Geography By the Way: A Family Travel Log

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old
dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The long Labor Day weekend provided a much needed opportunity for a quick family getaway to our neighboring state New Mexico. My two eldest children were especially interested in exploring the old southwest and experiencing first hand what they have read in Holling C. Holling’s The Tree In The Trail. As teacher and mother, I was giddy at the chance to broaden the geographical feast for our family.  In Home Education Miss Mason states, “But the value of geography lies in its fitness to nourish the mind with ideas, and to furnish the imagination with pictures” (Mason, 1925a, p. 272).  Here was an opportunity to feed our minds up close and personal…

When one thinks of Colonial American history, we often picture Puritans at Plymouth Rock, or the first permanent English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. But here in the southwest, the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish invaders established a vibrant culture long before the English ventured across the North Atlantic. Conquistadors and holy men like Coronado, Juan de Onate, and Cabeza de Vaca mixed with the native inhabitants to form a vibrant culture filled with elaborate webs of friendship, trade, alliances, and conflict that continue to shape modern New Mexico.
Although it’s a mere couple hundred miles from us here in Colorado Springs, this “Land of Enchantment” truly is a unique and breathtaking country. Making our way south past the Spanish Peaks, we found ourselves traversing the old Santa Fe Trail up and over Raton Pass (Did you know that ‘Raton’ is Spanish for ‘mouse’?). What took them upwards of three days to summit in ox-drawn wagons brimming with beaver pelts, only required a paltry 15-minutes in our family sedan. Having brought along Holling’s book, as we ascended the top of the pass, we read of the treacherous journey trappers and tradesmen made in their quest for the Santa Fe trading post.
From the crest of the hill, the majestic grasslands of New Mexico lay spread out before us like a quilt. For fun, our children starting a game of who could count the most out of the hundreds of antelope dotting the roadside.  One enthusiast counted 155!  It was easy to see why human beings have been calling this place home for centuries, seeking out a living farming and herding these vast grasslands. In fact, this land is so cherished by her inhabitants that she’s simply called Querencia, which is Spanish for “the beloved place.” There is a true sense of place here, and even people who no longer farm for a living still feel an intimate connection with the landscape. Author Keith Basso describes sense of place as “the idea of home… of entire regions and local landscapes where groups have invested themselves, and to which they feel they belong.”

Climbing out of these high prairies and into the mountains we finally made our way into Santa Fe. And the first stop, food! The Pantry has been serving authentic New Mexican cuisine since 1948 and after taking our orders of breakfast burritos, papas (potatoes), enchiladas, and chili relines, our server asked us the official question of New Mexico: “red or green chili”? New Mexico is literally the only state in the union with its own question! That’s how famous their chili is! And, if you want to go crazy, get it Christmas style, with both red and green chili topping your order.
Santa Fe sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and is actually the oldest capital city in North America and the oldest European city west of the Mississippi. Known now for her art, culture, and museums, the city boasts a vibrant tourism scene where Native Americans line the plaza square selling their home made textiles. Our children were especially excited to visit the historic Palace of the Governors, originally constructed in the early 17th century as Spain's seat of government for the American Southwest. The adobe structure houses the state’s history museum and was landmarked an American Treasure in 1999. And just like a few hundred years ago, the structure looks out on the central Plaza which is still filled with artisans, tradesman, and jewelers selling their goods to tourists.

Just up the street is the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Romanesque structure dominates the skyline and reminds visitors of New Mexico’s strong ties to Catholicism. Here we stopped to witness the profound artistry of the stations of the cross.

Although New Mexico borders Colorado, it feels like a world away. The culture and people are steeped in a beautiful web of Spanish and Native American roots that one rarely sees in modern North America. Simply being a minority was a learning experience for our children, who are daily surrounded by people who look and talk just as they do. The American West has always beckoned people to wonder and seek what lies just over the next ridge. It’s a wild, arid, and unforgiving landscape that intrigues the imagination and extends an invitation to explore.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” —Marcel Proust