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.
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.
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.
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.
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.