Land of enchantment

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , New Mexico
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

All along, as i have been planning this trip, drawing lines across America and trying to connect far flung dots, there has been a great emptiness, an unfillable void between Texas and Utah. Attempts to trace paths across this void collapsed. Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Amarillo, Texas. Nothing fit or felt right.

The void had a name but it took time for me to hear it properly. The name was New Mexico. It had been mentioned to me a number of times, but it took me a while to notice and to pay attention. When finally i did, the map suddenly made sense, and i had my route to the west coast marked and ready.

New Mexico, the void. The perfect place to detonate an atomic bomb. Or to bury a crashed UFO. It is a land of ghosts and spirits of the past, of vivid memory and palpable history.

I was captivated by the land before i was even off the bus. We had climbed high, out of the flatness of Texas, up 2000 metres above sea level. The distant mesas had become distant ridges and peaks, and then had come towering towards the bus, the earth red and purple and orange. Dark green specks clung tenaciously to any accommodating surface.

Santa Fe, the city different, looked like an entirely new world even from the tiny greyhound terminal. Here on the outskirts of town, the same chain stores and fast food joints. But there were gaps through which something utterly different could be seen. Into a dusty ridge between a bank parking lot and a highway, a prairie dog colony had hewn a system of burrows. A few stood guard by the entrances, oblivious to the roaring traffic but scrambling away when i stomped past with my pack.

There were differences more fundamental than this. The light over the city was striking, the crispness of the sunshine that caused the town to glow golden. The intense blue of the sky, arcing from mountain range to mountain range without the slightest smear cloud upon it.

And then the city itself. Not a highrise building anywhere, the radio antennae being by far the tallest structure around. And the buildings all constructed in the style of the old adobe pueblos built by the indigenous peoples of the area. All vertices smoothed down, all roofs flat, every building the same colour as the rich terracotta-red earth. Splashes of colour - blues, whites, yellows - lay on the heavy wooden gates and the deep-set window sills.

The Santa Fe cityscape is another example of the American obsession with neo-everything. But it is so striking and quirky a stylisation as to be completely enchanting and refreshing. This the New Mexican state capital was settled before The British set to work on the east coast. It was a Spanish colony, and later a Mexican one. And before these it was an indigenous site. With this history influencing its own peculiar neo- style, Santa Fe stands remarkable amidst a plethora of barely-distinguishable, dull American cities.

I had reached my limit in Houston of such towns, the suburbs pushing nature far out beyond the horizon, the downtown a mess of gleaming new edifices and dilapidated, obsolete ones. Santa Fe, surrounded by the mountains, some of which still had dustings of snow upon them, couldn't have been more different. A fitting capital for the land of enchantment.

The spells of Santa Fe are at work far and wide, and many people are ensnared and lured to the city. Its downtown plaza is full of tourists, picking over the indigenous crafts laid out on blankets, or admiring the indigenous-style art in the hundred art galleries. It is a boutique town, but despite being easily the smallest town i have yet visited (with maybe a third the population of Lincoln Nebraska or Montgomery Alabama), it copes well with the enchanted hordes. Though we clog the sidewalks to take pictures of the quaint buildings, there is no shortage of nooks and crannies to withdraw into. And there is the lonely immensity of the mountains above.

The catholicism of the old Spanish colonialists has lingered over the town; it has an old and mystic feel to it, full of icons and artifacts. The old mission building is built over a far older sacred Indian site. Hundreds of bodies lay buried beneath it, the result of the pueblo revolt of the seventeenth century. Ghosts are said to haunt to aisles; children scampering between pews, a stately figure in black moving about the altar. People have received strange portents from these shades.

At another church a magnificent free-standing wooden stair spirals upwards. It was built by an unknown, unpaid carpenter, said to be St Joseph. While the streets outside are abustle with tourists and merchants, in these sacred spaces the vestiges of far older worlds can be seen. History, mythology, superstition and faith become indistinguishable from one another, and cast a captivating spell out over the people of the city.

The mountains, too, have their own energy and allure. As the peaks multiplied on the horizon my spirits lifted higher and higher. It isn't enough to contemplate a mountain though. They inspire speculations. How tall is that? Could i climb it? how long would it take? What would i see?

Mount Atalayah looms another two thousand feet over Santa Fe. Bathed in golden light it is irresistible. Its slopes and ridges are shrouded by pine trees, and cacti. The way is steep, the altitude causing blood to thump in the ears and breath to catch in the throat. There is much scrambling. But when the eyes are torn away from the tortuous path ahead, behind is revealed tiny entirety of Santa Fe, and the endless desert void beyond. Except from up here, higher and higher, it doesn't look like a void, but long chains of mountains, and rich valleys of stone and wood and leaf.

From the top of the mount, the quaint adobe alleys of Santa Fe are lost. The city plan reveals itself, and it is Spanish. No more cruel, disorienting American grids. Here is a spiders web of thin lines converging on a central plaza and radiating out as a delicate pattern until they are lost amidst gold, green, red, silver, purple.

The way down is not much easier. There is more scrambling, and then for a second the spell is broken completely. A bulldozer lies still, a swathe of exposed red earth ground up behind it. The protective charms of Santa Fe have kept at bay the encroaching anonymity of The American City, but it is a constant struggle, and from time to time there are reminders of the outside world.

In the driveway of the house i stayed in hares scampered over the gravel. on the roof sat inscrutable squirrels, their cheeks bulging with food. Inside i breathed easy and kicked back with my hosts Eric, Amanda and Livia, and my convert to the couchsurfing cause, Jasmine who I had met on the greyhound. from the moment i arrived i was sure the allotted time would not be enough. And it wasn't. The Indian pueblos and a thousand other mountains and canyons were beyond, but i was horseless and helpless. And there were other spells at work; the glamour of the west coast tugging at my mind still.

All of the people i met in town were from somewhere else; as far afield as New York the enchantments are at work on people. They were at work on me before i had even thought i heard the name of Santa Fe. From the time i landed i had been surrounded by grey, by steel and concrete. Sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes it was frustrating and empty. It was never enough in its own right. The miles flying by beneath the wheels of the bus, i had felt i was missing out on something, some vital aspect of America. And in the void of New Mexico i found it. Not a void at all, unless it is an absence of concrete and traffic. It was with a sense of satisfaction that i left on another overnight bus. From the start i had known i wouldn't come close to seeing the full spectrum of America (NM was my eleventh state), but at least here i saw enough new colours and images for me to feel like i have done some justice to the land.

The spell never quite breaks. I could see traces of Australia and of Argentina in the deserts of New Mexico, traces of Spain in the streets, traces of Mexico in the buildings and people. I'm sure i will find traces of New Mexico in the rest of the world. That is where the enchantment lies, i suppose. In the persistence of memory and myth, at work in the back of the mind. I don't think I'll be returning to Santa Fe to settle among the mountains and churches, but if i had to settle somewhere, the land of enchantment would be a nice place to do it.

The spell never quite breaks.
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