10 days, 10 states: Finding America’s oldest in Santa Fe, New Mexico

“We’ll pack up all our junk and fly so far away, devote ourselves to projects that sell. We’ll open up a restaurant in Santa Fe, forget this cold, Bohemian Hell” -Rent-

This may sound alarming, but I have actually met people–American people–who are unaware that New Mexico is one of the 50 US states. As shocking as that seems, it is, I suppose, slightly understandable, but inexcusable nonetheless. After all, there is no state called New Canada, though that barely qualifies as an excuse.

To be fair, however, it hasn’t always been this way. As the 47th star on the US flag, New Mexico didn’t become a US state until 1912. As of this writing, that’s still under 100 years. Although New Mexico’s history as a member of the United States may be relatively young, it’s capital city, Santa Fe, is the oldest European city in the western US.

And this, is exactly why I am here.

From a historical perspective, there are few American cities more intriguing than Santa Fe. Originally given the name of “La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís”, (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”), Santa Fe was established in 1607 as a remote territory of Spain. Only St. Augustine (1565) in Florida is older, with Jamestown, Virginia (1607) being established by the English at roughly the same time.

It’s endlessly fascinating to me that a mere few hundred years ago, this altitudinous town at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was actually part of Spain, especially seeing as modern day America was a concept that wouldn’t be realized for at least another 150 years.

Ok, so Santa Fe is old. I knew that while driving here from Durango, Colorado. I didn’t realize, however, that when it comes to being old, Santa Fe is a wonderland of superlatives. It’s the oldest capital city in the United States (as well as the highest at 7,000 ft.). The oldest house in America is in Santa Fe. The oldest church in America, San Miguel chapel, is in Santa Fe. The Palace of Governors, the oldest public building in America, is also, as you might have guessed, here in Santa Fe.

%Gallery-139205%Standing in front of the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica in Santa Fe’s historic downtown district, I am immediately transported to my days spent as a wide-eyed university student in Salamanca, Spain. Although the modern day cathedral was not built until the 19th century, the town’s church has resided on this very plot of land since the day of the city’s first founding.

In the spirit of my “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” road trip, Santa Fe is also the beginning of the fabled Old Spanish Trail. As the de facto capital of the entire region, the Old Spanish Trail was a rugged trade route that originated in Santa Fe and ran across the desert to faraway Los Angeles. Due to the remote and barren nature of the route, traders would eventually spill into Santa Fe laden with merchandise and goods ready to be bartered and sold.

As my wife and I haggle with a street merchant over a pair of blue turquoise earrings, I sense the energy this Plaza must have held when merchants from Mexico City to Missouri came to hawk their wares. Although the Old Spanish Trail has been replaced by nearby Interstate 40 (which is nowhere near as exciting), Santa Fe’s legacy as a marketplace for crafts and artisans continues to live on. As the acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris famously notes, “Santa Fe is the artiest, sculpturest, weaviest and potteryest town on Earth”.

Of all the goods that have been garnered and sold in this very square, it’s immediately apparent form a leisurely amble through the Plaza that the blue turquoise has managed to thrive. There are blue turquoise necklaces. There are blue turquoise belts. There are statues of animals and boots and entire pieces of furniture that are hopelessly adorned in blue turquoise.

We buy the earrings and climb the adobe stairs to a restaurant that overlooks the Cathedral and Plaza, it’s central obelisk covered in historic New Mexican quotes. Over a dish of New Mexican cuisine–classically Mexican dishes infused with red and green chiles and honey-dipped sopapillas–I partake in a locally craft-brewed beer and watch as the setting sun illuminates the earth-stained adobe walls of the town.

Though normally not one for shopping, in discussing the freshly purchased earrings, for a moment I realize I’m pleased to be just another merchant on an ancient North American trade route; another transaction in the continuing history of one of America’s oldest towns.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his journey as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”.