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Seeking Santa Fe

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Photo: John Huba

I confess I first saw Santa Fe from the back of a Winnebago with Marjoe Gortner, a child evangelist who denounced the Pentecostal movement’s scams in a 1972 documentary and became an actor. He was starring in a western called Bobbie Joe and the Outlaw. I drank my first margarita and bought my first turquoise and my first Navajo rug in the hope that they were passes to a deeper truth. This touching belief endured from my youth to the day I decided to buy a house here, which would, I assumed, make me more real than I felt. I didn’t know what small town meant, and had no idea what life would be like in a small town where everyone has a hotline to their own idea of God.

Who takes many shapes. At Indian Market a few years ago, I watched a heavy young Anglo lean in to one of the Indian exhibitors and ask, "Is there a sweat lodge I can get into around here?" The Indian, who came from South Dakota, grazed him with his eyes as he looked way, way past him. There are strange cairns on the sides of trails on Atalaya Hill, left by the Indian trail builders, or by the hippie trail designers, or by pilgrims making their own stupas in supplication or thanks.

Sometimes I think everyone is stoned: the girl in the post office who twice counts out four sheets of stamps as "two, four, six, eight" and then looks up, confounded to see only four sheets in front of her. One day, someone helping me with chores was suddenly in a cloud of weed. "Can you work when you’re high?" I asked as gently as I could. The answer: "Are you kidding me?" You’re at a counter and you say to the guy behind it, "Hi." "Wish I was," he says back. You try to buy some moccasins: "Excuse me, moccasins?You know, the shoes you’re selling here?Are there …sizes?" It’s not always funny: last fall, a missing flash drive from a classified computer at Los Alamos Laboratories, 35 miles north of Santa Fe, was found in a methamphetamine lab in a trailer home. At Los Alamos, where they still make bombs, the University of California management has turned into a consortium that includes Bechtel and BWX Technologies, the "premier manager of complex, high-consequence nuclear and national security operations." Checkpoints have been installed.

Santa Fe’s main staple is not the taco, the tortilla, or the vegan veggie wrap. It’s cappuccino. In a place where time is free, taking a break breaks up the idleness. There’s Ecco, on Marcy Street, which makes its own gelati, and Meridian, across the street from the Inn at Loretto. At Downtown Subscription, on Acequia Madre in the old East Side, racks of magazines allow you to take a break from the break you’re taking by looking at Pequod, US Weekly, or a 10-day-old London Sunday Times. Next to you there will be a couple planning a new incarnation with their architect, unrolling plans over the tiny plastic table, talking window treatments, Jacuzzis, and Historic Design Review Board stipulations. No swimming pools: water is a problem. There will be twentysomethings journalizing on the orders of their rehab counselors, older screenwriters huddling over grievances, divorcées who’ve just blown off yoga class. I’ve heard one man reassure another about a past-life regression: "I’m sure your death wasn’t that bad." I’ve heard women discussing the men in this town. Appalled: "Why do they all have ponytails...and white hair?" Optimistic: "He’s such a hot Sufi."

Some say it’s the only town in the world where Mercury is always in retrograde. Visitors in Santa Fe wonder what the locals do. Unless they are the Nobel Prize winners (such as Murray Gell-Man, the father of quarks), corralled at the Santa Fe Institute, they write novels, plays, operas, oratorios, they paint, sculpt, take photographs, all of which they might, in a regrettable but absolutely sincere moment, describe as exploring their creative side.

Bill Richardson runs the state from the capitol, a round building with an old adobe compound tucked behind it on a street that has no name. Legislators, mostly men with fine old Hispanic names, do their business; everyone else is in retail, hospitality, or on a permanent vacation from their lives. And to relieve the tedium of facing up to their demons and setting off on their true path, they do exactly what the visitors do: they go shopping.

For visitors, some object must be found to stand in for the magic place long after one has left. For locals, there’s always something new to gaze at, sit on, eat from, or just nail to the wall. For retail shops, it’s payday. At Pak Mail, on Montezuma Avenue, they know just how to wrap anything for shipping: the pesky turkey feathers on a kachina; a temple figure from the ancient Orient; a $500 screen from the resale shop that needs a $900 restoration job, in Oregon.


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