Story and photos by Dan Collins
“It’s like being on a different planet,” observed my travel companion on my recent trip to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, and I must admit, I agree.
Imagine the Jemez Mountains all around you, dotted with sage brush, slabs of rock jutting skyward, pitted and pockmarked like giant blocks of Swiss cheese…sunsets out of National Geographic…display after display of silver and turquoise jewelry, handmade by Native Americans…people who actually OBEY the speed limit…and literally hundreds of art galleries, making Santa Fe the second largest art market in the nation.
And adobe. Lots and lots of adobe—a veritable beige sea of homes, businesses and government buildings (none more than 2 or 3 stories high that I saw) all fashioned from this extremely durable mix of sand, clay, water, and other materials like straw.
Fortunately, I like adobe, which happened to be the style of the bed and breakfast where I stayed for five nights, Pueblo Benito on West Manhattan Street. Starting each morning with fresh fruit, bagels, waffles, cereal, juices, coffee, pastries, and a complimentary copy of The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, I sallied forth to explore the town and the surrounding environs.
Informed that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, located at 217 Johnson Street, was a must, we visited our first day, taking in the exhibit, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Beyond Our Shores,” which featured such works as “White Bird of Paradise.” My knowledge of O’Keeffe was limited before I came to the museum; I was aware that many of her works depict all manner of flowers and plants, but found she chose numerous other topics for her self-expression during those years after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz in 1946.
O’Keeffe would visit Peru, Europe, Japan, India, and other nations and the paintings and sketches she made while abroad composed the exhibit. The museum was also showing a continuous film regarding O’Keeffe’s life which revealed how her famous photographer husband often made his much younger wife the subject of sensuous photos…and as a result, critics began their sexual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s flower images, much to her chagrin.
We also visited the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts—a center of the Institute of American Indian Arts—at 108 Cathedral Place. The Museum featured “The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition,” featuring the brilliantly colorful works of Ms. Odjig, described in the gallery’s program as “a courageous and talented Indian artist from Wikwemikong. Her father and grandfather were Potawatomie, descended from the great chief Black Partridge…” An hour-long documentary detailed Ms. Odjig’s many influences, including the works of Pablo Picasso, which could clearly be seen in a number of her works, like her 1980s paintings, “Harmony and the Universe” and “Spiritual Renewal,” where faces, limbs, rivers, drums, elements of nature all seem to flow and merge together.
The flow of art continued at the Manitou Galleries on West Palace Avenue which had a variety of bronze sculptures, acrylic and oil paintings, works of copper, glass, and jade, hand-pigmented woodworks, and more on display by such artists as Nicholas Herrera, B.C. Nowlin, Fran Larsen, Marlene Rose, Hib Sabin, Star Liana York and Roger Hayden Johnson.
At the entrance to the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of Governors, we learned that Native American artists will gather every morning until late afternoon, setting out their wares on blankets. I saw items ranging from small silver pieces for $15 to silver-and-turquoise bracelets worth over $300.
A special exhibit of still photography by noted Hollywood cinematographer Ward Russell (whose films include “Days of Thunder,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “X-Files: The Movie) was taking place while we were in town, so we attended the opening reception where we met Ward and his wife, Mary Cay, who were extremely gracious. The exhibit, “Dance Indigenous: Ceremonies of the Ohkay Owingeh,” featured stunning black-and-white images of religious and ceremonial Native American dances.
Of course, one can only take so much culture. Eventually, you just need to relax and have a foot massage, as my travel companion did, while I enjoyed my first ever “oxygen therapy” at the High Timez Oxygen Spa in the Santa Fe Village on Don Gaspar Avenue. The therapy first began with a finger test (no needles, relax) to determine our level of oxygen; we were both found a bit lacking, which isn’t unusual as Santa Fe is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level (and we were both battling altitude sickness).
I opted for the 15 minute oxygen session (which included a temple rub, nose cannel and aromatherapy) and chair massage. Other offerings include 30-60-90 minute massage sessions, an ion foot detox bath with prices ranging from $10 to $115. Nestled in a small room with relaxing music, dim light and lots of Asian symbols and artworks, the experience was both relaxing but also invigorating as I believe the infusion of oxygen did make a difference in my health the remainder of the trip.
Of course, when it comes to refreshment, nothing beats arsenic…that is, the arsenic pools at Ojo Caliente, a beautiful mineral springs/resort/spa located about an hour north of Sante Fe. As their website (www.ojocalientesprings.com) notes, the arsenic infused waters are “believed to be beneficial for relief from arthritis, stomach ulcers” and can “heal a variety of skin conditions.” There are numerous springs to sample, all “whisper” zones (it’s all about rest and meditation, so keep the beach ball flinging “Marco! Polo!” crowd at home!), including the “Soda,” “Iron,” and “Lithia” waters.
I sampled them all and found the Lithia pool most relaxing; lithium is supposed to be effective for depression, and further, the waters were the hottest of all the pools, so the perfect tonic for tired muscles. We actually visited the spa twice; once in the evening and once during the day. At night (the springs are open til 10 p.m.) was particularly lovely, enjoying the soothing waters under a canopy of stars and a huge rock formation which had been lit up, adding to the ambience.
Another hour’s ride north brought us to Taos, what might be called the “Boulder of New Mexico,” where we inadvertently found ourselves at the Taos Pueblo, about two miles north of our destination, Taos Plaza, and home to about 150 Native Americans. According to the tripcart.com travel site, the pueblo is open to visitors during the summer for such events as corn dances and pow wows. We arrived after visiting hours (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) and were given directions to our destination. Once in Taos proper, we stopped at Graham’s Grille located on Paseo del Pueblo Norte. While waiting to be served, we heard from two strangers departing the restaurant, one encouraging us to “try the seafood stew” and the other, promising “to tell all my friends in San Diego about this place.”
Graham’s Grille did not disappoint as I enjoyed the “Bacon and Bleu” salad of mixed greens, bleu cheese crumbles, bacon, red onion, tomatoes and very light Roquefort dressing (available in two sizes for $6 and $9).
On the way to Taos, we made a brief visit to the Bandelier National Monument, 48 miles northwest of Sante Fe, $6 individual admission for the day. As the “Exploring Bandelier” brochure noted, there are only three miles of public roads within Bandelier’s 33,750 acres, but 70 miles of trails. We stopped at the visitor center in Frijoles Canyon where we grabbed a bite to eat (try the ham and cheese Panini) and bought a silver-and-coral cross for a mere $7 (if you’re in New Mexico, you MUST buy something silver!) and a copy of Native American Wisdom by Louise Mengelkoch (editor) and Kent Nerburn.
My travel companion is a lover of all things flora, so was quick to point out the various cacti and small yellow flowers that seemed to be everywhere—beautiful, but don’t give in to the temptation to pick them as this is not allowed at the park…nor is feeding or teasing the squirrels which, unlike their skittish East Coast cousins, will bite!
I will say that making these 1-2 hour drives across New Mexico could be both breathtaking and…eerie…particularly at night, as the Route 285 highway is unlit, has only two lanes, and for many miles we found our car to be the only one on the road. We did manage to cross the bridge which spans the Rio Grande during daylight hours, enough time to pull over and take some photographs of the dizzying chasm and river below.
We finished our 4-day stay in New Mexico by visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (www.cbsfa.org/Home.asp) which was dedicated in 1886 and consecrated in 1895. Archbishop Lamy, who died in 1888, is buried in a crypt below the cathedral floor, his name achieving renowned thanks to the 1926 book, Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Not far from the cathedral, we also visited the Loretto Chapel (www.lorettochapel.com), originally built in 1878 and home to the “miraculous spiral staircase” which leads from the chapel floor to the choir loft, 22 feet above. We learned that the miracle of the staircase is the fact that despite its two 360-degree turns, it has no visible means of support and was built without nails.
We relaxed that evening at the Bell Tower bar atop the La Fonda hotel, sipping margueritas while taking in a vivid sunset which had everyone around us pulling out their camera phones to snap a picture a two.
Unbeknownst to us, the third week of every August, Sante Fe plays host to the “Indian Market,” where upwards of 100,000 people nationally and internationally visit to check out everything from hand-carved totems to live music, a literary day, a film festival, as well as many fine pieces of jewelry, precious stones, assorted artworks, clothing items, and more, for sale. The market was just setting up as we left to catch our plane from Albuquerque International Sunport Airport…leaving my friend just enough time to purchase a necklace for the trip home!