In general, my bucket list travels are motivated simply by my own hope to do New Mexico to the max. But two weeks ago, a visit from two North Carolinians (Michael, my father's buddy since preschool, and his wife Lizzie) even further spurred me to re-see New Mexico through their awe at the fact that we don't just live in inhospitable, arid desert.
I take pride in explaining to Michael and Lizzie the rituals of our wonderfully pagan Zozobra, the Canyon Road farolito walk and chile ristras hanging on every other doorway. We delight in toting them to our landmark restaurants—Il Piatto, Harry’s Roadhouse and our very own kitchen for Mom’s killer green chile stew. Finally, a meandering trip up to Espanola, Abiquiu, Taos, and back through Chimayó temporarily drives schoolwork out of my head so that I can smell the warmth of New Mexico’s bright, cozy autumn with a newly appreciative nose.
Saturday: We drive through national forest dotted with grazing pastures and cold, rushing rivers. My eyes hungrily sop up the prickly pears and plums perched at a Velarde fruit stand. Mustard-colored cottonwoods grab my attention every few yards, and the afternoon light catches the rough corners of sandstone cliffs, throwing the crevices in blue shadow. At Espanola’s El Paragua, whose entryway centers around a huge, wrinkled cottonwood, tiles with Spanish sayings, and photographs and clippings of family, locals and acquainted celebrities, I step up the heat with extra picante salsa on chile-dusted tortilla chips and more red chile sauce on my breakfast enchilada and eggs in order to match Michael’s spice enthusiasm.
In Abiquiu, the woman for whom many of my friends went to O’Keeffing camp, for whom an entire Santa Fe museum exists, with whom photographer Alfred Stieglitz was intimately fascinated (like much of the rest of the country in the early 1900s), involuntarily and/or unwillingly opens up her house to my inquiring footsteps.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s niche in New Mexico finally becomes more real for me. Every bit of the hacienda we could see hinted at her self-defined style: sage and spice jars labeled with masking tape; a dark violet bedroom whose paneled glass faces east; several river stone collections; a rattlesnake skeleton sunken in glass in the adobe banco. An easel looks out over the heart-stopping, sweeping Chama River valley and O’Keeffe’s favorite painting spots (the Black Place, the White Place). Most interestingly, the alluring color and shape of a black square door in the courtyard were practically her sole motivations for buying the hacienda from the Catholic diocese.
Of course, she was not only Georgia O’Keeffe the zen recluse, but also Georgia O’Keeffe the public figure, famous and successful wife of the famous and successful Stieglitz. So of course, to tend to all the bonsai gardens and to make use of the spice jars and O’Keeffe’s money, there lived a full-time cook and a gardener, Estevan Suaza (who intended to be remembered as sharply as Georgia, so his initials are carved in tens of little nooks around the walls and flagstone). How would she feel upon seeing us treading on the carpet that her chows once walked, peering out on a valley that she once commanded with her paintbrush?
Sunday: At Taos Pueblo for the third or fourth time, Mom and I sprinkle our oily, crisp fry bread with cinnamon. In homes of painters, jewelers and potters, I inquire after the firing methods using horsehair and simple fireplaces to produce the exquisite micaceous pottery for sale in the pueblo homes. I reconnect with Raphael, of whom I had taken a black and white portrait some years ago, which I sent him as a Christmas gift. He remembers me, as I do him!
But after it all, the feeling I find in one particularly tiny adobe room, after all the many other adobe rooms we had entered and lounged in and marveled at, sticks with me most acutely. I’m familiar with el Santuario de Chimayó, its iconic, weathered bell towers set against brown and green hillsides, and the sweet white marble markers littering the entrance pathway like nesting doves. I’ve also heard for years about the power of its sacred dirt.
Yet I’ve never truly been in the room housing that miracle, the Posito of holy ground where monks in 1810 found a crucifix that made miraculous the surrounding dirt. The little lopsided, poster-plastered and shadowed room staunchly protects the sacred ground. Penetrating coolness, stillness and quiet reflect upon the smell of earth, the innumerable walking boots, crutches, pink, blue and green casts signed in Sharpie and finally shelved in a miraculous recovery. This lean-to chapel, la Capilla de Santa Niño, is the place where a soul comes to be unburdened, where pilgrimages end and health hopefully begins. This is where photographs of servicemen, grandparents, wives with cancer, beloved children, candles and rosaries crown otherwise ordinary mud walls in a wreath of magical light and pensive silence. Amazingly, the dirt doesn’t even know how much it means to the world—yet it does mean the world to many. It gives itself to believers, who see more than just pulverized rocks. It’s the perfect comfort, and perfectly northern New Mexican.