Sometimes, you are given a gift without even knowing you wanted one.
It was early April when Dr. K sent me the email — half apologetic, a bit sheepish — that he had forgotten to cancel a planned week of vacation, after we’d nixed the plans months ago and decided not to go away. He was apologetic because he knew I was swamped with projects, and most likely would not be happy to travel — anywhere — at least not in the next three weeks. But maybe we could take off for a few nights, take a road trip to New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, he asked.
No, thank you, I told Dr. K. I do not want to visit The Land of Enchantment in mud season.
Looking at that email, I screamed, I ranted, I gnashed my teeth at the computer screen in my best Where the Wild Things Are way that I can gnash teeth. Didn’t he know just how damned busy I was? The beginning of May in Santa Fe is mud season: that chilly part of the year when, at a high desert altitude of 7,000 feet, even in that charming city’s temperate climate, there is some snow melt, muddying feet and moods. Mud season, or shoulder season, whichever appellation you choose, is that time of year when there isn’t all that much for a tourist to get excited about, other than hunkering down in front of a kiva in a toasty bar, downing margaritas, wishing for summer’s sun to dry out hiking and biking trails. It’s when the ski area is closed and all the dirt gets ground into the grout between the saltillo tiles. There will be generations of mud darkening the color of your floors, regardless of how impermeable the tile salespeople assure you the product is. Shoulder season: an ironic non sequitur, an excuse for when the rest of the world shrugs its collective shoulders at mountain towns, temporarily bereft of snow and seasonal enticements, waiting for trees to bud out and attract summer hikers, world class opera-lovers, and then fall leaf-peepers later on. It’s time to go to the Bahamas. That’s what they all say. Before the hurricanes roll us over.
Even so, the second week of May found us on the road.
Projects had been back-burnered, or at least tucked in to the point where they could slumber on their own, to be poked by a stray email to get them back under the quilts. The laundry had been completed, twice in one week, so we could make our escape. April’s, and many of May’s social obligations had been attended to, and as we headed southwest, armed with reservations for hotel and restaurants, my breath slowed, and I began to look outside the windows, seeing the scenery for its exploited purple mountain majesty rather than merely evaluating what shoes it required me to wear.
I’d only packed boots: cowboy, real ones but pretty, to handle the certain grittiness of mud; hiking boots, in the hopes we could hike; and bike boots. The road bikes, stuffed in between suitcases and bags, were there to boost my wan hope that even though there was sure to be mud, the roads might be dry.
Santa Fe is an old city, much more so than our small plains town in Colorado. Founded in 1610, now the capital of New Mexico, it is the oldest capital in the United States. Nestling against the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the area has known peoples since 900 AD. Age brings wisdom, and with wisdom comes serenity. For Santa Fe, serenity has been earned over centuries of bloodshed from revolts by the Native American peoples, the Pueblos, and from wars with Mexico and the Republic of Texas. It has endured bloodless heartache, too: Santa Fe saw a Japanese internment camp during WWII, and has felt growing pains as it searched to find its place in the sun, insistently defining itself as a center of arts, culture, and quirkiness.
The plan that first day was a 53-mile ride, over rollers and down valleys.
“Everything around here is flat, you can see for miles,” Dr. K told me. “Slight elevation gain, maybe 1200 feet total. We should be able to do this in three, maybe four hours. We can be back for a late lunch.”
I nodded in agreement, adding a request for a nap, and clipped into the pedals. Off we went into an exhilarating breeze, past charming adobe buildings, weaving through narrow streets, onto a railway bike path, until we came to a grinding halt. We were on the outskirts of town, hoping to find the radial street that would lead to the ring road to make a grand loop. We straddled our bikes at the intersection, coaxing Miss Google to tell us exactly how lost we were. The wind buffeted our front wheels in gusts.
That’s when we met Steve, a cyclist as equally lost as we, a three-year transplant from LA.
“What’s not to like about the openness here?” he said, when we asked him why he’d moved away from palm trees and beaches. “All this space.” He was training for the next weekend’s century ride, part of which was the road we navigated together. He was fine getting from Point A to B, but Point C was troublesome, so we found it together. Steve stayed with us until he was certain we knew where we were going, then jetted off. It seemed so; I was getting tired of rollers, and Steve had to be at least ten years younger.
Everywhere around us was dry. Dry as mud dries.
Junipers and dusty sagebrush dotted the rolling landscape for endless miles, where arroyos, cracked lips gaping, were stuck throughout with yellow road signs warning of imminent rushing waters. Turn around, don’t go further — don’t drown (you idiot), they cautioned. It is a land where darting mountain blue birds break off from the impossibly blue sky. Living creature or winged mirage; they teased and confused. We paused in Galisteo (population 265, and declining) next to the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios. Her serene ochre adobe structure ruminated, sitting patiently since 1884, waiting for worshippers to breathe life. We wondered where in Galisteo we might find water, and straddling our bikes again, continued to ponder that question.
Up and up we continued, back to Santa Fe, back to civilization, nourishment, and a nap, away from the desert. Where were the easy rollers, the lovely valleys? Where might a tired biker find an energy bar?
Stopping for breath on the side of the road, a biker whirred by. “You okay?” he asked. Fellow bikers always do that, it’s part of the club rules. “You want an energy gel?” he asked. I told him no; I just need to breathe for a bit. I was smarter than that. Didn’t your Mother ever tell you not to accept candy from a stranger? Even if he was wearing a Steamboat jersey. I sipped my soon-to-be-gone camelback of water. Colorado friend or no, it made sense to be careful.
We cranked into Eldorado, ten miles from Santa Fe, still ten miles from our hotel. An aptly named hamlet, I didn’t seek gold; it was after two and all I wanted was a sandwich, a beer, and a taxi back to town. I love to bike, but enough was enough, I told Dr. K. Elevation and wind had tuckered me out.
That was when our second Santa Fean sauntered up, still in bike clothes. He had heard my whining, evidently. Another transplant, Major Bob, a retired field artillery parachuter and comptroller for the US Army, saved me for the price of a ham sandwich. He scooped up our bicycles into an enormous Dodge Ram truck and took us back to our hotel. We didn’t have to buy him the sandwich; he’d already offered to take us.
“You should have taken up my offer for a gel block back there,” he chided me.
Over lunch in the deli, he shared his fascinating life story. It was worth giving up the rest of our ride to hear it. And on the way back to Santa Fe, I asked him, “So, what is it exactly that you do?” He was a bit intimidating, Army Major and all. He’d briefed Colin Powell in his past life.
“My Mom asked me the same thing once,” he chuckled. “I told her I blow things up, and yell at people.”
“What do you enjoy more?”
He glanced at me across the expanse of truck, and we both knew the answer: it’s always more fun to blow things up, but should you actually admit to it?
Day Three. I’m beginning to relax; I don’t count the miles anymore.
Charlie Miner dips a nub of glass into silver nitrate to underlay a tumbler. We’re there in his studio, Tesuque Glass Works, to buy a work of art, a double helix of fish, frozen forever in green glass of Charlie’s design. We drove there after discovering his workshop (thanks to Steve, the LA transplant) on yet another grueling bike ride. Expecting to pick up our glass sculpture, Charlie invites us to watch him blow glass.
“It’s a twelve-minute tumbler,” he says perfunctorily.
I climb onto a soda shop stool overlooking the kiln area, while Dr. K ambles around the gallery. Charlie overlays coloring on a deep cobalt base. “It’s like cake decorating,” he quips over his shoulder. I learn later this is standard glass artist patter. It’s cake decorating with a 1,950 degree oven. Communicating to workshop assistants with nonverbal cues whenever he needs equipment, I watch Charlie’s silent dance between glowing kiln and bench where he alternately twirls a glob of molten glass, or puffs into a metal pipe to expand it, ever so slightly. The glass oscillates between roughness and a smooth patina of beauty, silky as carved stone, fragile as only glass can be. Temporary as only glass can be.
He walks us through the steps; how he created our sculpture of fish, carving them from wax while watching Oprah, the weeks long process of the lost wax method as plaster is replaced with ground glass, creating a one of a kind sculpture.
“I didn’t invent this,” he laughs. “The art has been practiced since the Romans.” Charlie Miner looks around his studio. “You’re looking at a winter’s worth of work right now in this studio.”
I had already sensed that, seeing the full shelves. It’ll be the season, in a few weeks it’ll start, the time when they make or break it for the year. That’s when the personalities will tense.
But during shoulder season, I saw the real Santa Feans. Lively, warm, engaging, and uninhibited, they shared ideas and experiences, brimming with helpfulness.
I want to return next year. I want to go back to that time and space of in-between. The time when people are waiting for the next step. When they’re waiting for the world to warm up.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.