This high-desert town is the very embodiment of the Southwest — rugged, beautiful, timeless. Sam Moulton retraces his journey
“Just hope you don’t get a corner,” Whitney said as we sped east of town in his rickety Volvo station wagon, the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo blurring the windshield. It was early April, in the early aughts, and we were heading to Ribera, New Mexico, a small community of artists, ranchers and farmers southeast of Santa Fe, to help our friend Eric clean the acequia he uses to irrigate his small farm. As with the hundreds of other acequias in northern Mexico, Ribera’s community-operated watercourse was originally dug in the 1700s when the Spanish first started farming in the area. Once a year, the 30 or so families who share the acequia, which diverts water from the nearby Pecos River, get together to give it a spring-cleaning. The more friends every member of the acequia persuaded to pitch in and help purge the previous season’s detritus, the less they’d have to pay in water taxes that year.
The process is pretty simple: The acequia is several feet wide, and about 4 serpentine miles long, and we’d tackle it one 10-or-so-foot-long stick section at a time. The majordomo, or ditch boss, walks the acequia with his stick, counting out segments. Everyone would clean his and her designated section, and the whole thing would repeat. If the majordomo happened to assign you a corner, or any kind of bend in the acequia, where silt and debris were more likely to build up, Whitney explained, you were going to get a little dirtier. More than a decade later, my most vivid memory is of endless shoveling and insatiable thirst. And fine New Mexican dirt everywhere — under my nails, in my trail running shoes, caked to the insides of my ears. It took me a few days to scrub it all away, but in many ways, it’s been a part of me of ever since.
Although Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in America, first occupied around the end of the 10th century, a lot of us have washed up here more recently. We usually blow in from the East, and often a passing glimpse is all it takes — a long weekend visiting an old friend, an impromptu stopover during a road trip. A knot comes loose, a subtle but noticeable shift deep in the psyche. “Touch the country,” D.H. Lawrence once wrote of New Mexico, “and you will never be the same again.” Later, on a whim, or the whisper of a job offer, we’ll move to town. After a year or two we’ll get pulled away by other opportunities, but always seem to find ourselves magnetically drawn back.
My own Santa Fe story follows a similar narrative arc. My freshman-year roommate in college, Devin, was from Santa Fe. I had traveled to the Southwest before, but the place he described — where all the food is slathered in red or green chile, all the buildings are brown and flat-roofed and all the kids are afraid of La Llorona, the ghostly woman who haunts the arroyos that interlace the town — had a hint of magical realism that my Wisconsin-raised, Puritan brain had a hard time comprehending. I decided I had to see it for myself, and moved to town for the summer following our sophomore year. Like a lot of people, I instantly swooned over the obvious Santa Fe. The historic churches, the galleries along Canyon Road, the rich history down every narrow, maze-like street. The postcard-perfect plaza at the heart of downtown where everyone from local hippies to art connoisseurs congregates and, at night, the cholos do hot laps in their lowriders, peacocking slowly around the square in their custom creations with colorful paint jobs, spoke rims and hydraulic systems.
But what really hooked me that summer — and to this day — was more rooted in the landscape. The way the dirt roads take their time winding through the high desert. The way you can only really smell the junipers and pinyon trees after a good hard rain. The way the sun hits the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that gently loom above town, bathing the foothills in the slanty and cinematic light that artists and photographers crave.
I didn’t get my fill that summer. Not long after college, Santa Fe beckoned me back. Over the next few years, I learned to mountain bike in the foothills, rock climb at the cliffs that overlook the Rio Grande and telemark at the ski resort just above town. My vocabulary expanded to include Frito pies and faux-dobe. I traveled north to the tiny town of Chimayo, where a fabled adobe church has a seemingly endless supply of “holy dirt” that reportedly possesses a special curative power. I’m skeptical by nature, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by all the eye patches, crutches and other physical evidence of healing left behind in the inner holy shrine.
I also finally understood the deep and enduring affection for the town’s main ingredient: the green chile. For the few first few years, I’d just nod my head as my friends discussed the nuanced difference in flavor profiles between green chiles grown in the town of Socorro versus those from Hatch, which bills itself as the Chile Capital of the World. (Short version: Socorros are generally bigger, meatier and milder.) And I think I still have PTSD from my first trip to Horseman’s Haven, a no-frills local joint attached to a Giant gas station on the outskirts of town that serves up some of the hottest chile around. The special sauce comes in two different spice levels, and just one spoonful of the level two caused me to break out in a full-body sweat and induced a case of interminable hiccups.
Santa Fe has evolved a lot since I first fell in love with it. There aren’t nearly as many lowriders cruising around town, and Horseman’s Haven Cafe is now in a (slightly) fancier new location. It’s still on the fringes of town, but is now sandwiched in between that Giant station and a furniture store. And, ever since food critic Anthony Bourdain visited the place a few years ago, it’s become a bit more popular. The city has grown considerably in the past decade, and while some locals might gripe about the increased traffic, but, for the most part, I think we can all agree that the town continues to get better with age. Most of the trails I first fell in love with are now marked. The La Tierra network, which used to be a locals-only spot where you parked behind the church and had to know where you were going, now has official trailheads and maps at every junction. Even better, while the trails have become faster and more fun, and more people now enjoy them, I can still go out early on a Sunday morning and have the place to myself.
The food and art scene has absolutely exploded. The green chile chicken enchiladas and margarita combo may still reign supreme, but that’s just the start. At Tune-Up, owners Jesus and Charlotte Rivera serve up traditional New Mexican fare with an El Salvadoran twist. Over at Eloisa, Santa Fe native John Rivera Sedlar, who has been lauded as the founder of modern Southwestern cooking, adds a bit of Latin American and Asian influence to the cooking techniques he first learned from his grandmother, Eloisa. Even the common green chile cheeseburger has been elevated to a delicacy by Brian Knox, who, after several decades cooking and helming some of the finest restaurants in town, decided to open up the Shake Foundation, an old-school burger-and-shake joint. Same thing goes for the arts. While the open-air Santa Fe Opera, emerging from the desert like a surreal white ship, remains the biggest star in the town’s creative constellation, the galaxy continues to diversify. Many galleries along Canyon Road, like Manitou Galleries, whose owner, Bob Nelson, also curates and manages the Nelson Museum of the West in Cheyenne, Wyoming, still specialize in traditional and contemporary Southwestern art. Others, like the world-renowned Nedra Matteucci Galleries, have a more cosmopolitan flair, and showcase everything from masters of American impressionism and Modernism to Russian realist paintings and Native American jewelry.
But perhaps the coolest development is how the arts scene is no longer confined to the downtown and Canyon Road. The newish Railyard Arts District is home to a group of contemporary art galleries as well as SITE Santa Fe, an internationally known art space. Groups like Meow Wolf, an arts production collaborative that produces immersive, multimedia art experiences, is in the midst of renovating an old bowling alley on the more industrial west side of town. The one thing that hasn’t changed? The rhythm of the place. The air still smells like roasted chiles every fall, when farmers from down south roast their wares in parking lots across town. The town still goes to bed early and gets up late (forget about getting something good to eat after 9 p.m.). And it remains as unharried as ever by the on-demand pace of modern life.
The other constant is the people. Thanks in part to the citywide living wage ordinance, which allows artists to earn a living while doing their craft on the side, and the nearby Los Alamos National Lab, which literally employs thousands of Ph.D.s, we have more than our fair share of jewelers, filmmakers and nuclear physicists. But it’s not just the artists, scientists and craftsmen that lend Santa Fe its distinctive texture; it’s everybody who’s chosen to carve out his or her own unique niche here in town.
A few years ago, I remember reading that longtime resident Cormac McCarthy once remarked that “there’s good craic” here. Craic? I had to look it up (it’s Gaelic for lively chat or conversation), but he’s totally right. McCarthy was specifically referring to the Nobel laureates, MacArthur geniuses and other faculty members of the Santa Fe Institute, the think tank where he hangs out and writes, but I like to think he’d have said the same exact thing about the rest of us.