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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

In New Mexico you can look toward the horizon and know where you are going to be tomorrow.

With trepidation, I look out the window to see whether last night's extended storm has done much damage to my surroundings, and I'm very surprised to see that all evidence of a rainstorm of that magnitude has vanished. The pale-blue sky is promising to darken to azure and provide another beautiful day.

I opt to take the High Road to Taos, not just because of the flood warnings, but also for the scenery. There are also a couple of special places to visit on the way.

The High Road to Taos, NM

Santa Fe sits at 2194 metres (7200 feet) above sea level and the 90 kilometre scenic road winds through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. As well as the mountains, the road meanders through forests, small farms and Spanish Land Grant villages and Native American Pueblos. Additionally many art galleries are scattered along the way. I have all day to travel the relatively short distance, so I'm excited to see where the road leads me.

As I leave Santa Fe behind me, the characteristic sage bush of the high desert stretches as far as the eye can see. On the horizon in front, to the sides, and behind me are mountain ranges. I am a mere speck in the middle of this huge landscape. I cannot imagine what the pioneers thought as they travelled through this arid, but very beautiful country. Were they happy to have left the mountains behind them, or did they feel exposed to the elements and to the unknown? Today, the road cuts through the desert and connects the towns of New Mexico with those in Colorado, and after last night's rain, everything looks bright and fresh.

I turn off the main road and follow the signs to Chimayo. Before I reach the village, there is a sign to El Santuario de Chimayo. I park the car and follow other visitors along the walkway, where crosses lean against the fence and rosary beads are threaded through the wire.

This place reminds me of the various shrines I have visited in Ireland, Italy, and Spain during past tours. I am never surprised at the extent of the faith and devotion by some Catholics, but I have never been tempted to take part in a religious pilgrimage myself. I don't have enough faith. But today, here in the mountains, I do feel an sense of spirituality and reverence.

Built between 1813 and 1816, the adobe church of Chimayo replaced a small chapel dedicated to the Christ of Esquipulas, which was built in 1810. Due to the healing dirt on the site, pilgrims had begun to arrive from all over New Mexico and beyond during Holy Week, so permission had been given by the Episcopal See of Durango (Mexico) for the construction. Built in the Spanish Pueblo style, later additions include the pointed caps on the bell towers and the metal roof.

El Santuario de Chimayo

Inside, it is typical of most churches built in New Mexico during the 19th century; the ceiling of vigas (heavy timber beams) supported by carved brackets. There are five reredos, the large one behind the altar incorporates hand-painted panels with a large crucifix, representing Christ of Esquipulas in the centre. To the left is a tiny room called el pocito. Inside, a hole in the floor reveals the healing dirt. There are statues, photographs and other evidence of the miracle healing properties of the dirt. I don't take any of the dirt, as I am not able to bring it home, as I'm sure that, no matter what healing properties it may have, Australian customs would take a dim view of me breaching our biosecurity.

El Santuario de Chimayo

Leaving the church behind, I walk through the gardens along the river, which lead to the car park. Although Chimayo is a Catholic Church, it appears to be a place of healing for all faiths. A Native American Cenacle honours the spirituality and healing requirements of local indigenous. As I enter the cenacle, the native American artwork on the altar depicting the Last Supper is beautiful. It is truly representative of the people and their environment. Outside, I walk along the swollen creek, which borders the

property. Last night's rainstorm has filled the valleys and the runoff is coursing down this stream. The gateway to a neighbouring farm is now part of the river. Along the bank of the river, next to a narrow walkway are seven stone arches. I wonder whether they are like Stations of the Cross, but as I reach the last one, and face the front of it, I realise that each represents a 'day' of the Creation. I cannot walk across the grass to check my theory, as last night's rain is still lying in sheets on the grassy meadow.

I have perhaps lingered here too long, and as I have a list of stops to make before reaching Taos, I need to keep moving. My next stop is at the wood carving village of Cordova, famous for the home of hand-carved saints. The style of carving is unique to Cordova, and is actually called the Cordova Style. The wooden saints are unpainted but elaborately carved and feature the distinctive grain and shape of the wood. Whether it is because it is mid-week or because of the heavy rain last night, none of the galleries are open. I drive from the road down a hill and as I reach the village at the base, I turn the car and return to the road. I've not seen a soul in this little village. I do see a post office near the top of the hill and pull in to buy a stamp. The postmistress advises that her colleague has forgotten to leave the key to the cash register, so I leave the card and the price of the stamp with her to fix up for me when she is able to open her cash register. It's nice to talk to local people and although she is from another town, she does recommend places for me to visit on my way to Taos.

As I reach the top of the mesa, I stop at a designated scenic view just out of the village of Truchas. Here, I can see the extent of last night's rainfall in the valley below. Although the water has disappeared, the sandy course of the water's flow has denuded the floor of the valley, leaving nothing in its wake.

I'm thankful that I'm on my own today. I have spent a lot of time wandering - not aimlessly, but probably frustratingly for others with whom I may be travelling. I make a mental note NOT to stop again until I reach Taos.

Oh yes, I break my own solemn pledge within minutes as I pass the most wonderful old decrepit farm outbuildings just past a beautiful church.

I've reached the fortified village of Las Trampas. The San Jose de Gracia Church stands on the crest of a hill and is an historic church on the main plaza. Built between 1760 and 1776, it is one of the least-altered examples of a Spanish Colonial Pueblo mission church. Its walls are 10 metres high, and its adobe walls are 1.2 to 1.8 metres thick. It is a National Historic Landmark. To put the age of the building into perspective, it was under construction at the same time James Cook was sailing long the East coast of Australia.

I enter the church and am plunged into its cool interior, Like most of the old adobe churches, centuries-old mud and incense have soaked into the timber and assault the nose. I cannot even take a sneaky photo, as a tour guide is talking to a small family. The children are bored and try to creep away as he speaks. In fact, the dad is bored as well, as his eyes follow the line of the vigas on the ceiling. The light-coloured timber is hand-painted with a variety of designs. According to Wikipedia, the designs were painted in the 18th and 19th centuries, so they are almost as old as the church itself.

Below my feet, however, are floorboards, which are unusual in a church. They usually have tiles or have flagstones on the floor.

As I approach the top of the mountain, it is impossible not to stop to drink in the spectacular view before reaching Taos. I've left the semi-arid, sparsely vegetated region and am now in the mountains. The Rocky Mountains along the horizon, the conifer trees and the beautiful, lush green mountains provide a break from the landscape I've experienced so far.

I drive into Taos and explore the old centre of the town, enjoying a combined lunch-dinner of mutton tacos, another suggestion from Renee, who has all of my best interests at heart.

I hear rumbling of thunder in the distance and wonder whether we are in for another storm tonight. I return to the main road, back the way I came to find a place to stay. I have to back-track a short distance tomorrow, so I need to be on this side of town.


TITLE QUOTE: Renee Armand

ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Don Fernando de Taos, 1005 Paseo Del Pueblo Sur, Taos, NM

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