The Road to Santa Fe

I have seen my dad about once a year since he moved out of Massachusetts approximately five years ago. One day this spring, he called me up and asked if I wanted to fly down to Texas and go on a road trip with him to Santa Fe. I said yes, of course. The following story is a collection of my thoughts about Texas and New Mexico.

I’m at the register at Whole Foods with my father. He’s paying $100 for food and wine for our week long stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The young woman behind the counter looks like so many people here do: an earthy shade of brown from either heritage or heliocentric lifestyle, warm eyes, relaxed smile. She’s talking about the celebrities who come through town on a semi regular basis. “Adam Sandler…” I interrupt with a hand wave, “Oh, Adam Sandlers are a dime a dozen. You can’t leave the house without running into Adam Sandler back in Massachusetts.” She goes on as if I hadn’t said anything, “The pretty one from Friends—Jennifer Aniston—Terry Crew (sic), oh and that woman who was Wednesday on the Addams Family.”

“Oh, Christina Ricci comes here?” My dad, suddenly interested. Big Christina Ricci fan, apparently. This cashier is in no rush to move us along; the line is getting longer. “Oh yeah, she owns a place down here.”

Outside the store, it’s a cool enough day for summer in Santa Fe. Maybe 80 degrees. Breezy. Despite the favorable weather, my dad begins to sweat immediately upon leaving the air conditioned store and doesn’t seem comfortable again until we have been in the car for a few minutes. His ancient GPS causes some trouble, which adds to his anxiety. But soon we get back on the road. It’s late afternoon. We were at a taco cooking class all morning. I was the only person in their mid-twenties in the class. Some were possibly teenagers, possibly college aged, but most people were well into their sixties. Weirdly, the former group were about a decade younger than me, while the latter group were a decade older than my dad. This left me wondering whether people who go to cooking classes just have kids later in life, or whether the young people were the grandchildren of the old ones. The al pastor tacos, described as “Santa Fe spicy” were good, but about as mild as anything at Chipotle. “This ain’t the Connecticut school of Cooking” laughs the instructor as we blend up some esoteric collection of local peppers. He’s right, I think—only for the fact that you can get some gut-wrenchingly spicy tacos in Hartford.

The preceding Sunday, we drove twelve hours through Texas to our Airbnb in the canyons in Tesuque, outside Santa Fe. My dad’s Dallas apartment is two blocks from Dealey Plaza. When we left town, we drove over two X’s painted on the pavement where our thirty-fifth president was shot to death in 1963. We stopped for lunch at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, a palace built to celebrate Texas Beef. We were seated in the main dining room by a brace-faced tweenage cowgirl in high waisted jeans and a bolo tie. Our waiter was wearing a denim shirt tucked into jeans with a white cowboy hat. He stopped by our table to check that “everything was okay” roughly twenty times during our half hour meal. And that wasn’t because the joint was dead either. Every table in the place was packed. It was late afternoon, well past peak lunchtime, but the place was packed nonetheless. Cowboys, truckers, old men with faces like baked clay, asian businessmen crowd into communal tables for the big steaks, ample sides, and southern hospitality.

Under a particularly large set of antlers on the front wall of the banquet hall (almost every square inch of the Big Texan is covered in either pelts or hunting trophies) sits a raised dais with six chairs. This table is set aside for this eatery’s signature attraction: here, diners are invited to take an hour to eat a seventy-two ounce steak with sides. If they can, the meal is free. If not, it costs a fairly reasonable $72.00. Nobody is sitting there now, but the waiter tells us they’ve served about fifty thousand of the steaks since the restaurant opened. He goes on to tell us that only six hundred (my dad remembers him saying six thousand) people have completed the challenge. Some back-of-napkin math shows that the seventy-two ounce steak challenge has grossed the Big Texan over $3.5 (or possibly $3.1 if my dad is right) million in revenue since they opened in 1960. There are worse businesses to be in up here in Amarillo. And this is a county where you can still drill a hole in the desert and pump out barrels of crude oil.

After Big Texan we drove down the road to Cadillac Ranch, a patch of dust off Interstate 40 with ten 1950’s Cadillacs stuck hood first in the clay. The whole place is littered with empty spray paint cans. It’s become kind of a ritual for visitors to spray paint something on one of the cars. These aren’t typical tagger kids; it’s mostly middle aged men and French tourists. The paint is so thick that the windows are almost painted shut.

From there we are straight off to Albuquerque where we are meeting one of my dad’s coworkers for what we are assured is an Authentic New Mexican Dinner. Rice, pinto beans, enchiladas, and salsa. The salsa is a big deal down here, I learn. There’s red, or green, or both combined together in what is called “Christmas,” for obvious reasons. I am not sure if these choices divide consumers into definitive camps as do other purchasing decisions such as Camel vs. Marlboro cigarettes or Fender vs. Gibson guitars. You are either a Camel guy or a Marlboro guy, after all. Unless your pack is empty and you’ve had a few beers. While it’s not clear to me that Santa Fe salsas are so tribal, the choice seems important nonetheless. It seems to depend on what mood the consumer wants the meal to have. It’s very important what mood the meal has, or so I am told. My dad’s coworker, who I will call Julia, goes out of her way to request that her tortilla be made with blue corn because “It’s just more special!” Most of the others agree. A pitcher of margaritas is ordered to share, and several baskets of sweet breads with honey called sopapillas.

This is technically a work dinner. Notwithstanding the presence of Julia’s extended family (husband, in-laws, two children) and myself, Julia’s firm is happy to pick up the tab after she and my father have a brief discussion regarding the timeframe in which a certain pdf will be emailed.

After the pdf problem is resolved, the subject of conversation turns to Texas. Earlier in the day, my dad tells everyone, I may have made a non-so-oblique observation that nobody would notice or care if the whole state burned to the ground. This elicited a couple chuckles (most of these people are from California). “I mean have you noticed how proud they are of their gas stations?” I ask, “I’ve seen billboards bragging how many pumps a certain gas station has. The awnings are all a hundred feet in the air and the signs two hundred. They are temples. Back home we are ashamed of our gas stations. They are grungy and out of the way. A gas station is like the neighborhood liquor store. You don’t want to be seen there too much, you get worried if the guy working there starts to know your name. Going to get gas is like you need to give someone a ride and your car is full of McDonald’s bags and unpaid parking tickets and half empty Coors cans. You just try to push it all away before anyone sees it, you know? But they totally own it here. It’s not shameful. In Texas, it’s just on display; they love it. They want it as big and clean as it can be. And across from a Motel 6 and a Whataburger or whatever. The whole state is just a shrine to the chain store, to the biggest billboard, the biggest road sign. That’s what you are losing if it burns to the ground, or if Mexico takes it back. A bunch of very nice gas stations.

“Everyone says, “well Austin is nice,” and yeah, Austin is alright. But Austin is like the present your abusive boyfriend gives you after he threatens to kill you because you bought the wrong brand of soup.”

My west coast elite dinner partners seem to appreciate my rant. Of course, who expects them to stand up for these fly over states if they aren’t getting a margarita out of it. I wonder whether New Mexico qualifies as a fly over state. I guess I can’t remember ever flying over it, though I’m sure someone has.

Conversation moves on to movies the “kids” are not allowed to see. Those kids are apparently Julia’s children: the two young people sitting at the end of the table. It strikes me as strange that they are not allowed to watch Fargo or The Shining, when they are, right this minute, sipping glow stick green glasses of Jose Cuervo Silver margaritas out at dinner with their mom. “It’s more laid back out here” my dad said earlier that day when we drove by an Indian Casino and gun range offering pistol rentals and the chance to “Shoot Full Auto!” I guess I get what he meant. Some cars just have paper license plates out here. A few don’t have any plates at all.

“Tuesday we are doing a glass blowing class” my dad has his mouth turned up in an ironical smile, he emphasizes glass blowing like we are going to make Chihulys or something. Then the punchline, “we’re making paperweights.” He finds this incredibly funny. “I can’t imagine how making a paper weight will require any blowing at all. I guess you don’t leave with it either. It has to cool overnight. They probably have a whole room in the back full of paperweights and they just hand you one of those and tell you good job.”

I chime in that “I saw this bit on YouTube a few days ago where the host of this show goes to Italy to truffle hunt and the dogs find, like, five truffles within the first minute and, I think it was Conan, Conan turns to the camera and says “they obviously just buried these five minutes before we got here,” same kind of deal.”

My dad nods solemnly. “You are paying for the experience. Nobody would go if you never found truffles, and I’m sure real truffle hunters spend hours without finding anything.”

“It’s a fine line between the authentic and the fake experience. And you know, it’s a line we choose to walk when we step outside our house, or outside the state, or whatever. When you put your life in someone else’s hands and tell them to show you an experience. And we’re headed right to that line tomorrow at 10:00 AM,” Julia’s son is loving this part, “I don’t know whether we are seeking it out, or just accepting it, or whether we just usually ignore it.” It reminds me of this meal, but I don’t say that. The drinks are real enough, the food is real enough, the check gets paid and someone gets a bill for a work meal and stamps it approved. The line between business dinner and relationship building is blurry. Some things just work better if nobody asks too many questions.

We leave the restaurant to drive to our rental house outside Santa Fe, about ninety minutes up the highway. It’s in a small town called Tesuque, population less than one thousand. It’s a wealthy area with houses built high on hilltops to avoid flooding during the rainy season. It’s surrounded on three sides by much poorer towns, pueblos, and Indian reservations. The contrast is noticeable driving up the highway. Some time during dinner, my dad told this story about how the last time he was in Santa Fe he bought a pair of buffalo cowboy boots at a western wear store. He only wore them once, on the trip home. At the airport a woman supposedly gave him a ton of shit for wearing the skin of an “endangered animal.” “Remember that story about the buffalo?” he asks twenty minutes into the ride. “I made the whole thing up. What do you think about that?”
He thinks this is incredibly funny as well. My dad is very old school. The other day he gave me this big speech about how collaboration is overrated. He reads books on how to make good decisions. He once told me he got rejected for a job because his personality test showed that he was too honest. Now he’s laughing about bullshitting someone about some trivial pair of fictitious buffalo cowboy boots. “I guess the point is to tell a good story, right?” I ask.

“Exactly! We both get what we want. It’s about building a relationship. That’s the whole point of this.” Building a real relationship on fake cowboy boot stories and fake business dinners, which will lead to real contracts and real work being performed.

“It’s like there’s reality, and there’s the truth. Something can not actually happen in reality, but still have value as “truth” in a sense. The story is fake, but the message you are sending about yourself is real.”

This sets him off about a book he’s reading about the midcentury New Yorker magazine. Back in the day, according to my second hand information, the New Yorker employed a few very talented storytellers who wrote amazing profiles of the characters they ran into at the city docks and fish markets and places like that. It later turned out many of these stories were embellished, and some were entirely fictitious. “But they made people feel real feelings, and they reflected reality in a way. In some ways they were more real than the reality of going out to the docks and interviewing real fishermen.”

We got to the house close to midnight and crashed for the night. We had been on the road for over twelve hours at that point. The rest of the trip is essentially what I wanted. Father/son time for a couple of black sheep. We drove up to Taos on the scenic route through a couple Indian reservations and small villages. We got matching T-Shirts with skeletons playing guitars on them. I’m reminded that a casino is moving in half an hour south of me back home and it makes me sad. Casinos never move to the rich areas; the patrons at the casino aren’t millionaires having extravagant parties. They are the working poor, or the elderly on Social Security smoking endless one hundred millimeter cigarettes down to the filter, or the white collar guys on their bachelor parties whose friends couldn’t think of anything better to do.You can tell me I’m wrong when a casino moves into Winchester or Concord, or when Foxwoods institutes a dress code. “Massachusetts used to be a temple on the hill,” my dad says, tapping the kitchen table for emphasis.

I think of everything I know about New Mexico: Oppenheimer watching the Trinity test, a rift to another dimension opening above Skinwalker Ranch, Hunter S. Thompson firing a revolver off into the desert air, Christina Ricci buying salmon burgers at Whole Foods, UFO crashes at Roswell, roadkill Jackalopes, the two sets of laws governing tribal and non-tribal jurisdictions. I love the desert, I miss home. I love my dad, but it feels like we are growing apart. New Mexico is the first post-modern state. They brought us into the nuclear age and are therefore responsible for all the uncertainty that comes with the threat of immediate annihilation.

On our last night in Santa Fe. My dad takes me to the opera. The production is a twenty-first century piece, written in English, about Robert Oppenheimer and the first nuclear test at Trinity. The opera is called Doctor Atomic and while the older gentleman next to me explains that it premiered in San Francisco, I can not think of a better venue than here in Santa Fe, just a few miles from Los Alamos Labs. It’s the end of the monsoon season. Halfway through the first act, the sky absolutely tears open and unleashes rain like I have never seen. The opera house is open on three sides, more or less, and it’s on top of a hill with a good view. Massive lightning bolts are visible in the distance in all directions. The rain blows in through the west opening and forces about a third of the orchestra section our of their seats and into the isles. As a twenty foot reflective metal ball is raised on a scaffold on stage, meant to represent “the Gadget” (the nuclear device), the singers’ voices are nearly drowned out by the apocalyptic thunder.

I imagine the guitar playing skeletons on my souvenir Taos t-shirt coming to life and playing along with the orchestra as they dance down to the underworld. I imagine a white rose blooming on a bleached horse’s skull. The stage lights go out, the theater lights come on, intermission begins. Interns come on stage with mops. In twenty-five minutes the second act will start. The bomb, the gadget, is approaching its teleological purpose. Some gadgets are built to destroy, some merely destroy because of some accidental feature of their nature. The men on stage, the nuclear scientists, are of the latter sort. Men, through noble intention or selfish desire, through myopia or genius, create the weapons of other mens’ destruction. The following morning, at breakfast, my dad shares some advice with me. “Too many people get married for the wrong reasons. They get married out of embarrassment. And people get divorced out of pride.” Then he adds, seemingly for no reason at all, “You know what I do every morning, Ben? I open YouTube on my phone and put on a Beach Boys playlist.”

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