I´m on my way to Santa Fe today. The Cheese and I lived there for ten years – more than half our married life – and we left for a lot of good, practical reasons, but none of them was because I didn´t like Santa Fe. I loved it from the first time I saw photos of it in some books in Washington, D.C. in the late 80s, when we were young newlyweds trying to escape the urban grind. We decided to move there sight unseen, then confirmed our gut feelings with a weekend visit. We packed our junk up and drove it across the country into a whole new life. If I had a dollar for everyone we met in Santa Fe who went there for vacation and then called home and said, send my stuff, I´m staying, I´d have enough dough to pay full retail for a bottle of Bel Respiro.
When we moved west in the summer of 1990 we left behind crime-ridden downtown DC, where we lived in a house on which every window and door was covered in burglar bars (pray for no fires!), where the night was punctuated by the alarms of cars being broken into and the occasional drunk screaming obscenities or passing out on our front walk. We moved into a house in the country 20 minutes from Santa Fe, on a washboard dirt road under a sky so blue the whole thing looked like a ridiculous, fake movie set. It was so quiet that when we sat outside one of the loudest sounds we heard was the burners on the hot air balloons as they drifted lazily past us overhead. Coyotes barked at night, and occasionally you´d see them skulking past. It had a hallucinatory quality that never went away entirely in the ten years we lived there.
You know how a place gets under your skin? You can leave it, turn your back and shake the dust off your boots and drive away back to the city, but it won´t let you go. Our older girls were born there. We drove all over that huge, dry, wonderful state and I saw so many things that amazed me – scorpions and white sand and ancient kivas and ghost towns and thunderstorms that roll across 50 empty miles of desert, straight at you. For a person addicted to smells, New Mexico is full of wonders – ozone, woodsmoke, Russian olive, green chiles roasting by the side of the road in the fall. My mouth waters just thinking about the food.
Not everyone thinks it´s great. Certainly while living there I met my share of shellshocked tourists on the Plaza, gazing around wondering how they got hornswoggled into going to a place so small, so brown, so dusty, with food so spicy. Frequently they were wearing shorts in the 18-degree winter, having I guess confused Santa Fe with Phoenix? Santa Fe is high desert, 7000 feet elevation, nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There´s a ski area 20 minutes away. I met people all the time back east who flat out didn´t believe me that Santa Fe had winter, often with plenty of snow. They´d never walked Canyon Road on Christmas Eve, singing carols and eating bizcochitos and watching the farolitos burning in the snow, the smell of pinon woodsmoke all around you, along with the dark, wet smell inside the old adobe churches.
Do you ever think about going to Santa Fe? Go. The spring is the worst time – cold and dirty and windy, all the way through April (the worst month, in my opinion.) Summer, with the Spanish and Indian markets, is hugely popular. My local favorite time is the Fiestas in early September, with the Desfile de los Ninos (literally, the children´s parade, where you walk with your pet dog or rooster or hamster or whatever) and the burning of Zozobra, which residents basically use as an excuse for a three-day drunk. Fall (September, October, early November) is a gorgeous time to go, with the turning leaves and the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Albuquerque, which attracts people from all over the world. And of course winter´s gorgeous if you like to ski and don´t mind the cold. Santa Fe gets 300+ days of sunshine a year.
I haven´t been back in seven years. Life got in the way every summer – pregnancy, babies, toddlers, building a house, moving, caring for ailing parents, other trips. I´m a little nervous. I know it won´t be the same; nothing ever is. But let´s face it, the locals have been complaining that the place went to hell in (pick one: the 1950s, the 70s, the 90s). It´s all downhill, right? Me, I´m just hoping to break out the concha belt and the sunscreen and feel the love all over again. Maybe not the exact same love. But something good. Something like going home.
photos from top: red chile ristras drying against an adobe wall; farolitos (DIY brown lunch bags with sand in the bottom and a lit candle, aren’t they lovely?); hot air balloons preparing for takeoff; Zozobra, the giant moaning puppet (Old Man Gloom) they burn during Fiestas, while you drink a cerveza and yell “burn him!!” For a sense of scale: that’s a person standing in front of him. He waves his arms too; I bet there’s some great footage on YouTube.
PS: packed in my bag in travel atomizers: Ormonde Jayne Champaca; Kenzo Amour Indian Holi; Armani Prive Bois d’Encens; Tauer Lonestar Memories.