Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Friends in Far Places
Sorry the blog has been quiet the last few days but I've been out of town, traveling to far Santa Fe to visit my pal Laura. It was my first trip out west (unless you count California) and I had a lot of fun and many adventures. New Mexico is pretty much what someone raised on Western movies would expect from the west, full of mesas and cactus and wide open spaces, but Santa Fe itself is a little harder to pin down. It's sort of a small town with a big city spin, alternately cosmopolitan and rustic.
My first observation on seeing the town itself was that Santa Fe kind of looked like a city in a science fiction movie because all the houses seemed to share a similar design. You know how when they show the planet Vulcan or something it looks like the same guy designed all the houses? Like that. Everything seems to have been coated with adobe. Laura tells me that this is because the city fathers only allow three styles of architecture. Most folks seem to choose the one that look like Pueblo Indian dwellings, with square walls covered in adobe of various shades. There is function here, as well as form of course, because the adobe serves as excellent insulation against the dry heat. But Santa Fe has taken it to extremes. Even the bank drive-through and many of the overpasses are covered with tan adobe and decorated with the blues and pinks that you see on the homes.
And speaking of dry heat, that was the next thing I had to get used to. Coming from Georgia, where the level of humidity is so high that the water vapor in the air almost seems visible, it took me a while to get used to New Mexico where perspiration vanishes as quickly as it appears and a puddle of spilled water dries almost instantly.
I can see where the artists who have made Santa Fe their home get there inspirations. The thin air and the bright sun give the area a particular quality of light that I haven't seen anywhere else. Were I a painter, I could see working in Santa Fe. The shadows are as sharp and dark as the sky is blue and clear. And the sunlight is brilliant. Laura had warned me to bring a hat and sunscreen, and I did. I did forget the sunscreen at one point and my neck ended up sunburned in an amazingly short period of time. Bright and hot out there, folks.
I got my first look at real western scenery on the second day of my visit when Laura and her husband David drove me up to Ghost Ranch. This is a 21,000 acre retreat and education center owned by the Presbyterian Church and was once the home of artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The drive up is spectacular as the road winds its way through red rock canyons and past mesas and massive cliffs striated with bands of white, brown, and ochre rock layers. Laura, who was trained as a geologist, patiently answered my many questions about the rock formations.
When we reached the Ghost Ranch office and museum complex there was an added bonus in that one wing of the museum had some Triassic dinosaur fossils, and we know how I love dinosaurs.
Later that day we drove up past Los Alamos into the Jemez Mountains to see Valles Caldera, which is an absolutely HUGE valley covered in pale grass. It's a collapsed volcanic crater that covers 89,000 acres and because of the volcanic nature of the soil, trees won't grow there, so you have this vast empty expanse. It was a privately owned ranch until the year 2000 when it became a national park. For years cattle had been grazed there and that's still the case, though there's a sort of lottery set up to decide who gets to use the land. Quite a few Western movies were filmed in the area including Shoot Out with Gregory Peck and such recent films as The Missing and Last Stand at Saber River. One of the sets, and old ranch house, is still there. We saw some elk grazing in the valley but couldn't get close enough to them for a good look.
The rest of the trip was taken up with wandering around Santa Fe, eating a lot of really good Mexican food, and just hanging out with Laura and David. Though I've known Laura since 2001 through the internet, this was our first face to face meeting. She's just as much fun in person as she is online. We spent a lot of time just talking and hanging out with her two dogs. I also got to meet her horse, which made for a very 'western' experience as we walked him out among the cactus and scrub pines to graze. All I needed was a Stetson instead of my ball cap. I visited several used bookstores and I have to note that Santa Fe is not the SF/Fantasy capital of the world. Several of the stores didn't even have science fiction sections. I did come away with the Cambridge companion to Gothic Literature, which was pretty cool.
All and all it was a great trip. I learned a lot and I saw many new sights. Laura and David were great hosts and made me feel like I was part of the family rather than just some guy Laura knew from the internet. The nice thing is, now when I'm talking to Laura online or we're playing Lord of the Rings, I'll know what she's talking about when she mentions the dogs or her office or her house. I'll be able to imagine that stark sunlight and those blue skies and the faces of my friends.