Making my way through Santa Fe

Savannah Morning News Sunday column

March 22, 2015

If you can’t be in Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day you can at least live stream Bishop Kevin Boland’s spirited singing, the traditional beginning to the parade. Totally rad, a friend says, hat and all. There’s not much green in Santa Fe but that’s not what this New Mexico town is about. Here it’s all narrow streets, mostly one-story adobe houses (mud, sand and water and hefty price tags) with soft rounded corners, strings of red peppers on the door fronts, handsome wrought iron fences decorated by some crazy dancing figures with their hair on fire, heavy raw lumber timbers, turquoise skies and rose hues (accented by orange and gold), and the intriguing coyote fences in front of most homes, narrow timbers of spruce, fir or cedar tied together vertically leaving a random edge on top. Maybe they’re a fashion statement now but initially they really were designed to keep coyotes away from pets.

Probably a good idea (although I haven’t hear about coyotes in the city) because I’ve never seen more dogs in one town (inside coffee shops, on the walking trails, in front of houses, in cars, in bars, on sidewalks, in patios) or more people talking to dogs, some better behaved than others.

I’ve never seen so many older women with so much gray (really white) hair, either, mostly long and artfully draped. These women are embracing their vintage years.

My landmarks are a “river” bed (a sign says it  “flows” to the Rio Grande, except right now I’m seeing a very dry and rocky arroyo or creek) and a distant mountain peak topped with snow.

Laundry dries rapidly on outdoor clotheslines in the dry Santa Fe air. The night skies are bright with stars. I overheard some hiker enjoying a latte in the Better Day Coffee Shop say the elderberries are starting to leaf out. And should you need it, a woman is set up in the Montanita Coop, my closest food source, to read your aura. The Coop is selling tatsoi seedlings for $2.95 and offering five minute massages. A few years ago “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin bought the eclectic Jean Cocteau Cinema, a sweet 128-seat theater that used to be a brewery and now has a 35 mm film projector and a strange line-up of poetry, old movies and once a night a week a marathon showing of, you guessed it, “Game of Thrones.”  That man is enjoying himself, too.

The theater is near the joyful Saturday Santa Fe Farmers Market, where I buy tasty sprouts from the sprout lady, Susan Higgins, who moved here from Vermont decades ago, and I talk with the owner of The Shrimp Farm. Really? I say. Shrimp?  They’re farm-raised, of course, and pretty tasty. Only $18 a pound. I smiled and moved on to a breakfast burrito of red and green chiles.

Santa Fe has four bookstores, two Whole Foods outlets, one Trader Joe’s, a chain of New Mexico grocery stores called Sprouts, a nifty café called Counter Culture and a yearly Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival (where I overheard one woman say to another, “So tell me, do you know where I can get a frozen gefilte fish?”). All of this for a town of 69,000.

The best road trip so far has been to Bandelier National Monument, home to the ancient Paleoindian hunters some 11,000 years ago, followed by the Pueblo people. Days after visiting the site I ventured into the impressive Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse on the corner of Galisteo and Waters streets near the Plaza. The first book to catch my eye, displayed on the front counter, was Willia Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I’ve tried and never had much luck with Willa Cather. But this time was different. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the book’s cover, a painting of the canyons I had just visited. The artist was Marsden Hartley, a Maine-born painter who hung around with Georgia O’Keeffe and spent time in the Southwest. He died in 1943, four years before Cather.

I bought the book. It’s riveting. Walking around Santa Fe it I feel like I should be riding my mule, the way Cather’s Father Jean Marie Latour and another Catholic priest did in 1851 as they made their way into the vast and treacherous undiscovered territory of Mexicans and Indians. This is a strange and new country to me. The woo-woo part is fine. I like sprouts. I like burritos. But I have a feeling the best part is out in the red hills under a bank of inky black clouds, ext to a rushing river. Never underestimate the value of a good book cover.


Nothing like a 72-hour train trip

Savannah Morning News column

March 15, 2015

There’s nothing terribly convenient about trains. They’re slow. Unless you live in the northeast corridor or western Michigan (I just learned), most don’t go over 79 miles an hour. Riding the train is expensive, sometimes more than flying. They zip-zag. Oy, do they zig-zag. Pretend you want to go to Santa Fe, N.M. Your first leg on the Silver Meteor leaves Savannah at 7:30 p.m. and gets into Washington, D.C. at 7 a.m. Then you wait for the 3 p.m. Capitol Limited to Chicago. Crazy, I know. Completely the wrong direction. You’re going north but you really want to go southwest. But you find something to do. If you’re lucky, like I was the other day, you find a group of people who have business at the National Mall, a 20-minute walk away. I hooked up with a bunch of doctors who were carrying signs, heading to the Supreme Court, which was about to hear arguments in King v. Burwell over the Affordable Care Act.

It’s empowering to be around purpose. I had purpose too. I had Flat Stanley, that mythical cutout child’s figure that encourages letter writing around the world.

“Would you mind holding up Flat Stanley?” I said to a protester squeezed next to me. “It’s a long story.”

But he knew the story. He messed up last summer when his niece asked for the favor and he didn’t mail it back on time. So he was glad to oblige. When it started to rain I headed back to Union Station, a Daniel Burnham architectural wonder of vaulted spaces and gold leaf, and because it was early in the week, when the New York Times puzzle is easier, I managed to fill in a few more squares than usual.

Sometime later – it could have been a week, at that point; I had lost track – I boarded the Southwest Chief after waiting in Chicago’s Great Room, a 110-foot-high hall of Romanesque columns, barrel-vaulted skylight and hard wooden railroad benches.

Train travel wasn’t always so kaflooey. In the early 30s, when my parents boarded a train in Detroit and headed out to Los Angeles for their honeymoon, they joined some 40,000 other people that night bedding down in Pullman “sleeper” cars. That would have made the Pullman Company the largest hotel in the world. Alas, some of like to sleep in coach. It’s cheep. It’s cozy.

Not long after that we Americans started trading in trains for cars. We decided we’d rather fly; trains in this country became passé, old-fashioned. After that no one bothered keeping up the existing tracks. They rusted in the rain. They went kaput. So did the axiom: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. By the time Amtrak picked up the slack in 1971, the problems were monumental.

No matter. There are still perks to trains. This Capitol Limited is a double-decker. It has an observation car with swivel chairs and little tables, where you can watch the real America pass by. That’s where I found the conductor, listening to his walkie-talkie, looking out at the scenery, at wind turbines, ball fields, graffiti, Redeemer Missionary Baptist churches, red barns, yellow tractors, blue shipping containers, slopes of limestone, patches of creamy white snow that looked like cotton and the winter woods, which rushed past us like they were grainy film on fast forward.

We started chatting because that’s what you can do on trains. You can chat. One morning I had breakfast, boarding house style, with a city manager from suburban Chicago. In between bites of French toast, he said he liked the train so he can relax from his job. Earlier I talked to a teacher from Pittsburgh who was returning home after visiting her ailing father in South Bend.

First I asked the conductor if I could take a picture of him with Flat Stanley. No problem. Then I asked why the toilet didn’t flush in Cleveland. Good question, he said. The air hose broke and he didn’t have a second pipe wrench to fix it. So he called ahead and when we pulled into Toledo someone brought him the second wrench. When the train stopped he and the assistant scooted under the car and using their legs for leverage replaced the faulty hose. It took 20 minutes.

“It was a work of art,” he said.

I doubt trains will ever replace highway congestion (neither will more roads). But what a way to see the country. Just ask Flat Stanley.