John Lorenzen has been a tour guide in various capacities in Santa Fe for 12 years. He currently gives
open-air tram tours with Custom Tours by Clarice, as well as historic walking tours and “Aspook About” ghost tours with Aboot About Santa Fe.
SFR: How do you know so much about Santa Fe’s history?
JL: You just do a lot of research. You read, read, read. You go on other peoples’ tours. You also have to have a sixth sense as far as getting up in front of people—it’s a lot like acting, in a way. It’s acting with some history thrown in. It has to be well paced. It’s our job to keep it balanced, informative and funny.
I’ve always had an interest in history, since way back. Being a historian, doing interpretive work with the public, it was a natural thing for me to do tour guide work. It’s something I really enjoy and people tell me that I’m really good and I know I’m really good. I give a great tour!
What’s the difference between domestic and international tourists?
Americans are not really knowledgeable about history. They’re ignorant, actually. They know very little. When they come on the tour, it’s my job to get them moving and motivated and entertained about history. I tend to focus on what they can see, because when people are on vacation they have a little bit of Attention Deficit Disorder. They’re like children. So you have to constantly pull something visual and then talk about that and try not to do too many abstract thoughts. For a few people, though, you can get a little more in-depth. You can talk about the Pueblo revolt, which wasn’t so nice. You can talk about the fake quality of Santa Fe, which is an ‘Alice in Adobeland.’ They’re mud wannabes, these buildings. They’re not real. Plain and simple, they’re here to grab [tourists] and get them into town. A lot of these buildings have been lobotomized or adobeized by the downtown city culture. I can see why architects are not really very happy about it.
Of course, we all love anecdotes, so pick your favorite weird tourist story.
I have one that’s top of the list. This happened, I’d say, two seasons ago. During the tram tour we stop at 225 Canyon Road, it’s kind of like a compound of galleries. We stopped there for 10 minutes so they could look at the galleries. I had this elderly lady on my tour. I told her, ‘Why don’t you go into this gallery here? They have a wonderful sculpture garden.’ And so 10 minutes later she came back and said, ‘I just bought $10,000 worth of sculpture for my daughter’s 62nd birthday.’ So she bought $10,000 worth of sculpture because of me. You know, that’s $1,000 per minute. You think I’d have gotten a commission out of that. But nothing—not even a cup of coffee.
Yeah, it’s a bummer, but for me it’s a classic story. As a tour guide, you meet a real cross-section of society.
How is it working with tourists?
It’s really a fun industry to be a part of. You know, people are in a good mood when they’re tourists. I’d say, 90 percent of them. They want to learn about Santa Fe. I tell people to take a tour because you’ll have a better understanding than those other people walking around in a daze. I see a tour guide as a sort of ambassador for the city, so that when the person leaves the city, they’re informed about what makes it such a special place.
You’re kind of an ambassador, but at the same time there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect in the way you talk about Santa Fe.
Oh, there is! Santa Fe is a fraud!
Can you reconcile that love-hate dichotomy?
You have to. It’s like a really good cake, but there are parts of it that could have been worked on better. I like to dig into that subterranean level of controversy. I present history as being controversial. And really, it was very bad for people. There were thousands of people who died here in the 1600s because of the Spanish atrocities. Depending on the group, I lay on those atrocities thicker, however much they can handle.
Aside from historical facts, what are some of your favorite cultural talking points?
The buildings in the downtown area. They’re all Victorian buildings and they’ve been shot with a stucco gun. But this is the way I see it: I tell people, ‘Yeah, they’re frauds, but the buildings are a conscious effort to bring back that old style.’ People should be aware of the illusion. Because this is not what Santa Fe used to be like in the downtown area. There was a Woolworths! A Sears! Hat shops! It was a living downtown. Now it’s become a tourist ghetto—which is, to me, kind of sad. I guess that’s just the way history rolled.
It’s an interesting stance to have, as a tour guide.
I just lay it all out like a pack of cards. When you’re working as a tour guide, you’re a historian. You’re presenting the facts, but you’re also hopefully changing people’s attitudes. When they’re informed, they’re not ignorant. History is full of ignorance and fear, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.
You fool them into thinking they’re having fun, but they’re actually learning something.
Yes. It’s a show. I try to keep that balance. Also, it’s very important to have a sense of wonder as a tour guide. For us, we live here and it’s easy to take for granted. I try to put myself in these people’s shoes. I want to make this place special for them. Keeping that sense of wonder for them is important. It’s very easy to get cynical. There’s sham everywhere you go in civilization. But it’s important to believe in them, and believe in the city.