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Best of Catherine Poe

Santa Fe Haunts

10 April 2000

No matter where I wander, Santa Fe haunts me, calling me back, and I have returned five times, hoping to understand what lures me to this high desert city. While driving up I-25 from Albuquerque across the Southwest desert corralled by a sky without end, I still get the wobblies, that feeling that only city-folk can truly experience. Where are the houses? Where are the people? Where are the cars?

I look in my rear-view mirror. Even though I am barreling along at eighty miles an hour, there are no cars behind me and none in front. It's just me and the desert and the mountains ahead. To get the full experience, take this hour drive at night and feel what it is to plunge headlong into a dark void. When I finally swing down out of the hills above Santa Fe, I am relieved to at last see the city sprawling under the Sangre de Cristos Mountains, so named for the blood of Christ. I even welcome the traffic jam on Cerrillos Road as I head for the Plaza, the heart of Santa Fe.

One of the oldest cities in America, it looks as it did when the Spanish built the Governor's Palace in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. Santa Fe prides itself on being the City Different and it certainly is that. Everywhere houses and shops are constructed from adobe, including the indoor parking lots. Only a splash of blue, turquoise or purple ribbons the windows and shrouds the doors, protection for the homeowner from evil or so the story goes.

Although Santa Fe loves touristas and their pesos, this is not a city gussied up for tourists as a theme park for adults, ala Las Vegas or even Williamsburg. This is the real thing. Santa Fe as the capital of New Mexico is a working town, but one anchored firmly in its roots of the Pueblo Indians, Conquistadors, and the Catholic Church.

Nowhere else in America will you feel that you have stepped into a foreign country. In fact, my sister said that she found her visit to Santa Fe so alienating that she felt uncomfortable her whole stay. Another friend found the adobe town too brown and monotonous despite the wonderful desert gardens.

For others of us, we celebrate the City Different and dive in, hoping to get lost in the little alleys and by-ways so we can stumble across a hole-in-the wall grill with the best green chili in the Southwest. Even better, we go up to Fort Marcy just above the town or out to St. John's College and gaze across the vastness, watching the storms march across the desert, spewing havoc and rainbows along the way.

For most tourists, the highlight of their stay is to bargain with the Navajos, Hopis, Zunis, and Pueblos who are ensconced under the long porch of the Governor's Palace, selling their fine turquoise jewelry, wedding pots, beadwork, and even a blanket or two. Those in the know realize that the highest quality of Indian work is sold here, regulated by the city of Santa Fe. What you buy in the Plaza or in front the Banana Republic is another matter. It could be good or just a good imitation. I only shop the Indian Market in August, which literally takes over Santa Fe or from those Indians, winter or summer, who sell under the ramada.

For a good deal on folk crafts, Mexican furniture and pottery, and spicy salsa, as well as a chance to observe a prairie dog town up close, I head out on Cerrillos Road to Jackalope's. This is where the locals go for that unusual artifact for the coffee table or the coffee table itself. And if you are into Christmas shopping in July, this is the place for that one of a kind gift, like Mexican newspaper sculpture, hand-painted tin frames, pueblo shaped candles, and even a jackalope, a bunny with antlers.

Then there are those summer days when the monsoon hits, and like the rest of the tourists, I head indoors to the galleries or museums. Santa Fe ranks third after New York and Los Angeles as the focal point for the art scene. The feet will give out long before the eyes and that is without having wandered up Canyon Road to the glorious galleries housed in haciendas and casitas. My favorites are the Gerald Peters Gallery's collection of Frederick Remingtons and the Gerald Green Gallery's exhibitions of Apache sculptor Allan Houser and Navajo-based John Boomer.

Yet no trip to this city would be complete without stopping in at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum just off the Plaza. I go back each time to pay homage to an artist who made us see the beauty in this raw landscape called New Mexico. Then I hot-foot it over to the Institute of American Indian Art Museum across from St. Francis Cathedral, the very church made famous by Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The changing exhibits here and at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian off the Santa Fe Trail prove once and for all that Indian craft is truly art. The recent display of blankets, "Weaving A World," and the on-going pottery exhibit dispel any notion that this is primitive art. What is especially delightful is that all three museums are literally works of art themselves, so be prepared to spend some time in each. They encourage loitering before a statue or resting in a garden that integrates sculpture and flora, but don't expect to see pansies and petunias. Succulents, cactus, and chanisa dominate. This is the high desert, after all.

If you are really craving greenery, a short drive out to Tesuque will satisfy your addiction. Nestled in a canyon and named for a local Pueblo, the town of Tesuque lives in Santa Fe's shadow and doesn't care. However, if it's green you want, grass, trees, bushes, stuff to remind you of home, then an afternoon at Shidoni Gallery should satisfy your longing. A stroll across the lawn among modern and realistic sculptures, along the creek, under the cottonwoods, and back to the shops and studios of the craftsmen and artists is a cool respite on a ninety plus day.

If all that walking makes you hungry, me too. One of my favorite places is the Plaza Restaurant (505/982-1664), located just where you'd think it would be, which makes a breakfast huevos rancheros so huge and so delicious that it will fill you up until dinner when you will start wondering how huevos rancheros would be for dinner. But don't. Instead, go back for the green chili. It is hot, hot, hot! And authentic. It's served with sopaipillas to dip or to nibble later for dessert, slathered with honey. The bonus is that this is a local hangout, even though it is smack dab on the square, so it will not break the bank.

If you are interested in ambiance with your meal and don't mind shilling out a bit extra, the garden of Casa Sena (505/988-9232), one block from the Plaza, serves gourmet New Mexican cuisine under twinkling tree lights by a fountain that has gurgled since the Sena family built the hacienda in the 1860's. But the best food, with a price tag to prove it, is at the Coyote Cafe (505/983-1615), a flight of stairs up from Water Street and two blocks from the Plaza. The chef here does obscenely delicious things to steak, seafood, and poultry, like encrusting quail in pinon nuts, dishes that definitely call for $20 bottle of Merlot to cap off the meal.

Luckily, while in Santa Fe you will do lots of walking because it is easy to erase the waistline with all the tasty New Mexican cooking to tempt you. If you thought all Southwestern cooking is the same, wrong. Texas chili would not pass muster in Denver, and no New Mexican would deign to eat a bowl of Tucson chili. For my money, New Mexican wins hands down.

After about a week, you may experience the altitude kicking in and find you are no longer racing about at the break-neck pace of the tourist. After all, Santa Fe is more than 7000 feet above sea level. When the heart starts thudding for no apparent reason, your breath become labored when you climb the steps of the country's oldest church, San Miguel Chapel (1625), and a headache that you thought only a Marguerita could cause begins to slow you down, you know you have a dose of altitude sickness. Do what the Santa Feans do. Sloooow down. A little nap never hurt anyone.

One of my favorite cures is Ten Thousand Waves. Fifteen minutes up the mountains, just outside of Santa Fe, snug against the junipers and firs is the spa to rejuvenate you, Ten Thousand Waves.

I know it seems odd to fight altitude sickness by ascending even higher, but two hours later you will feel better. And it is probably odder than in the midst of everything Indian and Spanish is a Japanese spa, but remember Santa Fe defines itself as the City Different. There are the ten restorative hot tubs for singles, couples, or a crowd of friends (the latter are usually in bathing suits), set out of doors, but privately screened away, so that only the sun or stars can observe you unwind.

Afterwards, try a massage of your choice or an herbal wrap in one of the cedar-lined rooms and notice that your head and heart are once again at peace. Long after I leave, I carry the scent of cedar with me and relax immediately.

Now that you are revitalized, perhaps you have the energy for a long day or night at the tables, by these I mean the gaming tables. The closest casino is at Camel Rock Casino on I-25, just past the Santa Fe Opera and fifteen minutes outside of Santa Fe. When the Spanish conquistadors marched into what is now New Mexico, they came looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. Instead they found only poor Indians living in adobe pueblos. Today, the descendants of these same people are slowly turning their pueblos into a golden Mecca that draws tourists from all over the US and abroad with their gaming casinos. By the end of this century, Coronado's Seven Cities of Gold may finally exist.

So successful have these Indian casinos become that an outlet shopping center recently shut its doors, leaving it a ghost mall along I-25, much to the surprise of everyone. Named for a famous rock formation jutting above I-25, Camel Rock Casino, which is operated by the Tusquque Pueblo, offers 24 hours of blackjack, roulette, 5X craps, video poker, a full action poker room, and 500 slots. Open seven days a week and with special weekend matinees, it also claims the largest bingo parlor in New Mexico with seating for 800 players. Coffee and soft drinks are free around the clock and the all-you-can-eat buffet puts out a spread breakfast, lunch and dinner. No wonder the Indians have hit the jackpot with the casinos.

Tired yet? Not another Days Inn, you yawn. Yet in an expensive town like Santa Fe that is where many travelers end up, trying to avoid the rooms that start at $175 and soar. Many of the merchants complain that the high hotel prices don't leave many dollars left over for squash blossom jewelry, photographic art, or even tapas at El Faro, an authentic Spanish restaurant. But that needn't happen to you. You can eat and sleep well in Santa Fe and come home with something more memorable than a "I Did It In Santa Fe" tee-shirt.

Three blocks from the Plaza is a homey B&B in the only Queen Anne Victorian in the city, The Preston House (505/982-3465). Want something more adobe? They also own the hacienda across the street. With rooms starting at $90 this is romance on a shoestring.

Hate B&B's? Your loss, but oh well. If a motel, but a motel with a garden and fountains, is more your style, then the El Rey Inn (505/982-9249) five minutes drive from the Plaza is your ticket. The rooms vary in decor from Indian pueblo to Victorian to Spanish. And the price is right with doubles starting at $56.

When it's time to head back home, just be sure to follow the Turquoise Trail to Albuquerque and not I-25, allowing enough time to explore this truly Western back road. Remember you have just begun to explore the Santa Fe area. You will need another trip back for side trips to Pecos, Bandelier, Los Almos, Abiquiqu, and Taos. Love ghost towns? Then this is the road for you. But more on the Turquoise Trail another time. This is why I say Santa Fe is haunting. The more you see, the more you hunger to explore. And if you are a skier, Santa Fe Ski Basin beckons. To come at Christmas, skier or not, is to enter a fantasy land of adobe walls rimmed in snow and studded with farolitos. Even Disney couldn't have dreamed up an enchantment equal to Santa Fe's.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.