New Mexico is up! This state is home to song place 81 of 92, Santa Fe. In this post, we try our best to stay on Route 66, spend way too much time talking about a staircase, experiment with Los Alamos, enter a cliff dwelling and make another Oklahoma reconnection.
Monday, July 22nd, 2019
Amarillo, Texas, USA
After completing my visit to Amarillo, I decided that I was going to depart from the theme of going to each place in the song. Instead I decided to head towards whatever town I saw next on the top of a building.
Hmmm…that was convenient.
It was time to head west into New Mexico, where I would set my sights on song place 81 of 92, Santa Fe.
Route for the day:
I was a little low on daylight, so I was mostly on the interstate. Soon, I reached the border and entered the 44th (I think) state of my trip.
The little town of San Jon offered free camping in its city park. They even had a bathroom with running water. Joy of joys! It is apparent that this community had been hurt by Route 66 being replaced by I-40. Though the roads are less than a mile apart, many towns like this do not see the amount of traffic that they used to.
Despite this, it is obviously a very generous community to offer a safe, clean place to stay for travelers like myself. Thank you, San Jon!
Tuesday, July 23rd
I woke up feeling awesome. I just felt like something wonderful was going to happen this day. I would be heading towards Santa Fe, one of the song places I was most looking forward to.
Just like Bilbo, I was ready to gain some elevation.
Don’t get me wrong, I love The Plains. There is nowhere more peaceful and predictable in the world. But after so many sweaty nights in the tent, I was eagerly anticipating some cool nights up in the Rockies.
Route for the day:
I was determined to spend as much time on old Route 66 as I could. This is sort of difficult in New Mexico, as a lot of the original road was swallowed up by I-40. Trying to stay on the original road leads to a lot of dead ends and interesting tunnels.
Tucamcari, NM is at an interesting point in its history. Half of the motels are abandoned and grown over.
The other half have been well maintained and cared for.
At one of the classic service stations:
I found some nice riding on the road through Villanueva, almost feeling like I was in actual Mexico in the little mountain towns.
At a tourist trap called the Flying C Ranch, I met some really nice people, including this guy named Norm.
He had staked out Annie, waiting for my return, as I vacillated back and forth in my decision about buying the buffalo head on the wall. I think I had room in the trunk.
Norm told me about a couple of spontaneous meetings he has had with a legendary rider named Panhead Billy. His travels make my journey seem like a trip to the grocery store.
(Norm, if you’re reading this, please send me another text. I lost your info when my phone died.)
Upon reaching Santa Fe, my discipline was tested. I really wanted to begin seeing the sights, but instead headed to a library to work for a few hours. I did make it downtown in the evening, in time to catch some live music in the city square.
The guy above was playing jazz harp, something I had never heard before. I inspected a little closer and could see that his harp was not chromatic. He had removed some of the strings for easier chording with his left hand. It was really neat.
I stayed for as long as I could before heading out to a free camping area in Santa Fe National Forest. The sunset over the mountains was beautiful and I had to stop to get this unique picture:
This is actually looking due north, which is puzzling. I’m not sure how the light reflected like that.
The “forest” was just some scrubby little trees growing out of the sand.
Other than the choruses of coyotes in the distance, I had a very peaceful night.
Wednesday, July 24th
I debated leaving my tent staked where it was, but decided to load everything up just to be safe. I rode into town and began my Santa Fe adventure. I stopped in the visitors center and they gave me some ideas for iconic pictures. From there I went on to the state capitol.
Every wall is plastered with art, making it feel much less institutional than other state buildings. My favorite piece was this buffalo head sculpture:
It is comprised mostly of junk, including old paint brushes and a plastic spoon on the eye.
One of the most notable things about Santa Fe is its age. Depending on the source, it is the second or third oldest city in the United States. I find this fact especially fascinating, given how far it is from any ocean.
Near the capitol, I visited the oldest house in the US and the San Miguel Church which dates to the early 1600s. It is in surprisingly good condition, save for the leaning rafters.
I returned to the city square and spent some time admiring the Palace of the Governors. This adobe building long served as the seat of government for New Mexico and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the US.
As they have for centuries, local artisans still display their wares underneath this building’s canopy.
This region is known for its beautiful turquoise stones. My parents, on their Route 66 trip, bought me a nice keychain here which has been with me for my entire trip.
Next on my agenda was the Loretto Chapel.
Inside this chapel is an incredibly mysterious, alluring structure: The Loretto Chapel spiral staircase. It is a double-helix structure which has no center support, like traditional spiral staircases.
According to the story, the nuns of this chapel had been using a ladder to reach their choir loft. They’d prayed that God would send someone to build them a staircase. Around 1880, a stranger appeared and offered to build them one, requesting only tubs of water and complete privacy while he worked. He disappeared upon completion, receiving no compensation for his work.
The Sisters of Loretto believed that they had experienced a miracle and the staircase has maintained its mystique for well over a century. Of course, there have also been many skeptics eager to dispel divine explanations for its construction. This little staircase has been the source of many debates.
A (hopefully) brief rant:
Committed consumers of this quality publication will already know that I am both a man of science and a man of faith. Maybe it’s just because I’m not smart enough to realize it, but I’ve never felt any conflict between these elements of my personality.
The raging debate on this staircase highlights some of my frustration with modern popular science. It seems many experiments are conducted with the goal being to support a belief one already holds, rather than letting the data inform one’s beliefs. If someone really wants to prove that chocolate is a health food, they can probably massage their data to do so.
In terms of the staircase, it seems that People of Faith want its construction to remain mysterious. Without a scientific answer, divine inspiration is the solution. This attitude leads to an under appreciation for the master craftsmanship on display. Additionally, it must be noted that the chapel is now privately owned and charges admission. Were the staircase “solved,” they could expect the number of visitors to decline.
On the other hand, People of Science seem solely interested in disproving any supernatural influence in this staircase’s construction. Their attitude seems to be that small-minded believers have been fooled and they are going to use science to prove their own mental superiority. Coming from this sort of motivation, quality science is almost impossible.
All that said, I’d like to offer my humble observations. I hope I will be able to combine the most offensive qualities of both camps. 🙂
Firstly, it must be noted that the initial structure did not have any guard rails, nor connections to the wall or adjacent pillar. These were added in 1887, which changed the staircase both structurally and aesthetically. Sadly, this makes it impossible to analyze the structure as it was initially built. Also, it looked way cooler without the guard rails:
The stringers (the pieces of wood to which the stairs are attached) are constructed amazingly. The inner stringer consists of seven pieces of wood and the outer is made up of nine. The pieces were joined with only pegs and glue. The seams are nearly invisible.
To my amateur eye, I believe something important happens at the base of the stairs. The inner stringer is widened, allowing it to support a greater range of the structure’s weight. This feature is the only departure from a true double helix design.
There are a few other spiral staircases in the world which are supported solely by their stringers, but none are nearly as dramatic as this one. Part of me wonders that if someone was capable of building something like this, wouldn’t it be expected to find other similar structures around? If this was his first attempt at a staircase like this, it makes the feat even more impressive.
It would be very interesting to see if a group of carpenters would undertake a project to build a full scale replica of the staircase, limiting themselves to period-correct tools. That might be the best experiment possible to provide concrete answers to its construction.
Ultimately, I don’t really care about whether the origin of this spectacle is “proven” or not. When one gets caught up in over-analysis, its easy to lose perspective on the one thing that everyone can agree on: This thing is pretty neat. The best thing to do on a visit here is to just enjoy it. If you are a person of faith, admire the divine inspiration. If you are a person of science, marvel at the expert craftsmanship. If you are both, write a really confusing, indulgent post about it. 🙂
Nothing too interesting happened the remainder of the day. I scouted out some potential picture locations for the next morning and listened to some more live music in the town square. I had lots of nice conversations with other tourists who were in town, but there weren’t really any native Santa Fe’ans who seemed too interested in my story. They might just be used to weird people showing up in their town.
I set up my tent in the National Forest again and had another good night. The cool mountain air was doing me well.
Thursday, July 25th
I was up at 5am to make some coffee and head into town for some photo ops. The city seemed so different at the early hour, without the hustle and bustle of all the tourists.
The lighting was really nice since the sun was up, but was yet to crest above the mountains.
At the Palace of the Governors:
I also took some shots in Burro Alley, in honor of my own trusty pack mule.
I went up to an overlook site to watch the sun come over the mountains.
When I descended, I had a bit of a scare as my keys were not in my pocket. Part of me wondered if my turquoise keychain knew it was home and intended to stay in Santa Fe. I ran back up the hill and found them on the ledge where I had been sitting. Phew.
Though I didn’t feel great about my time in Santa Fe, I decided to head out. I had really high expectations for this place, which went unrealized on this visit. Nothing negative happened here, but I was not able to connect with the people of this place. I didn’t really meet anyone with any level of enthusiasm. Maybe this is expected in a place with so many tourists. I guess I was just surprised that a place with so much culture and history felt so bland.
I hope I will be able to visit here again in the future. Perhaps with more time and more money, I will enjoy Santa Fe more thoroughly.
There was still a lot to experience this day. I began heading north through the mountains. Route:
I was interested to visit Los Alamos. There is a free science museum there which details the events of the Manhattan Project. It took just 27 months for the incredible scientists here to develop the atomic bomb. From a purely scientific perspective, this may be the most impressive feat of the entire 20th Century.
I learned many things about the project which were new to me, but which are probably too boring to include in this quality publication.
Though the museum is solely focused on the scientific achievements of this project, the ethical consequences remain a hotly debated topic. Would the Japanese have surrendered without the bomb? How many lives would have been lost in a land invasion of Japan? Was the dropping of the bomb primarily a show of strength to the USSR? Has the world been safer since the debut of nuclear weapons? What decision would Henry Wallace (the guy who should have been president) made?
Obviously, it is impossible to know the answers to any of these questions. There is a little corner of the museum where outside groups have expressed opposing opinions on opposing walls.
The rain was pouring down when I left the museum, but I decided to ride on. When entering the area for the National Labratory, there is a checkpoint where you can be subject to a random inspection. Or if you are me, you can be subject to a really pleasant conversation about my trip.
I continued on to the Bandelier National Monument. This is a heritage area located in a canyon which preserves the dwellings of the indigenous peoples of the area. I may not have visited, except that I now have a National Park pass (thanks Adam and Natalie).
They even have ladders that let you climb up into some of the cliff dwellings.
I’ve definitely slept in worse spots…
Just a reminder…You might not always feel like you are heading in the right direction, but just keep growing and you will eventually find your way:
Even more dwellings were visible when I was back on the road:
As I continued north, I hit a really tough storm. It was one of the most intense cross-winds I had felt in some time and the road was flooded in some spots.
But Annie was really needing a wash, so I didn’t mind too much. 🙂
My goal for the night was to reach the little resort town of Red River. Here, I would be reconnecting with some very special Oklahomans.
I stayed with Rocky and Leanna in NW Oklahoma for a few days, using their place as my jumping off point to visit Hennessy, home of Oklahoma’s largest quilt shop. (THIS POST) I’d enjoyed getting to know their son, Ryan, and this time I got to meet their daughter, Lauren, too.
Before I even had my rain gear peeled off, I made a nice connection with some another couple staying in the hotel, Brett and XXXX (If you are reading this, please remind me of your name! I had it saved on my phone which is now dead). She seemed drawn to my Dad’s signature, almost magnetically, which allowed me to share about what an incredible man he was. Shortly thereafter, she gave me some money to assist me in my trip. It was a brief, but deep, interaction.
Rocky, of course, noted that when he is around people just seem to consistently give me things like money and quilts. I guess he probably deserves a 10% finder’s fee.
They took me to a bistro called “Brett’s.” The food was really good, but I was disappointed that they did not have a Brett-specific discount.
My long day drew to a close with some old and new friends around a crackling camp fire. They made room for me in their hotel. Having a roof is always a nice treat.
Friday, July 26th
I was initially planning on heading out in the morning, but my plans were about to change. Rocky and his family come here often in the summer and one of his favorite activities is enjoying his morning coffee on the hotel balcony. After joining him for this ritual, it became clear to me that I was not going to be making any progress this day. 🙂
Most of the day was very relaxing, with good food and new friends. I met the owner of the hotel who had met Johnny Cash in 1955, before he was really famous. He had good things to say about Cash’s down-to-earth personality.
We took the truck out for a drive up the mountain in the afternoon, taking in some spectacular views.
Perhaps the only thing truly epic on this day was our battle on the go-kart course:
This was a special day off and I was amazed at how the generosity of these Oklahomans stretched beyond their state lines (…and not even the first Oklahomans to do so). Thank you so much for letting me be a part of your family for a few days. It was just what I was needing!
I’m still a bit unsure of how to sum up my time in New Mexico. I guess if I were giving it a grade, it would have to be “incomplete.” I just didn’t spend enough time there to make any sweeping generalizations. Although I must say, I’m a bit surprised that the highlights were a staircase and some Oklahomans.
11 to go!
Keep spiraling, everybody
Realtime update: I’m still in Colorado. No, I haven’t taken up permanent residence here, I’ve just been having some very special time with friends and family. I’m planning to be back on the road tomorrow, hopefully reaching Utah on Thursday. I’ll do some National Parks, cross off Cedar City, then head down into Arizona.
As referenced in this post, my primary phone is dead. I’m hoping to resurrect it, but for now I’m using one of my old ones. I probably have some unresponded to messages that got lost in the shuffle, so please get back in touch with me if I haven’t responded to you.
17 thoughts on “Stair-ing Down New Mexico”
Always look forward to your posts. They never disappoint! Thank you for documenting and sharing your journey with us.
My pleasure. It is in honor to have you along on the journey. 🙂
Fantastic issue to my favorite literary series. Once again we see the common themes of creative camping, beautiful churches, grand vistas, God & Science (my favorites and I think they go hand in hand…) and the kindness of strangers. I’m very thankful that you continue to bless us by bringing us along on your journey.
Thanks George. It’s funny that this felt like one of my weaker posts, but I’ve had so many nice comments on it. Maybe I should try less hard. 🙂
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Sorry to be dense , but is the Red River you mentioned the same as in the song Red River Valley and John Wayne movie? ( From Down Under where we learnt our Geography from American movies and song)
Different one, I would imagine. The most famous Red River in the US is on the border between Texas and Oklahoma and meets the Mississippi in Louisiana. I’m impressed by your geography though. I think most Americans assume that Canberra is an animal. 🙂
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Very well done. As a non-believer, I was composing 15 different responses to your “rant” on the spiral stairs and on religion vs. science. By the time I finished reading, I was totally disarmed. Touche’.
I don’t know if that is what I was going for. Upon further examination, I don’t really love this post. My main point is that I wish that everyone of different beliefs could have constructive discussions about these things. Even if there are deep disagreements, it shouldn’t affect the ability to be friends with those from different backgrounds…uh oh… I’m ranting again. 🙂
Well done, Brett. Fun to see some of the places Dad and I visited on our Route 66 trip. We stayed in the Blue Swallow Motel. Dad was so intrigued by the Loretto staircase too. Got to love your generous new friends from Oklahoma. Thanks, Rocky and family!! Always good to see your posts back up again, Brett! Travel safe! Love you! Mom
We love hosting him and spending time just relaxing and hearing all his amazing stories. I can’t wait to meet “mom”. Hopefully that will be very soon.
I hope so too! You are welcome in Nebraska anytime!
Uh oh! An inmate has escaped the asylum! 🙂 Good to see you over here, Rocky. Thanks again so much for all that you’ve done for me. Mom would love to meet you and your family too. As Ryan said, Nebraska isn’t that far!
I can just imagine dad saying “Would you look at that” to so many of the sights I’ve seen. 🙂
Great thoughts on the staircase, it is quite a marvel! Also love your crooked tree branch analogy, that’s a keeper ☺️ -B&E
That’s one of the few things I like about this post. Thanks for muddling through all of the dense drivel. 🙂
I’m finally back to reading the state of your trip! I’m glad to know Route 66 still exists, at least in parts. Santa Fe is dear to me because I had four visits there when my oldest daughter was a student at St. Johns College. If you’d like to have deep, long conversations next time you’re in Santa Fe, just go find some Johnnies!
I never made it to the Loretto Chapel so it’s great to read your divine description of the technical craftsmanship of that famous spiral staircase. (I too am an “and” not an “or” person.)
Love your photos, especially the buffalo heads and the stairs and the gnarly tree. Keep growing!
I would have loved to have met some “Johnnies.” I maybe just didn’t do a good enough job of reaching out while I was in Santa Fe. I continue to think back about what I could have done differently. I think there are probably more “and” people around than we think. There’s a lot of room in the middle.
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