Stories on the Santa Fe Trail – New Mexico, USA

Stories on the Santa Fe Trail
Taos, Albuquerque & Santa Fe, New Mexico

Albuquerque conjures up the image of a strange vegetable, when in fact it is the most populous city in New Mexico. It is the gateway to the international tourist meccas of Santa Fe and Taos. Like millions of jaded workers I joined the ‘Cheap flights’ exodus out of Chicago in late October, on a six-day quest for sun, scenery, salsa and Spanish serenades.

The very amenable Best Western chain at Rio Grande Inn, and later in Santa Fe, were our temporary homes because the management politely knocked hefty dollars off the standard room price for a lone adult with a teenager (under 17 free in the USA). The Rio Grande Inn hotel is located just outside the historic precinct of Albuquerque’s Old Town, founded in 1706. It now incorporates 130 shops, galleries and restaurants around the historic central square, while many Native American people sell their silver and turquoise jewellery, basketry and textiles here daily.

Albuquerque is blessed with many quality cheap eats places, however brainwashed by my 14-year-old daughter, my most memorable meal experience was inside the quintessential 50s Route 66 Diner with soft neon lights, chrome tables and seats, jukebox, a blue heaven malt in a tall glass for her, while I ate a local specialty, ‘Texas Toast’ (25mm thick) with green chile chicken, corn and bean soup.

The next morning we drove west for one hour to Acoma Pueblo, reputably the oldest inhabited city in the USA and a national historic landmark. There are 30 pueblos in New Mexico, but Acoma sits 100 metres atop a massive sandstone mesa, giving it the very apt name – Sky City. Acoma artists are famous for their etched black and white pottery and their yucca-brush paintings of fine detail.

“What does Santa Fe actually mean?” my insistent daughter asked as we set off for the state capital. Sounds like a very ‘alternative’ Santa Claus! she laughed. Getting to Santa Fe became quite an adventure as a violent thunderstorm blew over us, complete with lightning and hail. A flurry of demented tumbleweeds pounded the hire car. “Great!” said Miranda, “Just like the storm in the Wizard of Oz!”

“Yes,” I said, trying not to sound scared out of my wits and hoping the Wicked Witch of the West didn’t pop through the front windscreen unannounced. Almost as soon as it had swept over us we entered the afterglow shining on the pinkish 3000 metre Sandia (watermelon) mountains.

The car climbed steadily along the winding ‘turquoise trail’ through charming, weather-battered old coal and gold towns, such as Golden and Madrid. Madrid is set in a steep gully, and the main street is full of interest with antique and arty shops, zany cars and a steam train located around the town.

Santa Fe is akin to a beautiful oasis set amidst a sea of American ugliness. Cerillos Road on the way in is a jumble of modern commercial ugliness. However the centre of the capital contains some of the most remarkable public and private buildings made of adobe, some which resemble giant ochre ice-cream cakes made in the Spanish-Pueblo revival style for which Santa Fe has gained world wide recognition .The institute of American Indian Arts at Cathedral Place is just such an architectural treasure, as is the long, low ‘Palace of the Governors’ built in 1610. The latter now houses a cluster of specialty shops and eateries.

We chose a secluded restaurant called ‘The Shed ‘(at 113 and a half East Palace Ave), set in an historic stables enclave complete with garden and illuminated pumpkins on Halloween night. The food here was cheap and authentic NM, green chile, bean and potato pie with blue corn tortilla chips, washed down with local beer. What’s in a name? In requesting the beer I confused the brand with the name of the local congressman. The beer had “a better head” the waiter said drolly.

It snowed lightly in Santa Fe overnight, and this added to the overall majesty of the drive through the 3500-metre Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ ) Mountains and down the winding Rio Grande canyon to mystical, artistic Taos. The smell of the Pinar forests and the golden flourish of aspen and poplar trees hugging the canyon road between Espanola and Taos charmed all the senses. Taos is in a spectacularly beautiful area of sandstone shale outcrops, pine forests and high, scrubby, desert plains. The views across the Rio Grande Gorge to the west, dusted in snow, was a sight I’m sure is not often rivalled in nature.

Taos is smaller than Santa Fe, but many galleries, restaurants and shops dominate its central precinct. There were some real bargains to be had, especially the handsome local Navajo rugs and quilts. Taos was once home to a legendary mountain-man and Indian-fighter Kit Carson, whom I’m sure I play-acted as a kid in the wilds of Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The Kit Carson home and museum is a testament to the mountain-men who lead the numerous wagon trains from Missouri along the early Santa Fe trail and survived and saved others with feats of bravery, bush skills and tough-mindedness in a hostile land.

On the drive south to Albuquerque the evening sky was deep purple and crimson, evoking imagery of Mars rather than Earth. “Holy Faith!” cried my daughter loudly while reading in the gloom. “What is it?” I asked anxiously.

“Santa Fe – translates to Holy Faith,” she said, struck by the sudden end to her search. Relief – it made sense to me that the holy faith in New Mexico was amply evident in the wondrous skies and imaginatively beautiful and diverse landscapes. We followed the snake-like ribbon of car lights over the high dark mountains to Albuquerque, now contemplating its naming riddle, which as it turned out was named after a Spanish Duke, not something akin to an eggplant or melon as first imagined.

Getting There

  • United Airlines to Los Angeles or Chicago ($A2300)
  • Special excursion fare from Madison Wisconsin to Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • $279US. Hertz hire car $210US for a week.
  • Best Western hotels for $59US a night( room only adult with U17 child)
  • Pueblos entrance fee $5US. Camera fee extra $5