Category Archives: Historical Locations

The Surf Ballroom; A little bit of History in Iowa

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When one thinks of Iowa, a specific image comes to mind: One of soft rolling hills, and farms as far as the eye can see in all directions, where the sky can sometimes take on a characteristically midwestern form of murky thin cloudiness, giving a feeling that is neither cloudy nor sunny. Traveling across the state, this scene shifts quite little as the miles go by. The scenery is as steady and reliable as the culture.

Some people have a deep appreciation for the role that this corridor plays in agriculture and transportation, as indicated by this wall art at the Worlds Largest Truck Stop.

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Others find it monotonous and unbearable. People have even written parodies about how uninteresting and unpleasant a drive across Iowa is. However, as is the case with most places, there is more to it than what one will see from an interstate highway, whose primary purpose is to provide the most efficient route between cities for trucks.

Tucked away among the endless miles of corn fields are a surprising number of lakes that cannot be seen from the interstate.

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As well as the sites of a surprising amount of our history.

Most music fans are familiar with “The Day the Music Died“, February 3, 1959, when three of Rock and Roll’s biggest stars were all killed in a tragic plane crash. It was an event that nearly torpedoed the still young music genre’s rise to the top. It had the potential to significantly change the path music took for the remainder of the 20th Century, which could have had a major effect on the social and political movements that transformed our society from the middle of the century to where it is today.

What few people know, though, is that all of this occurred in Northern Iowa, in a town called Clear Lake. Clear Lake is a town not unlike many other towns in Iowa, and the structure and establishments feel generally like anywhere in the Midwest.

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Like many place in Iowa, it has a surprisingly beautiful lake, depicted at its best by this postcard.

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It is also home to the Surf Ballroom, the last place anyone would ever hear the three stars of early rock and roll on the night of February 2, 1959.

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Why they chose to play at this spot, on this date, feels both natural and confusing at the same time.

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Perhaps because it is well preserved in its 1950s form, the venue itself feels like the exact place one would expect to hear Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valley, and the Big Bopper. It was also likely the right size, given the types of crowds that a music genre that was hot, but not quite mainstream would attract at that time in history.

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With traveling being a little more difficult than today, as the interstate highway system was just being built and flying was more likely to be prohibitively expensive, it seems logical for tours to come to smaller towns. Today, it would be more likely for musical acts to have tours that cover larger distances, such as a North American tour. Fans in Clear Lake would be expected to come to Des Moines or Minneapolis to see a show. Then, it was harder on both the band and the fans. However, I still wonder, why Iowa, and why in winter? Inclement weather is one of the reasons for the plane crash.

Another is how the tour, labelled the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour, was planned, as indicated by this display.

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They toured by bus. So, having a tour date in Kenosha right after Milwaukee makes logistical sense. After that, the schedule had them meandering all over the place. These dates were all back-to-back. The show at the Surf Ballroom came at a particularly grueling time, having played in Green Bay, WI the night before, and having a show scheduled in Morehead, MN the next day. Frustrated, Buddy Holly chartered a plane to the next show- the plane that would kill the three performers. One could say that February 3rd was the “Day the Music Died”, but it was a combination of poor planning and a harsh Midwestern winter that killed it.

However, as anyone reading this in the 21st Century knows quite well, the music didn’t really die that day. A few years later, rock music would be infused with fresh life, in the form of new bands that would later be counted amongst the best of all time. The Surf Ballroom also refused to let the music die. They continued to host musical performances of all kinds, and still do to this day. They have hosted some of the all time greats.

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It probably helped that the venue itself did a good job of finding the right balance, between preserving this key moment in history…

 

While also staying in the here and now.

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Road trips are certainly more appealing when they involve more than just traveling from one destination to another, but rather, leave time to explore some of the places in between. Every place that exists, big or small, new or old, has a story to tell. The story of one small town, one of many, tucked away behind the interstate by one of Iowa’s gentle rolling hills, certainly ignites the desire to explore more, eagerly anticipating what is around the next corner, over the next hill, just beyond the horizon.

Colorado Continues to Surprise Me

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Life, at times, can be trying, with a lot of ups and downs, surprises, and endeavors that do not go as planned. Of course, not all surprises are bad. Sometimes luck is on our side, and many of us unfortunately fail to truly appreciate when it is. However, we all certainly have times when we are just on the wrong side of circumstance, and feel like nothing is going right.

When doing what feels like all the right things repeatedly fails to produce any results. When it feels like all sorts of people trying to take advantage of us. When the wrong, most inept and mean spirited people seem to be getting ahead, while those that don’t deserve it are suffering. And, perhaps the most frustrating of all, when no logical explanation can be found as to why nothing is going the way it should be!

At these times, it is helpful to get a little distance between oneself and whatever situation is causing stress.  It provides a bit of much needed emotional rest, and taking a step back, and looking at a situation from afar, or from a different perspective, can often produce clarity.

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In one of those situations myself, I decided to head to Mount Falcon Park.

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Mount Falcon Park is only about a 40 minute drive from downtown Denver, near a smaller town called Morrison. Traveling to fun and sometimes far away destinations is very important to me. However, it is also important to remember that taking a little bit of time to step away from a frustrating situation to gain a new perspective doesn’t require traveling great distances, and does not have to wait until a major trip is feasible. For most people, there is a place, a retreat of sorts, somewhere relatively close. A place that is possible to just pick up and go to on a whim, as opposed to having to plan ahead, save money and travel significant distances.

Of course, one thing that always needs to be accounted for is the weather. April can be a very volatile time in a lot of places. Here in Colorado, it is quite common to have snowfall one day, and warm pleasant weather the next. There is no way to around having to think about the weather, and if a retreat involves an outdoor experience, it can be delayed by the weather.

The hike itself is fairly straightforward. It felt good to be exercising the body and walking through the dense pine trees that one encounters here in Colorado when they reach elevations above about 6500 feet.

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The main trail a the park is called the Castle Trail. Originating at the trailhead, near 6200 feet in elevation, it winds most of the 3 mile trip, up to the peak of Mount Falcon, at 7851′. Trying to get my mind off of disappointments related to day-to-day life, I thought nothing of the fact that this trail was called the Castle Trail. After all, trail names don’t always translate into real life experiences. I recall backpacking two summers ago along a trail called Rincon La Vaca. I did not see a single cow (vaca = cow)!

First, I was surprised to see a sheltered picnic area.

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This isn’t something typically encountered close to the top of a front range day-hike.

Then, I encountered Walker’s Home, or, well, the ruins of it.

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The ruins of this castle made me feel as if I were in Rome, or some other ancient city where the ruins of historically significant structures are being preserved for cultural reasons.

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Sings even informed visitors to keep out the fenced off remains of the building for preservation, just as they do at other historical sites.

The strange this is, unlike many other historical sites, this building is only 109 years old. In most cities, significantly older buildings can be found, with no historical fanfare, as they have just been in continued residential or commercial use for several centuries. The primary reason this building lay in ruins is because it was struck by lightning in 1918, leading Mr. Walker to abandon his plan of using this structure as a summer retreat for the President of the United States.

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I did not expect an experience akin to visiting an archeological site. I did not expect to read about someone who appeared to be a multi-talented entrepreneur in the late 19th and early 20th century. I certainly did not expect to be pondering where presidents Woodrow Wilson, Waren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge would be expecting to spend their summers.

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Just like the ups and downs in the day-to-day weather, particularly in the springtime, and  the shadows produced by the mountains in the late afternoon, Colorado continues to surprise me. Travel to foreign lands and exotic far away places remains a very important part of my life. However, experiences like this provide us all a reminder to appreciate what is close to home as well.

 

 

The Motor City- Without a Vehicle

“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here”- David Byrne.

I found myself in Detroit, Michigan on an unexpectedly pleasant October week asking myself just that question.

On one level, of course I know how I got here: Delta Airlines. I am not that reckless :).

On a whole other level, and the level that David Byrne was clearly referencing in Once in a Lifetime, I was quite confused.

How did the sequence of events in my life come together that lead me here?

To this forum…

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In this city…

With this group of people….


Is there a reason for it? Was it “meant to be” for any reason? Or is it a result of decisions I made aggregated over the course of time? Had I made these decisions differently, prioritized things in my life in a different order, or just paid more attention to a few specific things, would it have lead to a result that is significantly different?

This song was on my mind because last time I was in Detroit, way before I even had the idea to start writing about my travels, I recorded a dance to this music video at the Henry Ford Museum.

This was in 2008, a time when Detroit was at some kind of a low point. The story of Detroit is familiar to many, as it has been written about extensively.

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As the headquarters to America’s three biggest car manufacturers, the city was prominent and prosperous in the middle of the 20th Century. However, it fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th Century due to a combination of customers increasingly buying foreign cars and the decline in manufacturing in the U.S.

Nearly every time anyone writes about Detroit, they write about the city’s economic fortunes, often making points about social issues, economic policies, etc. Even when I came to Detroit with no desire to address the city’s economic misfortune and current attempts at recovery, it is hard to escape. Evidence of it is everywhere.

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Visitors from other parts of the country kept telling me how eerie it felt; the lack of crowds, empty streets and mostly empty bars. Even acknowledging that these were all weeknights, it still felt different than what most people experience in urban areas throughout the country.

The history, as well as current state, of any place is always going to be a part of any travel experience. And, for Detroit, this includes the history people focus on (decline from 1960-2008), but also some of its history prior to this.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Detroit is “The Motor City”, and best known for its role in the automobile industry, much of its history, and many of the interesting attractions, can actually be reached without a motorized vehicle.

Within downtown, one can walk to many of the city’s historical, and current attractions.

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For those willing to walk a mile, the only places that really require vehicular transportation are the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum. The Cobo Center, all the attractions along the Riverfront, Detroit’s historic Opera House, the Fox Theater, the venues for all of Detroit’s sports teams, as well as multiple casinos can all be reached on foot within roughly a mile and a half of each other.

 

Interestingly enough, there is a lot one can do in the “Motor City” without even using a motor!

Much of this was actually built in Detroit after the decline of the auto industry. One of the reasons I visited Detroit in 2008 was to see their newly built baseball stadium, right downtown.

My 2017 visit to Detroit was to attend a conference related to a client I am currently consulting with. The reason is complicated as organizations rarely send consultants to conferences to represent their brand. Consultants are temporary and technically not a member of the organization.

It makes my identity, like Detroit’s identity as a city, feel way more fluid and complex than it was in the past. In the mid 20th Century, a place could have a simplistic identity; The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Iron City, etc. Today’s growing cities, like Denver, have identities that revolve around multiple areas of focus.

Many people are rooting for Detroit to make a comeback. Places like Greektown and Corktown, adjacent and walkable from downtown, are emblematic of a new, different, and more multi-faceted Detroit emerging from the ashes of the decay that plagued the prior half a century. One day, Detroit will find itself anew, unrecognizable to the Detroit of Motown, and people will ask “how did it get here”. They may even ask “My God, what have I done” (from the same song).

The point of David Byrne’s song is that people need to stop and periodically think about their lives, the directions they are headed, their priorities, etc. Otherwise, they will just kind of like drift, with nobody really understanding whey they are where they are, doing what they are doing, with the people they are with.

There are unique things about Detroit. Obviously the large amounts of empty space, some of which is being converted to farmland.

Also, their proximity to the Canadian border, rust belt infrastructure, and continued contributions to the music industry.

 

Attending this conference was a reminder to me. No matter where I go, no matter what I am doing, I cannot help but be me. While we all need to periodically re-think things, come up with new ideas, and even take on a somewhat different identity, there will always be some things fundamental about ourselves that do not change. Detroit’s current transitions reminds me of this.

A Visit to Albuquerque

People like to break things up into neat little groups.  It is a technique people use in order to try to simplify a world that, in reality, is quite complicated.  In the United States, we take our cities, and break them out into various groupings.  We place cities in groups based on their region, their size, and sometimes even by culture.  I am as guilty as anyone of doing this.  But, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a place that reminds us that we need to respect two basic tenants of humanity, which apply both to the Cities we visit, as an entity, as well as to each and every one of us individually.

Each City, just like every one of us, has a distinct and unique individual identity.  In this identity, we see reflections of factors such as its geographic location, its history, and some of its specific influences, such as specific personalities and prominent industries.  We also see some specific quirks that cannot be easily explained just by looking at what we observe elsewhere.  It is the same way with each and every one of us.  When we are being true to ourselves, our behavior patterns manifest in a similar unique manner, a manner that can only be described as attributed to our unique person.  I feel it every time any one of my friends responds to anything I do or say by simply saying “That’s so Steve”.

Also embedded in the character of any City I have ever visited are reflections of natural law, or the universal truths that bind us all together.

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Albuquerque reminded me of both of these two basic facts.  Albuquerque has a unique heritage.  It has similar beginnings as Santa Fe, and even has an Old Town Square that reflects these beginnings.

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However, much of the city was built in a much more sun-belt style car-centric manner.  It is one of the most storied towns along historic U.S. route 66.  Route 66 embodies multiple eras of U.S. history, including the mass migration to California during the Great Depression, and later the first decade after the second World War, when the American road trip first became accessible to a large swath of the American people; the middle class.

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Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the end of the 1970s.  While the route covers a large distance, traversing many different parts of the country, it is the Southwest, New Mexico and Arizona, that is often most commonly pictured when people imagine that classic road trip on route 66.  While the exact location of the route 66 town in Disney’s Cars is not disclosed, the imagery in the movie clearly points to a southwestern location.

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Albuquerque celebrates its pivotal position along route 66 by both preserving some of the places that were legendary stops for travelers along this highway.

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As well as creating restorations that recreate the experience of being at a travel stop along the old highway, much the same way old west towns recreate the American West during the 1800s.

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Route 66 is even the subject of a major controversy in town.  A proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, called Albuquerque Rapid Transit, would more or less follow the path of historic route 66 through town.  Residents of a hip area of town adjacent to the University of New Mexico called Nob Hill appear united in opposition to the project.  Some of the signs I saw opposing the Albuquerque Rapid Transit referenced protecting the heritage of route 66.  However, I wonder if this opposition is motivated by route 66 preservation, or the desire to avoid any changes to the neighborhood.

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Regardless of whether the people are motivated by the desire to preserve route 66 in its historic format, or preserve their neighborhood the way it currently is, on display here is one aspect of humanity that appears consistent across all cultures.  When people are enjoying their current situation, they generally do not desire change, and, in many cases, will fiercely oppose it.  This has been the case for me, personally, at various stages in my own life, and is also evident in a lot of the behaviors I observe in others when they react to changes in the workplace or their favorite social media outlet.

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It also appears to be basic human nature to seek out a broader view of the world from time to time.  It is the reason people go to the top of the world’s tallest building, hike Mount Rainier, or sit and gaze down at Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign.  Albuquerque’s answer to this is the Sandia Peak Tramway.

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This tramway takes passengers on a 15-minute ride from a base elevation of 6559 feet (already significantly higher than the center of town), to a peak of 10,378 feet. Here, visitors to the area can see unique rock formations.

 

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Learn about the unique biomes that can be found in the mountainous terrain (Breckenridge has a similar exhibit, but uses an actual garden).

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And, can get a view overlooking this city that actually covers a much broader area than just the Albuquerque city limits.  In fact, Sandia Peak is so high that it is quite difficult to make out individual buildings or even neighborhoods in town!

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The culture is unique as well, seeming to combine so many aspects of the West and Southwest.

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Along the Rio Grande River, which cuts through the center of town, a bike trail, as well as numerous parks provide the urban outdoor space that Westerners seem to value so much.  Whereas, in many other cities I have visited and lived in, living in close proximity to a park is desirable, but kind of a bonus, it feels as if people here in the West view being near a park as a prerequisite, a necessity of life itself!

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On this particular Sunday afternoon, a parade of classic cars rolled through Old Town Square, showing off their classic appeal, and the hard work each and every car owner put into maintaining their vehicle’s shine.

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That evening, on the West side of downtown, another group of people are gathered, also showing off their vehicles, and, almost downright partying.

When I think of all the cars revving their engines up at night, all I can say is, “That’s so Albuquerque”.  One could speculate what mix of cultural influences, old Spanish, sunbelt, Western, Hispanic, etc. lead to Albuquerque being the way it is today.  But it is more than that.  The same can be said about any other place one would visit.  That is why we travel, not just when we need to go somewhere for business, or when we wish to visit people that live in another place, but also when we desire an experience we simply cannot have in our respective hometowns.

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

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Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

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The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

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The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

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The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

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One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

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Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

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The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

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Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

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It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

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The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

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Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.

 

 

An Old World Town in a New World Region

In the U.S.A., we are quite accustomed to the seeing certain kinds of towns in certain parts of the country.  Since cities were built earlier on the East Coast, we expect to see towns laid out like Boston, Annapolis, or Charleston.  These cities tend to be a bit more challenging to navigate, as is particularly the case with Boston.

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By contrast, in the Western part of the country, we expect to see towns built more around automobile (or the automobile’s predecessor in the late 19th Century, the horse drawn carriage).  Cities like Phoenix, designed with driving in mind, have mostly straight-line roads, with suburban areas having windy subdivisions.

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This is what we have come to expect from towns in this part of the country.  So, when I first looked at Santa Fe’s road network, I was quite surprised to see a city full of windy roads that resembled something I would expect to see along the East Coast, or in Europe.

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Oddly enough, New Mexico is one of the oldest regions in the U.S., at least when it comes to architecture.  The historical lineage is just different.  New Mexico is home to over a hundred Native American Pueblos that date back to long before anyone associated with the United States of America would arrive.  Many of them are still inhabited, with some having been inhabited for over 1000 years!  This is quite a long time for this part of the world.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol city was founded originally as a Spanish colony in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower would come ashore in Massachusetts, and still retains much of its original Spanish style.  In some ways, driving into New Mexico feels like entering a whole different region, fairly instantaneously.  I first noticed this storm chasing in college. It was my first time in New Mexico, or Arizona.  I was previously unaware of the prevalence of adobe style buildings in these two states, and was somewhat surprised to see how abruptly the styles of the building around me changed once I crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico.

Santa Fe appears to have retained much of its cultural heritage.  Aware that New Mexico has a substantial Spanish history, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out a Spanish restaurant downtown.

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Taberna came highly recommended by the staff at the hotel, and certainly did not disappoint.  The food was excellent, and, on this particular evening, a performer named Jesus Bas performed for the customers.  I sincerely, if only for a moment while sipping a glass of wine, tasting enchiladas, and hearing Spanish music, felt like I was in Spain.  Well, at the very least, it made me want to go to Spain.

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I decided to somewhat follow in the footsteps of one of the people who inspired me to start writing about my travels, Anthony Bourdaine.  For those not familiar, he is a chef who eventually became the host of a series of food related travel shows.  I watched a lot of his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations, where he did not just simply describe the food he was eating, he would also reflect upon the experience, what certain places made him feel like, and what historical context they can be placed in and such.  His current show, which is actually a bit less food focused and more focused on the travel is called Parts Unknown.  So, I was actually quite excited to see a souvenir shop actually called Parts Unknown.  Additionally, the shop is located only a few doors down from one of the places Anthony Bourdaine visited on the Season 2 episode where he travels around New Mexico; the Five and Dime, a shop where he gets a Frito Chili Pie, a commonly served dish in New Mexico.

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I did not end up getting the Frito Chili Pie, as there were a limited number of meals I could have here in Santa Fe.  I mostly just looked around at the souvenirs available in this shop, which featured Santa Fe’s connection to one of my favorite aspects of American History, route 66 (although the route bypassed Santa Fe starting in 1937).

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I ended up going to a place called Horesman’s Haven, a small restaurant on the edge of Santa Fe famous for authentic New Mexican style food where Anthony Bourdaine was caught off guard by the level of spice in their green chili.

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My chili was not quite as spicy, but still packed quite a punch.  I am glad it did!  Many people try to avoid spicy food while on vacation, to avoid experiencing an upset stomach while far from home.  In this case, the level of spice was an important part of the experience.  Life is meant to be experienced.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to avoid bad outcomes.  In my view this is a sure fire way to miss out on countless rewarding experiences.  Bad outcomes are going to happen.  We just need to manage them in our own way.  Missing out on a whole bunch of experiences, and I am talking about things much more significant than one high quality meal, bears a much greater cost than the occasional unfavorable outcome.

I am guessing this is the attitude taken by the unexpectedly high number of people who make a living as an artist in this town.  In the downtown part of Santa Fe, it seemed like half of all buildings house art galleries.  Santa Fe is known for art galleries, but there seemed to be way more than is necessary to support a town of roughly 70,000 people, even if all of those people are wealthy and have dozens and dozens of pieces of artwork hanging from all of their walls.

Like New Mexico as a whole, Santa Fe appears to have an interesting set of values that does not fit neatly into one of the categories we have become familiar with.  It is western, but also European.  It is cowboy, but also quite diverse.

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It is a state capital, but has a state capital building that looks nothing like any of the other ones I have seen across the country.

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It is the kind of place that erects historical markers dedicated to fiscal responsibility, an important, even if not flashy, achievement, and one that reflects the western values of personal responsibility.

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It is also a place that erects building dedicated to the memory horrible death marches in Europe.

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It is both “old world”, and “new world”.  It does what we all need to do, both in our own cities, and more importantly, individually.  It combines old ideas with new ideas in a way that uniquely represents its individual identity.

Places of Questionable Significance

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In 1983, an incredibly drunk Ozzy Osborne made the mistake of deciding to relieve himself on the Alamo, a building of historical significance.  He was arrested (Isn’t public urination usually just a ticket?), and scorned by many, primarily due to the fact that the Alamo is an important symbol of pride amongst Texans.  However, to Ozzy, a British rock star, the building probably did not mean too terribly much.  While a sober Ozzy (if that existed in 1983) would probably have realized the building is significant due to the presence of tourists, he probably would not have felt the same affinity or pride when standing in front of the Alamo.

With the exception of a few wide eyed hippies that believe that every place is significant, and a few hard core cynics, that fail to see the significance in any place (or anything), the significance of most places is dependent on the person and the culture.  There is no better of an example of a place like this than Four Corners, U.S.A.

Four Corners is unique due to the fact that it is the only place in the United States where four states all border one another.  If one wanted to stand in five different states at one time, it would not be possible.  If one wanted to stand in four different states at once, there is only one place where it can be done; Four Corners Monument.

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The primary reason people visit this particular monument is to take silly pictures like this one.  Assuming the location of the four-state border is correctly marked (some question that is in the right place), in this picture I am in four states at once.

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However, in the absence of state borders, this particular spot would really actually be quite insignificant.  There is no natural demarcation point, or significant change in scenery.  Even on the Colorado side, the wide open landscape, periodic mesas, and sagebrush screams Arizona much more than Colorado.  This Arizona-like feel persists for over thirty miles into Colorado until the San Juan Mountains start to show up on the horizon somewhere east of Cortez.

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The significance of this place is further muddled by the fact that this point is not the border of four different jurisdictions.  The monument is actually on an Indian Reservation.  Thus, you do not even get the standard differences in policies and sales tax that usually accompany state borders.  An equal number of souvenir stands exists on all four sides of the monument.  I am not sure whether or not marijuana is legal on this particular reservation, but the policy is the same on all sides.  I did not observe all of the pot heads clustered in the Colorado quadrant of this monument.

In the absence of state borders (and people obsessed with exact points of latitude and longitude), the most significant site in this region is a rock formation a dozen or so miles away called Shiprock, which has cultural and religious significance to the Navajo people who have inhabited the region since well before the Spanish arrived.

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From a completely neutral standpoint, the rock formation definitely seems to stand out way more than any other feature in the area, which is mainly small mesas and creeks.  But that does not mean the wide open space where the monument should lack significance to all people.

For most likely a variety of neurological, sociological, and historical reasons, Western Culture associates wide open spaces like this one with freedom.  It’s the wild.  It’s the untamed.  It’s the place where you can yell as loud as you want, shoot any kind of weapon you want, and start a fight without anyone to break it up.  There is nobody to tell you where you can (and can’t) hike, climb, tie a rope to an arch or mesa to swing from it, or even try to catapult small rodents.  It’s the last refuge of people seeking to escape every single one of society’s restrictions and limitations.

But the one set of regulations that one can really never escape is the ones that exist only inside their own heads.  I often refer to these as the “invisible chain”.  And by this, I am referring to all of the anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness that often stop us from doing what we feel we should be doing.  It stops us from telling people what we really think.  It stops us from talking to that interesting and attractive stranger on the train.  It stops us from dancing when fun music comes on.  In some ways, it stops us from living.  And, millions of Americans are in the process of destroying their livers trying to reclaim it.  In these pictures of the free, wild, and untamed west, there are typically very few people, or buildings to indicate the presence of people.  There is nobody to judge you, and nobody to make you feel self-conscious about what you chose to wear, say, and do.  The fact that this is where we go to seek freedom indicates where we, as a people, believe most of our restrictions come from.

Therefore, if one could overcome this “invisible chain”, the restrictions placed upon us would be limited only to those officially legislated by some kind of governing body and effectively enforced by law enforcement personnel.  The few lucky individuals that manage this are able to find this greater level of freedom in places like London, Hong Kong, or New York City; places that provide the interaction with other human being that we all crave.

We often see the desire for community and human interaction as pulling us in one direction, while the desire for freedom and individuality pulling us in the opposite direction.  As an extrovert, I often struggle with the fear that asserting my individuality and refusing to conform, will cost me in the social realm.  Reflecting upon all of this in the wide open spaces of the desert southwest, I re-realized that being an individual and reducing that fear actually helps in the social realm.  Negative responses from those that fear non-conformity are more than outweighed by positive responses by those that appreciate authenticity and variety in nearly all circumstances.  The key is to understand that we all have freedom of choice, and not to allow any of the hate to translate into hatred towards others.  This applies even the people that have ridiculed me and caused me hurt.  They have the freedom say what they want.  The only way to truly overcome that ridicule is not to ridicule them back, or “defeat” them in an argument.  It is to not be affected by that ridicule and continue to be the way you are despite anything they say.

This is one of several lessons, I re-learned on this trip.  These re-realizations make this place significant to me, even if the official reason for the significance of any of these places is questionable.  Everyone has a different experience here, and it is completely understandable for someone to come to Four Corners, find out it is on a reservation, buy nothing at the souvenir stands, and leave seeing the place as pointless.  For me, however, this is where I got my mind off some of life’s frustrations, and got back on the path to becoming a better person.