SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico lives up to its nickname "The Land of Enchantment" every time I visit.
A trip to northern New Mexico brings me into a landscape of blue skies and lemon-yellow aspens cascading through evergreen forest. A few miles down the road, juniper and pinon are peppered across sandstone mesas toned in burnt sienna.
Each setting is magnetic. You can't keep yourself away. You don't want to leave.
A driving tour of northern New Mexico usually begins in the high-desert city of Santa Fe and continues through small villages where small houses and stores cluster around a church, sometimes made of stone, but often adobe.
A city with the soul of a village, Santa Fe wears its age beautifully. Narrow streets in Old Town lead to a plaza and the Palace of the Governors. Originally built circa 1609, this long adobe structure housed officials through the Spanish Colonial, Mexican and American territorial periods. Santa Fe continues this 500-year lineage as the seat of government. The New Mexico State Capitol, also called the Roundhouse because of Pueblo Indian architectural influences, almost doubles as an art museum. Its corridors display traditional and contemporary paintings, sculptures and furniture created by New Mexico artists.
Santa Fe claims to be the most Spanish city in the United States. A walk through downtown shows many traces of Spanish heritage, but also reveals other eras. Signposts mark the Santa Fe Trail, the route taken by settlers, gold prospectors and traders. Decades later, they were followed by merchants and railroad men. The La Fonda Hotel bar was a gathering spot for workers on World War II's Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos. Artifacts in the New Mexico History Museum give a true sense of the state's rich heritage.
Art museums and galleries decorate the street scene. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum holds a collection of 1,149 O'Keeffe paintings, drawings and sculptures. Display cases show her worn brown leather paint box, half-empty pigment tubes, pastels, linseed oil and brushes. "The brushes were individually cut and shaped for particular functions," says Carol Kastner, associate curator.
Of the 250 galleries in Santa Fe, about 100 line up along Canyon Road like pretty girls in a beauty contest. This sophisticated arts enclave had humble beginnings. In the 1920s, a quintet of Modernist painters set up studios nearby. "The five little nuts in five adobe huts" — as the locals called them — jolted Santa Fe's status quo. Willard Nash, Jozef Bakos, Will Shuster, Fremont Ellis and Walter Mruk pushed the boundaries on canvas, and the art world has never been the same.
Canyon Road now has nationally recognized galleries, such as Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, a showcase for Australian Aboriginal art; Morning Star Gallery, displays of American Indian art and artifacts; and Meyer Gallery, indoor and outdoor spaces for figurative bronze sculpture. Museum Hill on the rim of downtown features distinct art experiences in Spanish Colonial, American Indian, and folk art.
Visitors cover themselves with culture when they stay at the Inn of the Turquoise Bear, a rambling adobe house constructed in the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style. When it was a private home, the celebrity guest list included D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams and Igor Stravinsky. History and art are interwoven at Hotel St. Francis, where guest rooms are reminiscent of a Franciscan mission, yet not lacking in any conveniences. Handcrafted furniture exudes simple, pared-down beauty. Its restaurant, Tabla de los Santos, serves Southwestern-style nouvelle cuisine made from fresh, organic, local ingredients. Around the corner, at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, chef Rocky Durham divulges the secrets of tamale-making.
Once you are ready to explore beyond the city limits of Santa Fe, follow the scenic byways to farming communities populated by Hispanos, the descendants of early Spanish settlers, and the ancient lands of American Indians. At Pecos National Historical Park, pathways edged in pinon fan across a ridge topped by the ruins of Spanish missions and a huge pueblo. Pecos Pueblo Indians controlled the trade between the farmers of the Rio Grande and the hunters of the Great Plains. Ceremonial kivas speak of the spirituality of the place. The first mission church was built in the early 1600s; the second church was finished in the early 1700s.
Different cultures — Indian, Hispano and Anglo — intermingle in the region's arts and crafts, particularly weaving. The Hispano farming community of Chimayo is home to the Ortega Family's weaving shop. Wool tapestries at Centinela Traditional Arts feature Chimayo/Rio Grande weaving styles. Weavers Irvin and Lisa Trujillo use natural-dyed, handspun yarns. Museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian Institution, have included the couple's weavings in their exhibitions and collections.
Taos, also a destination soaked in arts and crafts, prominently showcases its unique melded heritage. Beautiful in its simplicity, San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in nearby Ranchos de Taos attracts legions of photographers and artists.
Georgia O'Keeffe found refuge and inspiration at Ghost Ranch, situated in the high-desert country. The reclusive artist came to the dude ranch in the 1930s and painted the red and yellow cliffs, juniper trees and surrounding mountains, particularly her beloved Pedernal. Her intensely colored paintings distilled the essence of the New Mexico landscape. The 21,000-acre ranch is now a retreat and conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Guests stay in comfortable dwellings, ride horses, hike trails and take classes. Tours are available to help visitors identify landmarks seen in O'Keeffe's paintings; her residence is not open to the public.
O'Keeffe purchased a second home a few miles away in the village of Abiquiu. Open for tours, this remodeled 18th-century hacienda remains as it was when the artist tended her fruit and vegetable garden and painted the cottonwood trees along the Chamas River. She died in 1986 at age 99.
The grandeur of sandstone mesas resonates not only with artists, but also with outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers and rock climbers pursue their passions during the four distinct seasons. Fly-fishermen find their sweet spots in pristine rivers. Angel Fire and other resort communities offer a medley of recreational options including world-class golf and snow skiing. Blue-sky days are perfect for jeep tours out of Red River, an old mining town in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Drivers rumble over gravel roads on the 11,280-foot Greenie Peak in the Wheeler Peak National Wilderness Area to show off panoramas of the undulating mountains.
Train enthusiasts catch a 64-mile ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. With a clang of couplings, the steam train starts to move up the mountain. It runs through forests of aspen and fir trees, allowing views of steep passes, deep gorges and broad valleys. The train climbs to 10,016 feet at Cumbres Pass and stops at the hamlet of Osier for passengers to have lunch. Then it passes through two tunnels and continues through pinion-juniper forests and sagebrush plains to reach its final destination, Antonito, Colo.