How To Not Look Like A Tourist In Santa Fe

Although I was 26 before I visited New Mexico, I’ve always felt a strange kinship with the state. I suspect it’s because much of my childhood was spent traveling to see my grandparents in Arizona (where my dad grew up). We’d attend pow-wows, visit local museums, and explore the high desert landscape, and I always yearned to cross the state line, and delve deeper into the Southwest.

On my first visit, I spent several days in Santa Fe, and it was love at first sight. Since then, I’ve made many trips to New Mexico, but I always try to spend time in Santa Fe. Hordes of tourists flock there for a reason: its cultural, historical, architectural, scenic, and culinary charms make it one of America’s most alluring small cities.

I recently spent a weekend in Santa Fe, as it’s an enjoyable, six-hour drive from my home in Boulder. As I wandered the city each day, I was repeatedly asked for directions by befuddled visitors. I dislike looking like a tourist, and the upside of being a bit of a dirtbag is that I’m often mistaken for a local when I travel domestically. I’m secretly delighted when tourists ask me for intel, even if I don’t know the answer.

In Santa Fe, however, it’s easy to tell the natives from the tourists if you know what to look for. I’ve compiled a handy list, so that when you visit, you, too, can fake it. Native Santa Feans, please know that these observations come from a deep place of affection … and that there’s a reason I’m not telling you the location of my hometown.

How to look like a Santa Fean

Wear natural fibers.

Smile. Say hello. Mean it.

Know the meaning of “Christmas.”Have your own, strongly held beliefs on where the best chiles come from, and be prepared to defend them to the death.

Know how to correctly pronounce and use the following words: acequia; luminaria; viga; portales; ristra; sopapilla; adovada, posole.

Wearing lots of turquoise and silver jewelry is good, as long as it doesn’t look new.

Know where Canyon Road is.

Own well-worn cowboy boots and hat. Quality counts.

Get your gossip on at the farmers market.

Rock a hairstyle 20 to 30 years out of date, regardless of your gender. Males should ideally have hair that reaches at least the shoulders, even if balding on top; pony-tail optional.

Food: the spicier, the better.

Heels or a tie for dinner at a restaurant? Nah.

Drive an old pickup.

Breakfast: posole, green chile, or a burrito.

Leathery, sun-burnished skin trumps a spray tan, any day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user kenkopal]

Steins, New Mexico: The Ultimate American Ghost Town

It concerns me that the gas station attendant has never heard of Steins. We are one stop away from Steins on New Mexico’s Interstate 10. It’s basically this gas station, flat desert, some yucca plants, then Steins. I could walk to my destination from here. Granted, I might get sunstroke and also scary close to the vultures on the fences, but the point is we’re that close. “Sorry ma’am,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know that town.”

I keep calm, knowing Steins doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of a town. Not since the mid-1940s has Steins had much street traffic. That was when the Southern Pacific Railroad switched from steam to diesel, shutting down this depot town virtually overnight. It’s the classic ghost town tale – a settlement of transients and dreamers who fled as abruptly as they came – except that Steins was never completely abandoned.

There was always someone hanging on: first, the bordello madams, and later, a lone man who got his pick of the cluttered homes. For over 40 years, the adobes slouched and the barns blanched to gray, but Steins, unlike so many of the old boomtowns that dot the map of New Mexico, was never left to the elements, and never looted.

It’s no small relief to see a woman on the porch of the old town store, under the chipped white letters, STEINS MERCANTILE. There’s a cattle grate to bump over, and just past it, an outburst of prickly pear cacti, holding their pert needles up to the desert sun. It’s just after 9 a.m. and already, the desert’s cooking.

The woman stands and watches me pull up – apparently, I’m today’s first guest. Steins, after a full year of closure, just reopened in May. I scoured the web for an official site to confirm its new hours, but all the search results led me instead to the story of Larry Link.

%Gallery-161412%A rattlesnake farmer, Larry Link got to dreaming about the abandoned train town deep in the southwest corner of New Mexico, and persuaded his wife that they should buy it. This was in 1988, when Steins wasn’t even listed in some regional ghost town guides. From the highway, it looked like a junkyard; up close, like a trove of Wild West artifacts. Larry’s vision was simple: it didn’t involve historical reenactments or tour guides in period garb. He just wanted to clear a path through Steins and to invite the public in.

“He didn’t want to entertain people,” says Melissa Lamoree, Link’s granddaughter, who just took over the family operation. A year prior, Larry Link walked out late one night to investigate a noise on his property. He was shot and killed. The murder, which remains unsolved, devastated the Link family. As for the ghost town, it looked as though history was about to repeat itself, with another sudden folding, until 30-year-old Melissa stepped in. It bristled her to think her grandfather’s death might overshadow the place he’d spent years reviving. By the end of his life, Link had cleared paths in all but a few buildings. “He just wanted the history of this place to speak for itself.”

Melissa stands off to the side as I duck through the low doorway of a pink brick house, into a room so thick with dust it has the murky feel of pond water. In a long slice of window light, I see what a commotion our entrance causes. A dust storm rises and settles. My first concern is knocking something over. My second concern is where to look.

Imagine an attic where your parents and their parents, and about four more generations of parents, have stacked lamps and novels and cowboy boots and old license plates. Imagine that no one, in this long line of hoarders, believes in spring cleaning. No dusters in the family, either. Imagine spider webs as thick as gauze. A few you mistake for cocoons.

My gaze settles first on a boxy wooden suitcase, cracked open to reveal the record player within, its needle resting partway across a grimy album. Next, I make out a pair of silver roller skates, sitting like a pair of toy cars on the counter. That’s a horseshoe, I think; that’s a tin for tobacco. I lift the cover of a children’s book and what sounds like a pinch of sand hits the floor.

I turn around and cringe at Melissa, not because I’ve broken something, but because I haven’t heard a word she’s said since coming inside. “Could you start over?” I have to ask, hoping Melissa believes my reason. “I’m overwhelmed.”

She smiles – I must not be the first dumbstruck guest – and rewinds. “Thirteen hundred people used to live here … ” In the early 1880s, Steins was a workstation for the railroad company aiming to connect California and the Gulf of Mexico. When a stone quarry was built nearby, 1,000 Chinese laborers arrived to lay gravel bed. “Only one Chinese man was allowed to live right here in town,” Melissa tells me. “The cook.” On the wall behind her, a half-corroded company sign warns townspeople “to avoid being struck ... by trains or cars.” The railroad gave life to this town, and just over a half a century later, took it away.

“When things shut down, people were offered a ride on the train,” Melissa pauses by an upright piano that looks straight out of a saloon.The piano’s roof, like most surfaces in this 16-room maze, doubles as a display – in this case, for clocks, peacock feathers, a tarnished watering can. “They were told to take whatever they could carry.” There was a lot the people of Steins could not carry – hence the attic-feel.

If Steins is haunted, it’s by what was left behind – things too heavy or impractical to carry forward, pieces of this town’s life that were never the starting ingredients for someplace else. The pie safe is crowded with still-full spice jars. A typewriter sits heavily on a table, spider webs bridging its blank-faced keys. Overhead, a cowboy hat hangs on a pair of elk horns, lanced right in its dimple. The handle of a dresser dangles off one hook, like it was yanked hard and quick.

It’s the arrangement of things, more than the condition they’re in, that makes the interior rooms of Steins so astonishing. You get the sense, creeping across the swollen floorboards and into the silent bedrooms, that these lanterns and suspenders and saddles are right where someone left them. That was why Melissa, when she was a little girl, trailing after her grandfather on summer visits, refused to go into the bathhouse. Everything by that cobwebbed, claw-foot tub looked left by someone.

Preserving that trace of the town’s last settlers was the work of Larry Link. He wasn’t precious about keeping the antiques in mint condition (the only relic I inspect through glass is the delicate skeleton of a horny toad), but seemed to believe that the way we leave things – however messy or unruly or vulnerable – tells a story.

Take the mason jars of Steins. Everywhere you look in this ghost town, there are long families of glass jars, their shoulders uniformly dusted. I see mason jars over doorways, across the piano, bloating cupboards. From the look of it, the people of Steins were America’s first diehard recyclers. “The sheriff warned people not to throw away glass,” Melissa tells me. “Because the Apaches might use the shards to make arrow heads.”

I’d planned to weave through other old mining towns on my long ride home from Steins, but anywhere else is bound to feel like a Disney ride set after a place this heavy with history. At a nearby ghost town, reenacted saloon fights remind visitors of the lawlessness of the Old West. At Steins, that hint is in the bottles, every shade of sea glass, glowing in the corners of dim rooms.

“Every time I come through here,” says Melissa, “I notice something new.” I know she’s not exaggerating; later, when I study my photos, I see all I missed. Completely different things pop: not the chipped white bed post, but the hanging silver scissors, their legs kicked open, gleaming in the backdrop. Not the broken china plate, but the sewing machine off to the side, looking somehow poised.

One thing, though, is impossible to look past in real time: the stuffed warthog.

“That’s a javalena,” Melissa corrects me. She sounds excited to introduce us: New Yorker and giant rodent of the desert. Her grandfather hung the javalena for precisely this occasion: so outsiders could learn about the desert habitat. Though I doubt it’s the cactus-eating beast that’s exciting Melissa. She brightens every time her grandfather comes up. I’ve heard about Larry Link in just about every chamber of this ghost town. Steins starts to feel like a layering of dreams and losses, all of them raw, but none more than the Link family’s.

A train passes, its whistle like a pipe organ – all keys pressed down, let go. It’s gone by the time we step outside, into the brightness. I follow Melissa through a yard where rusty barrels and wash pans look as organic as the barrel cacti. Steins has a fence but no real perimeter; it spreads and mingles with the desert scrub, as far as I can squint. This place refuses to let you get your bearings. It tugs at and teases your gaze, onward and deeper, into the next rusty puzzle. Off in the distance, a splotchy red truck that probably drove through the Great Depression rests with its hood popped open.

“Antique people sometimes come and tell me our most valuable things are out here, baking in the sun,” Melissa says, sounding amused, not worried.

I squint over her shoulder, wondering what the high-ticket treasures are. The disintegrating wheelbarrow? The drooping stagecoach?

I give up, realizing it doesn’t matter. Melissa may one day have to dismantle the dusty chaos of Steins, but for the moment, she’s sticking to the vision of the rattlesnake farmer who put Steins back on the map. She’s keeping a path clear, and stepping aside.

Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

You know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%One of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

California woman arrested in nail-painting incident on Southwest flight

According to CBS Los Angeles, a California woman was arrested in late February for painting her nails on a Southwest flight bound for Houston. The woman, identified as Jeanie Daniels, was on her way to visit her boyfriend and claims that the passengers seated next to her agreed to let her do her nails.

But one of the flight attendants reportedly objected, so Daniels retreated to the bathroom to finish the job. When she got out of the bathroom, she got into a verbal altercation with two flight attendants and claims she was detained by law enforcement officials at the Houston airport for more than 10 hours before a judge charged her with profane and abusive language.

The CBS story essentially reports Daniels’ side of the story along with an anodyne statement from Southwest, so it’s hard to know if the flight attendants could have diffused the situation or if Daniels was the instigator.I’ve actually never seen someone paint their nails on a flight but I wouldn’t be surprised if some flight attendants are becoming increasingly intolerant of obnoxious passengers. These days it’s not that uncommon to see passengers watching videos without headphones (especially kids), loudly chattering on mobile phones on the runway, and generally acting as though they were in their living rooms. On Monday, Gadling will begin a new March Madness series that will allow our readers to vote on which airline annoyances are the most egregious.

Do you think that these Southwest flight attendants were right in showing zero tolerance for the California nail-painter, or does it sound like they overreacted?

[Photo via Borispumps on Flickr]

Southwest gives back, engages with medical transport program

Thinking of Southwest Airlines commonly brings to mind discount fares, free checked luggage, on-board snacks and a quirky, relaxed attitude about air travel. But to get a complete picture of Southwest, we need to add “a company that gives back in a big way.” This week, the airline announced that over 70 hospitals and charities from across the United States have been selected for Southwest’s 2012 medical transportation program, a grant system that seeks to lessen the financial burden for families who are facing serious illness by providing complimentary, round-trip airline tickets to nonprofit hospitals and medical organizations.

“We believe in making a difference, and we hear from patients and hospitals how important this program is to families who already are dealing with so much,” said Linda Rutherford, Southwest Airlines Vice President of Communication and Strategic Outreach. “We are proud that we continue to grow this program to provide this much-needed assistance during such a difficult time.”

Entering its fifth year of operation, the Medical Transportation Grant Program (MTGP) has helped nearly 19,000 people in 26 states with free transportation and will give out flights valued at more than $2.4 million in 2012. Targeted are patients who must travel for medical treatment, are facing huge expenses, and who appreciate any help they can get.

That could be the end of the story. Other organizations have medical transportation programs that also help people in need. But Southwest, the only airline we know of with a program dedicated to making such a huge impact, takes charitable service a few steps further, engaging the world in a very social way.

Southwest’s Blog invites others to make a difference too, through a partnership with photographer Robert X. Fogarty (@rxfogarty) and Dear World, a website dedicated to giving its subjects a simple and profound voice through photos.

“These emotional and impactful photographs help convey the message of hope, the importance of the Medical Transportation Grant program, and Southwest’s commitment to making a difference,” says Dear World.

Each person in the photos has their own story to tell and whether it is a patient and their family, volunteers, or Southwest Airlines employees, each chose messages that resonated with their personal circumstances.

“We’re working towards a beautiful, wonderful world where a Dear World portrait stands for something,” says Dear World. “People get that we’re connected and that you can build something fast alone, but to build anything great you have to go together.”

Here, photographer Robert Fogarty speaks to the inception of the program:

Southwest Airlines is the nation’s largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded. Serving 73 cities in 38 states, the airline operates more than 3,300 flights a day and has more than 37,000 employees with a unique commitment to the triple bottom line of “Performance, People, and Planet.” They are profitable, have no planned layoffs, and through efforts like this, look to be an airline that will be around for quite some time.

Flickr photo by gTarded