Early spring 2018 I took a train from Midwest to Southwest. First from Jefferson City to Kansas City, Missouri. Then from KC to Lamy, New Mexico on the Southwest Chief Amtrak service. The golden light, crisp air and mountain views I then encountered walking the high plateau into Santa Fe enchanted me. Adding in a unique Meow Wolf experience, good yoga classes, numerous walking paths and high quality food made Santa Fe one of my favorite US city experiences to date.
I began my trek to New Mexico from the historic Missouri River landing Amtrak station in Jefferson City, MO (Lewis and Clark once hung out there). There were a few freshly released prisoners excitedly waiting for the train towards Kansas City with me. The crisp brown paper bags with their few possessions, the generic clothing and the armed officers waiting calmly nearby gave them away.
Two men in suits and fedora hats offered brochures on Jesus Christ behind me as I stood outside to see the train arrive. This midday run of the Missouri River Runner was a quiet one. I claimed a window seat and caught a nap or two over the course of the 3 hour ride. A single conversation between conductor and passenger carried the length of my train car as I dozed off.
Things livened up in KC. The historic Union Station in Kansas City is a restored, spacious treasure. Amazing acoustics were apparent as the waiting hall filled with the melodic sounds of a man singing with a woman playing guitar from a bench at the far end. I joined in with an elderly couple walking perimeter laps and clapping dutifully at the close of each song:
At just before 11pm my Southwest Chief service pulled out of the station headed westward. I had a fitful night’s sleep. I don’t shell out the big money for the sleeper bunk on Amtrak, so it’s just me wearily waking to turn my bony butt every hour to even out the discomfort.
Even with approx 19 hours of total train time, I didn’t really accomplish much more than feeding myself enough to survive and doing lots of staring out the window. I typically exist in a foggy, lifeless state somewhere between sleeping and awake on long train rides. I pull out a book, but really just clutch it to my leg. I check my phone to see if I still have reception and maybe smile a few times at fellow passengers when ambling down the spiral stairs to the restrooms.
I did endeavor into the dining car for one of my meals though. I had breakfast across from a knowledgeable 20-year-old aspiring pilot. He was traveling from near Nashville, TN with his grandfather and they were en route to Las Vegas. He said he was the oldest of 9 and played the fiddle in the family band which he let me listen to a clip from. He spoke adoringly of his 15-year-old brother who plays guitar and is an archery master.
At my prompting, he also clued me in on the flavors of wild game. The family lives in a very rural area where they can freely hunt. He recommended soaking deer meat in milk before cooking it and said dove is the “filet mignon” of bird meat.
After going back to my seat to resume vegging out for another few hours, I made my way to the observation car and took in this amazing scene for a bit:
Finally, the bright landscape of New Mexico was coming into view. Sun baked, wide open vistas with mountains in the distance:
Excited to hop off 16 hours after boarding in Kansas City. The train was only 10 minutes or so behind schedule which is fairly fortunate for such a long haul on Amtrak. I needed every bit of remaining daylight to walk approximately 9 miles from the station to my Airbnb for the evening.
So bright getting off the train:
The modest station building:
Passing thru the tiny station waiting area, the woman working asked if I had someone coming to pick me up. She was not at all pleased when I replied “no I’m just gonna walk it” without hesitation.
It was sunny and a little windy as I made my way out on the road to follow into town. A tribute to earlier inhabitants of the area:
Not sure when any of this ever opens:
The Lamy station is remote. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway chose to bypass Santa Fe on its march to reach the Pacific back in 1880. Geography made it easier and more economical to make Santa Fe reachable only from an 18 mile connector branching off from the main line:
Railroads were a big deal back then as you can see from the intricacy of the map (or from a deep American railroad history dive here).
The car is of course now king in America. I followed this solitary stretch of road on toward the mountains and civilization. The warm wind was strong enough in my face to threaten blowing off my hat:
I was in search of a much debated trail connection. The debate had been raging between my Airbnb host and myself over the existence of a perfect, diagonal path into his neighborhood that I had noted from deep study on Google Maps. My host had been adamant for a week that it was a solid 13.5 miles to his house when I thought it would be only 9 thanks to the trail.
Thankfully, I turned out to be the correct one. Found a trailhead:
So I was following the disused rail line connector to Santa Fe! The sign marking the trail being so subtle (actually walked right past without seeing it at first) coupled with the doubts of my host left me in need of some reassurance still.
Sighting a fellow hiker coming towards me as I came around the first corner was just what I needed. I got just a blank, 20 mile stare from this guy, but seeing someone walking confidently with a backpack along the tracks was very comforting:
It was just so stunningly beautiful hiking up and down gentle inclines on soft dirt alongside the old tracks. The breeze carried the scent of juniper bushes:
My host had realized his miscalculation about the trail by the time I arrived just before sunset. He greeted me excitedly showing much respect for my savvy trekking. He had a gorgeous home with a courtyard, patios and several skylights.
An amazing meal quickly came together of pasta primavera, a garden salad, garlic bread and sweet potato fries prepared in some otherworldly creation he called an “oil free pressure fryer.”
This guy was exceptionally interested and talented with all things food and drink. When I mentioned kombucha while we ate, on cue he offered up his own homemade brew. He promised to make amazing, nutrient dense homemade waffles for breakfast along with one to pack for a hiking snack. What a legend.
Alluring view off the kitchen patio come morning:
Work station of our friendly mad food scientist:
I had interesting conversation over breakfast with another resident in the house who was a kundalini yoga enthusiast. The extreme altitude of the region (7,000 feet) had contributed to a lack of oxygen in her blood and to her brain following a tweak to her vagus nerve performing a kundalini kriya involving vigorous head shaking. She needed to be hospitalized for a period of time and took some time to recover.
The altitude was yet to bother me, but the wide open, high plateau we were on was due to be affected by gusty winds before midday. I needed to get going before any dusty winds kicked up to slow me as I had over10 miles to cover to make the Santa Fe city line.
Extremely well-nourished, I made my way out of the house and began navigating north up to downtown Santa Fe. As I passed a few locals walking dogs and jogging, I noticed how unhurried they were. It was like things were in slow motion almost compared the usual pace of recreation I see in America. Must be the New Mexico magic.
I rejoined my hard won trail following the old train tracks to head north. The clouds began to clear as I strolled along for yet another glorious stretch of hiking:
I wasn’t moving very fast either; the scenery was so charming I just didn’t want it to end. Heard hints of the serenity ending ahead of me though. A highway bridge hissed over the trail in the distance:
All was not lost though even with reaching the city line. Santa Fe keeps the trail going on pavement right down the middle of town:
Coming into central Santa Fe, I saw lots of cozy adobe buildings. Several oozing with character:
Very compact neighborhoods with not many roads going thru:
I spilled out along a main road eventually to find my accommodation:
Dropped off my stuff and took a quick nap. It felt amazing just to be indoors in very still air. The skin on my face felt sore from being battered by the wind.
Refreshed enough to venture back out, I searched for architectural character amongst midtown shopping plazas:
These newer parts of town lost their charm when I was faced with this dangerous, car-tastic street to cross. Not a crosswalk in sight for blocks either direction, so I surfed the median until there was a break in traffic:
Relieved to make it across the river of cars, it was just a few quiet blocks to a yoga studio:
You don’t get special yoga parks like that pretty much anywhere else. Slow clap for Santa Fe Community Yoga everybody. I was in a very solid evening yoga class with lots of friendly people. I get very quickly acclimated in cities by going to yoga and being part of a group.
I grabbed pizza on the way back to eat in my room. 16 miles total walked for the day, so I ate almost a whole large pizza before collapsing into a deep slumber.
Up the next morning and feeling hangry, I plotted my route for the day to begin with a stop at Counter Culture Cafe. This place was gold. Hip but not too much so; for instance they are cash only no credit cards or Apple Pay. The polished, modern coffee shop aesthetic is there, but they serve legit and abundantly portioned food; not just delicate pastries or other nutrient lacking foods.
Very pleased to be catered to so gracefully as a pedestrian in the blocks ahead. Check out this artful road underpass:
I was coming into Santa Fe’s refurbished rail yard complex. Wow. Extensive landscaping with native plants, lots of places to sit, trees, a variety of walkways, even a community garden area. Checking in on its history, the rail yard fell into total disuse and neglect in the 80’s before dramatic rebirth in the early 2000’s:
This is me in 40 years:
I was getting into the crowds as I crossed the next street. The Saturday farmer’s market was in full swing. Not everyone had gotten the message about the new deluxe pedestrian plaza though...a late model car with an elderly driver came careening down a sidewalk thru the crowd like it was a road…thankfully without incident. Cue for me to reroute.
I bailed out eastward, heading for a cluster of government buildings. The area was sure to not be a bustling spot on a weekend with all the offices closed. Aside from a speeding golf cart leading a tour for the less energetic, it was extremely quiet on the streets. The only stirring came from flags whipping in the wind high above the Bataan Memorial Building.
A statue tribute to the United States CCC, our Civilian Conservation Corps who maintained and enhanced natural resources on public lands in New Mexico and across the country from 1933 to 1942:
My keen street instincts put me down one of the oldest roads in town next:
Narrow streets mean that cars must proceed slowly when using them, thus tipping the balance of power in favor of bikes and pedestrians. Note the contrast between this pleasant road and the extra wide, much newer, multiple lane road I cowered in the middle of earlier in this post. Modern urban design is strongly tipped in favor of cars, which hampers my experience as a humble pedestrian over much of my travels.
My other worst fears about Santa Fe were right around the corner. I had come into the land of tourist shops:
Swerving away from masses of middle-aged couples walking hand in hand in awe of the expensive souvenirs, I locked my eyes on a distant historical cathedral:
Spectacular but still swarming with tourism:,
It was nearing time for my yoga workshop. I made a beeline back to the center of town. I passed cool artistic touches on quiet side streets on the way to the Yoga Source studio:
I learned a lot about the shoulders in the workshop with Patti Zolnick. The knowledge was a gain for future yoga teaching and going through the movements gave my upper body great relief after so much hiking with a 20 pound pack on.
My beeline after yoga got out was to the south of town. A nice diagonal shortcut helped break up the monotony of walking along straight ribbons of road with cars speeding past:
This sort of pedestrian savior path is an example of a “desire line.” The passionate city planner in this video can explain more about desire lines and how smart urban design can and should feature them. He also starts by going over how many people are injured and killed in/by cars every year:
Back to typical terrain shortly after:
I was headed for an otherworldly destination called Meow Wolf. Several people had recommended I go, so I didn’t doubt it would be worth the trek.
The outfits of my fellow visitors were evidence of the kooky, artsy vibe pulsing thru the building:
Meow Wolf is a place where you can comfortably sport last year’s Halloween costume to walk around in and not get strange looks. Basically, it’s a big adult play zone where you can act like a curious kid again while exploring numerous elaborately decorated passageways.
It just simply has to be experienced in person to be fully understood and appreciated. Here are some pics:,
Things weren't anywhere close to normal once I was back on the outside:
Heading back up Cerrillos Road the late day light was incredible:
When I turned back to look for the sunset, though, it became apparent an alien landing might be imminent. Check out these insane colors:
Quite a trippy 2 hours for me. Almost too much visual stimulation to handle. I’ve never been so soothed by darkness and being among basic strip mall businesses as I was that night walking back to my motel room:
Gusty winds swept me back to my room for one last sleep. A glimpse at the decor in the morning light:
One last stroll up the path running north-south down the middle of the city:
I waited under the crystal clear blue sky for a bus north to the town of Taos. My Santa Fe experience had been a great one. Arriving via train and beautiful trail made for a quintessential Berndog start to the experience. The humble adobe architecture in the city, the evident care taken to establish and preserve public spaces, artistic touches inside and outside spaces, the great food and the mountains circled around it all made Santa Fe very endearing.
So how did Santa Fe stack up overall for me? Check the scoring:
Berndog City Score: Santa Fe, NM
Weird to be Walking Score(1=everyone thinks I’m homeless to 5=part of a pedestrian parade): 4
Public Spaces and Places(parks and buildings where anyone can hang out 1=none to 5=lots): 4
Screwed Without a Car Factor(1=no bus or train & wide busy roads to 5=I’m in Manhattan): 3
Food Scene(1=fast food, bad chains & gas station groceries to 5=local farm to table all over): 4
Access to Nature(1=endless concrete prairie to 5=in the shadow of mountains): 4
Cityscape(1=strip malls & boring new buildings to 5=locally distinct style with historic districts): 4
Total Score: 23 out of a possible 30. Highest scoring city for me yet.
Cheers for reading and thanks to the good people of Santa Fe. Stay tuned for more posts on beautiful New Mexico in the future.