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Elaine, the Road Sage

Lazy Days in Santa Fe

(Filed from Phoenix, Arizona at 9:52 a.m. on July 26, 1999)

Fen and I arrive in Santa Fe in search of the perfect red chile.  I've heard the chiles are spicier here, but I'm also in search of a certain spice for my soul.  While Santa Fe's taste, literally, may be chile in one of a hundred guises, I remember its feel to be more like allspice.  Or dill.  No, make that cumin.  The Santa Fe of my mind is mellow yet it creeps up on you.  Lulled by its easy pace, soft colors and endless sky, suddenly you bolt upright at the sight of a sculpture which has been worn by the winds of time.  Or the face of one who was here first -- and will be here last.  The Spanish word for cumin is "comino," surprisingly similar to "camino," which translates to "path."  I trust my soul will find its way, its path, here in Santa Fe.

Our first stop is of a more literal nature since hunger calls.  We visit the Guadalupe Cafe where I ask for my trio of enchiladas to be "Christmas," meaning I'll get a taste of both red and green chiles.  I find the red chile to be the real winner, since it's smoky and potent.

"I guess I'll be eating your plate for you," Fen jokes, he of the cast-iron tongue.

"Nope, I can handle it," I say bravely, and while I'm not quite sure if I can, I come to realize that this chile grows on you.  I survive my meal and we head off for some sleep.

*     *     *     *     *

Awakening at the Spencer House is another feast for the senses.  Jan McConnell, the owner of this five-room bed and breakfast, loves to cook, and she manages to whip up a stellar breakfast for her guests each and every morning.  You could stay here for a week and never have the same thing twice.

Traipsing through the cozy living room and bright sun porch, we make our way to a patio table.  In a corner of the sun porch, Jan is laying out the following spread:  black bean quesadillas, an egg scramble with flecks of green chile, a fresh fruit salad glistening with mango, kiwi and strawberry, homemade lemon muffins, coffee, juice and homemade granola.  Fen and I sample it all and inform Jan that she must write a cookbook.  Now.

We decide to stroll the Plaza after breakfast in keeping with the restorative tone we've set for this visit.  The Plaza, thankfully, turns out to be more soulful than I expected.  Perhaps it's because the Santa Fe weather really does lend itself to moving slowly.  It's warm enough here, the air is dry and puffy clouds appear to move reluctantly in the bright blue sky.  Who could possibly rush?

We walk past a number of galleries, stopping in at Lewallen Contemporary to admire their fine selection.  Most of the galleries have a picture of the American Express card discreetly placed on a display window with the following message below it:  "Treasured in Santa Fe."

We find somewhat more reasonable pricing among the artists who are part of the Native American Vendors Program of the Palace of the Governors.  Located on the north side of the Plaza, this is where Native American potters, silversmiths and the like sell their wares.  A continuous line of people cha-chas by, stopping on occasion to touch and try.  I fall in love with a bracelet made by Ed Lovato, a silversmith who is a member of the Santo Domingo Pueblo.  Since the American Express card is not treasured here, nor any other form of plastic, I'm disinclined to buy.

"Well, I do have cash," Fen says.  "We can get it if you want, but we've got to haggle.  His price is too high."  High or not, I decide against the turquoise-laden bracelet since it really is too big for my small wrist.

Continuing on our walk, I poke into The Rainbow Man first and find a flea market of old furniture and fabulous tin mirrors.  T.C. Donobedian's Paris Flea is next, where we see more distressed furniture along with old Venetian glass lamps.  Our last stop is La Galeria Sacred Stone, which sells the work of other artists (much Spanish religious art here) as well as the alabaster sculptures of the owner, Gilberto Silva.  Almost better than the artwork (but not quite) are Silva's two tiny dogs, which are engaged in a playful romp.  The dogs are named Musa and Bandido, which sounds about right for this place and time.

In need of a break from the hot, still air we head off to lunch at Santacafe, where chef David Sellers is manning the stoves.  Not much in the way of red or green chiles here, though -- the cuisine at Santacafe is a bit more refined, and delightfully so.  Fen and I share three appetizers:  the shiitake and cactus spring rolls with a green chile salsa (oops, I lied), the crispy calamari with a lime dipping sauce and the shrimp and spinach dumplings with tahini sauce.  Each dish is subtle, delicate and fresh.  And utterly flavorful.  I decide to ask chef Sellers how he does it.

"So much Southwestern cooking is all about spice," he tells me.  "We use chiles here, but more for their flavor than their actual heat."  I conclude that Santacafe is my kind of place, since survival is not an issue.

We return to the Spencer House for a nap as part of our relaxation plan.  Unfortunately, Fen and I are quickly sidelined by the treats which Jan has left in the sun porch:  homemade chocolate chip cookies (you can always tell), homemade pistachio biscotti and refreshing sun tea.  We take a small picnic to our bedroom and read (and eat) rather than sleep.

Our friend Moe and his twelve-year-old daughter Jessie pays us a visit late in the afternoon.  I play hostess and serve everyone tea and cookies.

Moe is the guiding light of The Tutorial School, a "democratic school" where it's the students themselves who decide what they want to learn, if anything.  Fortunately, most of the kids decide to learn something, probably thanks to Moe, who is quite the kid himself and easily the Pied Piper of this flock.  Among the "course" options at this school for the be-mused are performance, painting, photography, literature, math, the sciences, daydreaming, horseback riding, soccer, fencing, talking, music, dance, astrology, hanging out and drawing.  The painting room at the Tutorial is awash in color and the photography room has better equipment than I could ever dream of having.  Most everything at the school has been donated, since this is a non-profit running on a shoestring budget.  I start to wish that I had spent some time at such a freeform place myself.

Dinner on this evening is at La Tertulia, a restaurant housed in a former convent.  The space is a warren of rooms, all of them muy Spanish in feel.  I order the enchilada plate and notice that my enchiladas are prepared differently here.  A corn tortilla is spread open and topped with chicken and cheese, another tortilla, more toppings and yet another sheet of corn.  Topping it all is red and green chile.  To my surprise, the green here is spicier than the red and not very spicy at that.  I conclude that La Tertulia is cooking for the lowest common denominator, in this case folks who have little or no tolerance for spice.

On the way home, Fen and I marvel at the expanse of sky overhead.  In Santa Fe we can see the sky and it goes on for miles and miles, a series of clouds painted in broad brushstrokes by the Artist up above.  I think back to Musa, the sprightly puppy dog at the Galeria Sacred Stone.  In Santa Fe, the sky is my muse.

*     *     *     *     *

Jan's breakfast on morning number two:  a caramelized onion and mushroom tart, roasted baby vegetables, another colorful fruit salad, homemade raspberry muffins, more delicious juices and coffee and the ever-present homemade granola.  We sate ourselves and marvel at our good fortune in choosing this place.

The Spencer House isn't done in Southwestern coyote-cowboy chic.  Rather, it's a tasteful blend of English and American antiques, all enhanced by soft fabrics and muted colors.  Our room has a pine four-poster bed so high that a little step stool is graciously provided.  The bed's linens are the colors of the Santa Fe sky, all blue and white and rosy pink.  There's also a chest of drawers in this room and a small armoire, both made of pine.  Nightstands, too, and two upholstered chairs.  The bathroom is shiny white and graced by a skylight and there are lace curtains on the various windows.  Our room is hard to leave, but we do, every morning, on our way to a new adventure.

On this day, we decide to take in museums.  Our first stop is the Museum of Fine Arts close by the Plaza.  The collection and exhibits exceed even our highest expectations.  I am struck by a quote of Georgia O'Keeffe's that I see next to one of her paintings:  "I decided to start anew -- to strip away what I had been taught -- to accept as true my own thinking."  No one seems to be in this incredible museum, and I can't imagine why.

Next up is the Loretto Chapel so that we can see the "miraculous stairway."  Everyone we run into seems to be talking this up, a staircase with no visible means of support built inside a small chapel.  The bad news, we come to realize, is that the Loretto Chapel is a real chapel no more.  This privately-held "museum" charges admission, has gaudy signage at every turn and compels you to exit via a gift shop which is larger than the chapel itself.  We can't get out of the place fast enough.

Last on our list is the Museum of International Folk Art, located high up on a hill overlooking Santa Fe.  The crown jewel here turns out to be the Girard Wing, which houses the former collection of Alexander Girard.  Clearly, Mr. Girard spent a great deal of time traveling and shopping, since the collection counts over a hundred thousand pieces.  Most of the artwork we see are installations depicting village life in places such as Mexico, India, Senegal and Poland, constructed in a variety of media.  The shapes and colors are a festival for the eyes, a profusion of happy campers engaged in those daily rituals which are the sum total of a life.  Whether it's the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker, every figurine is smiling -- even those illustrating Mexico's fabled "Day of the Dead."  Fen and I smile, too.

We head for La Fonda in the early afternoon, since this is where we'll be spending our last night in Santa Fe.  La Fonda is the oldest hostelry in town, dating back to the early 1600s.  While the exterior of the building is adobe redux, the interior is awash in color, a hand-painted tableau that will not quit.  Rumor has it that someone roams the halls of La Fonda with a can of paint and paintbrush in tow, looking for things on which to paint a flower or a dog or the moon or the sun.

The pool calls to us on this afternoon, so we head out for some swim 'n sun.  Moe and his kids Jessie and Jonah stop by and soon we're all playing water games, mostly of the splash-and-throw variety.  We tire ourselves out -- and work up an appetite.  The unanimous vote is for chile.

At Tomasita's, the restaurant will not be responsible for "chile that is too hot."  This warning greets you in the entryway not far from the photo of Hillary Rodham Clinton and two Tomasita's, so to speak.  Apparently Hillary loves the chile here, so much so that a room has been named after her.  Surprisingly, there are no pix of Hill in her room.

Our waiter gives us a sample of the three chiles available -- red, green with meat and vegetarian green.  Red seems the most agreeable to me, although none of the three are particularly hot.  My chicken enchilada is topped with red chile and as I eat it, I grow to appreciate the subtlety of the flavors.  So far, it's the best chile I've had.

"Did you know that 'red or green?' is the official state question?" Moe asks.  "They voted it in last year."

Moe goes on to give me a primer on chiles.  The best way to get flavor from your chiles is to roast them and then peel off the skin.  The downside to this process is that you get "chile finger," a burning sensation on your digits caused by the spices in the chile.  Moe avoids chile finger by using gloves.  He also makes his own red chile sauce like so:  using equal parts red chile powder, flour and butter, make a roux.  When it's lightly browned, pour in cold water and make a sauce.  That's it.  Fen, who has tasted it before, swears that Moe's red chile is the best in the West.

We return to our painted room at La Fonda, but not before a stop at the open-air Bell Tower Bar to admire the nighttime sky.

*     *     *     *     *

We pay a visit to Ten Thousand Waves on our way out of town.  This Southwest-meets-Japanese spa is high on a mountain overlooking Santa Fe.  The idea at Waves, according to manager Bob Sheffield, is to bring people close to nature, thereby allowing them to leave their troubles behind.

"It's about physical and spiritual rejuvenation here," Bob continues.  "You can take a tub or have one of a number of treatments.  It's a great place to gather with friends.  What we use here is well water from deep Artesian wells, 600 feet deep.  It's not a hot spring per se.  Using heat exchange furnaces and propane, we heat the temperature to 104-106 degrees.  The water circulates through our system, and we use ozone and UV light to sanitize the water.  The entire volume of each tub recirculates every twenty minutes."

Filtering or not, I'm in heaven here.  Ten Thousand Waves is slow and peaceful, a shoji screen here and a pebbled path there.  Most people choose an hour soak in a private tub and follow it up with a massage, so Fen and I do exactly that.  Our private tub has screens on three sides, with the fourth side exposed to the trees and sky.  There's nothing overhead, either, except more trees and light.  We spend our hour alternating between the hot tub and a cold plunge right outside our room and I find, to my surprise, that the cold plunge is the better tub.  The whole experience is wonderfully serene and conducive to ruminations about the simple pleasures of life and how little it really takes to be happy.  My soul is bathed, cleansed -- yes, restored -- by the lapping of the waves.

*     *     *     *     *

We return to Santa Fe on Saturday morning to check out the Spanish Market.  This once-a-year event is a showcase for the Spanish artisans who are there selling everything from painted bultos (religious statuary) to retablos, weaving and tin work.  The level of the art here is much higher than I'd imagined and artists and gawkers are engaging in polite patter at every turn.  Karen Martinez, whose hand-woven, brightly-colored rug bears a blue ribbon signifying best of show, takes me aside and tells me that it took her nearly a year to make her rug.  She and her kids collectively gathered the leaves and seeds used to dye the wool before a single weave was done.

As we head back out of town, I conclude that the Spanish Market is a mirror of Santa Fe itself:  polite, slow and easy, a feast for the eyes with a dash of spice to make it all worthwhile.


© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California

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