New Mexico – Days 5-9: A Sacred Pilgrimage, A Disappointing Art Museum, and A Native Introduction

Brittany Swanson   February 29, 2016   Comments Off on New Mexico – Days 5-9: A Sacred Pilgrimage, A Disappointing Art Museum, and A Native Introduction

I took the scenic route to Santa Fe to check out the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. I was probably only five miles away, but suddenly the winding dirt road was covered in snow and ice and I thought, man if I get stuck up here I’m totally screwed. I didn’t have cell service and there weren’t many occupied looking places around, so when I found a safe spot to turn around I did. I didn’t even know it snowed in New Mexico… Apparently it does and a fair amount too.

I drove through Bandelier National Monument but it was getting dark so I kept driving toward Santa Fe and didn’t go exploring. I made it to my host’s house right when I said I would, which impressed both of us. My host took me out to dinner at Harry’s Roadhouse and when we got back we stayed up chatting until almost midnight.

The following morning my host drew me a map of the scenic way to get to Taos Pueblo and told me where to stop along the way. The first stop was in Chimayo at the Santuario de Santo Niño de Atocha. According to my host, people from all over make pilgrimages to this site and take healing dirt from a hole in the floor of the church. The grounds were so incredibly peaceful. Chimayo is a small town, but there was definitely a feeling of reverence in the air around the church.

I walked the grounds first and then made my way to the gift shop and finally to the chapel. There was a couple and another solo person already in there when I came in. I sat on a bench and closed my eyes. Everyone else seemed to be praying. The guy next to me was kneeling on the bar connected to the bench in front of him and I decided to try it too. I knelt and prayed and then moved closer to the front. Off to the left was the prayer room where the magical healing dirt was. The room definitely had a palpable energy. I had a little container with me so I filled it with the dirt, lest I need some healing energy later. I’m not Catholic, but I felt a great inner peace and calm inside the chapel. As for the prayer room, it was like the energy of all those hopeful people before me had been contained in the room. Maybe that’s what makes it magical, the belief that it is magical.

Sacred pilgrimage site of Santuario de Santo Niño de Atocha, Chimayo, NM.

Sacred pilgrimage site of Santuario de Santo Niño de Atocha, Chimayo, NM.

Usually when I think of church, I think of a loud place filled with lots of conversations and greetings. This was totally different. Everyone was quiet. There was no performance, just everyone taking time to be present and commune with God in their own way. It was really beautiful. Surrounded by others doing their own thing, I felt a part of something bigger than myself, it was really nice.

I left the Santuario de Santo Niño de Atocha and kept driving toward Taos. I stopped a few times to take pictures of the stunning views. I was getting really tired and figured I’d find a place to nap when I got to Taos. Then I stopped at this one really incredible spot with a pull off to take a picture, and I thought, why don’t I just take a nap here, so I can wake up to this view? That’d be nice. So that’s exactly what I did and it was lovely. Here’s the view:

View along the drive, somewhere in northern New Mexico.

View along the drive, somewhere in northern New Mexico.

I got to Taos Pueblo only to learn it was closed that day for a funeral. I felt bad, but was also super disappointed. Luckily, I had another day in Santa Fe, so I decided to head back and do what I’d planned to do in Santa Fe the following day as soon as I got back so I could come back to Taos Pueblo the next day instead.

Before leaving Taos I decided to go check out the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which my host had also recommended. Whoa. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t to feel so small. Later my host told me it’s not like the Grand Canyon where the river carved the canyon, but that it’s actually from tectonic plate movements separating. That made it even cooler, if that was possible.

View from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos, NM.

View from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos, NM.

I drove back to Santa Fe and started at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I was a little disappointed. It was much smaller than I’d anticipated and I finished looking at everything really quickly, so I went back around again and I counted. They only had thirty-three paintings, which may sound like kind of a lot, but not many of those thirty-three were in the style I was expecting, so that was a bit of a letdown.

One of my hosts in Albuquerque had suggested I check out the miraculous staircase in Santa Fe so I headed there next. Unfortunately it closed at 4:30 and I got there at 4:40. Whomp. Instead I wandered around for a bit and then called Alex to chat for a bit. A bit turned into FOUR HOURS and my host had to call to see if I was alright, which I felt bad about. Oy. Young love, what can we say?

The next day I headed back up to Taos Pueblo, but didn’t take the long way this time. I got to Taos and was so tired I had to take another nap. My quick cat nap turned into an hour and half, but I guess I needed it.

So, Taos Pueblo is a Native American settlement. I felt SUPER AWKWARD as I arrived, like I was intruding. The lady at the counter was really nice though and I’d made it just in time for a tour. The guide, Miranda, was a sophomore in college and was also really nice, so I started to feel less awkward. Miranda took us all around the Pueblo explaining different features and parts of history.

I was disgusted to learn that during the Spanish-American War the Spanish had impersonated Taos Pueblo people and murdered a U.S. governor. In retaliation, the U.S. government declared war on the native peoples in the area. Under attack, many women and children fled to the church for safety, while others fled to the mountains. The U.S., knowing people were in the church, bombed it. There were no survivors. Seriously, America?! What. The. Heck?! I really hate some of the things this country has done, but what’s worse is that we often pretend we haven’t done anything so inhumane. I find that beyond disgusting. 

Miranda also explained that inside the Pueblo they live a traditional life with no running water or electricity, but that outside the Pueblo the rest of the reservation is modern with running water and electricity and internet. She said families usually use their house in the Pueblo as a second home and only stay in the Pueblo for ceremonies and festivals and live the rest of the time in their modern home elsewhere on the reservation. Though she said some people do live full time inside the Pueblo.

She also talked about how her people were forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish, but that they continue to practice their traditional religion today, though they don’t talk about it with people outside the blood line. I find it sad they don’t feel like they can share their religion with outsiders, but I totally understand why they choose to keep it private. Miranda went on to explain how a sacred site (Blue Lake) was declared a National Park at one point and the Pueblo fought the U.S. government on grounds of religious freedom and eventually ownership of Blue Lake was returned to the Pueblo. This happened under President Nixon, and was the only time in U.S. history that sacred Native lands were returned to their people.

View of the traditional Taos Pueblo, NM.

View of the traditional Taos Pueblo, NM.

Miranda also gave us the basics of Taos Pueblo. Taos means town and Pueblo means village. Taos Pueblo people are also known as the Red Willow tribe because red willows grow in the Rio Pueblo, the river that runs through the Pueblo. There are about 3,000 Taos Pueblo tribe members. 2,500 live on the reservation, and about 50-100 live full time in the Pueblo. There are about 200 homes inside the Pueblo and a number are open to visitors as shops. Tiwa is the language of Taos Pueblo, it has never been written or recorded.

After my tour, I took my Couchsurfing host’s advice and sat on a bench by the river and just felt the energy of the place. It was magical. With the river running behind me and the wind kissing my cheek and dancing with my hair, bringing sweet smells of warm food, and the sun warming my side like an embrace from a loved one, my eyes filled with tears. I felt incredibly connected to everything and everyone. When I left I wished I was a member of the tribe because I’d love to live there and get to really experience the culture and be able to have that level of connection every day. Though, I also felt the pain and suffering of all the tribes who didn’t make it because of European invasion and that made my heart very heavy.

Next I wandered in to every open shop and chatted with the proprietors. They were really interesting people with good stories and seemed genuinely interested in me and my story. I bought a fry bread topped with powedered sugar, a cookie, and a little metal dog sculpture to be my new travel companion. After many long conversations I was late for my lunch date with Alex, so I headed out of the Pueblo to find a place to sit and eat. My date with Alex lasted three hours and after I headed back to my host’s house.

The following day I drove to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The drive was very beautiful. I’m not sure there are ugly parts of New Mexico. If there are, I didn’t see them. The Red Rocks were gorgeous and though the dirt road to the park was a little rough it was totally worth it. It’s really amazing to think about ancient civilizations and walk where they once walked and imagine what life would have been like for them. Chaco Culture also felt really special. Maybe, its just New Mexico. I haven’t found a place in New Mexico I haven’t liked…

Ruins of Ancient Pueblo civilizations at Chaco Culture National Park, NM.

Ruins of Ancient Pueblo civilizations at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM.

The next morning I blogged for a while before heading to Aztec Ruins National Monument. It was pretty much the same as the Chaco Culture, but smaller and instead of being surrounded by beautiful cliffs it was in the middle of a modern town.