Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Land Of Disenchantment: A Few Days Off

And so all the factors fell together and on Tuesday, September 8, the Grey Vibe and I left Austin for a few days' adventure in Santa Fe. And boy, did we get it.

Part I: Land of Broken Dreams

It kind of goes without saying that West Texas isn't very interesting, from a landscape point of view, or, really, any other point of view unless you're in the oil bidness. But if you're trying to get to Santa Fe without dawdling, you have to go through it, so sayeth Google Maps. I don't necessarily trust these phone-based guidance systems, as you'll see later, but Google usually does a great job. My own bit of improvement on the system is to write the steps IN BIG LETTERS in a notebook kept next to me in the front seat, so we see:

L 183N/US 84W 30m

and so on. It lets me know each intersection (usually) and that intersection is usually there. I did, however, manage to get lost in Early, Texas, not an easy task given its size. The reason, one of the failings of these systems, is that they don't tell you subtleties like that Early Blvd. is, in fact, 84 West. So I drove the wrong direction for about 20 minutes, and, sure after a while that I'd gone the wrong way, turned on the phone to get me to the next route, 153 West, where I would be for the next 71 miles. 

But for some reason, the phone decided I wanted to go back to Austin on 153 West, which I didn't. And I couldn't find a way to change its mind. Furthermore, when I got back to the place I'd made the wrong turn, I saw what I'd done wrong, and that just 30 miles down the road, 153 would appear. But I couldn't turn the goddam phone off. 

I was headed to Clovis, known to me and millions of others as the place Buddy Holly recorded so many of his early records, as did other West Texas stars. So for the remaining 237 miles, my phone was chirping "Make a U turn" or "Take County Road 445" and the like. As I was checking in at the La Quinta, it was still saying "Turn around." 

Clovis, approached as the day was ending, was not impressive. For miles and miles, I'd seen nothing but failures, buildings once housing a bar or a store or a gas station, long shuttered and left to the elements. In West Texas, there were whole downtowns that were like this, some with the concrete buildings falling in on themselves. I wondered who'd been there, tried, and failed, and where they were now. Clovis seemed to have no center that I could see, but lots of dead businesses. I turned the corner up Prince Street, and it was the same, except with a bit of new growth: franchises were taking tentative hold, and, perhaps sensing the halfway-to-elsewhere location of the city, something of a Motel Row was growing. I was glad to see the La Quinta, even if the receptionist didn't seem glad to see anybody, let alone me. 

The next thing was dinner, and helpful friends had found two possibilities on Yelp. I'd seen a couple of Mexican places on the way in, but as is the custom around here, they closed after the lunch hour. There were two, Leal's and Don Mario's, that had dinner. I chose Leal's after being snippily informed that it wasn't pronounced in two syllables (lay-ALLs), but rhymed with "wheels." It turned out to be the most horrible, gringified Mexican place imaginable, although I'll say that their "crispy chile relleno," made crispy by the addition to the batter of the traditional Mexican ingredient panko bread crumbs, is a good idea in theory. Pretty bland otherwise, and I think there was MSG in the salsa.

The bed was welcome after the long drive, seven hours or so, and I awoke the next morning ready to eat breakfast and bomb on to Santa Fe, where I was sure a far better experience awaited. Don Mario's was waiting, and it was yet another gringified joint. I wished I'd noted more carefully the couple of places I'd seen coming in, but I hadn't. Service at this joint was horrific, and the waitress stared uncomprehending when I ordered chile verde with eggs. Apparently it's not pronounced chee-lay vayr-day, but rhymes with silly birdy. I may have seen the reason for the weird service on the way out:

But first, are you expereinenced? Have you ever been expereinenced? Not sure I have...
Nor was that the weirdest sign I saw in Clovis. Prince Street in daylight was more depressing than at night, the worst evidence of that busted dream problem being a very large restaurant about to fall apart. It still had a sign up, Great Wall: American Food and Sushi. Sigh. But I knew that Prince would end at US 84, and that that would be the beginning of my next leg of the trip. Turning right onto it, I saw a Subway, also with a sign board. It read FACE YOUR DARKEST FEARS. 

Okay. Bye, Clovis. Buddy will have to wait for next time. 

Part II: Santa Fe, Sunlight, Seniors, and Slaves

Obligatory New Mexico chile shot

The landscape was changing into outright desert, although at this time of year it starts raining, and, indeed, people in Santa Fe were complaining that I'd have an awful time unless it stopped. The desert, of course, responded as usual, turning green and coming to life. There weren't really dramatic landscape features, but there were mesas and mountains, and Austin doesn't have those yet. And there was life out there: signs to Wastella and Bovina. Of course, I got lost trying to get into town, but it smoothed out well once I followed signs to Historic Downtown. I'd already glimpsed some Historic in Historic Ft. Sumner, which had Billy the Kid memorabilia and his grave, among other things. Why, my route took me directly underneath the Historic Bridge, so labelled, built in 1938 and restored in 1967! The town just sings history: too bad I didn't have time to stop and gawk. 

Santa Fe's Historic Downtown, however, is just a bit older. 1610 is the generally-accepted date. I'd just lucked out yet again on a hotel room, as I had last year in Montreal. TripAdvisor suddenly came up with an unbeatable price at the El Dorado Hotel and Spa, and I grabbed it. I gladly handed the keys to the Gray Vibe over to the valet, stumbled upstairs, and checked in. The room was comfortable, the lowest grade they had (must be nice to have a fireplace room later in the year, though), the lobby had mammoth ceilings, the restaurants seemed reasonably priced, and I was set. The first order of business was to find a place to eat. I was already tired of heavy pseudo-Mexican food, and yet I was confident that I could find better nearby, but I wanted something a bit lighter. The local alternative paper's best-of list had just come out, and a "gastropub" called Fire & Hops seemed not only nearby, but very interesting. And so it proved: the calamari looked a bit overdetermined from the menu description, but wasn't, and the Cubano sandwich was nicely made, if a challenge for my store-bought teeth. And the real discovery was La Cumbre Brewing's Elevation IPA on tap. The mixture of hops they used are so fragrant -- and so complex -- that it's a joy to drink. 

I'd done a quick reconnaissance around the 'hood shortly after getting in, but in the morning I decided to go get breakfast outside the hotel, because of lingering mistrust of hotel restaurants. I stumbled into the first place I found, the Alameda Cafe, where a Salvadoran gentleman named Francisco J. Castillo pours an extraordinary cup of (organic) coffee. His breakast burrito (the signature breakfast dish of New Mexico, apparently) I'm less enthusiastic about, but I suspect that's because I'm not too enthusiastic about breakfast burritos in general. That aside, this is a find. 

My next stop, after a quick check-in at the hotel to grab my camera, was the Railyard District, about which I'd heard so much. The word was that it was the center of a hot art scene, which was what the younger folks in Santa Fe had going, and there were all sorts of cool things down there. I also needed a shirt, because I was having dinner with an old friend that night and the one I'd packed had been poorly chosen: I hadn't seen the stains or the giant hole by one of the buttons, and my friend told me that the REI down there would have something. 

The Railyard district had a very interesting fact embedded in it: although everyone knows the Santa Fe Railroad, it did not, in fact, stop in Santa Fe. Instead, there was a spur from a town further south, Lamy, and today there's one from Albuquerque. There was more to that story, as I'd find out.  Instead, I mooched around a mall set in the former headquarters of a shipping company that made history when it was used to supply the workers at the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, a place so secret that it was known only as PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, and newly-arrived workers reported to an anonymous building nearby and were driven out to the town. The mall has a nice selection of photos of that period, along with ones of the Railyard in earlier times. 

Down at the end of the Railyard District lay what must have been the reason for the reputation: SITE Santa Fe, a sprawling arts building. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting some of the artists who'd done projects there before to make new works. 

I thought the protuberances looked a bit dated, but they probably can't be held responsible for something they did two decades ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that as an Old Person, I was allowed half off the ten-dollar admission. Thank heaven. After a quick tour of the place, I had a revelation: academic art is academic art. The only thing that separated this stuff from the similar stuff I'd had to see and sometimes write about in Europe was that it was a bit more naive, a bit less over-thought. But you still have to evaluate it, not by what it is, but by whether it accurately represents the artist's "position" and whether the problem or argument in the artist's statement is well-realized. It was awful. I fled. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent back in the core of the city, walking around aimlessly to figure what was where. Mostly, it was a Shopping Experience, selling the same sort of tack you see in upscale shopping malls, with a local overlay of heavy silver-and-turquoise, cute Indians, roadrunners, Kokopilis (isn't he Arizona?) and the like. Around the central plaza, tents were going up for the annual Fiesta, which, I'd been told, was mostly for the local Hispanic population. I located the state's historical museum, inside the Palace of the Governors, as well as the state art museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, filing it all away for further exploration. 

I'd been here before, with my family on one of our driving vacations that we started to take when my dad had earned three weeks' vacation and my sister was old enough. We'd pack up in New York and head to wherever we were going, and one time we did the Southwest. I remembered most vividly lunch on a rooftop, in an eccentric (for the times: this was about 40 years ago) restaurant where I had cold raspberry soup. Avant garde! And at the next table, an Anglo couple were chatting with a pigtailed, weathered Indian guy who looked like he'd stepped off of a nickel. It all felt really exotic, an exoticism that vanished when we got to the sidewalk in front of the Palace, which then as now is lined with craftspeople selling, and in some cases, making, beadwork, silver, turquoise, and the like. Today they're still there, but not the sad, resigned Indians I saw as a kid. They're a mixture, and the stuff is overwhelmingly schlock, although the state claims it supervises quality and adherence to tradition on the part of anyone selling there. 

My shirt-shopping had come to naught: both at REI and at one of the few boutiques selling men's clothing, the price of a shirt seemed to be fixed at $138. My dinner host was Baron Wolman, the venerable staff photographer when I was at Rolling Stone, the man who founded Rags, the short-lived counter-culture fashion magazine, and someone I'd reconnected with when he came to Berlin to direct the hanging of a show of his photos at a gallery around the corner from me. I was tired, but had a much better idea of where I was, so I repaired to the hotel. 

D'après Telebob

Baron had selected a new restaurant run by a crew that included a woman he knew, Radish and Rye, not far from the Railyard District. He'd been there a couple of nights previously and couldn't wait to go back. It's only been open a little while, and there are a few problems (including a waiter who said "Fantastic!" to everything), but what's on the table isn't one of them. I had a problem, too: my appetite was off, and my sense of smell was acting up again. Some of this may have been due to the low-carb thing I'm trying to institute, but I think there's more to it, and I hope to see my doctor about this soon. At any rate, my charcuterie plate (served without any sort of bread: major oversight) was one bit of rubber after the next, when I'm positive it was better than that, and only the radicchio salad and the shishito peppers (like padrons, but not as exciting) had any taste. I had to cancel the bowl of corn chowder, which Baron claims is one of their masterpieces, because I just didn't feel like eating (although I'm not sure I'd have been able to handle the big-ass smoked marrow bone floating in it). Dang. Next time. 

The next day I breakfasted at the hotel (a yogurt "parfait" with fruit and granola in it: just what I needed) and set off for some art and culture. First stop was the Palace of the Governors, with the state historical museum behind it. There, I began to get the basics of the story, how Juan de Oñate and his family came north from Mexico and settled on a site where there had been Pueblo villages to establish a regional capital in 1610. This was cool until the Pueblos got fed up and attacked the city in 1680, an event depicted in an oil painting where they're hanging the priests and knocking the cross off of the church. The Pueblos held on to the city for 12 years, making the Palace into a sort of apartment house, and then the Spaniards took it again and held it. The Palace has decent documentation of all of this and the artifacts aren't much to look at, but there is a room with portraits of notable New Mexicans of the 19th century, including Juan Felipe Ortiz, a Catholic priest who'd managed to bring a lot of Indians to the Church by incorporating their rites and ceremonies into a Catholic context, the same way the mass conversions of Europe had happened a millenium before. Of course, when a new Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, arrived he was shocked at the goings on -- dancing! -- and excommunicated Oritz. (Nor was this the first time the iron fist of the Church had descended on New Mexico, since the Spanish Inquisition had already grilled a bunch of people who may or may not have been Jews who'd outwardly converted, but maybe not all the way. There's apparently some debate about these conversos, and I saw several books about them but wasn't sure of their veracity, so I didn't buy one). 

One thing the colorful cultures and breathtaking scenery of New Mexico tend to make us forget is that it's reliably the second or third poorest state in the union, along with Mississippi and Maine. And while you don't see it much in Santa Fe, it's sure out there. This is probably why the New Mexico History Museum makes so much of the Fred Harvey Company, started by a British immigrant who rose from dishwasher to owner of a restaurant next to the railroad tracks in Florence, Kansas. He made the connection with the trains, and the unavailability of safe food for travellers, and soon partnered up with the Santa Fe Railroad to operate restaurants along their line. Restaurants need workers, and one of his executives had the brilliant idea of advertising for girls to move to these outposts to staff the restaurants. This led to a spinoff whereby guides -- also women -- would take tourists to local Indian pueblos to buy jewelry, blankets, and pottery, thereby establishing tourism as a business that brought much-needed money to the region, particularly to its poorest inhabitants. He also established a chain of hotels for these tourists, including La Fonda, which is still in operation in Santa Fe. The museum, considering the constraint of having to work around the fact that poverty has been the overriding leitmotif of the state's history, does a real good job. 

It also pays host to travelling exhibits and I caught a good one, dealing with art showing the Virgin Mary in the Hispanic New World. Most of the paintings were from wealthier Spanish colonies like Peru and Mexico, and to tell the truth, I preferred the Palace's display of santos, carved wooden images from the 18th century, which are appealingly primitive, but amidst the opulence (or attempted opulence) of the images on display, this statue really stood out:

Our Lady of a) punk rock; b) PMS; c) Perpetual Sorrow

(My usual Blur-O-Vision approach kind of helps this pic, but compare with this piece of street art):

Friday was for history, what there was of it among the frantic shoppers, who I now realized were trucked into the city in buses and given some time to do the city. A lot of them were senior citizens, some in parlous physical condition, and I began to realize what Santa Fe was, in some respects, reminding me of: Sun City, Arizona, where my parents spent the last 35 years of their lives, outliving three sets of friends, and one of the most horrifying places I've ever spent a lot of time in. There was no age compact in Santa Fe, of course, a minimum age for residence, and the presence of Hispanics and a few African-Americans -- and all those tourists -- definitely brightened things up. I'll never be able to "retire," and in fact have no desire to, since I love my work, but a lot of Americans hit a wall when they're no longer going to their jobs each day, and need to be coaxed out of their former skin to learn how to live differently. There was a touch of this in Santa Fe, which I saw most vividly at the farmers market on Saturday, and of course a lot of these retirees have more money than Sun Citizens, but Baron told me that the median age in town was 45, and that made sense. 

Besides the Palace, there isn't much old building left, but the alleged Oldest House is one of them. Big as it looks from outside, it's tiny inside (although it had another story and maybe a bigger downstairs, if drawings of it are anything to go by). 

Built 1646, a youngster compared to several pueblos, stuff in Puerto Rico, and a slew of buildings in New England, sez Wikipedia
It stands near the Mission of San Miguel, which the sun made impossible to photograph like I wanted to, and which, along with the Palace, was at least begun in 1610. 

This, we learn, was built with the help of Mexican Indians, "servants" of the Spaniards. Apparently it's not kosher to refer to them as "slaves," which, if they fitted the pattern of the Spaniards' use of the local Indians in California and Mexico, is the more apt term. No wonder the Pueblos hanged the priest. 

It's more impressive inside, with a nice altar

and a bell dated 1356, which they'd hauled all the way from Spain. 

Note the milagros hammered into the wood frame
Another place I remembered from my childhood visit was the Loretto Chapel, notable for a wooden spiral staircase whose construction apparently defies physics, created by a guy who wandered out of the desert, built the thing, and vanished. It costs $3 to see, and I passed, because it's likely the only thing to see there and I'd seen it when it must have been free: my parents' hatred for the Catholic Church would have prevented them from spending a dime. 

I lunched at a famous restaurant, Santa Fe Bite, which had been a local institution, Bobcat Bite, until a mess of acrimony shut it down and the owners renamed it and rehoused it as, of all things, a motel coffee shop. I had been told that it had the definitive green chile cheeseburger, and guess what: it did. It was too much for me to finish, and the waitress gave me a tip I'll pass along: they have a 6oz. burger on the menu. Order it with green chile (extra) and cheese (extra) and it'll be a bit cheaper than the burger on the menu -- and you can finish it. You'll want to. 

Then I ran into more history: the opening of the Fiesta, which commemorates the settlement of 1610 and is definitely a celebration of Chicano pride. I was standing at an ATM, waiting to use it, when the gunshots announcing the beginning went off. This was followed by some Indian singing, and that was followed, inexplicably, by bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." And that was followed by someone singing the most awful song I've heard in a while, which turned out to be Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," containing the lines "At least I live in America/So I know what it's like to be free." Uh, sure. But then I remembered the date, which someone I know refers to as National Pick The Scab Day. A depressing reminder, among the exotica, of where I was. 

This all tired me, and I had to plan my return the next day, so I went back to the hotel, feeling I'd exhausted most of the remaining options. I ate dinner in a place I mention only to warn you off of it: I wanted something light, and they advertised dinner salads, and it was across the street from my hotel, but man, the Hilton, to which it's attached, should do something about El Cañon. The food was awful, but not as bad as the two giddy guys who man the place. They think they're a comedy team. They're not. 

My appetite and digestion were massively screwed up by this point, and that may explain my indifference to the farmers market the next morning, although I'm still kicking myself for it. 
Obligatory cliched photo of chiles

The market is in the Railyard District, and only a short walk from my hotel. I had a problem in that I was going to overnight in Big Spring, Texas, and wouldn't arrive home until Sunday afternoon. I wanted to buy some New Mexico green chiles (far more useful, if less picturesque, than the red) to take home, but I didn't see how it would be possible because I didn't have a cooler, and didn't know where to get one. But these aren't the generic "Hatch" chiles that are now a national phenomenon. These people know their stuff:

Take that, HEB!
Another knowledgeable merchant was the Tomato Lady, American cousin to Eric le Tomatologue in Montpellier, with her list of available varieties: 

There was no way to get these back, cooler or no, and I could only stare.

I waited for that woman to put her hand there so you could see the size of these puppies. 
I should have bought some seeds. There were seeds there. I should have bought a cooler down the road. I should have picked up lunch. But I didn't. Instead I went back to the hotel, checked out, and hit the road. 

Part III: Blowout and the Terror of Critter Alley

There's a lot of nothing between Santa Fe and Big Spring, and Vaughan, NM is smack dab in the middle of it. Good thing, too, because I was low on gas and needed to recycle the morning coffee. Having done so, I got back on  the road. Then there was a funny sound. I looked at my right rear tire, from which it had come, and it didn't look good. I found a turnaround and headed back to Vaughan, but not for long. A worse sound happened, and the tire sounded different -- way different. I got out to see what was what. This is what was what. 

Being the cool character I am, I got out the spare and all the relevant tools and discovered that I couldn't budge any of the nuts, because they'd been installed with a power tool. Back in the car, I dialled 911, which tranferred me to Guadelupe County 911, who gave me a number to call for a wrecker. I called and the guy said he'd be there in an hour. So I sat and waited. There was a stiff breeze, which helped keep things cool, and the amazing landscape to contemplate. 

The immediate neighborhood
It may seem incredible, but 59 minutes after the call, a yellow truck that said TNT TOWING pulled up and a burly young guy emerged and identified himself as Thomas. He had the tiny spare on in no time, and opined that it'd last me about 100 miles, so we motored back into Vaughan, where he checked his stock to see if he had a replacement. He didn't. "So we call the next guy," he said. "We all help each other out around here." And the next guy had what we needed. He also had a slab of limestone into which he'd sand-blasted a bas-relief design and then painted it into a loving portrait of Thomas' big Peterbilt wrecker, which wasn't in evidence at the moment. As Thomas took the dead tire off and put the new one on, another truck showed up and a Hispanic guy got out with a couple of baggies of tomatoes and chiles, just perfect, to give to the guy who'd brought the tire. I guess they do help each other out; it was a nice slice of life in the middle of nowhere. 

$177.91 later, and hearty thanks to Thomas, whom I hope you never have to see, but am happy to have met, I motored on towards Big Spring, still several hours away. Okay, I told myself, the big adventure which had lurked in the back of my mind, sure that it would happen out on the road, had happened, and now it would be a nice dull trip back to Austin. 

If only. 

I got to worrying about whether my Google Map route was right: could US 380 really be this long? Had I missed a turnoff? I stopped for a bathroom break and a Diet Coke to wake me up, and asked the lady in the convenience store if I'd missed Big Spring. No, she said, there was a turnoff just down the road. I was in Post, Texas, and... And she was interrupted by a fat, red-faced farmer in overalls. "If he takes that road there through Gail, he'll get there. Most direct route from here." She agreed he was right. It was also dark by now and my night-vision isn't what it was, so a direct route was very welcome. As the day had dimmed, I'd already had one apparition, a huge, shaggy, dirty white dog walking very slowly across the highway, a giant heart outlined in black among his markings. He made it to the other side, but he was an unsettling sight. At any rate, after confirming that the road just a few feet past the filling station was correct, I got in the car and got on to FM 669. 

The overture: seconds after I'd gotten onto the road, from the side two gigantic wings unfurled, then sank quickly, only for their owner to get unstuck from the dinner he'd been enjoying and rise into the night sky, a huge raptor of some sort that I didn't get to identify because there was also -- is this possible? -- a giant bobcat which cast a disgusted look at me and sauntered into the woods. I pushed on, suddenly aware that my route was teeming with nocturnal life. Among that life, as it turned out soon thereafter, were many, many whitetail deer. Joe Nick Patoski's sage advice came to me: "Deer are never alone. If you see one, be careful because there are more." I never saw more than two at one time, but I was very, very lucky because all of them stood where they were on the side of the road and turned away from my headlights. I was driving with heightened awareness, knowing that at any time a critter could jump into my path and I'd have to react -- fast. There were a couple of huge hairy things that might have been woodchucks, small rodents -- voles? -- dashing across the highway, healthy big jackrabbits and smaller non-jack rabbits. One of these fell victim to my back wheels, but there was no damage to the car. On a bridge, where I stopped being vigilant because there was no land on either side, another huge raptor sat, and took off, annoyed. Toads sat in the road and I passed over them without touching them. And all the while my car was dive-bombed by crickets. 

Some lights appeared in the distance, and suddenly the wildlife stopped, as if a tap had been shut. I realized I hadn't seen any possums, nor had I seen that iconic Texas critter the armadillo. I saw a sign to Big Spring. I exhaled. Finally 669 ended, and I realized I had no idea how to get to my motel. Checking its address, I asked the navigation app to get me to the address on LaMesa Drive. It smartly came up with something, and I noticed that my gas light was on. Okay, let's go. Soon, I was in downtown Big Spring, and then there was a gas station with $1.99 gas. I filled up, then the app directed me. Suddenly, I was in a residential neighborhood, on Mesa Drive, not LaMesa. I got out the phone and corrected the address. It wanted me to go to Midland. It refused to recognize the "la" in the address. I was sitting in a nice neighborhood shouting at my phone, hoping the Big Spring Police had lots of better things to do. Finally, the stupid phone realized what I was doing and got me to where I was going. It was an hour and a half from the end of Critter Alley to the motel, lots longer than it should have been. But then, the route I'd gotten from Google was faulty. I didn't care. I checked in, went to a nearby truckstop, had a sandwich, and went to bed. 

Nothing much happened the next day except I got home. Finally.


  1. Ed: Love the way you take miserable experiences and make good stories. I was filmed once maybe 20 years ago with Baron Wolman because he and his photos were so upbeat about Woodstock, and the interviewer, perhaps in disdain, read my critical review and dubbed me "The Curmudgeon of Woodstock." In N.M., Montezuma remains my favorite memory of my cabin there.

  2. Excellent story, Ed. I am so sorry.


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