Santa Fe

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.

  • Wonderful writing and wonderful memories.
    Thirty years ago, I dutifully followed a husband back East. I had claustrophobia because everything was so close in on you and cried. Last year, a different husband and I decided to go back to the land of purples and tans, big skies and spicy food. I cried again, this time for joy, when I flew over the wrinkled mountains and back to a new part of what I’d left. You never leave the West, you just live without it for a while.

  • telesilla says:

    What a lovely piece of writing! I’ve never been to Santa Fe, but having lived in a high desert before (Teheran), I know exactly what you mean about people being shocked that you see snow in the winter.

    So much of what you said about a place getting under your skin and never really leaving resonates with me. I spent some of the most important, informative years of my life in the Middle East and Europe and sometimes all I have to do is catch a whiff of turmeric or take a walk in a drizzle and smell woodsmoke and I’m back in Iran or Belgium .

  • Patty says:

    Wow, I could have sworn I commented.

    new Mexico is just flat-out gorgeous. I spent some time in the far southern area, and it is an amazing place. White Sands is like some other planet.

  • Disteza says:

    It’s interesting that you call them farolitos; in El Paso we always called them luminarias. Anyway, I can’t profess the same love for the SW as you. We went from Bavaria to El Paso, and stayed there for 7 years; we had almost the exact same problems in TX that you describe having in DC! Being the exemplar of pallor that I am, the desert never agreed with me (something to do with the dryness-induced nosebleeds and sun poisoning). I’ve been through AZ, NM, and TX, and can’t say that I’d ever want to go back.
    My own personal Eden exists though; it’s in Costa Rica, somewhere hidden in the sodden Caribbean coastal jungles. I must have been a fungus in a previous life because I am unable to live without heat and humidity. Throughout winter I shrivel up and grow bitter; I’d love to chuck it all and find some little house down there where I can go hiking through the green mass in my free time. Unfortunately, you cannot wear some perfumes in the forested areas: you’ll end up end the middle of a nasty bug swarm.

  • pavlova says:

    What a lovely and evocative post. I truly felt transported and wanted to write lots of things of to you…BUT, everyone else on here has expressed my feelings for me (and much more eloquently, I might add!). Have never been to Santa Fe, but it on my list of places I long to experience. Thank you for sharing with us and I look forward to reading of your visit.

  • Francesca says:

    Lucky, lucky March! I still have globs of pine resin from a trip to NM a few years ago; every once in a while I burn one and go Ahhhh. . . They’re from that big tree depicted in a night scene by George O’Keeffe. I remember a number of wonderful aromas, the wild sage, and the trees that, if you stick your nose into the crevasses in the bark, smell of butterscotch.

  • MJ says:

    I want to go back!!!! We visited Santa Fe and Taos a few years ago on a great vacation and I still think about that lanscape a lot (and the food! OMG the food! Christmas sauce!!!!!). I’m in a fairly nice suburb ringing Blight City (Ole Rusty) and as much as I love the greenery and deer and lakes and ponds and birds I’d love a change. Maybe in a different place and different landscape my worldview would be different. A dull or annoying pattern would be broken for sure.

    Aroma is what I remember best from both Santa Fe and Taos. I love wood smoke and my best olefactory memories are New Mexico and Northern Michigan camp wood smoke – the aroma with a blue sky overhead really do something deep for me.

  • Kathy says:

    My husband and I went to Santa Fe on our honeymoon and swore we’d move to New Mexico some day. Eight years later, we’re still in Baltimore, but our hearts are in Santa Fe….

  • Billy D says:

    I am one of those ignorants who would confuse Santa Fe with Phoenix. I had no idea it got so cold there…now I’m sort of dying to go. My bf has relatives there who love it, so maybe a trip is in order. One thing that always annoys me about Arizona, as well as Nevada, et al: the flying-in-the-face-of-reason desire to have a green lawn in the desert. Is it that way in Santa Fe?

    PS: I love your mention of Bel Respiro at the beginning. I’m craving it.

    • Billy D says:

      Sorry, New Mexico should be added to that list…

      • Shelley says:

        Billy D…
        Just got a big ol’ whiff-ful of Bel Respiro as Musette and I worked on plans for Chicocoa. Yum! I’m also a Bois des Iles fan…we both enjoyed the Cuir de Russie…
        Are ya wanting to c’mon along yet? You can visit the Les Exclusifs shrine, er, display, and spray wantonly… ;;)

  • sallycantdance says:

    I’m glad to read this beautifully written account, because it contrasts so heavily with my impression of New Mexico. Five weeks ago I drove from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, stopping in Santa Fe for what I thought would be a pleasant respite from an eight-day, cross-country drive. Instead, I wound up cranky from the heat, unable to find anywhere to park, nowhere to use a ladies’ room (I had two dogs with me). I saw Chico’s rendered in stucco and felt robbed; I had set the place up in my head and, under stress, was unable to see beyond barred windows in some rundown neighborhoods bordering the main plaza. My irritation with NM had been building as I drove south out of Colorado in 100-degree heat, through what looked like a high-desert wasteland, nary a pit stop in sight, and increased when a dust devil knocked my car from the right lane to the left.

    I was not in the right frame of mind for New Mexico. You are, and your wonderful account (of which more, please) proves that one must always keep an eye open for beauty, even with dust in one’s eyes and four Cokes in one’s bladder.

    More, please!

  • Shelley says:

    It is a wonderful thing to discover the landscape which doesn’t just live around you, but within you.

    What a great job of capturing your Santa Fe. I, too, have such place…in fact, have had the opportunity to discover TWO (!)…but I must ‘fess up to being one of those who inhales the many deep greens of woods and vegetation, when they are right up against the intense blues of northern lake and sky. I believe everybody has such a place, if they have time and opportunity to experience it.

    (Though I like very much the gentle acknowledgements that sometimes we live right in the center of such a place without truly appreciating it.)

    In a trip back to my place, I took little bits of Hiris, Bois Blond, Kenzo Amour. Interestingly, I debated whether to bring anything at all, and indeed found myself applying one scent only once. Something about wanting to soak up what little time I had there, including the smells? Though I recall just not being sure WHAT would be right. I think if I went back next week, I’d know… 🙂

    Thanks for this post.

  • karin says:

    Oh, March! What a wonderful experience to have lived there for 10 years. When I was scouting out places to move to after living in the SF Bay area forever, Santa Fe was one of my choices…but I ended up in Portland, Maine. Quite a contrast! But I LOVE Santa Fe. I visited the end of ’02. There was snow on the ground. It was magical. I love the culture and the art. And the food…oh my. I’ve been dreaming about it ever since! I want to get my husband out there, but as you say, too many other things get in the way, and there’ve been too many other places to go.

    Have a fantastic time!!!!! I’ll be anxious to hear about your impressions after 7 years…

  • chayaruchama says:

    Oh, baby-
    You give me WANDERLUST…

    What a marvellous post, M.
    You go, and enjoy, with Monsieur Fromage.

    Some fine day, I’mm gonna haul my heiney there- so much I want to experience myself.
    Fiery food is calling me- along with coyotes.

  • rosarita says:

    March, thank you for a beautiful piece. I’ve never been to the southwest; my husband has promised to take me someday. I love your travelogues! Is that spelled correctly? 😕 At any rate have a wonderful trip. 😡
    ps – You would love Austin. I highly recommend it.

  • Rappleyea says:

    Great post! Both you and Patty could write a travel blog in addition to a perfume blog. Have a wonderful and safe trip.

    • March says:

      Thanks — I’m shoving the twins around, need to drop them off at preschool early before the airport trip. I hope to see you all on Monday.

  • Louise says:

    March-such a stunning post@};-

    I spent just one summer in NM many years ago, as a student in Albuquerque. In many ways the terrain and weather were a bit startling to a rain-soaked Oregonian kid, accustomed to the green lushness of my home state. I found the surrounds a bit frightening, desolate.

    It took me perhaps a week to adapt, another to fall in love. Not with the town-little to offer back then, but with the rest-the people, the aridity, the “walking rain” storms every afternoon, the food, the architecture, the emptiness-full-of beauty.

    I hitchhiked a lot of the state, and found a particular fondness for Taos and Sante Fe, and especially the country between them.

    One sensory memory held-olfactory, not surprisingly. I can no longer re-capture it-but there was a distinct fresh pineyness after the daily storms that encapsulated NM for me, for many years. I’ve not been back in nearly 20 years…must go.

    Have a marvelous time, come back with stories of the glorious food (maybe a ring or two? ) >:d<

    • March says:

      My sister-in-law went to college in ABQ, then called back east and said, send my stuff. 🙂 She never fell in love with Santa Fe the way I did but loved NM in general. She liked ABQ’s down-in-the-heels charm, and she would move to one of those cool southern towns like Silver City in a heartbeat. It sounds like you had a great time out there as well. And wow, the change from Oregon would be huge!

      They just started monsoon season a few days ago. I can’t wait. ^:)^

  • tarleisio says:

    Ah, March – I can empathize, maybe more than you know. Eight years ago, I fell happily in love with a NM man, and to my own surprise not least, I found myself in New Mexico not three months later.

    I came from Denmark, which is so green and fertile that NM was a cultural and climatic shock to the senses of epic proportions, and I was even more surprised to discover just how hard I fell for the place. The scents of pinon, pondedrosa pines and roasting chiles, the sights of mountains and adobe, and a sky that was so immense and such an incendiary blue, that I felt Someone must have painted it, just so I could truly know what the color “blue” really meant.

    The beauty of New Mexico is obvious, and again, it’s not. The beauty there is not something you can set out to find for yourself, it is something that sets out to find you.

    “If you come to New Mexico” said my favorite painter, “and if you come, it will become a fever that will remain for the rest of your life.”

    So it did, for you, for me, and for the many others, who came, who saw, and who were conquered by an impossibly blue sky.

    I envy you your trip to Santa Fe, which has to be one of my favorite cities in the world. I can sit here, over 6000 miles and another world, another continent away, and conjure up the sights and scents and sounds of the Plaza in Santa Fe, the art galleries, the jewelry sellers in the colonade of the Palace of the Governors, the smell of the ponderosas in the Sangre de Christos – and I’m there, almost.

    For me, the fever never left. It never will. And some day, like you, I’ll be back, only to find that just as for you, the fever never left.

    And in certain sense, neither did I.

    I wish you a truly great time!

    • March says:

      Thanks for your wonderful comments. It sounds like you fell in love with many of the same things I did. I never did get over that sky. Even after years of living there, I used to pull over to the side of the road and watch goggle-eyed as some spectacular weather approached. Ah, those memories.

      The colors seemed so peculiar compared to the east coast, which eventually by comparison started to look freakishly green and lush. Once the eye adjusts to the NM palette it’s lovely.

  • sylvia says:

    never been to santa fe, but now i think i need to go. sounds great!

  • gina says:

    Thanks March. I want to live there…now. ahhhh. Perfect for Lonestar Memories. Buy Pinon incense! Have a great time.

    • March says:

      Lord, I HAVE pinon incense. And one of those cheesy little kiva fireplace things you can burn it in. :”>

  • Gail S says:

    ….sigh….I love Santa Fe. It’s about 600 miles or so from here so it’s not exactly an easy trip, but well worth it. Been going there semi-regularly since I was a kid in El Paso.

    Now, keep in mind that just like any other large-ish city, there’s plenty of areas there that you’d never know what a charming place you’re in. Certain areas, I’m thinking particularly around the interstate, it looks just like any other city in the desert. You have to get off the beaten path there 🙂

    • March says:

      Now that is so true about cities. Whatever the main drag you come in on is often the worst part. Santa Fe was like that too — if you take I-25 and get off on Cerrillos road, it’s nothing but big-box stores and traffic. I knew people from El Paso when we lived there (Texans are great, and very fond of Santa Fe.) I’ve always wanted to visit Austin too.

  • Dusan says:

    One of your loveliest pieces of writing. Ever. I’m floored… and transported… and feeling ever so warm in my tummy 🙂 I want to go Santa Fe, like this minute!
    P.S. You couldn’t have picked better scents to take to Santa Fe.
    P.P.S. I’m so loving this post and the pics. 🙂 Thank you! You must write about your trip, won’t you? Have the wonderfulest time in NM!

    • March says:

      Thanks, Dusan! I’m planning on blogging on Monday from Santa Fe, from the public library if necessary. There must be a computer there somewhere… actually I have several friends there, I can probably scam onto somebody’s machine.

  • tmp00 says:

    Beautifully written, March.

    Sometimes I think that the eye of someone who isn’t from there to really appreciate a place, or perhaps a prolonged absence. I’ve been here 20 years and still marvel at the quirks of the place (and with that people who come here and bit#h that it ain’t NY or Chicago or wherever go the f&ck home- we need your parking space) but when I went back to New England this past year I was struck by the beauty of it. I don’t think I appreciated it when I was there.

    Even though the last few times I’ve flown back in it was on fire, I still love LA..

    • March says:

      The blog is ACHINGLY slow this morning, yes? Or is it just me?

      I think you’ve nailed it. You, the transplant, can appreciate the things about LA that still draw people there (and I share your feelings about the complainers — I used to feel that way about folks who moved to Santa Fe and got busy trying to turn it into whatever they’d just escaped.) At the same time, you can see that you didn’t appreciate the glory that is NE in the way a lot of transplants to those parts can do.

      I think everyone should have one great passion for a city or a place…