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New Mexico isn't called "Land of Enchantment" for nothing. Numerous museums, time-worn haciendas, early Spanish Colonial churches, and the plazas of Albuquerque, Taos, and Santa Fe each has its charm. But the rugged landscape is even more captivating, with expansive panoramas and an ever-changing luminescence.
It is by traversing the ancient tracks and trails that one's imagination can connect with New Mexico's storied history. We began with a walk along part of a 17-mile table of land across the Rio Grande from Albuquerque known as West Mesa, where a close look reveals numerous petroglyphs depicting animals, people, crosses and more mysterious geometric impressions on thousands of stones.
The first Spanish explorers arrived in 1540, led by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado. They were seeking the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, rumored to be built of gold. These conquistadors' wanderings covered much of the Southwest, but it was not all in vain, as they charted much of the area for future explorers and colonizers. The path would evolve into part of the El Camino Real, the royal road, an important trade artery between Mexico and Santa Fe.
The first Spanish settlements in the Albuquerque area were isolated dwellings along the Rio Grande. Casa San Ysidro, administered by the Albuquerque Museum, is a partially reconstructed 18th-19th century adobe hacienda in Corrales. Its courtyards, chapel, barn, and working buildings provide a rare window into early Spanish Colonial life.
Another old Spanish route, better known as the Santa Fe Trail, was the longest, most circuitous and arduous pack mule trail in the West. A portion, known today as the High Road, connects Taos with Santa Fe. We began our exploration at Rancho de Taos, where the church of San Francisco de Assisi's beautifully sculptured earthen adobe walls and gently sloping buttresses have attracted not only worshipers, but noted artists and photographers, such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams.
The High Road continues through the foothills and mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range and by a number of small villages little changed since their settlement. It passes through the tall pines of Carson National Forest and ascends into Picuris Pueblo. There is a noteworthy church nearby at Las Trampas, San José de Gracia, circa 1760. It is considered one of the finest surviving 18th-century churches in New Mexico, and continues to serve as a spiritual haven.
Leaving Las Truchas, we were treated to a 180-degree panorama of mountains. Far to the west we could make out the distinctive contours of a small mountain known as the Pedernal, a subject for many of O'Keeffe's canvases. She loved it so much she requested that her ashes be scattered from the summit after her death.
Farther along we arrived at the Santuario de Chimayó, a Spanish Colonial church built in 1816. It is visited by more than 300,000 people a year. Soil scooped out of a small hole in a room beside the chapel is thought to have healing properties.
An excellent place to dine is at the Rancho de Chimayó, located a short distance from the church. It overlooks the foothills of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The High Road terminates in Espanola. But one should continue west a couple of dozen miles on US 84 to Abiquiu, the village made famous by O'Keeffe. Although her home and studio are open to the public under certain conditions with advance reservations, a smaller summer home at Ghost Ranch, located another dozen miles west of Abiquiu, is accessible to the public. It is now a conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church. Many of her scenic paintings were created here and in the Rio Chama valley countryside nearby.
O'Keeffe's family moved to Williamsburg in 1902 and she attended Chatham Episcopal Institute, now Chatham Hall. She later attended the University of Virginia in summer session to study art and was asked back as an assistant for two more summers. The College of William and Mary conferred a doctorate of fine arts degree on her in 1938 and held an exhibition of her paintings on campus. In 2001, the Muscarelle Museum presented a reconstruction exhibition of these 1938 paintings.
Approaching Taos from the west late in the day, we passed over the 1,000-foot span of the Rio Grande Gorge bridge traversing the river 650 feet below. Taos has a colorful history. Founded in 1617, it is situated in the far northern reaches of the state and has known many colorful figures, including legendary frontiersman and Indian scout Kit Carson. Mabel Dodge Luhan was a wealthy heiress who, after arriving in town in 1917, chucked her third husband to marry a Taos Indian. She settled down and became a forceful patron of the arts just a few years after the Taos Society of Artists was established.
Luhan hosted an array of artists and writers in her home, known as Los Gallos because of the Mexican ceramic roosters on the roof and in her guest cottage, Hacienda del Sol, now a delightful inn where we enjoyed warm hospitality for several nights.
Santa Fe is the country's highest state capital at 7,000 feet. Although New Mexico only gained statehood in 1912, Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the country. It knew the clattering hoofbeats of Spanish conquistadors before the English colonists began to fan out from Jamestown.
Santa Fe boasts a culture of its own. It is a major world art market, with more than 150 galleries in the city, along with numerous museums and music, dance and performing arts companies. Worthy of special note is the Nedra Matteucci Galleries, housing spacious exhibition rooms displaying works of many famous artists.
Santa Fe also offers the visitor a range of accommodations and dining choices. For our lodging we settled on the Inn of the Anasazi, located a short walk from the plaza.
Returning to Albuquerque and driving along Central Avenue, a portion of the legendary Route 66, we got our kicks recalling how it gained fame in cinema and song. Our final night was spent at the historic La Posada, the first hotel built by Conrad Hilton. It was just a few blocks from the Mauger Estate Bed & Breakfast Inn where we had spent our first two nights. As with all aspects of our New Mexico journey of exploration, these were establishments of pleasant rest and relaxation.
Chiles Larson is a regular contributor to the Daily Press Travel section. He lives in Williamsburg.