Visiting the ‘Land of Enchantment’

Some states are very proud of their slogans (Florida’s ”The Sunshine State,” Texas’s “The Lonestar State).” Some states’ slogans make a political statement (D.C.’s “Taxation Without Representation,” New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”). Some states seem to have pulled theirs out of a hat (Connecticut’s “Full of Surprises,” North Dakota’s “Legendary”). And then there’s New Mexico, whose slogan is under the radar but clearly intentional. There’s a good chance you didn’t know that New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment” until you visit, and there’s a good chance you’ll agree with that characterization. I had never heard the slogan before, but once in New Mexico, it was everywhere, from the audio welcome recording on the rental car shuttle to t-shirts and other state merchandise, to of course, license plates. 

New Mexico is certainly enchanting, and it is also under the radar, not accustomed to puffing itself up the way some other states do (I won’t name names). And for me, New Mexico has long been near the top of the list of U.S. states I’ve wanted to visit. What has appealed to me its distinctness from other U.S. states, with its unique combination of Mexican, Spanish, and Native American heritage. 

On top of that are the artist communities which sounded charming and protected. I imagined them as walkable little downtowns of adobe buildings with woven Native American rugs hanging over window sills. 

And then there are is offbeat New Mexico: the off-grid movement, UFO sightings, geodesic domes, and all other signs that people were living and thinking differently than the rest of us. New Mexico’s weirdness has intrigued me in the way that cults intrigue me - in one sense they exist on the edge of society, but they address questions and build societies in response to questions we all ask ourselves. What would it be like to live unencumbered from the need for possession? to be able to live off the land? to not work a typical modern job? if there were a supernatural power? How can so many of us live with these questions and not act on them? And what does it look like to act on them?

I visited New Mexico for the first time in early February, on a ski trip with friends in Taos Ski Valley and a stop in Santa Fe. The photos directly below are of the road and property of the home we stayed at in the Taos Valley area. As you can see, the flatness in front of us gave a clear view of the mountains, specifically, the Sangre de Cristo.

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Taos Ski Valley

The ski resort of Taos Ski Valley has a nice vibe to it. It was low-key and not super crowded, though still well-regarded. There seemed to be a lot of locals who come out all the time. In recent years, the resort has been spiffing up a bit, with some new or updated restaurants and bars. We particularly liked the Bavarian Restaurant, which was a basic German menu, with a few different types of wurst. We also liked the Hotel St. Bernard’s restaurant and Rathskeller Bar, which reminded me of a place where Cary Grant would have enjoyed a drink in North by Northwest.

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I hadn’t skied in two years, and Taos is known for being steep, but I managed to ski most of the greens and a couple of small stretches of blue with only two falls where I lost a ski (and several other falls where skis stayed attached). By day two I was both high on skiing and, by afternoon, so tired from falling that I realized I was liable to break a limb if I kept going. The altitude, the falls, and the demands I was placing on a body usually accustomed to sitting in front of a desk in ergonomically lacking positions had wiped me out – in a good way. There’s nothing better than feeling tired because you did something, as opposed to because you didn’t do something, which is also a tired I have felt.

Taos

Probably the most interesting thing to see in the town of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, a Native American village built in 1000 to 1450 with houses made of adobe that have stayed in tact (with maintenance) for all of this time, including a multi-storied building that could be called an adobe apartment complex. Right below is a photo looking out the entrance to the church front plaza. The Spanish built the church in the 1660s, though it was opposed by the native people of Taos.

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Below is one of the adobe houses. Today many of them have been turned into stores that sell Native American art, jewelry, rugs, and other items. Each home has been handed down from generation to generation since people started living in the pueblos, although many of the Taos people now live offsite, in homes near the Pueblo.

While at the Taos Pueblo, my friend and I started talking with one of the store owners, a man with multiple lives. In the 1970s, he had toured with the Native American Theater Ensemble. When the Ensemble collaborated with the American Shakespeare Theater, he met and started dating Helen Mirren. They lived in the Upper West Side of New York City for several years, until he returned to New Mexico, because he was not a city person at heart. His dad was one of the leaders in the movement that successfully won back nearby Blue Lake land in 1970 through a bill passed by Congress and signed by Richard Nixon. The land had been taken during the Theodore Roosevelt administration and designated as part of the U.S. National Forest Service.

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America’s First Wine Region

When you think of American wine, you think of Napa, Sonoma, Oregon, maybe the Finger Lakes and Virginia. What you don’t think of is New Mexico. Yet New Mexico was the first region in the United States where human grew wine, at least according to the pourer who I met at La Chiripada Winery, in Dixon, New Mexico, a slightly run down artist colony. I parked in the lot of La Chiripada Winery next to one other car. I was the only one at La Chiripada during my tasting of several wines that I could choose (In fairness, it was a Monday around 12 PM).

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The whites were mostly on the sweeter side, as it turns out Rieslings do very well in New Mexico. The dryer of the whites I drank, the Winemaker’s Select was a combination of Seyval/Vidal Blanc, and smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Viognier. The pourer told me that some their combination varietals, like the Seyval/Vidla Blanc, had grown together on the land in such a way that they were no longer distinct. The reds were very light, especially the Canoncito Red 2015 which was a combination of two grapes: Leon Millot and Baco Noir, which I had never heard of. I ended up purchasing the Canoncito part (full disclosure) it was the cheapest of those I had tasted.

Having learned some new things about the New Mexico terroir, I headed back on the road to Santa Fe, calculating that I hadn’t even had a glass equivalent of wine so would be fine to drive.

Santa Fe

My long-standing image of Santa Fe is consistent with the aforementioned artist colony I described above: a sun-drenched, red dirt expanse with open-air adobe homes where Navajo blankets hang on the window sills and residents sit in their front yards selling goods in shallow, straw baskets. I don’t know where this image came from, but this is not actually what Santa Fe looks or feels like.

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The real Santa Fe had a lot of old Spanish mission style architecture, a few unmemorable buildings and multi-story parking lots, and was empty and overcast, at least that day. I quickly questioned what I was doing in Santa Fe, realizing I had no intentions to to buy pottery, art or anything made out of turquoise. I wanted a Navajo rug, but they were upwards of $1,000 and shipping it home would have been its own additional costs. 

It seemed like the only people in Santa Fe under 40 were the young people who worked at the stores, such as Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House. There seemed to be a particular presence of middle aged white men walking around in suits (which I later guessed had to do with town courthouse being nearby) and a handful of tourists. 

At Collected Works, I grabbed a couple of books, ordered a pour over of a Mexican blend for less than $4 and I sat down on a leather couch near the fireplace and began to read, periodically nodding off. 

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I finally gave up on the two more ambitious books I had picked up and grabbed a book called Everybody Rise about a startup and New York City socialites. I stayed awake for the 15 or so pages and decided to purchase the book so I could have something to read for the flight.

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The Georgia O’Keefe Museum

From Collected Works, I walked about five minutes to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, like so many buildings in this region a boxy, mud brown, made I think of stucco.

The museum gave nice overview of O’Keefe’s life story, from Wisconsin to New York City to New Mexico (and around the globe). I learned from a video that O’Keefe felt people misunderstood her as a highly sexual woman after the release of naked artistic photographs taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Around this time, she began going to New Mexico regularly, carving out her own path in the West. Stieglitz died in the mid-1940s, and as O’Keefe got older, she spent more and more time in New Mexico each year, until finally she moved there, starting in one house, and later moving to another and painting the strikingly colored New Mexico scenery for which we now know her.

As I looked at photos of O’Keefe and studied her paintings and sculptures, I marveled at how she managed to feel so at home in the barren expanse of New Mexico that I had driven through that day. All day I had felt a tinge of loneliness, made more palpable by the barren expanse, the space, and the lack of people. Yet O’Keefe took this place right away. 

O’Keefe and I were both from the Midwest, which made her affinity for New Mexico even more interesting. Certainly she and I are from different types of communities (hers rural, mine urban and then suburban). I realized in New Mexico how accustomed I am to trees that block my view of the great beyond, and in turn how unsettling emptiness is. I am not the first one to say New Mexico feels like another planet. With its brown boxy homes that seem like they were built as deliberate camouflage to the geodesic domes, to the atomic bomb, to UFO sightings, New Mexico feels not of this Earth, and yet at the same time utterly of America.

Getting there advice

The plane travel was cheap. I took a Jet Blue flight from JFK to Albuquerque for around $215. But what I saved in money, I made up for in sleep loss, since I had to take a redeye that left Albuquerque at 11:59 pm on Monday.  My car rental seemed cheap, at $60, but ended up being over $200 once insurance fees were factored in. A piece of advice: ask the car rental place how much your rental will be with fees, and get a credit card that provides this insurance so you don’t have to buy it with your rental. Make sure you know whether that credit card provides that insurance. I may have indeed had such a credit card, but I had forgotten to check.