Tuesday, November 08, 2022

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…)

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