We returned to visit New Mexico recently after being captivated by it on every previous trip to the State. New Mexico has a rare quality that nearly everyone has trouble articulating, and that nearly everyone experiences when they go there. It is similar to many other parts of the American West, but at the same time no other part of the region is like it.
One of the most common attempts to explain this uniqueness about New Mexico are expressions such as, “There’s something about the light.” But no one I know has been able to describe it in a way that makes it understood. It has to be experienced.
Ellen and I were in Albuquerque several years ago for a few days. One evening about a half hour before dusk, the western sky appeared to be on fire. We had never seen such a sunset and we were so captivated by it we jumped in the car, headed west on Interstate 40, and tried to drive into the blazing sky. We drove in waves of awe of the changing reds, oranges, and yellows of the most spectacular sunset we have ever seen.
There was something about the light on our most recent trip of about a week that we spent mostly in Santa Fe. We saw it repeated in countless ways, at various times of the day. The light in New Mexico makes it a rarity among the United States, while so many dimensions of its landscape, its people, its food, its history, and its culture remind us of similarities to other places. But there seems to be an indefinable quality of these dimensions taken together in New Mexico that makes it like no other place on earth.
A less mysterious but nevertheless rare experience met us on the afternoon we drove into New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle. For about fifty miles we kept seeing large billboards along Interstate 40 advertising the dizzying array of items for sale at a well-known store ahead called Clines Corners. One billboard touted their gifts and souvenirs. Another their restaurant. Another their candy store. Another their video games. Clines Corners has been a stop for decades along the old Route 66 that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, but long since broken up by the Interstate Highway System that began in the mid-1950s.
We took the Clines Corners exit and stopped at the Phillips 66 gas pumps, fittingly along old Route 66, in front of the large store. As I put gas in the car, a friendly man named Paul Caillier walked up and told us we were the first customers to buy gas at the newly constructed gas station! Paul was the contractor for the yearlong project. He said they had just cut the ribbons down seconds before we pulled into the pumps.
This was indeed a rare occurrence among the estimated 4,000 stops I have made at gas stations in over a half century of driving. Never on any of the previous stops had I ever been the very first customer to buy gas at a new gas station. Unfortunately we were not awarded a free tank of gas as first customers. Paul was the construction manager, not the store manager.
After getting gas, we went into the largest gift store in New Mexico, with over 30,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space. Among the myriad merchandise were children’s and adult sizes of red long johns, with the traditional trap door in the back. We learned the store relocated there in 1937 with the opening of Route 66/U.S. 285 and has grown ever since.
From there we headed north on a short drive to Santa Fe where we did a home exchange with a young couple who came to Austin for a wedding. The adobe house was a 10-minute walk to the historic Santa Fe Plaza, five minutes to the historic Railyard District, and numerous popular restaurants and shops. Traffic was light at all hours during the day, at least compared to Austin, and people were calm and not rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Santa Fe is beautiful and peaceful, with friendly and lively people of all stripes. An example of the latter was a Sunday afternoon at The Cowgirl restaurant near the Railyard. The food is wide-ranging and delicious, thanks to suggestions from locals as we sat at the “Community Table.” Great food, engaging conversations, accompanied by the music by the talented Santa Fe Revue—all these made for a rare three hours of very special time in Santa Fe.
We made soirées into Taos, our second visit there, and to Angel Fire to visit friends who also have a home near us in Austin. The drive there at September’s end revealed perfectly golden aspen trees on the otherwise green mountainsides. Our friends have a view of those aspens, and black bears sometimes climb up on their deck railings and sit there peacefully.
Another day we went to Abiquiu, a tiny desert town and the last home of renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She moved there after the death of her husband, famed photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, in New York. At Abiquiu it is easy to see why she found New Mexico so fetching as a place to create art, a place where there is something about the light.
As we departed Santa Fe a few days later, we headed straight south toward the mountaintop town of Cloudcroft. On our way, at mid afternoon, a few thunderstorms passed over, followed by bright sunshine. A couple of hours north of Cloudcroft, as the sky brightened after a shower, we saw the most unusual rainbow we have ever experienced anywhere. Most rainbows we have known were high arched, akin to the landmark Arch in St. Louis.
The rainbow we saw that afternoon in New Mexico had a very low arch, brilliant, and almost hugging the ground. It was another “Can you believe that?” experience. The sky behind the rainbow was roiling, while the foreground rangeland was a brilliant gold-green.
There is something rare about the commonplace in New Mexico. There is something about the light.