Monday, October 10, 2011

Travelogue: Jemez Springs

The train trip on Amtrak's Southwest Chief had been a pleasant but long ride of 24 hours from Chicago to Santa Fe will tire anyone.  On our first full day I thought it a smart idea to have a relaxing massage at one of Santa Fe's many spas and then discovered the Jemez Springs Bath House in the Jemez Mountains.  This 100-minute drive west of the city would not only provided a stunning view of the mountains, but it was near Bandelier Monument, a site that hosted the cliff dwelling Native peoples centuries before. I wanted to see that.

After breakfast and a bit of TV news, my two sister-in-laws, Karen and Tracy, and I excitedly headed out for Jemez Springs.  To be efficient in our driving, we took the southerly route toward ABQ (Albuquerque) on I-25 before we headed northwest on US 550.

Colorado Plateau
It didn't take long before we saw amazing vistas where land and sky meet at a faraway horizon and mountains come in green, pink, blue or beige depending on their geologic time of formation.  In this southern end of the 130,000-square mile Colorado Plateau, sometimes the rocks were dark indicating exposure of the Chinle Shale of the Triassic age layed down in lakes, streams and floodplains 250 million years ago.  The striking red rocks came from windblown Entrada Sandstone of the Jurassic age 160 million years ago.  We were in a setting of obvious eternity!

Everywhere we looked, the rock formations captured both the beauty and majesty of the land.  I couldn't help but get excited that these landscapes were the very same ones the early Native Americans, Spanish explorers and American pioneers saw, and now I was here.  The landscape had tied us together and given a new dimension to the meaning of “sense of place.” 

As a Midwesterner used to flat land and “limited horizons,” these vistas also left me a bit apprehensive when it came to driving through them.  Sometimes we climbed or descended a mountain on its winding switchbacks where a couple feet more would fling us over the edge on a sharp, long way down.  Sometimes we drove through roads carved out of the rock. What impressed me most were the mountains' massiveness and their tendency to envelop us as if to invite us to become one with it.  Other times, as we reached the apex of a peak, we were treated to an incredible view of the many mountains that lay ahead. How inspiring for the Native peoples who saw the land as their Mother, yet how discouraging for the pioneers who had just struggled to climb a mountain.

Karen and I pose with Terry (center)
We arrived at Jemez Springs about 9:30 with half an hour to spare before our appointment.  I needed a little refreshment and suggested we find a coffee shop.  The Jemez Stage Stop was a short walk away.  I ordered a cinnamon bun while Karen ordered a piece of pie called Fruit of the Forest (rhubarb, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, and apple).  Terry, our waitress, was the only one there to take care of customers—and the 16 tables in the dining area.  Fortunately, we were the only ones during this early morning.  The Stop serves things like gluten free cookies and gluten free blue corn pancakes, one more indicator that we are in a very health-conscious area.

At 10 o'clock sharp we were back at the Bath House.  Frances greeted us and quickly led us to our tubs.  There were only four tubs so I was glad I had made reservations weeks before for the $105 package deal of bath, wrap and massage.  (This was $10 shy of the new September rate hike.  Sometimes it pays to plan ahead!)

Each three-foot deep tub was made of concrete in a private stall separated by wooden walls and a curtain.  Inside each stall was a chair, some hooks for hanging clothes and towels and a plastic box to carry our things with us.  We immediately stripped down to nothing and ran some cold water to mix in with the six inches of steaming hot mineral water (154 to 170 degrees) that the Frances had already drawn.  This hot water came from the outdoor hot springs.  I ran the water a couple times to keep it hot but was very careful not to burn myself.  The Bathhouse also provides a quart-size bottle of water, which came in handy to replenish ourselves from time to time from the extreme heat.

Our bath lasted 30 minutes and Frances led us to the tables where she prepared our wrap.  A rubber mat filled with hot water lay in the center of the table.  This was where we were to place our backs.  Then she wrapped us in hot towels with the choice of arms in or arms out.  Tracy and I had our arms out and Karen had her arms in.  Frances then put a cold towel on the back of our necks and one on our foreheads and around our heads leaving space for our noses and mouths.  I joked that I felt like a nun.

At first I was afraid I'd feel confined in the wrap but I was so relaxed and concentrating on the healing properties of this whole experience, that I was fine.  Frances came in after 15 or 20 minutes to see if we needed any adjustments.  Suddenly, I felt transported to another plane.  Maybe it was an out of body experience but I definitely felt differently. 

I don't know if bodywork does anything but I love it.  When Tracy and I were in Thailand, we had wonderful foot and whole body massages.  All that oil, heat and rubbing makes you feel good so she and I were continuing that tradition here at Jemez.  If nothing else, we are always game to pamper ourselves and thought Karen would appreciate it, too.  This was our gift to her for hosting us for the coming eight days of our stay with her and her husband, Dan (Tracy's brother).  She had not been to Jemez Springs before but promised them she'd be back and to bring Dan.  Actually, there are a lot of hot springs and massage places in Santa Fe—even a mud bath, which I'd really like to try someday.  They are much more expensive than Jemez Springs and Karen found the intimacy of Jemez Springs more appealing.  The skill, friendliness and service-orientation of the staff made for an enjoyable two-hour morning.

After our half-hour wrap, it was time for the massage.  We donned the provided bathrobes and Frances escorted us to our individual rooms to meet our masseuse.  Shelley was mine.  She immediately asked me my name first and said she liked it and fit my face.  Maybe I have finally grown into that name.

Shelley has been doing massage for 22 years.  She is a tapestry artist whose subjects are landscapes, trees and some portraits.  She is a petite woman with strong hands, one of the first things she told me—and warned me should I not want a deep massage, which I didn't.  Before she began the work, she asked if I wanted to concentrate on any particular part of my body and I instantly pointed to my knees.  For all the work we do on our feet, she claims our knees have not adequately evolved.  She asked me if I had arthritis and I said I didn't call it that.  “Good for you,” she said.  “Don't give it any power.”  Shelley turned out to be the first of many strong, independent women I would meet on this trip to Santa Fe.

Most masseuses let the client do the talking but Shelley did most of it with me.  It might have been annoying had I not been more interested in hearing about local people and their lives.  She told me she helped start the library on the Jemez Springs Plaza with her librarian husband.  After he left her and her four-year-old daughter, the library employed her.  She took classes in massage and asked the Jemez Springs Bathhouse for a job.  They said they didn't have any jobs for her at the time.  Then she prayed to God to find her work.  Soon afterward she received a phone call from the Bathhouse and has worked there for the past 25 years. 

Shelley is a Sufi and told me about the Sufi dancing fest that will be held in Santa Fe that Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the Friends House on Canyon Road.  The $10 donation helps pay for people like her to go to conferences to learn new things about Sufi ways so that they can teach others.  This sounded like a great opportunity but it didn't work out.  Maybe next time.

Shelley asked me my astrological sign, as if she were diagnosing me like a doctor. 

“Sagittarius,” I said.

“You need to eat meat, fruits and vegetables and avoid grains unless they are whole grains,” she said.  “The carbs produce sugar and that's not good for your body.” 

This would be the first wellness prescription I would get on this trip.  My acupuncturist brother-in-law would tell me more.  At this stage in my life, especially when I am paying for an expensive individual health care plan, I am suddenly more receptive to such advice.  Nevertheless, healthy living and eating is a big part of the Santa Fe experience and it is available in many forms to suit any and all tastes.

Shelley also told me that she is a “mountain woman.”  I puzzled over what this meant.  To explain it, she told me about a conflict she was having with a neighbor who insisted on trespassing her two-acre property.  She threatened to use her gun on him if he didn't cut it out.

“You have a gun?” I asked suddenly taken aback.

“I have a shotgun and two other guns,” Shelley replied nonchalantly. 

I sure knew I was out West.

Shelley grew up in Denver, Colorado, and later moved with her family to southern California.  At age 17 she ran away from home because she longed for the mountains.  Eventually, she got herself to New Mexico and here in Jemez Springs, which she claims is the “heart of the area.”  To prove it, she said the area's red rock and hot springs have attracted various religions groups (Buddhist, Catholic monastery of Precious Blood, Sufi, etc.) here over the years.  Shelley firmly believes that her heart is here and that's why she has made it her home for over 20 years.

Tracy and Karen at the Laughing Lizard
It seems that Jemez Springs is an off-beat, out of the way place and not something you'd easily run into unless you weren't headed for it.  However, the variety of things to do here make it a destination town and apparently it receives a lot of visitors.  The main drag (towns are built where water is accessible and along highways) has several restaurants.  Shelley recommended the Laughing Lizard Cafe because it features healthy food.  Since Tracy had already suggested it (I think she liked the name), we went there.

The building is 100 years old adobe and stone structure with three-foot thick walls, tin ceiling, and hardwood floors.  It started out as a mercantile for this area and has had other incarnations as a cafe and bar and community center.  It also has an inn to accommodate travelers who come to the area to hike the Jemez Mountains Trail, a scenic byway that passes geologic rock formations, ancient Indian ruins, a pueblo and abandoned mining, logging and logging operations. 

There was only one man there to wait tables, clean up and cashier but it all worked out well since a group of three men were finishing up when we arrived and a four-person group sat down by the time we left.

Tracy had a spinach burrito and Karen had a grilled chicken sandwich.  Because it had been a few days since I'd had any vegetables, I ordered a Greek salad with raspberry dressing.  It was not exactly Greek but I liked the dressing.  Delicious!

We left the Lizard after an hour or so and Karen took the northerly route back to Santa Fe through canyons, mesas, tent rocks, hot springs and Bandelier Monument.  Unfortunately, last summer's drought and the Las Conchas Fire had affected over 20,000 acres of Bandelier’s 33,000 acres.  Some areas were scorched to mineral soil and other areas lightly burned, according to Theresa, a park ranger there on her blog.  The area also suffered flash floods.  Many parts of the park had also been closed to visitors.

The skeletal trees and dark, scorched ground were very sad to see.  Many people think that the drought was caused by climate change and I couldn't help but think that even in this beautiful land we were encountering one of its consequences.  That makes the debates over whether it is man-made or natural silly because climate change is something we will have to deal with probably for the rest of our lives as the earth changes. 

Even if the park were open, however, I found myself too tired to go there.  I nodded off to sleep for half of the ride and could kick myself because I wanted to see this area.  Maybe the massage and the winding roads had made me too relaxed and drowsy.  Maybe this mystical land had put me into a trance.  Whatever it was, thank God I wasn't driving!

Overhead view of the caldera
One particularly beautiful but eerie place I did see was the Jemez Caldera, which encompasses the 89,000-acre historic Baca Ranch.  Now called the Valle Caldera National Preserve, the U.S. government purchased the ranch in 2000 to conduct a unique experiment in public land management.

The 14-mile wide caldera was the seat of a former volcano.  When this one erupted, it affected the land west of the Rio Grande, which runs north and south in New Mexico before it forms the southern border of Texas and drains into the Gulf of Mexico.  The volcano also spewed out hundreds of feet of ash as far as Kansas and Oklahoma and hardened into a honeycombed rock form called tuff.  Nature acted on the tuff and created caves, the dwellings of the first Pueblo peoples.  For all the violence that went on here before, the caldera was all green and looked like grass.  There was nothing in it, just a vast plain.  We drove over the lip of the old volcano, into the Caldera and then out of the lip again.  The roads, of course, were all switchbacks but nicely paved.  

The West is a fascinating place and the geology alone makes it something worth studying.  I would like to read John McPhee book on the subject titled Annals of a Former World.  

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