I first traveled to Santa Fe in the summer of 2015. At that time, I thought everything in my life was perfect in a sappy Disney movie sort of way: I was dating my longterm boyfriend, Ross, I’d just been offered a full-ride assistantship at my graduate school, I had my friends, family, and I had hit some sort of magical writing groove where I was writing or revising daily. I had just spent part of the summer working for a hotel in Estes Park, CO. I left that seasonal position in July, picked up Ross at the Denver airport, and started on a week-long road trip from Estes Park to the coast of Georgia. During the seven-state journey Ross and I made a quick pitstop in Santa Fe. We walked around the plaza, went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (my namesake), and ate frito pie from a convenience store that Anthony Bourdain had raved about.
Flash forward two years and two months, and I arrived in Santa Fe again to attend a Travel Memoir workshop with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’s Writers Lab. My mum had told me about the workshop. She thought I’d find it useful. While I agreed I’d probably find the class interesting, my primary reason for this second trip to New Mexico’s capital wasn’t education, it was escape. In the time between my Santa Fe visits my father had died unexpectedly. Ten months later Ross dumped me equally as unexpectedly and his timing––the eve of my grad school graduation––had eradicated both the sense of accomplishment I felt in my MFA degree and my love for writing in general. Then, four days before flying to Santa Fe, Hurricane Irma blew over my hometown, and destroyed my car and nearly all of my possessions (furniture, books, clothing, etc.). When I landed at Santa Fe’s tiny airport, I felt like a facade of what I had been two years and two months previous. I didn’t care about writing anymore. I didn’t really care about anything anymore. I just wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded of all the loss.
Obviously, traveling to a city I had visited with Ross wasn’t ideal for forgetting about him (and my dad and my car), but I planned to stay as busy and preoccupied as possible. On my first night I explored the historic downtown. I went from shop to shop and watched a mariachi band in the center square. I went to a funky boutique, The Dancing Sun, and talked with the shop owner about hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the approaching Maria. As I rifled through a basket of colorful scarves I told her about losing my car and furnishings. When she insisted that I take a scarf for free I nearly teared up. I searched Yelp! for somewhere to have dinner and found El Callejon Taqueria and Grill. Although I’m an extrovert and I’ve traveled by myself, I’m not great at striking up conversations with strangers. Since El Callejon was the No. 1 recommendation in Santa Fe, I assumed it would be crowded enough that I could blend in with the crowd and not talk to anyone.
El Callejon Taqueria and Grill had a grand total of four patrons: a young, entwined couple, a girl eating chips and salsa in a back corner, and a drunk man at the bar. The bartender waved me over to the bar. I wanted to eat chips and salsa in a dark corner like the other girl, but how could I ignore the bartender? I took a seat two stools away from the drunk man and four stools away from the PDA couple.
“You would like something to drink?” the bartender asked. I nodded. He asked to see my ID. When he saw my age (29) he gasped. “This is your age?” he asked.
“I know,” I joked. “I look so young and youthful.” (I joked because most people assume I’m in my mid-thirties. I’m told it’s because I dress up a lot, but I think it’s because I’ve look like a librarian since I was 18.)
“Si,” he said. “You do look young. I would have said 21.”
I ordered a mango margarita and chile rellenos. I’m not a foodie or a food writer so I can’t do a just description of the meal, but, if states had a State Taste like they do with state birds, flowers, fruit, etc, then New Mexico’s taste would be a chile relleno from El Callejon. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in my lungs, but the chile tasted like they had a full vine out back. It was the perfect amount of spice. I didn’t know Monterrey Jack cheese could taste fresh, and don’t even get me started on the flaky batter or the tomato sauce. While the bartender talked to me about how the restaurant was based off of his mother’s central Mexico cooking, I tried to not throw my face into the pepper.
The next day I still had a few hours to kill before checking into the workshop so I went to Meow Wolf, an interactive art installation. When my AirBnB host described it she said, “If you see a fridge, go in it. If you see a toilet, stick your head in it.” She didn’t say anything else.
If you listen to the podcast Welcome to Nightvale then Meow Wolf is sort of like Nightvale come to life. You start by walking into this seemingly normal Victorian home and you search for clues around the house as to why the family is no longer there. Your search takes you through all sorts of wild and crazy rooms (one of which you find by walking into the fridge). For some reason I was under the impression that the place was a haunted house and, since I’m a very jumpy person, I was on the lookout for something to jump out at me. I stepped through a porthole onto a couch that had melted into the floor a child jumped out at me. I screamed and flailed my arms. Then I learned that Meow Wolf is not a haunted house and that that was just a normal child. The whole place is like a mixture of Rivendale, Ferngully, a dream sequence from Rocko’s Modern Life, and an acid trip. Meow Wolfs will soon open up in other cities throughout the U.S., but each one will be different because it’ll be designed by local artists.
Images of Meow Wolf.
After Meow Wolf I checked into the Writers Lab workshop. I stayed on the Writers Lab campus, which is just south of the historic area. The campus is in the traditional adobe style that you see throughout Santa Fe and the building that I stayed in was originally built as a tuberculosis ward. (My overactive imagination was just a tad creeped out by this. When I turned on the shower one morning red water came out. My immediate thought was, Blood! I’m pretty sure it was rust though.) The TB ward was pretty unusual in that the doctors believed the cure for the disease was fresh, clean air, a beautiful, relaxed setting, and intellectual stimulation. The campus now shares its space with cloistered Carmelite nuns.
I won’t go into too much detail about the workshop except to say that it massively exceeded my expectations. The instructor, Rolf Potts (author of Vagabonding), was fantastic and my classmates were keen to write and work together, which gave the workshop a nice vibe. We chatted, we wrote, we went “flâneur-ing” (the act of idling solo through an area and taking everything in), and we buckled down and wrote our hearts out for a few days.
During the workshop I continued to explore Santa Fe. I walked into town with various classmates on the one to two mile stretch of road that is clearly not meant for pedestrians (side note: do people walk in Santa Fe outside of the plaza? I passed very few pedestrians whenever I was more than half a mile from the city center). We explored Canyon Road, the third largest concentration of art galleries outside of New York and Los Angeles (or Chicago depending on who you talked to). Two of my classmates––women who I thought were in their early forties, but were both pushing sixty––also commented that I looked twenty. Maybe the high altitude (7,500+ ft) adds a youthful glow?
By the end of the week, as I entered Santa Fe’s small airport again, (it’s so small that the airport cafe serves coffee out of a French press––a FRENCH PRESS) I felt like I had changed again. This is really cliche, but I felt renewed. My interest in writing had returned. I was still bummed about my car and my possessions, but I already wasn’t going to have all of that stuff while in Asia so was it really that awful? As I walked around Santa Fe, I thought of my dad a lot and wanted to call him to tell him about my trip, but that’s a desire that will never go away. I thought of Ross, too, but on my last night in the former TB ward I had the thought that had I still been with Ross I never would have gone to the Santa Fe workshop. Was it a life altering/career defining workshop? Probably not, but I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and it furthered my dedication to an art form I hope to turn into a career. With Ross I wouldn’t have felt such a need for escape. Without him, I needed a break from my normal life and Santa Fe was the first opportunity to crop up. I’m not saying that I’m over the moon that Ross dumped me, but I am finally starting to see how my life will be more fulfilling without him.
Two years and two months ago my image of Santa Fe was a unique looking town with a lot of artists and yummy meals served in chip bags. My Santa Fe today is a magical city, where people give you free scarves to replace all the ones you lost, the desert mountain air makes sheds nearly a decade from your face, there are chile rellenos so delicious they’re worth marrying, and you return home feeling rejuvenated (or maybe that’s just because I can breathe at sea level again).