Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Exploring my Nuevomexicano roots

The wife and I just returned from our vacation to New Mexico. We would never have believed that we could have had such a rich travel experience within the US. I think it will take me several days to write about those experiences.

Day One

Our trip started in Albuquerque. It wasn't someplace that we really wanted to see. It was convenient to stay there for the night because our rental car would not be available until the second day of the trip. We were too tired to see much. We awoke very early that morning to catch our plane. The first order of business was to catch up on sleep after checking into our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Blue, a boutique hotel on Central Avenue (near some good restaurants) that for $50/night (internet rate) was a good deal. The rooms had a vague art deco look.

In the afternoon we walked over toward Old Town. Big mistake. It wasn't as close as it looked on the map. It was hot (about 90 degrees.) The streets that we walked down were wide, leaving little opportunity for shade. (I always hate the current American desire to have homes and buildings spread so far apart. More sun gets to street level, making the streets too warm for casual pedestrians. It also prevents sociability.) The Old Town area is a series of shops and restaurants surrounding the San Felipe de Neri Church. It was a large pueblo-style church with a beautiful courtyard. It was too late to see the museum. The shops ranged from wonderful crafts to tourist traps. One of the best was a religious art store that sold local crafts and antiques. Several indigenous Americans sold silver and turquoise jewelry along the streets. The restaurants (at least the interesting ones) in the area closed too early for us to enjoy them. We walked back to the area of our hotel to eat at one of the trendier restaurants, a pizza place that probably has dancing in the later hours. We drank beer: Fat Tire for the wife, Anchor Steam for me.

Albuquerque is part old town and part suburban metropolis (if those concepts aren't too contradictory.) There are lots of beautiful craftsman cottages along the small residential streets. They look like real neighborhoods. People care for them. The downtown area is more modern with galleries and restaurants. However, many things are spread out over the city. Geographically, it is too big for its population.

We stayed in that night. We watched the American Idol finale on TV. We were sorry that Clay did not win, and we were disappointed with the production of the finale itself.

Day Two

We picked up our car at the Albuquerque Airport rental center. It was a Honda Civic. Oh, the torture that we will inflict on that poor car over the next eight days! We were actually impressed that it survived.

We immediately drove north from Albuquerque to Taos. It was Memorial Day weekend--we felt that it would be best to avoid Santa Fe and to get into a more remote area. (There was some faulty logic, as will become clear later.)

We stopped at Chimayo on the way up. We took NM 503 through Nambe, although we did not stop at the reservation. There were lots of small ranches and homes. Dirt rather than grass, but lots of shady trees. The hills helped to mitigate the heat, creating a little islet of fertile agriculture. The area is known for the best chiles in the country (a sign on a home calls them "holy chiles," and that may not be far from the truth.) We visited the Santurario de Chimayo. My grandfather was born in New Mexico and was a Penitente (these were catholic brotherhoods that emerged as the presence of the Catholic Church waned following the Pueblo revolts.) He had made pilgrimages to the Santuario, which was been described as the "Lourdes of America." The church was our first up-close experience with folk religion in the area. The courtyard was very inviting, with a wall in front of the church and an arched entrance. A large bell sat atop the adobe structure. Inside were painted alter pieces (retables) that were composites of the images of saints. We ate at a small outdoor restaurant across from the church.

We took 503 back to the main highway. We passed through Espanola without much comment (other than how unexciting it was.) As we approached Taos we caught glimpses of the Rio Grande. People were rafting. The road started to rise above the canyon floor and the river. Finally, driving over one hill, we could see the entire mesa emerge before us. A huge, flat space, border by the mountains. What took our breathes away was the gorge that broke up that seemingly perfect plane. We were in awe.

We stayed at the Historic Taos Inn. It is located at the major intersection in town. The price for our attractive, though small, room was $150 for two nights. After getting a little more rest, we headed out into town. We looked through several shops. New Mexico has many inspired artisans. There were many interesting things--textiles, furniture, etc.--much of which was either inspired by the local culture, the local landscape, the local Indians, or the artists who had previously settle in Taos. Much of the art is expensive. I think that they target people with money, effectively pricing us out of the market.

We ate at the Apple Tree. Technically, it was our anniversary--five years together. However, we celebrated weeks earlier so that we could do so properly. The restaurant was fabulous. We sat in an interior courtyard under the apple trees. The chile sauces were so complex and flavorful that we devoured our dishes: my wife had chiles rellenos that had been fried in a corn flour batter. I had tempeh fajitas in red chile sauce. It was sweet and hot. We drank a bottle of fume blanc from southern New Mexico (Jury Winery.) It will be one of the most memorable meals that I have had. The meal came out to $60 along with cups of cucumber soup and chips and guacamole. I would say that it was a bargain.

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