We live about an hour down the road from one of the most desirable travel destinations in the US – Santa Fe. Called “The City Different,” it is just that – a simultaneously well-heeled and funky center for the arts, cuisine and state government. You can easily spend an entire weekend crawling from one gallery to another, stopping only for some of the best meals you’ll ever have. It’s a heck of a resource, and one that frankly we have never truly availed ourselves of. But these last few years, we’ve changed that pattern, and now we consider it a low-cost, low-commitment trip to our own miniature Europe. Just different enough to satisfy our travel itch without any of the inconvenience.

The thing that pushed us in this direction is the Santa Fe Grower’s Market. It’s held each Saturday throughout the year at The Railyards, a nicely renovated former station for regional trains that today holds a few shops, several galleries, a cinema, restaurants, a couple of coffee shops and a big indoor space for farm goods, pastries and all kinds of handmade “stuff.” In the warmer months, growers and artists set up tents along the tracks that today serve the New Mexico Rail Runner, a commuter train that runs between Santa Fe and Belen to the south, with several Albuquerque stops along the way. Across the tracks is the Museum Shop, open from October to March which houses all kinds of things – antiques, rugs, art and imported handcrafts. There is always music playing and the people-watching is exceptional.

While we don’t always go there with a goal, sometimes we pick up locally grown vegetables, mushrooms and the occasional string of dried Marigolds for our cousin Barbara. Sometimes we don’t buy anything because wandering around and taking in the sights is reward enough.

Today was a classic New Mexico fall day – blue sky, 30° temperature, cottonwoods blazing yellow all along the way. The drive is quite beautiful on a day like this. A sable-colored desert landscape dotted with green junipers, the cottonwood bosque along the Rio just beginning to switch from summer green to autumn gold. I always feel like it would be worth it to stop and get a photo, but Interstate 25 is not the most hospitable place to hop out of the car. So, on we go.

Leaving Bernalillo where we join the highway, the road mostly remains level and heads due north. A climb here and a climb there starts to eat away at the 2200 feet elevation difference between our valley home and our destination. It goes on like this until we reach La Bajada, a steep climb up the face of an ancient mesa, formed when the Jemez Supervolcano blew its top 1.25 million years ago, and lava flowed prodigiously in all directions from the collapsed dome of the mountain. Any north-south trip through the center of New Mexico shows the same pattern – the Rio Grande Rift, one of the deepest rift valleys in the world, bookended by fault-block mountains on the east and the associated volcanoes on the west. On this drive, the lovely Sandia mountains form our eastern horizon and the Jemez lava fields the west. The Rio cuts between the two, offering the water that allowed this area to be inhabited at all.

Every time I drive up La Bajada, I think about those first Spanish settlers, dragging their oxen and wagons up a road, crudely hacked out of the hard, black basalt. It must have been a miserable task, and given the danger, at an untold cost in lives of people and animals. At the top though, their goal became apparent – the base of the southernmost stretch of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the flat span of land that would become home to the city.

Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the oldest capital and second oldest (to Saint Augustine, 1565) European-founded city in the United States. And while most of us think about the Pilgrims and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the area around our state capital was well-settled almost 25 years before those Pilgrims decided to end their exile in Holland. As the capital of the Spanish Province of Nuevo Mejico, Santa Fe remained in Spanish and then independent Mexican hands throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries and served as the western terminus of the Santa Fe Trail which opened trade between the colonies of Spain and the growing United States. Trade ultimately was New Spain’s downfall- with obvious riches and plentiful land, the United States declared war and defeated the newly independent country of Mexico and gained the entirety of the former Spanish southwest with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

This time of year, the growers bring in late season crops – apples, carrots, turnips and chiles. It’s also the season when ristras (wreathes of dried chiles) and sagebrush “smudge sticks” make their first appearances. Chile is roasting fresh which imparts that special aroma, unique to this part of the world. Adding to the ambience today was a troupe of marimba players, knocking out tunes for an appreciative crowd of locals and tourists.

We did our typical wandering about, picking up some goodies here and there. I finally connected with the artist Michael Colombo who does block prints with designs based on ancient Native American motifs, on paper handmade by his wife Barbara Barkley. Having bought a piece of theirs in the past, I’d had an eye out for them over the last year or so and recently, they’d re-appeared at the market a month or so ago.  On that visit, I’d asked for print of a raven and Barbara had promised she’d get one done and call me, which she didn’t. But there they were there, and we finally connected amidst an exchange of “Oh my god I’m so sorry” and “Not to worry.” At least I got it.

An hour or two is usually enough to do a good job of covering the food and the art and the shop across the tracks so it was back to the car and home to feed the ever-patient ponies waiting out back.