In late February of 1540, nearly 500 years before I was born, a band of Spanish conquistadors, under the command of Francisco Vázquis de Coronado, left northern Mexico in search of the legendary “Seven Cities of Gold”. Driven by the thoughts of Inca-like gold and silver, the conquistadors reached the Zuni pueblos of New Mexico in the summer of 1540 where, much to their distress, they found no riches. In their search for the fabled treasure, however, Coronado and his men became the first Europeans to traverse the great American southwest, exploring the vast Colorado Plateau with its remarkable scenic treasures more than three hundred years before John Wesley Powell’s great exploration of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon . These intrepid conquistadors and subsequent Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to colonize the Santa Fe region of New Mexico. A wonderful description and account of these exploits can be found in Stewart L. Udall’s book “Majestic Journey – Coronado’s Inland Empire”.
Jane and I recently ventured into Coronado’s Inland Empire to savor its rich history and experience its iconic characteristics. Our first stop was the “Sky City” pueblo of the Acoma culture. This pueblo was the second that Coronado and his troops encountered on their quest for riches and is considered the oldest, continuously inhabited settlement in North America (www.acomaskycity.org). Archaeologists estimate that “Sky City” had been occupied since the early 1100’s and that the Acoma were descended from the Ancestral Pueblo culture of Mesa Verde in Colorado.
From Acoma,we drove on to Santa Fe where Jane had arranged one of her superb VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) accommodations. It was a delightful little renovated casita near the heart of Santa Fe’s museums and galleries. We used our quaint little casita as a home-base and day-tripped through the area from there.
One of our day trips took us deep into Georgia O’Keeffe Country, including a tour of her home in the village of Abiquiu and a short visit to the Ghost Ranch (www.okeeffemuseum.org). O’Keeffe was a fascinating artist and her work full of the vibrant colors of the New Mexico landscape. Our tour was led by a knowledgeable artist who had interesting stories and anecdotes that made us appreciate Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and contributions even more. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed at her home and studio, so no pictures in the blog.
Another day trip brought us to the Taos pueblo along the scenic “high road”. Along the way we stopped at artist workshops/galleries; toured several small villages first settled in the 1600’s by Spanish and Mexican pioneers, including Chimayo, Truchas (where Robert Redford filmed the “Milagro Beanfield War”), Las Trampas and Rancho de Taos; and stopped to photograph multiple churches designated National Historic Landmarks due to their antiquity and classical Spanish colonial architecture.
The ultimate objective was Taos (www.taospueblo.com). Taos is by far the most visited pueblo in New Mexico. These multistory pueblos, with their thick adobe walls, are the largest surviving structures of their kind. We spend one afternoon photographing these picturesque buildings with their colorful door and window frames. Coronado and his conquistadors also visited Taos pueblo in 1540 and their journals describe the multistory, stacked adobe buildings. Taos pueblo also hosts a National Historic Landmark church, the San Geronimo de Taos Mission Church. Originally built under direction of Spanish friars around 1620, construction of the chapel created cultural conflicts with the native peoples who resisted conversion and destroyed the building on two separate occasions. The church was again destroyed during the Mexican-American War of 1847 and the current structure was rebuilt in 1850.
All of New Mexico’s pueblos celebrate various feasts throughout the year. Taos pueblo is no exception and while we were there, San Geronimo Day was celebrated. San Geronimo (Saint Jerome) is the Taos pueblo patron saint. The ceremony involves a group of clowns, men with alternating black and white stripes painted on their bodies and dried corn leave headdresses. These clowns play tricks on pueblo residents and we observed several small children being dunking into the small stream running through the pueblo by the clowns. The kids certainly did not like it nor did their mothers but on this day the clowns were in control. The climax of the ceremony occurs when one of the clowns successfully climbs a very thick, tall pole that had been erected in the central plaza of the pueblo and dislodges various foods from atop the pole, including a dead sheep. The whole affair is shrouded in their ancient religious tradition and the meaning is kept secret. During my diligent pre and post trip research, I could not discover any hint of the hidden meanings related to the clowns and pole climb. All I could discover was that the ceremonial meaning is a secret. Again, unfortunately, no photography was allowed during the celebration, so no photos in the blog or gallery.
Our final destination for this excursion was the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. So after six days of day-tripping and photography in Santa Fe we journeyed to this high profile, extremely popular and colorful event. We favored driving the back roads to reach Albuquerque and ventured past the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. No,I had never heard of this unique place either but it was on the map and on the way.
Visiting the balloon fiesta was a memorable event with extreme crowds, and a lively, vivacious “midway” full of food vendors hawking their deep fried chips and fries, corn dogs, burritos, and funnel cakes. On Saturday morning we strolled among the hundreds of hot air balloons readying for their mass ascension into the Albuquerque air. As crews and pilots filled their balloons with hot air from their burners, we watched the colorful envelopes take shape and slowly stretch and rise into the morning air taking gondola and crew with it. It all seemed to go in slow motion until suddenly the entire sky was filled with balloons of every imaginable shape and color.
For Sunday, we had arranged to go up in one of the Rainbow Ryder’s balloons (www.rainbowryders.com). Filled with anticipation of an exciting experience, we arrived at the check-in booth early. On the field, we waited impatiently with our pilot for the “all clear” from the weather forecasters. It never came! It appeared that the winds were too strong and we remained stranded, with all the other balloons, firmly on the ground. What a disappointment to head home without the exhilarating experience of a hot air balloon ride at the famous Albuquerque festival (www.balloonfiesta.com).