I see her first just east of the drying racks in the Taos pueblo. She wanders across the plaza in too-large scuffs, her belted dress the color of chile powder—a bitter orange, a burnt hot orange. She walks a few steps then stops, her arms wound around her waist. Under her feet, dirt and stone; to her north, a thunderstorm gathering itself. I sit on a bench with a bottle of water. There are Boy Scouts under a cottonwood tree nearby. Families are eating fry bread. She paces slowly, as if uncertain. Her long hair strays in the wind as she sucks on something, rock candy maybe, from her bag. A black pueblo dog follows her.
The woman drifts west, toward the shops, now closed for the Festival of Santiago. The dog follows her to a shady porch. She sits and her legs loom pale in the shadow. She offers her an open hand to the dog. I think: this soul is disconnected. And: this life is an adobe wall embedded with bits of straw. An hour passes with men on the rooftops calling to the four directions. I sit in the sun, cooled by the sound of Red Willow Creek. Children run through the reeds. We all wait for the Corn Dance to begin, and when the dancers appear I lose her in the wind and grit and drums.
When I was a kid we bought souvenirs at Route 66 trading posts. Moccasins and beaded belts, kachina dolls, rock candy, postcards of the pueblos. Odd pairs of dog figurines. Genuine turquoise jewelry. We got ice-cold Cokes in bottles from places that featured a plaster dinosaur outside, or maybe a wooden Indian. We drove through dust devils and mirages on the highway, saw tumbleweeds in fences, dead armadillos, rusted-out cars. Lightning in the distance and last chance gas stations and, in the late afternoon, the motel pool. Narrow beds and a bathroom with glasses wrapped in paper.
I might have been six or eight and all the words were new: Acoma and Navajo and Hopi. Tucumcari, Albuquerque, Gallup. We stopped at Meteor Crater. We ate at the Jade Restaurant in Flagstaff. At some point, we went by the WigWam Motel and all the adobe diners and rock shops. The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. Twin Arrows. When we finally came to the California checkpoint for exotic plants, my brother hid a chunk of lava under his new cowboy hat. We weren’t sure what the rules would be about lava.
Madonnas cover the walls and furniture of our room at the Inn of La Dona Luz. The Holy Virgin is tiled into the bathroom wall, spangled in tin votives, carved in wood and baked into pottery. She appears on pillows on the couch, lies woven into the rug. She is painted surrounded by roses, by rays of light, by clouds of angels, on every available surface. Everywhere I turn, the Madonna gazes at me with sad eyes.
The inn's spiral staircase leaves me gasping; at 6,900 feet of altitude, my heart pounds in my ears. The Madonnas are scattered wide, but Taos itself feels confined; a little town squeezed between the Sangre de Christo mountains and the Rio Grande gorge, layered with history and religion, pushed hard by tourism and wildfire and the stringent sun. Next door, in a private museum of western artifacts, the air is close and dust motes drift through narrow shafts of light. I see pelts and spurs and medicine bottles. A belt buckle. Someone's ivory comb and jet hatpins. Everything is so stark, as if the West was lived in black and white.
Except for the chiles, of course. On the corner of Kit Carson Road, a restricted parking lot features a guard shack filled with strings of red chiles, packets of red powder, bottles of red sauces. If there was a breeze the strings of chiles would rattle like dry bones. Or maybe like the coarse ponytail down the back of the attendant, who does not smile at us. Like much of New Mexico, Taos trades on authenticity, so I am not surprised when K asks for chipotle powder and is slapped back. Those are Mexican chiles, the attendant says, and we leave humiliated and without spices.
We look up chiles on the web and discover the New Mexico Chile Task Force. It sends reports to the state university about global competition and seed germination and an invasion of beet leafhoppers. It thinks seriously about local branding, about the chiles of the Hatch Valley, about pod length and heat units. I imagine the task force sneaking into canning facilities to siphon chiles into tiny glass flasks, lurking on the fringes of the harvest, vetting grant applications from growers, perhaps even posing as tourists seeking heirloom peppers.
Enchiladas with green sauce are the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten. Back in the day I could eat hot things without suffering, before the midwest and the deep south ruined my palate. Unlike the mild green chiles of New Mexico, this was Colorado green sauce with bits of fatty pork floating in it. So hot you had to order milk to go with. So hot you ate outside in the high-altitude cold, spearing up bites from a styrofoam container with a plastic fork. The cheese of the enchiladas helped a bit, but that milk was the only thing that made the sauce edible. We’d sit a block from the courthouse and share tables with cops and lawyers and remember the time serial killer Ted Bundy broke out of the jail up in Aspen.
We had a theory that the menudo at another place was the best treatment for a hangover, a spicy soup of hominy and tripe, rich and challenging to the system. We didn’t know the proper names of chiles then, the provenance, the sourcing of our spices. No one spoke of the Carolina Reaper or the Trinidad Scorpion; the grocery stores did not stock fresh jalapenos or habaneros and serranos. Instead we tracked the dishes that helped us through a court appearance or sweated out the alcohol or made a drive up the pass for lunch worthwhile. If there was a task force involved somewhere, we would have assumed it was for a kidnapping.
Chimayo chiles are heirloom peppers, scarce and precious, locally grown from seeds that are clearly hoarded. The powder is harder to find than the heroin that travels up and down the High Road between Taos and Santa Fe. Ask for the chiles, and the locals will check each others' eyes before saying that the crop was thin this year, or that Sunflower Market in Santa Fe used to carry the peppers but maybe that place has closed. And even in the local restaurant, which offers tamales tinted the signature orange of the Chimayo pepper, they can't say where the powder can be found. And in their gift shop, all the powder is a flat blood red.
The artisan weavers won't say a word about peppers and, in the parking lot of the church, a woman selling chiles out of a truck has just sold out of Chimayos. I look through the chain-link fence threaded with reed crosses. A placid horse in a back yard dotted with wildflowers gazes back at me with dark eyes. I look at the famous church in the background. There is no Chimayo chile powder, even in this place of miracles.
The Santuario de Chimayo, the Lourdes of America, draws pilgrims by the thousands. Built in 1816, on the site of a buried crucifix that was removed and mysteriously reappeared—or, built on the site of a saintly apparition and cure—or, built on the grave of a murdered priest—the church has the classic adobe walls and bell towers of the period, a courtyard, and a holy well of dirt. I imagine earth welling up like dry lava, but, in fact, the dirt is trucked in, blessed, and stored until needed. Tons of it, to be carried away in glass jars, sacks, empty medicine bottles, or containers sold in the gift shop along with medals and pins and books. The pilgrims rub it on their wounds and aching joints, sprinkle it on food like a spice.
My mother made enchiladas and baked them in a pottery dish from Mexico. It was a brown-glazed rectangle with crimped edges, decorated with hand-painted spirals and abstract blue flowers with slashes of green for leaves. She’d stuff tortillas with ground meat and line them up in the dish, covered with canned sauce, chopped fresh onions, and shredded cheese. Maybe she’d make Spanish rice to go with, and serve it in the other Mexican dish; a round one with a flat handle and stripes around the outside edge. Or maybe she heated some refried beans. None of these things were remotely spicy, though sometimes she made the family version of nachos: fresh-fried tortilla chips with a slice of melted cheddar and a strip of jalapeno from a jar.
I inherited the Mexican pottery though I never put food in it, not since a warning about lead leaching through the glaze. Instead the dishes have served as receptacles for keys and coins or potholders or a row of CD cases or junk jewelry. And I never tried to make my mother’s enchiladas, though I long to learn the secret of tamales; the luscious and dense masa, the delicately seasoned filling. But I do make her chili and serve it the way she did: with saltine crackers and real butter, and a deep south salad of pear halves topped with dollops of mayonnaise and shredded cheese. A salad that would cut the heat of the chili if it were spicy, which of course it is not.
I saw that same spiral from the enchilada dish on a rock face outside Albuquerque. A trail through volcanic debris and desert wasteland, the day hot like a brushfire, open sky like a postcard. Petroglyphs of snakes and turtles. Serious stick figures. Birds and lizards. And spirals like labyrinths or galaxies or the way we turn inward as we walk in the heat.
We leave the horse and take the path toward the church. It skirts an amphitheater, widens at a shrine to the Virgin Mary draped with rosaries, and finally leads to a gate in the adobe wall that encloses the sanctuary. The church is cool and dim, a place of wood and candle-wax, gilt edges and deep reds and blues. To the side of the altar is el pocito, the chapel of the well. The well itself, a stone-bound hole in the floor, forces you to kneel to gather your blessing. A scoop, as if from a child's sandbox, makes filling a jar easy, but I take just a pinch of red earth and rub it between my palms. It is dry. It is dirt.
Next to el pocito is a prayer room lined with crutches and walkers and photographs of the healed or hopeful. I look away from the faces of the accident victims, the ropy necks of the aged, the blank eyes of the blind. I bypass the testimonials, the grubby notes tucked into crevices of the walls. I am overwhelmed by the density of the faith here, the incredible level of desire.
I am shaking when I walk out of the church. This is no roadside attraction, not a charming bit of local color; it is an authentically painful place. Cancerous children in wheelchairs, diabetic women with swollen ankles, the genuinely sick are scattered over the property, sitting on benches, straggling down the walkways on crutches. The desperation is smothering. Tourists move among the pilgrims snapping shots of the bell towers. I cannot get out of there quickly enough.
We spent the summer after high school in Las Vegas. In the first two weeks, we slept at the Castaways Hotel, across from the Sands and my father’s job as a civil engineer for Howard Hughes. Then we moved to an apartment on the edge of town where we lived stunned by dust and heat. We ate a lot of carry-out Taco Tico. Drank tall glasses of Squirt and played endless games of Yahtzee. At some point a plague of crickets invaded the shopping center. My brother joined an advertising agency. I read a stack of classics I found at the UNLV bookstore.
Men walked on the moon and it looked just like Nevada. We stayed close to the neon, to front yards groomed with cactus and gravel, to steak-and-egg breakfasts at the casinos. We walked from shade to shade, tried not to touch the car handles. The desert had its own roadside attractions: Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire. Bad Water and Furnace Creek. Area 51 and Yucca Flats. But we didn’t know how to look at that landscape with beautiful eyes. We were blind in the sun. We were too hot.
When we left—me on the way to college and my father to Washington DC and a job with the Navy—we didn’t take pictures of Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon. We did stop at Gallup for a Mexican dinner that was spicier than we meant it to be. And we found that all the rooms in town were booked for the Pow Wow; the annual gathering of tribes for ceremonial dancing, for parades and pageants, a rodeo, for horse-trading and displays of jewelry and beadwork and pottery. Tourists filled the rooms for miles around. So we drove across New Mexico in the dark, turned north at Albuquerque and passed Santa Fe and Taos on our way to Colorado to visit my sister. And I never knew the name of the peppers that made that night so miserable.
The high road from Taos ends in Pojoaque, just north of Santa Fe, and we come into the capital city past Cuyamungue, the Camel Rock Casino, and Tesuque. Our hotel sits on a low ridge above the town proper, so we take a shuttle to the Plaza to see the Loretto Chapel’s hanging spiral staircase. I search the tourist shops for a coral ring. K picks up a fine leather satchel. We eat ruby trout at the Inn of the Anasazi, then walk past a hotel rumored to be the seat of the heroin-trafficking low riders. Its sidewalk bar is festooned with garlands of red chiles. The day burns bright and dry and there are dancers in the square. We pick up the shuttle again at the sister hotel just off the plaza. They have cucumber water in the lobby and it feels like a blessing.
The next day we take the car to search for Sunflower Market, the place that might have Chimayo peppers or might be closed, depending. We pass the National Cemetery. I tell K about a hike down Frijoles Canyon years ago. Finally, we find a shopping center that might have held such a store, but it no longer exists, or maybe never did. Back at the Plaza we go to The Shed for lunch. The waiter tells us all about Hatch chiles and offers to sell us a bag of powder. We are hot and tired and tired of chiles. Then at the O’Keeffe museum we see a cookbook full of simple recipes. Pumpkin soup. Wild asparagus. Stewed rhubarb. Red chile cheese enchiladas. Green chile chicken enchiladas. I imagine the light in her kitchen, so clear and warm. Dust motes in the air. Strings of chiles drying on the porch.
My sister tormented my brother on Route 66. Took photos of his underwear hanging from a motel lamp or made him hide bits of petrified wood in his shoes. By the time we lived in Vegas, he was back from Vietnam and she was married and working in Colorado Springs. After the long night drive from Gallup we played croquet in her yard, talked trout fishing and toured the Cave of the Winds. Pikes Peak loomed at the end of every street. The sky was postcard blue or thick with hailstorms or full of stars. We didn’t go anywhere for enchiladas.
My sister was pregnant then and her back and feet hurt, so she spent hours resting on a heating pad, the family cure for all ailments. For toothache, upset stomach, sinus infection, swollen ankle or knee: the heating pad. Loneliness or panic or sadness —all things respond to heat. When I had my wisdom teeth removed, my sister made me a bowl of thin potato soup and offered me the heating pad. When I fell and my brain went sideways from a concussion, I put frozen peas, cool as cucumber water, on my head—but I started every day with the heating pad on my back. Turned on low, it situated me in space. Like calling to the four directions. Like rubbing holy dirt on my hands.
In my mind, the Sanctuario de Chimayo is where that woman in the orange dress ends up. She buys horse-hair pottery at the pueblo before heading down the High Road from Taos to Santa Fe. She stops at the church in Los Trampas, once the home of Los Hermanos Penitentes, the flagellants. The town there, named after Saint Thomas, Apostle of the River of Traps, was decimated by smallpox but survived. The woman, I imagine, is decimated by invisible pain. Flayed on the inside and seeking surcease.
Maybe she drives an old Toyota Corolla. But not well. She is easily distracted by signs offering santos, by roadside dogs. She wavers through Truchas, the Milagro Beanfield town, the town of trout. She passes Cordova and pulls into Chimayo feeling breathless. The weather has thickened and thunder rolls down the hillsides. She can smell rain on the way. And rain is, itself, a healer in this dry country, but what she wants is heat. The heat of the holy dirt. Or the sweet heat of the Chimayo pepper.
That was the last road trip for me as part of the family, the miserable drive from Las Vegas to Colorado Springs. After that I crossed the country alone or with friends, stopping at Prairie Dog Town or Devil’s Tower or Niagara Falls or the Everglades, picking up postcards at truck stops or walking the trails at state parks. Once I drove across the high plains in summer with a fever and a bag of apples; another time, across the Appalachians in December with no heater. But often I found myself around the edges of Route 66 territory, at Los Alamos or Alamogordo or the extinct volcano near Raton. Passing Ship Rock on the way to Durango. Driving across the lava fields to read the graffiti at El Morro.
That first trip, though, across the southwest on Route 66, the days hot and bright and the windows open for air—that was the one. The dim interior of the trading post. The turquoise bracelet and the dog figurines. The stolen bits of petrified wood. In my head even now, the tumbleweeds, the sack of rock candy, the way neon vibrates through the dusk. The crackle of tires on a motel parking lot. I am not sure that was the trip where we learned about enchiladas but I know it was how I learned to travel.
When we leave New Mexico, we have breakfast at the airport in Albuquerque. Everything on the menu is served with green chiles. Six months later we find ourselves in St. Augustine, home of the rare and very hot datil pepper. A precious plant cultivated by generations of Menorcans who came to Florida as indentured workers. And I want some. I have in mind a vinegar sauce with peppers, something to shake over a plate of greens, but K searches for datil pepper powder. At the spice shop, the clerk shakes her head. We don’t have datil powder, she says. But we have datil dust. We keep it in the back.