On by far my most memorable winter stroll around the then-deserted College of Santa Fe, on visits to the Santa Fe Art Institute, I peered around a corner into a courtyard, looking for some mundane scene to exoticize with my camera when I heard what sounded like a theremin being played. Perhaps some artist was noodling around with one? Then a low-pitched thrum and bright light settled overhead and seemed to move closer.
When the hatch opened, I heard music that sounded a lot like the cantina music from the first “Star Wars” movie. Despite associations with the needless bloodshed of that scene, where Han Solo kills a business associate with his blaster, I was excited. Stories of alien visitation are common in New Mexico, especially around Roswell, but I didn’t take them very seriously, and I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be having any such experiences first-hand. I imagined, mostly because of the music, that there was a grand party going on inside, and that I’d soon be dancing, knocking back shots of oddly-colored liqueurs, or smoking alien herbs through exotic pipes with new friends.
Unfortunately, the visitors had traveled all these light years merely for the purpose of collecting stool samples.
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New Mexico is a land of adobe, sun-bleached extremes, willful eccentricity, art, tall tales, Indians and reactionary Libertarian ideology. Great beauty, ostentatious Anglo and Latino wealth and lush high-altitude forests commingle with ill-managed radiation testing and disposal sites, extreme poverty and bone-dry deserts that were once ocean floor. Above it all, the bluest of skies erupt daily into fiery sunset symphonies.
Santa Fe, where I’ve lived on three occasions, never for more than nine months at a time, brands itself “The City Different.” It’s definitely different from most of the rest of the state.
For one thing, it has some money, thanks mostly to tourism and an aggressively marketed art scene. It also has rich people, many from California and Texas, who buy up expensive homes in the area, then busy themselves ignoring most civic or planning matters that don’t involve bolstering the Santa Fe art brand or real estate market. They come to Santa Fe to Get Away From It All, and they’d generally prefer the local media not spend too much time focusing on persistent city problems like drug addiction, domestic violence, drunk driving, pedestrian deaths and dismemberments, and an economy that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to feudalism. They’d also appreciate it if those stories about a few cases of plague popping up in New Mexico each year (true) would quit getting out and scaring potential fish away from the state’s tourist bait.
Another way Santa Fe differs from much of the state: It’s hard to go a day in the city without one or more doe-eyed people asking you what your sign is within the first few minutes of a conversation. If you visit, have fun with this! Casually give a fake birth date or sign, and watch astrological pseudoscientists applaud themselves for already having guessed just that sign.
During my third and last stint in Santa Fe, I spent a lot of winter visiting the Santa Fe Art Institute, on the campus of the then-deserted college of Santa Fe. The school had gone out of business when I was there (it’s since re-opened as the Santa Fe University of Art and Design), and I enjoyed a lot of peaceful time wandering the campus and appreciating sculptures and architecture, especially when snow would beautify the campus and remain undisturbed for days at a time.