Thursday, June 9, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 4

Santa Fe and the Story of Tom

Note: I have been a bit lazy with the blog, so keep in mind that this portion of the trip actually happened a few days ago. Since the events of this story, we have already gone through Austin and are now in the New Orleans area. That will come too.

Of all of our stories so far, this one may be the most remarkable. But it requires a bit of setup.

Lauren and I have the unfortunate predicament of being poor. But when life gives you lemons, you eat the stupid lemons and you damn well like it. Such was the case when I put us up on, an open community of travel enthusiasts committed to simple notion of hospitality. There are hordes of people out there who take great pleasure in hosting wayward souls from around the world, and who were we to deny them the gift of our company?

Our search for lodging led us to a man named Tom, a frequent host of CouchSurfers with a list of glowing recommendations long enough to open his own bed-and-breakfast. He enthusiastically offered to let us stay, under the caveat that he would be hosting another traveler at the same time – which was fine with us. We arrived the afternoon of the 2nd, excited to see our new digs but at the same time feeling more than a little trepidation. The directions we had been given led us off the highway a few exits before Santa Fe, where we proceeded down a seven-mile stretch of Rt. 14 before turning down a long dirt road. It was a relatively rural area, with adobe houses scattered about in no discernable pattern. As we rounded the last bend of the thin dirt road, our final destination came into view – an unassuming adobe home with a dilapidated pickup truck in the driveway. Tom hadn’t picked up his phone, so we correctly assumed that he wasn’t around. But (coincidentally) waiting for us was the other CouchSurfer that he had mentioned, Kari, casually digging through her belongings in the trunk of a newer looking Jeep. She was thin, perhaps in her mid-thirties, with a quiet demeanor and an outfit that invoked visions of an Appalachian hippie. During our brief introduction we learned that she was an aspiring farmer from Chicago, traveling the country to learn where she wanted to settle down. Fortunately, she had been staying with Tom for a few nights and was happy to show us the ropes. After instructing us to take off our shoes, she took us through an unlocked screen door into an interior that nearly knocked us off our feet. Spacious rooms overlapped to form a wide-open layout, bathed in natural light from a back wall almost exclusively consisting of windows and broad sliding doors. White adobe walls rose into a ceiling of thick, wooden beams to create an organic look, while luxurious vegetation, stained glass, and worn musical instruments contributed to the serene ambiance. It was just as much of a temple as it was a home.

After about five minutes of gawking, Tom sauntered into the house, his appearance and countenance perfectly matching what I had come to expect from his CouchSurfing profile. He was in his late 50’s, with windswept grey hair, soft blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard flanking a wide smile. You could instantly tell that this was the kind of man that had never shaken a hand in his life, only hugged. After brief introductions, he offered us each a Heineken and we took seats around a long dining room table made of thick, naturally treated wood. As we sipped our beers, we took the opportunity to get to know each other a bit. Through our conversation, we learned that he had owned multiple bars and restaurants in the Santa Fe area, only recently selling them off to make a living doing construction. The house, as it turned out, was his own work. He talked about his daughters, all of whom from previous relationships, and his love of jazz and world music. The most interesting thing we learned of, however, was his sense of spirituality. He was a devout Christian unlike any other I had met – an unreserved liberal with a deep respect for the historical aspects of his faith and an attitude toward the supernatural that ranged from lighthearted amusement to downright skepticism (with the exception of his fascination with the more mystical disciplines of holistic healing). His was a joyful attitude that was both pleasantly contagious and borderline obnoxious.

The first evening of our stay was quiet and relaxing. Lauren and I went to get beer while Tom cooked us a delicious meal – pasta and scallops with fresh sausage and caprese. We sat at the dining room table where we were joined by Kari and a young woman named Nina, who was renting from him in a separate guest house that he had built on his property. Amazingly, Nina was even more bizarre than Tom - a 23 year-old healer from Vermont with a soft voice and a sense of tranquility that far exceeded her age. Together, we spent the evening listening to jazz music, sharing stories from our travels, and learning of Nina’s odd fascination with astrology and pseudo-psychology (Lauren and I secretly smirking with disbelief the entire time).

After our first night’s sleep in a real bed since the EconoLodge in Flagstaff, we headed out to explore Santa Fe. You would expect the city itself to be the coolest part of New Mexico, but it really wasn’t. While it was staggeringly beautiful with its sparklingly clean streets, open-air markets, and two-story adobe buildings, it was touristy to the point where it made you wonder if you were really just walking through a cleverly designed Disney reenactment of the real thing. Art galleries swarmed you like Starbucks stores, offering cheesy Native American crafts at prices that would make your head bleed. Meanwhile, fancy jewelry stores attempted to ensnare you with overly enthusiastic saleswomen drowning in makeup and hairspray. But once we figured out how to avoid these pitfalls by sticking to breweries and one particularly awesome gelato place, it all came together quite nicely.

That evening, Lauren and I returned to Tom’s place sporting a few hot pizzas from his old restaurant, ample beer, and a serious intent to spend our last night in style. Nina joined us at the dinner table once again, along with Tom’s 5 year-old daughter, Anja, and friend, Tim. After a number of beers we went out to the back yard, where Tom lit up his fire pit and he and Anja grabbed their guitars (Anja’s being small enough to fit in her tiny hands). They began to play some blues, Tom teaching his daughter chords along the way. There we sat, basking in the cool desert breeze and the warm glow of the fire under the vivid night sky. The next morning, Lauren and I were on the road once again.

I tell this story because I feel that there is something genuinely special about experiencing a new city in this manner – avoiding the tedium of a hotel room and making a new friend along the way. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t all rosy. Despite the fact that we had a great time with Tom, he was clearly attracted to Lauren in a way that would have made both of us uncomfortable had I not been there. He didn’t make any moves that suggested forcefulness or downright audacity, but there were plenty of those awkwardly long hugs that reeked a bit of desperation. Still, knowing what I do now, I would gladly take my chances on another CouchSurfer. There wasn’t a single moment that I felt unsafe, and we left with some trinkets for our trip that we wouldn’t have been able to get any other way: some excellent memories, a new friend, and a pretty sweet stack of jazz albums that Tom had burned for me.

Tom and Anja with their guitars.

Just some beautiful woman I met in Santa Fe. Note: the breweries there were awesome.

A wedding procession leading through the park... with MARIACHIS!

The sunset leaving Santa Fe. While you can't see it here, it was blood red due to forest fires come up from California and Arizona. Just freakishly beautiful.


  1. Yael Zakon-BourkeJune 9, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    I'm so sorry to hear that Santa Fe has become that touristy. Many moons ago it was a very earthy, cool, mostly authentic place where the Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American cultures came together in interesting ways.

  2. Justin, you write so eloquently about your experiences. It is wonderful to read about the richness of your adventures. I can't wait to hear about New Orleans!