Ever wonder why New Mexico is called Land of Enchantment? It’s because if you take the back roads in the state, you can be transported back several centuries and into almost-foreign lands: it’s time-traveling magic at its easiest.
So if you want a day-adventure from Santa Fe, take the High Road to Taos. It’s slower, of course, than the usual US285/84 and NM68 highways that pass through Española, wind through the gorgeous Rio Grande valley, and get you to Taos in about an hour-and-a-half. But the High Road Scenic Byway has enchantment.
It takes you into what it may have looked like when the early Spanish explorers (and exploiters?) and American pioneers (and land-thieves?) first encountered Northern New Mexico. I don’t mean to dump on our forebears for I expect if I’d lived then I’d have behaved they did, but certainly in New Mexico, I’m alerted to the differing perspectives on the settling of the West.
In any case, I drove the High Road in late July with Marianne, a visiting friend from Boston. We’re both interested in churches, so we stopped at three that day, all designated National Historic sites: el Sanctuario de Chimayo (c.1816), still an active pilgrimage site for Catholics; the San Geronimo Mission Church at the Taos Pueblo (c. 1850), and the Ranchos de Taos Church of San Francisco de Asis (c.1815), one of the most photographed churches in the US.
For the last two decades, I’ve been taken with churches, temples, stupas, mosques and places of worship almost everywhere I’ve traveled. A friend recently commented that my interest was strange, considering I’m a former atheist (note, former…I’m committed to a spiritual practice now), and I found myself launching into an explanation.
Why I Appreciate Places of Worship
I love visiting places of worship because they’re always places of community—usually they welcome everyone of any age, they don’t generally charge for entry, and they hold good intentions. Churches and such preserve art—incredible sculptures, paintings, mosaics—and they showcase architecture. They are places of music and sometimes performance; they are places that contain and may teach history. Often they are places that smell good, offer cool dimness, allow rest, and promote quiet. Where else do you get all those virtues in one building?
The Sanctuary in Chimayo
First, I’m so sorry I can’t post pictures of this church’s lovely interior. Photos are not permitted, and though I was sorely tempted to just hold up my phone and snap, I refrained. The church has the 14 stations of the Cross in paintings on the adobe walls, old wooden pews, an altar, a Santiago/St. James, and a santero-carved crucifix. But el Sanctuario de Chimayo’s fame comes from a small room off to the left, a room that can hold perhaps five or six people at a time. In a shallow hole in the center of the floor, you see a pile of dry, grainy soil said to have healing powers. I stooped and picked some up, and let it run through my fingers. For decades, pilgrims have come there, generally around Easter, to touch or eat the dirt in the hopes of receiving healing or the granting of requests.
What I didn’t know until this visit is that in addition to the main sanctuary on the sanctuario compound, there is a separate chapel honoring children, especially sick kids. This building is only open May- Sept, so it’s easy to miss it. But it is a gem. In one of the side rooms the walls and surfaces are covered with photos of children—so touching—old and new pictures of ill or dying children. There’s an almost-palpable loving presence in that room. It’s easy to imagine parents entering it, sobbing, moaning, praying, imploring the saints and the Deity in behalf of their sons and daughters. A small signs says one can leave a picture for posting at the office: it’s obviously an alive and active place of worship even now.
Here’s a link to a blog post with considerable explanatory detail and additional pictures about the High Road, written by Billie Frank and Steve Collins, http://santafetravelers.com/santa-fe-blogs/take-the-high-road-from-santa-fe-to-taos/ .
The Church of San Geronimo at the Taos Pueblo
Marianne and I continued to Taos. What luck! We entered the unique, adobe, multi-storied Taos Pueblo just a few minutes before a ceremonial dance began. The Pueblo today looks substantially as it must have looked in the 11th-15th century (the range Wikipedia gives for when it was built); it’s one of the longest continuously occupied communities in America. But as we drove into the Pueblo, we were stopped and handed a paper forbidding photos of the dance or the pueblo that day. It warned if we were seen using phones or cameras, they would be confiscated and perhaps not returned. The Pueblo has and enforces its own laws, and it is known to be very private, even secretive about its rituals, although dances are open to the public.
We found the action in the large, open, dirt clearing of the Pueblo. Dancers and drummers gathered and began their ceremony. Two lines of women, perhaps twenty in all, in multicolored dresses and high boots stomped out a simple line dance, weaving around among each other. Several shirtless young men were interspersed between them, their motions more rigorous than the women’s. Viewers—residents and tourists—stood in a vague circle a respectful distance from the dancers. The dance-steps and drumming were repetitive, I felt, and when one dance finished, the person before whose house it had been performed launched into a speech in Tiwa, thanking the performers for their blessing. Then the dancers moved to a different part of the pueblo to do essentially the same dance before another home. I approached a native man and asked for an explanation of it all; he graciously explained that that day’s dance was honoring the military leaders and protectors of the Pueblo–and they danced before those people’s homes.
After watching for awhile, I left the dancing to enter the little Pueblo church to meditate. It was a Catholic space in the midst of a Pueblo which upheld ancient native religious practices—one of the many compromises these people made to their conquerors. Yet, the church had something uniquely charming about it. I was alone there and I sat quietly, puzzling over the statuary. At the front were three statues of women, all dressed in an extraordinary blue—the same blue of the fabric that covered the altar. Surprisingly, there was only one small crucifix with a male figure; I saw nothing to represent San Geronimo. It was females who were showcased. Were they all the Virgin? Was one of them Santa Ana (the mother of Mary)? I asked that at the tourist office, and the women who attended to me did not know.
And photos were forbidden—I bought a postcard, and took a picture of it to post here. It’s the best I could do in the circumstances.
The Ranchos de Taos Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Finally that day, we visited the Ranchos de Taos Church on the south end of town. It is one of the most celebrated churches in America—repeatedly photographed and painted. Georgia O’Keeffe’s several paintings of it alone would have made it famous, but Ansel Adams and Paul Strand also focused on it, and thousands of photographers have followed suit.
Including me. A few years ago I visited the church, by chance, at the time it was undergoing its annual re-plastering, done by community members. I felt privileged to talk with them about how they loved and honored and preserved their famous icon. Here are a few pictures of that visit: