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Exotic America: Airborne Odyssey

In a few minutes a Czech-built L-39 Albatross, a jet fighter trainer with a bright red star on its tail and a cannon in its belly, will thunder down a Santa Fe airport runway and launch itself into the sky. But first, a few words from the pilot. “See that button?” says Larry Salganek, perching next to the cockpit to call my attention to a white dot on the rear control stick. “It’s the trim, so you don’t want to touch it.”

“Roger!” I respond, eyeing the verboten button.

“And you see this lever?” he asks. “Don’t pull it. It’s the air brake.”

“Gotcha,” I say.

And one final thing. “We’ve never had so much as an emergency,” Salganek says, checking my parachute buckles. “But if we have to jump, make sure you clear the tail.”

I give him the old thumbs-up, repeating to myself: Avoid the trim. Don’t touch the air brake. Clear the tail.

“Oh, here’s something . . . just in case,” says the pilot, handing over a small paper bag.

With that, the rear canopy closes over me, and Salganek climbs into the forward cockpit. There is the preliminary whir of a starter motor, then the roar of 3,800 pounds of thrust as the jet rushes down the tarmac, lifts off effortlessly, and rockets through the clouds. Just as I begin to wonder where I put that bag, the plane levels off, and the bubble canopy affords a spectacular view of the countryside. Below are stretches of high desert ripped by canyons and spiked with volcanic cinder cones, lava flows, forested mountainsides, natural amphitheaters, and pink, flat-topped mesas. As long as I don’t have to jump, this is a great way to begin my trek through New Mexico.


Salganek’s voice crackles over the intercom. “Look over to the left,” he instructs, pointing to a stripe through the contours below. “That’s the Camino Real.” He motions to the legendary King’s Highway that winds—in various states of repair—some 1,800 miles from Mexico City to Taos. Although the road is intact for a 90-mile stretch that runs through northern New Mexico, some four centuries of traffic, including Spanish conquistadors and traders on horseback, wagons, sheep, and cattle, have scooped an inadvertent irrigation gully 15 to 30 feet wide where the vegetation grows most dense. From above, it runs like a streak of scar tissue across the desert sand and shrubs.

However impressive the view, Salganek says he doesn’t do much sightseeing. “Most of my clients are people who collect vintage fighter aircraft and want to fly them,” he explains. At his Fantasy Fighters school, pilots receive the instruction required for jet certification in one of six aircraft: a Korean War–era MiG-15, a Thunderbird, an L-29 Delfin, two L-39s, or a twin-engine Fouga. “It’s too bad more people can’t get to see it this way,” he says, as the L-39 turns back toward the small Santa Fe airport. “When you see the countryside from here, you realize that there are parts of New Mexico that haven’t been seen by man for centuries. D.H. Lawrence would have loved this ride.”

In 1922, at the behest of socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lawrence was among the first international celebrities to visit a small artists’ community outside Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a world traveler, but the surrounding wilderness enthralled him. “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had,” he wrote. “It liberated me from the present . . . the place heaves with ghosts.”

Since that time, countless thousands have flocked to Taos in search of the meaning of life, kindred spirits, or a mystical experience. In the process they’ve transformed the area into a mini-Aspen, a boutique ski town that would send Lawrence and his ilk rushing to catch the next stagecoach out.


Yet the magic of this place defies all civilization. Nowhere are there skies like New Mexico’s. The light is pristine, causing the horizon to beckon and shimmer hypnotically. On afternoons when rainstorms subside, double rainbows arch across the plain, one within the other. Breathtaking sunsets are vividly streaked with lush hues of purple and orange, and at night, electrical storms sometimes turn clouds into glowing phantasms with lightning flashing from one to another.

The land is no less dramatic. A sea of gypsum covers 300 square miles in the center of the state, its dunes rising 60 feet high as they wash across the desert floor. To its west is El Malpais, the Badlands, home to lava flows and ice caves. Not far away the hoodoos, titanic igneous disks, balance atop sandstone pillars, and tent rocks thrust skyward like spindly minarets. In the Jemez Mountains lies the Valles Caldera, where millions of years ago, volcanoes swelled, exploded, and then collapsed under their own weight, leaving a giant crater 16 miles across. On the Jemez slopes, the wind has carved a vast sculpture garden, with sandstone giants looming above the tree line. Mountain lions roam the mesas. As the jet turns back to the landing strip, I scan the horizon. Barely 10 miles to the west lies a canyon, where 12,000 years ago nomadic Pueblos hunted woolly mammoths, camels, and bison with atlatls, throwing sticks that hurled obsidian-tipped spears.

The Albatross touches down lightly and taxis over to my car. However rewarding the view from aloft, what lay ahead has to be seen close up. It’s not distance I have to cover, but millennia. Next stop, the Stone Age.

In 1880 a Pueblo guide led Swiss archaeologist Adolph Bandelier to a canyon never before seen by outsiders, a place inhabited only by spirits, where a natural cliff shelf held a line of stone houses 800 feet in length. All around, small apartments were carved into the tuff, a deep layer of malleable volcanic rock that covers the canyon walls. “The grandest thing I ever saw,” Bandelier wrote of this site, Frijoles Canyon. Today this ghostly habitat is part of Bandelier National Monument, a 33,000-acre maze of canyons, forests, and waterfalls. Visitors can follow the ancient footpaths worn into the rock to reach the cliff face, and farther up, a series of wooden, pueblo-style ladders leads to the cliff dwellings. Nobody expects to find anyone still living up there, but visitors nevertheless poke their heads in cautiously.

The canyon floor holds the remains of a later Pueblo civilization. In the late 1400s, they built Tyuonyi, a circular palace two and three stories high with some 400 rooms but no doors. Instead, ladders led in and out through openings in the roofs. Ladders also led into three subterranean kivas (Pueblo ceremonial structures) located in the central plaza, a space about 80 yards across. This was a sophisticated society, with irrigated farmlands and ornate crafts. By the mid-1500s, though, the valley was abandoned, and nobody knows why.

The mystery deepens in Chaco Canyon, on the other side of the Continental Divide, where signs of a bygone culture still fuel conjecture about extraterrestrial visitors. But as my circuitous route from Bandelier to Chaco Canyon suggests, New Mexico’s present could provide as much fodder for social scientists as its past. The road leads north through Espanola, where gleaming sedans and coupes with no discernible ground clearance drag their bellies through the dust like mechanical Gila monsters. “This is the low rider capital of the world, man,” says local Arthur Medina, the 30-ish owner of a humongous 1970 Oldsmobile artistically painted with images of Elvis.

Farther up the road lies Taos, site of a five-story adobe condominium built in the 1100s. Nearby lies the more modern community of the same name. The town’s cachet in New Age circles has soared since the discovery of The Hum, a barely discernible background noise usually heard around sundown. Many Hum fans link it to the Bermuda Triangle and the pyramids, but according to some geologists, it comes from a gradual seismic slip of tectonic plates miles beneath the earth’s surface.

I leave Taos via the Enchanted Circle, a road that necklaces the town through 84 miles of spectacular mountain vistas, and arrive at Chaco Canyon, which appears like a scene from another planet. The canyon stands in a broad, arid plain with the ruins of ancient adobe walls rising in the shadow of its western mesa. I follow a ranger through the walls down into the bowels of what was once the world’s largest domicile—Pueblo Bonita. Not until the advent of skyscrapers was there a larger dwelling-place. But Pueblo Bonita, whose remaining floor plan resembles a waffle iron hundreds of yards in diameter, wasn’t just big; it was built to correspond to the paths of the sun and the moon. However vast this structure, it was not alone. Pueblo Bonita was part of a larger society that spread throughout the canyons, with more than 400 miles of roads—some that were miles wide—between the pueblos, while others stretched into the desert, seemingly at random. Recently, archaeologists have begun to wonder if the canyon’s inhabitants were really the placid farmers, weavers, and potters they were long thought to be. In his 1967 book Chariots of the Gods, the Swiss hotelier-turned-pop archaeologist Erich von Daniken suggested the pueblos were constructed to accommodate visitors from outer space. But as the ranger admits, “Nobody really knows why they were built.”

Some two hours east of Chaco Canyon another tribe clings to its ancient fortress home, overlooking the desert and potential intruders from atop a sheer, 365-foot-high mesa known as Sky City. Originally settled in the 1100s, it is now inhabited by only a handful of the Acoma tribe’s 5,000 members, whose little adobe huts stand arrayed on the 70-acre mesa similar to houses on a Monopoly board. At the time of the Spanish invasion, the mesa was accessible only by a narrow footpath, but despite their seemingly protected isolation, the tribe surrendered after the conquistadors laid siege in 1599. The soldiers then destroyed all the kivas and erected a mission, but the Acoma resisted conversion and built new kivas camouflaged by houses above them. Today a casino glitters on the desert floor below, and the mesa is accessible by car—to residents only—along a road Paramount Pictures built in the 1950s. Inquire about their kivas or their ceremonies, and the Acomas are likely to bristle. “We don’t talk about these things,” a guide says. “They’re sacred to us.”

Therein lies the conundrum, as so much of the Pueblo world—the ground, the forests, the very wind—may be sacred, with nothing to identify it as such. Some ceremonies or dances are open to the public, others are by invitation only, while a few are strictly private affairs, limited to members of a specific clan. The missionaries long ago gave up trying to dissuade the Indians from their ancient rituals, and on some days, the churches serve as venues for primitive celebrations undreamed-of in the Vatican. “There’s a lot of blend,” one member of the Cochiti tribe says, with a wry smile.

The Cochiti Pueblo, about 20 miles south of Sante Fe, is world-famous for its painters and potters, including the late Helen Cordero, who resurrected Storyteller pottery. Golfers know the Pueblo for its golf course, which ranks as one of this country’s finest. Cars new and old stand in front of the small earthen homes, where satellite dishes are affixed to the rooftops. Yet once every February the drums begin to beat, and the residents gather in the predawn darkness in front of their small, whitewashed church where the Deer Dance resumes as it has for centuries.

Dawn strikes sparks off the rims of the mesas, and tumbleweed blows between the pueblo huts as the first dancers, in loincloths and antlers, bells jingling at their thighs, emerge from the forest above. Prancing like deer, they move down the hills into the plaza. The drum beaters and chanters are all male and dressed in vivid velvet shirts, headbands ponderous with silver, and turquoise bracelets. One wrinkled tribal statesman carries a flag bearing the likeness of a pumpkin, his clan’s insignia. At the end of the dance a half-dozen men in the crowd fire rifles into the air, and the dancers run away, with the children in pursuit.

When the chanting stops, I join the celebrants at one side of the church where tables hold a breakfast of green and red chili stew and watermelon. The morning sun has driven the chill from the air, and the mesas shimmer in the distance. Here, on the dusty tribal grounds, the world of the supernatural has become real. Off in the distance, we hear the first of the tour buses rolling toward Santa Fe, but they could be imaginary.

Fantasy Fighters (505.471.4151, www.jetwarbird.com) is one of a handful of schools licensed by the FAA to provide instruction in piloting vintage aircraft. For more information about New Mexico, contact the New Mexico Department of Tourism at 800.733.6396 or visit www.newmexico.org.



Making Reservations

Little in New Mexico is conventional or garden variety, least of all the local brand of luxury. Typically, it’s accompanied by an element of ruggedness. Take, for instance, the Rancho de San Juan (505.753.6818, www.ranchodesanjuan.com), a Relais & Châteaux property north of Espanola. At night, mountain lions roam amid luxury casitas, each set for maximum privacy beneath a soaring array of pipe-organ rocks. “The big cats stay up on the top of the mesa during the day and come down to drink from the river at night,” says co-owner David Heath. “In the morning we see their paw prints in the ground. It’s marvelous.”

The casitas are each sumptuously themed, some with skylights, lighted niches, and adobe bancos built along the walls, others with exquisite bathrooms, stone fireplaces, and latticed patios. One of the most unusual features of the rancho is a cathedral-like chamber with arches and pillars carved from the hillside, a popular site for weddings and concerts. Heath’s partner, John Johnson, who’s cooked for the James Beard Society, serves as chef. A typical prix fixe dinner might include puree of watercress soup, Belgian endive salad with Roquefort cream, rack of lamb with a thyme bordelaise, jamon serrano mashed potatoes, sautéed winter greens, and roasted bananas and chocolate Napoleon with caramel and strawberry sauce.

About 40 minutes south of Santa Fe, Indian culture is prepackaged and homogenized at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort (505.867.1234, www.tamaya.hyatt.com). A sprawling, adobe joint venture between the Santa Ana tribe and the Hyatt Corp., Tamaya is the largest resort ever developed on Native American land. Amenities include a spa, a desert golf course, sentimental statuary and murals, and a central stage area where the tribe performs dances.

Upscale accommodations in Santa Fe can range from a presidential suite in a full-service downtown hotel to the more intimate ambience of an inn or lodge. But for an authentic Santa Fe stay, it’s difficult to surpass La Posada (800.727.5276, www.laposadadesantafe.com). Situated just a few minutes away from the Plaza, its Victorian-style main house and casitas have 119 rooms and 45 suites spread over six acres of lawn, fruit trees, and rose gardens. Its restaurant, the Staab House, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

For the finest dining in Santa Fe, the Old House (505.988.4455) in the Eldorado Hotel wins hands down. Chef Martin Juan Rios dazzled patrons at Georges Blanc and Le Cirque before coming to Santa Fe, where he continues to win award after award, while building a top-notch staff. His fare ranges from the classical—his signature dish is escargot—to the exotic (rattlesnake sautéed with green chile). The wine list is excellent, with 30 wines offered by the glass.

In Taos, top-shelf shelter is intimate, and some of the most private properties cannot be found in the guidebooks. The most exclusive is the Tequila Rose Inn (800.257.7720, www.tequilaroseinn.com), which features only two casitas within a walled courtyard. To assure privacy, the management stocks the kitchens and bars with groceries and beverages before your arrival, and maids never enter the casitas while they are occupied by guests.

Once in Taos, you can’t go wrong by dining at Joseph’s Table (505.751.4512), where the route to the front dining room leads past an open kitchen. Once there, you’re surrounded by works of local artists, including glassblower Dale Chihuly, who runs a school in Taos. Favorite dishes at the restaurant include duck breast with piñon and diced cherry corn pudding and steak au poivre.

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