Monday, September 17, 2012

DESERT 2.0: Santa Fe & Taos

In the spring of 2012, I took a road trip to the Four Corners region.  My original plan was to make a giant loop northeast to Monument Valley, then head down to Santa Fe and back west through Sedona.  Mother Nature thwarted my plan, so a few weeks ago I flew to New Mexico to finish the trip.  Just as I had in Four Corners, I felt like I was traveling back in time.

In 2010, Santa Fe celebrated its 400th anniversary, embracing its origins as a Spanish colony.  A few buildings from the colonial period still exist in the downtown square, including the Palace of the Governors ( “oldest public building in the United States”) and the DeVargas Street House (allegedly built in 1646, and popularly regarded as the “oldest house in the United States”). 

the oldest public building
the oldest house
the "old" church (San Miguel Mission)
the "new" church (St. Francis Cathedral)
The area’s cultural history goes back even further.  Pueblo Indians had been there for a few hundred years before the Spanish came, following vague rumors about seven cities made of gold.  The result -- all these years later -- is a unique and vibrant mix of colonial Spanish and Native America culture.  For more than a century, settlers and tourists have been inspired by the city’s apparent naturalism and inherent spirituality.  It seems no one can go to Santa Fe without ruminating on its open vistas, clean air, and diffused light, all contributing to a transformative quality of simplicity and peace. 

Artists began flocking here in the early 1900s, calling it the land of “poco tiempo” (in a little while) or “siempre manana” (there's always tomorrow).  Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose name is synonymous with the arts community in Taos, wrote of her arrival in Santa Fe: “My life broke in two right then, and I entered into the second half, a new world, that replaced all the ways I had known with others, more strange and terrible and sweet than any I had ever been able to imagine.  Whether it was to Atlantis I went or not I do not know, nor have I ever been interested in conjecturing about it.  I suppose when one gets to heaven one does not speculate about it anymore.”  Novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote of a similar first impression: “[T]he moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”

In spite of the fact that Santa Fe has changed quite a bit in the last century, it is still a quaint, often idyllic town -- not what I expected from a capital city.  The locals seem genuinely happy and friendly. (Maybe it’s just because I live in Los Angeles, but I’m not used to having so many easygoing conversations with strangers.)  The colors and architecture are stunning -- earthy and elemental; otherworldly to anyone who isn’t native to the American Southwest.  And the food…. Let me put it this way: This entire trip would have been worthwhile if all we did was eat in Santa Fe.  (My wife bought a book called Red or Green: New Mexico Cuisine, so that we could take the food home with us.)

I had read plenty about the brilliance of the sunsets in this part of New Mexico, but that was another experience that surpassed my expectations and stunned me into silence (… a tourist’s silence, which is to say that you could still hear the click of my camera).  As the sun slipped behind the mountains to the west of town, the clouds opened up just above the horizon and the fading sunlight tinted the rainfall red.  Now I know why Santa Feans are such strong believers in the “sangre de cristo.”   (See below...)

On the second day of our trip, we headed north -- following Mabel Dodge Luhan’s path to Taos.  The scenic “high road to Taos” passes through rocky hills that appeared to ripple and shudder in the harsh morning light.  Along the way, we passed a few sleepy towns, including “Truchas.”  The word is Spanish for “trout,” but the town may be better known for farming.  It was the setting for Robert Redford’s indie film THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR.  

the scenic "high road to Taos"
Another Hollywood name is well-known in Taos.  Dennis Hopper went there to film the opening scene of EASY RIDER (1969).  The actor fell so deeply in love with the town that he bought Mabel Dodge Luhan’s old house.  It was there that he struggled endlessly with the edit of his incomprehensible second film THE LAST MOVIE (1971); there that he staged his misguided directorial comeback BACKTRACK (1990), a captivating but frustrating film about artistic obsession; there that he was recently buried, near the San Francisco de Asis Church in Rancho de Taos.  So what was it he loved about this place?

“Ghost-filled places always fascinated me,” Hopper told his biographer Peter L. Winkler.  “I went to see the [Luhan] house when I was looking for places to shoot EASY RIDER.  It was a mystical experience.  When it was time to leave, I couldn’t get the door open to get out.  I’d been planning to buy a ranch in Elko, Nevada - a working ranch - but when I found out that Mrs. Luhan’s granddaughter was willing to sell the house, I decided to go with the aesthetic-and-mud palace in contrast to the working ranch.  I decided I was an aesthetic person, and the other was a dream.”

Winkler’s book, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, explains that the citizens of Taos weren’t quite as enthusiastic about Hopper, especially after his transformation of the Luhan house into a hippie commune.  There are wild accounts of violent confrontations, elevating the drug-addled actor’s paranoia to the point that he eventually set up a machine-gun nest on the roof.  He even interrupted a local high school play to let the locals know, in no uncertain terms, that he was armed and dangerous.  (Reading this book, I began to think of Hopper as Taos’s Hunter S. Thompson.)  After a year or so in Taos, he moved out of Luhan’s “big house” -- claiming that he’d been driven away by the ghost of D.H. Lawrence! -- and began spending more and more time away from Taos, eager to avoid the chaos of the commune he’d created. 

No doubt Hopper’s commune was a far cry from the art colony that Mabel Dodge Luhan had started years earlier - a place so calm that she could hear “inside the silence, a high, continuous humming, like a song.” Luhan is one of many artists who have written about “the Taos hum,” some suggesting that it is the voice of the ancients, still attached to the land.   In his book In Search of the Old Ones, anthropologist David Roberts says that he has heard a similar sound on sites that were once inhabited by the ancient Puebloans, known to many as the Anasazi. Roberts identifies the sound as “the steady drone” of a deep “bass note” that can last as long as nine or ten days straight, waxing and waning the whole time.  “My current theory,” he says, “is that a canyon acts, for ears like mine, sensitive to the lower frequencies, like a giant seashell.”

I did not hear the famous Taos hum, but that seems only fair.  We weren’t there long enough to truly engage with the place or its culture, nor did we experience Taos at night, when it is still and silent.  We did, however, make a trip to Taos Pueblo, the beating heart of this centuries-old community.  Taos Pueblo lays claim to the title of “oldest continually inhabited community in the U.S.A.”  Despite its long history, the pueblo still has no electricity and no running water.  The residents get their water from Red Willow Creek, which flows down from the sacred Sangre de Cristo Mountains, through the center of the village.  The hub of the community is San Geronimo Church, where worship is a unique combination of Catholicism and native religion, the latter passed down orally so that it cannot be corrupted.  Though they are understandably wary of photography, the residents of Taos Pueblo allow tourists into their home so that we can see how they’ve turned life into an art.  It’s a very humbling experience.

San Geronimo Church in Taos Pueblo
North House in Taos Pueblo
South House in Taos Pueblo
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
On her earliest trips to the pueblo, Mabel Dodge Luhan was overwhelmed by the sense of wholeness and purity she encountered in the pueblo.  “Our method of teaching,” she wrote, “is based altogether on question and answer.  Theirs, I knew later, is founded upon suggestion, example, divining, drawing out, showing.”  The example of the Puebloans changed her way of approaching life.  She explained, “One could really learn only by being, by awakening gradually to more and more consciousness, and consciousness is born and bred and developed in the whole body and not only the mind, where ideas about life isolate themselves and leave the heart and soul to lapse inert and fade away.  Yet never to cease watching was imperative also; to be aware, to notice and observe, and to realize the form and color of all, the action and the result of action, letting the substance create the picture out of abstract consciousness, being always oneself the actor and at the same time the observer, without whom no picture can exist.”

Luhan never left Taos.  She married one of the local Puebloans (a cause of much controversy) and remained there until she died in 1962.  A casual tourist can’t expect to see all that she saw here… We get only a hint of the simple beauty of the life of the community.  What struck me is that the life of this community has a distinct spirit, something more than common goals and common belief.  The “wholeness” that Luhan speaks of is a vital connection between the people and the environment that surrounds them, as well as a connection between those who came before them and those who will follow… and maybe even a connection to the rest of us who pass through, and are changed in some small way by the experience.

We headed west, driving over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on the outskirts of Taos.  It seemed like we were crossing the line between one world and the next. On one side of the bridge, there are hills and mountains.  The other side is relatively open and flat.  The barrier is distinct -- 650 feet straight down.  Naturally a site this spectacular has been filmed many times.  I recognized it as the site of Mickey and Mallory Knox’s “wedding” in the movie NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994).

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
the view from Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Next we headed for Abiquiu, another quaint community with centuries-old roots.   This is the home of the Penitentes, a Franciscan brotherhood that still practices the old Spanish custom of flagellation.  Though some writers have ignorantly assumed that the practices derived from the “savagery” of native life in the region, writers like Alice Corbin Henderson put the ceremonies into their proper context.  In her book Brothers of Light, she writes that the rituals “represent a genuine Old-World survival” in this part of the country, and adds that “the belief in the efficacy of this self-imposed penance is of course deeply devout - it is the old doctrine of suffering as an atonement for sin; and it is this sincere faith which makes the Penitente ceremonies so moving.”  It should be added that the brotherhood is also known for their acts of charity.  They cared for the sick and the poor in this region at times when no one else would or could.

Abiquiu Mission
Abiquiu is of course also known as the former home of Georgia O’Keefe as well as the current site of Ghost Ranch, one of many historic ranches near Santa Fe. Glimpses of Ghost Ranch can be seen in several Hollywood westerns: SILVERADO (1985) with Kevin Kline and Kevin Costner, CITY SLICKERS (1992) with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance, WYATT EARP (1994) with Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid, THE MISSING (2003) with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2010) with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  Portions of all of these films were also shot at other nearby ranches, clustered a few miles west of Santa Fe.  That’s where we headed next…

... but I think I'll wrap up this post with a Santa Fe sunset.  These photos were taken in sequence from the balcony of our hotel.

"New Mexico, like the dearest women, cannot be adequately photographed.  One can reproduce the features, but not the expression - the landmarks, but not the wonrdrous light which is to the bare Southwest the soul that glorifies a plain face.  The positive is an enchantment, the negative a disappointment.  One cannot focus upon sunlight and silence; and without them the adobe is a clod.  Description of the atmospheric effects of the Southwest is the most hopeless wall against which language has ever butted its ineffectual head.  'The light that never was on sea or land' spends itself upon the adobe and and the chapparo.  Under the ineffable alchemy of the sky, mud turns ethereal, and the desert is a revelation.  It is Egypt, with every rock a sphinx, every peak a pyramid."
- Charles F. Lummis, Land of Poco Tiempo

1 comment:

  1. I fled Los Angeles to Santa Fe, and for the most part, my short time there was very healing. Though it has become too congested for me to want to live there again, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

    And yeah, the number of sunset pictures I have from that time is staggering. :-)