Santa Fe Soul

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 20, 2002

AFTER ONLY A DAY, I was ready to cut my Santa Fe visit short. There was the exorbitantly priced plate of ribs at the tourist-packed Coyote Cafe, the nerve-wracking jam of SUVs on Canyon Road, the boutique just off the Plaza doing a brisk business in $7,000 hand-painted lamps and $12,000 antique doors. It was as bad as I'd feared it would be.

Then a friend called with a suggestion: an excursion to Bandelier National Monument. After an hour-long drive across a sweep of mountains covered in cactus and juniper trees, we were peering into caves inhabited by Cochiti tribesmen five centuries ago and taking in soothing sweet air with the aroma of pinyons. Somewhere mid-hike, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and decided to give Santa Fe another try.

This is, after all, a corner of the country whose regal blue skies and lonely landscapes have inspired a generation of painters and photographers, where visitors arrive for a week and stay for the rest of their lives, where the spirits of Native Americans wander the streets at night. Chatting up longtime residents for tips and scouring newspapers and guidebooks for recommendations, I was looking for their vision of this 400-year-old city, for the places not yet primed and polished for the deluge of tourists. I was searching for the soul of Santa Fe.

That evening, I found part of it at the restaurant Tomasita's. Surrounded by Santa Feans hunched over heaping plates of spicy-hot Southwestern dishes, I devoured the perfect chile relleno. The next day, I explored the Tesuque flea market, a sprawl of Navajo rugs, hand-carved sculptures, furniture and other one-of-a-kind objects so alluring that I started daydreaming about building an adobe addition to my home to hold it all.

At night I retreated to the porch of the landmark Inn of the Anasazi, named for the area's original residents, to listen for the spirits and watch the sky fade into a dramatic sweep of pink and iris-colored clouds. For the next five days, I kept up my search.

The Price of Success

Even Santa Fe's biggest boosters acknowledge that the 1990s brought some unfortunate changes. A rush of newcomers arrived, buying up the city's trademark deep brown adobe homes and doubling the population to about 63,000, and in the surrounding county to about 130,000.

The central Plaza, an inspiring square once lined with unique shops and art galleries, is now home to Banana Republic, Chico's and what's billed as the busiest Haagen Dazs in the United States. Cher, Val Kilmer and other celebrities have bought second or third homes here and transformed the place into a kind of distant suburb of Hollywood. The rate of visitors quadrupled. "We've been Aspenized," said Cynthia Leespring, a guide with Aboot About, a tour company. "Or maybe Aspen has been Santa Fe'd."

Yet, you can still find refreshing expressions of the raw Southwestern spirit here. The Guadalupe district, a 15-minute walk from the main Plaza, is a good place to start looking. A 20-square-block neighborhood of adobe homes, quirky stores and cafes, it lacks the wonderful territorial architectural style popularized in the 1800s or the even more historical elegance of the Plaza, Santa Fe's center of tourism. But it compensates in accessibility and laid-back style.

Guadalupe is a good place to shop for the kinds of goods that Santa Fe is known for: Western clothing, handmade home furnishings, Indian pottery and jewelry. At Southwest Spanish Craftsman, you can order bureaus, tables, doors and other furniture decorated with intricate carvings. Santa Fe Pottery sells ceramic vases, jugs and other products at more reasonable prices than stores closer to the center. Around the corner, the Rio Bravo Trading Co. is the place to go for cowboy boots, hats, spurs and other Western paraphernalia.

In the 1970s, a wave of counterculture types staked out their spot in Guadalupe, and their earthy spirit lingers everywhere. At the farmer's market, organized on Saturday mornings in an abandoned rail yard in the middle of the district, folks come from the surrounding hills to sell vegetables, melons, herbs, peppers and freshly baked bread. Around the corner at Ark Books, one of the country's best-known repositories of New Age literature and music, herbal tea is always brewing and the shelves are lined with the works of visionary writers such as Eckhart Tolle, and ecology-inspired recording artists like David Dunn. A couple of blocks away at the Bodhi Bazaar, locals buy casual clothing, have their tarot cards read and chew the fat with other shoppers.

The more I hung out in Guadalupe, the more fat-chewing I observed and took part in, both with locals and visitors. There was April, the hostess at Pranzo's, a beloved Italian restaurant, chattering about how much she missed the rain in her native Seattle. And Burt, an out-of-work drummer sipping beers at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame who filled me in on the best local venues for live music.

A short walk away, I stopped into an adobe structure next the San Miguel Mission. Built in the 1500s, it is said to be the oldest house in Santa Fe. As I wandered through the small, dark rooms, staring at the ancient corner fireplaces and rooftop entranceways constructed in the old Indian style, I had the distinct feeling that someone was staring at me from behind.

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