Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Crescit Eundo

 

The impetus for the following was a concert of Medieval Christmas Music by the Boston Camarata at Cristo Rey Catholic Church on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Unfamiliar songs, performed by a group we had never heard or even heard of, in a venue we knew of but had not been in. Both the ensemble and their selections were outstanding. The site – the largest adobe building in the United States and home of the “Reredos of Our Lady of Light” altar screen – even more so. We are not what you would call pious people. But we are very much drawn to art and architecture that depicts subjects, themes, and imagery from religion.

It began in 1997 during a vacation in Malta. We chose to go there simply because Marsha saw a magazine article about "Vacations Off The Beaten Path" one day at our hairstylist – and that was one of the places. The story showed a photo of the walled city of Valletta and she immediately said "we have to go there." Jim looked at the same picture and instantly agreed. It probably was the light. We both are drawn to almost blindingly-bright-with-natural-light locations – high desert in New Mexico, arid wasteland in the Big Bend of Texas, sand bunkers on golf courses. (Marsha not so much the latter.)  Five years earlier, with images of sun-blanched desert skulls from a recently seen Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit fresh in our own skulls, it took us about the same amount of time to decide on our first trip to New Mexico.

 

Our travel agent D arranged the vacation with a perfect mix of planned day trips, on-our-own-to-explore time and tour-company support. šŸ‘

Although it was the brightness that brought us there we were attracted to one of Malta’s main houses of worship by the darkness – specifically the chiaroscuro contrasts between light and dark in the paintings of Caravaggio – “the most famous name who worked in Malta.” (St. Paul not withstanding.) Caravaggio was there in 1608 while on the lam from a shady past in sunny Italy where, perhaps unintentionally, he had killed a man. He left behind two masterpieces, “Beheading of St John the Baptist” and “St. Jerome Writing” – both on display at the Co-Cathedral of St. John

Once inside we were totally awed by the expansive ornate interior with its intricately carved limestone walls, painted vaulted ceiling, elaborate side altars and self-proclaimed "most beautiful floor in the world.”  More ecclesiastical space than we had ever been in, and seemingly none of it blank. Sure, we had seen similar images in magazines and on TV. But never before the real thing. “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Connecticut anymore.”

The experience whet our appetite for more. There are (believe it or not) 359 churches and chapels on the 122 sq. mi. archipelago. We visited a few more, but not enough. So in 2002, ten years after our first trip to New Mexico, we ventured to Barcelona, Spain on an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) program to learn more about the works of Antonio Gaudi whose Catalan Modernist architecture features organic shapes inspired by natural forms. At the top of our list was La Sagrada Famiglia Church, his possibly never-to-be-finished attempt to transubstantiate the configurations of the physical world into a manmade metaphysical monument to his God. The construction began in March 1882 and is still incomplete. Gaudi himself projected it would take 200 years. An interesting estimate since, as was his wont, he never made a complete blueprint, preferring to add the details as he saw the structure coming to life. Gaudi died in 1926 and other architects are continuing the work.

    




 

The texture and shape of La Sagrada has been described as looking like melting wax or sculpted sand. And evoked in us the same feelings of awe and peace that we feel in parts of New Mexico’s landscape – towering shapes that somehow manage to be both harshly unsettling and at the same time comforting in their soft lines and colorless color.

In addition to bringing to mind the terrain of our new home state Gaudi’s organic design philosophy also exemplified the Official State Motto of New Mexico, “Crescit Eundo” (“It Grows As It Goes”.) The expression is from a 1st century poem by Lucretius, where it describes a thunderbolt streaking across the sky, growing bolder and mightier the longer its magnificent journey continues.

Still not enough sacredness for us. So, four years later we listened as another Elderhostel Art Historian told us, “ninety percent of all the great art in the world is in Italy. And eighty-nine percent of that is in Florence,”.

 

The city’s churches and museums can be overwhelming in both their vastness and the sheer volume of masterpiece-level works of fine art within them. The religious buildings more so because all the artwork is done “in situ” – sometimes in seemingly impossible places. Like Malta every apparent inch of available space was used. Here, some artists’ works also hung in the city’s museums.

For various unrelated reasons our survey of the sacred art of Europe ended after our Florentine adventure. Which was okay because, while all of the above was happening we discovered something completely different in the churches of northern New Mexico.

Beginning in the late 16th century the Spanish came here with the intent of bringing their culture – and most importantly their Catholic religion – to this unfamiliar New World territory. But there were two major obstacles. There were never enough priests. And, while the artists and crafts people were here, the raw materials needed to create the familiar sacred art and architecture just did not exist locally. As a result…

“There are few iconic structures more fundamental to the culture and history of the Southwest than its adobe churches,” wrote John Benigno whose project “to photograph as many adobe churches as possible while they were still in their traditional state” can be seen at https://luminous-landscape.com/adobe-churches-new-mexico-built-earth-faith.

The architects of these edifices were the European Franciscan priests and brothers who planned to replicate the dressed-stone "fortress-churches" that their fellow clergy had erected in Mexico during their conquest of that colony.  However, “carried to New Mexico, to a semiarid frontier environment where inconstant adobe, field stone, and wood replaced reliable masonry, such ideals were [quickly forgotten.] Local materials, relatively few and unskilled workmen, poverty, and isolation all contributed to a unique and, as it turned out, an all but invariable New Mexican style.” (npshistory.org)

Still, while not what they had hoped for, adobe did satisfy “the invaders' insistence on erecting churches of churchly proportions.” Interiors would be 25’ x 80’ or more. Height never exceeded width. Most churches had windows on only one side. To illuminate the altar they used a “transverse clerestory window” – a wide low overhead opening that spanned the structure. The effect was theatrical – focusing the viewer “immediately on the stream of light descending like the Dove precisely on altar and reredos.”

Decorations were sparse. “Above the main altar, if the painted wall itself did not serve, stood the carved and painted wooden reredos, or retablo, forming a matrix for the patron and companion saints who stared out from timeworn statues or from animal-hide paintings.” There were no pews – with sometimes a bench along the wall, and perhaps a modest side altar.

Instead of gold leaf inlay there were thinly sliced pieces of straw. Tin replaced silver. “Separated from their nearest supply points in Mexico, Spanish colonial-era artists in New Mexico made do with the materials they found here. Cottonwood branches and roots became bultos, or statues. Pigments derived from rocks and insects turned into paint for retablos, the flat paintings of saints. Animal hides served as canvas. Those creative colonists gave birth to an art-form that was unique to the Southwest – and that still thrives today.” (New Mexico Magazine)

This lasted until the 1850 arrival of U.S. Territorial New Mexico’s first Bishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy (from France by way of Cincinnati.) To him these adobe churches “were lowly, obscene, utterly lacking in architectural character, like the stable of Bethlehem.” Not at all “the high architectural art whose tradition he had inherited. [He would be] a civilizer, a bringer of orthodoxy to benighted folk Catholics.”

In Santa Fe Lamy helmed the construction of the French Romanesque Revival Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis Cathedral) and Gothic-Revival Loretto Chapel with its “miraculous staircase.” His actions also led ultimately to the 1940 erection of the setting for “one of the most extraordinary pieces of ecclesiastical art in the country” – and prompted this piece of writing.

The 25’ x 18’ stone “Reredos of Our Lady of Light” altar screen at Cristo Rey church was carved in 1761 to be hung in La Castrense military chapel on the Santa Fe Plaza. Lamy removed the reredos and transferred it to La Parroquia, the main parish church of Santa Fe at the time. He then sold the Castrense. When La Parroquia was replaced by the Cathedral the screen was consigned to a small room away from public view at St Francis until 1940, when it was moved to its present adobe church abode.

 

It was our first time in Cristo Rey. We lived for a short time in its neighborhood during our 2017 summer of house-hunting – but its doors were never open for spontaneous tourism.

Described as the “last great adobe mission,” by architecture critic Chris Wilson the church was designed in the what is now known as the Pueblo Revival style by John Gaw Meem, who revolutionized architecture in the southwest by mixing progressive elements and materials with well-known regional architectural styles.

125’L x 40’W x 33’H, with walls up to nine feet thick the building is made up of around 200,000 individual adobes supported by a hidden steel frame. The Reredos dominates the otherwise barely adorned altar. A window above illuminates the textured form of the stone carving, while also drawing attention to the area upon which the liturgy is focussed. 14 Stations of the Cross with frames of handworked tin line the side walls. And that’s about it. Just the way it should be out here.

 

Over the years we’ve been able to sample several stops on the spectrum of sacred art – from Old World complexity to New Mexican minimalism. Meanwhile Barcelona’s La Sagrada Famiglia is becoming less like an outgrowth of the earth and more and more of a cathedral – iteratively transcending even our own state’s aspirationally ambitious motto. It grows, as it goes, as it goes, as it goes…

Speaking of which. Theodore Roosevelt once said “Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.” From what we’ve learned visiting and living here, that would be just perfect as an expression of New Mexico’s beliefs and ideals. It certainly has become our preferred aesthetic viewpoint.


Friday, December 16, 2022

Breakfast of Champions

 

“A foodie is a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food, and who eats food not only out of hunger but also as a hobby.” Wikipedia.com

We are not really “foodies.” It is true that back in CT we were members of a Gourmet Group for many years. And enjoyed lots of good food at each other’s homes and at local restaurants. But this crowd was as much about the camaraderie as about the cuisine. And for us it still is that way. One thing we really missed during the Covid lockdown out here was having meals with friends at restaurants. We held al fresco, BYO take-out get togethers at ours and other houses – and that took care of the “with friends” part of the experience. But we also wanted the atmosphere of the eatery. Poring over the menu and not limiting our choices to items that “travel well.” Background aromas that lingered on our clothing into the next day. Mouth-watering entrees being whisked past our table to those of other diners – many of which we only enjoy vicariously anyway, because they are just too damn spicy for our unpracticed New England taste buds. But it doesn’t hurt to look, does it? 

“Real” New Mexicans are a blend of Native American, Spanish and Anglo. As a result “New Mexico cuisine is a blend of Native American, Spanish and Anglo tastes. While it shares some traits with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, it is distinctive. Chile (note the spelling) is the main ingredient that makes New Mexico food stand out ... New Mexico Pueblo tribes have been cultivating chile, [and the “three sisters”] corn, beans and squash for millennia.” When New Mexicans refer to chile they are talking about a red or green sauce made from those pods, not chili con carne. In the 1500s the Spanish introduced wheat, rice, beef, lamb and other foods and flavors. “Staples on New Mexico menus include beef and chicken enchiladas, tamales, carne adovada (red chile-marinated pork), burritos, huevos rancheros and chiles rellenos (green chiles stuffed with cheese then deep fried) … Calabacitas [which we do eat and enjoy] is a side dish of corn, squash, chile and beans ... An Anglo influence is New Mexico's beloved green-chile cheeseburger and Frito pie (red chile poured over a bag of Fritos).” (travelchannel.com) Notice how many times “chile” appeared in that one paragraph.

“Red or green (Chile)?” is the “Official State Question.” To which an acceptable answer is “Christmas” meaning both. And the operative word out here is “smothered” with just about everything buried under an avalanche of the spicy sauce – including the first meal of the day.

Just fine with our breakfast buddies L & P – also morning people so 8:00 a.m. gatherings around a social meal are just their cup of tea (so to speak.) We take turns picking the eatery, with the other’s concurrence. Recently we tried Tia Sophia’s in downtown Santa Fe – believed to be the first restaurant on earth to put the breakfast burrito on its menu. “Soft tortillas are stuffed with bacon and hash browns, smothered in melted cheese and served with a poached egg on top” – and buried under red and/or green chile. The dish made the Food Network 2015 list of best breakfast meals across the nation.

 

But we did not know all that history until after. Which might have changed our orders – or at least L’s and P’s who selected Huevos Rancheros instead, also smothered. We however went for blue corn pancakes (M) and blueberry pancakes (J) smothered in our “spice of choice” – real maple syrup. We know that we could always ask for the chile “on the side” and spatter it on in harmless helpings. That is, after all, what we advise newcomers to do. But that compromises the entire essence of the entree – its whole raison d'ĆŖtre. And that seems wrong to us. Better to admire it from a safe distance.

During Covid we looked for places with outdoor seating. This brought us back to Cafe Fina – “an old Fina gas station turned eatery” – where first we began our morning get togethers in 2019. The menu features the requisite breakfast burrito, a smothered “huevos” dish (in this case “Huevos Motulenos, over easy organic eggs on a corn tortilla with black beans, feta cheese, peas, sautĆ©ed bananas and red or green chile”) – plus lots of things for us heat-averse Anglos including “Migas, scrambled organic eggs with corn tortillas sautĆ©ed with mild salsa and NM asadero cheese. served with black beans, sour cream, guacamole and a whole wheat tortilla.” Note particularly the presence of the word “mild” and the absence of “smothered.” 

But not all Santa Fe breakfast bistros had pre-Covid open air seating. Some, like Claflutis a “low-key, French country-style spot for house-made baked goods & light breakfast/brunch/lunch fare,” created a pop up outdoor area in their parking lot under a white tent. 

The two of us discovered Claflutis back in 2005 when Monica and Bram moved to Santa Fe and we began spending Christmas here with them. We rented a casita in the Guadalupe District – west of downtown and, serendipitously, just down the street from the restaurant. (It has since moved to the South Capitol area.) We dined there several times per trip and always on December 24th when we picked up an assortment of French baked goods to bring to M & B’s on Christmas morning.  At Claflutis the “c word” was not “chile” but “croissant” or “crepe.” The latter buried under a pile of fresh fruits or glazed peaches. As was the French toast. Both with syrup made from the sap of non-local maple trees.

Another stop on the L&P&M&J breakfast tour was Cafecito, a “laid-back restaurant & coffee shop crafting Armenian, Argentinian & Italian dishes in an airy space.” We visited it during what passes for a “snow event” out here, but was just another drive in the country to us blizzard-hardened former New Englanders. The objects of our quest were empanadas – among them this Argentinian spin on NM’s mandatory morning meal, the “Breakfast Empanada filled with egg, hash browns, bacon, chorizo sausage, provolone. Served with chimichurri, green chile sauce and mixed greens.” The owner/waitress told us proudly that their chile was mild. And it was in fact quite tame. She also boasted that they never “smothered” anything with anything there.

There have been, and will be, many more breakfast outings. But writing about them is just making us hungry. Perhaps when you visit we can share some of them with you. Until then we will wrap it up with this brief story.

Tia Sophia’s describes itself as a “no-frills, diner-style eatery.” A crowded layout with rows of small wooden booths, narrow aisles, a couple of tables and a food bar. We ate there on the Sunday before election day. As we were leaving, walking single file, we passed the booth next to ours which sat kitty-corner to our route. And saw the incumbent Governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, having a casual breakfast with two other women. She looked at us and smiled warmly. We reciprocated and when we caught up at the exit asked L & P, “was that the Guv?” They assured us it was. And L went back to say something supportive to her. (BTW It is not that easy to spot MLG in a crowd. At 5’1” she is the nation’s shortest, highest elected state executive. The attached shows her next to a 7’ tall NM State Trooper.)

Her Republican opponent was, like us, a former New Englander (Vermont) – and assumedly raised with a northeastern food palate. We don’t know his position on maple syrup vis-Ć -vis other “spices” – or what he had for breakfast that day. But Grisham, a 12th generation New Mexican, was feasting on something that was so smothered in red and green sauce as to be unidentifiable. 

She won the election 52% to 46%. 

Did the morning meal choices of the candidates help determine the winner? Probably not. But we will never know for sure, will we? 

Either way, it should be clear to even someone without “an ardent or refined interest in food” (such as us) that chile, and lots of it, is the main ingredient of a “breakfast of champions” out here.   



Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Amalo o Odialo (Love It or Hate It)

 





(Aerial view of Santa Fe Opera)

We first drove down Santa Fe’s “Opera Hill” heading north on U.S. Route 84 on our initial trip to New Mexico in 1992. Looking in wonder at the seemingly endless high desert landscape Marsha said to herself, “I’m home!” At the other end of town 382 years earlier a considerably less enthusiastic caravan of northbound Spanish settlers stood at the base of the basalt behemoth known as La Bajada and loudly moaned “are we there yet?”

Both we and they were experiencing New Mexico for the first time. And, while the two of us liked to think that we were “exploring” someplace new, we had maps, pamphlets and locals to give us directions, recommendations and advice. El Colonos espaƱoles were doing it for real, with nothing to guide them but their faith in God, their leader Juan de OƱate and the beaten path of the Indigenous Natives who preceded them on the trail that later became known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.

Last year Jim was talking to L, an epidemiologist from Los Alamos National Laboratories. (Apparently not top-secret work, so she didn’t have to kill him.**) During the conversation she mentioned that the Lab does much better retaining employees if they have lived previously in northern New Mexico. Her husband worked at LANL as part of Grad School. She herself was born and raised on “The Hill” – as her town of employment has been referred to since WWII’s Manhattan Project. (At the time the name “Los Alamos” was considered classified information.)

“You either love it, or you hate it,” she went on. Most scientists who quit don’t do it because of the work, but because of landscape and physical environment. Thew same one that we so quickly fell in love with on our virgin visit. Of course we had our return flight booked two weeks out. So either way – not a problem for us. The colonists on the other hand only were given a one-way ticket when they set off on their 1,600 mile, multi-month hike to their future home. Going back was less of an option for them.

The “road” on which the settlers traveled was an ancient trade route between the Southwestern and MesoAmerican Natives. OƱate received permission from the King of Spain to use it for his 1598 and subsequent colonization expeditions and established a settlement in the trail’s terminus San Gabriel – today known by its Native name of Ohkay Ohwingeh. In 1610 Don Pedro de Peralta, OƱate’s successor as Colonial Governor, moved the community back down the road 40 miles to the newly founded town of La Ciudad de Santa Fe de San Francisco (City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis, or Santa Fe for short.)

To which the shortest, but not the easiest, way was La Bajada Hill – an ascension of 1,500 feet in 3/4 of a mile at an angle of 45°. (La Bajada is Spanish for "the descent.") Peralta was also the earliest documented Spanish user of the hill. As the caravans approached Santa Fe there were three choices: scaling La Bajada, following “the Santa Fe River through the yawning canyon of Las Bocas, [or] another, longer trek around La Bajada through the Galisteo Basin,” according to the National Park Service web site. OƱate opted for the third.

 


(La Bajada with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena – it is New Mexico after all.
Or it could be watermarks if you believe the government.)

In the 20th century there were two alternative principal ways for getting from Albuquerque (where our flight came in) to Santa Fe. Interstate 25 is the most direct and fastest. NM 14 (the Turquoise Trail} more scenic and pleasant. And it turns out that nowadays off of the Santa Fe end of Route 14 is an entryway (entrada) to our home in Rancho Viejo – a 23,000-acre (39 sq. ml.) parcel of land south of the city. The Turquoise Trail was not available to OƱate, et al. But we like to think that these early colonists might nonetheless have passed through what is now our neighborhood. To have that connection to such an historic roadway would be pretty cool.

 


Documentation shows OƱate’s chosen route brought him to the Native American settlement that the Spanish called Pueblo San Marcos – a short distance from what is today the southern end of the Ranch Viejo property.

A major reason for coming this way was the presence of the Galisteo Creek/River. During the 1800s Santa Fe residents and visitors such as soldiers of both the U.S. Cavalry and the Confederate Army would regularly water their horses, and themselves, at the perennial stream that flows from the eastern highlands down into the Rio Grande through Galisteo. Jim learned all this during a one-on-one meeting he was fortunate enough to have with Dr. Eric Blinman, Director of the state’s Office of Archaeological Studies (OAS.) Jim was researching the history of Rancho Viejo  And Dr. Blinman pointed out that it is a “straight shot” from Galisteo Creek through Rancho Viejo to Santa Fe. Like a lawyer who got the answer he hoped for, Jim quickly changed the subject.

And it was during an evening class at the OAS taught by the same Dr. Blinman where we both learned of the historic significance of La Bajada – although the following comes mostly from the USDA Forest Service website.

Archaeological findings place humans activity at the top of La Bajada Mesa during the early Archaic Period (5500 BC-AD1), a time “when cultures were shifting from reliance on now-extinct mega fauna to smaller game and wild plant gathering. The area provided high quality basalt for stone-tools and a diversity of useful plant and animal species.

“In the few centuries before European contact (AD1300-1600) the population increased dramatically … Archaeologists have identified and dated the remains of several residential sites, known as pueblos, at the base of La Bajada … and large agricultural areas on top of the mesa [such as] grid gardens and … cobble mulch fields. “While it may not seem like the top of the mesa would be a good place to try to grow crops, people from the pueblo below knew how to make the most of the little moisture they received by creating stone alignments that collected and channeled the rainwater. They also used stones to mulch or cover the dirt in which they planted, to minimize evaporation. It is possible that the people who walked across the plateau tending their fields followed a route similar to the historic trail and road alignments that later climbed the same hill.”

Today the NPS cautions, “only the best prepared, and most adventurous, modern-day trekkers will want to take on the black basalt backcountry of La Bajada.” And yet, driven by “God, Gold and Glory,” multiple expeditions of conquistadors and colonos espaƱoles did just that. As did those that came after them, modifying the pathway into todays’ trail, which historians believe has “been in use [in basically that configuration] for some 300 years. The switchbacks on the road were supposedly blazed by U.S. Army troops in the 1860's for cavalry passage. In the early 1900's, because of the gravity-fed gas tanks of the time, many vehicles were forced to use their most powerful gear – reverse – to climb backwards up the steeper switchbacks. In the 1920's, the top half of the climb was rerouted on a gentler alignment just to the east of the old route … In 1934, the Highway Department "moved" the road three miles to the east to the same route currently used by I-25 … The La Bajada [walking] Trail is about 15 miles long and takes approximately 4 hours or so to complete." (New Mexico 4-Wheelers)

(Unclear if the vehicle is coming down or going up.)

 Juan de OƱate not only did not scale La Bajada. He also blew off Opera Hill – or whatever it was known as at the time. His journey north from Santa Fe north to his settlement at San Gabriel took him more than five miles to the west of the awe-inspiring panoramic view that continues to wow the two of us today. We are fortunate to be able say that the Royal Road MAY have passed near our backyard. Having it continue on to our favorite vista in the entire world would be asking way too much of history.

American musician, conductor, arts administrator and Santa Fe Opera founder John O. Crosby learned of the property that would become Opera Hill in 1956, when it was a guest ranch catering to classical music luminaries of the day such as soprano Lily Pons and her husband conductor AndrĆ© Kostelanetz. At the time it was basically 76 acres of sparsely developed land following its previous lives as a pinto bean plantation, a mink ranch and a pig farm. Crosby signed a three year lease and the rest as they say is history.

Was it the price and availability of the land? Probably. Was it the view? Most definitely. Each iteration of the auditorium – 1957, 1967 and 1998 – followed Crosby’s vision of of an open-air theatre that took advantage of Santa Fe’s “ideal climate, natural beauty, and [the] interest of the public in the great southwest.” The building faces west toward Jemez Mountains. To the east the Sangre de Cristos, the southernmost subrange of the Rockies. Panels behind the stage separate to revel a dramatic view of sky and mountains. Performances begin at sunset and, like our experience at a Renee Fleming concert in 2019, are sometimes accompanied by torrential thunderstorms that can drench parts of the audience and the performers.

(Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby.)

 But as impressive as it is, the Opera grounds do not provide the best view in town. That viewing point was already taken by 1956 – Route 84 in Santa Fe having settled into its current location in 15 years earlier. The vista itself was there long before either of these dates. It was there when the first MesoAmericans walked north from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo. It was there in 1200 A.D, when the Tesuque Natives created their first Pueblo on part of the land that makes up this panorama. It was there in 1598 when Juan de OƱate went north to proclaim the Pueblo of San Juan as the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico. It was there when we first drove north out of Santa Fe in 1992. And it will be there should you decide to take that same ride down Opera Hill.

1,900 of our words cannot adequately describe it. Nor can an IPhone video shot at 75 mph capture it. You have to see it in person to decide. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. You already know how we feel.
(Getting to “The Hill” ca. 1945)


olor de santidad

 

 

 

Written 5/9/22

 

So yes – there are fires out here.  Not in our backyard, but one is 35 miles to our west.  And another – at the moment the largest in the country – is the same distance to our east.  Similar to being in Wethersfield and having blazes in New Haven and Springfield, MA.  But our here because of the landscape we can see both from our neighborhood.  Below, sunset in the Jemez Mountains (smoke not clouds) out our back yard.  And the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east taken from up the street a bit – note the dry landscape.

Its early in the year for such things.  The Governor has already declared a State of Emergency and is warning of the worst fire season ever.  Feds have sent their entire fleet of fire-fighting "super scooper aircraft."  They are housed at the Santa Fe Airport and we’ve seen them flying over our neighborhood dangling buckets of water that look pitifully small for the task at hand.  No rain in our two-week forecast.  None in the past couple of months.  Winds at 20 to 75 mph in the fire areas spreading sparks.  Not good at all – but not personally worrisome for us yet.



So, even with all this going one, what are the top three things to do in Santa Fe? Most locals will tell you it is hiking, visiting museums, and eating out – the City Different Triathlon. Good by us. The high desert paths and arroyos in our community provide plenty of opportunities for foot traveling – but alas no art or gourmet opportunities. However more trails, a walkable downtown area, over 20 cultural institutions and triple that number of restaurants are all within a half-hour drive – making the CDTri pretty doable on any given day. Good thing, since it requires constant repetition to keep in top competitive condition.

One recent training session involved some urban hiking, lunch at our favorite “low-key, French country-style” eatery and exhibitions at two of Santa Fe’s downtown museums. The first pair worked up an appetite and then satisfied it. While the culture part brought back memories of our early visits to northern New Mexico. “Western Eyes: 20th Century Art Here and Now” at the Museum of Art reminded us of what made us think of coming out here to begin with. And History Museum’s “Curative Powers: New Mexico’s Hot Springs” told the story of what became a regular part of our annual visits to this part of the world.

So, what did make us think of coming out here to begin with? Well, for our 25th wedding anniversary in September, 1992 we were looking to go someplace special. That spring we happened to attend a retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. From 1979 to 1989 the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford had mistakenly displayed her painting “The Lawrence Tree” upside down – so we had some, albeit skewed, familiarity with her work. That image, plus other bits and pieces of her art and life, were enough to make us want to see more. And more was what there was at MOMA. We became really hooked on her southwestern paintings. And decided “let’s go see the place that inspired all these abstract pictures.”

So we came. And they weren’t abstract. But they weren’t representational either. To help explain, lets jump ahead to that April 2022 exhibition of “southwestern modernist painting” – literally in the middle of which, both positionally and stylistically, was Georgia O’Keeffe. At one end were paintings whose “subject matter” consisted of a collection of colored dots. At the other, posed-in-the-studio, photo-realistic depictions of Native Americans.

The O’Keeffe canvas portrayed a vertical somewhat luminescent turquoise rectangle inside a larger horizontal version of the same shape in an earthy, warm desert tan. On closer inspection – meaning you had to mentally step back and fill in the “whole picture” based upon your experience with northern New Mexico sights – it is a close-up view of the front door and wall of an adobe house. But thirty years ago we didn’t have that knowledge base. So we started to look at the landscape and architecture more O’Keeffe-ly. And it really was all there to see – well maybe not the sun-bleached cow skulls floating in the clouds – but still. We wanted to see more. So kept coming back for the next 25 years until at last we were able to stay. We are still “learning to look” as our old college art history book was titled.

 

On that first visit we made a day trip from Santa Fe to “take the [hot spring] waters” in the town of Jemez Springs, 90 minutes or so from our temporary home base. (And the origin point for the current fire to our west.)  To our east coast eyes pretty much anything outside of New Mexico’s state capital was southwest rural – with a capital R. Two-lane roads with nothing beside them other than high desert nothingness. Little if any traffic in either direction. And no real idea of what lay ahead. Somewhat disconcerting for two Connecticut suburbanites – with a capital S.

Looking for lunch we came upon an outdoor restaurant surrounded by a pack of parked motorcycles. A biker bar in an unfamiliar town on an unknown back road – what could possible go wrong? Hunger overcame anxiety. And we were seated in the midst of a “gang” of polo-shirted men many of whom were audibly communicating with their stock brokers on cell phones, while the remainder sipped their ice teas and Pellegrinos. Then we noticed that none of the carefully parked choppers had the distinctive Harley Davidson emblem on them. In fact many bore the same three letter brand name as the German luxury cars within which their owners likely commuted to their day jobs.

After our meal we set off in search of the hot springs, whose past is what has now become a familiar storyline to us. Ancient Natives – in this case the Pueblo of Guisewa – were the first and only residents and users of “the waters” until the late 1500s. Followed by the Colonial Spanish (1598-1821), Mexicans (1821-1847) and then the Anglos (1847-today.)
We must pause briefly here to point out the Spanish conquerers’ ideas of cleanliness when they first arrived in the New World. “Many things about Aztec civilization amazed the Spanish Conquistadores … But probably nothing seemed more bizarre … than the Aztec attitude to personal hygiene. [Around 1520] conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, in a tone of wonder, that [Emperor] Montezuma bathed twice a day.” No big deal since according to the Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijero “everybody bathed often, and many of them every day in the rivers, lakes or pools.” (“Clean Aztecs, Dirty Spaniards” www.mexicolore.co.uk.)

Following advice from the medical faculty of the University of Paris that the Black Death of 1347 was caused by “hot baths, which created openings in the skin [allowing] disease to enter the body,” the people of Europe pretty much avoided water for the next 400-500 years. The Spanish had an additional reason. “When the Visigoths conquered Spain in the 5th century, they scorned hot baths as effeminate and weakening, and they demolished the bath-houses. By the time the Moors invaded the country in 711, the Spanish … saw the Moors’ well-washed ways as part of their heretical convictions, and their own dirtiness as a Christian virtue.” To the mendicant monks physical dirt was THE test of moral purity and true faith. “By dining and sleeping from year’s end to year’s end in the same unchanged woolen frock [they] arrived at the height of their ambition … the odor of sanctity, the ‘olor de santidad.’”

But fortunately not forever. According to “Policing Waters and Baths in Eighteenth Century Mexico City” (jstor.org) – “In Spain, after a century in which bathing – especially social bathing – was discouraged, outlawed, and largely eradicated, people took to the water again in the 1600s. During that same period in Mesoamerica the conquerors repressed the sexual, social, and religious aspects of temazcal [sweat lodge] steambathing in favor of bathing for health and medicinal ends, a negotiation which enabled the temazcal as an institution to survive and spread across racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. Moreover, bathing in hot springs had surged back into popularity … was considered therapeutic, and the mineral waters themselves were thought to be medicinal.”

Just in time for the Spanish colonization of New Mexico – where for hundreds of years Pueblo Natives had considered hot springs as sacred places, and believed in the miraculous healing powers of the heat and mineral waters. Some soaking pools were even declared DMZs within which warriors could rest and not be harassed by other tribes. (Aztecs and Pueblo Natives are not related but share a similar cosmology and theology, and pretty much identical personal hygiene regimes. For the “pagan” Indigenous People cleanliness was next to godliness. Their Catholic proselytizers, not so much. In fact, there was a time when they appeared to be more water-fearing than God-fearing.)

The occupying Spaniards however seem not to have interfered with the Native’s ablution apparatuses. Nor the follow-on Mexican rulers. Enter the Anglos to monetize Mother Nature. Around 1860 one of the Jemez hot springs erupted, creating what should have been a temporary pool. But – cha-ching! – it was quickly enclosed with a rock wall and surrounding building, one of the first structures in the town. By 1881, a bath house and hotel were erected to accommodate travelers who came from as far away as Albuquerque to take the plunge – the beginnings of “health tourism.” Over 100 years later the two of us traveled from Santa Fe to soak and relax, ease our aches, absorb the beneficial minerals and rid our bodies of its harmful toxins. Or so we hoped.

The pools turned out to be individual tubs – some in a women’s section and some in a men’s. Their were no other customers. We paid our fees, signed the necessary releases, went our separate ways and settled into our respective indoor bathing containers for 45 minutes of uninterrupted soaking in the thermally heated, mineral-laden delightfully relaxing waters. After which we were gently peeled out of our aqueous cocoons and poured back into our rental car for the languid drive back to our Santa Fe motel. In the distance we saw our first high desert thunderstorms and then drove through them. Jim spontaneously broke into heavy perspiration necessitating the use of a towel we accidentally purloined from the bath house. The last vestiges of his east coast toxins. We knew we would repeat it again. But this time in an al fresco setting.

Which we found the next year among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs in the eponymous town of Ojo Caliente, 60 minutes or so from our Santa Fe home base. (“Ojo caliente, “hot eye,” was the name the Spanish gave to all the hot springs they found in New Mexico.)

Ojo’s backstory is similar to Jemez Springs. Native American Tewas, to whom this was a sacred site, were the first to soak in the springs. Their Pueblo community, Posi-ouinge (“village at the place of the green bubbling springs”) was the largest of four prehistoric Indigenous villages studied by New Mexico archaeology all-stars Adolph Bandelier and Edgar Lee Hewett. The only historic record of Spanish or Mexican use of the pools we found was an 1807 report saying the former brought Zebulon Pike (American brigadier general and explorer) there for a dip. Pike was already in hot water after his arrest for his “incursion” into New Mexico.

Then in 1868, Antonio Joseph, New Mexico’s first territorial representative to congress, built the initial bath house. Soon the town of Ojo had overnight lodging, a post office and a general store at which ledgers show frontier legend Kit Carson purchased supplies. In 1916 the then-owners built an adobe hotel to house their guests. Per Facebook, Ojo “is one of the oldest natural health resorts in the United States, and the only hot springs in the world with … four different sulfur-free mineral waters [lithia, soda, arsenic and iron.]” By the time we went there Ojo had added more buildings plus massages and other treatments – and relabeled itself as a “resort and spa.”


(Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs in 1916.  
Seems like most of the paying guests still can’t quite get the hang of soaking...)

Our initial visit was a day trip where we hopped from one outdoor mineral pool to another (with recovery time between dips) and went home so relaxed that we decided next time to spend several days. We did the next year – staying in the adobe hotel, having massages, mud baths, facials, wraps and more. Then came back for a few days on pretty much every subsequent visit to NM.

Our new state of residence is home to at least 77 natural mineral hot springs. Radium Springs, near the southern city of Las Cruces, is the hottest and strongest such spring in the world. Geronimo, the famous Apache Chief, made camp nearby, so he and his warriors could bathe in the revitalizing waters. Spanish settlers tired from their long trek up the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land) discovered the beneficial powers of the Radium Springs. As did U.S. soldiers from Fort Selden 200+ years later. It is not necessarily true that those cavalrymen made easier targets at night.

60 miles north the indigenous people of that area enjoyed their own local hot mineral springs. In the late 1500s the Spanish arrived, naming it Ojo Caliente de Las Palomas (Hot Springs of the Doves) and establishing it as a stopping point (paraje) on El Camino Real. By the late 1800s, bath houses and lodging popped up to accommodate visitors. The name of the town was anglicized to Palomas Hot Springs and it became a popular therapeutic destination. In 1916 they dropped “Palomas” and incorporated as Hot Springs, NM. Then in 1950 the locals accepted an offer from a popular NBC radio game-show and renamed the town “Truth or Consequences” – “T or C” to New Mexicans.

The hot springs at T or C are on our radar as part of a return trip “down south.” We had gone to that part of NM for the first time literally days before the pandemic shutdown. But did not take the waters. Maybe this year we will – paired perhaps with a viewing of Bosque del Apache's annual fall migration of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and ducks about one hour away. Next door by New Mexico standards.

Also, Ojo Caliente has opened an outpost next door to El Rancho de las Golondrinas – our volunteer gig and formerly the northernmost paraje on on El Camino Real. Ojo Santa Fe offers “thermal soaking pools ... with triple-filtered water from our own natural aquifer, which we gently heat to varying therapeutic temperatures so you can soak to your body’s content.” (The same water source in un-purified form irrigates El Rancho’s farm fields.) Ojo SF also offers an artificially salinated 80° lap pool to remind us of our Cape Cod, CT Shore and North Carolina ocean experiences. Well maybe not so much the northeast part.

But our own local spa of choice is Ten Thousand Waves – “inspired by the great Japanese mountain hot spring resorts … ten minutes from downtown Santa Fe, but only minutes from the National Forest.” We were introduced to it by Monica and Bram after they moved here and we began visiting over the Christmas holidays. A hot-soak on the hillside in sub-freezing temperatures under starry skies became a new December tradition. Followed by dinner at a local BBQ eatery. The Steamy Heat & Smokey Meat Biathlon. Even die-hard Triathletes need some R&R.

(…but we, on the other hand…)