The Accidental Pilgrim – Part 1

New Mexico cast a spell on me thirty years ago, though I hadn’t visited in more than two decades. Waiting at the Austin Bergstrom airport bound for Santa Fe and Taos, I was looking forward to spending a week on vacation – with no agenda and good friends to see. In a sign of things to come, two days earlier a butterfly circled my head as I came home from work and landed next to me on a leaf. It crawled onto my hand when I invited it aboard and stretched the length of its humming, vibrating body onto my index finger. What a buzz, invigorating and meaningful in a way that had yet to unfold; these things are not always obvious at the time. Butterflies have come to me in times of transformation, signaling death or rebirth, both within and without.

As I waited to take off, I noticed something unusual; there were five albino children on my flight. If this were a dream I would look up albino and expect something innocent, pure and childlike to come my way, perhaps a spiritual experience of some kind. Audrianna, one of the delicately pale children of eleven, sat next to me clutching a soft, cream-colored teddy bear named Washington (after the city where they met). Our conversation was lively and we kept each other entertained until she and her companions left for Minneapolis, while I flew on to Albuquerque. Audrianna helped me to remember how much fun summer vacations are when you’re young and heading into the tingly unknown.

Driving through Santa Fe on my way to Taos, I enjoyed the bright blue skies and the wrinkled mountains rimming the horizon, but did not feel the enchantment fully until I got closer to Taos. For the next five days I crushed on the beauty of Taos, leaving many pictorial mementos on Facebook and gushing to my friends, while scanning MLS listings to see how feasible it might be to move there one day. My friends Lucky and Becky are a magical duo; we’ve had great fun in Canada, New Orleans and Port Aransas, but we all experienced Taos at another level. We went to the Pow Wow and visited Taos Pueblo where I found a beautiful butterfly kachina figure carved out of the root of an old cottonwood tree. The colorful carving portrayed the protective, guiding spirit of the butterfly arched over its human companion, both figures connected at the root. Like my guardian angel, I felt the butterfly’s touch signal the start of a new chapter in my aesthetic life, in the process of realizing myself as an artist. The monarch butterfly’s epic annual pilgrimage exemplifies this journey of (anything but) fragile beauty, led by spirit through fields and mountains of hardship, over every horizon and home to a land it knew but had not yet seen.

Taos was alive with the bright energy of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Nurturing monsoon rains refreshed the air and the desert, bringing flowers in its wake, greening the trees and keeping the streams and brooks babbling along. The land, Taos’ friendly citizens, the healthy food and the curved, clean lines of adobe dwellings made me feel at home. Always nearby were the footprints of the Pueblo people. Georgia O’Keefe, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett, DH Lawrence, and Millicent Rogers brought many artists to New Mexico, pulled by the spirit of the mountains, entranced by native art and the harmony of nature and spirit. Millicent Rogers captures her journey of spirit in a letter to her son Paul written toward the end of her life:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural-that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me- with a great, good stillness and strength.

As the Navajo say, “In beauty it is finished.” Perhaps I left a part of my heart in Taos, but I know I will soon return to its bright mountains and good people.

I took the high road from Taos to Chimayo, relishing the mountains rolling into the desert, the villages sprinkled along the way, the peace and light. Bright white light shines from the spine of the red earth into the hills and mountains of New Mexico. I’ve been to the Sierra Blanca and the Sandia Mountains but this was my first visit to the Sangre de Cristo range in northern NM. I talked a little about Chimayo in my dining post but the experience of visiting the sanctuary, seeing the little shoes left by pilgrims for the baby Jesus, the crutches wired to chain link fences – that’s a horse of a different color. I am open to mysteries, embracing of whiffs, feather light touches and glimmers of the divine. Poems are born of those moments of connection. I enjoyed a centering meditation in the chapel and had fun picking grass for a horse living in the complex, whose lips were a fence away from some juicy tufts. A small family took over as I left, the horse reaping the benefit of our Franciscan kindness. I came away with some healing earth to share with friends who might need a blessing in times of trouble and set out to visit Ralph and Danny in Santa Fe. In spite of a lovely day in the mountains of Chimayo, my mind struggled with the tortured image of Christ center stage in the Old Spanish chapel.

I was raised Catholic, yet the grisly image of crucified Christ (hereafter known as Barbecued Jesus) still sets me on my heels. I once heard a record in Catechism that detailed minute by hour the suffering of Christ on the cross. It was morbid in a way that the bleeding, wax figure of Jesus at the San Jose Catholic Church in South Austin exalts. The primal need to kill God; to know that we, as humans, did not suffer alone and unheard is something I understand. The hate side of love bears our burden of ignorance, desolation, hunger. Can we offer ourselves fully without it? Perhaps some of the vitriol we see on the world stage – one religion attacking another in the name of God- is an expression of the hatred we cannot acknowledge. Despite my cynical response to the tortured savior I did collect some of the sacred earth from the sanctuary to give to friends and family. I can appreciate miracles, divine intervention and the triumph of compassion over suffering. All faiths bear testament to these extraordinary events and states of being.

Still, when I got to Santa Fe to see my friends Danny and Ralph, talk turned to barbecued Jesus. How could people who were forced into Christianity turn to the very image of their oppression? Give me the resurrection and help me to understand forgiveness for the barbarism of human kind, please. Once upon a time the three of us shared a multicultural approach to spirit, spoiled citizens of a time and place that advocated compassion and inclusiveness. This may become a relic of “the good old days” given the rise of religious intolerance and extremism worldwide. It was sad to confront my cynicism in the harsh light of religion and the politics that buzzed like flies around a tired old mule.

I have described myself not as a seeker, but as a finder. There are times of abeyance, of low ebb when nothing comes or goes. Just before a prayer, a movement of a focused will to be. These are the hinges that open or close the doors of past and future realizations. Part II: behind the blue door . . .

New Mexican dining simply enchanting

Decades have whizzed by since I last sauntered New Mexico. In the halcyon days of my youth, camping and hiking, I wasn’t thinking about what New Mexican cuisine had to offer. The mountains called to me, horny toads bounded at our feet and the air was crisp and clean. The only pictures I have from those trips are in my mind’s eye, as reliable as my new love of photography but harder to share. These days my sensibilities are more bourgeois, and I look forward to the comfort and elegant aesthetic of adobe haciendas and fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. The bright energy of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains infuses inhabitants with both a spark and sangfroid that’s truly revitalizing. I was very fortunate to have hosts in Taos (Lucky and Becky Tomblin) with exquisite taste who introduced me to some wonderful, very diverse dining experiences. I arrived in Taos on Thursday, in time for Music on the Square which attracted both tourists and locals for free family fun. Already the light had captured my imagination. Perfect weather demands patio dining, which we found at Antonio’s, a charming garden restaurant filled with hollyhock flowers. It didn’t hurt that tame hummingbird moths flitted about, entirely comfortable with diners enjoying guacamole salad made fresh at the table and many more and less traditional Mexican inspired dishes. I ordered the Huitlacoche and mushroom enchiladas with a smooth, slightly spicy green mole sauce. They tasted a little like wilted kale or spinach enchiladas, a very pleasing and aesthetically sublime supper in the Taos twilight with nary a mosquito in sight. Fresh fruits and vegetables were as vibrant as the mountain air. Honestly, who can argue with a land in which apricot and pinon trees grow wild? Another stand out for happy hour and lunch was the KTAO solar radio station’s daily bar and food truck outdoor get together. While the lemonade and rice and mushroom cheeseburger with sweet potato fries satisfied my burger craving, the friendly service and multi-generational Gemütlichkeit at the foot of Wheeler Peak was memorable. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, every dish I was served included fresh sauteed vegetables. The Saturday Farmer’s Market was a testament to the quality of locally farmed produce. Accompanied by mariachis, we gathered peaches, apricots, plums and fresh greens to compliment the pasture raised chicken eggs we enjoyed for breakfast. Quirky, tasteful with a discerning clientele, restaurants in Taos jostled for attention and did not lack for an appreciative audience. The Love Apple, a repurposed yet not quite renovated organic restaurant (see link), provides the perfect window to the Taos food ethos. It was monsoon season, which brought the rain daily around 3:00 to keep things green. The apricots and plums were smaller than we’re used to seeing in Tejas, but sweeter in handy single bite servings. I left Taos with a firm resolve to return soon and took the High Road to Santa Fe, with only one day to see my friends and the city. I stopped at the Rancho de Chimayo Restaurant and had a delicious lunch of shrimp pesto enchiladas with a refreshing sangria blanca to put me in the mood for El Sanctuario de Chimayo. I’ll cover that more in a follow up posting, but suffice to say that the side trip to Chimayo was worthwhile. Arriving in Santa Fe, I enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the Poster Boyz of Santa Fe, my great friends Ralph Lopez and Daniel Link, both Austin ex-patriots. Danny’s pozole was a homemade delight so I only ate breakfast at one Santa Fe restaurant, the Plaza Cafe before heading back to Albuquerque. One of my favorite dishes on the trip was a short stack of blue corn pinon nut pancakes. Eggs cooked just right, homemade turkey sausage with fresh herbs and fresh fruit aside, don’t leave New Mexico without trying them. I will be looking forward to my return saunter to both Santa Fe and Taos, certainly something wonderful to explore in every season.