Wednesday, May 9, 2018, Santa Fe: A day on foot in the heat and altitude of Santa Fe leaves me feeling ten years older and ruminating on my mortality. The themes for the day are towns that try too hard to be beautiful and end up looking contrived, and a reflection on mortality in general and the pioneering spirit and the way time slowly robs you of the capability for adventure.
I’m not sure the map above is entirely accurate. Google Maps has a hard time snapping the route to streets when you are on foot, and I don’t know what the dotted lines are about. At no point in the day did we sprout wings and take flight.
This day was planned as a walking day. Santa Fe has a reputation as a city you don’t want to drive in and we selected our hotel, the wonderful Guadalupe Inn, to be within walking distance of the tourist bits.
We are both feeling the effects of the altitude, me particularly, but we stick to our plan of walking the Plaza district, starting early in the morning to avoid the heat. Of course this means lots of things are not open yet. The San Miguel mission and the Loretto Chapel are both closed when we get there.
The cathedral is open but there is a funeral mass in progress and we are confined to the gift shop. We decide to modify our planned circle route and come back the same way we came to see these things later in the day.
Other than the religious buildings, the Plaza district does not seem particularly historic. Some of the buildings may be old, but everything is in the same style and the exteriors seem fresh, so you can’t really tell their age. It does not feel old. Its uses are all commercial. It is full of curio shops. There are restaurants as well, but not as many as I expected. It is essentially an outdoor mall. It is also busy and congested, which does not make for easy photography. Here is a Google Street View of it, though:
I had expected to be enchanted by Santa Fe, but I’m not. It is the same feeling I had in Banff a few years ago – it is too stylized to be real. Pretty, certainly, and there is some very nice stuff for sale. But it feels somehow artificial. I prefer the experience of Las Vegas (the New Mexico one, not the awful Nevada one). Las Vegas is not as pretty or as rich, but it is more genuine, and it gives more of a sense that this is how life is actually lived.
Adobe construction, I find, looks better in photographs than it does in real life. In real life it has a kind of brutal lumpish quality about it. It is an architecture that’s squats rather than soars. It is, after all, a kind of artificial cave and I look at it it’s almost windowless sides and quail at the prospect of the darkness inside. We saw one building with faux-adobe walls and a row of large bright windows but it just looked wrong. Where adobe does look great is with trees. Adobe and trees are the perfect combination. The earthy tones of the Adobe makes the green of the trees pop and the lumpen stature of the building makes the trees soar. Concrete and glass seems to bully trees, which tend to look sad and deflated beside them, or captive, when in an atrium. Adobe lets the tree be the star and that makes for a wonderful sight. Mind you, this impression is based on downtown Santa Fe with it’s inescapable falseness. I wonder if in Taos tomorrow we may see Adobe in a different light.
Perhaps the best commercial thing we see is a carpet store near the Loretto Chapel. Having just bought carpets for the living room and my study, and having looked in vain in Kitchener-Waterloo for anything with the southwest theme, we suddenly find ourselves overwhelmed with marvelous examples. One in particular we both instantly fall in love with (something that happens almost never with any object). An unctuous sales droid hovers, prattling about free shipping. When we tell him we have just bought carpets, he instantly dismisses us and we feel like pariahs. It is the first bad taste from a store keeper since we started the trip. Fortunately all the others we interact with today are wonderful. We never did ask how much the carpet was so it can remain a pleasant fantasy rather than a rude shock. The hotel room also has two nice southwest carpets that I would love to own.
I find and buy a gorgeous ceramic coyote for a surprisingly low price. I’m perfectly immune to the pleading gaze of flesh and blood dogs, but apparently I am a sucker for the ceramic variety:
There seems to be a wide range of prices in most stores here, with no particular relationship between appeal and price. Some of the native handwoven textiles are lovely but stratospherically expensive. In a little Christmas shop we find a gorgeous little nativity scene by a local artist in the Pueblo style at a price we can actually afford. We snap it up, and the saleswoman is delightfully thorough and careful in packaging it to survive our journey.
We planned on lunch in a fancy place we passed earlier, but find it so full that we go to a less fancy place and have a nice lunch on the patio. The food is great. You can never tell with these places. The décor, staff, and prices offer no clues to the quality of the food. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
We elect not to visit the History Museum and instead work our way back to the places we could not enter earlier. Heat and altitude are taking their toll, but we soldier on slowly with many breaks.
The cathedral is a perfect example of making a church look like a church.
Anna is impressed by the restraint of its ornamentation. It is neither barren nor busy. The origin of the church shape maybe European, but it seems adaptable to any setting, and quite capable of expressing a fusion of cultures. this is evident here in the juxtaposition of French stained glass with local folk-art stations of the cross.
This also reinforces the point I have made before in this series about preserved versus enduring spaces. The cathedral is not an artifact or a monument, it is a living working church. I am reminded of Durham Cathedral, where there are contemporary stained glass windows portraying industrial scenes from the mines and manufacturing industries of the area. Such buildings take centuries to build and often reflect the style of a succession of architects and ages. They are a progression through time, not a moment ripped from time. This is how it should be. Museums are mausoleums. An old building in continuous use, continuous respectful use at least, is a place for the living.
Even the San Miguel mission, though extremely simple and rough, is church shaped. Curiously there is a holy water stoop at the door even though the blessed sacrament is not reserved here (or at least I could see no evidence that it is). Not sure of its status as a working church.
By 3 PM we are tired and looking for something to take home with us for supper. A very obliging woman at the Cafe Sonder (alas permanently closed now according to Google) sets us up with two Thai kale salads to go, and offers us water and a quiet sit down. We don’t dawdle too long for fear of completely running out of breath, and from a general desire to get back to the hotel and relax. Fortunately, there is no cement mixing going on next door, as there was yesterday, so we have a quiet afternoon with only the chirping of the birds as soundtrack. This is a blessed thing.
Travel is perilous. Far less perilous than it used to be, but it still has a way of reminding us how perilous our lives are. The vast loneliness of the prairie, and being the only car on the road in a land without houses in sight, gets your mind tinkering with the thoughts of what would happen if your car broke down. Would you starve? Would you suffer a harrowing walk into the next town with a peeling face and blistered feet? Not really of course. This is a road, and people travel roads, and people in rural areas actually stop and help when they see someone in trouble. And besides, most of the time you are in range of a cell tower wherever you go these days.
But what if you hit something …? And so the mind goes, not because the peril of this particular moment is terribly great, but because it’s loneliness is sufficient to remind you of how fragile we are when alone in the wilderness. We think of ourselves as possessing the whole world, but actually we stick to a spider web of safe places spun out over the face of the globe. The rest of it can kill you pretty quick. The beauty of wild landscape is always in some sense informed by our knowledge of its deadly nature.
The effect of altitude on me serves to emphasize this sense of peril, of the care we take as we travel to stay within the bounds of safety. I am in the middle of a city, a state capital, equipped with all the means of sustaining human life and comfort. And yet, it is hard to breathe here. I can’t walk as fast or as far as I normally can. I certainly can’t run. It is as if I were ten years older, and I think of the old caribou falling behind the fleeing herd, isolated, exhausted, defenseless, against the following wolves.
My life does not really depend on my ability to run, but being deprived of it seems to bring up a whisper of alarm from the part of my brain that still thinks it does. Is this largely false frisson of danger part of the appeal of travel, or is it a check on the impulse? I don’t need more things to be anxious about, even imaginary ones. But the existential reflection runs deeper. The world is not a safe place. Our lives are lived within a small and fragile bubble. The sense of our limits, our dependencies, our ultimately inescapable peril, visits us in the sheer far-from-home-ness of travel.
Most travel diaries are written by vigorous and intrepid young men and women, all hiking boots and bandannas, and outdoorsy allure. They go to exotic and dangerous places. This is not that sort of thing. It is the diary of two people in their 60s driving a modern automobile over paved and well-traveled roads, with pre-booked hotel reservations and good emergency travel medical coverage, in the country next door to their own in which people not only speak the same language but have largely the same customs and habits. And yet here I am, ruminating on the perils of travel after a day in which I was mildly slowed down by the reaction of my lungs at 6000 feet of altitude. Given my noise issues etc., this trip is at least a little arduous for me, and requires some deliberate management of energy, and mood (not to mention waistline). And this makes me think: is travel not at least in part about going out to the edge of your bubble or at least to a place from which you can see the edge of your bubble, and do the young and vigorous and wilderness-aware not simply pursue the same view but need to go much further afield to find it? I’d like to think so. I’d like to feel a certain covert comradeship with those lean, tanned, backpacked and bandanaed men and women. They, of course, would scoff at the idea. Probably quite right too.
Once when I was traveling back with a friend from a visit to his cottage, he complained how much more dangerous the world seemed to be becoming. Many share this impression, but the world is actually getting safer all the time. Ruminating on this, I suggested that it was not the world getting more dangerous that prompted his feeling but our getting less capable as we aged. Our loss of capability with age increases our peril, and it does so faster than the world’s progress in safety can keep up. Our bubble of safety will keep getting smaller until it is no longer any larger than a hospital bed. And then it will pop.
The temporary small shrinking of my bubble due to the altitude of the city I am visiting is enough to bring all this to mind. The young and sun-bleached know nothing of this, I assume. They have only known their capability to increase. They cannot feel the frisson of inevitability that a slight slowing of my walking pace brings to me in Santa Fe. In that sense, I am far bolder than they.