Santa Fe's Canyon Road...44 Years Later

Nothing says “Enchantment” quite like Canyon Road in Santa Fe.  How can a street lined with just brown stuccoed art galleries be so magical?  Those adobe walls, some still accented with the remains of a recent snow glistening atop their padrecitos and along the parapets, those walls speak to me as loudly today as they did forty-four years ago.

Less Than $20
It was late November in 1969 when I stepped down from a pickup truck onto Canyon Road.  I had been hitch-hiking from Chicago to Phoenix.  I had less than twenty dollars in my pocket and carried a small Boy Scout knapsack.  I fell in love with New Mexico on the spot and never left.

I stayed and worked on Canyon Road for over a year, but was pretty ignorant of its history.  Though Canyon Road was full of art galleries, the names of famous artists like Carlos Vierra, Gerald Cassidy, Maynard Dixon, and Fremont Ellis meant nothing to me.  The group of young men called Los Cinco Pintores were equally unfamiliar.

Sparkle Plenty
Yet Canyon Road had become an art colony as far back as 1914.  Before that the canyon was a way into the mountain pastures for sheepherders and a natural path for irrigation water for Santa Fe gardens.  This mother ditch, La Acequia Madre, parallels Canyon Road.  One result of all the artists living on or near Canyon Road is the abundance of wonderful Pueblo Revival homes and estates that grace the area.  Artists loved the picturesque nature of adobe buildings and built many of them, not only on Canyon Road, but also on nearby Camino del Monte Sol and the lovely Acequia Madre.

But when I came to Canyon Road, the history escaped me.  All I saw was the magic of the place.  It was 1970, and instead of painters like Dixon and Cassidy, the local celebrities had names like Juero, Sunshine, Wolf, and Sparkle Plenty.  Instead of Los Cinco Pintores, there was The Family Lotus.  Artists, musicians, and writers continued to add to the local color.  As did cowboys who occasionally rode their horses right into the bars.

Cheap Living
Mixed into the street scene at that time were small, cheap living spaces that opened onto alleys.  These compounds are now filled with expensive art galleries.  Cheap living has vanished from Canyon Road, but the enchantment has not.  Like the smoke of piñon fires, it wafts it way up through the adobe compounds and fixes itself in our memories forever.

My rent on Canyon Rd. came to about $50/month for an adobe studio apartment with brick floors and a small porch that fronted onto the alley.  Later I rented an adobe house on Water St. two blocks from the Plaza for $60/month:  two rooms and a wood cook stove for heat.  But the real bargains were to be found at the end of a Santa Fe arroyo.  You could pick one up for $25, complete with an extension cord to the landlord’s house.

Claude’s Bar
Back on Canyon Road, I got a job as a bouncer in the famous Claude’s Bar.  I worked there part-time for almost a year.  I still say Claude’s was the most interesting bar I have ever frequented.  It was full of artists, writers, politicians, craftspeople, commune dwellers, wanderers, cowboys, entrepreneurs, waifs and other innocents.  My job was to check ID’s, take money at the door to the disco, and break up fights.  Believe it or not, fights were quite common, but in my year of working there I never was punched or hurt in any way.  Others were, however.  An old sign from the bar is still there, high on a shelf in the back room of the Silver Sun gallery.

Compound Living
Almost everybody was an entrepreneur in some regard.  That was because there were no full-time jobs to be had.  So everybody made things for sale, or did handyman work, or performed, or sold stuff on the side.  In the alley where I lived (called a compound in Santa Fe), a friend of mine started heating up wax on a Coleman stove.  He used tall square tins that sliced ham used to come in.  The tins sat in a pan of water.  He tied string onto coat hangers and started dipping them into the hot wax.  He worked at this day and night.  Dripping strings on hangers covered the entire one-room shed he called home.  Those strings became huge candles a foot and a half tall and over two inches wide at their base.  He made hundreds of them.

We just watched and mused.  Around Labor Day he took all those candles down to the Fiesta and sold out in three days.  That was the last we saw of him for six months.  He had made enough money to go to Mazatlan and spend the winter.

Three Cities of Spain
One of my fondest memories was of a restaurant named Three Cities of Spain.  I still say it was the best name of a restaurant ever.  I couldn’t afford to eat there often, but on Sunday nights after the food was served, they rolled out a 16mm projector and showed movies.  The room was small and the clicking of the projector was loud.  But this wasn't a distraction.  Instead it became part of the evening...as did the cigarette smoke that lit up in the rays of light emanating from the ticking projector.

The movie screen stood on a tripod in the corner; the features:  classics.  I still remember that black and white revolving globe highlighting Morocco...and that dotted line from Oran...to Casablanca...and across the Mediterranian Sea to Lisbon.  And all of us who were crowded into that small room on a narrow road somewhere in Santa Fe, New Mexico?  What did we think?  We thought we were the luckiest people in America.

Simple.  Magical.  Forever wonderful.

Views: 460

Comment by Lahjik on January 14, 2014 at 7:57pm

Very cool!  My wife and I were married at a small resort hotel outside Cerillos almost 10yrs ago.  We rented a house on Canyon Rd, right near Monsignor Patrick Smith Park and spent the week there, having the reception in the back yard.  It was a wonderful, special time and every time we get back to Santa Fe we take the time to wander Canyon Rd and soak in the ambiance. 

Thanks for posting this article and all the wonderful memories of what made Santa Fe, and all of New Mexico, so special for us, too!

Comment by once banned twice shy on January 15, 2014 at 9:30am

When I was a kid, I would go visit a friend in the summers for a week at a time (because Santa Fe was very far!).  This friend lived off of Acequia Madre and we would walk over to Canyon Road to the general store there to buy candy.  This was the early 70's.  Santa Fe sure has changed since then...and not necessarily for the better.  I miss the old Santa Fe...

Comment by Johnny_Mango on January 15, 2014 at 10:49am

OBTS-That would probably have been Gormley's grocery store.  The first picture after the banner shows the building where it was located.  In fact, in you click on the pic you can make out Gormley Lane right next to it.

Comment by Dee Cohen on January 15, 2014 at 11:41am

Great stories -land of enchantment indeed!

Comment by once banned twice shy on January 15, 2014 at 2:22pm

Johnny:  Yep, I recognized it in that first picture.  I didn't remember the lane, but that was the road we would use to go from my friend's house to the store.

Comment by Joe on January 16, 2014 at 6:07pm
Damn fine story. Takes me back to that time in my life. Walking to the country store with the wood porch. Penny candy. Riding with my grandad to take the berries to the Flavor-pac co-op in Gresham, OR. Those where the days. So simple then.
Comment by Izquierdo on January 17, 2014 at 8:51pm

I had a friend who worked at the New Mexican and lived in the general area that you have described,got a job with the Denver Post and moved there, in the late 50s or early 60s. He rented out the family's adobe, which was already an heirloom. He worked until retirement at the Post. We met up again when he returned to Santa Fe on a visit and I asked him why he didn't move back to his house in Santa Fe. "I can't afford to sell it," he said, indicating that the rent was more than his retirement salary. The value of the house had apparently increased in value from just a few thousand to more than a million. He made more money on the house during his lifetime, excluding rent, than he did working. His salary when he arrived  in Denver  was probably in the $8,000 range. He may have been making $60,000 when he retired. Certainly less money than the net increase in the value of his house. And the house he lived in in Denver at retirement was worth only about $200,000. His Santa Fe rental was worth more than his retirement. These are rough figures, but the story he told was sincere. It's an interesting lesson to me about the value of saving and the fickle nature of financial decisions. 

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