I headed for Santa Fe in the early dawn, driving even as the sun rose. I’d been assured that the capital’s traffic was nothing like Albuquerque’s, and found this to be the case. It didn’t want for cars, but the roads didn’t lend themselves to Daytona imitations. (Santa Fe is also considerably smaller, both in population and in physical expression; when I climbed a hill north of town, it made a happy picture, a quiet little city whose buildings didn’t tower over the trees.) I’d been warned that the main road is a confusing horseshoe, and I did get properly lost trying to navigate it into Old Town. But because it’s a horseshoe, all roads lead to Paseo de Peralta, and — to end a long story — I managed to find a parking lot just a street behind an Old Town entrance, and still have no idea how I managed it.
The parking lot attendant was marvelous, using my trip book to tell me where I was (just off the map by an inch), and soon sending me on my way. I wandered, first, going up and down streets willy nilly, soaking in the architecture so completely different from anything I’d ever ever seen. Even the subdivisions in Santa Fe are built in a style imitative of pueblos; it’s a code ordinance. My two foremost objects of desire were San Miguel’s and the Palace of the Governors. Respectively, they are the oldest church in North America, and the oldest continually-used public building in North America. (Oddly, St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest European city in North America, but can’t dispute Santa Fe’s titles. St. Augustine was razed at least once, though, so that may have cost it a few building records.)
It was just after seven a.m. here, the morning as cool as all the others I had expected. (Fun fact: I packed a suitcase full of shorts, with one pair of jeans for Carlsbad Caverns. The days were so cool I spent the entire week wearing the same two pairs of blue jeans.)
Nothing was open for gawkers yet, but San Miguel made for a marvelous shot. After obtaining a superior map from the visitor’s center, I returned to my sight seeing. Santa Fe kept me in awe from seven until late in the afternoon.
First up was the Loretto Chapel, which is beautiful inside and out. This is no longer a chapel, but a museum maintained by the city, and — as grateful as I am that this building has been preserved by their administration — what has not been saved is any sense of atmosphere. The crowd didn’t kill it for me, nor even did the man taking tickets inside the building itself. Some perverse soul decided to mount loudspeakers throughout the space that drone on about the history of the building and the staircase. I found it appalling. Loudspeakers? Why not mount televisions, too, so the kiddies won’t be bored?
The big attraction here, apparently, was the staircase. I’d never heard of it and assumed (from its mentioned appearance on ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ — it had a ghost associated with it, or healed people who climbed it, something like that. I took a cursory shot of it but was more interested in the Stations of the Cross, easily the most elaborate of any I’d see.
The actual story with the staircase, as I learned later, was that the church architect died before creating access to the choir loft. The nuns prayed for help from St. Joseph, traditionally a carpenter, and lo! Some mysterious stranger showed up, constructed it without any visible means of structural support, without nails, and then vanished.
After extracting myself from the building, I followed the Exit signs and found myself in a classy downtown hotel; they’re joined at the hip.
I returned to San Miguels, this time to see its open insides. I had plenty of company, but the women staffing it inside were enthusiastic and friendly; personable, not businesslike. They gave the visit a special kind of warmth. Now hungry, I stopped at a nearby pizzeria (The Upper Crust), which was a favorite of people who actually LIVE in Santa Fe, and enjoyed a couple of slices before moving on.
Next I sought out the Basilica, the largest building in Santa Fe and one that looked so glorious on Wikipedia I knew I’d seek it out. The basilica is named after St. Francis, and proved to be too grand to really capture in a picture. Draw close, and its size fills the eye; retreat, and it is coyly veiled behind trees and other buildings.
Its interior is vast, so large that even the amount of visitors couldn’t diminish the awe it inspired. I sat for a while to admire some of the detail on the ceilings and pillars. There are buildings that would require a lifetime of daily visitation to take in half their glory, the graceful touches that long-dead artisans added, and this is one of them. I’d never been in a church so large than the sanctuary seem effectively in the middle, though I have seen them on TV.
To the left of the sanctuary was a chapel devoted to La Conquistadora, the oldest icon of Mary in North America.
Not too far away was the old Plaza itself, and I knew I’d found the Palace of the Governors when I spotted Alabama flags. (Not really, of course, but the Spanish ‘Burgundy Cross’ is derived from St. Andrew’s cross, which both Alabama and Florida use as our state flag.) The palace itself is a museum devoted to Spanish colonial history ,and connects to a more modern building that covers New Mexico’s 20th century.
It contained a fair few artifacts from colonial days — Spanish armor, weaponry, a full-size wagon from the days of the Santa Fe trial connecting New Mexico to the east — as well as native American pottery. The building itself was an exhibit, though, with glass ‘windows’ built into the floor revealing parts of the foundation.
What a delight that plaza was! Now in the full of the day, people filled it with music , food, and happy chatter. I ignored most of the gift shops, being more interested in the architecture, but “The Christmas Shop” had to be looked into. I saw one in Albuquerque’s old town, too. I searched for the proprietor and told him about the coincidence, asking if it was a New Mexico thing — when they said Christmas all year, I assumed it only meant a mixture of green and red chile sauce — or a tourist thing. It’s the latter, according to him. My curiosity mollified, I moved on.
My day in Santa Fe involved a lot of back and forth movement, but the last place I sought after was the Cross of the Martyrs, a concrete cross mounted on a hill, dedicated to the friars who died when the Pueblos drove the Spanish out of New Mexico for a little while. Here, I made my boob-of-the-day decision. I didn’t look for approaches to the hill, but beelined for it. Going around a small building, I noticed steps leading to the hill proper, and what seemed to be a dirt trail. I realized as I clambered up, though, that I hadn’t seen a dirt trail, just dirt; the hill’s vegetation was patchy. I pressed on, though, the rising slope and its challenge making the journey only seem more authentic, more pilgrimage-y. When I slid down and hit something spikey, so much the better!
Twas then that I heard laughter, and – – now high enough that I could see around the hill — spied two people strolling along. So there WAS an easy way! No matter. I’ll climb this the pilgrim way!
Ah, well. After repeated falls, I realized I was just making an fool of myself for machismo or extra credit tourist points. I eased around the hill to where I’d seen the strolling pedestrian. Getting back on THAT path required threading myself through a barbed wire fence, but soon I was strolling along in tight S-curves up the hill. Having arrived at the cross, the pilgrimy thing to do was to kiss it. I settled for wetting my index finger and touching it. There was more to the hill, a path going to what I think was a picnic place, but I was worn out from my Ascent of Idiocy.
My last visit in Santa Fe was to the public library, where I printed off my boarding passes for my morning flight. I found it a little surreal. People sitting around reading, or quietly looking at information on the computers — where were the moms with screaming children, the librarians running around juggling? The same attendant at the parking lot gave me easy directions back to the interstate, and soon I was on my way.
I have a few regrets from Santa Fe, but they couldn’t be helped. I had intended to visit the branch of St. John’s here, a genuine liberal arts college. I say ‘genuine’ because St. Johns actually takes the Great Books seriously; they’re used to form the mind and character of the students. I drove right past the Missionary Hill sign, too tired to remember St. Johns being down that road. Still later, once I hit the interstate, I was too tired to contemplate turning off to take the Sandia Peak Tramway. This is a little cable car that can take visitors up the mountain, there to bask in the countryside. I’m sure it would be marvelous, but I’d been seeing Epic Vistas for a week now. What I wanted more than anything, with my heavy eyes, was to return to my motel and sprawl in bed.
The next morning was a sad day, of course, but had a triumphant start. Waking up long before dawn, I checked out and hit the interstate in the dark. I’d slept fitfully the night before, and at three am was listening to the never-easing rush from the freeway itself; now I joined it. I had to find the airport for the first time and return my car before the dawn, but I also had to find gas. My trip book came with the answers, though; a lone station near University Blvd that would take me to the airport. I reluctantly turned over the keys to that Kia Rio, in which I’d spent so much time, and ran (suitcase in hand) to catch a shuttle-bus that got me to the airport’s check in counters. Even so early, just after six, people filled the lobby for early flights, and despite my early rising I still wondered if I might make it out in time. All went well, and as much as I disliked leaving the vistas of New Mexico behind, I was able to savor my flight home in the knowledge that I had planned and executed everything to great success. This week of constant travel was the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, and I return knowing I have the traveling bug.
I will visit New Mexico again, assuredly, hoping to land in Sante Fe and explore it more fully, then heading north to Taos. My experience of Albuquerque and Santa Fe was slightly warped by my being there during the start of the Balloon Fiesta, so both cities were crowded. Apparently it’s a Very Big Deal, but I had no idea of its existence when I made my arrangements.
A month later, I still see the New Mexico countryside streaming by when I close my eyes, can still imagine the roar of ABQ’s interstates, and still long to see Santa Fe again. What a week, what a place, what an adventure!