his chest, never saying a word.

The we did a couple of things that put it all in perspective. First we visited the Puye Caves. This is a site where an ancient tribe carved lodging in the sandstone face of a cliff, with a clever system of stone ladders to get from level to level. Regular ladders are provided for tourist maneuvers, but it’s still a scary prospect—until you’ve been up and scrambling around for a while. Then the cliffs get friendlier and you move around with more and more ease. The trick is to admire the view without ever looking directly down. You get used to it after a while.

We also climbed a couple of mountains in the shadow of 10,000-foot-high Thompson’s Peak. Monte Sol overlooks the Santa Fe mesa, and we crested smaller Monte Luna to get there. We’ve seen a lot of spectacular views during this trip—looking up at the Grand Tetons, standing by the Point Reyes lighthouse, California’s Route 1 near Monterey and Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain among them—but this vista was remarkable for its stillness. It gives you more of a sense of history than the others; you almost expect to see aboriginal settlers when you turn around.

“Oh, you can get that sense a lot around here,” said another friend. “There’s a place near Bandelier National Monument, just about a five mile walk away, where you can see the ruins of one of the old, old settlements. And I swear there are eyes watching me every time I go there.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Nov. 18, 1989

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