Friday, December 22, 2023

Something is Mssing


Shortly before we relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico Jim was discussing our impending move with one of the members of our Newington, CT health club. “Do they have supermarkets out there?” he asked in all seriousness. Jim assured him that they did – with paved parking lots even.

Although at the time we were quite surprised by the question we’ve since come to realize that New Mexico is, to put it mildly, not a “known quantity” to a good portion of those who live outside of our country’s 47th state.

Something residents of the “Land of Enchantment” have become used to – and bemused by.  New Mexico Magazine – the nation’s first state magazine (1923) and published monthly in print, online and via an iOS app (yeah we have that out here also) – has a regular column called “One of Our 50 is Missing” wherein readers submit their own “missing moments.”

Some are probably because people just don’t listen carefully or mis-hear what is being said, e.g. – a resident of Rio Rancho, NM tried to refill a prescription while vacationing on Cape Cod, MA to be told by the pharmacist that they had no idea how to process an order from a foreign country.

Others are clearly a lack of knowledge – an article in a London England newspaper showing a map of a new luxury railroad in Utah placed New Mexico east of Colorado.

A few simply defy explanation – at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth one Santa Fean was asked if we have different stars in New Mexico. “Probably because they only have one in Texas,” the magazine opined.

And our own personal “missing moment,” which was more disconcerting than humorous. We were on the computer updating one of our financial accounts to our new New Mexico home address. The change was processed without a hitch. But we were re-classified us a “foreign investors.” We turned the problem over to our investment advisor.

And then there’s New Mexico’s imaginary cactus. Residents of Arizona are rightfully proud of their Saguaros, tree-like cacti that can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall – but only in their part of the Sonoran Desert plus the Mexican state of Sonora and California’s Whipple Mountains and Imperial County. NOT New Mexico!

That doesn’t prevent it from being used as NM imagery. Grammy-winning country musician Kacey Musgraves’ song “Dime Store Cowgirl,” includes the line “I’ve driven through New Mexico, where the saguaro cactus grow.”

Even Progressive Insurance’s ever-cheerful spokesperson Flo is featured on a mail-offer envelope amid images of a saguaro cacti and the invitation to “Enjoy Big Savings in the Land of Enchantment.”

Or maybe New Mexico actually is “missing.” Jim was explaining to guests at El Rancho de las Golondrinas that its big grist mill (Molino Grande) was once a commercial business from the 1880s through the 1920s. (It was moved from Las Vegas, NM to the museum in the 1970s.) It was unusual he said that the machinery remained intact through 50 years of non-use, especially during WWII when the U.S. was looking for scrap metal for the war effort. One visitor, clearly a local, commented, “nobody knew where we were then either.”

And truth be told we did not know much at all about New Mexico before we landed here in September 1992 looking to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in an exotic but stateside locale. Our interest was piqued by a retrospective of the New Mexican artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – super-arid deserts, psychedelic colored mountains, floating desiccated cow skulls, stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere – those sorts of things. We immediately knew we wanted to see the surreal environment inspired these crazily abstract paintings.

Other than that, our knowledge of the Land of Enchantment was pretty much based upon Jim’s dim recollection of a turquoise stone in a collection of “Gemstones by State” given to him as a child (his favorite of the set of then 48.) And what we got from the novel “The Milagro Beanfield War” by John Nichols and its eponymous movie adaptation – “the book all newcomers to New Mexico should read, offering the flavor of this place with its competing cultures and values,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.  Set in the fictional Chicano village of Milagro the “War” is a folklore fable in the Latin American magical realism tradition (daily earthly meetups with heavenly angels) where a small-time farmer is struggling to defend his modest beanfield and community against larger business and state political interests. An “earthily naturalistic, often highly romanticized, blend of the supernatural and whimsical” per movie critic Richard Scheib. (Sadly, while this essay was being composed author John Nichols died at the age of 83.)

An impressionistic landscape, out-of-the ordinary gemology and magical elements as a normal part of life – that was enough for us. So off we went with no fixed agenda other than four nights in Santa Fe and three in Taos. (We had not much vacation time available then. And weren’t totally sure we would like it enough to spend more than week there anyway.)

We quickly learned that (1) the super-arid deserts were not the vast expanses of sand we expected but rather vast expanses of “high desert” (ecosystems at high altitudes with little precipitation.) And the state’s geology also included snow-capped 13,000’ peaks dressed in pines and spruce, brilliant wildflower fields, forests of towering cottonwoods, white sand dunes and vast expanses of prairie. (2) The psychedelic colored mountains really did exist – in certain places, at certain times, in certain light – for example the Sangre de Cristo mountains at sunrise seen from the parking area at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge 10 miles northwest of Taos. (3) Desiccated cow skulls are pretty commonplace, esp. in gift shops, but never hovering aloft. At least not on that trip. (4) The stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere are intentional, put there by a secretive Catholic lay brotherhood known as Penitentes. And (5) turquoise is anything but out-of-the ordinary here – although the jewelry into which it is incorporated definitely can be.

On our mid-vacation drive from Santa Fe to Taos we passed by the village of Truchas where the Milagro Beanfield War movie was filmed. The tiny rural township looked exactly like what it was portrayed as – a tiny rural township just trying to live its day-to-day life. We did not stop to look around. So no reports on the actuality of angels dancing out of a sunrise or into a sunset. And spent our time instead in the more tourist-oriented towns of Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. All were foreign to us (as in different) – yet familiar (as if we belonged.)
Maybe it was the beige – said by some to be boring, by others neutral, calm, and relaxing.

Everything around us seemed to be a pale sandy yellowish-brown. Adobe buildings, foliage-free landscapes. All under a deep blue sky. And art was everywhere. Hispanic-Catholic folk art portrayed a comfortable, personal relationship between the artist, their religious subject matter and their faith. The hand-dug, hand-coiled, hand-painted Native American clay pottery told of their craftsperson’s connection to the land and geometric complexity of their indigenous beliefs.

With the little knowledge that we now had, we were already hooked.

On our way north from Santa Fe, driving for the first time down what we now know as Opera Hill on U.S. Route 25 we looked out on the vast expanse of Espanola Valley – beige (of course) under the boundless blue sky. No saguaro cactus for hundreds of miles. Both of our jaws dropped (at least in our minds.) Marsha thought. “this is where I belong.”
Thirty-seven years later we finally got here – and contacted our long-time homeowners and auto insurer AMICA who has a southwest office with a representative who frequents Santa Fe. It is fun to joke about living in a place that no one knows about. But not when our financial protection is involved. Sorry Flo.

Incidentally: Even Santa Claus almost “missed” New Mexico. He was not a part of Indigenous Native, Spanish or Mexican culture and probably did not arrive in any form until the late 19th century when the railroads came to town – the beginning of the end of New Mexico’s isolation. But Santa didn’t begin to catch on among the locals until post WWII, when servicemen came home inculcated with northern European influences. And not quite then even. Poet Maria Leyba remembers, “In the early 50’s we lived in Santa Fe, my Mexican mom had never heard of Santa Claus but all our vecinas [neighbors] explained to her about this tradition. Wanting to fit in she made sure we weren’t deprived of Santa. But my cousins in México celebrated the three kings and the Santo Nino, not Santa Claus!”

Nowadays Saint Nick knows the way to Santa Fe. When he looks down and sees Arizona’s saguaro forest he turns east until he comes to a cow skull floating over a Penitente cross in the high desert. That’s New Mexico.


(Found this by Google searching for “Santa Claus in New Mexico."
Apparently Santa’s Graphic Design department did not get the saguaro memo.)

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