Strange offerings.

Grand Tour 13: Holy Dirt and the Sacredness of Real Things

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

All through the New Mexico portion of this journey, I have noted how much it matters here what things look like. This is in some small part a reflection of how much things matter. I don’t mean this in the sense of how much it matters to have things. Rather in the sense that things are important in themselves. This is magnified by the sacredness attached to certain particular things (and things cannot be sacred unless things, generally, matter). Nowhere is this very Catholic habit of finding the sacred in real things more evident than in Santuario de Chimayo, which is the second big stop of this day. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018, Santa Fe to Taos (part 2): I will go back now to the beginning of our route from Santa Fe to Taos. I dealt with our visit to the Poeh Cultural center in my last post. Now I will go back to the beginning and start with the description of our route.

Route map Santa Fe to Taos

It was a day of many stops and varied landscapes. Leaving Santa Fe we entered into a high desert that is characterized by sand hills covered quite densely by dark green shrubs. The effect is both desolate and lush at the same time, both hostile and inviting. The topography, however, is so varied as to defy description, a mix of round hills, low cliffs, and what look like sandstone towers, except that they look looser and more fragile than the word tower suggests.


Crumbling Sandstone Towers

Road by stream

Varied rock formations.

We note again the decorated overpasses and retaining walls along the freeway. This is a place in which it occurs to people that even a freeway could be made beautiful. It matters what things look like here.

After the Poeh Cultural Centre, our next stop is Sagrado Corazón de Jesus church in Nambe, New Mexico.

Varied rock formations.

It is an old Adobe church are very simple exterior design, the most notable feature for me was the balcony over the main entrance, which seems to be a feature of these churches. Alas it was locked so we could not see inside. This is a tragedy of the modern world. Churches used to remain unlocked so people could go in to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. This is no longer possible today, and that is a tragedy. But the presence of the church continues in the pueblos.

The landscapes went through many transformations as we continued. Sparse but graceful trees line the road as we leave Nambe on what is called The High Road to Taos, but these quickly thin out as we leave town and are replace by a brown undulating desert with scattered dark shrubbery with distant hills on the horizon.

Sparse high desert scenery

We are briefly among low mud-colored hills and then back into the high desert landscape on a road that twists and undulates gently and unhurriedly and occasionally opens up a long vistas before us. It is a teasing landscape. It is typical high desert but from turn to turn it will throw up squat sandstone towers or brown mud-hills or a vision of distant mountains. With gradual and gracious patience it becomes progressively more hilly.

Hilly terrain

It seems a road ideally planned and paced for the patient tourist and I am quite self-conscious of driving tourist speed through it all. I did my best to get out of the way and let the locals get on their way. But I saw no signs of impatience from those I held up. Perhaps this is a virtue of the local people, or in rural people generally, or perhaps the dawdling tourist is simply an accepted fact of life here, like the heat and the dryness.

Our next stop is Santuario de Chimayo, a working Catholic church and a long-time place of pilgrimage and healing. One of the things the pilgrim can receive here is holy dirt. This appears to be similar in principle to holy water, but it is an illustration both of the importance of things and the potential of things to participate in the sacred.

Santuario de Chimayo church

There are rooms here plastered with photos of people for whom visitors have sought intercession, and notices telling visitors where to submit photos of their loved ones.

Wall of photos

Every statue on the grounds is hung with innumerable rosaries and other tokens, presumably of the loved ones for whom intercession is sought.

Statue hung with rosaries

There are shrines with written prayers and pleas for intercession stuffed between the stones. There are words of gratitude for cures written in graffiti style onto the stones themselves.

On some of the statues once sees the strangest miscellany of offerings so that one cannot help wondering if some of them were left not out of reverence but out of mockery or mere cluelessness.

Strange offerings.

This is a spirituality of tokens­—of physical things used as forms of intercession and praise—that finds no echo in the practice of English-speaking Catholic churches. Is this a cultural difference, or is it a product of the English church having been forced into hiding for so long, and, when the days of active repression were over, centuries of social and political repression. Perhaps it was as a response to the Protestant accusations of idolatry that English Catholics suppressed such practices. Certainly they seem to have been common in the medieval period. However it is, this is a reminder of how seriously Catholicism takes the material world—perhaps more seriously than any other faith and, curiously, more seriously than materialists who believe only in the physical world but show little practical regard for it, placing the real locus of value in the mind—not valuing the material universe itself so much as its laws and the ability of the mind to discover it.

But the reason Catholics take the physical world seriously is that we believe it was created by God, that God saw that it was good, and that God intends our physical bodies for resurrection. The body and the physical world are not, for us, an illusion or base matter to be sloughed off by the liberated spirit. Rather they are to be redeemed. God himself became flesh and dwelt among us, the incarnation being the ultimate sanctification of matter. This makes individual pieces of the physical universe important, and thus we take the actual bits of the universe seriously, not just it’s abstractions and laws. And thus we can, as they do at Santuario de Chimayo, take holy dirt seriously, and say this bit of dirt is holy and this not; this container of water is holy, and this is not; this bread is the sacred body and blood of Christ and this not.

I am not personally comfortable with much of the physical expression of the importance of things. I find most of the objects for sale in Catholic bookstores and gift shops embarrassing. The artwork of most of it is appalling for one thing. But that is my problem. It is the tinge of Protestant sensibility that seems to touch every English-speaking Catholic in one way or another. It is part of our camouflage. The temptation to tokenism and even idolatry is certainly there, but if in opposing it we lose the sense of the importance of the material world, the importance of the human body in particular, then we will have lost something essential to the faith.

I bought a picture of Saint Michael the Archangel in the gift shop. It is in the folk art style common to the region, and a rather fine example of it. It matters what things look like because things are important.

The countryside is delightful and far exceeds my expectations. I keep badgering Anna to snap the latest vista through the windshield , not because this makes for great pictures, but simply so that we can remember all the variations we have seen. An enchanted landscape, of course, is at least in part about what you are used to.

Enchanted landscape

Places for lunch are few and far between in this area but Google reveals the intriguingly named Sugar Nymphs Bistro in Peñasco, NM. This is part of, and shares its washrooms with, an old movie theater, which, according to a handbill on the door, will be hosting an unspecified recital soon. In a town this size, I suppose, saying which recital is superfluous. Everyone knows. Despite the unprepossessing interior and the rickety furniture on the veranda, the food is excellent, of the simple-things-done-right variety. I have a green chili cheeseburger with salad and it is wonderful. We have had amazingly good luck with these out of the way places. In town, the more formal eateries have been much more hit and miss.

Down the road we visit another locked church and then carry on to Taos. For most of the route we followed what is billed as the scenic route to Taos. But we did not follow it all the way to Taos, because I had looked at the last section on Google maps and seen that it ran through a pine forest. Instead, we diverted back across country to pick up the main road which runs through the Gorge of the Rio Grande and is one of the most scenic drives in the whole trip, to my eyes. The only downside is that it is a busy twisty high-speed highway that demands all of a driver’s attention. We seem to have forgotten to snap any pictures, or maybe we just never had the chance.

But if the route through the gorge is so gorgeous (what other word could I choose?), why is the alternative higher route billed as the scenic option? To me, being from eastern Canada, where practically every rural highway runs through forests of pine, spruce, and Maple, until you could just weep for the smallest flash of an open Vista, a pine forest is not my idea of scenery. In fact, my number one criteria in route planning is no pointy trees. But to the people of the high desert who see rocky canyons and Sandhills and sandstone bluffs and open grasslands and desert everywhere they go, a route through pointy trees with the shade and coolness and the closeness they bring, must seem as enchanting as the desert vistas seem to me. In other words, don’t necessarily take the local’s word for it about which routes are the most scenic. Your taste may differ from theirs.

We skirt round Taos to visit the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on Route 64. I feel a bit disloyal to Route 66. We have been off it all day and here we are on Route 64. But we could not come this close to Taos and not make the side trip. And having come this close to the gorge and its famous bridge we had to visit it too. The bridge is worth the detour. It is a sight in its own right and the gorge is spectacular.

Bridge over Rio Grande Gorge

It is not on the Grand Canyon scale, of course, but what is spectacular about it is how something so wide and so deep could be so perfectly invisible as you cross the plain towards it. It must have come as a terrible shock to some early explorers because the nature of the terrain is such that you can’t see the gorge at all (from the East at least) until you are practically on the bridge. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there is this deep rocky cleft in the earth and far below a trickle of a stream. The gorge is quite grand but the Rio Grande does not really live up to the name here—or maybe it is just so far below that it looks smaller than it is.

This gorge does not look much like the pictures of the Grand Canyon either. The rock is dark and lumpy, not bright and layered. it looks hostile and frighteningly steep one can imagine the Rio Grande saying to the Colorado River, yes yours is bigger but look what I had to cut through. As to the poor wagon train that first found themselves on the edge of this precipitous drop, before the bridge was built, one can only imagine how their spirits must have sunk. Water water in the way, nor any drop to drink. It is too far down.

But what I find particularly cool about it is how its isolation makes it easy to see how canyon formation works. A lot of the time this trip we seem to be going through or into or out of gorges, but the landscape is so complex that it is hard to see exactly what the process of formation was for the features you are looking at. Here it is set out before you like a diorama, but at full scale.

Rio Grande Gorge

From here we drive back towards Taos and stop at the Taos Mesa brewing company. It is almost as surprising a site as the gorge itself, sitting out all alone on the Mesa, miles from town, with only a small airport and a couple of industrial looking steel buildings for company. Inside it becomes clear that this is the Taos party/concert venue. There is a large space inside with a large stage and relatively few tables. Next door there is a concrete amphitheater with only a gravel depression for an audience area. Clearly this is a place for those young enough to stand and drink and have their hearing damaged. But on this afternoon it is an oasis for a handful of travelers. We get beers and sit outside in the shade of the building. The sun and the altitude make moving about tiring, but sitting in the shade with a gentle breeze and a cold beer and no city or highway noise is delightful.

On to Taos. Several years ago, on a road trip from Vancouver to Calgary via the Icefield Parkway we noted that the town at the North end of the Parkway, Jasper, Alberta, felt like a real town with the real reason for being there, where is Banff, at the other end, felt entirely artificial, a tourist trap constructed to look like a fantasy of an Alpine village. It was too perfect to be real, and that spoilt the effect. Since we had had a Banff-like impression of Santa Fe, we wondered if Taos would feel more like Jasper. Alas it did not. It felt like Santa Fe in miniature, with a hippie vibe. Though to be honest, it felt like a faux hippie vibe: hippie style without the hippie dropping out. Commercial hippie, if such a thing can be.

I have a weakness for cities whose names have romantic associations. To one extent or another they all fail to meet my unrealistic expectations. If I ever get to see Valparaiso, the most romantic city name on the planet in my opinion, my disappointment will be complete. Because the truth is, I don’t like cities. I like small towns. My favorite spot so far on this trip has been Las Vegas, New Mexico. Towns are noisy and crowded and commercial and more or less nerve wracking to drive through if you are not familiar with them. A tourist Plaza like Santa Fe Plaza or Taos Plaza can be fun to walk through. You can find some cool stuff and have a nice meal. But it is never the romantic experience the name seems to promise, and I, Reepicheep, do not find the utter East.

Supper choices are surprisingly few in Taos, and we end up walking as far as we dare into town, given the heat and altitude and our tiredness from all the other walking in the heat and altitude we have done this day. We find a good if somewhat pricey place where I have purple curry with forbidden rice, which is just superb, and a Santa Fe Pale Ale that is just okay. They had several craft IPAs on tap, but all are well North of 7% alcohol by volume which in this heat and altitude is just too much. Note to craft brewers, again, you can make great tasting beer at 3.5 to 4% alcohol. I know. I have had several in England. People might even order a second one.

I find it very strange to read in the local paper, in the hotel lobby, that the Kachina Lodge, across the street from the Pueblo Inn where we are staying, has filed for bankruptcy citing the lack of winter snow as the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the morning we see another hotel boarded up. If you can’t make money in the hotel business in Taos, where can you make money in it? Of course a business can fail even in the best market if it is badly managed or the owners are overextended. Still, having seen so many boarded up and falling down motels along Route 66, it seems odd to see them here. It will be a tragedy for travelers, though, if we get to the point where the only places to get a hotel is it a junction of the Interstate at the edge of the city.


Series Navigation << Grand Tour 12: The Museum Has Become the ArtifactGrand Tour 14: Holy Jumble and the Intrusiveness of Tourism >>

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  1. Pingback: The Grand Tour 17: The Secret Museum and the Perfect Taco – Stories All the Way Down

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