Autumn envelopes the high desert and mountains. It tingles bare arms with a cool breeze; it tinges the aspens and cottonwoods with gold. Despite being one of the financially poorest states, New Mexico is culturally wealthy. Its gold may be in chamisa or rock formations, but it is also in the multiplicity of cultures continuing to vie for survival and stretching their roots ever deeper into the sand. I will always be an outsider to the pueblos or cathedrals or mountains or vast desert that I visit, but I feel welcome nonetheless, as if this part of the world is somehow a memory of home.
As I walked, meandered, tasted, breathed deep, and meditated, I composed a love letter to northern New Mexico. These photos summarize the top nine reasons why someday I’ll return.
1. The land is sacred, and Spirit is overwhelmingly present everywhere I go:
near a monastery or cathedral
(St. Francis of Assisi Walking on Water statue)
with representations of yei
or from within a favored place to meditate, sheltered from sun in the desert.
I also briefly visited a mosque atop a mesa; I glimpsed the rooftop ladders leading into kivas. The West is big enough to accommodate many beliefs.
2. The natural world will not be ignored, even as the subject of art. The crows and ravens share their voices throughout the day,
a jackrabbit hides from a possible predator,
the flowers demand careful appreciation,
and a coming storm is reason to stand in awe and await the rain.
3. I once lived in a black-and-white world but, like Dorothy, stepped into my own colorful Oz.
4. After visiting Abiquiu and Plaza Blanca, I respect Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistry all the more.
5. Recording the landscape has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries—not only O’Keeffe, one of my favorite American artists, but also filmmakers. Standing in the creek bed where Daniel Craig tried to outrun aliens (Cowboys and Aliens) gave me a new perspective on Plaza Blanca, as did photographing Chimney Rock and Gates of Heaven on the ranch where Billy Crystal herded cows in City Slickers. I was told that, down the road about a hundred miles, Johnny Depp is filming The Lone Ranger. Our cinematic preoccupation with this stretch of New Mexico crosses genres and time periods but still can’t capture the essence of being surrounded by these formations and all that sky.
6. Even the desert provides unique tastes, from the sharp vitamin C tang of the two-pronged piñon needle or its mellower seeds (blue corn-piñon nut pancakes are a must) to the inner kernel of salt in a “salt bush,” nature provides a feast for those who know where to look. Chiles are everywhere—hanging outside groceries, celebrating “Christmas” (red and green chile on the same plate) in September, surprising tastebuds in everything from chocolate and pizza to traditional salsas.
7. The limitless skies offer plenty of breathing space—and the dry, clean air makes breathing worthwhile.
8. There is time for the solace of solitude, to sit on a garden bench in the late afternoon or to perch on the trunk of a fallen tree, the perfect picnic spot along the river.
9. Tenacity is paramount. The world is changing yet again. The plazas and markets remain centers of commerce, and the tourist centers herald the clash of cultures as well as the battle between the technological world and Mother Earth. In this autumn, there is a feeling of change and the uncertainty of what the future will reveal, but the desert often is a harsh place to live, and the people who have survived environmental, political, and social upheavals for thousands of years undoubtedly will find a way to persevere. They, like the trees that take hold in the most precarious places, survive in beauty.