Exploring The *Other* Santa Fe Trail: Week 24

Greetings from New Mexico, a place I’m still not sure is completely real or a Truman Show-style backdrop instead.

Near Kewa Pueblo, New Mexico – March 2022

In a pattern I’m beginning to notice, our third week in most monthlong stays tends to sag a bit in terms of activities for us. We’ve already done most of the top things we planned to do and taken most of the reasonable length day trips. There’s typically a final burst in our last week in a destination, but the week 3 slump is real. As much fun as this is, it’s also tiring! Both Morgan and I are feeling the nearly six months on the road (stand by for some six-month review content!) as we plan our itinerary beyond Tucson. There’s so much more to see, but as we reach the furthest point in our orbit from Florida, we’re starting to think more about the re-entry strategy, so to speak. More to come on this in the future, as it develops.

In the meantime, we continue to settle into our home-for-now of Santa Fe. There’s probably some recency bias at play, but this city has been one of my favorite stops, despite the cold and the relatively sleepy nature of the city. Where do you go out on a weekend night in Santa Fe if you want to party? Well, I don’t know. Albuquerque, maybe. But we’ve done enough partying in the past few months (hello New Orleans and Savannah), and some quieter nights and fresh mountain air have been a nice change.

There are plenty of mountains around Santa Fe. And they are quite tall. But if you want a bird’s eye view of the city, as opposed to a low-flying-airplane view, the best spot is without a doubt from the Cross of the Martyrs. It’s a sort of odd monument dedicated to the priests who were killed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some of whom I’m sure were good guys but who generally did a lot of not great things by the standards of not just our time but any time, in the process of settling New Mexico.

It’s a relatively short climb up a paved path on a hill at the edge of downtown. The area was also the site of the U.S. Army Fort Marcy, a spot chosen for obvious reasons once you see the view over the city.

Frankly, for a city so insistent about its appearance and building codes, I’m sort of surprised they allowed someone to put up a cell tower in the center of the view from their most prominent overlook. But what do I know?

In the same way Morgan and I got quite familiar with one stretch of I-10 last fall, we’ve gotten very well acquainted with the only real northern route out of Santa Fe, U.S. Route 84. If you’re going to Taos, Los Alamos, Bandelier, Abiquiu, Ojo Caliente, and anywhere else in northern New Mexico, this is pretty much it. Fortunately, unlike some of the godforsaken stretches of I-10 through the panhandle, this is some of the most insanely beautiful driving I could fathom so close to the city.

One of the most famous out-of-the-way stops in northern New Mexico is Ghost Ranch, 21,000 acres of sprawling fields, red hills, soaring mesas. If you feel like you’ve seen it before, you might be right. In addition to being a hiking and horseriding spot, a Christian retreat, and a workshop space, Ghost Ranch is also one of New Mexico’s top filming locations. They include Red Dawn (again), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 3:10 to Yuma, Indiana Jones (not the good ones), and City Slickers, from which the cabin still stands near the entrance gate.

It’s obvious why countless filmmakers have picked the ranch. It pretty much has every western landscape you could ask for. It’s also obvious why it was a favorite spot of Georgia O’Keeffe. She owned a home on the ranch, designed its famous logo, and used the area as the subject of some of her best-known paintings, including of Pedernal Mountain, which she famously said God told her she could have as hers if she painted it enough. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also an active archaeological and paleontological site, where the New Mexico state fossil of New Mexico, the Coelophysis, was discovered.

While I was interested in the many interesting seminars and workshops, the purpose of my trip was hiking, on the ranch’s most popular trail to Chimney Rock. The trail starts off with a relatively steep climb up a hill behind the ranch’s buildings, where you first see Chimney Rock. As I huffed and puffed, I thought, surely, there’s no way I’m walking all the way up there in less than 2 miles, right?

Even as I caught my breath on the deceptively difficult trail, I kept stopping every few hundred yards just to look around. The views were truly eye-popping. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere, even out west, with this kind of truly wild scenery. I mean, we’re talking about the kind of views that put you at risk of walking off the trail and into a canyon, of which there are plentiful opportunities.

In spite of all this, I made it to the top in one piece in just about 45 minutes. With views across the entire ranch, along with Abiquiu Lake and Pedernal in the distance, it’s a pretty magical spot.

Proof that I did actually make it up there – March 2022

I mean, just look at this.

I grabbed a spot on a rock and had some snacks as I enjoyed the view and watched more than a few groups give up halfway along the trail up there when they realized what was ahead. In the incredible quiet, I could even hear the arguments between couples over whether to continue, not seeming to understand probably everyone on the ranch could hear them. I made sure to give some encouragement to the struggling groups I passed on the way down.

Lest you think Morgan has been staying off the trails, I can promise you we’ve both been diligently undertaking one journey here in Santa Fe – the Margarita Trail. This is Santa Fe’s ingenious way of getting you to visit lots of different bars and restaurants – something we were going to do anyway. For a $3 app ($2, for Android users like Morgan), you’re entitled to an only-sometimes-delivered $1 discount on special margaritas, as well as a digital passbook with QR codes as stamps. Collect 5 stamps, you get a Margarita Trail t-shirt. Collect 10, and become a member of the Margarita Society. 20 stamps gets you a signed book, 30 a Margarita Trail bar kit, and those who finish the entire list (the drinking equivalent of hiking the Appalachian Trail) get a mysterious “VIP Package.”

Before any of you are concerned (Hi Mom and Daphne), you’re limited to two stamps per day. Naturally, this is perfect for someone like us, already staying for a month and already planning on drinking our share of margaritas. We began on our first weekend here, and have been hard at work since. I’m proud to report we have each earned our very own Margarita Trail shirts, along with provisional membership in this very august and exclusive society.

I regret to say we won’t be finishing the trail, if for no reason other than the fact that I missed far-out trail stops in Madrid and Chimayo without even thinking about them. It’s not clear if there’s any sort of expiration of these stamps, so perhaps one day we’ll return to finish what we started. We’re no quitters, after all.

Our trip out of town this weekend took us to Taos, a historic, artist-heavy town in northern New Mexico most famous for its still-inhabited 1,000-year-old Indian pueblo outside the city proper. This is, unquestionably, one of the top attractions in Taos and northern New Mexico generally. Unfortunately, like pretty much every other northern pueblo, Taos Pueblo was closed to visitors, as it has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago. It’s certainly understandable to want to keep your population safe, especially considering the poor healthcare in most of these rural communities. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating knowing the current COVID situation both in New Mexico and nationally, and knowing they’ll likely open up a month or two after we leave for tourist high season.

There are two ways to get to Taos from points south – the High Road, which winds through the mountains and Carson National Forest, or the “low road”, or the traditional highway, that follows along the Rio Grande. The highway is a lot faster, and we chose that for our trip to Taos itself to maximize our time seeing the city itself.

Still, there’s so much talk of the High Road to Taos that I set out to explore it, without going to Taos itself. My mini-trip started with a stop in Chimayo, a tiny town best known for the Santuario de Chimayo. As the story goes, the church was built in the early 1800s after a local priest found a shining crucifix buried at the location. It was removed to another church but supposedly kept returning to this same spot in Chimayo until the church was built there.

In any case, the church has become a major Catholic pilgrimage site, with hundreds of thousands of people coming to this tiny town every year to scoop some supposedly miraculous dirt out of a hole in the ground and rub it on their ailing body parts for healing. I was feeling pretty good, so I can’t personally testify as to whether this works. But based on the crutches and braces hung on the walls leading into the chamber (no pictures allowed, unfortunately) someone’s seen some results. That, or they’re planning on opening a used medical supply store.

Now, Chimayo can barely be called a town. There’s one restaurant, a few businesses, and the church complex. Still, the towns only got smaller from here as I headed up into the mountains. The next one, Cordova, was basically a few homes on the side of a hill and a small cemetery decorated in the southwestern style.

Pretty much the entire route has the kind of awe-inspiring views that make you, for a brief moment, understand why some people may choose to live up here, as remote as it is.

I kept on driving through Truchas and Las Trampas, two tiny settlements dating back to the 1750s with historic churches of their own. Still, these towns, as historic as they are and as beautiful as their surroundings may be, are feeling some hard times. I didn’t see a single open store, restaurant, or even gas station from Chimayo onward. Thankfully West Texas gas habits die hard, and I came prepared with a full tank.

At Las Trampas, I turned around for the day, but Morgan and I made the full trip to Taos on Saturday, with a bit of a detour on the way.

Anyone who knows Morgan or I know we lived together previous to this trip, and are obviously planning on finding a permanent home together afterward. We’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about and looking at houses in our free time, but none are quite like the Earthships we saw outside of Taos. First of all, any home will be striking in the middle of this flat plain near the Rio Grande Gorge, with the Sangre De Cristo Mountains in the background.

If you look closely, you can see the Pueblo. Near Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico – March 2022

Still, Earthships are truly something else.

But there’s a lot more behind these homes than interesting looks. They’re designed to lower the human footprint on the environment, in many cases existing in an entirely self-sustaining way. As Earthship philosophy goes, a home should meet 6 human needs:

  • Generate its own energy
  • Remaining a comfortable temperature with little or no energy usage
  • Catch, store, filter, and reuse natural rainwater for most needs
  • Treat its own wastewater
  • Grow some or all of its own food
  • Help alleviate the world’s garbage crisis

It’s pretty incredible how they do it. Earthships use solar panels or wind turbines for energy generation, but mainly stay comfortable on their own. This is thanks to big greenhouse-style windows on one side, and being built into a small hill or mound of dirt on the other, along with using heat-retaining building materials like adobe. Even better, Earthships help reduce waste by using old tires as wall insulation, both eliminating trash and providing surprisingly good protection from heat or cold.

The roofs are long and slope into a rain-catching cistern, buried into the hill or mound to keep it cool and safe. Water from uses like dishwashing and handwashing gets recycled to plant beds, which purify the water before it’s reused to flush toilets. But we’re not done yet. The wastewater goes to a septic tank, which then leaches into an area where trees grow on the nutrients, providing shade for the home.

Those plant beds and greenhouse windows I mentioned? They’re the key to growing a large number of edible and non-edible plants right inside your home. Plus, there’s just something pretty nice about these in-home greenhouses.

PHOTOS

As most Earthships in this community are private homes, we weren’t able to see any beyond the demonstration model at the visitor center. But you can look at more here, which are available for nightly rentals, in case you’re so inspired by our blogs that you need to take a trip to the Land of Enchantment.

Morgan and I both thought the concept was pretty amazing and the homes looked pretty cool, even if we weren’t necessarily thrilled with the design that they’re required to have in order to operate properly. Don’t count on us building an Earthship, but the ideas are definitely something worth considering.

From here, we headed down the highway to Taos, and nearly missed a cool and unique stop – not to mention views of a really enormous river gorge. And really, the gorge just comes out of nowhere. You can perceive a bit of a geographic feature from afar, but not until you’re fairly close can you see quite how big and deep this thing is – all carved by our old friend the Rio Grande, who kept reemerging periodically throughout New Mexico until this most dramatic reveal.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, near Taos, New Mexico – March 2022

It’s spanned by the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which sits roughly 600 feet above the river. It’s among the tallest in the country (though exactly how tall, which rank it occupies, and even how to measure bridges seem to be some matter of dispute), and just…sitting out here in northern New Mexico, relatively little known.

On the Saturday we visited, there was a small crafts market set up in the parking lot as well, which Morgan and I enjoyed browsing before driving over the bridge and into Taos itself. Taos, like every northern New Mexico town, is centered around a historic plaza filled with adobe-style buildings, selling local crafts, clothing, and outdoor gear. I know that may sound a little dismissive, but it’s not meant that way. It’s just been a curious side-effect of this trip, seeing the regional variations on the small-town layout.

There’s a lot to see in Taos, worthy of a full week trip on its own. We caught a small glimpse of the town itself – there are numerous museums (including the home of frontier legend Kit Carson), the area’s famous ski slopes, and of course, the Pueblo. The way I see it, it’s just another reason to come back.

We strolled the plaza, doing some shopping and grabbing a late lunch at The Alley Cantina, housed in the oldest building in Taos. Though it’s been mostly reconstructed, it was pretty cool enjoying a margarita (not Trail-eligible, unfortunately) and some tamales in a place that was built in the 16th century.

That’s kind of a repeated experience here – just casually wandering into a place that may be 300 or 400 years old, and has been used as offices, a restaurant, a home, a shop, and anything else you can think of. As the t-shirt we saw said, “New Mexico – it’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”

We’ve got less than a week left in this incredible, weird, beautiful, dry, chile-pepper-filled adobe wonderland, and we’ve already got some exciting plans for our final days. Watch this space. In the meantime, we’re making the most of our opportunities to wear the growing amount of Western clothing we’ve acquired, and doing our best to avoid buying so much art that we’ll have an entirely Southwestern-decorated home (even if Morgan still won’t let me get a longhorn skull for the wall).

Nick and Morgan

3 thoughts on “Exploring The *Other* Santa Fe Trail: Week 24

  1. Another great blog entry. Makes me realize that we missed a lot on our NM trip, maybe time for a revisit. Your pictures are amazing! Enjoy your last week in New Mexico❤️

  2. New Mexico has a state fossil?
    Florida has a million state fossils.
    Looks like a beautiful part of the world. Your writing and pics are wonderful.

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