John often remarks that one of the downsides of living in the deep South is that one can drive for an entire day in any direction and still find grits on the menu. Arriving in Santa Fe, just over 1,000 miles from home, everything immediately feels exotic. The glorious desert-loving flowers, Pueblo adobe buildings everywhere you look, fabulous outdoor art, a bright blue sky, and low humidity. We didn’t need to consult a restaurant menu to know that we had left the Grits Belt behind.
Miracles, History, and Art
On our first day in town, we took a stroll to the Loretto Chapel, known for its legend of the Miracle Staircase. The Chapel was built as part of a girl’s school in 1873 and was built with a raised choir loft in the back of the church. In those times, most church choirs were male only, and the men simply used a ladder to get up to the choir loft. But this was a girls’ school – they couldn’t have the young ladies climbing a ladder. To complicate matters further, a regular staircase would take up too much space in the small chapel. So, the nuns did what nuns do: they prayed. For twelve days, they prayed for a solution to the problem, and on the twelfth day, a carpenter arrived with only a carpenter’s square, a hammer, and some wood. He built the staircase using wood pegs and lacking a center pole for support. When it was finished, he did not ask for payment and he left immediately, never to be seen again. The Loretto Chapel is now a museum and wedding venue, and the staircase is no longer in regular use, but the legend lives on.
Next, we went to the New Mexico history museum and Palace of the Governors, which was built in 1618, making it the oldest public building in the country to be in continuous use. New Mexico has a rich history of conflict between Spanish Conquistadors and the indigenous Pueblo people, dating back to before 1600. Over time, Mexico, Texas, and raiding American Indian tribes joined the fray. Eventually, the territory became part of the United States shortly before the Civil War. But wait – New Mexico, being so far west, wouldn’t have been involved in the Civil War. That’s what we thought too, but we learned that the New Mexico was occupied by Confederate troops from Texas and that the Palace of the Governors had a Confederate flag flying over it for a time. The Battle of Glorieta Pass, which took place a few miles southeast of Santa Fe, is called the Gettysburg of the West and is considered by some historians to be one of the defining battles of the Civil War because it prevented Confederate troops from moving on to the gold-rich areas of Colorado and California.
Here’s another interesting fact: Santa Fe, a city of less than 100,000, is the third largest art market in the country. In the early part of the 20th century, the dry air and sunshine of the area were considered healing for people with tuberculosis. A couple of artists from New York came out to Santa Fe for the cure and noticed remarkable landscapes to paint. In a happy coincidence, there were also others who had come to Santa Fe for the cure who liked art and had money to spend, and the art market was born. As time went on, appreciation developed for the Pueblo-influenced native art, including turquoise and silver jewelry, pottery, blankets, and baskets. And so, we ended the day on Canyon Road, famous for its many galleries. We didn’t go into any galleries – we didn’t have to. The streets were lined with outdoor sculptures, whirly-gigs, and gardens, all of which made for a lovely walk.
A day in Taos: Earthships, a really cool bridge, and how Clark Gable’s jilted girlfriend became a Taos art benefactress
Before arriving in Taos, I had envisioned it as Santa Fe’s slightly smaller cousin, and the two do bear similarities in architecture and art. But, Taos, with a busy highway running through town, lacks Santa Fe’s walkability and offers much less in the way of galleries, restaurants, and historic sites. That said, there is no shortage of things to see and do in Taos.
Two of the primary draws in town are within a five minute drive of each other, a few miles away from the center: the Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande River and the Earthship Biotecture area. The bridge is impressive, mostly because of the breathtaking view of the gorge beneath it. The Earthships are just fascinating. I had heard of Earthships for the first time not long ago in the movie and book “Nomadland,” when one of the characters hoped to build an Earthship to live in instead of her van. Earthships are constructed of re-used materials, such as automobile tires and glass bottles, utilize passive solar energy, and re-use water to be ‘partially off-grid.’ The Earthships also feature greenhouses to provide food for those living there. It turns out that the Earthship concept was developed in the 1970s by a native of Louisville, Kentucky, Michael Reynolds, whose father had a habit of finding uses for items most of us discard. Young Michael became an architect and, inspired by his father’s resourcefulness, he pioneered the field of Earthship Biotecture. He had a rough time along the way, according to a write-up I found:
Though Reynolds always stressed the experimental nature of his homes, disillusioned buyers filed lawsuits and complaints over defects, such as leaky roofs and inadequate climate control. Spurred by the many claims against Reynolds, the State Architects Board of New Mexico stripped him of his credentials, saying his home designs were illegal and unsafe. In 1990, Reynolds gave up his New Mexico architecture and construction licenses after a year-long dispute with several clients.
Even so, the Earthship movement has continued to this day with communities around the Southwest and Earthships around the world. We learned while touring the Earthship Visitor Center that some of the houses are available to rent. If only I’d known…
The next place to visit was the Millicent Rogers Museum. Millicent was born in the early twentieth century and was an heiress to Standard Oil money. As an adult, she had a weakness for European men with titles. She was quite the socialite and she had an eye for fashion and art. She was married three times, to an Austrian Count, a wealthy Argentinian, and a New York stockbroker and was linked romantically with Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, The Prince of Wales, Prince Serge Obolensky, and Prince Aimone, Duke of Aosta. She also had an affair with Clark Gable, who ditched her when she was in her forties, after which she made her way to Taos. Why Taos? We don’t know, but she immediately took a liking to the native Pueblo art, especially the jewelry. She designed a number of jewelry pieces and had their construction commissioned and she purchased more than 2,000 art pieces, including paintings, sculpture, pottery, blankets, baskets, clothing, and, of course, jewelry. Millicent was largely credited with creating an art market for many of these items. She passed away in her early fifties, due to a heart weakened by rheumatic fever she contracted as a child. Following her death, one of her sons organized the museum. The museum itself had a wonderful collection that we enjoyed but, honestly, what could be more interesting than the story of Millicent herself?
Our last enchanted evening in New Mexico
New Mexico was a late add to our itinerary and, after keeping a brisk pace in a fascinating place, we were pretty tired. On our last night in town, we stayed at the historic LaFonda Hotel, right on the Taos Square. We headed out to dinner early – at 5:30 – knowing that the paucity of service workers this summer made getting a meal a little dicey, and also wanting to get to bed early, as we were leaving for Colorado the next morning. As we left the hotel, a band had started playing on the square. Slightly annoyed, I thought of how the loud music right outside of our room would keep us up half the night. We made our way to Stella’s, a little Italian place with a lovely tree-shaded patio about a block from our hotel, where we enjoyed a delicious pizza and shared a bottle of Chianti. Walking back to the hotel, John suggested that we just look in on the music at the square before going up to our room. We found a scene of people of all ages dancing and having a great time. John and I hardly ever dance but, hey, it was our last night in the Land of Enchantment and the party had come to us!
This won’t be our last time in New Mexico, I’m pretty sure of that.