"The light, the light," all the artists and mystics and dreamers say of this region of the cosmos but I was unconvinced. Light is light, right? And on the long-ish car ride from Albuquerque to this isolated ranchero I grew even more skeptical. The barren landscape gave off a pinkish hue and the colors of the homes and buildings seemed unimaginatively bland, the color of sand and rock.
But I appreciated the drive in the sense of it being different. It was an introduction to a landscape foreign to me. If I hadn't seen the Las Vegas environs last year, and Salt Lake City's mountains the year before, this would've been even more terra incognito.
But then we arrived at the house we were renting and it was instant "wow". The view incredible, setting spectacular, and surely this was because we were surrounded by juniper and spruce trees. This was no barren desert, but one with modestly tall trees that didn't obstruct the view. A dry arroyo with some coyote tracks, puffs of desert plants clumped artistically here and there in the sand...ahh...
I was sold, in short, and immediately noticed a spectacular quality of light. The shadows pregnant with meaning, the sun gilt against the wood frame porch.
And then we went in and I was blown away again. Picturesque to the nth degree, with a generous number of windows to let that special light in, plenty of books to slake my literary thirst, and all under the benevolent gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe from a wall niche. I picked up a book and found some poems printed as large bookmarks, poems authored by the owner of the house. Affecting poems about another terra incognito, death. Yes I liked this place, and almost immediately a sense of panic set in: How could I read all these New Mexico-themed books and soak in this stellar view and magic light all in just three days? I was instantly grateful we'd decided not to explore Albuquerque after getting the rental car.
To top it all off, literally, in back of the house lay a treasure, "Black Mesa", and it was just begging to be climbed and I wasn't there a half-hour before I was picking my way up amid a fine variety of rocks, many old remnants from a lava flow, it being an extinct volcano. Up and up, completely out of breath but loathing to pause. Finally after about 45 minutes of this anaerobic climb I found myself about 3/4ths to the summit but without a seeming safe way to get there. Two ravines on either side, very narrow passage way that was lousy with sand. I could've gone back some distance and found a different way up but I was tiring. All I kept thinking was, "Oh man Doug (my brother) needs to come here and climb this. This is just too perfect." Worse still, the very peak area looked Half-Dome steep even if of course it wasn't. Going down was easier on my heart rate than going up, though it wasn't great for my weakish ankles. Could've used a good pair of hiking books.
Yesterday found a nugget via Frommer's: an isolated Benedictine monastery not far from where we're staying. It's so isolated that supposedly you almost need 4-wheel drive to get there (it's off a forest service road) but I'm gonna try to get there anyway. Their schedule is pleasingly full of prayer opportunities as one would expect.
The other must-see seems to be Bandelier park. The thing about the trip is how much to treat it as recuperative and how much to treat it as a sight-seeing orgy. I'm tempted to spend at least one day just enjoying the homestead in that tiny little spot on the map called La Lomita.
Taos, NM: not sure. It sounds like a kind of hippie wonderland. But that's about as far in attitude from a suburb of Columbus as can be wished and thus is welcome in the traveling scheme of things. We seek "the other" in travel.
So we waited till the sun went down then headed out, famished, to the neighboring town called Espanola and went to La Cocina (don't call it "La Cochina", which means "filthy") restaurant, as recommended by the friend of the owner's who'd let us in.
"I wonder what 'La Cocina' means," I said as we studied the menus.
"I hope not cockroaches," Steph said.
"Maybe it means 'stink bugs'."
The waiter arrives and asks, after we order, 'Red or green?". Hmmm...red or green what? I'd shamelessly not done my pre-vacation reading so was not prepared.
"Green," I said, figuring "red" meant hot if this meant some sort of spice. Steph then asked whether green or red was hotter and he said "green" and so I changed my order accordingly.
The joint was loaded with atmosphere and eclectic furnishings (a picture of a priest next to a painting of the same priest) and the food tasty and reasonably priced.
After a long sleep we leisurely began the day with coffee and oatmeal cooked overnight in a crock pot. It was 20-something degrees, but a "warm 20-something". 25 being the new 40 down here apparently. Later that morning, with the strong sun and little wind, 35 degrees felt comfortable and later that afternoon a t-shirt was enough in 50-something degree weather.
We hiked around the property again before heading to 11am lunch at La Cocina, the "right" one this time. The mystery of the two La Cocinas was solved: there were in fact two La Cocinas and right across the street from each other. Whoda thunk it? It was a New Mexico curiosity, like the fact that Highway 285 had speed limits that alternated between 45-60mph and changed for no apparent reason. Like the fact that all the houses seem to have gates (is crime that bad?). Like that our property here has a garage being built with a bathroom & shower. There seems an eccentricity to this land of adobe houses and Indian reservations. I can say one thing, if I lived here I'd be tempted to just drive a steady 60mph and look at speeding tickets as a cost of living.
Lunch done, we headed to Bandelier National Monument, run by the U.S. Park Service, and I briefly wondered about the difference between a national monument and a national park. I should've asked the ebullient park ranger, a young woman who definitely loves her job and who guided us swiftly towards the pay booth.
I always underestimate how long it takes to visit a national park (or monument) and this was no exception. Turns out you can't drive in, you have to be shuttled a dozen or so miles. (On the shuttle back we would inexplicably take a roundabout way through a particularly banal suburb of Los Alamos.)
At the visitor's center we viewed a film that was impressively substanceless and forgetful before beginning our jaunt on a delightfully sunny afternoon. We'd decided to take the main loop trail, just over a mile, and it was interesting to see the 14th century remnants of the valley dwellers and their "kivas", underground pits in a circular shape where they had serious political or religious meetings (church and state then not as sundered). It was also interesting to learn the meaning of the word "kiva", which is the name of a micro-lending institution.
Unfortunately the tranquil atmosphere was rent by two women surprisingly annoying, loud and talkative. They were not the ideal tourists, the ideal being ones who are seen and not heard. If they hadn't been tipping the bottle before I'd sure hate to see them after a couple. After dogging our heels at a couple of stops on the trail, I made the huge tactical mistake of allowing them to go ahead of us at a critical juncture: at the base of the ladder to the first cliff dwelling. Suddenly their paced slowed. One of them went up for awhile, then the other went up and they took up residence, measuring the openings for window dressing, making inane interjections like, "Oh, look, it's like a big picture window!"
Perhaps needless to say when we finally went up the ladder to see this room of wonder we were disappointed. There was nothing much to tell that it couldn't have happened via natural processes. Worse, we soon caught up with our bete noires! So we skipped a stop and headed on ahead, finally getting a faint zig-zag in a dwelling that indicated human presence from 700 years ago. Again I noted the irony of being irritated by humans in the present while searching for signs of those who lived hundreds of years ago.
When we arrived back at our car, the day mostly spent already. I knew it'd be tough to fit in a second event but plowed forward with the plan to visit the Benedictine monastery. We headed back past our place and into the uncharted territory to the north and west, up in Georgia O'Keeffe country. And beautiful it was. Astonishing figures appeared in the mountain fastnesses. Some of it seemed surreal, as if wind and water made works of giddy natural art.
Belatedly we arrived at the forest service road, a gravel road that led to the monastery. Slowly we realized that the math wasn't in our favor: we couldn't go faster than 20mph on this rough-hewn one-laner and we had 13 miles of it and it was already 5pm. By the time we got there we'd have to turn around almost immediately unless we wanted to drive it in the dark, a thought that concentrated the mind wonderfully given how difficult it was maintaining 20mph in the light. We turned around at mile 4 in, so close to the monastery and yet so far away.
Back we headed, down to the highway where we soon found something we'd never seen in Ohio: cows on the highway! A guy in the four-wheeler looked to be doing a cattle drive across the highway although it was more likely that they'd simply escaped outside their fence and the poor guy was trying to get them back. We pulled over off the shoulder and signaled drivers coming the other way by flashing our brights. After a couple false moves, he got them cows apparently where he wanted.
We drove on, past tiny little villages of trailer houses and flat-topped Indian pueblos. There's something fascinating about these little enclaves of ethnicity, kind of like Amish but with a less fertile landscape to work with and a lot of problem drinking and chronic unemployment. I constantly glanced from the road towards these pockets of probable poverty and I longed to see more Native American types outside. Not a lot of outdoor activity in places so rich in scenery if not money.
So at least the long drive to within nine miles of the monastery wasn't totally wasted given the interesting scenery. It looked a lot better than the scenery between Albuquerque and Santa Fe encountered on day one.
I checked out the Benedictine monastery website afterward and found this testimonial from fellow "civilian" visitors there, which convinced me that an hour visit wasn't the purpose of the place anyway:
"I first came because I literally had no choice. I was recovering from a radioactive cancer treatment and I couldn't be around pregnant women or children for three weeks. Since you never know what women may be pregnant, I had to go somewhere where I thought women and children would not go - a monastery.***
I had never before been to a monastery and knew nothing about it. The first week, my entire being was in rebellion against the order and the silence. And then something strange happened.
During the second week, I made peace with the order and silence.
During the third week, I became friends with the order and silence.
Those three weeks changed my life. I was introduced to a completely different dimension of life, one that I craved to explore and develop.
Now, 15 years later, I go as often as I can.
I thought I knew God before I went to a monastery. Now I know better just how little I knew God, and am only now finding out how much I crave God."
Then back to La Cocina II it was, back to a surprisingly delicious steak dinner for $12.95. You can't get that in Ohio. But you can get HGTV, and we watched a bit of it after dinner and it was a powerful, Gresham-like force as far as causing the inability to turn one's eyes from a show called, "Home, Strange Home". It featured, in part, a "Beer Can House" in Texas where a guy apparently draped his house in beer cans. You can't make it up.
Eventually, mercifully, the narcotically entertaining beer-can house was switched off. Outside desert temperatures plummet lacking the aegis of the sun and I feel a twinge of that familiar last-day-of-vacation-eve feel even if it's technically true that Sunday is our last "day" here, where day is "two hours". The cruel ergonometric of western USA trips from Columbus is clear: four-day trips look suspiciously like two-day trips with travel days appended. You can't fool Mother Nature or geography. Not living at an airport hub means rarely having a non-stop flight, the only way of having an off-chance of avoiding the travel day bookends.
I'd overbought on beer, especially given the single brew we had between us last night. So from now forward it feels like every night is "free beer" night because what we can't drink we can't take with us. So it's "drink it or lose it". So much for my policy of "leave no beer behind." It looks like we'll leave at least six. Ah well, vacations always have an element of inefficiency associated, like driving to within a few miles of your destination and then turning around. Funny, but all the misdirections and anticlimaxes now have a sort of hazy, nostalgic glow. The beatification of vacation.
Woke up again to that amazing view of the land of enchantment. And more of "The Last Eagle" by the late Tony Hillerman before jogging a couple miles up and down the killer hills in the "neighborhood".
Then off to visit pueblos, specifically San Juan and the San Ildefonso. The latter was a tad forbidding: the list of NO's was rather extensive, including a sign saying "No Tourists Allowed After 5 pm". There was also no hiking allowed. I visited a couple pottery shops and noted the large kiva in the large open plaza. Unfortunately very little activity to speak of, no local color. San Juan was friendlier, with a Catholic church actually open. Not surprisingly there was a large display devoted to the newest saint, Saint Kateri, a Native American. There was also a side altar with a huge icon screen of paintings depicted events in her life. Eventually a handsome looking group entered, possibly for a baptism since one lady was holding an infant.
No pueblo is complete without its kiva and large empty plaza, and San Juan is no exception. It was neat to see a kiva built in the 14th century yesterday and one built in the 20th century today.
The police station had Halloween decorations in the window. You gotta love a police force with Halloween decorations. The drive for Obama in this part of the world is intense. Lots of signs saying "Obamanos! Gotta vote!" Obama's apparently also our first Hispanic president. Who knew? I'd love to put up a sign in the area saying, "Romneynos! Gotta vote!" The Santa Fe New Mexican, unsurprisingly, intemperately editorialized for Obama its endorsement piece.
After the pueblos we headed to Santa Fe and parked near the Cathedral of St. Francis. A pleasing enough shopping area presented itself, so we walked by the plaza area, a park, visited a coffee shop and a bookstore (oh if I wasn't such a e-book convert I'd have been tempted). The people were surprisingly friendly for such a presumably "snooty" environment, even the folks who were obviously natives.
Then to the cathedral for mass. The church was more modern (on the inside) that I expected. I guess a lot of the paintings behind the altar we done in the late '80s. The juxtaposition with an old fashioned side niche of Our Lady of Consolation was maybe a tad jarring, but perhaps what you need to do to appeal to both elderly Hispanic ladies and younger hipsters.
Mass was very evangelical with praise & worship songs from my wife's non-Catholic church and with the priest coming down the aisles asking everyone from out of state to announce themselves which, naturally, took a very long time. Two other couples were from Ohio.
Steph looked at me like I'd taken out a lighter and lit a napkin on fire. We were at a Mexican restaurant at the Albuquerque Sunport (don't call it airport) when I pulled out a beer from my carry-on and quickly decanted the sucker. This was outrageous to her and I was amused by it.
One low alcohol beer is pretty close to having none, but I thought it worth it for medicinal purposes, given the strenuous morning climb up the Black Mesa. I'd run out of gas at around 6,360 feet, which sounds impressive except for the fact I started out at 6,000 feet. Evidently I should've trained for this event. I don't know if it was the altitude or the foreign activity of climbing hills, there being none in flat Columbus, but it was a tough sled. Apparently the equivalent of going up 35 sets of stairs, with the added invigoration of a rocky, uneven surface. Certainly not what I'm used to.
We'd spent a few last precious moments on the porch at La Lomita, me reading a bit of "The Last Essays of Bernanos"*, a book from the owner's stock. They say that New Mexico is laid-back and slow-paced, and I wondered if there a high capita of readers here given hard it must feel for readers, given the press of unread books in the bibliophilic life.
Then a pause, thinking of the unheeded wisdom of the verse, "Be still and know that I am God."
* - In one of his essays, on freedom, Bernanos sounds so current & prescient. Writing in 1955 he says,
"With each war to preserve freedom, they take from us twenty five percent of the freedoms that still exist... [In the future] I think police troops will compromise nine-tenths of the population and a citizen will no longer be able to cross the street without twice taking off his pants in front of a policeman anxious to be assured he isn't hiding a single milligram of the precious stuff [nuclear materials] that will destroy cities."