SANTA FE -- Dan Bish stood outside Montecristi Custom Hat Works on McKenzie Street, wearing a T-shirt promoting Kinky Friedman for governor of Texas and chatting with two strangers about the state of the world. Bish, a 50- something graphic designer who creates Montecristi's marketing materials, also sported a mustache that could double as handlebars for a Harley chopper , and a very large Western hat.
Santa Fe attracts thousands of people more or less like Bish -- outspoken, colorful, and employed in the arts. Fewer than half of the city's 68,000 residents were born in New Mexico. Newcomers drift in for a weekend or a lifetime, to chase their dreams or commune with like-minded souls. Santa Fe exists, after all, as much in the imagination as in the realm of experience -- a touchstone for artists drawn to pink desert and big sky, a holy grail for seekers of enlightenment and healing. In Spanish, the city's name means ``holy faith."
It's hard for any place to carry such a burden of expectation, and first-time visitors should brace for the chain stores and kitsch that blur the identity of every US city. Holiday fiestas sound like a blast, but they can turn the city's plaza into a tent colony of vendors hawking cheap jewelry and burritos, with SWAT teams standing by in case the revelry takes a bad turn.
That said, much of the city's traditional charm remains intact. Blankets spread with handmade Native American jewelry, pottery, and other crafts cover the sidewalk on the south porch of the Palace of the Governors almost every day, rain or shine. (Vendors adhere to rules emphasizing authenticity and traditional materials and methods. ) World-class summer opera and chamber-music festivals draw the international culturati, spawning the sideline of celebrity-spotting. Plaza shops beckon with high-style Western boots, belts, hats, and Native American jewelry. Some excellent restaurants are worth waiting in line for. The galleries on Canyon Road display intriguing work by local artists, and the city's art and history museums rarely disappoint.
But the landscape is what makes Santa Fe the object of so much yearning. Squatting a mile and a half above sea level on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo (``Blood of Christ") Mountains , the city faces the Rio Grande Valley and the San Juan Mountains to the west . The famous New Mexico sky, with its ever-changing cloud formations, spreads out forever, humbling even the mountains. On the city's outskirts the undulating desert, once the bottom of an ancient sea, elicits the same tranquillity as an expanse of ocean.
The city's architecture is as iconic as the high-desert landscape: blocks of low, flat-roofed adobe buildings that seem sculpted out of coffee ice cream. (Some adobe buildings, such as the early 17th-century San Miguel Mission Chapel, reputedly the oldest church in the United States, are authentic . But since the early 20th century, city ordinances have mandated builders to adopt this pueblo-revival style. ) Despite burgeoning growth, the city has retained an intimate, inviting scale. Add to this a compact urban center and narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, and the result is a highly walkable city.
A visitor can spend an entire weekend within a mile of the central plaza. But, given that most downtown merchandise is dear, alternative strategies can provide a less costly and more varied experience. To start with, it can pay to forgo a charming (and pricey) downtown hotel for one of the many reasonable motels on Cerrillos Road and splurge on good food or a Western belt in the city. Canyon Road and Museum Hill can occupy a full day of browsing on foot, followed by a fine dinner downtown. Striking out the following day on a drive north to Espanola or Taos, northwest to Los Alamos, east to Las Vegas (N.M.), or south to Cerrillos and Madrid will yield a change of scenery, a less expensive meal, and a sense of how other New Mexicans live.
One rewarding day trip begins with about an hour's drive north to Taos. The road (Route 84) passes the Santa Fe Opera theater and goes through the village of Tesuque (te-SOO-key), a cottonwood oasis. At Santa Cruz, the scenic low road to Taos (Route 68 north) branches off to hug the Rio Grande. In Taos, an arts destination in its own right, shops and galleries invite a stroll before continuing northwest to a bridge crossing the Rio Grande Gorge -- 650 feet above the river . There's room to park and walk out to peer over the railing . (Warning: The bridge shimmies a bit when vehicles cross . )
Instead of going as far as Taos, head west from Route 84 , south of Espanola, to the village of Chimayó . Here the Santuario Chimayo , a rustic adobe chapel believed to be built on healing soil, draws thousands of pilgrims each year. Inside the building, which dates from 1816 , visitors file into a chapel with an astonishing hand-carved altar and through a narrow passage to a tiny, low-ceilinged room. Here pilgrims stoop to pocket a pinch of healing dirt from a hollow in the floor.
From Chimayó, head back to Tesuque for a sandwich or a salad at the Tesuque Village Market . Then drive about a mile southwest to the Shidoni Foundry and Galleries , with its eight acres of sculpture gardens and a light-filled interior gallery.
Drives west, east, and south lead to other sights and experiences. The desert changes colors on the drive to Abiquiu . Stands of quaking aspen blanket the slopes in the Santa Fe National Forest . Centuries-old Indian ruins bake in the sun at Pecos and Bandelier . The groaning board holds far more than can be sampled in one weekend. Maybe that's why, after tasting the city's offerings a la carte, so many people from other places finally move here to partake of the entire feast.
Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at email@example.com.