The decision was made immediately after Kari-Lise and I got our first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine back in May. TRAVEL. Travel was calling. Call it a spontaneous trip or revenge travel, we were hungry for the world. Like everyone else, we’d spent last year social distancing and sticking close to home, doing our part to stop the spread. Now, on our way to being fully inoculated and assured we wouldn’t unknowingly spread the virus to others, we craved a change of scenery—something opposite from the verdant mountains of Western Washington. We plotted our vaccine schedule, figured out the timeline, and booked a trip.
It’s been a decade since we visited Santa Fe, and it’s no surprise the city called to us once again. It’s an easy trip in non-pandemic times and was a place we both wanted to revisit. In May we weren’t sure how everything would play out, but we decided to roll the dice and plan for a trip of a few days exploring the town and the surrounding landscape. It was well worth it. Like any instance of travel, I came away feeling invigorated and creatively inspired. After a year at home, it was good to get away, breathe the thin desert air, and visit a place so unlike my daily experience. As the pandemic recedes in here America, everyone is still feeling out public behavior. But even with the mild awkwardness, the results were a trip comprised of fantastic food, incredible art, and surprising exploration.
It’s not going to be possible to share this trip without hitting on the copious amounts of delicious food we devoured. New Mexico is the land of the chile, and red and green varieties show up in every menu across the state, no matter what cuisine. When ordering, one is often asked if you want red or green chile—you can also opt for both by ordering your meal “Christmas.” (Yeah, it sounded corny the first time I said it as well. But the place is called Santa Fe. *rimshot*) Neither are particularly spicy despite the many warnings for tourists, but both are complex and flavorful. Trying different combos is worth the effort there’s no wrong choice here. Choose what works for you and enjoy.
Standout meals include the tacos from El Chile Toreado (arguably some of the best tacos I’ve ever had). The Short Rib Birria from Paloma, probably the fanciest dining we experienced on the trip. Solid enchiladas from The Shed (a return visit). And a strange little chile dog from the Taos Ale House; a mess to eat but incredibly delicious.
The third-largest art market in the United States is an artery running through the heart of Santa Fe along a street known as Canyon Road. (At this point it has spread well beyond Canyon Road, but posterity likes a metaphor.) The narrow lane is lined with over a hundred art galleries and studio spaces full of a variety of art. Everything from contemporary to traditional art, sculpture to jewelry, couture clothing to leather goods is offered somewhere along the route, and it’s easy to lose yourself for half a day or more.
Much had changed in the decade since our last visit, as one would suspect. Couple that with a receding pandemic and Canyon Road felt like a place awakening from a long slumber. In some spots, masks were optional for the fully vaccinated. Others were still being cautious and requiring masks and social distancing for all guests. We were happy to oblige and spent many hours wandering through the galleries discussing art and finding new favorites.
The standout for me was discovering the work of Grant Hayunga at his own recently opened gallery. His work varies but what stood out were his mixed media pieces that sat somewhere between paintings and relief sculpture. Made of various materials, calcium carbonate, crushed marble, beeswax, Hayunga creates fascinating pieces that explore humanity and our relationship with nature. My favorite from this series is fur trapper a recent piece from this year. He also creates these stunning neo-traditional landscapes, one of which—2016’s Asleep—enthralled both Kari-Lise and me. It’s all beautiful work, easily my favorite of the whole Canyon Road experience. You all need to buy more books from me so I can get one of his pieces.
Canyon Road wasn’t the only artistic experience of the trip. When we last visited Santa Fe, the art collective known as Meow Wolf was still in its infancy. In the decade since our visit, they have experienced significant growth. Their permanent home in Santa Fe is a former-bowling alley funded by some local guy named George R. R. Martin. It sits near the southwestern edge of the city as is home to their first large-scale interactive art experience House of Eternal Return. It’s amazing. The whole thing plays out like an interactive X-Files episode.
I can write a thousand words on what is inside, but it’ll never do it justice. Even photos don’t really capture the magic. You begin outside a modest home oddly enclosed in a warehouse (the reason why is eventually explained). After you pass through the front door (it’s open), you’ll soon discover a rich story told through journals, newspaper articles, videos, and photo albums, pictures on the wall, toys in the bedroom, and much much more. It all ties the family that resided there and their experiences to the surreal worlds you’ll interact with as you move beyond the House itself. I don’t want to go into too much detail on the experience since the House gives back what you bring, and spoilers remove that sense of wonder. (I even consider not sharing pics.)
I came away feeling inspired by the whole thing and thought it’d be great to someday recreate a corner of Lovat for readers to explore in person. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. My “Old Haunts” project is a small attempt at capturing some of that, and while I love them, being able to do it in person would be so rich and satisfying. Imagine standing outside Russel & Sons with rain dropping down around you, muffled jazz blaring from somewhere above, and the smell of spicy noodles cooking from a push cart down the street. Rad idea, right?
House of Eternal Return isn’t Meow Wolf’s only project. They have another installation that went live this year, and more experiences are planned for the future (Denver and eventually Washington D.C.). We’re already looking at a trip to Las Vegas for one reason: visit Omega Mart. Think cosmic horror as a grocery store chain, and you’d be on track. (Check out some of their ads.) It all sounds as creepy and weird and wonderful as I’d hope. I am excited to explore its aisles in the future.
New Mexico Highlands
On a whim, we decided to leave Santa Fe behind and head out into the country. We did this a decade ago, heading northwest toward Abiquiú and the Ghost Ranch. This time we headed northeast toward Taos. Early-summer storms were sweeping across the land, and you could watch enormous dark clouds trailing tails of rain and shadow for miles. For some reason, I expected more of the high desert environment like what I saw ten years previous. But the land toward the northeast was very different to that of the west, it rose suddenly. As we left the desert behind, we found ourselves in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains. I’ve grown up among the Rocky’s most of my life. But driving north along highway 68 and looking across the vast Taos plateau and seeing the gorge carved by the Rio Grande was utterly breathtaking. I’ve seen deep valleys before, but never one carved in such flat and open land and from such a height. I still find myself reflecting on that view. Seeing the ground opened up that way was like staring into the vastness of time.
Instead of continuing East across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, we decided to loop up into the mountains. We found ourselves in Carson National Forest, taking the High Road to Taos scenic byway back to Santa Fe. This is proper mountain country, think tall trees, deep valleys, tiny communities tucked away into hollows, and vast untouched stretches of forest for miles and miles. It all felt closer to home. Beautiful, but not at all what I anticipated.
So Much More
Santa Fe and the surrounding land can be a bit surreal at times. Modern art and interactive art experiences exist alongside deep history. The Palace of the Governors, erected in 1610, is the oldest public building in continuous use in America. Just down the street is the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States. Outside of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, originating sometime between 1000–1450 A.D. and not discovered by Europeans until the sixteenth century. And that only scratches the surface of what you can find in this small section of the state. This doesn’t even begin to cover other places in New Mexico we were unable to visit, locations like White Sands, Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns, Shiprock, Trinity, the burning of Zozobra, Los Alamos, and so much more. There is a density of wonder here and New Mexico doesn’t hold back and is very much worth your attention.
Advice & Tips
- You’re going to want to rent a car, this is big country. That said when in town, be willing to walk. There’s so much to see in Santa Fe, and unexpected places are often found on foot.
- Eat everything. Try new dishes. Explore New Mexican cuisine. Fear no chile. Don’t be put off by location. Sometimes the smallest trucks tucked into the quietest corners can have the best tacos.
- Scenic byways are your friend in Western States and New Mexico is full of them (High Road to Taos, Turquoise Trail, Santa Fe Trail, among many many others). While slower than major freeways, these routes will give travelers glimpses into a New Mexico easily missed by tourists. The extra time is worth it.
This was my fourth trip into New Mexico, my second to Santa Fe, and easily my favorite of the bunch. Each time I visit, the trips get a little longer, and each time I return I wish I had stayed a few more days. The name “Land of Enchantment” is a fitting one. The terrain there is haunting, rich in history and legend, and it calls to the traveler to take time and explore its wonders.
I’m not going to lie, it’s weird to travel right now, even fully vaccinated. People are rightly nervous, business hours are funky, and what we thought of as “normal” has changed significantly. Traveling at the end of a pandemic requires a lot of patience and copious amounts of kindness and empathy. We’re in a transitional period, and those can be both interesting and weird to navigate. However, it’s still worth it to get away for a time, and allow oneself to experience the world again. It was good to return to New Mexico, and a shame to have waited so long to return. Here’s hoping our next visit comes sooner rather than later.