New Mexico – per the bumper sticker sound bites, it is neither new, nor Mexico, but it is definitely a special place.
Last Fall, Pandemic Year 2020, I had the opportunity to spend about 4ish days inside the borders of the state between Roswell and Santa Fe – but with lockdown life it felt very surface level, and so many things were closed or cordoned off. So when it was confirmed that our tickets for Trampled by Turtles at Red Rocks were rescheduled, and really happening for July 2021 – my friends and I decided to fly into to New Mexico and then work our way up to the Denver area, because all of us wanted to explore the state further, and Colorado was just a little drive North. It was worth the price of a rental car to see and explore.
So we flew into Albuquerque from Minneapolis on a Saturday. Albuquerque was not the most efficient airport experience I have ever had, but the people we encountered were exceptionally friendly and nice. Not just nice and polite, but authentically chatty, friendly, helpful and kind – but nothing moved quickly. The transactional swiftness of the Northern states is completely missing, because no one is going to freeze to death here, you have all the time in the world because it is hot, dry and sunny – why move fast? Enjoy the air conditioning if you have it, and shoot the breeze for a moment. It was pleasant but shocking, in that shocking kind of way when nothing moves. So you wait, and smile.
Our “hotel” in Albuquerque, Casas de Suenos (the house of dreams) was an Old Town institution, known primarily as a wedding venue, but we got an entire two bedroom apartment, breakfast included for two nights for less than a hotel room for one night in the area.
The buildings are not new, and the air conditioning was very old school, but it was comfortable, the staff were extremely professional and thoughtful, and the breakfast was really good. Our apartment only had slightly creepy art.
After settling in, we headed to Old Town for exploration and dinner, and at the recommendation of our thoughtful hosts we headed toward Church Street Cafe -which like the Tardis, was WAY bigger on the inside.
Our Lady of Guadalupe over looked our table and dinner, and while we waited for our dinner to arrive, a Mariachi band spontaneously appeared.
The food was heavy. Which is an understatement. Our guacamole had a certain tang to it so I asked if there was dairy in it. Our waitress replied “Yes! We use mayo to make it more creamy!” with pride and enthusiasm.
So I didn’t tell her that mayo is not a dairy product – but it explained the tangy. My “traditional Spanish” chili rellenos was missing the green chili, but definitely not the deep fried, and we left needing the walk home for sure, and serious amount of fiber to counteract the cheese and the grease. We got to enjoy a concert in the park on our way home, and some great people watching to go with our digestion.
Sunday we set out with a serious agenda to accomplish Tourism with a capital T. Route 66 and Art Deco drive by photography, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (museum and traditional native dancing), art and agriculture in the country-side, and the National Petroglyph Monument, plus dinner reservations back in Old Town. It was a bit ambitious – yet we got through most of it, plus a visit to a local and unique modern Route 66 tourist attraction.
So Albuquerque is clearly not experiencing the same economic benefits as my current home of Seattle, Washington. The unemployment rate is high, about to hit 34% per some stats on Google). And standing in downtown Albuquerque on a Sunday morning you could feel the poverty in the air. It was a Sunday, so downtown is supposed to be a ghost town. But it didn’t feel like it was a ghost town because it was Sunday, it felt shiftless and abandoned – as if it forgot why or how or if it ever was an economic center of anything, let alone a city.
My notes from standing in front of the KiMo Theater read “Downtown was a ghost town both closed because Sunday but also missing a purpose. It exhibits a purposelessness amidst the nostalgia of Route 66 memorabilia. You wonder did Albuquerque ever have a heyday or ha sit just been sitting in the sun fading its whole life, its only shade offered from the billboards featuring serious & tough personal injury attorneys?”
Above are the billboards that make the show Better Call Saul a documentary instead of fiction. And here are a couple photos from the Breaking Bad Museum in Old Town just for comparison.
From photographing Route 66, we headed to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Like many vacations since I purchased it, I was wearing my watermelon dress this fine day. Usually my watermelon dress brings me a couple compliments voiced loudly on the sidewalk or in a restaurant. In Albuquerque, and especially at the Indian Cultural Center – I was the sweetest watermelon around. Every artist and vendor had something to say about it, like a lot to say, as did the guests, and the employees of the Center. It made my day to bring so much joy just wearing a dress. I didn’t know watermelon was such a joy trigger for people, but I’m glad I wore it.
The cultural center is a phenomenal museum and experience for anyone coming to the region to learn about the Indian Pueblo peoples who populated this region of the United States since before any colonizing force arrived – Spanish, English or French. The museum is thorough, thoughtful, and covers ancient to modern history of the 19 remaining Pueblos. The courtyard also houses local native artists selling their wares, weekends include dance and song demonstrations, and inside the center is a gift shop and a restaurant serving some traditional foods (and other more modern dishes).
Highlights from my learning about the Pueblo peoples are enlightenment about the 3 sisters of corn, beans and squash, and the representation of the 6 directions Sky, Earth, North, South, East, West by animal spirits. Eagle is sky, Mole is earth, Bear is West, Wolf is East, Mountain Lion is North and Badger is South.
We ducked out at an appropriate moment when the dancing demonstration devolved into a patriotic lecture and not dancing (which was surprising) but we had some exploration to accomplish. And you cannot see all of a place from the perspective of a museum (even a good one), or even from the mouths of its indigenous peoples. Instead, we headed out to do a little agricultural tourism, and got to take in the storytelling of a lovely individual name Karen, a former tour guide starved to share her passion, and shepherd, someone, anyone, to go anywhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
She had such gems for us as which exits to take from I-25 to avoid traffic in Santa Fe, as well as “We don’t say Native American here, we say Indian, and we don’t say Mexican, you say Spanish heritage.” We nodded politely and thanked her for the very useful travel advice after listening to her for longer than 45 minutes to an hour.
And finally, for our packed day, we tried to catch a short trail at the National Petroglyph Monument, however there was a flash flood warning in effect – so all of the trails to see actual rock art were closed. So we called our Tourism for the day and headed back to the Casas of Suenos to regroup. Upon arrival, Jeremy and I promptly deposited Dan and headed to Metal the Store inside the old Route 66 El Vado Motel for a photo opportunity inside their “Pit of maggots” which is just a pool of balls (like something you would encounter at Chucky Cheese) except these are custom ordered balls that look like maggots. See the photos below.
We climbed in and the staff took our photo as we laughed. We then return home in time to change and prepare for dinner.
Unlike the first night, our second night we dined at a higher end establishment with modern New Mexican charm – Season’s Rotisserie. Where we all ordered vegetarian dishes (in part to counteract the fried pile of cheese from the night before ) and because they just sounded so good on the menu. The green chili cornbread was mind blowing – even though I didn’t take a picture of it. It was also shocking to find out that this eggplant dish could be so filling.
We completed our night with a walk into the New Mexico sunset over Route 66. So far the signs all point to this trip being packed with interest, opportunity and many many calories.