We meet in front of the San Miguel Church, the oldest church in the United States, snug between the oldest house in the US and Upper Crust Pizza. The house of worship’s outside is chipped and faded into a mocha-bean adobe. This is where the tour starts, with the San Miguel Church and a SparkNotes two-minute sum-up of Santa Fe’s history: From the conquistadors to present-day; from the Tlaxcalteca Indians to the hippy communes of ’68.
It doesn’t take long to realize Pacheco, a multi-generational Santa Fean (his family roots span back to the city’s early colonization), knows the city inside and out. “All roads lead to Santa Fe,” is a common utterance by Pacheco. The saying rings loud and clear when we’re standing in the city center amongst rug stores, galleries and curio shops. Pacheco says, “This is where the Santa Fe Trail started,” because nearly 200 years ago, this trail led to Franklin, Mo., the main hub for trade, where settlers came to earn a quick fortune.
“This was the first Walmart,” Pacheco jokes. I can imagine the hooves of horses, the diatribe of barter and the coming and going of settlers lugging worn-in satchels.
Pacheco’s been doing private tours since 1986, so he’s got the “tour guide” role down to a tittle. All tours are tailor-made for the customers, whether their interests are conspiratorial, paranormal, or just plain historical, and, just the same, each tour varies in cost ($115 and up). But trudging through snow, his walking tours are especially chilling during wintertime, when your breath fogs into a white mist, a couple inches in front of your face, floats then disappears like ghostly apparitions.
Pacheco’s tours blend fact with folklore and a pinch of skepticism. He often says, “That’s phony bologna” or “as phony as a three dollar bill” to express his sentiments, but that’s not to say he isn’t open to Santa Fe’s mysticism. Quite the contrary. “Everyone says it’s the ground,” notes Pacheco, “but I think it has something to do with the light.”
Pacheco insists, and it’s quite apparent when sun sets behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains and blood-orange light splays between the peaks, that Santa Fe’s got its fair share of magic. “It’s in the light,” he says as we walk down Old Santa Fe Trail, snake between crags of alley, and end up at the parking lot of the Public Employees Retirement Administration (PERA) building, which used to be a graveyard up until 1966. Before that it was corn fields with long stalks of un-manicured corn husks where the Tlaxcaltecans hid during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. It’s there where he mentions the lady in black who supposedly roams the the sidewalk of this building— a phantom that haunts the premises—who mourns the death of her son.
Pacheco brings out a laminated photo of a woman in a black Victorian dress, leaning against a column. You’d be surprised at the amount of solemn women ghosts who linger and haunt. Beauties, lost and forlorn, who were victims of their circumstances and are stuck in stasis. There’s the woman in black, Nurse Medina at what is now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and La Llorona (the crying woman) who purportedly drowned herself in the Santa Fe River. Then there are ghosts of padres, beheaded Spanish merchants (you’d be surprised by the amount of decapitations), but there’s something romantic about these lone woman specters. Though none of them hold a light to Julia Staab.
Pacheco mentions “Julia” early on in the tour.
He’s on a first name basis with her. “Wait till we get to Julia,” promises Pacheco. It turns out Julia’s got quite the reputation as she’s been featured on everything from Travel Channel Halloween specials to Unsolved Mysteries.
He saves her for last. Julia, that beautiful German-born wife of Abraham Staab, who built a mansion in Santa Fe (“It’s the Taj Mahal of Santa Fe,” says Pacheco), which later became La Posada hotel. “There’s all these stories,” Pacheco explains about the falling out with her husband (adultery is one speculation). “She was imprisoned upstairs for five years like Jane Eyre.” Abraham Staab was a big man in town, “President Grant broke bread with him,” Pacheco adds, and with such back-story, the grandness of his house, Julia trumps his legacy. Her apparition is seen upstairs, in windows, downstairs in the main hall where she disappears into the patio, the guide notes.
Maybe it’s her, or maybe it’s a trick. “After all,” Pacheco says, “it’s in the light.”