Hello again from Santa Fe, America’s oldest capital city and a significantly nicer capital city than the one we previously lived in. We’re just over halfway through our month here, which has flown by in a way that makes me wonder how I ever did trips shorter than this. This place is different than anywhere I’ve ever experienced in so many ways – including one of the cooler and weirder state mottos. But we’ll get to all that in a second.
This one’s another long one, so get comfortable. I promise to try to get back to shorter, weekly posts now that I’ve mostly caught up.
Our drive from Alpine to Santa Fe was, by any objective metric, incredibly boring. We almost immediately left the mountains and rolling hills of the Big Bend desert and hit perhaps some of the flattest, dustiest, most godforsaken land I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about this part of Texas:
I’m on a few rural land sale listservs (a normal thing for a normal person thing, I know), and I suddenly understood why 20-acre lots out here are so cheap. There is truly, uniquely, absurdly nothing anywhere other than sand and scrub. Oh, and the somewhat surreal footprint of the fossil fuel industry. It takes a surprisingly short time to get used to seeing ominous plumes of black smoke on the horizon and gigantic Mordor-esque flames from wells burning off natural gas. As if that wasn’t biblically apocalyptic enough, we also saw a dust devil spinning away. I’m sad to report it did not cure Morgan of her fear of tornados.
From the crystal clear blue skies of Big Bend to the gray, smoggy air of northern West Texas was certainly a transition. After passing through a few dusty towns, we unceremoniously crossed into New Mexico. Unceremonious may be an understatement. There was no sign, no marker – we wouldn’t have even realized it if I hadn’t had my Google Maps app open at an opportune time.
We blew through Carlsbad (surprisingly, a more populated city than Santa Fe), unfortunately skipping the caverns that are apparently so good, a lady in Marfa suggested we just leave Linus in the car with the windows cracked while we saw it. We would never do that to our boy, especially to do something as anxiety-inducing as going deep underground.
I took over the drive shortly afterward, navigating us through Roswell, a town I was convinced would be nothing other than a mediocre tourist trap. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. You gotta hand it to a town that commits so completely to the alien theme, even when the supposed UFO wasn’t even found that close to town.
From here to Santa Fe, it is not an understatement to say there is pretty much absolutely nothing. But, some of the most beautiful nothing out there, as far as I’m concerned. For about two hours, I rolled over and down gentle hills, surrounded by miles and miles of yellow grass. I lulled Morgan to sleep with my audiobook on the interstate highway system, and before you knew it, we had arrived.
Our home in Santa Fe could hardly be in a better location – along bustling Guadalupe Street, and less than 10 minutes walking from Santa Fe Plaza, the heart of the old town. Airbnb termed it a ”casita” (little house) and warned us it would be small. They weren’t kidding, with the interior space measuring up to less than 300 square feet. Still, we got two bedrooms and a full kitchen, so no complaints here.
Our neighborhood is pretty exceptional. Set aside for a moment the fact that we’re a 7-minute walk from the Santa Fe plaza, we’re directly adjacent to a nice cafe, a few steps away from the country’s only smoked chile beer brewery, and a few steps more from a half dozen more restaurants, shops, and bars.
The winter weather here is truly something else. It will be dry as a bone with next to no humidity for days at a time. Then, out of nowhere, it will snow a few inches, which promptly melts an hour or a day later. It’s frankly amazing the entire city hasn’t eroded away already.
It is also a remarkably dry city. Just ask Morgan, who’s bought a humidifier and approximately a lifetime supply of chapstick and moisturizer since arriving. It makes sense that the weather here would be somewhat strange. Santa Fe sits at roughly 7,000 feet in elevation. It’s the highest city in the country with more than 20,000 residents. But it’s a bit hard to perceive you’re that high up, since there are still enormous mountains dwarfing the city.
I got acquainted with the city on Monday, entirely thrilled with the ability to wander downtown once again instead of driving a few dozen miles. There are three things you can seemingly do in endless amounts in Santa Fe, and that is shop, look at art, and go to old churches. I did all of those in one day – after grabbing a Frito pie in a bag at the Five and Dime Thanks for the heads up, Anthony Bourdain.
It’s better than it looks, I promise (and people are still kind of mad about this segment down here.) New Mexicans take their food pretty seriously – especially chiles. It is on practically all the food, it’s the subject of news stories, and it’s even the state question – “Red or Green?” There’s no wrong choice – the official state answer is “red,” or “green,” or even “Christmas”, which is mixed.
After loading my body with unhealthy amounts of beef, cheese, and corn chips, I went and sought divine forgiveness at the city’s Loretto Chapel – best known for the so-called “miraculous staircase.” As the story goes, in the 1870s, a mysterious carpenter showed up at the chapel and built the staircase, which has no traditional support pole or structures. The entire weight basically coils downward onto the bottom step. This carpenter supposedly disappeared as mysteriously as he came, and weirder still, the wood isn’t native to New Mexico or anywhere nearby. How much of this is actually true is open to interpretation, but the staircase is pretty miraculous looking in any case.
I did feel the $5 entry fee was a bit tacky – as was the gift shop, which merchandized Christianity in a more efficient way than I’ve ever seen before.
Just down the street is the San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in United States territory. Dating back to 1610, it was built on the ruins of a former Pueblo settlement with, presumably, Native American slave labor directed by Spanish missionaries (there’s, unfortunately, a lot of this going on in New Mexico history.) Portions of this original foundation are still visible in cross-sections cut into the walls and floor.
It also looks pretty spectacular at night, as I learned later that day walking to pick up our dinner.
Morgan and I did a fair bit of just wandering around town over the past two weeks, which is equal parts weird stuff for me and excellent shopping for Morgan. We spent afternoons checking out the shops around the Plaza and the Railyard area, which ranged from spots selling crystals and candles, to high-end jewelry, to used western wear (thanks to a recommendation from my mother, who can spot a good secondhand store from nearly 2,000 miles away.)
There was also the very weird, very cool El Museo Cultural winter market, which is a great place to shop if you need to pick up used clothing, antique furniture, CBD products, and live and mounted insects all in the same location.
We also grabbed a drink at Bosque Brewing’s Santa Fe taproom – or rather, 12 small drinks. With two flights, we were able to try 4-ounce tasting portions of just about every beer on the menu. Most were delicious – I particularly liked the Brewers Bruises (a lavender and blueberry gose), while Morgan’s favorite was Lt. Archibald, a brown porter. I mention this place mostly because of the existence of the pickle gose Pickle Down Economics, which is one of the strangest things I’ve ever drank. It basically tasted like carbonated pickle juice, and I’m not sure what kind of person would be able to drink a pint of this, much less a six-pack.
Santa Fe is a museum city. Like, there are a LOT of museums here. On my one-day visit back in 2018, I hit both the New Mexico History Museum and New Mexico Museum Of Art. I’ve checked another few off the list over the past two weeks, including the extremely popular and extremely weird Museum of International Folk Art. It’s located on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, which, as it sounds, is the site of a handful of museums overlooking the rest of the city. The highlight is, without a doubt, Multiple Visions, a sprawling labyrinth of dolls, figurines, embroidery, paintings, and other folk art from just about every continent other than Antarctica. It’s pretty much the pet project of one guy, Alexander Girard, who started the whole process by driving back from a vacation with a car full of too many trinkets (relatable.) This fairly ridiculous exhibit has no labels of information posted, meaning you can either consult the enormous reference guide provided or just wander through and take it all in. We’ll do the latter, so here is some of the weirdness. Enjoy.
There was also a very cool exhibit on Yōkai, a type of Japanese supernatural entity or spirit, which included a ghost story theater that sufficiently spooked me enough that I jumped every time someone new entered.
You can’t do Santa Fe without doing a lot of art-related activities, and you can’t do art-related activities in Santa Fe without Georgia O’Keeffe. Probably New Mexico’s most famous artist, her influence is everywhere around northern New Mexico. I paid a visit to the city’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Friday, a much more interesting place than I was expecting. I suppose that’s because I really didn’t know anything about O’Keeffe before – including that she only came to New Mexico late in life, despite how strongly she’s associated with the area. The museum takes you through her life and her evolving style, including how basically everyone except her tried to claim her paintings represented a certain part of the female anatomy. Sometimes a flower is just a flower, I guess.
I particularly enjoyed the paintings of New Mexico, which is infinitely painting-worthy, even in the most mundane places. One that I still find myself thinking about is The Beyond, the final painting her failing eyesight allowed her to complete without help.
My final museum couldn’t have been more different than the previous two. For this one, I headed north to Los Alamos, about an hour outside Santa Fe. If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely you remember it from your history books. The city was established in the 1940s as a secret government laboratory community, hidden on the top of a mesa to help develop the atomic bomb. One look around and you can understand why – it’s in the absolute middle of some of the most beautiful nowhere I’ve encountered.
These days, the town of Los Alamos itself is open to the public, even as Los Alamos National Laboratory continues its top-secret and sort of menacing work just on the other side of some fences and gates. Who knows what goes on back there, but I do know it reminded me a lot of Black Mesa from Half-Life.
Los Alamos is also home to the Bradbury Science Museum, which explains the history of the lab, from inventing nuclear weapons in the 40s to finding ways to keep them from degrading today. I’ve also included a photo of the handy radiation calculator chart, in case you were wondering about your own consumption, compared to people who live next to literal piles of radioactive material.
It’s sort of impossible to spend time in Santa Fe without becoming transfixed by the mountains. The town is set in a broad valley that runs southward toward Albuquerque, with the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre De Cristos to the north and east. In short, there are just beautiful, snowcapped mountains everywhere around you. Luckily, it could hardly be easier to get out into them from the city.
On Wednesday, I made the 15-minute drive to the Dale Ball Trails on the western edge of Santa Fe. My destination was the 3.9-mile Picacho Peak Trail, which seemed like a reasonable option for a midday hike. What I neglected to consider, as usual, was the altitude.
Santa Fe is roughly 7,000 feet above sea level, about 2,500 higher than our previous stop in Alpine and a mere 6,600 feet higher than our former home in DC. After about a half-mile of climbing, I was sucking wind on what turned out to be an almost constant uphill path to the summit at 8,500 feet. Still, the scenery and views were absolutely unreal, and stopping to take pictures made me feel not quite so humbled by the every-few-minutes breathers I was taking.
From the top, you can see clear across Santa Fe to the Jemez Mountains, southeast to the Sandias near Albuquerque, and southwest to the almost preposterously large plains we drove over to get here. Even among the amazing lunch spots of late, this one is up there.
The way down was far easier, except one narrow and still-icy stretch along a slope. It’s something that brought back flashbacks of Morgan and my trip to the Grand Canyon back in 2020, when I saw the look of a woman who thought she was about to slide off the trail into the canyon. (I wouldn’t have let her, I promise.)
Speaking of my beautiful, extremely forgiving partner, she got her first look around central Santa Fe that night. We had been taking it fairly easy at night so far, due to the combination of adjusting to Mountain Time and long days for Morgan at work after her week off while we were in Big Bend. We grabbed some delicious prickly-pear-related drinks and tasty food from the Thunderbird on Santa Fe Plaza.
One of our takeaways from our time in Austin was that we both enjoyed getting out of the city for day trips, and resolved to do more of it. Among the first was New Mexico’s famous Turquoise Trail. Formally known as New Mexico State Route 14, this gorgeous scenic drive runs roughly parallel to the much faster Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But the amazing views and small towns make the extra time more than worth it. It’s the kind of area where Hollywood has gone for decades to film westerns, including the ranch that was the site of the unfortunate Alec Baldwin shooting last fall.
My first stop was in Los Cerillos, a town that was once such a powerful mining area that it was considered as a potential capital for New Mexico. That’s hard to believe these days, when the town is essentially a state park, a few businesses that I’m not sure even operate, and an odd mining museum/trading post/petting zoo (also closed.)
My destination was the state park for a little hiking. Cerillos Hills State Park is made up miles of foothills, mostly former mining claims as the many capped mineshafts throughout the park testify to. Hiking through the area is a pretty incredible experience of different views of the Sandias, Jemez, and Sangre De Cristo Mountains, continually disappearing and reappearing from new angles.
On a Wednesday midday, I essentially had the park to myself, which made it easy to imagine what it would be like to be digging into these hills, hoping to strike it rich. People have been mining in the area for a millennium, from Native Americans looking for precious stones and glaze for pottery to the Spanish melting lead for musket balls and early American settlers producing minerals for manufacturing steel and other metals. I amused myself throwing rocks down the shafts to try to guess their depth, and imagining accidentally dropping my camera down there while taking a picture.
After a nice 4-mile loop, I headed on down the road to Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid, not like the Spanish city,) another former mining town. But instead of turning into a ghost town, Madrid took the route of a surprising number of other former mining towns and ended up as an art community. In fact, it claims to have the most artists per capita in the country, a fact I had a hard time verifying as (once again!) just about everything in town was closed and just about no one was around. Still, it was a pretty cool spot to stop and grab some lunch before heading back to the city.
Speaking of day trips, I also headed down the road to Las Vegas. No, not that Las Vegas – the original one, located about an hour east of Santa Fe. As you might expect for small-town New Mexico, it was significantly sleepier than its younger cousin in Nevada; it’s the kind of town where about half the stores had signs with the owner’s number on the door, asking you to call them if you want to look around. I strolled the historic Plaza, once a major stopping point on the Santa Fe Trail. Today, it’s home to some of the most bird-poop-covered benches I’ve ever seen, and ringed by antique shops and the Plaza Hotel (again, not that one.) It was the filming location of some scenes in No Country for Old Men, just part of the weirdly significant cinematic and TV history here – also including the 80’s classic Red Dawn, the show Longmire, Easy Rider, and a whole lot more.
The town is weirdly split between the historic Plaza and the “New Town” about a mile east, where the railroad tracks still run. Las Vegas was a huge rail stop as well, and home to one of the famous “Harvey House” hotels and restaurants, the Castaneda.
It’s still an Amtrak stop on the Southwest Chief, one of the line’s most scenic routes. The area was a bit spooky, with practically no one around, except for a guy who looked like he was waiting with his suitcase for a train. I checked the schedule, and nothing was set to come through there until the next day. After a bit of wandering that inadvertently steered me into a not-so-great part of town, I figured I’d head back to Santa Fe before I overstayed my welcome. Viva Las Vegas, indeed.
On the weekends, Morgan of course joined in on this rambling as well. One of our first stops was New Mexico’s biggest city, Albuquerque, located about an hour south of us. I’m not sure I completely “get” Albuquerque. Maybe it’s the fact that the city is so associated with hot-air balloons, which I consider a terrifying death trap thanks to several memorable stories I covered in my past life in news. For a lot of people, Breaking Bad may be the first thing that comes to mind when the city is mentioned, and they’ve certainly leaned into the incredible publicity it’s brought. On the other hand, it may be taking the “gangbangers and methheads” thing a little far, as it remains a fairly grimy and relatively dangerous city too.
What Albuquerque DOES have is some amazing Native American history, particularly at Petroglyph National Monument on the city’s west side. This was our destination, specifically the Piedras Marcadas Canyon, a roughly 2-mile hike with literally hundred of petroglyphs.
It takes a while to allow your eyes to adjust and spot them on the rocks, but once you do, you can’t stop seeing them. Interestingly, the actual meanings of many of the petroglyphs and why they’re in certain spots and not others isn’t known to the general public – and if the area’s Native descendants know, they aren’t talking. The whole area offers amazing views of the city and Rio Grande, along with the Sandias in the distance.
Morgan and I passed the time swapping theories about the drawings (including aliens, as we are in New Mexico) and doing our best not to freeze in winter temperatures we were still only sort of acclimated to. Petroglyph National Monument is particularly unusual because it’s basically in the backyards of some suburban Albuquerque homes – there’s really no buffer space like a lot of other national parks or monuments. It’s probably the only time I’ve been able to see thousand-year-old history and a Walgreens at the same time.
After grabbing some lunch at the Sawmill food hall, we strolled a bit around Old Town Albuquerque, which I in fact didn’t take a single picture of. Frankly, it’s a poor substitute for the Santa Fe Plaza, albeit one where I could buy Walter White socks.
After a quick wine tasting at Noisy Water Winery and a little shopping, we headed back to our much more beautiful, safe, and interesting home to the north.
We also spent another day exploring the Native American history of northern New Mexico, in an even more dramatic fashion. This time, we headed north to Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos. Set inside a sheltered canyon with a year-round water source, we were able to explore the ruins of several ancient pueblos, along with the original cave dwellings carved into the soft volcanic rock of the canyon.
Folks, if you ever go to Bandelier, I beg of you – spend the $2 and get the trail guide. Signs at the visitor center explain that, out of sensitivity to the preserved sites, the National Park Service has limited signage along the trail. I don’t know whether it was ignorance or hubris on their part, but Morgan and I were among the few people there who actually bought this, and, therefore, among the few who didn’t spend much of the hike wildly speculating (again, aliens) about sites we had essentially all the information on.
I mention the other folks along the trail because, unfortunately, this was among the more crowded ones we’ve been on. The result? Disneyland-esque lines to climb into the cliff dwellings, which rubbed me the wrong way at a site residents of the local pueblos still consider sacred. The wait, however, was worth it.
It was a pretty amazing way to immerse yourself in what life was like for residents of the area for hundreds or thousands of years before Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not to mention, it’s just beautiful as hell.
After a grueling (not really) 2-mile hike, we decided to soothe our aching (not really) muscles at one of New Mexico’s best hot springs, Ojo Caliente. The springs are part of a resort set along the Ojo Caliente River about an hour north of Santa Fe. After dragging Morgan all over the fifth-largest state in the country for two weeks, I felt it was the least I could do to schedule us some relaxation.
There are more than a half-dozen pools here, ranging from the pebble-floored Iron Pool, to the enclosed Soda Pool for digestive issues, to the actually-not-dangerous-but-still-don’t-drink-it Arsenic Pool. We tried them all, except for the large cold pool, and the Mud Pool, where the setting sun wouldn’t allow us to “bake” as directed.
But the star of the show was our very own private pool we reserved for an hour-long soak. It was, in short, perfect. The water was the right temperature (hot, but not too hot), the air was right (dry and cold, but not too cold), we had a roaring fire of pinon wood, and a giant cliff in front of us for a view.
I’m not going to say I considered barricading us in there and living as squatters, but the thought did cross my mind. We soaked away the afternoon and returned to Santa Fe as the sun set over the mountains.
We’ve got a bit less than two weeks left in The City Different, and there’s still more stuff to do than we could possibly tackle. From here, we head on to Tucson, Arizona, a different desert that will be 30-50 degrees warmer than our current home – with a brief interlude in our former stop of New Orleans for a friend’s wedding. In the meantime, we’ll focus on staying hydrated, eating plentiful amounts of New Mexican food, and hopefully enjoying our last cold days for quite a while.
From 7,199 feet above sea level,
Nick and Morgan