Santa Fe wrapped us up like a native blanket from stern to stem, and it’s a distinct regret we were only there for a day. We started the day at the Pantry, taking in the easy interchange between regulars and employees at the breakfast counter and watching our fellow diners enjoy the amazing food we were about to partake of. The meal was all comfort. Honest, solid and simple breakfast. Happy, sated and feeling fairly positive about our fellow human, we set out to scope some galleries, a major part of Santa Fe culture and industry. Our first target was closed till 12, so said a handwritten note penned by Douglas. It was about quarter till, so we said, “Cool, D-man, we’ll see you after the hangover stops spinning.”
Santa Fe’s Encaustic Art Institute was on the short list for our afternoon, as soon as the Google gods clued me in as to exactly what encaustic art was (a medium first adopted by ancient Greece, layering heated beeswax and resin). The city is an oasis of fine, folk, and Native art, a bizarre melding of affluence and unfussy sensibilities. I was excited to give J the nickel tour. We arrived at the Institute just after noon. Signage on the door confirmed the 10am opening we had seen online, but the door was locked. A handwritten sign hung below the posted hours.
“We will be open at noon on Tuesday, 10/3.” – Douglas
Though technically on the right side of things, there didn’t seem a point to waiting around to shame Douglas over the same bad behavior we had both been guilty of in the not-so-distant past. We took a walk to explore the district. Santa Fe does a solid job (or a socialist one, depending on your opinion) of preserving its historic beauty by requiring buildings be built in the Pueblo Revival style. We ogled the adorable casitas with their adobe-colored facades and vibrant gardens and stumbled upon LewAllen Gallery.
We took a short walk into the toney art district and strolled into the conditioned air of the LewAllen Gallery. For the price of a modest house, you too can have some absolutely amazing art desperately gripping your walls. The gallery had a solid exhibition, and it was distinctly empowering to see creatives get paid in actual dollars. I’m more than willing to ignore the whole crass commercialism of blue-chip art if only for the fact that visual art persists as such an earnestly direct mode of expression. All the fancy financial security in the world won’t hide the fact you were struck down with the hex to find and craft beauty wherever you roam. Bully for the artist who can afford everything the dull-eyed paper pusher takes for granted. Exposure don’t buy shit, dickweeds.
Towering sculptures by Bill Barrett flanked the entrance, frozen in a somber dance. Two older gentlemen outfitted in cowboy hats and bolo ties stepped out of the swank gallery, holding the door open for us as they exited. The main room featured abstract painter Ben Aronson, his visible brushwork imparting his still lifes with an almost frenetic energy. It also housed a number of rare works, and we discovered significant pieces tucked into alcoves and crowding the walls of service hallways like inconvenient afterthoughts. We argued over our favorites and allowed ourselves the indulgence of unnecessarily debating which pieces we could live with.
Figuring Douglas had surely collected himself by now, we meandered back toward the Encaustic Art Institute through a rail yard, a farmer’s market, and a public art installation exploiting society’s need for its fifteen minutes. We arrived back at the museum to find the door still locked. I had failed to notice the clipboard and box to the right of the door earlier. A memo asked patrons to list their vehicle’s license plate and place two dollars within for use of the parking lot. Having powered through a staggering number of brunch shifts in precariously inebriated states, my patience with Douglas, now three hours late, had all but evaporated. Resigned, we drove our illegally parked asses out of there.
We set off for Bandelier National Park after a short walk through the Santa Fe gallery district. Douglas never showed, and we alternatively wished him luck and to suck it the fuck up, because seriously Douglas, you had one job, and it started at 10am. The canary-in-the-coalmine is far more dedicated, you pretender, and its day starts way the hell earlier.
The car was pulling a bit, slow to switch gears and dragging as it accelerated. I noticed we had already reached 3000 miles since the rental’s last servicing. Our first car’s demise still a fresh wound, the situation put me on edge. “We should get an oil change in the next couple of days.” I hoped the comment sounded off-handed, not wanting to concern J with my propensity for expecting the worst.
The attendant at Bandelier National Monument’s Visitor’s Center, located in the nearby town of White Rock, divulged that we could skip the shuttle bus and drive right to the monument if we waited for peak visitor’s hours to end, which they would, in about half an hour. Not having to make a shuttle trip back East to pick up the car, then West again to Farmington, was enough to settle the matter. We spotted White Rock Overlook on a map of local attractions and went to kill some time.
The road took us through a park, past playing fields and playgrounds, then abruptly turned in on itself, as the ground beyond dropped steeply. We took the short trail to the lip of a ledge, which jut over Rio Grande Gorge. It opened to panoramic views of the gorge and the river below. Past the valley, the snow-capped peaks of the Pecos Wilderness rose magnificently. We stood at the precipice, alternatingly awed by the scene laid out before us and indulging in (playful) threats of giving the other a much-deserved shove.
Bandelier National Monument is nestled in the canyon between two mesas. The road leading to it, as well as the complex itself, comprise the largest of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ many public works projects. We descended past earth bearing the scars of two sprawling brush fires that had ravaged the land in 1996 and 1997, the hills still barren and scored some two decades later.
I was especially excited for Bandelier because ever since I was a child, Pueblo culture enticed me. I had even made a miniature Pueblo village for a school project. The image of cliffside dwellings always stuck with me, though I never imagined it would be something I would personally behold. The wonders of the world tend to exist in abstraction and supposition, but those wonders are the candy to the kids in the store, once they finally get there.
We spent hours roaming the cliffs and trails, each corner turning over a new and exciting reveal of beauty. The humble mastery of a simple life was inspiring. There was nothing but abundance and wisdom, the hunger for conquest and domination almost painfully absent. These people lived, laughed and loved freely under the glow of a generous sun, walking a generous earth. They were far more intelligent than most of us could ever hope to be.
The monument consists of a number of Pueblo archaeological sites. The people who inhabited the region 11,000 years back were gatherers and farmers, who built multi-layered structures from bricks carved from the volcanic ash cliffs, as well as within the cliffs themselves. We climbed ladders into these cave dwellings, impressed by their relative comfort. Temperatures inside were significantly cooler than the 96 degree afternoon and Southern exposure allowed for a shocking amount of natural light. Large spokes had been embedded in the walls for hanging hides and looms. Paintings were still visible on the plaster, exterior walls, beating the Italians to frescoes by centuries.
The Alcove House was situated 140ft up, in a landing in the cliff above. I don’t know how the height was traversed all that time ago, but the route now consisted of a series of long, steep ladders to be used by visitors moving in both directions. An older gentleman on the landing above us was engaging his party with some jovial repartee about his prowess despite recent hip surgery, clutching a cane as he made his way on the ladders. His agility and spirit halted any trepidations we might have had towards playing this live-action game of Donkey Kong. No small number of carefully placed steps later, we were there. The house looked out over the canyon, and we paused to watch bald vultures circle overhead in the fading afternoon.
The sun fell behind the facing canyon wall, providing some relief from the heat. We hiked back to the lot. With dusk approaching, it had cleared out but for a few opportunistic ravens searching for scraps. The Pueblo tribes believe their ruins to be holy, housing the souls of the ancestors who once resided there. In the stillness, the valley appeared possessed by a contemplative spirituality.
When we arrived back at the Visitor’s Center, it had closed and the parking lot had emptied. In poor cell service, we managed to pick out a route to Farmington, where we were staying for the evening. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, we were sure, where we lamented our lack of maps. Our generation, at the hinge of forever, should be just a little better at preserving the dying art of confused people pointing at maps. After they take our guns, they might just take our maps.
We ascended from the canyon, veering West. Predictably, there was no cell service. We charted a course to Farmington, the work made simpler by a lack of route options. The road steadily climbed past the burnt forests, winding gently as we scaled Cerro Grande. A coyote loped down the road toward us and I slowed, pausing to scope out our first. We advanced into New Mexico’s mountain wilderness. Mule deer congregated in small herds near the road. A gang of elk regally grazed between the mountainside’s sparsely set trees. Nature seemed to be upping the ante with every bend.
As we drove out of the canyon, our excursion was pleasant enough. The setting sun provided entertainment while I settled on music. We realized that we would be driving through Valles Caldera, a site we had previously dismissed in its literal meaning and poor PR job as just a hole in the ground. As we discussed the golden hum of happenstance that frames some of the prettier moments of our journey, Y spotted a coyote the first either of us had ever seen in the flesh. As Grizzly Bear turned the stereo into a nebula, we witnessed a group of stalwart elk, then a small family of mule deer. New Mexico, thou art truly the land of enchantment. The mule deer were especially striking, as they’re clearly not the same deer that would occasionally terrify me in the early morning twilight on my paper route as a kid.
The sun on its last dollar, we rolled up and into the Caldera’s edge. 14 miles as the crow flies stood the crest of crater across from us. Seeing it in person is the only way. Having topped out my per diem hiking high score somewhere around 13, I’m well aware that what looks like a walk in the park will likely take the better part of a day and shave a few more off your life, besides. It felt very singular to bear witness to something so massive and spectacular, yet largely untouched by the noise and light of the world of humans. Humans, who are dead set on manufacturing an extinction-level event of their own.
The road curved left and the immense grassland of Valles Caldera strikingly opened to our right. There had been a definite interest in visiting the site of a million year collapsed volcano, but even a nine-week road trip doesn’t afford enough time to see everything. Ultimately, insufficient time and a look at its disenchanting website caused us to reconsider. Now we pulled over, powerless against the pull of its majesty (their marketing could use some work). We stepped out into what was fast becoming a crisp evening. The sun was all but set, and paired with the elevation the temperature had dropped 40 degrees. However, we stood agape, trying to memorize the vast beauty we knew would never translate in our grainy photographs.
The cold spurred us back into the car and on course, chasing the last remnants of sunlight over the hilltops. The road curled into a series of switchbacks, the wide, low-hanging moon flicking from front to back. J asked if I was finding the repetitive of the back and forth tedious, offering to take over, but I was taken with this unspoiled country. “I could do this all day.”
We were to stay on Rt. 126 until a left turn at the town of Cuba steered us toward the relative civilization of Farmington. A sign let us know we had 26 miles until reaching that crossroads. I barely registered the words “Pavement Ends” on the sign before the road gave way to gravel. Within moments we were engulfed by high, forested banks on each side. The car slid on the dirt road. The headlights and the moon were our only guide in navigating the potholes, large stones, roots, and ditches that could potentially set us careening into either bank. I cautiously crept along. Some quick math exposed that at our current rate of 18mph, we would reach Cuba in an hour and a half.
I replayed our journey in my mind, searching for a possible missed turn. This primitive track couldn’t possibly be the right route. An Adopt-a-Highway sign conspicuously emerged from the wild at our right, confirming we were, in fact, on the correct road. I looked to J, “I’d hate to know what this thing looked like before getting adopted.”
Amid the tenacious crawl through eerie nothingness, the oil pressure light blinked on. My own wheels spun. If the car broke down, we’d be stuck in the middle of the road with no light. If another car came down this road, the lack of light would likely result in us being hit. If a car did not come, we would have a walk through dark woods of an unforetold distance (where again, we would be unprotected from any traffic we encountered). We could wait out the night in the car but the outside temperature was indicated to be 46 degrees. It would be an uncomfortable evening. I was striving to compose alternate plans while retaining some measure of chill when something moved in the blackness ahead.
If the utility of a road is compromised due to the whims of bovine, it should not, in fairness, be called a highway. Consider this my formal complaint with the state of New Mexico. The cow strutting out of the darkness before us was such an absurdity we erupted into astonished laughter.
Then there was more movement. A group of shadows fell into focus. The laughing stopped. A whole herd had taken over the road. I inched the car forward, doing my best to part the mass, but one wouldn’t budge. It faced us head-on, impeding movement until the bulk had passed. We received a once over that let us know we didn’t fit in, then it strode off to resume whatever cow matters she had that were more pressing than dicking with us.
Bursting with some cosmic joy, we cruised through the dark forest, eventually happily noting Cuba on a road sign as verification of our final destination. About 1000 feet later, Highway 126 became a dirt road hugging massive trees, cliff walls, and meadows. I could see the phantoms of massive elk prance and dawdle to our left. To our right, the cliff loomed up into the darkness. Down the road, a dog, fat and carefree, ambled into the headlights. Then darkness, again. Then cows. Lots and lots of cows.
Keenly aware of a car that needed a little love after the abuse of the last few thousand miles (and more than a little gun-shy after the Death of the Lexus), lizard-brain nerves and dread were keeping me breathless and Y’s foot lighter than usual. Eyes emerged in the black to the sides and in the road and we slowly passed yet more bovine adversaries. 9 miles on a road like that is an eternity, and the lights of Cuba, NM were a beacon of hope and toilets. All that and a bag of Lime-flavored potato chips.
With just as little warning, the road morphed into an actual road again. We came upon a building on the left, marked as a Girl Scout camp. We brightened, rationalizing that people would be unlikely to send little girls anywhere too remote or menacing. Houses intermittently came in to view. The oil pressure light incessant, I made mental notes of the growing distance between us and them, should we need to walk back for help. A sign alerted us we would reach Cuba in 17 miles. I turned to J, stunned. “How the fuck was that only 9 miles?”
Eventually, streetlights became visible in the distance. We reached the intersection at Cuba and turned left towards what looked like a legitimate town. They even had a gas station.
Another hour or so of pick-your-speed driving and we had arrived in Farmington, with an hour before Three Rivers Tap Room closed. We hurried over in the windy chill and hashed out plans once safely inside, deciding that San Diego would be our gate to Cuenca. We squeezed a second round in and ambled off back to the motel.
We pulled into our motel in Farmington, inextricably exhausted and wired. A quick exchange through some bulletproof glass endowed us with keys to our castle and we left to calm what nerves we could before last call. Pittsburgh businesses often give themselves the local moniker Three Rivers in reference to the city’s bounty of waterways. Farmington’s Three Rivers Game & Taproom was fatefully across the street. One might consider that sort of thing providence, or maybe just a testament to the fact that being located at the divergence of multiple rivers makes for some convenient town-building.
We rolled into the divey pool hall and brewery, replete with its share of late night giggly girls and downtrodden white dudes, and took two seats at the bar. The beers were solid, and their chocolate porter was doing a proper job of things with a 9% ABV. We drank, still dazed from our unsettling adventure until we could talk again. Then had another round for the road.