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A place prepared

New Mexico day five


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

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View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

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Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

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Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

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San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (5)

‘Hot dog, jumping frog’

New Mexico day five continued


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Albuquerque

As we drove into Albuquerque after a fascinating morning spent visiting Acoma Pueblo, we had two things on our minds. One was lunch; the other a song by one of our favourite bands, Prefab Sprout:

All my lazy teenage boasts are now high precision ghosts
And they're coming round the track to haunt me.
When she looks at me and laughs I remind her of the facts
I'm the king of rock 'n' roll completely
Up from suede shoes to my baby blues
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque …
[The King of Rock and Roll]

While the song has nothing to do with Albuquerque beyond the frequent repetition of the line ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’, it was naturally stuck in our heads as the only thing we had ever heard about the city prior to visiting!

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Downtown car, Albuquerque

Although it is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque surprises by not being the state capital – Santa Fe has that honour. The city was established as the Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in 1706. Initially a small farming community clustered around the church of San Felipe de Neri, it expanded rapidly when the Camino Real, the main trade route north from Mexico, was developed to run through the area just a few decades later. Later came the railroad, which triggered expansion to the eastern side of the Old Town, in what then was known as New Town but today is Downtown. This was followed by Route 66, which ran through the city on its Central Avenue, and later still further expansion out into the surrounding desert.

Thus Albuquerque has always been a city for travellers, a stopping point on a journey, and so it was for us. Despite its many attractions, we decided to spend only one night here, preferring to have more of our limited time in more scenic parts of the state. Nevertheless we had time to explore the Old Town and see something of the Art Deco style of the Downtown area too.

Perhaps inevitably we were to leave the next morning wishing we had stayed longer, but Santa Fe beckoned, and that did indeed deserve more of our time ...

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Chilies for sale

Meanwhile, here we are on I40 heading into the city with lunch top of our agenda. We found parking near the compact old town and set off to explore.

At first it seemed to us that most of the places around the Plaza were more suited to a large dinner than the sort of light meal we were after. But then we spotted the sign for the Bebe Café (now closed down, I believe) and followed the trail into a pretty courtyard surrounded by interesting little shops, and in one corner a small café with just a few tables outside.

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The Bebe Café

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Turkey wrap

There was one other customer there, waiting for his lunch, and with just the one server we had to wait a short while as all the sandwiches are made freshly to order. But we didn’t mind as it was very pleasant sitting in the courtyard with our cold drinks, and the sandwiches when they came (the day's special of turkey and mango salsa wrap) were very good. The server explained that she had to get to class (clearly a student working to pay her way through college) so would have to lock up the café, but the owner would be along soon – or if we finished our meal before then we could just leave plates etc. on our outside table – very casual and friendly.

After lunch we had a look around the little shops off the courtyard, especially a very good photography gallery opposite the café, and then set out to explore the Old Town area.

The Old Town Plaza

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Gazebo in the Old Town Plaza

As in any Spanish colonial city, the heart of Albuquerque’s Old Town is its Plaza. The town was founded in 1706 and as it grew settlers built their houses near the church and around a defensible centre, which eventually became the plaza.

Shaded with trees it is a very pleasant place in which to take a rest between sightseeing and shopping (the two main activities in the Old Town). Children play, and both locals and tourists relax on the benches. At the centre is a gazebo which apparently is a popular place for wedding photos to be taken after ceremonies in the church. Also on the plaza are two replicas of cannons which were buried by retreating Confederate troops during a Civil War skirmish on April 8 – 9, 1862. The original cannons are in the Albuquerque Museum.

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Jewellery seller, Old Town Plaza

The Plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops with high tourist-appeal and under the porticos of some of these Native American traders sell jewellery and other crafts. We didn’t buy anything here (although were to do so a couple of days later in a similar setting in Santa Fe) but it looked a good option if you are shopping – it’s always nice to buy direct rather than pay shop overheads!

San Felipe de Neri

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San Felipe de Neri

The most striking building in Albuquerque’s Old Town is the church of San Felipe de Neri on the north side of the Plaza, the oldest building in the city. With its slightly incongruous white wooden spires gleaming against the blue sky it is very hard to miss. These spires are a later addition to the late 18th century adobe structure, which itself was built to replace the original (1706) building that collapsed after the particularly rainy summer of 1792. The spires were added under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom we were to encounter again later in our trip, in Santa Fe. This French bishop came to the area with very European ideas of what a place of worship should look like – and it wasn’t built of mud!

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San Felipe de Neri, outside and in

The bulk of San Felipe de Neri is adobe however, with five foot thick walls. Its cool interior would have been welcoming in the heat of the afternoon even if we hadn’t been interested to explore within. It isn’t large but is quite grand in appearance, with an ornate Baroque altar and an elaborate pressed-tin ceiling (added in 1916).

Capilla de Nostra Senora de Guadelupe

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Patio Escondido, Albuquerque

This tiny cross-shaped chapel is a hidden gem of the Old Town, and I’m sure many tourists pass by without realising that is there – we certainly would have done so if it were not for our trusty Moon Handbook, as it isn’t visible from the road and neither is it signposted. It is tucked away in the pretty Patio Escondido and is dedicated to the first saint of Mexico.

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Our Lady of Guadelupe

It is clear by the votive candles burning here, the flowers and the little prayer messages that it is an active place of devotion. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates one arm of the cross, to your right as you enter, and opposite it is a colourful stained glass circular window which acts as perpetual calendar, showing the Feasts of the Virgin and the phases of the moon. Opposite the entrance is a small altar.

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Inside the chapel

After our visit I found a story associated with the chapel, which claims that it is haunted by a lady in black. She has apparently often been seen seated on the far right bench of the chapel, weeping copiously. She wears a long black dress and her face is concealed by a dark veil. She is often mistaken for a real person, until she mysteriously vanishes, at which point the observer realises that she cannot after all be real. The lady is not menacing or threatening, but those who have seen her say that there is a deep sense of sadness emulating from her.

The chapel is not old, having been built in 1975 by a Dominican nun, Sister Giotto, as part of the establishment of a school of sacred art in Albuquerque, the Sagrada. Outside the chapel a wall is decorated with a number of small ceramic tiles set in at intervals, portraying various saints.

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Decorative tile of St Francis

Meeting a medallist!

Our warm sunny afternoon spent exploring the Old Town certainly called for an ice cream at some point, and we found a few places to choose from to the west of the Plaza, opting for Romero House Ices (also now closed down) because it had plenty of seating outside. It is located in an old house, Romero House, which was built in 1915 and was the last major home built on the plaza. Today it has been converted into a sort of mini mall, with a couple of galleries/shops opening off its central corridor and this small café tucked away at the back. As well as a good selection of ice cream and frozen yoghurt, as promised outside, they also sell cakes and fast food savoury treats such as nachos and grilled sandwiches.

While perusing the different flavours on offer we got talking to the woman selling behind the counter and asked if we could take a few photos. She agreed, and suggested that her father should be in them. It turned out that he was one of two older men sitting at a table in the corner, and as she explained, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having won medals at the Senior Olympics for race-walking. Slightly bashfully he agreed to pose – to be honest, I think he really rather liked the attention even while protesting that he wasn’t worth a photo!

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A Senior Olympian and his medals!

Photography over, we turned back to the display of ices. I had a mango sorbet and pistachio, and Chris chose chocolate and strawberry. We ate them outside in the shade of the flowering bushes on the patio and they were fine – not as good as those we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Silver City, but pretty good just the same.

Staying in Albuquerque

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The Hotel Blue, Albuquerque

After our ices we decided to go and check into our hotel. The ones in the Old Town were pretty pricey so I had reserved a room in the Hotel Blue, which had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Gillian. This is located in the downtown business area on a stretch of Route 66, here known as Central Avenue.

The hotel is a modernised 1930s cross between a motel and hotel – the shape, lobby, parking lot etc are more like a hotel in feel, but you access your room from an outside walkway. This may not suit everyone (I saw a few reviews expressing concerns about security) but we had no issues with it, and rather enjoyed the expansive views of the city from our fifth floor room. We were lucky to have been given one in the north east corner as these have views of the mountains beyond the city.

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The lobby of the Hotel Blue

The hotel lobby is very impressive and really reflects the Art Deco style of much of this Downtown district. Staff at reception were friendly and helpful, and there was the nice touch of a plate of cookies on the desk for guests to help themselves!

The décor in the rooms was a lot plainer and the external areas (e.g. the walkways) were not up to the standard of the interiors, but on the whole we felt the facilities and overall appearance exceeded what we would expect for this price and were very happy with our choice.

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Our room at the Hotel Blue

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View from the walkway outside our door

Exploring Central Avenue

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Signs on Central Avenue

In the early evening we had a walk along part of Central Avenue, near the hotel. Had we not been staying in the Downtown area we might never have explored beyond Albuquerque’s touristy Old Town, and that would have been a mistake. We really liked the ‘vibe’ around here, even though it might be considered a little edgy by some.

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The KiMo Theatre

We spent some time wandering up and down the road, checking out a few shops (there was a fascinating large one with a huge range of Native American items, from the kitsch to high-end crafts) and taking photos of the wonderful KiMo Theatre. This is a 1920’s cinema whose ornate ‘Pueblo Deco’ style was inspired by Native American iconography in the same way that cinemas of that era elsewhere were built in the style of Moorish mosques or Chinese pagodas. You can tour the interior, which I would have loved to have done, but it’s only open for tours during the day unfortunately. It sounds amazing, according to the cinema’s website, with ‘plaster ceiling beams textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes, air vents disguised as Navajo rugs, chandeliers shaped like war drums and Native American funeral canoes, wrought iron birds descending the stairs and rows of garlanded buffalo skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes.’

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On Central Avenue

This area was once the city’s ‘New Town’, developed in the early years of the last century on either side of Central Avenue (which is in fact a stretch of iconic Route 66), and was the commercial hub. But as the city grew, new shopping plazas opened in outlying districts and the centre declined and became ever scruffier, with boarded up shops and unused office buildings. Then at the turn of this century a movement started to revitalise it, following the principles of New Urbanism. These don’t seem very revolutionary to me, as a European and Londoner, but in the US possibly only New York and few other older cities would recognise what the planners are attempting here. The idea is to create mixed-use neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play without relying on cars. Everything they need – shops, restaurants, bars – should be within a ten minute walk. In a typical American city, where going out means getting in the car and pedestrians are a novelty (we know, we have been those pedestrians!), this is a radical concept – and a marvellous one.

Some redevelopment had already happened in the 1990s, with bars and restaurants springing up on Central Avenue, but the idea that Downtown could be a place to live was a fairly new one when we visited in 2011.

Downtown dining

One reason for choosing the Hotel Blue was the free shuttle service offered to take guests to the Old Town, which we thought would be useful when it came to going out for dinner, but my research had thrown up a few options in the immediate area, so in the end we didn’t take advantage of this. Instead we went to the Flying Star Café, recommended in our Moon Handbook. This is a small local chain with a handful of branches in the city. The one we visited seems to have since closed down but there are still several in the city.

The branch we visited was located in an interesting and rather striking building – which I completely failed to take any photos of! It was originally the Southern Union Gas Company and was designed in 1950 by a regionally famous architect, John Gaw Meem. The gas company stopped using it about 17 years ago and the building was restored for use by the café. It has been granted the status of a National Historic Place, and today is occupied by an IT company, Rural Sourcing (see https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2016/09/07/how-this-tech-company-turned-a-downtown-restaurant.html).

On the evening we visited the café was busy with a wide variety of diners – students making a coffee last for hours while working on laptops (there is free wifi), groups of friends evidently on the first leg of a night out, tourists like ourselves, family groups, business people etc etc. This was clearly a popular spot.

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In the Flying Star Café

We went to the counter to order (no table service here) and found several tempting dishes on the menu. We decided to keep with the casual vibe and go for sandwiches – Chris’s the Turkey and Swiss on rye, and mine the “MOO-ve Over Meat” veggie burger, which was delicious (I’m not a vegetarian but I do like anything spicy, which this promised to be: a ‘grilled, spicy southwest black bean patty with melted cheddar & Cajun dressing’). Both our sandwiches came with a choice of sides – I opted for the homemade BBQ potato chips while Chris had the French fries.

To go with our meals we ordered a couple of bottles of Santa Fe pale ale – and thus began one of the more amusing incidents of our trip. It is New Mexico state law that anyone drinking alcohol must be over 21 years of age. Neither Chris nor I are under any delusions that we look anything like that age for decades! Consequently we were not surprised to be able to buy beer and other drinks in a number of places during the first few days of our trip. The friendly Buffalo Bar in Silver City happily served us beer and Jack Daniels; the Socorro Springs Brewery had no problem with us enjoying their brews both with and after our meal; and our hotel in Grants served us without a quibble. So imagine our surprise, and initial amusement, when we were asked to show ID here. It was, even back then, a very long while since anyone questioned whether I was over 21! But the server was adamant – no ID, no beer. She did offer to see if her manager would waive the rule, but the manager too was insistent. According to her, state laws meant that anyone serving alcohol to anyone had to ask for and see evidence that they were of legal drinking age. We pointed out that no one else had so far done so, but she said that she could lose her job if the police were to raid the restaurant and find anyone drinking without ID, so Chris popped back to the hotel (thankfully only a few minutes away) to get our passports.

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Chris with passport and hard-won beer!

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Key lime pie on the house

To be fair the manager was only doing her job and we certainly didn’t want her to lose it because of us! And she obviously felt a bit bad because when I went up to the counter to order dessert (Key Lime pie to share and a decaf latte for Chris) she came over to tell the server that it was on the house – how kind!

After this incident we made a point of taking our passports out each evening, but hardly anywhere else apart from Albuquerque did we come across anyone who bothered about this law, if law it was. In the end, only one other place asked for ID, and that was a small family-run restaurant in Alamogordo which had only recently got its license and was presumably being very carefully to do the right thing.

After dinner we again strolled along Central Avenue, and saw for ourselves how the area was becoming more lively when we stopped off for a night-cap.

There were a couple of bars on this stretch of road; one had a live band and therefore a cover charge, but the other, although it had a DJ playing records in one corner, was free to enter. The Blackbird Buvette (now closed down, it appears) was quite a dark and old-fashioned bar and on this warm evening it seemed a shame to sit inside, especially as the music would also have made conversation difficult, so we were pleased to see a table available on the pavement outside. The tables though were carefully roped off and to reach them you had to go into the bar, passing the bouncer who, like the server in the Flying Star, asked us for ID – we were ready for the question this time!

We bought our drinks (a Sodbuster Pale Ale for Chris and a Jack Daniels for me) and grabbed the free table. We then passed a very pleasant half hour or so watching the late evening activity of Downtown – dog-walkers, late-night shoppers, sporty gym-goers, a few tourists, groups of girls clearly on their way home from the gym, young people and older couples on a night out and a handful of business people who had perhaps stayed late at the office that night. It felt much more urban than most US cities do to me, with their sprawling suburbs and often hard-to-identify centres, and we really enjoyed sitting there.

Posted by ToonSarah 14:35 Archived in USA Tagged churches buildings people architecture beer road_trip history restaurants city new_mexico Comments (9)

‘Fanta Se’

New Mexico day seven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Adobe house, Santa Fe

We slept well in our cosy casita in Santa Fe and woke eager to explore a town we had read so much about. For Chris today was also an opportunity to take a break from driving, as we left the car parked in our allocated spot and walked everywhere for the day – our choice of a central location was really paying off.

We could (at an extra cost, naturally) have arranged to have breakfast at the B&B owned by the same people as our casita, but chose not to, and we also didn’t want to self-cater, despite having a very serviceable kitchen. Instead we preferred to sample a variety of breakfast places in the vicinity of our little home. On this first morning we tried one that came highly recommended in our Moon Handbook, Café Pasqual’s.

It was very busy and we were fortunate to be able to get a good table straightaway – we observed that others who weren’t so lucky were quite happy to wait some time, such is the reputation of the place. It seemed to be popular not only with tourists but also locals – girl-friends meeting for breakfast, and a couple of local businessmen. I loved the colourful décor, with bright murals and Mexican tiles, and our table on a raised area at one end of the small room gave us a great view of this and of all the activity.

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Blintzes and granola at Café Pasqual’s

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Proper espresso!

We found the breakfast menu to be quite extensive, as befits somewhere famous for its breakfasts. I decided to try something different, the ‘Three House-made Blintzes, Golden from the Skillet, Topped with Strawberry Jam and Sour Cream’. These were good but very filling, with a bit too much cream for that time of day (regular cream, which I left to one side, as well as the sour cream promised by the menu). Chris chose what he expected to be a healthy option, the nutty granola, with yoghurt and berries, but the portion was so huge that it probably wasn’t that healthy after all! He also had a cappuccino and I had a double espresso, really appreciating the availability of strong coffee to kick-start my day.

All this didn’t come cheap however. The cappuccino alone was $5 which was more than we were used to paying in pricey London, and our total bill (with two grapefruit juices as well) was $50 – more than we had paid for the previous night’s dinner! So although we liked the breakfast, and loved the atmosphere, we went elsewhere on the subsequent mornings.

Santa Fe

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Adobe architecture in Santa Fe

Santa Fe has sometimes been nicknamed ‘Fanta Se’, and it’s not hard to see why. The city lives for its art. And I am not referring only to the thousands of people here who are engaged in the arts in some way or another – running a gallery, creating paintings or photos or sculptures, writing or performing etc. No – the city itself seems to have a sense of itself as a work of art. Local regulations control very strictly control the appearance of all buildings in the downtown area, around the Plaza – if it isn’t adobe, it had better at least pretend to be!

But if that sounds critical, it isn’t really intended to be. We had a lovely few days here, enjoying the history, architecture, galleries and surrounding countryside.

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Adobe in Santa Fe

Today our focus was on the historic centre. When we arrived at our accommodation in Santa Fe the owner of the Chapelle Street Casitas had said ‘And yes, there is a law that everything has to be brown!’ The downtown area here preserves a number of old adobe buildings from Spanish colonial times, but at first glance you might be fooled into thinking that all the buildings were old, and all of them adobe. And that’s just what the city planners want you to think. For decades now, all new building in this part of the city has had to conform to the same overall style, although many of the apparently ‘adobe’ buildings that you will see are in fact plaster and stucco, built in the early 20th Century to satisfy this collective vision of what the city ought to look like to appeal to tourists. A city ordinance exists to enforce the on-going homogenisation of the downtown district, requiring that all new buildings, additions and restorations conform to one of two traditional styles:
~ ‘Pueblo Revival’ – a mix of styles based on Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches
~ ‘Territorial’ – a style based on early Anglo modifications of adobe buildings, with additions like wood trim around windows and door openings and decorative friezes on the parapets

Opinion is divided as to the success of this approach to town planning, and I couldn’t make up my own mind either. When we first arrived I was rather struck by the appearance of the streets around the Plaza, with their uniform colour and (mostly) low heights giving them a very characteristic look. But after a while the uniformity can start to look more dull than distinctive. The secret to appreciating these buildings, I realised as we explored, is to stop seeing them as a homogenous whole and look for the details that make certain among them stand out.

San Francisco Cathedral

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San Francisco Cathedral

We started our explorations in the area to the east of the Plaza, at Santa Fe’s cathedral. In the homogenous adobe world of Santa Fe’s downtown area, the Cathedral of San Francisco seemed somewhat incongruous. How did such a European-looking place of worship come to be here? Well, it was, unsurprisingly, due to one particular European, a French priest – Jean Baptiste Lamy. Apparently when he first arrived here in 1851 he was shocked at some of the religious practices, including the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and also horrified by the church buildings, finding it impossible to believe that anyone could reach heaven while praying on a dirt floor inside a building made of mud! So he commissioned this new cathedral for Santa Fe, and all of the old church was demolished, apart from one small side chapel. But it seems that he ran out of money, and the two spires that should have topped the towers either side of the front porch were never added – hence their rather odd stumpy appearance.

Inside it is light and rather lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the ancient adobe would have held more atmosphere and sense of the spiritual? I got some hint of that in the one remaining adobe chapel, on the left of the altar. This houses a small statue, La Conquistadora, brought to Santa Fe from Mexico in 1625. She was carried away by the retreating Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt, but reinstated in 1693, and has been honoured ever since for inspiring the Spanish to stick with their colonising project, and for what was regarded (possibly mistakenly?) her peaceful acceptance by the natives . Whether such colonial ‘smirking’ is appropriate in a church I was not so sure, but the little statue is a marvel indeed.

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La Conquistadora, and dreamcatcher bell

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Crucifix with saints in native clothing

Elsewhere in the cathedral though, the native influence was more apparent, for instance in the clothing of some of the saints portrayed and in the dreamcatcher-like bell that hangs above the lectern. This and many other elements of the decoration and ornamentation are quite modern, such as the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the right of the altar, the altar screen and the great bronze doors. All of these were added in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. I very much liked these modern touches, which added to the sensation of lightness and airiness.

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The altar screen

In front of the cathedral are a couple of interesting statues. One is naturally of the patron saint, St Francis. The other is more unusual and depicts Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. She was a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquian woman, who converted to Christianity at an early age.

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Statue of St Francis with Contemporary Art Museum behind

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Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha

There is also a statue of Bishop Lamy, but I was perhaps feeling a little irritated by this rather sanctimonious French cleric at this point, as I omitted to photograph him!

Cathedral Park

Next we investigated the small park next to the cathedral. This was established in 1998 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first European, i.e. Spanish, colonisation of New Mexico. There are some lovely trees there and it seemed a quiet, restful spot away from the bustle of the streets. In the centre we came across a monument commemorating the anniversary. The inscription on it reads:

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Monument to the settlers, Cathedral Park

‘The year 1998 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in New Mexico of about 560 valiant men, women and children to establish one of the earliest permanent European settlements in the United States. Their leader and first governor, Don Juan de Oñate, led this intrepid band north over hundreds of desolate, dangerous miles to the green valleys of northern New Mexico. It was there the colonists established themselves by introducing European crops and the first horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and poultry – thereby establishing European culture and technology in the United States, where they had not previously existed.

With the settlers came the Franciscan priests and brothers who ministered to the colonists and to the native inhabitants of the region. It was this unswerving devotion to their faith and to their families that consoled and inspired those settlers and their descendants to endure and prevail over 400 years of isolation, abandonment, hardship and cultural challenges. It is to those heroic precursors that our community joins in raising this monument to our forefathers’ continuing contributions to the history, culture and values of today’s America. May they serve as an inspiration to all who pass this way.’

The monument includes sculptures of different types of settler – Franciscan monk, a colonial settler family (man, woman and two children), and a Spanish soldier. They surround a column which is topped by a statue of Mary La Conquistadora. At its base are many of the fruits, vegetables, tools, music instruments etc. brought to New Mexico by these colonialists, and it is supported by a cow, a pig, a sheep and a donkey.

The Loretto Chapel

Our next visit was to the much smaller Loretto Chapel. Not content with rebuilding the Cathedral in an architectural style which, he believed, was more fitting for worship, Bishop Lamy also commissioned the small Loretto Chapel a little to the south of it – the first Gothic structure to be built west of the Mississippi. Outside the chapel we saw a tree hung with rosaries, which is interesting in the light of the fact that the chapel was desanctified in 1971 and sold to a private family.

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Rosaries hanging outside the Loretto Chapel

This family have preserved it well, hiring it out for weddings and opening it to the public each day. There is an admission charge of $3 (September 2011 prices) and I though it was well worth paying this small fee for a glimpse inside. The chapel is richly decorated with stained glass windows from France and Stations of the Cross from Italy, but what makes it special is the so-called miraculous spiral staircase that leads to the choir loft. Fashioned beautifully from an apparently extinct species of wood, it twists elegantly upwards with no central pole to support it, resting solely on its base and against the loft, and making over two complete 360-degree turns as it climbs. It is 20 feet high and was constructed without glue or nails, using only square wooden pegs to hold the parts together.

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The miraculous staircase

One story starts with the suggestion that the Sisters of Loretto had been given the funds by Lamy to build their chapel, but that the money ran out before they could build a stair to reach their choir loft. Another version says that the small size of the chapel meant that no carpenter could identify a way to fit a staircase into the space. Both versions go on to tell how the Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a mysterious carpenter appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He worked at the staircase for six months, never saying a word, and then left, without taking any payment. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers. Certainly the carpenter was never heard from again, although some historians claim to have tracked him down to Las Cruces, where he met his end in a bar fight. Whatever its origins, the staircase is beautiful, and even the later addition of balustrades and handrails (for safety reasons) cannot detract from the simple grace of its upwards sweep.

San Miguel Mission

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San Miguel Mission

Next we walked a little south of the centre to this adobe mission chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the United States, having been built between around 1610 to 1626. Whether that claim is true or not, this old building certainly has plenty of character and again I thought it well worth the $1 we were charged for admission. Slightly oddly, you enter through the gift shop, so that it feels rather like a shop with a church tacked on to the back. But once inside you find a little gem. The beautiful wooden altar screen or reredos dates from 1798 and is the oldest of its type in the state. The statue in its centre is of the chapel’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel and was brought here from Mexico in 1709.

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The altar screen

In front of the altar, glass panes in the floor allowed us to peer down at the original foundations of the church and of the Native American structure formerly on this site. At the other end of the little chapel, near the door, is a large bell. This once hung in the bell tower and has an inscription dedicated to San Jose and dating it to 1356.

There are several picturesque old houses in the area immediately around the chapel, one of which the oldest house in the city and also claims to be the oldest in the US, supposedly built around 1646 (a claim I was unsure whether or not to believe). Near this is another house with stunning turquoise wooden window frames and shutters.

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The oldest house in the US?

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A vision in turquoise!

By now it was lunch time so we wandered back towards the centre in search of refreshment.

The Shed

A friend who lived in the Santa Fe area for a while had recommended this restaurant, so although we usually choose somewhere more casual for lunch we decided to give it a try for our first lunch in the city – what a great decision! We loved it here – food, setting and ambience.

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At lunch in the Shed

The restaurant is located in an old hacienda (dating back to 1692) and spread over nine rooms, as well as a small courtyard at the front. The décor is bright and cheerful, with lots of interesting paintings and other traditional crafts.

They don’t appear to take reservations for lunch and when we arrived we were told there would be a 15 minute wait. We were given a pager and took a seat in the courtyard to wait but in fact were called to a table inside after about 10 minutes (we would have waited longer if we’d wanted an outside one I think). As we were looking for something light, we were pleased to find plenty of choices. I had the gazpacho which was refreshing and tasty, and Chris chose a ‘small’ salad (that is, smaller than the ‘big’ version of the same!) of chicken, blue cheese, walnuts and salad leaves.

While we were eating our lunch a lady stopped by our table to look more closely at the painting behind it and we got talking. She explained that she was from Guatemala (where we had been just last year) and recognised the style of the painting as Guatemalan, so was trying to make out the artist’s signature – sadly neither she nor we could do so.

On leaving we asked about reservations for dinner the next day but could only get a table at 8.30 pm (or 5.30pm, but that was rather too early for us). Although we normally eat a bit earlier that that we accepted, as we were very keen to return and sample more from their extensive menu. And we were very pleased that we had – but that’s a story for a future entry!

The Plaza

We had already passed through the Plaza earlier in the day, on our way to the cathedral, but after lunch we returned for a better look around. The Plaza originally marked the end of El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road from Mexico City) and the Santa Fe Trail, an important trade route. In those days it would have been surrounded by a large defensive wall that enclosed residences, barracks, a chapel, a prison and the Governor's Palace. Of these just the Governor’s Palace, on the north side, remains, and where there were once barracks and defences today you find restaurants and shops.

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In the Plaza

In the centre of the Plaza is the Indian War Memorial, which was dedicated in 1867 to those who died in ‘battles with…Indians in the territory of New Mexico’. As this inscription suggests, the monument was erected during times of conflict between colonists and natives, and the space between ‘with’ and ‘Indians’ originally carried the word ‘savage’. This has been removed in these more enlightened times, although the monument itself still seems something of an anachronism.

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The Indian War Memorial, with local and his dog

The Plaza is nicely laid out with lawns, trees and plenty of benches where you can relax and watch the world go by – an activity which locals seem to enjoy here as much as do visitors.

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Native jewellery seller

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Artist selling his paintings

Palace of the Governors

The Palace of the Governors, lies on the north side of the Plaza – a single-storey adobe building running the full length of the block. It was built in 1610 as Santa Fe’s original capitol building, and claims to be the oldest U.S. public building still in continuous use. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999.

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The Palace of the Governors

Inside is a museum which tells the story of Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Collections cover the Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846), U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) and statehood (1912-present) periods of history. We only had limited time to look round (doing our usual trick of trying to pack too much into one day, while also wanting to chill and enjoy our surroundings!) But even with limited time it was worth making the effort to go in – for me, not so much for the collections, good though they are, but for the chance to see inside this old building. I also liked seeing the period rooms which offer a glimpse of how life would have been in the past for residents of Santa Fe.

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The lady who made and
sold me my necklace

Along the portico of the Palace of the Governors, and on the north side of the Plaza opposite, Native Americans take up their places each day to sell jewellery and other traditional crafts. This is an eighty year old tradition, nowadays operated through the ‘Native American Artisans Program of the Palace of the Governors’. There are around 1,000 vendors who are licensed to sell here after going through a strict application process to assess the quality of their work. The goods displayed and sold by participants in the scheme must be made by the seller or by their household members. Every morning the 63 spots available, each 12 bricks wide, are allocated by lottery, so you can never be sure who you will find here or what they will be selling. But it’s a great opportunity to buy directly from the creator and as they all seem happy to talk about their work you will also find out a bit about the piece you are buying.

I looked at a number of items. One man was selling silver necklaces with representations of the different sacred animals, such as Bear and Wolf, and explained the meaning of each to me. But in the end I opted for turquoise, choosing a pretty silver necklace threaded with small stones which the seller told me came from Arizona, where she and her sister lived and made the jewellery. Sadly that necklace was one of the items taken when we were burgled a couple of years ago, so I'm glad I at least have this photo of the seller by which to remember my purchase.

Andrew Smith Gallery

We visited quite a few galleries during our stay in Santa Fe (most of them on our final day here), although only a fraction of the total number – I read that ‘Art galleries’ take up five pages in the local Yellow Pages directory, and ‘Artists’ have their own separate heading, with subheadings for painters, sculptors, etc. Perhaps our favourite gallery of all was the one we visited first, the Andrew Smith Gallery, which specialises in ‘Masterpieces of Photography’. It was a real thrill to see some of their wonderful images by such famous photographers as Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz, Edward Weston, Alfred Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson and more, as well as to discover some that we didn’t know.

Although this is a commercial gallery and all the photos are for sale, we didn’t feel pressurised into buying and I got the impression that they are as happy to welcome enthusiastic sightseers as serious collectors.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

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Outside the O'Keeffe Museum

We had passed what is probably the best known of Santa Fe’s many galleries, large and small, earlier in the day, as it was just round the corner from our little casita in Chapelle Street. We didn’t know a lot about O’Keeffe before coming to Santa Fe, but we were keen to find out more. We had been warned by our Moon Handbook that the museum had perhaps fewer of her works than might have been expected in one dedicated entirely to this single artist – unfortunately by the time it opened in the late 1990s many of her pieces were already in collections elsewhere. But as the guidebook explained, this had been partly rectified in 2005 when the museum received the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, so lovers of her work, or the curious such as ourselves, should at least find it worth a visit.

The gallery is modern and light, with six of its rooms now given over to the O’Keeffe collection. Of these I liked best the large flower pictures, such as white jimson weed, for which she is perhaps best known, and the landscapes painted in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe, evocative of her love for this red sandstone country. I also liked the way the exhibition was curated, with some fascinating quotes from O’Keeffe painted on the walls alongside the paintings.

No photography was allowed inside, but I note from the website that this policy has now been changed and photos are actively encouraged – a sign, no doubt, of the increasing importance of social media in spreading the word about places to visit:
‘The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum allows non-flash photography in most areas. Feel free to photograph friends and family and your favorite works of art. Please note that photography is allowed only for personal, noncommercial use, with the following restrictions: no tripods, no flash photography, no selfie sticks, no drones. Some artworks have a no photography sign, we ask that you please honor this.’

The remaining rooms are devoted to temporary exhibitions featuring O’Keeffe’s contemporaries or artists influenced by her. At the time of our visit this meant a travelling exhibition called ‘From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri & Ireland’. I didn’t previously know the work of Robert Henri, and sadly after seeing this exhibition I was not inspired to do so! Apparently he is regarded as ‘the leader of the urban realists group known as the Ashcan School,’ but the portraits of (mainly) Irish children were not really my thing I’m afraid. Nevertheless I was really pleased to have seen the works by O’Keeffe and that was, after all, the purpose of our visit.

On our way out we visited the inevitable gift shop, which was in fact one of the better examples of a museum shop that I have seen – relatively compact with high quality (and consequently expensive) items. I was tempted by some rather pricey silk scarves screen-printed with O’Keeffe’s flowers but managed to resist. We did however buy ourselves a small print – not one of her works but a good reproduction of an Ansel Adams photo of aspens which reminded us of our drives around the state. It now hangs in our lounge, a permanent reminder of this fantastic road trip.

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Chris on our front porch

We spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing on the small terrace of our casita, enjoying our little ‘home’ in the city.

Coyote Rooftop Cantina

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Sunset over Santa Fe

The Coyote Café is one of the more upmarket places to eat in Santa Fe, and looked rather more formal than we usually opt for when on holiday – the sort of place you’d celebrate a birthday or anniversary maybe, but not for casual ‘any night of the week’ dining. But adjacent to it, and under the same management, is a rooftop bar and more informal eatery, the Rooftop Cantina, which looked more like what we had in mind for this evening.

We didn’t have a reservation but it wasn’t too busy so we decided to start by having just a drink while seated at the area put aside for drinking only, the table around the edge of the terrace. Perched here you have a great view of the street below, and, if you time it right (we did), of the sun setting at the end of the road. But my attention was regularly diverted away from the sun’s orange glow by the possibly lovelier glow emanating from my excellent margarita, which proved to be possibly the best of the entire trip – the ‘Norteño Margarita’, which they make with a tequila infused with green chilli. Fantastic!

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Margarita at sunset

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Fire-grilled salmon

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Wall decoration

We then moved to one of the lower tables more suited for dining. I decided to have a change from the tortilla-based dishes I’d been eating, so chose the salmon served with polenta and hot chilli sauce: ‘Fire Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Crunchy Fried Polenta, Bird Chile Sambal Sauce, Organic Lettuces & Pepinos’. Chris had the Kobe burger: ‘American Snake River Kobe Beef Burger with Manchego Cheese, Crispy Fried Vidalia Onion, Greens, House made Beer Pickles, Tomato & Cilantro Mayonnaise, Sweet Habanero Tomato Ketchup & Boardwalk Fries’. Both dishes went down very well indeed, although mine was a little on the small side – I compensated by pinching a few of the French fries that came with Chris’s burger! We shared a dessert, a ‘trio of sorbets’, and although the bill was higher than we paid elsewhere on this trip, it did include our pre-dinner drinks, including that wonderful margarita! We felt the quality justified the slightly higher prices, and with more time in Santa Fe we would definitely have come back here again.

After dinner we went back to the El Paseo Bar where we had drunk last night. This time there was no live music, and we enjoyed it rather more. The bartender poured a generous Jack Daniels, the non-live music was much more to our taste than the live had been, and there was a friendly, buzzy atmosphere without it being too busy.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:18 Archived in USA Tagged churches art buildings architecture road_trip monument history statue square restaurants houses museum cathedral new_mexico street_photography Comments (7)

Going around in Enchanted Circles

New Mexico day twelve


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After breakfast this morning we checked out of La Doña Luz Inn and hit the road again, travelling north. Our destination for the night was Cimarron and once again we had decided to follow a roundabout route on one of the state’s designated scenic byways, the Enchanted Circle. This is a popular day-trip from Taos, following Highways 522, 38 and 64, and for the most part driving is fairly easy though the road climbs pretty high in places – in the winter this is popular skiing country. By driving the byway in a clockwise direction we were able to take in most of the circle, and by adding a detour before turning off to Cimarron we saw most of the more notable sights along the route.

We were only a few miles out of Taos, however, when we took our first detour from the route to visit a couple of sights that intrigued us.

Rio Grande Gorge

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The Rio Grande Gorge

Driving north and then west from Taos on Highway 64 we found ourselves driving across an apparently flat plain. But appearances can be deceiving. After a few miles a dark line could be seen ahead of us, and a large parking lot on our right. We parked, among a number of stalls set up by opportunistic Native traders, and walked a few yards further in the direction in which we had been driving. The dark line opened up and revealed itself as the dramatic gorge of the Rio Grande, at this point crossed by Highway 64 on an elegant and somewhat unnervingly delicate-looking steel bridge.

I had seen photos of the Rio Grande Gorge online when planning this trip, but Chris had not, so he was especially struck by the sudden change in the landscape. We walked out along the pedestrian walkway either side of the highway (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights!) to stand in one of the small areas that jut out over the river and look directly down into the gorge 650 feet below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking south from the bridge

While it may not have the scale and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, this is a remarkable sight nevertheless. The gorge has been carved over the millennia not just by the rushing waters of the river but also by seismic activity, and the black volcanic rocks are starkly beautiful. I found them quite hard to photograph however. This is one place where the usual rule of photography, that the light is more attractive early and late in the day, doesn’t necessarily apply, as you need the sun to be fairly high if it’s to light both sides of the gorge. But the deep shadows that we experienced at about 10.00 am brought out the drama of the scene, even while being more challenging to photograph.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking north from the bridge

The views from both sides of the road are similarly dramatic, and the highway quiet enough for us to cross quite easily between them. But when a vehicle did pass, especially a large truck, I could feel the vibrations as the bridge moved beneath my feet – not for the faint-hearted! I saw at least one nervous woman cling to her companion, and another turn back just a short distance onto the bridge, but it really isn’t that bad – I soon got used to the wobbles and I suspect it’s a deliberate piece of engineering on the part of the bridge builders. This is by the way the second-highest bridge in the US (the highest is in Colorado) and was given the Most Beautiful Span award in 1966 by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

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The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

When we had had our fill of the views from the bridge, we continued to the parking lot on the far (west) side. From here a trail led across the surrounding flat scrubby plain to the edge of the gorge, giving us great views of the bridge and a different angle on the gorge itself. For us this was a great little leg-stretcher of about a kilometre, but you’re warned to look out for snakes, and I would also caution against doing it with small children as there is no fence separating you from the drop to the river far below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge from the western side

Greater World Earthship Development

Before returning to the Enchanted Circle route there was one more sight we wanted to visit in this area, so we carried on along Highway 64 for another mile and a half to the Greater World Earthship Development, today known as the Greater World Earthship Community. This is a cluster of self-sufficient ‘green’ houses built using mostly recycled materials – used tires packed with earth form the walls, while bottles stacked with cement and crushed aluminium cans make colourful peepholes. The resulting homes look perhaps more suited to hobbits than humans, but several hundred people live here and in similar houses in the vicinity. They produce their own energy, reuse grey water, manufacture their own bio-diesel fuel and grow much of their own food. All very admirable, although I couldn’t help wondering whether living in such a relatively remote location would mean a less than green reliance on motor vehicles.

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Earthships

For $5 we could have done a self-guided tour of a model Earthship and watched a video about the building process and the thinking behind the designs, but that would have taken an hour which we couldn’t really spare, so we just had a quick look around and took a few photos. For rather more dollars it’s possible to rent one for a night or a week, or even buy one for yourself! The group behind the development, Earthship Biostructure, also offer guidance to anyone wanting to build their own earthship elsewhere, but I note on their website that tours of the community now need to be pre-booked, presumably to provide some privacy for the growing number of residents.

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Earthships

Once we had taken our photos we returned along Highway 64 to rejoin Highway 522 just north of Taos Pueblo and continue on our ‘long way round’ drive to Cimarron.

The Enchanted Circle

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Autumn colour on the Enchanted Circle

This route took us over higher ground than we had driven for the most part on this trip and as a consequence the aspens were especially colourful, even though today the mostly great weather we had enjoyed so far deserted us and we drove part of the route in rain. We stopped several times on this first stretch to take photos, as the mostly green shades turned to yellow and orange as we climbed.

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Aspens on the Enchanted Circle

At Questa we reached the furthest point north on today’s drive, only a few miles from the border with Colorado. Although we were to be slightly further north on the following day, I guess you could regard this as something of a halfway point on our round trip from El Paso, although in terms of days we were already over the halfway mark. We turned east on Highway 38, passing through Red River (a slightly incongruous-looking ski town with a seeming passion for the Swiss chalet style of architecture), where we stopped briefly for a coffee and on round the circle.

The next stretch of road seemed to me to be the most scenic of all, despite the fast approaching rain clouds. The highway climbs steeply out of Red River, reaching 9,854 feet at the top of Bobcat Pass. In places the scenery reminded us of Scotland or Wales, perhaps more so because of the weather, but the views of the golden aspens on the mountain slopes were pure New Mexico. Luckily there were a few pull-outs where we could stop for photos, and simply to admire this awesome landscape.

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View near Red River

Elizabethtown

We had already visited several ‘ghost towns’ in New Mexico by the time we came to Elizabethtown, and while they were all interesting in their various ways, and all very photogenic, and while some of them had relatively few residents, none of them really loved up to the image that the name conjured in our minds. That is, none of them seemed truly to be inhabited only by ghosts. Until we came to Elizabethtown.

We arrived here in the rain, and parked up to eat a snack lunch while the worst of the bad weather passed over. A couple of horses stared at us mournfully from the shelter of an overhanging eave on a nearby hut. A solitary car pulled off the main road, passed us where we sat, and then turned back. Otherwise, we were alone.

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Old chapel, Elizabethtown

Once we’d finished eating, and the worst of the rain had abated, we drove on into the ‘town’, which is really just a cluster of buildings. One is a museum, only open between June-August, so we were unable to see its collection which, according to our Moon Handbook, ‘details Elizabethtown’s brief but lively history, from the discovery of gold in 1866 through assorted gunfights to the town’s slow fade after a dredge-mining project failed in 1903.’ As well as the museum you can see the stone ruins of the Mutz Hotel, around which the social life of the town would have revolved.

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Museum and stables

The museum may have been closed, but both it and the other structures, and a few rusting vehicles, made great subject matter for our cameras, the more so as the still-falling rain added an air of desolation.

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In Elizabethtown

Like most of New Mexico’s ghost towns, Elizabethtown owes its existence to the gold rush. It was the first incorporated village in the state, and at its peak was home to more than 7,000 people – almost impossible to believe if you visit it today. It was named for the daughter of its founder, a Captain William H. Moore, who came here looking for copper, led here by friendly Indian traders. As well as copper, he and his men found gold, and in the ensuing rush, a town was born.

Returning to the main road and continuing south, in a few miles we came to Eagle Nest. Here at a T-junction the Enchanted Circle route picks up Highway 64 again. To reach Cimarron we needed to turn left, but we had time for another detour so instead turned to the right, travelling a short distance back towards Taos.

Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

Our detour took us to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which back then was a New Mexico State Park but I understand has since been transferred to the Department of Veteran Services. This Memorial is a labour of love constructed by the parents of one soldier, David Westphall, who was sadly killed in an ambush on May 22, 1968, during a battle near Con Thien, South Vietnam, in which 17 men lost their lives.

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Vietnam Veterans' Memorial State Park: the Chapel

And in building this memorial to their son, Jeanne and Victor Westphall also created a memorial to all victims of that controversial war. It has now become a place of pilgrimage for the many other families who lost loved ones there. For anyone old enough, as I am, to remember that time, a visit here is a moving experience even if you have no personal connection to it. For me, this is a memorial too to all those who protested against this war and whose efforts dominated the news footage, and the songs, of my formative years.

The Chapel

At the heart of the memorial is the chapel. Its elegant design, resembling a sail, inevitably draws the eye, and will draw your footsteps too. The chapel was originally known as the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel and is the focal point around which the rest of the memorial was developed.

It is never locked – one of the conditions imposed by the Westphall family on passing the memorial over to be run as a state park (another was that there should be no charge made to visitors, which made it the only free state park in New Mexico). The reason for this ‘always open’ policy is simple. When Victor Westphall was first building the chapel, he used always to lock the doors at night. One morning when he returned he found a note that had been scrawled on a piece of scrap plywood, which read, ‘Why did you lock the doors when I needed to come in?’ Since then the doors have never been locked.

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The chapel, outside and in

Inside the chapel is a small auditorium with a few rows of seats looking down to an elegant candle stick caught in a shaft of light. The impact that the chapel makes on visiting bereaved families was evident to me in the strategically placed boxes of paper tissues dotted around the benches.

Photographs of thirteen Vietnam War dead are on display in the Chapel. The photographs are rotated every month, alphabetically by state. The one of David Westphall remains on display permanently.

The Visitor Centre

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In the grounds

The Visitor Centre was built in the 1980s, largely underground so as not to detract from the flowing lines of the chapel. Its collections cover the creation of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and also the Vietnam War itself. There are lots of old news photos and news footage of the period, as well as displays about the experiences of those fighting the war, and of the local people who became caught up in the bloodshed. It is naturally a disquieting museum – a place to inform rather that to entertain. But I found it an effective reminder of what happened for those of us who lived through that dark period of US history, and an introduction for anyone who did not.

It is all too easy to forget the impact of this war on individual lives among all the political and moral debates about whether it should ever have been fought. The displays here are a salutary reminder of this, although personally I found that they were a little too US-centric in their view of the world at times. For instance, they talked about the good work done by troops in giving the local people ‘real toilets’. I was sure that those locals thought that what they had was real, and felt that the reference would be better made to ‘improvements in sanitation’ perhaps – annotations like this and a few similar ones felt a little patronising, even ‘colonial’, to me.

Huey Helicopter

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The Huey Helicopter

In the grounds of the memorial we saw this Bell Iroquois UH-1 Helicopter, popularly known as the Huey. These helicopters are the most widely used in the world, and it was during the Vietnam War that they evolved into an essential resource on the battlefield. They were used for troop transport, ferrying cargo, air assault and medical evacuation, helping to overcome the challenges of warfare in the dense jungles. A Huey made it possible for a wounded soldier to be in a hospital within one hour, dramatically increasing survival rates.

This particular Huey, named ‘Viking Surprise’, was involved in a difficult and dangerous rescue mission in March 1967. It laid down smoke cover while other helicopters saw to the evacuation of troops. In its 13 passes over the area it was hit by 135 bullets, six of them through the pilot’s compartment. After repairs it went back into service and was brought here to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park by the New Mexico National Guard in May 1999.

‘Dear Mom and Dad’

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'Dear Mom and Dad'

Elsewhere in the grounds of the memorial is this moving sculpture by Taos artist Doug Scott, depicting a soldier struggling to compose a letter home to his parents. An inscription by the sculptor reads:

‘The words “Dear mom and dad”
are written ... now what?
He can’t tell them what he is seeing.
He can’t tell them what he is doing.
His eyes see a foreign land.
His heart sees the other side of the world.’

This may be a memorial to one particular war, but surely those words, and that dilemma, must ring true to any soldier, anywhere. For me this was the most moving thing at the memorial, as it emphasises the gulf between those who have fought, and are fighting, and the rest of us, who can only guess at (and only half-comprehend) a fraction of what they must experience.

After visiting the memorial we retraced our route back to the road junction in Eagle Nest. It was time to leave the Enchanted Circle and head further east.

Cimarron Canyon State Park

Highway 64 passes directly through this pretty state park, giving us a very scenic stretch of road for the last part of today’s drive. But this is a narrow, winding road so we made sure to stop briefly once or twice, so that Chris, as driver, would also have a chance to appreciate the scenery.

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The Cimarron River

Several pull-outs gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with short strolls that in one case brought us to the banks of the Cimarron River that carved this small gorge. It was by now quite late on this rather damp, dull afternoon, so it was hard to capture the scenery adequately on camera, although the dark clouds gave the canyon a moody atmosphere that suited the landscape well. Steep granite cliffs overhang the tumbling river here, adding to the drama of the scene, and the rich October colours of the leaves were an additional bonus.

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Cimarron Canyon

The geology of this gorge is apparently especially complex and interesting as nearly two billion years of complex geologic history is exposed here. The Cimarron River is the only water course sufficiently powerful to have cut through the Cimarron Range. I’m sure a student of such things would want to spend time exploring the many features of this landscape, but for us, simply to marvel at the rock formations and the mountains that loomed above us was enough.

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Flowers in Cimarron Canyon State Park

New Mexico typically charges for day use of its state parks (the fee in 2011 was $5), but we couldn’t see anywhere to make our payment. I found out afterwards that some of the short trails off this road are designated for ‘free access’, so it seems that in fact there was no need to pay.

Cimarron

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Schwenks Hall in old Cimarron

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot to see in this part of New Mexico, but sometimes that’s how we like it. This north east corner of the state has none of the big draws – no arty Santa Fe or Taos, no Indian Pueblos, no striking Spanish colonial architecture. But it does have wide open skies and a spirit evocative of the Wild West days that here seem like only yesterday. And Cimarron seemed to us likely to be worth driving a little off the usual tourist routes in New Mexico, which indeed it proved to be.

While modern-day Cimarron straddles Highway 64, the old centre lies a few blocks to the south. In the 1800s, few towns had such a reputation for gun-play and violence as this – indeed, its very name, Cimarron, means ‘wild and unruly’. Today it is a peaceful backwater with enough of that history remaining to lure anyone intrigued by the ‘Wild West’, as we are.

When we arrived in Cimarron we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is right on Highway 64 as I’d read that it provided a good free walking tour leaflet. Unfortunately, though, the office had closed for the afternoon (in October they were already on their winter timetable). So we gave up and drove over to our hotel to check in.

The St James Hotel

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The St James Hotel

As soon as I read about the St James Hotel in Cimarron, I knew I wanted to stay here, and indeed one of our main reasons for including this corner of New Mexico in our route was in order to do so. The hotel boasts an incredible history for anyone who has ever been even slightly excited by tales of the Wild West. If you grew up watching cowboy films, whether old John Wayne Westerns or, like me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you would be as fascinated as we were by the real-life events that took place here at the St James.

It was opened by a French chef, Henri Lambert, in 1872, and soon became the place to stay in Cimarron. Given the nature of the town, it is unsurprising that many of its guests were famous or even notorious. The Earp brothers and their wives stopped here on their way to Tombstone. Buffalo Bill Cody was a friend of the Lamberts and stayed here often, as did Annie Oakley. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel Fighting Caravans while visiting the hotel, and various outlaws, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Black Jack Ketchum, also stayed here.

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The Lobby

The hotel offers a choice of historic rooms in the main building or more modern ones in the adjacent annexe. My choice would have been for the former, but Chris (less enamoured of history than I am) had opted for the creature comforts and lower prices of the latter, and on this (rare!) occasion, his choice won out over mine. Our room was large, with a king-size bed and all mod cons, and what it lacked in atmosphere it gained on size and price – in fact it was the bargain of the trip! When I’d called some weeks before to reserve a room (there were no online reservations back then) I was told it would be $80 plus tax, but on checking in we were informed that there was an off season deal for mid-week reservations and it would cost only half that!

We did get a chance to see a few of the historic rooms, as on the ground floor of the main building the corridor is lined with old photos and framed press clippings, and you can also view any unoccupied rooms. In my eyes the one we popped into looked lovely – but Chris was keen to point out the much smaller size of both room and bed!

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Corridor in the main building, and an historic bedroom
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Our bedroom, by way of contrast

A walk around Old Cimarron

Having checked in, we found a copy of the free walking tour leaflet we had been hoping to get from the visitor centre provided in our room. So we donned our waterproofs (it was a drizzly afternoon) and set off for a stroll around the immediate area. I didn’t take many photos on this walk – partly because of the rain and partly because many of the historic buildings are nowadays used as private residences

The first place we came to, behind the St James’ Hotel, was the old Plaza, now simply a grassy field with a 1960s replica of the original gazebo in the centre. The gazebo covers an old well, dug in 1871 and used by freighters hauling goods from the Kansas Territory to Fort Union. A branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through Cimarron just by here, and the Plaza was used as an overnight campground for those on the Trail, while the well provided water for their horses and oxen. But in 1880 the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe led to the decline of the Trail, and of Cimarron.

To the left (north side) of the Plaza is the Dold Brothers’ Warehouse, now a private residence. It was built in 1848 as a depot to serve stage lines operating on the Santa Fe Trail, and later became first an Indian Trading Post and later a General Store, before being used as the offices of the newly-launched Cimarron News and Press in 1875. Since 1908 it has been the home of one family.

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The Dold Brothers Warehouse

To the south and west of the Plaza, behind the St James Hotel, we came to the old National Hotel (1858, now a private residence) and the 1872 Carey Building, which was built to house a hardware store and livery stable, and is also now a private home.

But for me the more photogenic buildings were those lying just to the south of the St James, in particular the Barlow, Sanderson & Company Stage Office, which was built in 1870 according to the leaflet, but 1863 according to the sign on its gable. This had lots of colourful details, having apparently been in recent use as a gallery. It was built to serve the Stage route between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which operated monthly and carried passengers and baggage for a one-way summer fare of $100 for the three-and-a-half week trip. Hard to imagine travel so slow in these days of fast cars and planes! But the mail and stage route closed in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to Springer, 25 miles to the east. The building was then used as a Wells Fargo Office and later converted into a store in the early 1900s.

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Stage Office details

There were more colourful details on the building opposite the Stage Office, known as Schwenk’s Hall. This was built in 1854 as a brewery, but bought by Henry Schwenk in 1875 and turned into a gambling house and saloon.

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Schwenks Hall window

At this point the rain defeated us, as it was getting harder to take decent photos without getting the cameras too wet – and besides, the welcoming and historic bar of the St James was calling us loudly. So we decided to continue our walk the next morning.

Where the West was won (well, fought over at least)

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In the dining room

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Cimarron Chicken

We started our evening at the St James with dinner in its historic restaurant. we started with a shared appetiser of ‘Cimarron Toothpicks’, which were battered deep-fried jalapeños pepper strips served with a ranch dressing. These were fine, though nothing special. But my main course was excellent. I had been eating (and enjoying) mainly New Mexican staples such as burritos etc, but decided it was time for a change. I opted for the interesting-sounding ‘Cimarron Chicken’ which was described as ‘Plump marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection, topped with a gourmet raspberry sauce, inspired by the Salman Raspberry Ranch in Mora County, then sprinkled with pecans.’ This was accompanied by a baked potato (I could also have had mashed potato, fries or sweet potato), mixed vegetables and a helping from the salad bar. The meat was tender, and the sauce worked well, so I was very happy with my choice.

Chris too decided on a break from New Mexican dishes as his favourite food, pizza, was heavily featured on the menu. He chose the Veggie, with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella cheese, and jalapenos on request (he requested!). This was a good size and he enjoyed it, but as it had no accompaniment, he was glad to share my salad.

After dinner we headed to the adjoining bar area, where the sense of history weighs even more heavily. Cimarron was a wild place, and fights at ‘Lambert's place’, as the saloon became known, were commonplace. Everyone carried a gun, and wasn’t slow to use it. The ceiling of the bar is pockmarked with bullet holes, bearing testament to the 26 people killed here during those fights.

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Sign in the bar, and detail of decor

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The bar

The bar itself is gorgeous – all dark wood, highly polished and well-mirrored, with a wonderful old cash register as a centre-piece. We got chatting to the barman over our Jack Daniels, and learned that this bar is however not the original, but was imported by the hotel’s owner a few years ago from a nearby town. However the old photos on the wall show that it is very similar to the one that would have witnessed those fights and at which such famous characters as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill would have drunk – and that was good enough for us!

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The old cash register

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Chris at the bar

Posted by ToonSarah 03:28 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes trees food architecture road_trip restaurant monument history views hotel new_mexico war_and_peace Comments (8)

Big sky country

New Mexico day thirteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Farewell to Cimarron

Breakfast at the St James Hotel was disappointing after the previous evening’s good dinner – a buffet with weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs, but partly relieved by good crispy bacon and hot salsa. But on the whole we had loved our stay here and were pleased we’d come a little off the beaten path to include it on our itinerary.

Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time this morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron. We had a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel which took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall would indicate that some trials are still held here.

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Old Grist Mill, and courthouse parking sign

Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although our walking tour leaflet gave no explanation for that name. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. In 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here and the Indian Agency previously located in Taos moved to Cimarron. The mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. The leaflet went on to explain:

‘However, the 1867 gold rush on Baldy led to a large influx of people and the treatment of Indians suffered. Maxwell's sale of the Grant to an English company in 1870 further aggravated the problem. Troubles came to a head in 1875 when a small skirmish occurred between the Indian Agent and a band of rowdy Indians. Shots were exchanged as agency employees quickly ducked inside the Mill. The Indian Agent and several Indians were wounded and the one Indian arrested was later killed in a scuffle in the town jail. Government troops quickly defused the situation but in 1876 the Cimarron agency was closed and the Indians moved onto reservations in northwestern New Mexico and Colorado.’

You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were just too late in the year to be able to do so.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Further down the lane is the Immaculate Conception Church, which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children. It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...

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On Highway 64

One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love ‘Big Sky Country’, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.

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Big sky country

We reach I25 a few miles south of Raton. And south was our intended ultimate direction of travel for today, but first we had a detour to make, so instead we turned north on the Interstate and then east again on Highway 87. We had a volcano to visit.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Distant view of Capulin

North eastern New Mexico is relatively flat compared with much of the rest of the state – indeed, here you are on the edge of the Great Plains. So the scattering of volcanic mountains across the landscape here is all the more striking. If you approach Capulin from the south west, as we did, you will have descended from the New Mexican Rockies onto this flat plain, thinking maybe that you have left mountain grandeur behind you. Then on the horizon a number of hazy conical shapes appear, of which the most classically volcanic in outline is Capulin itself.

Capulin is an extinct cinder cone volcano, and if you were asked to draw a volcano, this is the exact shape you would probably draw – a perfect cone with an indentation at the top. It rises abruptly from the surrounding grasslands to a height of 8,182 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is about a mile in circumference and the crater itself about 400 feet deep. Scattered over the plain at its feet are the signs of its past activity, with the dark scars of its lava flows interrupting the soft greens of the grassy plains.

There is a two mile road up to the top. The National Parks Service leaflet which we were given on paying our entrance fee warned about the challenging nature of the drive to the summit, and our Moon Handbook said that this was ‘only for steely drivers’. Well, maybe this has something to do with the different nature of driving on the largely straight, open roads of the US, in contrast to the winding country lanes that English drivers often have to negotiate, but we just didn’t get that ‘steely drivers’ thing! OK, you have to be a bit careful – stick to the posted speed limit, don’t stop other than in designated pull-outs, and of course keep your eyes on the road (Chris as driver had to wait until we reached the top before admiring the scenery!). But it’s all pretty much common sense, it would be a shame if the warnings put anyone off driving up and missing out on these fantastic views.

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View from parking lot at the top of the drive

Relatively few visitors to the state come here it seems; there were only two other cars in the parking lot at the top and we met only a handful of other people on the rim trail. But they should! I found this a scenic counter-balance to the busier parts of the state which gave us a strong sense of the wide open spaces that still occupy vast swathes of the United States. On a clear day (and there are plenty of those in New Mexico) you can apparently see about 8,000 square miles of volcanic field from here, and beyond to the west lie the Rockies. Today, with a little haze, we couldn’t see quite as far but it was still an amazing view!

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Views from Capulin Volcano Rim Trai

There are a number of trails of varying difficulty that you can do at Capulin. We chose the Rim Trail, described as moderately difficult due to its steep climbs and descents. This is approximately a mile long and as the name suggests follows the rim of the crater itself. It is paved, but does indeed climb and dip quite a bit, including a few steps in places, so it isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs, and you need to be fairly able-bodied. The altitude also makes it a little harder going perhaps, but anyone of reasonable fitness will cope fine with this walk, and the views amply repay any effort required.

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The crater's rim

Along the path a series of information boards explain the geology of the surrounding Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, as well as some of the wildlife (flora and fauna) that can be found here. Unfortunately a couple of these signs were a little worn so we couldn’t take in all the facts, but we learned a fair bit from them nevertheless.

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The lava field at the foot of the volcano

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On the Rim Trail

Returning to I25 we headed south, on one of the longest legs of this road trip, and also the longest stretch of interstate driving that we had planned. Our usual preference is for the slower roads, with more stopping opportunities, but this was not only the only logical route through this part of the state but also enabled us to cover a bit more ground to reach our destination for the night. But we nevertheless took the chance to stop off at one sight en route.

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Driving south on I25

Fort Union

Fort Union lies about twenty miles north of the town where we were to spend the night, Las Vegas (the New Mexico town of that name, not the more famous one in Nevada!), and was closely linked to the development and prosperity of the town. Built to protect travellers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian raids, it also served as a major supply depot for Union troops during the Civil War.

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Fort Union

The first fort here was built in 1851 from wood, and a second ten years later – a massive earth fortification. The present ruins are of the third fort, built in 1862 of adobe brick on top of stone foundations. It would have been an impressive structure that greeted travellers on the Santa Fe Trail, but when the Trail was replaced by the coming of the railroad, trade declined and the need for the fort with it. Fort Union closed in 1891 and was abandoned. The buildings gradually fell into ruin, until it was established as a National Monument in 1956 and efforts started to preserve what remained.

When we visited the place was almost deserted and perhaps no wonder – there was a cold wind blowing across the plains and it was spitting with rain. Determined to see at least a bit of what had brought us here we paid the $3 per person entry and had a look around the displays in the Visitor Centre. These include displays on what life was life for soldiers and civilians stationed at the fort, and a number of artefacts from when it was at the height of its activity.

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Replica covered wagon

Outside you can do a 1.6 mile self-guided interpretive trail or a shorter .5 mile one. We set off on the latter but in the end opted for just a quick look at a few things that especially caught our eye and were in the immediate vicinity – a replica covered wagon, the ruined hospital looking stark against the threatening sky, the traces of the old wagon ruts still visible in the grassland.

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Hospital ruins, and replica tents

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Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail

One thing the bleak weather did give us was a strong appreciation of how life must have been for those stationed here. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving – extremes of temperature (which according to the park website can vary within 50 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour period), summer storms and winter blizzards.

Las Vegas

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Bridge Street, Las Vegas

Leaving the chill of Fort Union behind us we continued to Las Vegas. When I first planned our route through New Mexico a friend who had lived in the area (the one who recommended the excellent Shed restaurant in Santa Fe) had questioned my inclusion of this town, which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Nevada. In her view it had no real sights to offer and was rather too seedy and run-down to be worth a visit. I ignored her however, and was right to do so!

Unlike its glitzy namesake this Las Vegas is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive. We loved the photogenic old buildings of the Historic Bridge Street District, and the sleepy Plaza.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas

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The Plaza Hotel

But our first action on arriving was to check into our pre-booked accommodation in the grand old Plaza Hotel. If like us you prefer to stay near the centre of any town you visit, able to walk to the restaurants and bars, there is really only one choice in Las Vegas NM, and that is the historic Plaza Hotel. It dominates the north-west corner of the town’s large plaza, and its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms are a delight to visit – the more so because the less fashionable nature of Las Vegas as a destination makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

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In the hotel lobby

The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay, but soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around the new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest,. The hotel was restored in 1882, and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium and converted it too into part of the hotel, linked internally. Our room was in this part, but the sympathetic conversion made it hard to see the difference apart from the change in floor levels of the corridor as you move between one part and the other.

But we didn’t linger in the room, keen to get out and see a bit of the town in what remained of the afternoon, starting in the Plaza.

Exploring Las Vegas

After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

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Adobe building on the Plaza

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – I didn’t take one when we first set out on our explorations, and it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)

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Another view of the Plaza Hotel

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

From the Plaza we walked east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

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Italianate building on Bridge Street

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On Bridge Street

The whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

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Street photography on Bridge Street

But we looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street – a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken. So we were very happy on returning to the Plaza to find that Tapetes de Luna, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on its north-east corner, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there.

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Tapetes de Lana

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Coffee table, Tapetes de Lana

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Loom in Tapetes de Luna

Unfortunately this establishment seems to have since closed down, although the Travellers’ Café which has replaced it looks equally welcoming.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

After our coffee we had a quick look inside a couple of the other places on the Plaza. On its north side we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more – and this one appears still to be in the same spot and thriving (see http://elzocalogallery.com/).

By now though the rain we had first encountered at Fort Union had returned, so we went back to the hotel to relax in our cosy room and take advantage of the free wifi there.

Landmark Grill at the Plaza

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Chris with his chicken enchiladas
(red chilli)

We had planned to try one of the local Mexican restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that were recommended in our Moon Handbook, but that evening there was heavy rain and we decided to eat in the Plaza Hotel’s Landmark Grill instead (nowadays known as the Range Café). From the name we feared it might be a bit posh and expensive, but it proved to be excellent value and very welcoming. We were glad to have ended up eating there. And from the snatches of conversation overheard at other tables, and the mix of customers (young couples, local families, older travellers), it was clear that for lots of people the Landmark Grill was a favourite place to eat in Las Vegas.

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My chicken enchiladas
(green chilli)

Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of complimentary bread with oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping, which I always love. Although clearly inexperienced and young (so young that he was not allowed to serve us our beers but had to ask the senior waitress to take our drinks order instead!), he made a real effort to ensure we enjoyed our meal.

From the varied menu we both chose chicken enchiladas – I with green chilli and Chris with red. We also shared a house salad, which had a nice mix of leaves and a good blue cheese dressing.

Byron T's Saloon

After our tasty meal in the Landmark Grill we decided to check out the bar across the lobby, Byron T’s Saloon. This is named after a former owner of the hotel, and former town mayor, Byron T Mills, who it is claimed still haunts the hotel – or rather, one of its rooms, 301.

We were quite surprised to find that this is much more of a local bar than we would expect a hotel one to be, and all the better for it. Whereas in our hotel in Grants we had found ourselves to be the only drinkers in the bar (!), here we found a buzzing lively atmosphere that was much more to our liking.

We secured seats at one end of the bar, and ordered our drinks – a very good margarita for me, and a bottle of Dos Equis for Chris. The drinkers around us were clearly locals, and were enjoying ribbing the barmaid, who was giving as good as she got. We got talking to the guy sitting next to us at the bar, who then introduced us to a couple of his drinking companions, including his son who was (unusually for an American) a big rugby fan. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting to them, and naturally ordered a second round of drinks. I think the barmaid’s hand slipped while mixing my margarita as it was even stronger than the first, and I have to confess to a bit of a hangover the next morning – but well worth it for such a fun evening! Unfortunately though, the friendly conversation, or possibly the alcohol, seem to have diverted me from my usual habit of taking photos of absolutely everything for Virtual Tourist, so I have none of the bar at all!

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture road_trip restaurant volcanoes history hotel weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (6)

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