I had to wonder if the woman in the seat next to mine on the Delta flight from Albuquerque to Salt Lake City was taken aback that I was tearing up while flipping the pages on my Kindle Fire. I was reading the last pages of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a novel I’d not read since undergraduate days but recommended by my friend Lady for our weekend in Santa Fe. It was exactly right.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is the fictionalized account of the 19th century Catholic diocese established in the “new” Mexican territory in the Southwest United States. French bishop Latour is designated to oversee the ever-expanding territory and takes with him his friend and confidante Father Vaillant for the task. One is the “tower” and the other “valiant” in his faith, a tireless promoter. Rome’s designation of French priests—as opposed to Spanish—has immediate repercussions. The local priests already in the territory are reluctant to accept him as their superior, and the cathedral that is eventually constructed is definitely French in design. Both men must ride literally thousands of miles over their long period of service. The structure of the novel is episodic, providing chapters that could stand alone as stories.
A novel such as this provides touchstones for a visit to the area. The cathedral includes a statue of the real archbishop, Father Lamy. The Conquistador Chapel within the cathedral provides a vivid contrast in architectural style—a style that would most likely have been used had the archbishop been Spanish or Mexican. In Taos, the plaza includes a statue to Padre Martinez, who is described in the novel as a man with shoulders like a bull. The existing clergy in the territory is a mixed lot, some exhibiting the deadly sins: greed, gluttony, lust. Latour and Vaillant earn the respect of the Mexicans, Natives, and Americans through their commitment. When they die at the end of long and devoted lives, it is no wonder that the words describing their passing result in a few tears.
Yet another fascinating period for this area of the USA is the early 20th century when artists found Taos and Santa Fe conducive to painting and writing. Georgia O’Keeffe (portrayed well by Joan Allen in the 2009 biopic) is one such resident. Jeanette Winter’s picture book for children, My Name is Georgia (2003), provides an entertaining look at O’Keeffe’s work. Through Georgia’s Eyes (2007) by Rachel Rodriguez is another gorgeous book—for good reason: these are inspired by O’Keeffe’s vivid paintings. For more of an insider view of O’Keeffe’s life, there is Weekends with O’Keeffe (2010) by C.S. Merrill. A trip to Santa Fe rightly includes a visit to the O’Keeffe Museum, where her own art is well matched by stunning photographs of her.
Personally, I was even more interested in the fascinating character of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a New York socialite described as a cultural catalyst. We visited her unique home in Taos, now a B&B and conference center: http://www.mabeldodgeluhan.com/. Luhan found solace—and a fourth husband—in the Southwestern desert. Together, Mabel and Tony Luhan added to the four-room adobe they purchased and constructed a home that welcomed Willa Cather, Ansel Adams, Nicolai Fechin, and others such as D.H. Lawrence, who thought the windows in the bathroom immodest—so he painted them! (Don’t miss D.H. Lawrence’s “erotic” paintings in the La Fonda Hotel on the Taos Plaza. The hotel guide who describes this unusual collection by an author better known for his Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers is very knowledgeable about the history of this censored artwork.) Lois Rudnick is her biographer (Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds), but Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote a number of books, including Edge of the Desert and Winter in Taos. It’s also possible to get a short cookbook, Mabel’s Kitchen, when visiting her home. The bookstore stocks works by Natalie Goldberg, who frequently teaches writing workshops at the center.
Luhan is buried in the Kit Carson Cemetery in Taos. Carson was another famous resident of Taos, and his home is open to visitors. Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder details his life. Several historic homes are open to the public, and I particularly recommend that of Nicolai Fechin, which also houses the Taos Art Museum. While Luhan’s house is a creative if chaotic concoction, Fechin’s home is a masterpiece that he built himself, combining the best of Southwestern style with European sensibility.
Our lunch in Taos at Doc Martin’s included a glass of Milagro Vineyard wine, a nod to the wonderful novel The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. (The 1988 film version of the novel produced by Robert Redford is also fun.) An irrigation ditch provides the controversy in the novel. For a nonfiction look at the importance of such agricultural lifelines, read Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico(1993) by Stanley Crawford.
For those who like mysteries, Michael McGarrity has a series set in New Mexico. I chose his Under the Color of Law (2002), the sixth in a series that features Kevin Kearney. It just did make my cut for an acceptable level of gore, but it satisfied in terms of local color and locations.Santa Fe and Taos provide a wealth of riches for the traveler in food, culture, art, and landscape. Reading works for this historic trail can only enrich the experience.