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Seeking Santa Fe

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Photo: John Huba

In famously beautiful places, character is destiny, scenery is collateral, and big business is kept well down the road.

Santa Fe’s skies are so wide, its adobe so pervasive, its badlands so alien, and its altitude so giddy that visitors don’t know whether they have been beamed up to heaven, pulled into the frontier past, or inducted into a gated community on Mars.

The first Christmas I spent in Santa Fe, I felt I was trespassing on another era. Every street appeared to be a winding lane, every hotel a thick-walled inn emphatic with blazing fires, every store a trove of American history. Once I moved there, I realized that all this décor wasn’t seasonal disguise but protective camouflage. A town has to eat. If its sole advantage is the way it looks, so be it. Great beauty has the power to suggest the potential for a higher grade of happiness. Santa Fe’s mission is to keep alive the thrill of trespass, the otherness. Hence the cringe-inducing moniker, the City Different, in the state known as the Land of Enchantment. Curiously, the overused tropes of Santa Fe style have not yet eroded its power to charm and disorient.

The photographer Caterine Milinaire, who discovered Santa Fe in her hippie days, and whose mother and stepfather moved there after she left, used to describe the three cultures as a layer cake: first the Pueblos, in situ for over a thousand years, the only Indians who ever rose up against the conquistadors and ejected them (in 1680, for a scant 12 years); then the Hispanics, descendants of said conquistadors, who have been here for four centuries, and still run the town; and last, the icing: the Anglos, neither Indian nor Hispanic, and thus WASP’s, East Indians, Russians, French, refugees from communes or oppressive dynasties, early retirees with compact nest eggs or cyber fortunes, or adventurers who subsist on a patchwork of small, weird jobs. Whether they are scraping by or dawdling in their second or third homes, all the Anglos have felt the call of the crouched house under the big sky, and each of them has a secret gift, a talent they want to explore, a family they want to avoid, a thirst for endless time. Which in the case of Santa Fe often extends back to previous lives.

"Northern New Mexico is the place I’ve been looking for all my life, and now I’m here," says Shirley MacLaine. She’s the new legend, the movie star turned galactic explorer and author of New Age tales, superseding Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter who forsook Stieglitz and New York glitz to go into the desert alone and discover the secret of flowers. There are spontaneous conversions here, blinding rays of light, a sudden sense of peace. Healers will tell you that the Indians never actually lived on the land that is Santa Fe, because it is built on a giant crystal with emanations too powerful to be borne on a daily basis. A breakfast waitress at La Posada told me she’d come to Santa Fe to go through her menopause because "it’s got the right energy." I forget if it was masculine or feminine.

La Posada itself is haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Staab, who lived there with her bad trader husband. She lurks in Room 101 and wreaks havoc on Mother’s Day. Relations between Jews and Catholics have always been cordial in Santa Fe: Bishop Lamy raised the money to finish his Saint Francis Cathedral from the pioneer merchant Seligman family. It’s widely believed that he thanked them by inserting the Hebrew name of God in the arch above its door, violating certain Jewish rules about the name of God.

On the temporal side, there’s Godfrey Reggio, who came as a teaching monk, showed his charges movies, left the church, and became America’s foremost maker of abstract films—the prizewinning trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi.

The tales of illumination mix with tales of real estate. There’s the Himalayan prince who sells houses, and prodigal son Tom Ford, whose planned hilltop house spawned a fever of egalitarian rage in the neighborhood. You also hear about the art dealer who downsized right into a double-wide trailer.

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