Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” to be exact.
Is there a certain song that reminds you of a certain place? I feel like some songs just sound like a place. Like, the song just fits. I read something once that said music exemplifies what we can’t put into words. Some places you visit just can’t be described by words on a page. Sometimes, only a melody will do.
Or the soft strumming of an acoustic guitar.
It’s not even just the melody but the emotions the words evoke. The words may have nothing to do with your current situation or the destination you’re currently in, but they bring forth something that gets you to feel a certain way that somehow fits with the views before you, maybe almost even matches the feelings the views give you – and it’s surprising and almost liberating in a sense. And you’re experiencing those feelings as a result of the confluence of the music, lyrics, and landscape (or oceanscape) whizzing by.
When I was in New Mexico a few years back, I found my song.
Now, whenever I travel somewhere, I usually try and find music to best suit my surroundings, UB40’s cover of “Every Breath You Take” coming to mind for Bermuda, rushing through the city and along the coast on that damn moped (more on that harrowing activity in another post).
Sometimes, I have to do some searching, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I develop a playlist of a few songs that give me that almost out-of-body, I-feel-like-I’m-in-a-movie sort of vibe. And then other times, I scramble to find even one song. And then, there are the times when I stumble upon a song that surprises me, that I wouldn’t necessarily have searched for, and that fits perfectly – and then I play it on repeat the entire time. “Learning to Fly” was that song for me when I was in New Mexico.
And, of course, there’s the obvious “Horse With No Name,” which is obvious for a reason.
But, back to Tom Petty, I find that I get the most out of anything acoustic when I’m in the desert – and anything that’s fast or moderately paced. The gentle-yet-steady strumming and the beat that rolls you along and almost blends in with the strumming just conjure up images of the brown, parched desert landscape, the mountains looming in the distance like ghosts at dusk. And the lyrics in this song actually do kind of fit the scenery, especially if you actually are starting out “down a dirty road” in a ghostly, desert town, feeling like you’re flying as you’re speeding down those desolate highways in the middle of nowhere.
What I love about the desert is that, well, it really isn’t just browns that you see. There are deep purples when the sun has already crossed the horizon, draining the sky of its color and leaving it devoid of vivacity, and the cotton-ball clouds, thick and angry, have been stirred up in the atmosphere and soak up the remaining mixture of blues and pinks, leaving them almost mauve. There are pinks and yellows when the sun begins its descent across the vast expanse of sky, lighting it and the desert floor up like fire, so much so that you want to touch the ground to make sure it hasn’t turned to lava. There’s the bright orange of the distant hills and mountains at high noon when the sun hits them perfectly, draping them in a glow that’s created by the deep, earthy tones of the dirt granules, igniting them like rugged earth candles. And there are the reds of the sunset that make the landscape look like it’s running with blood.
It comes as no surprise to me that many of these desert communities are very spiritual and believe in vortices and dream catchers. There’s a place in Sedona that, I suppose, gathers all of these energies, and you could feel them all, creating one of these spiritual vortices. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly how vortices work, but they do offer vortex tours, if you were ever interested in educating yourself and getting in touch with your more spiritual side. I saw them advertised last time I was out in Sedona.
The desert really is a mystical place, though – the sky alone would make anyone believe in magic.
What I love about New Mexico is that there are these roadside craft places at which you can peruse various adobe pots and clay vases, in addition to red chili peppers on strings, wrought-iron Kokopelli figures, and, my favorites, longhorn skulls (you’ll want to read one of my previous posts, as the story of me coming home with one of those is quite interesting). There are many other Southwestern crafts at these places, as well, and New Mexico isn’t the only Southwest state in which you can encounter these. I remember one we stopped at in Arizona had a giant rooster statue, beckoning passersby to stop in, seemingly as a sort of mascot. Seems odd, as you wouldn’t think “rooster” when thinking of animals of the Southwest.
In any case, I’m sure you can find these places all throughout the Southwest, but, to be honest, I don’t remember seeing any driving through Nevada. We’ve found them on back desert roads and mainly along the main road in Santa Fe, but I’m sure they’re strewn about everywhere. They certainly are treasure troves and arguably the best places to buy souvenirs.
Turquoise is also huge out there – I definitely have a few pieces of turquoise jewelry. Its uniqueness is unrivaled, in my opinion. And of course, the dream catchers, which, even if you aren’t a believer in that stuff, aren’t terrible to have near your bed when the bewitching hour rolls around. Some of them are really beautiful and range from simple and elegant to intricate and ornate. They come in various colors, and some have little stones and gems woven into them. You can even buy them as earrings and necklaces. I have one hanging off of a jewelry box in my room.
All of these quirky, artsy, rugged, dusty characteristics converge and meld into what we know as the beautiful Southwest, and I love all of it.
There is one street that we were informed we needed to see in Santa Fe that is known for its unique art installations. There are big, wrought-iron sculptures, brightly colored figures, cement statues and carvings, and even elaborate paintings. Some of the buildings are open to peruse inside and view even more, but most of them have an art display right on the front lawn, or even around back. There are a couple that have garden areas with stone benches and globes and other hidden treasures to meander through. It’s almost like a flea market for art. Certainly, an art lover’s dream, especially one who loves anything rustic and eccentric.
The street itself is located in a residential area, so depending on where you park, you walk past local homes and bushes and shrubbery and foliage and the beautiousness and unique rawness that comes with the view of someone else’s everyday views.
That’s what makes it beautiful – it’s “ordinary,” so to speak, but not to you. It isn’t your everyday. It isn’t your street or your neighborhood. Think like a local – act like a local – be a local.
In the desert sun on this day, the colors shine brightly on the adobe structures and the flowers, and all of the richness just seems to permeate the skin, enlivening you and bringing you to another level of awareness and sentience. The art just seems to come alive, drenched in the sun’s golden rays and cooked by the heat, but we decide to stop at what seems to be a little neighborhood cafe for a cool drink and a short break. After reflecting a bit on the art and the day in general, we continue on (and, of course, back-track in search of the wallet I left behind by accident).
I had never known that Santa Fe, in particular, was as artsy as it is, but this only adds to the many surprises New Mexico has to offer.
One thing I want to mention as a small, humorous anecdote is that, while resting at this cafe, we notice a Dunkin’ Donuts box. Now, knowing that Dunkin’ Donuts is largely an East Coast chain, we are surprised and immediately take to our phones in search of the nearest much-beloved delightful donut shop. Turns out, we uncover the only Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Fe. Not sure if there are any others in the state, but luckily for us, we just happen to stumble upon the only one in our area #winning.
I’m not normally one for conventionality when it comes to traveling, and when I go somewhere new, I want to be all local, but I would be lying if I said I’m not thrilled about this discovery. I love going to local coffee shops and restaurants that have their own unique styles and brews, but I’m not gonna not go to Dunkin’ if there’s one around #basic #sorrynotsorry.
But in any case, there are many other non-basic places we visit and activities we enjoy, such as the Mesa Brewing Company in Taos, for example. We drive up to Taos for a day trip and to partake in its own special brand of artsy uniqueness. After putting Tom Petty on pause, our first stop is a simple-yet-elegant, white adobe church whose grounds we’re able to wander through. Next, the strip mall calls to us, beckoning us with its treasures one can only find in New Mexico, with some other more conventional items thrown in there, as well. But in addition to the shopping and touring, we decide to find and drive across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, an arched bridge extending across, you guessed it, the famed Rio Grande.
We’re able to park our car along the side of the dusty road to get out and walk around the end of the bridge along a rocky, sloped area that enables us to walk down and see a bit into the gorge. There is a fence, though, prohibiting thrill-seekers from venturing too far down, but we encounter a nice little surprise peering at us through the criss-cross of the metal fencing – a big ram is traversing the rocks a bit farther down from where we’re standing, and we ogle him with awe. Everyone’s camera is at the ready.
Cue the clicking and flashing of multiple cameras and phones attempting to immortalize
the poor creature.
He seems disinterested, though, and meanders across the rocks, tantalizing all of us nosy tourists.
After fawning over this majestic creature, scaling the rocks as if it were his job, we take to crossing the bridge on foot. I angle myself, carefully, over the railing, dipping the top half of my body down and craning my neck to get a better look down into the thrashing river at the bottom of the steep gorge. The jagged rocks, strewn about the banks of the snaking river, are enough to make anyone stand back out of fear of cascading down and disappearing into the gorge’s depths.
After wandering for a while, we climb back into the car and continue driving, which is when, by happenstance, we discover the Mesa Brewing Company, which my dad claims he has heard of before.
Naturally, we stop for a drink.
We pull into a wide, open parking lot, the vast expanse of desert surrounding all sides and the steel-gray, pulsating clouds swirling out to the south. Just as a side note, that’s another amazing thing about the desert – you can see the rain far off in the distance, blue-black clouds building up over the horizon and the rain pouring out of them, making the clouds almost look like they’re melting. Sometimes, the storm doesn’t come your way, and sometimes, it does. Storms in the desert are fast and hard, and once they’re upon you, torrential rain and all, they’re gone.
While storms build up all around – you could almost feel the electricity in the air – we meander inside the brew house, which is cozy and fits its desert outpost. The large building dons metal fixtures and paneling on the inside – the outside shaped like some kind of art deco sculpture. There are tables and chairs but not a lot of people on this particular day. As my dad asks about the bands and performances they host there, as he himself is in a band, I slowly wander around and soak in my surroundings. Apparently, this place is pretty popular and hosts bands that attract decently large crowds.
The ceiling is curved and lined with metal sheets, which trap the warmth inside. We chit chat and then walk through a glass door to the outside area, the grainy dirt our floor and the expanse of rolling desert our view. There are some metal chairs and tables, in addition to wooden benches and a patio area – rustic, outdoorsy, and uniquely Southwestern. But somehow, northern Southwestern. If that makes sense.
Taos is most known for its skiing in the winter, so aside from what we manage to accomplish activity-wise, there isn’t too much else for us, and we decide we are satisfied. So, after downing our brew, we scramble back into the car and head back down to Santa Fe, skirting the impending downpour.
Pressing play on my phone and letting Petty’s guitar synchronize with the rolling landscape, starting down that dirty road, we steer our car south.
I want to talk more about those desert storms. They come upon you with a vengeance. I somehow manage to snag a video of a strike of lightning while we we’re driving back to the hotel one evening, and the electricity is so fierce and commanding – sometimes you can even feel the strikes make contact with the ground. Sometimes there isn’t even any thunder. And the rain – it literally comes down in sheets. We had a spectacular view of one storm in particular that loomed over the horizon and creeped closer and closer to our venue, which happened to be a stadium for a rodeo.
We decide we want to finally, after having made many trips to the Southwest, experience an authentic rodeo. The persuasive flyer advertising this one in particular received a resounding “yes” from us.
Now, this rodeo is an entire story in and of itself (let’s just say we didn’t read the flyer carefully enough), but as we’re sitting in the stands underneath the wide, curved, metal overhang (thank God), a rain storm decides to finally grace us with its presence, having been teasing us out in the distance for some time. The wind blows with hurricane force, and people are hanging onto their hats as if they were buried treasure that they didn’t want to let go of. The horses and cowboys are getting absolutely drenched and resort to cowering along the sides of the arena, having to endure the sheet of rain that is spewing out of the clouds relentlessly.
The storm finally subsides and the clouds begin to skirt away, and we decide we’ve had enough rodeo, so we slowly wade through the mud back to our car. That’s another thing about those storms – they arrive as if they have a personal vendetta to collect on, and then they leave within 10 or so minutes, leaving you, well, kind of dazed and confused, the tranquility left behind in its wake a stark contrast to the ferocity that was, literally, just raining down not two seconds ago.
It’s such an interesting phenomenon that differs so greatly from the storms we experience here on the East Coast. I feel that it should be considered yet another one of those things you “have to see” when visiting the Southwest.
But anyways, the flyer that brought us to this rodeo in the first place was hanging on the door of a small building in the town of Madrid, New Mexico. Sound familiar? I’d venture to say that this town was made famous by the movie The Wild Hogs, which I love. I persuade my doubting dad to steer the car in search of the tiny town. Much to his chagrin, an entrance road we discover is, well, basically a dirt road that seems to lead nowhere. However, after a bit more research and persuasion, we gather our resolve and venture out once again. All doubts dissipate as we turn the bend and basically stumble upon the tiny town.
Although Madrid looks a tad bigger in the movie (it’s literally a one-road town), it’s truly big at heart. And in true Southwest fashion, it dons boutique stores along its flanks containing many New Mexico-charmed items – hand-crafted jewelry, clothing, and art sculptures just some of the treasures found within. We walk along the street, excitedly rummaging through the dusty souvenirs, and work up an appetite. Luckily for us, a rustic saloon is right in our path, and we walk in and are instantly seated, dark-brown wood paneling enveloping us in a pine-smelling Western aroma. Of course, we dine on traditional Mexican fare and imagine the Wild Hogs are about to stop in for a quick beer.
Madrid also boasts a little tour you could take that teaches you a little about its history, and you can even view some of the old movie props, such as those big chili peppers that were used at the “chili pepper festival.” A guide takes you part of the way and into an old, dusty theater that looks like a mini version of the beginning scenes of Phantom of the Opera – obviously much smaller than that theater and with no giant, ghostly chandeliers lying around, at least not that I could see. I suppose this theater hosted various acts and plays in its time. I’m not really paying too much attention to the guide, as the feeling of literally stepping back in time somewhat distracts me.
Apparently, Madrid is a ghost town recovered and now stands as an art destination. But this little tour takes you back to its original roots, the theater just the beginning.
Another stop on the tour, after the guide leaves you, is this old, wooden barn filled with relics from the town’s heyday – and, of course, a few resident bats “hanging” around in the cool, dark eaves. That gains my attention more than the relics do.
It’s safe to say that Madrid, although tiny, is not so tiny after all – one can spend a full day and get much out of the experience. And some of these little towns in the middle of nowhere have more charm and eccentricity than some big cities.
But, New Mexico’s old ghost towns aren’t the only sites to see, as the state is home to majestic mountainscapes and hiking trails by which to uncover scenic vistas and secret rivers that one wouldn’t find without venturing a little farther out. Desiring some exercise and the kisses of the golden desert sun, and wanting to see these hidden gems, we drive to a little area located out from the main road that has a few different trails that snake through the rocks and brush. One little trail, in particular, led us to this crystal-clear stream that breaks out into a wider estuary, bordered by the tall rock faces that stand all around as if to create a wall to encapsulate everything within. Now, we wade in only so far, so I’m actually not even sure how much farther the river continues on, but a lot of it is canopied by skinny, shrubbery-like trees and foliage, browned and parched from the heat, though the river lies right next to them, and the path we wander down is a dirt trail following alongside it for some of the way.
We scale smooth boulders, being careful of footing, and eventually come to a more open area where the river widens significantly, this “estuary” I mentioned previously. I want to venture farther down, but the water is so icy cold that we can’t last more than a few seconds. It is incredibly refreshing, though, for a few seconds, especially after being out in the hot sun hiking through dense brush, the heat literally being reflected back onto us from the dirt and being soaked up by our dusty skin.
Although we are enveloped by the brush and boulders that create almost a sort of enclave around us, the clearing that serves as an entrance to these veiny walking/hiking trails affords trail-goers breathtaking views of the craggy mountains out in the distance, orange and yellow in the sunny, arid climate. Everything looks and feels dry as a bone, but somehow, I feel refreshed and invigorated.
In the evening, when it becomes much cooler, as is typical of the desert climate, we wander through the center plaza in Santa Fe, where a modest church stands at one corner, shops line another side of the square, and some restaurants line the other. There are roads criss-crossing around the area, so it isn’t exactly a square, per se, but it’s akin to a town’s green. I wander aimlessly through a Western-wear shop, rife with all the cowboy boots and hats you could want. The smell of leather seems to have seeped into every crevice of every nook and cranny in the store, even attaching itself to the workers and those who walk through the doors, taking it with them as they leave.
We decide to eat at a restaurant with an upstairs patio, so the big, square, open-air windows provide us with some pleasant views of the area, as well as the calmness of that nice, dry evening desert breeze.
Honestly, sitting on the patio, slowly sipping an ice-cold glass of water, and feeling the gentle caresses of the warm breeze envelope you – I mean, there’s nothing more relaxing.
What “Learning to Fly” teaches us is that fear should never be used as a justification for why you choose not to embark on a new endeavor, be it personal or professional. Hopping on a plane, driving to a place unknown, and “learning to fly,” though you may not have your wings yet, is a true mark of bravery. Taking in new vistas and inhaling that mystical desert air just may give you the strength and courage you need – and may make all the difference.
So, whizzing through the landscape and gazing out over the star-studded sky, the black silhouettes of the distant mountains barely discernible, I let Tom Petty’s melody tell the story I’m unable to tell with words and encourage me to grow my wings.