SANTA FE, N.M.
The first thing you notice is the sky.
An electric blue ceiling. Spotless. Like someone has pressed hard with an ultramarine crayon. • Then it changes. Mottled gray clouds, streaky and angry, appear from nowhere. They dip and curl; Van Gogh's Starry Night. Those that aren't threatening rain (or snow) are wispy white and moving fast. • Change comes again at sunset. Did someone strike a match against the clouds? They blaze red hot chili. And Creamsicle. And fresh corn. Some smolder adobe. • An artist couldn't possibly capture the intensity, except for maybe Georgia O'Keeffe. But many try, painting, sculpting and photographing enough work to fill some 250 art galleries. This is Santa Fe, after all, and the sky here attracts artists and dreamers and people with passions.
A different kind of Disney
Santa Fe, like San Francisco and Savannah, is one of those places people speak of reverentially. It's not "how did you like it?" but "how much do you love it?" Santa Fe is gorgeous. It's cool, both in vibe and temperature. Even hot summer days give way to comfortable nights.
It's different, especially compared with Florida. The adobe buildings, smooth and squat and seemingly sprouting from the earth, look fake to a New Mexican newbie. Are we at Disney? Do people really live in homes this darn cute?
Trademark ristras — strands of chilies — sway from porch coverings, picking up high-altitude sunlight at morning and evening. There are blue doors, pristine and chipped, and countless interpretations of the flute-playing, stick-figure Kokopelli. Turquoise isn't a Southwestern cliche here but a livelihood for many American Indian jewelrymakers.
Rough-hewn Pueblo ladders lean against adobe homes. They are more decorative than functional, and honor the region's cultural roots. I thought of them as a way to get closer to the stars. Again the sky commands attention.
And everywhere, there are crosses.
After a weeklong visit, I'm sold on Santa Fe. I now recite the mantra like a Santa Fe Stepford: You have to go. What I like (or is it love?) about the city and the fascinating sights nearby is not unlike what brings others to the oldest city that serves as a state capital. (Though New Mexico was made a state in 1912, Santa Fe has a 400-year-old history as a city ruled by Spain for at least half of that time. It was a Pueblo village before that.)
Yes, it's picturesque. You won't find any towering buildings blocking the view. Even the capitol is only four stories, but one is below ground. From above, the "roundhouse" as it's called resembles the Zia Pueblo sun symbol, which is also on the state flag.
There is plenty of shopping, art and restaurants, where you'll quickly learn that the question "red or green?" pertains to the sauce on your enchiladas or some other dish. Before you answer, ask which one is hotter on that day. You'll find the response varies; order according to your taste buds.
But Santa Fe is more than a pretty face. There's a lot going on inside, too. A visit here will make you feel hopeful, even rejuvenated. Maybe it's the "Poet for Peace" performing in front of the public library. Or the funky kids who staff the Video Library, which is all about independent and foreign flicks and has very little use for computers. (We opted for lowbrow entertainment. Mel Brooks' goofy Western spoof Blazing Saddles fit the terrain.)
Stop by Whole Foods and you'll think you've stumbled into the way-back machine. Original hippies shop cart-to-cart with new Bohemians.
It's a little bit Berkeley, Calif., but with a very good opera company.
It's O'Keeffe country
Most people say Georgia O'Keeffe is the artist who best captured northern New Mexico. What is undisputed is that the area captured her. A museum dedicated to her work is in Santa Fe, where she died in 1986 at the age of 98.
Make visiting the museum a priority. It's not large and won't take long, but do go on the docent-led tour. It's free with admission and you'll learn a lot about O'Keeffe and how she drew viewers into her work not by painting everything she saw, but by focusing on details: flowers, sun-bleached cow skulls, the way the mountains fold into each other and color, always color.
O'Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1917, and after her husband, famed New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, died in 1946, she moved to the wide, open spaces permanently. Her home and studio in Abiquiu (pronounced AB-ih-kyoo), about 55 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is open for tours and worth every penny of the $30 ticket. The 18th century adobe structure that she purchased from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe sits on a bluff, and northern views of Rio Chama, the valley and the dramatic Black Mesa beyond from her studio windows take your breath away. We look to the right and see the cottonwood trees that she painted several times.
If you've never picked up a paintbrush, you'll want to.
The home has been largely untouched since O'Keeffe left it nearly 25 years ago. A jar of loose leaves is labeled "good tea" in her handwriting. Two large O'Keeffe paintings hang in the studio. The only lightbulb that isn't bare is hidden behind a large Noguchi lamp shade and a couple of rooms include sleek Eames chairs, both reminders to visitors that O'Keeffe was not a starving artist.
Only 12 people at a time are permitted on the tour, bused from the ticket office a few miles away. (If you get there early, have a meal at the Abiquiu Inn next door; the guacamole is fantastic.)
Farther along U.S. 84 is Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre retreat and seminar center owned by the Presbyterian Church. This is where O'Keeffe had a summer home. Now, visitors can take classes or hike the dramatic hills, including a taxing trek to Chimney Rock, a well-known New Mexico landmark. From that vantage point (and actually from the highway below) you'll see the nearly 10,000-foot-high flat-topped butte called Cerro Pedernal. Some of O'Keeffe's ashes are scattered there.
Spirits are all around these parts, if you are open to such things.
The art of shopping
Back in Santa Fe, we spend a lovely morning shopping and talking with the American Indians who sell jewelry under the historic portal of the Palace of the Governors. Now a state history museum, the adobe structure was built about 400 years ago as Spain's seat of government for the vast area we now call the Southwest.
This is the place to look for handcrafted turquoise rings, necklaces and earrings. Or silver money clips and guitar picks. Early in the morning, dozens of vendors spread out blankets and trays of enticing wares. You'll need to walk up and down a few times; there's so much to see. Just up the street is the overloaded Crown Jewels (201 E Palace Ave.) and if you can't find a bauble to take home you aren't looking very hard. I decline the tiara that the shopkeeper offers while I browse but I think it's a nice touch.
The Palace of the Governors faces the historic plaza, which is now lined with shops and restaurants. Early during our stay, there are nightly candelight vigils for the people of Tibet. By the end of our visit, bulldozers rip up the concrete for a refurbishing project.
Nearby Canyon Road and its give-or-take 100 galleries is also a fun place to stroll. A wide variety of art, in both style and quality, can be found. There aren't many bargains but lots of eye candy. This is the road where it's apparent that Santa Fe is a seasonal playground for the wealthy.
We reward ourselves at the top of the hill with tapas at El Farol, and especially like the roasted potatoes with garlic and red chili flakes, and baked goat cheese served with pepita flatbread.
There's more art to be seen off the Old Santa Fe Trail on Museum Hill, which houses four facilities that feature Spanish colonial art, Indian art and culture, folk art and American Indian culture. We tour the folk art museum but almost have a better time sitting in the vast plaza watching people draw. A class, sponsored by the O'Keeffe museum, is trying to capture the changing colors of the adobe. It's nearly 4 p.m. and the sun is on the move.
The would-be artists are scattered around the plaza but some cozy up to an 18-foot bronze statue called Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer. They ignore his ritual and beautifully crafted boots, complete with bronze as slumping suede, to concentrate on the rosy adobe.
The sky is spotless again, a crystalline blue. The artists leave but we stay for free-entry Wednesday evening. By 6 o'clock, the scene above changes. Pink and orange spread like spilled juice, and nothing inside four walls can compete.
Like it has for thousands of artists and dreamers before us, the sky enchants us again.
Contact Janet K. Keeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.