Hiking the land of enchantment will be the cure to Covid-19 blues

Bloomberg’s photo editor has visions about abandoning his coastal lifestyle for a rugged desert existence


IN DECEMBER 2015, my partner and I found ourselves on a plane heading to the American Southwest to visit her family in the rural country outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, some 800 miles (1,287km) from the nearest coast.

Nothing but sea breeze could ever feel like home, I thought, as we journeyed to the driest place I’d ever been. A lifelong East Coaster and the son of Portuguese immigrants, the sea was my definition of solace.

But after arriving more than 7,000ft above sea level, the drama of the high desert hit me with the force of a bronco’s buck. It took one sunset — the sky coloured with the pink- and-purple shades of an O’Keeffe painting —for me to understand why they call it the Land of Enchantment.

And now, nearly five months into New York’s Covid-19 lockdown, the fantasy of planting roots around our own adobe home on a dusty plot of land is what continues to beckon my soul.

Hightailing it to the middle of nowhere might sound like a strange balm for months-long isolation. But we did end up trading our 850 sq ft existence and 8.6 million neighbours for four wheels, a 75mph speed limit sign and cell service that flickered away with all our worries.

The only catch? During our self-imposed quarantine, New Mexico surged past 17,500 reported infections, stalling its reopening plans and keeping locals indoors.

So, even though we’re physically here, we’re spending our time socially distanced, daydreaming about the moment when we can take in all the state’s charms, from its native art galleries and trailblazing restaurants to its monuments and — of course — its many natural wonders.

Here’s what we’ve done so far (hint: not much) and what we’re hoping to do once it’s safe.

From Four Wheels to Two in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Vintage has floor-to-ceiling stacks of denim, rugs and cowboy hats and boots (pic: Bloomberg)

After criss-crossing the country, our first stop in New Mexico was the rural artists’ hamlet of Galisteo, 23 miles south of Santa Fe. This small community has housed no shortage of high-profile residents, including artists Agnes Martin, Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman.

It’s also where designer Tom Ford had prized architect Tadao Ando build for him the 20,662-acre (8,362ha) Cerro Pelon Ranch, which is about 25% larger than Manhattan and is on the market for a cool US$48 million (RM203.69 million).
Rather than request a tour from the listing

agent, though, we visited another local: My partner’s mother, an artist in her own right. We sat against her home’s adobe walls, masked and beyond hugging distance, before unpacking our bags in her property’s separated casita.

From outside the windows, we admired the still-wet prints in her studio; then we escaped the heat underneath a gnarled cottonwood tree and began to dream of what a life might look like here, post-pandemic.

The first natural step, we’ve decided, would be to pack a pair of mountain bikes and head to the cream-coloured grasslands of the Galisteo Basin Preserve, with its more than 28 miles of marked cycling, hiking, and equine trails spread across more than 9,000 acres.

Recovery — not just from the spirited trail ride but from months of hunching over my laptop in a crudely made home office — will come courtesy of Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-inspired spa in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range. First on deck: A 50-minute shiatsu massage.

But we’ll stay in our complimentary kimonos through dinner, which is more than acceptable at the property’s izakaya-style restaurant, Izanami. On high seats at the chef’s table, we’ll order the five-course omakase with hot-stone wagyu, and sip on a flight of rare, unpasteurised namazakes. (Izanami claims one of the most impressively curated collections of sakes this side of the Pacific.)

New Mexican Indulgences

Being New Yorkers with a love for Western flair, we can’t help but indulge in a little style- hunting while back in town.

Our first-choice visit will be the thrifter’s wonderland of Santa Fe Vintage. Along a nondescript back road, in an unmarked motel-like structure, this appointment-only warehouse holds the treasures of pure Americana: Floor-to-ceiling stacks of denim, dozens of hand-woven rugs and enough cowboy hats and boots for all the Old West’s gunfighters.

More central is Cafe Pasqual’s, a 41-year- old, 12-table restaurant draped in the rainbow strings of papel picado and dried chile ristras — a reference to the dish that made chef Katharine Kagel an early James Beard Foundation-award winner. Her signature dish, Blue Lady Enchiladas, comes out blanketed in cheddar jack cheese and red-and-green Chile sauce. (Christmas, the locals call it.)

For dessert, there’s a fluffy wisp of house-made lemon meringue tart that’ll make you question just how much exercise you haven’t done since lockdown.

Peace and Quiet, Far From the Sea

The pool area at Ten Thousand Waves
(Source: Santa Fe Vintage)

If we leave Cafe Pasqual’s feeling like we should probably increase our cardio, we’ll aim our gaze two hours north, to the Taos Ski Valley, where you can get world-class slopes (or hiking trails, in the summertime) all to yourself.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a National Historic Landmark more than a century old, is a great place to rest your head just 20 miles shy of the mountain resort. It’s named for a New York expat — like us — who became famous as a socialite and arts patron, hosting salons for some of the greatest American artists of the 20th century.

Its 19 rooms are named for famous guests (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, DH Lawrence) and outfitted with traditional kiva fireplaces. One, the solarium, is in the owner’s former sun porch; it’s a veritable glass box overlooking the mesa.

To this day, Luhan’s legacy lives on in Taos: The town hosts more than 60 galleries and museums. But we’ll head instead to the base of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, accessible via a strenuous 8.2 mile out-and-back hiking trail that cuts through the spruce and sub-Alpine fir trees.

A few hours in, at around 11,000ft, we’d unpack lunch alongside the frigid waters of the alpine lake before doubling back to hit the 13,167ft summit. The last patches of winter snow will remind us just how far above the oceans — and away from our old lives — we have come.

From Wheeler Peak, you can see practically the entire state of New Mexico. It’s a vantage that makes it simultaneously simple and difficult to see why we are drawn to this land.

Living surrounded by a dramatic landscape means dealing with elements and all their implicit challenges. But it’s also inspired centuries of culture and creativity. For that, I’d gladly give up the ocean. — Bloomberg