Not just desert, down New Mexico way
Breathtaking landscapes combine with ancient pueblos and art, burning effigies and a bloody past for an unforgettable trip
Chimayó is a Spanish village surrounded by the drama of the red Sangre de Cristo mountains of the high desert. Forty kilometres north of Santa Fe, it’s made famous by its church, El Santuario de Chimayó, to which 300,000 Catholic pilgrims make their way each year.
The desert unfolds in a divine salmon pink and the Santa Fe Opera House appears on its mesa, 11km outside Santa Fe. “Audiences face west, enjoying sunsets and desert-scapes,” says Em. “The stage is open; dress is from jeans to ballgowns.”
She has made the Chimayó pilgrimage many times and points to crosses left on hilltops by pilgrims. “People here say the land embraces them, that they’re never alone.”
Sunday in Chimayó is busy. Local families and tourists pack the walled courtyard as well as the historic, colonial Santuario de Chimayó. Adobe built, it is ornate, with twin towers.
A long queue has formed in a small side room, where healing tierra bendita (holy dirt) from the mountains is being distributed from el pocito (the little well); an entire wall of abandoned crutches bares witness to miracle cures. I join the queue.
There is no cost, although everything else in Chimayó will make up for that: famous weavings, artwork, souvenirs. It’s an extraordinary place, very beautiful and, Em says, the most important Catholic pilgrimage in the US.
By far the best way to approach and leave Taos, pueblo and town, is to take the high road out of Santa Fe and the low road back. Winding and narrow, with scatterings of houses as you climb and coyote fences (as well as being a present-day pest, coyotes are considered a trickster in legend). Forests thicken as you climb, with crosses and monuments appearing at the roadside, and spectacular views as you coast into a high valley of green fields and rivers, trails winding up mountains, dense pines, cloud shadow and 25-degree temperatures.
Taos, the town, is artsy and interesting, a smaller version of Santa Fe, sitting languidly atop a high-desert plateau. Taos pueblo, about 3km further along the road, in the valley of a small tributary of the Rio Grande, is a Unesco World Heritage site, continuously inhabited for 1,000 years and home to 150 members of the Taos tribe.
I am uneasy paying the $16 admission. No matter that it is to observe traditions in a line from prehistoric Anasazi Indian tribes, it still means gawping at people’s homes, back yards and ceremonial centres. A dignified welcome puts me at my ease to enjoy the wonder of the ancient adobe buildings, including a mesmerizing Catholic church.
The low road back to Santa Fe runs alongside the Rio Grande and through swathes of stubby desert, with canyons and purple mountain ranges in the distance. Kayakers coast through the Rio Grande gorge, stoic fly fisherman try their luck and Santa Fe hoves into view too soon.
And so to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in the high adobe village of Abiquiu, and to the nearby Ghost Ranch where she found the vivid mountain, mesa and desert views that inspired some of her greatest works.
Her studio is a sittingroom equipped for a painter’s needs, with views across the valley. Her bedroom, painted an earthy grey, is restful; her kitchen, with state-of-the-art appliances from the 1940s, is enviable for its space, light and – yes – modernity.
Ghost Ranch, 22.5km further along the road, is where O’Keeffe lived when not in Abiquiu. Visits are not allowed to her home here, but you get a sense of the place, the unrelenting nature of the desert and mountains. An unexpected bonus is meeting Carol Merrill, who worked for O’Keeffe (cataloguing her books) for seven years before the end of her long life in 1986. A gentle woman, Merrill is generous with her time and anecdotes. She is often at the library, often happy to talk.