There is a feeling of beguilement that wells up in one’s heart when the name “New Mexico” is mentioned in conversation. There is a pulling at the five senses. It is as if all the art, cuisine, hot-air balloons, and Georgia O’Keefe rounded pink mountains are magnetizing you with their call.
There is a sense of longing for something extraordinary. A longing for voids within you to be filled.
New Mexico is a staked plain. It rises above its surrounding states and comes nearer to the heavens than its neighbors. From the first sight of Ute Mountain (pictured above) just south of the Colorado border, or driving up the Llano Estacado from West Texas, you get a sense of navigating upward into sky. Its airs are drier than anywhere else in the United States and therefore more pristine. Perhaps this is what causes the perception of enchantment…..for the mountains here are less dramatic than in northern territories, but their hues are blended as if from an artist’s palate.
The region has been inhabited by humans for more than 13,000 years, but it’s more intimate history is of Pueblan Ancestrals and Spanish Conquistadors. The flavors of New Mexico are of these influences. But also, there is a newer influence…. and that is of the American artist.
From the woodcuts of Gustave Baumann’s Taos Placita and El Rito Canyon, to the photographs of Eliot Porter, and to O’Keefe’s water-colored abstractions, I can assure you that these are not abstractions…..that these places exist. Though it is up to you to journey there to find them.
If traveling by air, Albuquerque is the main choice. It is New Mexico’s largest city and offers a central location to sights and sounds not found anywhere else. The historic Hotel Andaluz is a 10 minute taxi drive from Albuquerque International Sunport in the downtown area. It is close to the town’s central plaza where you may wish to see the colonial, adobe buildings associated with the Southwest. A nice room can be procured for under $200 per night in the high season.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot air balloons are sent into the crystal blue, New Mexican skies occurs in early October, for example.
But the enchantments of New Mexico more commonly occur outside of any of its cities’ reaches. There is a bosque in central New Mexico that stretches along The Rio Grande from Santa Fe to Socorro and Albuquerque is in the midst of it. A woodland forested in mesquite and in some places canopied by cottonwood, it is a rich contrast to the arid areas just outside this zone. There are places just to the south of the city where folks can picnic and swim in the Rio’s waters as they course south through the length of the state.
Another area of beauty just beyond the city limits is Sandia Peak. There is a tram to the top, but I would recommend driving to Sandia Crest. This is a National Scenic Highway and worthy of one’s time. Once at the end of the trail, the views of Albuquerque far below are simply awesome. What thrilled me more, ironically, were the sights which presented themselves above. For, as high as I thought I was and that there was no going higher, I spied two hang gliders in the ether. Swooping and breezing…. sailing — their colorful wings shining like dragonflies in the sunlight.
But there is a hidden treasure to the west of town even more inspiring. Acoma Pueblo is a little more than an hour’s drive taking Interstate 40 to New Mexico State Rd. 23. At a point on this road your car winds around a bend; and there in the middle distance, rising like spikes from the valley’s floor, mesas appear. It is no wonder one of them is referred to as Sky City.
The temptation would be to pull over and take a picture. But tribal law is restrictive in filming what the residents believe to be sacred.
This Pueblo has been occupied continuously for over 800 years. It is open to the public by guided tour only from March through October and there are other times of cultural closures, so it is best to call ahead. From the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum there is a one and a half hour walking tour which will leave you amazed by the history and honored by the feeling of presence. I advise wearing proper footwear and, because of the spiritual nature of this holy place, respectable clothing.
At the top of the mesa you will find the artistry of their architecture; you will see the craftsmanship of their silver and turquoise jewelry; you will be able to view their chapel; and you will be able to stand at the mesa’s edge feeling the venting heat of the valley floor as crows soar on these same vents, but they will soar below you….beneath your very feet.
There is a hotel/casino here, built recently, which may add to your convenience, if not to your distractions. But I implore the traveler, rather, to devote more time to the pink and purple rock formations; to the wizened faces of the community; to the spectacular mesas and bluffs; to the Acoma pottery which is more than artwork, but a preservation; and even to the traditional food served in the Y’aak’a (corn) Cafe. (Ask for some fried dough, known as a “johnny-cakes”. A splendid treat.)
Santa Fe is a mere one hour drive to the northeast of Albuquerque, up interstate 25. I found The Fort Marcy Hotel and Suites in downtown Santa Fe to be pleasurable, affordable, and centrally located. Certain sites are to be devoured in the capital city of Santa Fe. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe Plaza, and the Palace of Governors are among them. Also noteworthy are Manitou Galleries and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
But once again, enchantment is more readily reaped in remoter regions.
There are two roads from Santa Fe from which the traveler will have to decide to take if his or her will is guided to the calling of Taos. The High Road to Taos bends to the ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and flattens through farmscapes and Pueblo Indian villages. It is an official scenic byway dotted by artist’s and artisan’s studios along the way.
The Low Road to Taos may be a little bit less scenic, but is definitely more direct. It runs through the farmlands and apple orchards along the Rio Grande and even dips for a time through one of ints canyons. Along the way are a couple of eateries begging for your attention as well. Sugar’s in the tiny hamlet of Embudo serves barbeque delights from its trailer. And in Dixon there is a cafe named Zuly’s which specializes in more traditional New Mexican fare. There are also wineries on this road.
Taos is home to Taos Ski Valley, so it is backdropped by the 13,000 ft. peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and therefore provides a sense of the dramatic. What is fiercely noticeable about the town, if you wander off the main strip, are the extreme differences of the high end galleries and the poorer living conditions in the bordering back streets. But even this adds to its mystique.
So to, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House ( a profound architectural example of Pueblo Revival ), the San Francisco de Assisi Church at Ranchos de Taos, and – of course – Taos Pueblo itself. (Tours of Taos Pueblo are available.) There are plenty of options for lodging in and around Taos, but I would like to point out that the only hotel on the plaza is Hotel La Fonda (left). Not only is it so centrally located, but it is chocked full of over 100 years of history. “The Inn” offers rooms from $130 upward to $500 per night.
A pleasant place to eat in Taos which I recommend is The Love Apple, specializing in regional cuisine such as ruby trout from the Rio Grande and baked tamales.
There are also many places to eat along the main strip during the day as one may peruse the galleries or duck into bookshops. Often there are Native American musicians outside these shops playing healing music from their flutes and drums. It creates a mood of festival and revives the Spirit.
But once again our journey lies outward the city’s boundary. Most tourists may know by this time that New Mexico is nicknamed The Land Of Enchantment…..but are they aware that there is actually a place named The Enchanted Circle? It is an 83 mile road looping eastward of Taos via US Highway 64 to Eagle’s Nest; and then north using state road 38 to Red River and Questa. Then the road transfers to New Mexico state road 522 south again to Taos.
This circle, capable of dispersing the ennui of any despairing soul because of its outdoor recreational opportunities, encompasses the mountains specific to Wheeler Peak, the highest behemoth in the state. From cross country skiing in winter, to water tubing 1,000 feet down the Polar Coaster at Angel Fire on a summer’s day; from camping and horseback riding to mountain biking, there is something for every traveler’s outward expressions to be experienced.
When closer to the town of Questa, whose mountains to the east are surreal at sunset as their rounded peaks blend indiscriminately into each other, I offer another path to enchantment. Just north, off of 522, there is a small town named Cerro on state road 378. From there, if you point your automobile westward and allow it to meander for 9 miles, you come to a jewel in the crown of our National Park Service. You come to Rio Grande del Norte National Monument (below).
It is here that I brought my young family many years ago for 2 seasons in a row. That is how much we Loved it. Back then it was named “Wild Rivers National Recreation Area” because two wild and scenic rivers, the Red and the Rio Grande, converge just south of the La Junta campgrounds within the park.
There are 5 campgrounds in the park’s limits and all offer hiking trails, some with switchbacks leading down to either of the rivers’ gorges. Most campsites are large enough for family style camping. The Rio Grande’s rushing waters are known as some of the best trout fishing in the West. Across from the Red River Gorge are pastures and mountains that are remarkable enough to make one feel that, yes…..Georgia O’Keefe got it right. She was not an impressionist after all.
Traveling south again, aiming towards Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but not necessarily in want of abandoning our enchantments, we may wish to excuse ourselves and stop for a savory New Mexican breakfast or lunch.
The town of Espanola is centrally located and offers an ambiance typical to the American Southwest. And La Cocina Restaurant, on Santa Clara Bridge Rd., offers classic dishes designed to put your palate in alignment with the rural landscape. Even their BLT is served with green chile on Texas Toast. But I recommend Javier’s Breakfast (2 pancakes, eggs sprinkled with papitas — sunflower seeds — and choice of meat) for a morning; and the Flatiron Steak with calabacitas and elote (zucchini and corn) for lunch.
In Espanola, there are choices to be made. If we decide upon lodgings in town, The Inn at the Delta, on Paseo De Onate, is the top rated hotel in the area. You can usually book a room there for under $130 per night. The city of Los Alamos is nearby and ample lodgings are to be found there. A third choice would be to camp in Bandelier National Monument (right). Known for its Ancestral Puebloan homes, preserved like like open church windows in the sides of its cliffs, the park offers some sizable campsites.
Wherever we decide to place our heads to sleep, the morning is sure to bring with it further wonders to behold.
West of Bandelier on New Mexico State Rd. 4 lies our country’s newest National Preserve, though it has lain here for millennia. Valles Caldera (pictured above). Though it appears to be a wheaten-coloured, mountain meadow it is actually a 13 mile wide supervolcanic crater, having erupted 115 million years ago. With a blue-mountained backdrop, the views are sweeping and stunning.
Another 15 minutes or so west of Valles is an awesome trailhead called Las Conchas (left). The trail is a relatively easy hike following the East Fork of the Jemez River. The path goes past a massive boulder named Gateway Rock (below, right) and cuts through a lodgepole pine forest for about two miles. There are sunny meadows here and the stream is edged in boulders and stands of fireweed. The trail crosses over the stream various times and each bend to the track grants a different perspective of the sunlight glancing off the water’s surface. The cliffs are a-drip with onyx black and earth brown palates, as if ancient shamans spilled their ritual body paints from above.
It is easy to find a spot to sit, to stay awhile upon a rock. To listen to the brook…..and to learn its story. A butterfly may light on a sun dappled stem near your outstretched boot. And you may find yourself in deep conversation with it, filling the void of someone whom you miss. Las Conchas Trail is a fulfilling destination.
I would not recommend traveling too much further west on State Road 4 unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and much more time to journey hence. Instead, let me recommend another path.
East of Espanola runs New Mexico State Road 76 (left). It dodges through neighborhoods whose tiny homes have gated front yards on which fences and walls hang ripening chile peppers. In the Spring (which occurs in mid March here) crabapple trees bloom pink buds which stand out like blood droplets against the abstract blue skies of New Mexico.
Approximately 9 miles from Espanola you approach the small town of Chimayo. If you follow signs to El Santuario de Chimayo (right), you will be rewarded for your pilgrimage. For all pilgrimages to holy sites receive merit.
A National Historic Landmark, the chapel here (constructed in 1816) is in itself the most important pilgrimage site in the United States. Nearly 30,000 people come here from around the world during Holy Week. Some walk from as far away as Albuquerque, 90 miles away.
The Sanctuary’s outer adobe walls and bell towers are beige hued and blend into the sand coloured hills behind it as a picture would rightfully blend into a carefully selected frame.
Inside the cool shade of the chapel, the quiet will contagiously quiet you. Perhaps after some moments of prayer, I would invite you to go up past the altar, to the left. There is a small room there called “el pocito”, the little well.
There is a round pit in this alcove in which the dirt is considered to be holy. “Tierra Bendita”. You may use one of the scoops in the pit to draw some of the sandy soil into any container you may have brought. (Outside the courtyard of the church are stores which sell embellished containers.) The earth here has a long history of healing powers. And in the prayer room outside of the pocita are used crutches, written testimonies, and faded pictures describing these mysteries of grace.
There is a legend that before the Spanish arrived here the Tewa Indians had used a hot spring, now gone, for healings. And another story told is that a friar one night saw a light coming from the ground. So he dug up the earth with his bare hands and found a buried crucifix. He gave it to a Fr. Alvarez who transported it to the church in Santa Cruz. Upon returning, they found the crucifix back at the very place where they had dug. So, they decided to build a chapel over the spot.
Santuario de Chimayo.
Behind the chapel is an outdoor amphitheater, devotional shrines, and walkways. A stream quietly flows at the border of the complex. The sun, the pale blue skies, the sound of your footfalls ground you to this place.
It is a fitting place to bid adieu.
A place familiar and yet afar.
Other allures may lead us back one day, to our beloved 47th state. Shiprock is a monadnock which sails on a sea of clouds in the far northwest reaches. Carson National Forest and the Chama River (above) are out that way too. Cimarron Canyon is off to the northeast; Silver City and El Malapais to the southwest. White Sands National Monument glows and stuns in the south. The extraterrestrials of Roswell, the quarter horses of Ruidoso Downs, and the limestone caves of Carlsbad Caverns are gems strewn to the southeast.
But the charms and wizardry of these must be explored another time. Admitted to the Union in 1912, on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, New Mexico may be where you discover an epiphany or two of your own…. If you really want to be enchanted.
John Syron – March, 2017