s we drove down the bumpy freeway toward Santa Fe, an old Subaru hatchback with custom side skirts and a rear spoiler zoomed past us, it’s exhaust pipe sputtering off into the distance. The words of my grandpa echoed in my head. ”There goes the canary,” he used to say on road trips, referring to how miners would send a canary into abandoned shafts to test if the air was safe to breathe.
We passed several trailer parks on either side of the road, each dwelling topped with a satellite. Powerlines with leaning posts zigzagged through the expanse of brown desert. The climate was clearly dry, but there was still abundant plant life. Juniper and sagebrush speckled the sand and rock, expanding along a flat plateau in one direction and up the mountains in the other.
Our path bent east into the town of Española. Many of the buildings there looked abandoned and dilapidated. A barista at a coffee shop in Santa Fe later told me that most people think Santa Fe is the oldest European city in the US, but in fact, both present day Española and Santa Fe were part of the original Spanish settlement of Nueva Mexico, and the first structure was actually the church in Española, making it older than Santa Fe.
On the other side of Española, the sporty Subaru was pulled over by a black SUV with tinted windows and flashing lights. I could hear my grandpa chuckling in my head.
As we continued down the highway, I looked toward the mountains, searching for a cluster of buildings in the direction of Santa Fe, hoping to lay eyes on the city. Once or twice I spotted a large building and thought we might have entered the outskirts of town, only to pass the structure and realize that it was a casino on an Indian Reservation.
Then suddenly we found ourselves in downtown Santa Fe. Nature and civilization seemed to blend together in harmony, camouflaging the city. Within the city limits of Santa Fe, every building is required to be constructed in the traditional adobe architecture and within a predesignated palette of brown colors taken from the desert. No skyscrapers, no walls of glass, no bright color.
One of the first observations I made about Santa Fe was that there seemed to be two major communities—the first is a mix of Latin and Native American people whose ancestors have likely lived in the area for a long time, and the second are people who are transplants from across the United States.
There was our waiter at The Shed who was younger than me and had a smooth face with olive-colored skin. He sounded like a native English speaker, but had a slight accent. He encouraged me to order one of the spicier items on the menu. Our food was fresh and delicious, but I had to ask for a stack of “sweat napkins” to accompany my entree. He was kind and told me that I probably got a spicy scoop of sauce. His grandpa used to say, “It’s like playing a game of roulette. Sometimes one bite on the plate is a bullet, sometimes every bite is a bullet.”
Then there was our Airbnb host, who was a tall, broad man with an enthusiasm for life you could feel in his voice. He told me he used to be a musician in the Seattle Orchestra, but Covid ended that. He moved to Santa Fe with his wife to start a second career managing their two Airbnb properties. The poor guy always seemed to have his work cutout for him. If it wasn’t the unreliable satellite internet going out, it was the hot water heater. And if it wasn’t that, it was the well pump. He scurried from fire to fire with a smile on his face.
I spent a lot of my thinking time in Santa Fe trying to understand what drives so many people to move there, and more generally, to the desert. From a superficial perspective, I get it. The weather is dry and sunny. Good food. Nice people. These are the reasons everybody gives to explain why they live anywhere, just in different flavors.
The writer in me wanted to dig deeper.
Escapism was a common theme. The desert provides privacy and isolation. It’s a space to heal, to find yourself without being watched, and to hide. I could feel this in Santa Fe—there was a distinct aura of non-judgement and privacy.
Perhaps that’s why Burning Man takes place in a desert. Or why Meow Wolf in Santa Fe is a destination where people experiment with psychedelics.
I also noticed a common theme of trauma. Many people have told me the reason they like the desert is because the environment is harsh and every form of life within it has to be resilient to survive. People who’ve experienced trauma can identify with that.
Regardless of why people choose to live in Santa Fe, I plan to visit again.
The food was truly amazing. I thought I’d eaten great Mexican food before in my life, but a few of the restaurants in Santa Fe were a step above anything else I’ve ever eaten. The sauces were fresh and spicy. In fact, the base spice level of dishes served at restaurants in Santa Fe is probably the spiciest of anywhere I’ve been in the US. You can unwittingly order blue corn enchiladas with no mention of the dish being especially spicy on the menu, and it will blow your pants off. There was something about this that felt unadulterated and honest.
The arts scene was also unlike anything I’ve experienced. Many upscale, small cities across the US have an art gallery for local artists, but Santa Fe was a different beast. The famed strip of galleries on Canyon Road was a treat to walk through. The concentration of high quality art matched or exceeded many larger cities I’ve been to. I even took the plunge personally and purchased my first piece of fine art.
Maybe it was the magic of Santa Fe, or maybe it was the fact that I’d recently made a big life change by becoming a nomad, but as we drove out of town toward our next destination, I felt like I was being reborn. Like I was emerging from the ashes of my past self, anxious to take on the world and my new adventures.
According to Skutull
One of Skutull’s favorite jobs before we left Boulder was to guard the house. He had a perch on the end of our couch with a window looking out onto our front lawn where he spent countless hours watching squirrels play and his dog friends walk by. Skutull felt a little lost in Dolores without wildlife around our house and nowhere to look out the window and “people watch,” so he very much enjoyed having neighbors and squirrels in Santa Fe.
Skutull and Mom had opposing views when it came to the heated floors throughout our house in Santa Fe. Mom loved walking around in her comfy socks on the warm ground, but Skutull felt like he couldn’t find anywhere where he wasn’t hot. Even when it was snowing out, he struggled to maintain a comfortable temperature anywhere other than the bed.
Skutull went on several hiking adventures around Santa Fe, his favorite of which was probably the slot canyon in Plaza Bianco. When we made it to the top of the canyon, he led us to a perch where he could look out toward the horizon like Simba.
The hiking was great, but Skutull’s best moment of Santa Fe came when Dad packed up an entire bin of stuff and donated it at Goodwill. Finally, Skutull has enough space to lay down comfortably in the backseat on our long haul drives!