Sunday, May 25, 2008

The New New Mexico

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The "old" New Mexico is still there. It's just a little harder to find.

I've returned from a week in Santa Fe, Taos, and points along the way. Most of the trip was uplifting, in a way that is peculiarly New Mexican. If you live there, or have spent some time there, you know what I mean. If not, you shouldn't deny yourself the experience.

The mystique remains, but things change, even in New Mexico.

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It's no secret that the streets around the Plaza in Santa Fe have become a shopping mall and theme park; that was true even when I lived in the city, from 1982 to 1991. This is high-class shopping, for the most part, an exotic bazaar. Lots of designer fashion and handmade jewelry, less coyote and Kokopelli "art" than there used to be, for which God be thanked. What took me aback was how much outdoor space has now been tarted up with sculpture.

There seems hardly a public area downtown that doesn't have a carved or molded totem -- from noble Indian to Rube Goldberg contraption. I'll admit I'm less keen on sculpture than painting, so take this with a dash of salt if you want, but a lot of the aesthetic building boom strikes me as detracting from, not adding to, a genuinely old and atmospheric city.

Part of the beauty of the traditional architecture, especially the Pueblo Revival style, is the purity of its form: spare, curvilinear, almost Zen-like in its self-contained grace. Plopping sculptures in front of it or in its courtyards adds a jarring element, an aggressive over-the-top gesture.

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It isn't a spontaneous outpouring of creativity, but a tourism-industry pitch, screeching at you (in case -- very unlikely -- you forget) that you are in the epicenter of art. "Art!" "Art!" "Art!" Buy!

When you enter Archbishop Lamy's cathedral, the silence and religious iconography come as a relief, almost as much as the neo-Gothic church at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street lifts you out of the crowded and noisy hell of Manhattan. Mammon has not triumphed. Not completely.

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There have been improvements in Santa Fe as well. The restaurants are better, and you have more choices than "red or green?" (That is, which color chile pepper do you want on your enchiladas?) The unstoppable expansion of the city on the south side is marked by pretty good traditional architecture. Even the despised Cerrillos Road, the main commercial drag, is no longer the eyesore it once was.

Looks aside, the spirit hasn't been driven out of Santa Fe. It's an easygoing place. My old acquaintance Bill Hearne is still playing wonderful country and bluegrass with his trio in the lounge at La Fonda, and couples artfully dance the two-step to his music. Hank Williams is not forgotten in these parts.

My wife and I drove out to Abiquiu and Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch. I liked the landscape a lot better than her paintings of it. There is a mesa you can see off in the distance, one of her frequent subjects, where it is said that the Kachinas appear during lightning storms. I believe it.

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Taos seems to me in every way a better environment than when I last visited more than 20 years ago. The formerly dreary highway strip leading into the old town has been, like Cerrillos Road, drastically upgraded. Taos is arty, too, but the pretentiousness has yet to reach Santa Fe proportions. The city seems, for the moment, to have struck a good balance: welcoming to visitors, a reasonably sophisticated gallery scene, not overgrown, and set amid spectacular scenery.

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The only sour note in both Santa Fe and Taos was the political correctness I sensed constantly. Santa Fe has been a leftist burg for as long as I've known it, full of spoiled trust-fund babies acting out their guilt trips. The latest trendy cause is Tibet. (Oppressed Latin Americans are still in vogue, but just a bit passé; blacks -- oh, my dear, so 1968.) When we arrived at the Plaza an awful rock band was playing at a rally to support Tibet against China. For a change I agree with the Beautiful People; Tibet has been cruelly violated by China since it was invaded almost 60 years ago. But it was hard to escape the feeling that the pervasive Tibetitude was less about human rights than joy at finding a new Victim Group to celebrate.

In Taos the artistes and especially the young drive around with their bumper sticker virtue, including that "COEXIST" thing with the symbols of the world religions implying that they're all just different varieties of spirit -- you're a bigot if you question why a certain religion feels the need to convert the rest of humankind through bombs and jihad -- and, of course, OBAMA '08. I used to look forward to when my "sixties" generation would be dead, imagining that young minds who hadn't been nurtured on Chairman Mao's Little Red Book would kiss off the reflexive leftist ideologies of their elders. Instead they are imitating them. Yet another generation lost to the indoctrination of the media and the Marxist-soaked academics.

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The guidebooks like to talk about the multi-culturalism of New Mexico, the creative mixing of Indian, Spanish, and Anglo heritage. The only thing missing today is the Anglo. To judge from the arts and crafts galleries and the culture establishment, you'd think Ind -- excuse me, Native Americans and Spanish were the only ones that counted, practically the only people who ever existed in New Mexico. And how the Native Americans are in tune with the Earth, guardians of the Land, humble before the Great Spirit.

Give me a flipping break. These peaceful worshipers of Nature have scarred the landscape far and wide with Las Vegas-style casinos, their billboards and huge animated electronic signs by the highways luring the suckers. However it may have been in the past, today's reality is that the Anglos are almost obsessively respectful of the environment, while the Indians crucify it.

And in this Reign of Political Correctness, all we learn about is how the Spanish built lovely missions and made colorful furniture. Well, it's true, they did. They also did some not very nice things, but we don't talk about those.

There is one acceptable, nay, sainted Anglo, the aforementioned Georgia O'Keeffe. Her shrine, the museum in Santa Fe, is the no. 1 tourist draw.

But whatever people make of it, the land is big and the sky is bigger in New Mexico. They belong to the gods of the ancient ones. The Kachinas drew down the lightning, the sun turned the rocks gold in the day and violet at dusk, the stars pierced the onyx bowl of midnight. They still do.

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"Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapor; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.

"Coming along the Santa Fé trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and white with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-colored by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light."

-- Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop

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2 comments:

green mamba said...

Nice travel account, on par with your L.A./San Francisco comparison from some months's back. I was only in Santa Fe once for 24 hours, but I was utterly entranced by the place.

Rick Darby said...

Thanks, green mamba. I hope you have a chance to spend more time in Santa Fe and environs.