Friday, May 22, 2009

Santa Fe

“I want to live all alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O’Keeffe.” —Warren Zevon

I love the American Southwest, but the fact that flying into Albuquerque, NM, from the east involves nearly smashing into the side of a mountain does take a bit of the appeal out of it. Especially since by then the “liquid courage” I downed during my two-hour layover in Atlanta had worn off. (Yes, Albany to Atlanta to Albuquerque. This trip is brought to you by the letter “A.”)

And then the shuttle van trip to Santa Fe—about 57 miles, as the crow flies (or, as we say in Saratoga, as the horse flies)—is another of “what the heck was I thinking?” on top of the flight. Whenever I take airport shuttles, I am always—always—the last to be dropped off. So in this case about nine people were stacked like cordwood in a van whose air conditioning system left much to be desired.

But all that snark and crankiness evaporated by the time I got to Santa Fe. My tendency to be dropped off last actually worked in my favor, because I got a very nice driving tour of Santa Fe and learned, if nothing else, that Santa Fe is best traversed either on foot or in a very small car. Indeed, our van driver backed into a pickup truck while attempting to get out of a parking lot.

Eventually, I arrived at the Ghost Ranch Santa Fe for the 14th Annual Science Writers Conference, and immediately learned that Santa Fe was more than 5,000 feet (actually 6,996 feet) above sea level, which I did not know. The ranch literature I found in my room had all sorts of warnings about altitude sickness. As usual, I treated the symptom list as a “to do” list, just like whenever I am forced by my doctor to take prescription medications, the list of side effects is basically a “to do” list.

So after decompressing for a bit, I decided to go out and prowl for the couple hours before the event’s reception.

Santa Fe was founded in 1610 by Spanish territorial governor Don Pedro de Peralta (ergo Paseo de Peralta is a main road) and was officially designated “Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis” (or “Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”). So “Santa Fe” actually means “holy faith.” The city was built to be the capital of Spain’s northernmost territory in the New World, but the Pueblo Rebellion shook things up a bit, although the city was recaptured in 1692 by Don Diego de Vargas. Its claim to fame was primarily as a trading center. Los Alamos is nearby and in the 1940s, the influx of scientists brought a renewed economic vitality to the town. (I came across a First National Bank of Los Alamos. I’m guessing you do not want to get an overdraft from them.)

The city itself is the last thing I was expecting from a major city, especially one that is a state capital. (Santa Fe became the capital of the New Mexico Territory in 1851; New Mexico became a state in 1910.) The architecture is best described as “all adobe all the time.’’ In fact, the entire city is very beige. Indeed, the town looks very much as it would have in the nineteenth century. I half expect to see James West come flying out of an upper window or crash through a staircase.
There is one structure that is your standard issue adobe building with what look like wooden bars on the glassless windows. It looks like a jail circa. 1870 but is actually the parking garage for the La Fonda Hotel.
The center of town is the Plaza, a green square surrounded by—again—adobe buildings, housing predominantly art galleries and shops selling turquoise jewelry and other knickknacks with a (surprise) Southwest theme.
I don’t think I have seen this many art galleries in one place...well, ever. I had no idea that this much art could be physically produced. It’s rather astounding. Art is also interwoven throughout much of the town itself, and behind the Post Office is one particularly interesting installation--a school of fish heads emerging from the gravel. It is very cool.
I’m not sure exactly how Santa Fe became an artists’ refuge, but I suspect Georgia O’Keeffe had a lot to do with it. (Her original “Ghost Ranch” is located just outside Santa Fe in Abiquiu, a town that was invaded in 1956 by vowels and, in a standoff that lasted several days, all the consonants were purged save for two hostages.)

The Plaza also has a variety of restaurants. On Tuesday, several of us went to the Plaza Cafe which is an intriguing mix of Mexican and Greek cuisine. It was quite good. I shared an immense dessert with a squid researcher from Monterey and we could not finish it. Over the course of the week, various search parties brought back stories of excellent restaurants (and pubs). Thursday night, there was a mass dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, which had excellent food and even better frozen margaritas. Happily, I didn’t see any chain restaurants in town. Or even any chain art galleries.

There are several churches and a cathedral. (As I recall from my visit to Canterbury Cathedral, a cathedral is a church that contains a cathedra, or the chair that the archbishop sits in.) Santa Fe is home to the grand, imposing St. Francis Cathedral, which was built in the 19th century by French priest Jean Baptiste Lamy. His raison d’etre was to formally separate New Mexico’s Catholics from Mexico, but he was a bit taken aback by the locals’ unusual worship habits—and the humble dirt-floor church they had. His attempts at changing things went over like a you-know-what in church. But he did decide that a large, impressive Romanesque cathedral was what was needed. Ergo, St. Francis’.

It should be noted that St. Francis Cathedral houses not only the seat for the archbishop (or whatever authority they have down here), but also the seat—or, more importantly, the parking space—for the Cathedral’s Gift Shop Manager, who is actually appointed by papal decree.
There are a number of St. Francis statues in town, but my favorite is one just off the Plaza where it looks like St. Francis is trying to answer that age-old philosophical question, “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” His theological arguments can be found in his tract De Rodentia.
There is also a statue to that other religious figure, R2D2—actually a painted mailbox. I wonder how many people insert letters reading “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”? But then, perhaps it’s just me.
Santa Fe also is home to the oldest church structure in the U.S., San Miguel Chapel, built circa 1610, although partially destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) during the Pueblo Rebellion.
The weeklong Science Writers Workshop itself was one of the most enjoyable weeks I think I have ever spent, hanging out with about 40 scientists and science writers having incredible conversations. More about that at another time.

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