2013 Grateful 25

Bleak. Barren. Beautiful. It’s hard to describe the scenery in New Mexico, especially as you drive towards the Arizona border and the competing beauty of the neighbouring state encroaches. Mile after mile of hills and canyons that should be alive with cowboys and Indians and homesteaders yet when we passed a ‘For Sale’ sign,we were left wondering what in God’s name anyone would do for a living out here.

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But people live here, in this heat, in this desert, and somehow manage to survive. It beggars belief. I wouldn’t last a week. Not even if James Garner, in his heyday, was the one issuing the invitation to come hither. Nor even Sam Waterston as he is right now. I can’t for the life of me imagine living a life so remote. Alaska was different. Alaska was cold.

IMG_5976 (800x598)And yet, far from the sameness of Nebraska, around every corner there’s a new palate of colour and a new something to marvel at. And marvelling done, my mind inevitably went back to wondering why people chose to live here? Or perhaps, the better question might be why they’ve chosen not to leave?

IMG_5988 (800x600)I used to think that choosing where I lived was a given – a choice that was a divine right. But I’ve come to realise that I’m one of the fortunate ones that get to make that choice, unbridled by family ties, career ambitions, or financial constraints. That’s not to say that had I all the money in the world, I wouldn’t up sticks and head for the west coast of Ireland in a heartbeat. But usually when I move, I have a pull factor that is as great as the push factor. Driving these barren miles through the New Mexico desert and crossing over into Arizona, I had plenty of time to think about where next. And you know, while the push grows stronger with each political development in Hungary, the pull is staying remarkably silent.

IMG_5992 (800x584)Our concept of home varies. For some it’s transient, merely an address. For others it’s a gallery of collected treasures. For more it’s about people. For me, it’s a state of mind. Eight states into our eleven-state trip, I couldn’t help but marvel at the diversity of the U S of A: its scenery, its people, and its frames of mind. Heat aside, the reminder just how much control I have over my life, and where I go, and what I do, was worth every bead of sweat. And for this opportunity to reflect, I’m truly grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

The ABC of ABQ

IMG_5962 (800x600) (2)Back when I was working in a peroxide plant in Longview, Washington, I decided to move. It wasn’t the smell from the paper mill across the road or the fact that everyone in town knew me as ‘the Irish girl from Willow Grove’ and knew my business to boot. It was that a sense of needing to be somewhere else. It was a toss-up between Alaska and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alaska won. But for years I’ve been curious about what I missed.

Albuquerque (known locally as ABQ) is one of the oldest inland cities in the USA. And at a height of 5314 feet (higher than then highest mountain (and yes, I use that term advisedly) in Ireland, it’s the highest city on the US mainland. Amongst its many credits is that it hosts the largest hot air balloon competition in the world each year, festivities that draw more than 1.5 million spectators (and something that has now made it onto my lengthening bucket list). I’m glad I didn’t move there because the sun shines 310 days a year on average (who’s counting?) and I don’t do well in the heat.

IMG_5935 (800x600) (2)One of the most important questions you’ll be asked as a tourist is ‘red or green’ and if you haven’t done your homework you might not know that this refers to your choice of red or green chiles. Budapest might have its wine festivals and the new wine bar that’s opened just around the corner from me boasts a choice of vino és wonka (wine or chocolate), but ABQ hosts New Mexico’s wine and chile festival on Memorial weekend. Now that’s a combination that isn’t at all tempting.

Its old town square isn’t quite as overrun with budding artisans as that of Santa Fe, but it’s a lovely spot nonetheless. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that a battle of preferences rages, one quite similar to the one between Budapest and Vienna, with these two New Mexico cities creating division between their admirers. Some said that, given the choice between the two, ABQ won hands down over Santa Fe. Others said the opposite. No one stayed silent. I’m still undecided. The heat does that to me. It addles my brain to the point that decisions are difficult to make.

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IMG_5950 (800x600)ABQ is the oldest farming community in the USA, home to the Pueblo Indians. It’s also the geographical centre of New Mexico. And it’s charming. Despite the tourists and the heat and the hawkers, there’s something still pure about it, something untouched, something that has escaped the commercialisation of Santa Fe. Its history can be read on the murals on the walls of the restaurants lining the old town square. Its church, an adobe building with walls that are five feet thick, still functions as a reminder of the Spanish colonial tradition of anchoring a central square with a place of worship.

IMG_5954 (600x800)Again, it was refreshing to see local artisans selling their wares from blankets in the shaded archways of the main square. It was good, also, to see small cafés and food joints in the back streets, making what had to be a relatively meagre living from the not-so-passing trade but smiling nonetheless. Maybe it’s the laid-back Spanish influence, that little bit of Mediterranean attitude in the desert. Or it could have simply been heat-induced lethargy. No matter. It was all so very relaxed.

But even more enthralling than the white towers of the old church building that rise like beacons into the skies was a little church we passed on the way into town, one that opens for mass once a week, on Saturday, at 4pm. Some miles outside the city limits, it sits alone on a hill by the side of the road, a living testimony to the missionary work done in the states back in the 1700s. It’s beautiful. We had to climb a locked gate to get in (a sad indictment of the state of society) and while there, I was enthralled by the local custom of surround graves with what, for all the world, looks like a bed frame. I thought it peculiar to this little cemetery, but noticed it again as we drove further into New Mexico.

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IMG_5924 (800x600) (2)Apparently this had something to do with the widespread poverty in New Mexico that led to the rather innovative use of everyday items as grave-markers. I came across this fascinating account of famous and unusual grave-sites in New Mexico’s history. Worth a read if, like me, you have a thing about burial sites.

ABQ – I’m glad I didn’t move there. But then again, I’d be happy to return. When it’s cooler and there are thousands of balloons in the sky.

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Bikers and bars

There’s a 65-mile streIMG_5904 (800x587) (2)tch of road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque (ABQ) that’s known as the Turquoise Trail. Seven towns span the route and it was in the second, Los Cerrillos, that we felt the pull of Mary’s Bar. Originally the Cerrillos Bar, it got its current name when one of the many movies made in the town (Vampires) left the signage behind. Both the Young Guns movies were filmed here and ‘Mary’ told us how Charlie Sheen would arrive in his limo, shoot his scenes, and leave while his brother, Emilio Estevez, one of the ‘friendliest actors ever’, would hang around, shoot the shit, and have a beer.

IMG_5907 (800x600) (2)IMG_5900 (600x800)Officially a ghost town, Los Cerrillos has all the old-world charm necessary to make you feel that you’ve landed in the middle of a Western and that if you stood still long enough, John Wayne would come strutting up the sidewalk.  Back in its day (mid-1880s), the city (yes, it had city status) was a hive of activity with 21 saloons, 5 brothels, 4 hotels and several newspapers. Apparently at one stage it was a serious contender to be the capital of New Mexico. But that was then.

It didn’t take us long to see the sights: the church, the icon mural, and the opera house and of these, it was perhaps the opera house that was the most surreal. IMG_5892 (587x800)The Clear Light Opera House, whose stage Sarah Bernhardt once graced, dates back to 1881 and its very presence is a reminder of how great the town once was.  Mind you, the incongruity of opera and the Wild West was a little hard to swallow but somehow it added to the charm of the place.

Just as we pulled into town, three guys on Harleys arrived, too. That made five strangers in all. And as strangers often do, we met in the bar for a beer. We’d soon realise that the Turquose Trail was a regular Sunday route for bikers from ABQ and that they would by far outnumber the motorists. But L, T, and C were the first we’d met.

IMG_5908 (800x600) (2)I have already confessed to a penchant for cowboys. And were every cowboy in the world to varporise tomorrow, then bikers would become my next obsession. There’s something rebellious about their style, their bearing, their image. There’s a certain non-conformity that is singularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the oneness between them and their bikes, which, come to think of it, isn’t all that far removed from that of a cowboy and his horse.

IMG_5911 (800x589) (800x589)I have to fess up to a stereotypical wariness of bikers, though, one that comes, perhaps, from reading too much about biker gangs like Hells Angels, the Pagans, and the Outlaws. But any unease I might have felt was soon abated by the friendly openness of our trio. We were even invited over for drinks in ABQ later that evening, if we made it back to the city in time. Roadtrips are full of surprises. Never would I have expected to be sitting in a bar that had my name over its door, at noon, in a ghost town, having a beer with a trio of bikers and hearing the sounds of another illusion being shattered. Thanks, lads!

IMG_5914 (800x600)IMG_5918 (800x600)Next stop on the Turquoise Trail was Madrid and it couldn’t have been more different. Its main street lined with boutique shops, tarot-card readers, and restaurants, it was hard to find a parking place.The whole town was listed for sale in the Wall Street Journal back in 1954 for the princely sum of $250 000 but was saved from its ghost-town status when it was rediscovered in the 1960s by artists and hippies. Madrid now has a population of about 400, mainly artists, craftspeople, and gallery owners and its famous Christmas Light extravaganza is back on the state’s festive calendar.

IMG_5915 (600x800)Madrid is firmly etched in my mind for two reasons: (1) It’s the first place in years that I’ve seen buffalo on the menu (and it still tastes as good as I remember). (2) I put my name in the book to have my tarot cards read, and then scratched it out. Have I finally reached a point where I no longer want to know the future? Could it be so? Perhaps I’m growing up (or growing old) but for the first time in years I simply didn’t feel the need to know. It will take me a while to adjust to that one!

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Old or outsourced

Santa Fe is home to one of the largest art markets in the world. If you have money, an eclectic taste in clothes and jewelry, and a house to furnish in that Aztecky desert style so peculiar to the region, then it’s a place worth visiting.  I was quite taken with the arts and crafts initially but then, in conversation with some of the vendors, I was a little disheartened to discover that the whole ‘designed in’ vs ‘made in’ blur of distinction had made it to the desert.

IMG_5855 (800x600)I’d set my eye on a blue woven basket, a large part of whose charm lay in the fact that I thought it was made by a Navajo Indian. I have a weird obsession with knowing the origins of things and prefer my originals to be signed and dated. But while it was designed by a Navajo artisan, it was actually made in Punjabi, India. This gave the outsourcing thing a whole new slant and poked another hole in my naivety. I really need to do something about the growing sense of dissatisfaction I have with the price of progress.

IMG_5856 (600x800)That said, though, it’s a lovely city with lots to gawk at and plenty of shops to wander around. With 200 restaurants, 250 art galleries, 50 Indian jewelry shops, 13 major museums, and a world-famous opera, there’s plenty to occupy a couple of days. Not that we had that sort of time, mind you. It has the oldest government seat in the United States, the oldest church in the United States, and the oldest house in the United States. So that makes it old. And, apparently, it was a town 13 years before the Pilgrims hit on Plymouth Rock. And in American terms, that’s really old.

IMG_5838 (800x600)The city sits at the end of the Santa Fe trail, a lifeline between Missouri and New Mexico that opened in 1821. The trail crosses five states and back in its day, military forts opened along the route to protect trail travel and trade. Route 66 also passes through it. And, when I stop to think about it, the city has made the transition to the twenty-first century relatively unscathed in parts. So perhaps this is one part of the world where the price of progress has been held in check, visually at least. Hope? Perhaps!

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2013 Grateful 26

For as along as I can remember being aware of the power of prayer, I’ve have had to balance the idea of praying with the surefire belief that my prayer will be granted against the thought that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. My prayer will either be granted or it won’t and if it isn’t then it wasn’t meant to be. (I often wonder what I’d believe had I been born into a different religion.)

IMG_5873 (800x600) (2)Back in 1878 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, America’s oldest capital city, the Loretto nuns found themselves in a quandary. Their recently completed chapel had a design flaw. The choir loft couldn’t be accessed. Sitting 22 feet about the ground, short of a ladder or levitation, there was little they could do. Every carpenter they consulted said the same thing: it would have to be a ladder as there wasn’t the space to build a stairway.

IMG_5870 (600x800)So the sisters decided to say a novena to the patron saint of carpenters, St Joseph (him who is famous in my book for selling houses – just bury a statue of him in your garden and the house will sell – it has worked, honestly). Novenas are said over nine days and just at the wire, on the final day, when the nuns may have been losing a little faith – a man appeared on a donkey…with his box of tools. He started work on the staircase and months later, when done, disappeared without pay or thanks.

More than 130 years later, the staircase’s design is still baffling architects as it has no visible means of support; it was built with wooden pegs and has two 360-degree turns. And this was 1878 remember!

IMG_5863 (800x600) (800x600)We Catholics love our miracles so it’s little wonder that the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe attracts hoards of visitors.  The tree outside its front door is laden with rosary beads, left by those whose prayers were granted and those who might be still praying for their own personal miracle.

IMG_5146 (600x800)I was reminded of something I’d seen when we’d stopped in the Casey Jones village on our way from Nashville to Memphis. A ‘pray it forward’ box where people deposited their prayers and then, if so moved, picked someone else’s prayer at random to pray for… a different, non-electronic form of social communication that would be lovely if it caught on.

This week, I’m grateful once again for my faith and that core belief that what’s for me won’t pass me.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

A cowboy stole my heart

IMG_5427 (600x800)My bucket list is long and varied but right up there was to go to a real, live rodeo. One that wasn’t for tourists but for locals, for professionals. When I found out that we’d be in Santa Fe for the 64th annual rodeo, I was as excited as I’ve been since I heard that Leonard Cohen was coming out of retirement and that I’d gotten tickets to see him in Amsterdam. And that was a few years ago. IMG_5476 (600x800)


It was like being on the set of a western movie with everyone but me in costume. Hats and boots, jeans and piped shirts were the order of the day. I had to remind myself that it was all real. Very real. And that these lads really were cowboys.

This was the final night. Riders had been competing since Wednesday and this was when the best of the best strutted their stuff and went against the clock or the bull or whatever. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. Rodeos are about more than simply staying in the saddle – but more than that I can’t say. What I can say though, is that they’re very patriotic. Very American. At least this one was.

IMG_5720 (800x600)When the American Flag was led out for the opening ceremony and all serving or retired service men and women were asked to stand so that the crowd could show their appreciation, I was a little taken aback. When the MC spoke of how Vietnam Veterans did not get the welcome home they should have received, I was  surprised. And when every single man in the fairground doffed his hat and sat/stood in silence at the National Anthem, I was moved to tears.

IMG_5524 (600x800)America gets a bad rap. Were it a person, it would be larger than life, loud, brash, and walk with a swagger. Yet I’m increasingly inclined to believe that what the world mistakes for arrogance is actually national pride, a pride in country that should be mimicked rather than maligned. Okay – maybe the heat was getting to me. That and the heightened levels of testosterone. Whatever. I was in my element.

From the outset, at the Mutton Bustin‘ where kids (boys and girls) start their rodeo careers by riding sheep – bareback, I was enthralled.  And from there, it only got better.

IMG_5478 (800x600)IMG_5736 (800x599)IMG_5765 (800x602)IMG_5728 (800x600)IMG_5439 (600x800)The people watching was excellent. And the eavesdropping even better. It was like something you’d see in the movies. First date at the funfair. Awkward silence. Nervous laughter. This was America at its best. Clean. Wholesome. All about family. It seemed that rodeo’ing (is that even a word?) is a sport that spans generations and knows no gender. Women and men rode equally well. Defeat was taken on the chin. If you fell or didn’t land that steer, you simply got up, dusted yourself off, and walked tall to the applause from the crowd who seemed to value the effort more than the outcome.

IMG_5712 (800x600)Texting and using a mobile is nothing out of the ordinary at all. But somehow, in my parcelled mind, cowboys didn’t text. And I have to fess up to being a tad disappointed to see technology rear its ugly head and shatter my rather idyllic illusion. Admittedly, and again in my parcelled mind, cowboys didn’t talk much either  – most of my heroes are the tactiturn type – so I was a little disappointed to see that these lads had succumbed to social media.

IMG_5792 (800x600)IMG_5473 (800x593)I read Pam Houston’s Cowboys are my weakness when I was living in California. And that wasn’t today or yesterday. Every time I moved since, I have packed that book with me. I’m not so naive as to believe that today’s twenty-first-century cowboys are of the same ilk as those who roamed the range one hundred years ago, or even fifty. People change. Society changes. But yet, on a hot Saturday evening in Santa Fe, I succumbed once more and lost my heart to a cowboy…or three.

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The land of enchantment

The New Mexico state motto  is Crescit Eundo (It grows as it goes). From the epic scientific poem De Rerum Natura   (On the nature of things), it refers to ‘the increasing strength a thunderbolt gradually gains when going across the sky’. Crossing the state line from Texas, the state slogan proclaims New Mexico to be the land of enchantment – and, in true thunderbolt fashion, as we travelled across the state, it grew as we went.

IMG_5395 (800x600)I have a habit of counting things, particularly train carriages, but New Mexico trains defied any attempt to add their length. Miles and miles of trains travelled alongside the Interstate and Route 66. Endless links of carriages going to and fro. I was half expecting to see Smith and Jones appear on horseback and hold one of them up.

IMG_5401 (800x598)The Navajo, America’s largest Native American Group, have a reservation that covers 14 million acres of New Mexico.  It’s officially a bi-lingual state with one in three residents speaking Spanish at home. Sheep and cattle by far out number people – the state has a population density of just 12 people per square mile. There’s plenty of land for sale for as little as $250 per acre – and tempting though the scenery might be, the sheer isolation, coupled with the heat, would be hard to manage.

IMG_5413 (800x600)Driving along I40 was trance-like. Mile after mile of road stretched out ahead giving plenty of time to contemplate the extremes that New Mexico can claim. Native Americans have lived here for 20 000 years. And it was here, too, that the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded on 16 July 1945. Atom bombs. Arrowheads. American Indians. And that’s just the A’s.

Rumour has it that in the town of Carrizozo, women are not allowed appear in public, unshaven. And in Las Cruces, it’s illegal to carry a lunchbox down the main street. In some of the more remote towns, such as Coyote, a form of sixteenth-century Spanish is still spoken. And in Clayton Lake State Park, about five hundred dinosaur footprints have been preserved – which explains the plethora of dinosaur statues lining the interstate. And given that State Officials ordered 400 ‘sexually explicit words’ to be cut from Romeo and Juliet, one has to wonder about the dinosaur thing.

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The mother road

I finally got to drive Route 66. Not all of it, just a short stretch, but enough to feel the magic. Dubbed the ‘Mother Road – the road of flight’ by the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this narrow, two-lane road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (2448 miles in all) and, for the most part, runs parallel with Interstate 40.

IMG_5415 (800x591) (800x591)IMG_5835 (600x800) (600x800)Route 66 0pened on 11 November 1926 in Springfield, MO. Back in the 1930s, it was the path to freedom for many from Oklahoma who went west, dodging the clutches of the Dust Bowl. It has been immortalised by writers like Jack Kerouac. It has been a source of wonder and inspiration for comedians like Billy Connolly. But in the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness and on 27 June 1985, it was decommissioned, no longer an official US highway. It hasn’t gone away, though, and while it might not be ploughed by snow ploughs during the winter or patrolled by Highway Patrol year ’round, the Mother Road is still very much alive and kicking – and as the t-shirts and fridge magnets declare, many still get their kicks on Route 66.

IMG_6263 (800x600)Like much of the rest of my world (Ireland and Hungary), many small towns thrived from the traffic the route brought. But then, as infrastructure upped a notch or five and freeways and highways and motorways were built, the lifeblood of these small communities was choked at source. In the USA, it was Eisenhower, who in 1956, inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, began the move to make US highways more efficient. Route 66 was what might be called collateral damage. Now, instead of booming centres of commerce, Route 66 is dotted with tacky souvenir trading posts, fast-food joints, and petrol stations.  There is the occasional gem, though, like Joseph’s Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

IMG_5408 (800x600)Here, in 1956, a WWII veteran by the name of José Campos, opened La Fiesta drive-in, which developed into a full-service restaurant within a couple of years. Handed down to the next generation of Campos in 1985, it blossomed under the banner ‘Joseph’s Bar & Grill’. Now home to a gift shop, the restaurant is what any tourist would expect of an American diner. It has struck the right note between tacky and nostalgic and the food is as comforting as diner cooking should be.

IMG_5403 (800x600)It doesn’t stand on ceremony – come in your curlers! This couple, in their eighties, were making their way north to see their kids and were a tad concerned about the possibility of running into wildfires. But they’d resolved to go as far as they could go. Hats off to the tenacity of older Americans, whose ‘live it while you can’ attitude would put many a more delicate European to shame.

IMG_6269 (600x800)Route 66 may have been decommissioned but it still hasn’t lost its magic. Along this very same road hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to better lives. Today, motorbikes and RVs and clapped-out cars make the trip as their drivers search amidst a nostalgic haze for life as it used to be. There’s something so romantic about ‘doing Route 66’ – something I’ve had on my bucket list since I first read Jack Kerouac. And now that I’ve had a taste, the notion has cemented a place in my top 5 things to do before I die – preferably on a Harley.

IMG_5995 (600x800)It’s a treasure of oddness and eccentricity. It’s the home of the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX,  the Continental Divide between Brannigan and Parks, AZ, and the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, AZ.  There’s also the Amboy Shoe Tree in California, the steady demise of which chronicles the demise of the route itself. Off to the side, American Indians trade their wares. The crafts of local artisans battle for space with Chinese imports. Billboards line the highway urging travellers not to miss the biggest and the best, each one promising something it can  never hope to deliver. Yet the plight of towns like Amboy are a grave reminder of the price of progress.

IMG_5983 (800x600)Despite efforts to protect America’s first paved highway, Route 66 now features on the Top 100 Most Endangered Sites to Watch – courtesy of the World Monuments Fund. With just 85% of the road still drivable, perhaps I’d better up the ante a little and promote this trip to top of my list.