The sacred sun of the Zia sizzled throughout the day in the high desert. The cloudless sky races to meet a horizon of dry mountains. As the sun sets, magic fills the dry kissed air. Pastel reds, oranges, and gold greet the eye with a mesmerizing glow. It is sundown in the Land of Enchantment. You’re witnessing a spectacular event that happens every evening in which the casual passerby pays no mind. However you know better. You appreciate this wonder of Mother Nature, especially when you are in a place most people overlook. Some say this place is a deserted wasteland of brown dirt and heat. Fortunately you know better. You see it for what it is. A land of native culture, art, sunshine, mountains, towering forests, deep caves, and a night sky that seems as if the heavens have opened up wide. You are in New Mexico.
I have traveled into New Mexico quite a bit. Long ago I had a friend who begged and begged me to visit her hometown of Albuquerque and I turned my nose up. Finally one day I caved, and flew to Albuquerque. When I arrived I asked myself “Why didn’t I visit sooner?!” The food, the landscapes, the weather, the hanging chili peppers, Route 66 and the breathtaking sunsets were truly enchanted. A few years later, and a few trips later, I ended up moving from my home in Dallas to Colorado to work at the YMCA of the Rockies. There I met my friends Taryn and Gage. I had filled their heads with New Mexico and we decided to take the weekend to vacation in Santa Fe, a place I had only been once before. It was well worth the 7 hour drive. The weather was perfect as well as the food. On a Sunday we strolled the plaza as live music filled the square and hundreds of classic cars unexpectedly rolled in for a classic car show. Sadly it was the day we had to leave but it was hard to drag me away from the pleasant Santa Fe day. This story will however be about my visit with Jennifer, my girlfriend whom I met at the YMCA and we took a 3 day trip to Santa Fe.
The day was long at my housekeeping shift. I fought to get off earlier, but my boss only allotted me 30 minutes. Jennifer was able to get off a few hours early to pack. Once I got off the anticipation and wait was over. We filled my car and drove off to the American Southwest. This was her first time and I was to be her tour guide. The first evening we would stay at the Inn at Santa Fe and camp at Rancheros De Santa Fe the following two nights. At precisely 12:15 pm we arrived at the hotel, exhausted as can be. The first thing to catch your eye is the beautiful pueblo style architecture that graces almost all of the buildings in Santa Fe. A traveler from the northeast may see this and believe it is a tourist attraction in of itself. I was happily greeted by the desk clerk and we went to our sleeping quarters. I wished we had arrived much earlier as the back courtyard which our room faced had a fire pit, a pool, and seating that would have been most pleasant to relax by after a long drive. Summing up the short time spent at the hotel would be quaint, clean, and worthwhile.
The morning was greeted by blue skies and cool temperatures. Smiles filled Jennifer’s face as we headed to the plaza. The first thing I was proud to point out as we approached was all the hanging chili peppers on the buildings. They are such a unique yet powerful decoration, a traditional New Mexican necessity that I can never get enough of. In the plaza we stepped into a new world. The mind is first struck with an overwhelming amount of ART! This art you see in every window is original and very expensive. A fair amount of it is portrayals of native peoples, wildlife, or landscapes of the southwest. We strolled into one store boasting an impressive painting of a native woman, one of my favorites to say in the least. it depicts a native woman staring at the sunset. Desert and mountains filled with brush surround her. One detail that makes the painting is her vanishing body as you look below her knees, almost a ghostly image of a past time. For many thousands of dollars this majestic piece can be yours as it is an original piece. One day.
Continuing in the plaza many things catch the imagination aside from art. Musicians playing guitar, cello, and native instruments entice your ear drum. The air is kissed with the smell of street vendors grilling fresh steak, chicken and vegetables for a quick burrito as you explore. Of course you’ll always be asked, Red or Green? I say red, which you will quickly discover what they mean by that very critical question. As you munch on your burrito you may hear the ringing of bells from the Cathedral De Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. One of the oldest cathedrals in the US its high ceilings and eloquent yet haunting stained glass windows will remind you of Medieval Europe. When you step outside you’ll feel as if you’ve just visited Europe and opened the doors back into Santa Fe. A short walk back down the street led us to such an adorable sight. There was a quaint pottery shop with a cute but lethargic dog lying by the door. No whistles or smooches garnered his attention. I decided to go pet him, and still he did not move. Some creatures just can’t be riled in the dog days of summer.
The magic of Santa Fe doesn’t start and end with the Plaza. In the afternoon we headed south of the city to set up our campsite for the next evenings. Rancheros De Santa Fe is a few miles south of the plaza off highway 25. As you pull in a large metal Zia symbol greets you, as it does everywhere in New Mexico. The wonder of this symbol will be discussed soon. Anyways I checked in and drove to the quaint little sight we were assigned. Site 17A. It was a small area but nonetheless met our needs. The campground itself includes a pool, showers and bathroom, wifi, and a theater for nightly showings of movies. I would however recommend skipping the movie in exchange for watching the night sky come alive after sundown. We set up camp and rested before we traveled to our next enchanting destination… Camel Rock.
Ten minutes or so north if the plaza in Tesuque, New Mexico, is a natural rock formation that if you pass without knowing it is there, will make your head turn. I decided the best way to spend an evening in New Mexico was to set up chairs by the rock and watch the sunset over the mountains. A peaceful calm washes over you as you watch the golden sun slip behind the Desert Mountains. Beyond the fence line created to keep tourists from wandering the desert was a heard of cows. In the end it was an enchanting way to spend an evening.
Returning to the campsite we set up the chairs once again to have an encore of the wonder New Mexico’s sky creates. The low density of population creates and almost perfect night sky due to the lack of artificial lights. Sitting outside on a June summer night in a light jacket fills my soul with joy. Having lived in Dallas for the longest time where the heat and humidity persist into the night, it’s a relief to be somewhere that I desire to be outside at night. Stars filled every inch of the night sky. In fact you could faintly see the ring of the Milky Way Galaxy. As Jennifer and I gazed upon the universe we sat laughing and chatting over a bottle of wine. On a side note, it is SO nice that you can purchase liquors and wines in regular grocery stores in New Mexico, for cheap I might add. The only thing missing was a roaring fire and s’mores, which we were unable to have because of a fire ban in place. I was quite disappointed.
The next morning was filled with anticipation as Jennifer and I headed out to New Mexico River adventures for our first rafting trip ever. I booked a half day tour on the Rio Grande called the racecourse. As we drove north we were greeted by a familiar sight. Camel Rock glinted in the morning light, always a pleasant sight. It was again a crisp blue skied morning. The air was fresh and the sun warmed our visages. North of Embudo we arrived at the cozy pueblo building to begin the adventure. After a short safety demo we hopped in the van and headed to the start of the racecourse. We were joined by two young ladies from Hawaii and a father and daughter from LA. Our excitement grew as we dipped our feet into the cool Rio Grande, and paddled off into adventure. The river twist and turned, we threaded large rocks, and paddled our way through raging rapids. Along the way we chewed over stories of aliens from Roswell, close encounters in the dangers of rafting, and the formation of the beautiful landscapes before us. Needless to say the trip really made a splash!
Following our adventures in the river we decided to pop back to the plaza for a quick bite and to peruse until our next activity. We stopped in a few shops and in one of them I asked a gentleman where to eat. His recommendation was the Plaza Café or Tomasita’s. Considering the Plaza Café was a short walk and we were quite hungry we agreed to dine there. Our meal was quite satisfying. Chicken quesadillas and southwest nachos filled our stomachs to the brim with delight. Jennifer, who loves history, managed to discover that the plaza diner is the oldest restaurant in Santa Fe! Alas the day was not done. Our final activity in Santa Fe was to horseback ride.
We booked through a company called Santa Fe Southwestern Adventures. The head gentleman Russ was very kind and welcomed us to his ranch south of the city. We were riding with another couple from California. Russ’s helper led the horses from the corral and we boarded our valiant steeds. Jennifer’s steed was Grim Reaper, and I rode Time Bomb. These horses had been in the past used and trained for movies. Russ had a personal acquaintance with many movie stars including Chuck Norris! Our sunset ride was surreal as we rode in the desert. The dwindling sunlight cast the rocky terrain in a deep red. A cloud of dust formed as the horses trotted along the trail. It was easy to feel like a cowboy in the old west riding the dusty trail into the western sunset. Whereas most horseback rides I have enjoyed we merely walked the horses in a line, this tour was different. Russ trusted us enough to allow the horses to gallop at some portions, quite an exciting adventure! Nonetheless the experience was enchanting, and a perfect way to close our last hours of dusk in New Mexico.
Heading back to camp from the ranch I stopped by the road. I was captivated by a well know sight that required observing. The sun was hidden beneath the distant mountains and created a breathtaking view. We couldn’t help staring at the horizon until the light was just about completely faded. Personally I wanted to stay forever. Such beauty and magnificence is to be appreciated, but time can never stand still.
The Santa Fe night was once again dazzled by stars. Jennifer and I sat underneath the sky watching the shooting stars and sipping wine. A veiled sadness filled our hearts knowing this would be our last night in Santa Fe. We stayed up later than normal knowing every moment was precious as time readily slipped from our fingers.
Just to intervene from the story to mention the Zia Symbol. The one I have tattooed on my bicep. While it is on the state flag as well as almost everywhere in New Mexico, it stands for something wise. The circle in the center represents the sun. The four lines on each side represent the cycles of life itself. Those being; the four compass directions, the four stages of life, the four times of day, and the four seasons. Such an incredible meaning to sum up with one symbol. It’s one of the few symbols that can describe an entire state without a word, and that it does.
The next morning we packed up and headed to lunch. We ate at the recommended Tomasita’s restaurant. I had the most amazing time and food. The ambiance was more than perfect. Sadly, it was our time to go. It’s hard to swallow that almost all good things must come to an end. The sunsets, food, adventure, all must be placed on hold for a short while. We cruised north to the Colorado border, back to home. Inside I felt a demoralizing sadness and sat quietly, observing the vast terrain. The adventures I had now only a memory. However the best part of the trip was coming back with me, my companion, my team mate, my partner in crime. Jennifer. As enchanting as the land is, she made the experience what it truly was. There’s something about New Mexico, and I can never put my finger on it, but we will be back. We will.