The thing is, Santa Fe is good enough. If you’re driving, as my 13-year-old son and I did, through alpine Flagstaff and then across the badlands of Interstate 40, and doing it during monsoon season, you’ll get your adventure, all right. Zero visibility behind a pale gray semi, the kid warning my old eyes just in time. The itty-bitty, slow-moving yellow Smart car edges in front of us, leaving me, of all things, glad for a bright beacon creeping along at the pace of a geriatric jogger. It changes lanes; we’re on our own. I’m obliged by pride to start speeding again. Next to me there’s a kid, my kid, rolling down the window and sticking his head out as the hail starts. A sign tells us to tune in to Meteor Crater radio, where we are encouraged to “Experience the Impact!” We decide to Experience the Impact. We climb the ridge. At first the crater seems about the size of the Rose Bowl, then we’re told that it could fit about 10 Rose Bowls. Our awe sensors are now fully tuned. Clouds break apart and reassemble in menacing new shapes; the Four Horsemen gallop toward us. A lightning strike, and the crater’s four-miles-in-diameter of prehistoric destruction seem entirely duplicable … right … now.
Eleven hours of driving, and yes, Santa Fe feels good enough. The red rock formations of the Arizona-New Mexico borderlands have given way to rolling green hills—green, at least, at the tail end of this week’s downpour—the roadside teepees have yielded first to the Route 66 Casino, then to the cloud-shadowed apparition of Albuquerque, then, an hour up Interstate 25, to the Sangre de Christo Mountains and the flat-roofed red adobe (and, to be fair, rampant fauxdobe) of Santa Fe. Yes, if you’re in the market for turquoise bracelets and art with lots of sunset purple and burnt umber, you’ve come to the right place. But you’ve also come to the right place if you want to feel the sheer elevation of walking into the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in the center of downtown. The soaring vaults over the nave, the rose-patterned stained glass, the Romanesque arches. This city was founded in 1598; in 1610, it became the provincial capital. It’s still the capital of New Mexico. This part of America knows a thing or two about old. (The ancient-looking church, though, does play tricks on you; the present building, looking for all the world like St. Francis himself might have wandered its aisles, went up only in 1869.) Around the corner, the Loretto Chapel was built in 1873 without a staircase from the first floor to the second. The nuns prayed; a carpenter showed up. He built a spiral that circled three times and connected with the balcony; the spiral had no visible means of support. The carpenter left town without pay and was never seen again. They say miracles happen in Santa Fe.
A rainbow rises, arcs and terminates precisely on the roof of the house where we’re staying, then the rain starts again. Just out the back gate are the slim Santa Fe River and the juniper-coated slopes of Atalaya Mountain. My son, being my son, laces up his boots and hikes into the downpour, carrying a newly purchased Native American tomahawk. He makes it back in one piece; the tomahawk makes it back in two, to be repaired with some thick glue from Michaels hobby shop.
So, Santa Fe, as you can see, is a sturdy provider of all the memories you’ll need from a summer road trip. But we—as our patron saint of road trips, Bruce Springsteen, once said—we wanted everything. So we set off on a day trip on the High Road to Taos.
Ivan Larionov, my father-in-law, was a colonel and an aeronautic engineer; he was the commander of civil defenses of a small, secret city; he was a boxing champion, parachutist, hang-glider and farmer. He was a man who built both a car and a house with his own hands. In his final years—which he never expected to be his final years—he raised bees. In the country house outside the town of Skopin, my wife and her mother spent the early days of August extracting the honey from the hives, Ivan’s gift to the winter ahead. Ivan had died on July 26; the next day, my wife had flown to Moscow.
Back home, I was supposed to leave on August 2 for a working trip to Santa Fe. I thought, for a moment, about staying put, sharing the sadness from a distance, spending a quiet late-summer week at home with my boy. Then I looked at the map, looked at the kid, and told him to hop in the front seat and buckle up. Ivan had been an adventurer; he had dreamed of driving my son and me from Moscow to his birthplace on the Siberian banks of Lake Baikal. If you look at a map, you’ll see that that’s a really long way. Ivan would have liked the trek to Santa Fe, but he’d have liked the High Road to Taos even more.
They call it the High Road because there is another, lower road. The low road, U.S. Route 84, eventually hits the Rio Grande Gorge as you head north. That part of the 84 is pretty. The problem is, you have to drive the rest of it to get there. This includes a town called Española, which features an unnatural concentration of roadside fast-food restaurants. There are no fast-food restaurants on the High Road, which starts with a wise right turn just north of Santa Fe onto state Highway 503.
The 503—another miracle. It takes us to Santuario Chimayo, a quietly dazzling compound of churches, chapels and small shops. You would know it was holy even if its website did not proclaim, “Welcome to Holy Chimayo.” More than 200 years ago, Bernardo de Abeyta saw a glow upon the green-brown mountains, walked toward the radiance and found a crucifix at its source. A church was built at Chimayo, with two adobe towers joined by a wood-frame peak. We enter—mass is in session; every pew is full. The congregants sing in Spanish; the priest makes his announcements, wishes his visitors well. This is a place of pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime place, but it is neither remote nor exotic to the people singing here. In the priest’s voice there is invitation, and the calm certainty that the invitation will be accepted. They will be back. We follow a line toward the altar, then to the left into a small room. At the center of the room, the floor is cut out. The dirt in this space is holy. Congregants enter one by one, pick up small handfuls, stand briefly in silence, return the dirt to the ground. I touch the dirt, think my thoughts, then yield the room to my son.
We continue onto Highway 76, winding among rolling hills. Forest country … occasional low-slung homes with horse trailers … small dirt roads leading upward into the trees. We pass a sign announcing the town of Las Trampas. We round a bend; nature steps back and bows before history. The towering adobe walls of the San José de Gracia Church fill the frame of our windshield. Our hosts prepared us for the sight of Chimayo, but they spoke nothing of this. The plaque out front tells us this church was built in 1760; the adobe, maintained through centuries by the hands of parishioners, has worn patterns like continents from an unknown globe. The doors are rough-hewn, powerful, assembled from diagonal planks, the frame carved with Latin script and a birdlike beast. The church is closed. It feels like my very own discovery, like the abandoned churches I’d stumbled upon as a young reporter in Moscow almost 20 years ago, in a city still unpolished and full of hidden talismans. Those days had filled my mind with mad magic, possibility, poetry; they led me to my wife. She has just sent me an email—she walked this morning to the riverbank near Skopin and stood alongside her father’s favorite tree and let the place speak to her. Here, the doors of San José de Gracia are speaking to me. It is as if they are not locked at all.
My son has chosen our first activity in Taos. He’s looked up the town on Apple Maps, perused the satellite image and found a baseball field at Kit Carson Park. And so, on this day of wonders, we play ball. Alongside right field, tombstones rise from the lawn. I catch the last of my boy’s fastballs and propose that we take a walk in the graveyard. The centuries speak; fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, generations—gone already 150 years. And here is Kit Carson himself, alongside his wife, Josephine. She died on April 23, 1868. He died exactly one month later.
Carson lived in this city; here he is both lionized and vilified. Having made it through a Nevada childhood, I still thrill at the name. But my boyish admiration of the great Western adventurer mixes with a growing awareness that, for Native Americans, the history of Kit Carson is one of staggering loss. The main street of Taos is called Kit Carson Road; his home-museum is there, lovingly curated. But the debate on Carson is reflected on the informational plaque here at the cemetery, where one account of his life has been laid over another, and then partly chipped away.
We drive out of town and park outside Taos Pueblo. Inside, we catch the end of a tour—a young man is telling a group of about 10 visitors of the first elk he killed on the nearby mountain. The mountain belongs to the pueblo; the sign on the path warns trespassers. The residents of the pueblo provide for the mountain, and it provides for them. Here they live and work and sell their wares. My son buys a loaf of bread, fresh from a squat, domed earthen oven. He is a connoisseur of bread; this, he says, is the best. The clouds swirl in a cornflower sky. The adobe complex—multilevel, multipurpose—seems both timeless and strangely modern, the earliest and latest in mixed-use living. Two dogs follow my son across the compound. It is nearly 5 p.m.; all of the other visitors seem to have left. We walk toward the back of the pueblo, where a man is fashioning a bow from oak. Alongside him—a small stack of plum-wood arrows. My son, a budding archer, approaches the man. He asks how the bow is made, how it is fired. The man’s name is Alfred. “It’s a little different than what you’re used to,” Alfred says. He fires a plum-wood arrow across the compound, then hands the bow to my boy. “Like that,” he says. The process is kinetic; it requires a continuity of motion, a rhythmic certainty.
My son lets the arrow fly.