- Historic Sites
Southwestward The Great American Space
A journey through a wide and spellbinding land, and a look at the civilization along its edges.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
The synthetic colors of the motel in Albuquerque, all orange, purple, and blatant red, shouting the triumph of American civilization over the surrounding harshness, quickly fade from mind as we head out for Santa Fe. The great desert is upon us, like nothing you have seen elsewhere, something “other,” the floor of the world from the first day of creation. Only an occasional crag sprouting from the cracked surface distracts you from the overpowering emptiness as the perfect highway snakes its way on and on this early in the morning. No one else is on it, and at first there is nothing on either side except the bristling brush, an occasional arroyo long gone dry, and the dead-looking cactus.
From the first moment it is all surprise, the landscape of upheaval, this jagged, totally unpredictable lunar world looking all the more twisted and furrowed by contrast with the smooth straightness of the highway. You have been released into great American space, with nothing to do but look. The picturesqueness is so total that you wonder if they remove this stage set when the sun goes down. Actually, the limitless expanse soon breaks up, with mountains coming up along the ridges. But the fluidity of everything around you is astonishing in this light, pouring in as much from the radiated sands as from the hot sun itself. There is absolutely nothing between you and New Mexico. Past the low greasewood shrubs and the earth waving mile on mile in swollen furrows, every astonishing block of tableland suddenly rising up and every bone-thin jagged spire shaped through measureless years by wind and water is mysteriously itself. These “monuments,” unaccountably there, rising out of the earth with indifferent majesty, tell you not to be self-centered about the creation. Just pass on.
Nevertheless, these incessantly varied shapes and volumes of red rock spellbind you as form, reminding you of what drew such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, such photographers as Eliot Porter. This aboriginal world is thrillingly designed, its lines and spheres endlessly replicated in Indian jewelry, blankets, the round ceremonial kivas, and the kachina dolls that represent dancers portraying deified ancestral spirits. It’s amazing how much art counts for. If you’re not an Indian sheepherder or into uranium and natural gas—big things west of here—you may not find any business opportunity better than another art gallery.
By the time you get into Santa Fe, you might well think that ART, ART, ART is the chief industry. Around the ancient Spanish plaza the lineup of picture shops, arts-and-crafts shops, jewelry shops is just a little suffocating. The oldest capital in the United States, once the end of the historic Santa Fe Trail from Independence, Missouri—the principal trading route into the Southwest until the railroads came in—has remained Spanish enough to be a great tourist attraction. The old Palace of the Governors seems to have been completely rebuilt in traditional style. It now shines and glitters inside and is as pretty and up-to-the-minute a museum of local Spanish and American history as you’d need for a first visit. The roofed portal is still lined with Indian women selling jewelry, pottery, and blankets; the camera-bedecked visitors look astonished by so much ancientness and foreignness as they peek into the display cases lining the smooth new floors. Since Santa Fe sells itself as exotic, the central plaza and the Palace of the Governors have understandably encouraged more than one unwitting visitor to ask where he can change his money.
The sparkling new motels have, of course, been built in adobe style; Santa Fe was once plastered together of clay, sun-dried earth, and straw. The old sweaty, often bloody Santa Fe—gazing up at the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains at the end of the Rockies, marked by the revolts of peaceful Pueblo Indians against the hated Spanish, then a Mexican city, finally American—is now stylish to an extreme. The Old West has been rubbed down smooth.
On the way to Santa Fe we stopped at the Pueblo of Santo Domingo. In the dusty, unpaved town center Indian women sitting under canvas were patiently, endlessly sorting out turquoise chips, knocking mother-of-pearl out of shells, rolling beads together. I was in Santo Domingo Pueblo once before. The long, narrow strip of water essential to the pueblo is no longer lined with the refuse I saw in the 1960s, and no longer are there hippies with Indian headbands wandering about looking for atmosphere. Everything is strictly business. Most of the men seem to be away, farming or herding, and the women intently finger and roll out the mounds of beads before them as if nothing were more pressing. The center of Santo Domingo Pueblo is dusty, quite vacant, and colorless except for the vivid colors fronting the church.