x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

From Angel Fire to O'Keeffe

A road trip along US Route 285, cutting through New Mexico, reveals a thriving art scene, Old West ghost towns and breathtaking landscapes.

US Route 285 cuts through New Mexico and heads north towards Santa Fe before climbing up into the Rocky Mountains on to Denver, Colorado.
US Route 285 cuts through New Mexico and heads north towards Santa Fe before climbing up into the Rocky Mountains on to Denver, Colorado.

Anthony, my four year old, unstrapped from his car seat, bounded through the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico as if it were a giant playground. He climbed atop boulders, scurried up ladders that led to what was left of the Anasazi cliff dwellings and managed to squeeze into nooks that may well have gone untrodden since the Anasazi called this place home almost 500 years ago. "I think he is going to be an explorer," a man who looked to be well into his 60s said to me. The smudges of paint on his trousers - and his earlier answer of "Fine, now that I'm here" to my rhetorical "how are you?" - had led me to assume that he was an artist from nearby Santa Fe.

"An explorer?" I repeated. "I could be happy with that." "Whatever you do, though," our new friend continued, "make sure he doesn't colour between the lines. You don't color between the lines, do you, Anthony? Don't ever colour between the lines." We had left Santa Fe less than 90 minutes earlier and we had already passed through an array of terrain that made the wide open spaces on the outskirts of the Albuquerque Airport, our point of arrival about 100km away, a distant memory.

We had gazed in the distance at the snow-covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the southern most reaches of the Rockies, and navigated the snaking road through tree-covered slopes to Bandelier. At one point, we took a detour and followed some signs that read "Scenic Lookout" through a neighbourhood of dilapidated ranch-style homes with ageing carports. Tyre-less cars resting on concrete blocks would have fitted in nicely. Then we coasted into Lookout Park, passing baseball diamonds and soccer fields before parking the car and gazing hundreds of feet down into a rocky canyon at the bottom of which flowed the Rio Grande, the twisting river that a day's drive to the southeast defines a 1,254-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border.

At every turn of the road in New Mexico, the mountains change. Richly verdant slopes morph into craggy peaks. Smoothly curving mountain tops are sliced by dramatic, vertical cliffs of exposed granite. Brown and grey mesas blend into red sandstone that seems to glow as the afternoon sun begins its slow descent.  Vast yellow grasslands at altitudes of 1,829m above sea level are the playgrounds of farm-raised alpaca while the mountains that rise around them are home to herds of elk, black bear and the once-endangered bald eagle. And at various stop-offs along roads and within the borders of national parks such as Aztec Ruin National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Gila Cliff Dwellings and Capulin Volcano National Monument are posted advisories explaining what visitors should do if they come face-to-face with a rattlesnake. Carlsbad Caverns National Park near the Mexican border is another place that rattlesnakes call home, the above-ground part, at least.

Clearly, if there is any place in North America where God has not coloured between the lines, it is the state of New Mexico. So, I guess, why should Anthony? In a way, we - my wife, Anthony and I - have struck it lucky as my brother and sister-in-law live on a forested mountainside opposite the ski slopes in the tiny village of Angel Fire, a 48km, one-hour drive from touristy Taos. The winding two-lane road that connects the two can leave even the most stoic more than just a bit queasy. That's not to say, of course, that the trip from our stop-over in Santa Fe was not an adventurous one.

We bypassed Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of the Manhattan Project, on our way to Bandelier, just one of numerous cliff dwelling sites in the state. The idea of paying a visit to a museum celebrating the development of the atomic bomb felt a bit unsavoury. After a couple of hours exploring the cliff dwellings and the remains of a village on the approach to the cliffs, we continued winding westward, heading high into the forrested mountains and descending the tree-vaulted roadway before suddenly finding ourselves crossing a strikingly bare plain punctuated by occasional mounds of ancient lava and a handful of scattered trees. The Valles Caldera National Preserve had once been a volcanic dome but it had collapsed on itself thousands of years ago. It is the largest caldera in the world, stretching far beyond what can be seen by the road.

Our next stop was the Jemez State Monument, which contains the remains of a 17th century Spanish mission originally established to convert the local "savages" to Christianity. In addition to the ruins of a church and numerous outlines and partial walls of dwellings, a subterranean kiva, remains a prominent part of the compound. Just down the road is the Jemez Pueblo, one of the Indian villages that are maintained on the state's 22 reservations. Unlike some that have become tourist attractions, the Jemez Pueblo is a squalid collection of brown adobe structures that clearly reflect the success of the Spanish and, later, American efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans. The pueblo is closed to visitors except on designated feast days and even then photography is prohibited, a common restriction in many of the remaining pueblos.

Eventually, we make our way north to the tiny town of Cuba and turn east on State Road 96. From there until we come to Abiquiu, about 75km away and the site of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe's home and studio, we do not encounter even one pedestrian. The towns marked on the map that we use to chart our progress - Regina, Coyote, Gallina - prove to be little more than a few houses, a grocery store and a post office, all closed.

It slowly becomes apparent just how remote much of New Mexico really is. It is the fifth largest state in the US, closer in size to Germany than to England, but its population of just under two million means that outside a handful of urban areas, the state is sparsely populated. Beyond ranching, mining and tourism, there just isn't much here to support people. New money in the state flows largely from retirees and people, mostly Californians, buying second homes.

We are out of season for a tour of the O'Keeffe land and although we see signs advertising weekend tours of artists' studios in the area, most of these studios are ensconced in the crannies of the surrounding multi-coloured badlands.  "All the earth colours of the painter's palettes are out there in the many miles of badlands," O'Keeffe once said. She also often enthused about the clear light afforded by the desert that drew artists to New Mexico well before her first visit there in 1919. It has been one of the main draws for the state ever since. In fact, of the approximately two million artists - writers, musicians, performers, painters, etc - in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts says that New Mexico is home to the largest share of fine artists.

As night falls, we pass through Taos and then wind our way in darkness to Angel Fire. In the morning we gaze out of our bedroom window in wonder as a young male elk, his antlers just a whisper of their eventual magnificence, grazes with a group of four females. Angel Fire provides us with the opportunity to keep ourselves busy doing as little as possible. There are books to read, e-mails to write, movies to watch on TV. Occasional glances out the floor-length windows into the springtime forest inevitably turn into long-held contemplations.

At another time of year we could gaze across the valley at skiers zigzagging down the slopes, our own skis and poles awaiting us in the foyer. Or we could try rafting the whitewater in the northeastern quadrant of the state. There are countless opportunities for trout fishing in mountain streams and even big game hunting.  We kicked back but we did not stop our explorations in Angel Fire. Just a few kilometres away, a 19km-long cottonwood-mantled canyon emptied into the town of Cimarron, a most mellifluous symbol of New Mexico's Wild West roots. It is hard to imagine that this tiny outpost of a town with only 832 residents once epitomised the gunplay and lurid violence of the mythical Old West. As a way station on the Santa Fe Trail that connected New Mexico to the midwestern US, Cimarron played host to the likes of Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Jesse James, the train robber Black Jack Ketchum and Buffalo Bill Cody, all of whom stayed at the St James Hotel. Twenty-six murders were documented there in the late 1800's. When the hotel was renovated in 1906, 400 bullet holes were counted in the dining room ceiling, 20 of which still remain to remind today's lodgers that many, many guests have checked in at the St James but fewer have checked out.

If you are not willing to contend with the occasional ghost sightings there (room 12 has been permanently closed due to "strange" occurrences), you can try the Casa de Gavilan, a bed and breakfast well outside of town whose original owners made a habit of entertaining writers and artists in the early part of the last century. These put you in perfect striking distance of the Philmont Ranch, headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America, Vermejo Park Ranch, media magnate Ted Turner's expanse with its giant herd of bison and opportunities for big game hunting (US$550 per night, per person with extra charges for hunting and other activities).

Further northeast sits the Capulin Volcano, an extinct volcano that rises 305m above the surrounding terrain, primarily surfaces created by ancient lava flows. We drove to the rim - and spied heartier hikers making the ascent on foot - and walked the paved path around it before getting out of the car and descending into the crater itself. That trek is a bit more hair-raising than it sounds, however, as a misstep at certain places along the way would send the hiker sliding down the gravelly side of the volcano.

Northern New Mexico is not all outdoors adventure, however. Taos is a popular tourist spot with luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts, and expensive shops and galleries offering the work of local artists and craftspeople. Its charm, however, has been somewhat eroded by the influx of visitors - souvenir shops are almost as numerous as art galleries. It's pueblo, however, is one of the oldest occupied sites in the US and if you choose to buy Indian objects there, you can be assured that they were actually made by Indians.

Santa Fe, founded in 1610 and about half-way between Taos and Albuquerque, is the state capital. With a population of just over 60,000, the city is well-preserved and the local government has maintained its singular look. Buildings do not rise above three stories and it is mandated that most new structures retain the adobe style indigenous to the city and the state. The arts scene in Santa Fe is as vibrant and certainly larger and more varied than that in Taos. The city's best-known museum is probably the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum but among many others there is the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Santa Fe Children's Museum and the newly opened New Mexico History Museum, which takes up part of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest occupied building in the US. It sits directly across from the town square where some of the best Indian jewellery is sold by sidewalk artisans.

As exciting as these museums is Santa Fe's gallery scene. Canyon Road is home to a dense population of galleries offering everything from high quality local art to works from world-renowned artists present and past. The large art market here, second in the US only to New York, has engendered an experimental movement that is on display in more rustic galleries located across the railway depot from the historic town centre. 

The Railyard District as it has come to be called evokes the strange amalgam that makes Santa Fe and New Mexico so unique. The annual art fair which takes place in the summer sees galleries with collections worth millions of dollars setting up shop next to those who broke ground in the area with the display of contemporary abstract and conceptual artists. "People realise that investing in tangible assets makes sense during uncertain times," says Robert Casterline, who has just launched a new gallery in the district, a second outpost for his sales activities that centred in upscale Aspen, Colorado.

Meanwhile, on the other side of downtown, the director of the New Mexico History Museum, Dr Frances Levine, says, "We wanted visitors to experience the stories of New Mexico's people, not just read a chronology or passively look at artifacts." Regardless of perspective, one final quote from O'Keeffe on some of her earlier New Mexico paintings expresses an irrefutable sentiment: "Sun-bleached bones were most wonderful against the blue - that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man's destruction is finished."

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