The cow skull capital of the world
October 9, 2015
A couple of weeks ago I took my annual bike trip. It’s with a group of people who have been doing at least one bike trip a year together for 30 years now. We’ve covered a lot of ground in that time. It started out as camping trips on mountain bikes. Somehow as the group has aged (funny how that happens after 30 years), we are now road biking and camping at the Four Seasons.
This year the destination was New Mexico. We covered about 300 miles in the Santa Fe and Taos areas. I’d never been there, and it was shockingly different from any other destination in the U.S. There are regional differences in New England and even upper Michigan. The South has a whole different vibe to it. But New Mexico is as close to a foreign country as you can get without a passport.
It’s old. The Taos Pueblo has been there for around 1,000 years. Before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the Spanish had established a colonial bureaucracy in Santa Fe. The Spanish government offices are still there, just off the town square, in a building dating from 1610. Compared to some of the archeological sites around the area, even the Taos Pueblo seems like a relative newcomer.
On the last day of biking we did a big loop around Santa Fe, out in the expensive residential areas, the Museum District, and all the right parts of town. I’m sure there are pueblo-style trailer parks there someplace, but our guides made sure we didn’t see it. Despite good directions, we got lost. Santa Fe streets change names mid-block without warning. When I was puzzling over the map at the corner of Gonzales and Hyde Park, it hit me. New Mexico is a fascinatingly wonderful mix of cultures.
I arrived on the night of a big fiesta celebrating the anniversary of the return of the Spanish after the pueblo revolt of 1680. The natives drove the Spanish out, but they came back. It was not clear that the natives were all that happy about it, even 300 years later, but a party is a party. The square was packed like Main Street at Art Festival. I felt almost naked without a neck tattoo. There was a woman in a brightly colored hijab, wearing a gigantic sombrero, dancing up a storm to a Tex-Mex band in front of a booth selling Thai food. Around the corner was a store offering the "Finest Folk Arts of Poland." There was an Irish pub in the basement. On the day we toured the Taos Pueblo, not more than a mile from the gates, we saw an Orthodox Jewish family walking to the synagogue. The pueblo-nuevo architecture grew monotonous, but the people and cultures never quit surprising.
Both Santa Fe and Taos feel too artsy and a bit effete. I got the impression that everybody in Santa Fe was a trust-funder/artist of some kind. If they weren’t painting cow skulls, they were tattooing cow skulls on somebody who did. I got the sense that after a vigorous morning of meditation, the locals would tend to their xeriscape yards before throwing a few pots, and then enjoy a meal of free-range quinoa on their way to the opera. I’m sure there is a gas station somewhere in Santa Fe, and probably even a Pueblo Depot. But they keep anything even remotely practical well hidden.
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At the hotel, they had a painting of a cow skull hanging in the lobby. It was huge, and hanging kind of low with a bench beneath it. If you sat on the bench and leaned back, you were pushing against the canvas. I’ve got nothing against paintings of cow skulls, but this thing was hideously ugly. It was also $68,000. If you damaged it by sitting on the bench, I’m sure they would be happy to add it, and the shipping, to the incidental room charges.
The landscape is beautiful. We rode along the border of the forest and the plateau country, so if we climbed 500 feet, we were in the deep pines and steep mountains. When we dropped 500 feet, we were into the desert landscape. The contrast was spectacular. Then sprinkle in a few 300-year-old adobe churches for good effect. We went through small towns, including Truchas, where "The Milagro Beanfield War" was filmed. The town looks better in the movie, and there was a sense that not much has happened there since the movie was shot. They may sell $68,000 skulls in Santa Fe, but in Truchas, it sounded like nobody could afford a $29 muffler.
It was a great trip, but the best part was coming home. Despite what we’ve done to this place, it still looks awfully good by comparison.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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