Archive | May 2017

Enchanted Landscapes


When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. Georgia O’Keeffe

There is a sacredness of eternal space and time in the landscapes of New Mexico. Its broad blue sky, vast terrain, rugged mountains of  reddish tints mixed with layers of grey and white are awe-inspiring.  No wonder Georgia O’Keeffe was so enamored of this seductive landscape!  We spent two magnificent days walking in her steps at Ghost Ranch.  The massive open spaces around it provided unlimited subjects for her paintings.  Walking as she did, admiring the landscape awash in color, we observed the scenery she so deftly interpreted on her canvases.

She was not a realist, nor did she want to be.  Rather her paintings are personal interpretations of the images before her.  She wanted to paint as no one had before.  In that sense, her style is typically American.

We also visited O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, an old Spanish adobe a few miles southwest of Ghost Ranch.  There we got a glimpse into the simplicity and order of her life.  Atop a hill that offered expansive views of the natural surroundings, the old home with its seven thousand square feet took three years to renovate. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, we too were seduced by the beauty of the limitless panorama.  Although,our visit was short, we got a good feeling of why this place was so special to her.  We’d like to come back and stay a week, basking in the tranquility and grander of Ghost Ranch and its environs.


Plaza Blanca (painted several times by O’Keeffe

Once our visit to Abiquiu was done, we headed to Mesa Verde in Arizona.  About a mile and a half north of Ghost Ranch, the passenger rear tire of our minivan blew to shreds.  Melanie was driving and safely steered the vehicle to the shoulder.  We immediately called AAA.  We learned that we did not have a spare when a tow truck stopped to help us before AAA arrived.  Imagine our surprise and dismay!  Here we are on a two lane highway, far away from any town, stuck on a desert road with no spare tire.  We called AAA again and informed them that we did not have a spare as earlier reported.  When the truck arrived, he was willing to tow us to a garage in a town forty-seven miles away, except he could only take two passengers with him.  By then it was pouring rain.  We finally persuaded him to take Melanie and MariThé back to Ghost Ranch and then return for Christian and me.  We bought a tire, returned to Ghost Ranch to pick up MariThé and Melanie and began anew our journey to Mesa Verde.

About an hour before reaching Mesa Verde, we ran into a tremendous hail storm that made visibility difficult and driving through the accumulation of two inches of hail on the ground treacherous.  We almost stopped but decided not to because we wanted to reach Mesa Verde before the restaurant closed at 9:30 pm.  But that was not the end of our driving difficulties.  When we reached Mesa Verde, there was a heavy fog as we climbed in altitude along the remote and tortuous hairpin turns in the dark.  We were so happy to arrive safely, we treated ourselves to cocktails before dinner and a good bottle of wine to accompany our meal.  We were giddy at dinner, laughing about our day’s misfortunes.

The next day we visited the pre-historic Indian cliff dwelling sites on the Mesa Verde.  At the Balcony House, we had to first descend a staircase along the cliff and then after a few yards climb a thirty-foot ladder to reach the dwelling.  With my fear of heights, descending the staircase was difficult enough, but I was hesitant to climb the ladder. I also learned that this would be the first of three ladders to climb.  So with Melanie’s encouragement, I faced my fears and climbed the ladder.  It was an agonizingly  slow climb.  Thankfully, Melanie climbed beside me, reminding me to keep my eyes forward and not to look down.  When I made it to the top ledge, I was overwhelmed with pride.  It’s something I thought I could never do.  Several people in our group, including the Park Ranger, applauded my success in facing my fear.  So this side note is for my friend, Randy Isaacson, who knows my fear of heights —  I did it !  If I hadn’t, I would have missed getting a glimpse of how these pre-historic people lived.

Once we left Mesa Verde, we headed to Gallup, New Mexico.  Throughout the day there were episodes of pounding rain which made driving difficult.  What struck me most as we traversed the large territory that the United States Government ceded to the Indians as the Navajo reservation was the starkness of the parched landscape.  The dominant color of the dry land was a dusky red.  Along the remote highway we saw strings of trailer settlements and shanty towns.  I kept wondering how do these Native People survive in such a desolate place?  How are they employed and by whom?  From what source does their water and electricity come? What, if any, modern day amenities are available to them?  One of the most enduring images I have of our traverse  across the Navajo reservation is of the trains of the Santa Fe railroad speeding rapidly across the barren desert, its cars filled with the commercial and industrial advances of the modern world in stark contrast to the poverty of the communities it was passing through.  What was most remarkable about this barren, flat, dusky  landscape were the massive rock formations that appear to erupt suddenly.  They stood majestically tall and broad, isolated and alone every few miles, bearing names like Shiprock and Window Rock depending upon their formations.

As we sped across the reservation, my thoughts were centered on the injustices perpetrated on the Native People since the first European settlers.  My mind raced through the events of the forced migration of the Native People and the Trail of Tears.  And even today the sacred land of the Dakotas will be besmirched by an oil pipeline. When we stopped for gas, a copy of the Navajo Times caught my attention.  In it was an article written by a young Navajo college student about her Navajo identity and her journey to full acceptance of self that deeply moved me.   Her story is one that resonates with many minorities living in America.

Once we reached Gallup, New Mexico, we took a one day jaunt to discover Canyon de Chelly with its magnificent scenery.  The majestic formations of the rocks swathed in a reddish color, blazed from every direction and held us captive in awe and admiration.  We saw the canyon from above at several points in the road.

We would have loved to have taken a jeep tour within the bowels of the canyon.  Perhaps, the next time.  Imagine the powerful and turbulent forces of nature that shaped these rocks into their current tranquil state.   Even the most hardened disbeliever can be moved into a meditative state.

We continued our journey along the Petrified Forest, a reminder of nature’s destructive force millennia  ago.  What remains now are clusters of petrified wood spread across a vast landscape.  The archeologist, John Muir, is one of the pioneering researchers to help preserve this area. The landscape, empty of color, still had a mesmerizing effect, particularly at the thought of what had been.

From the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, we were to visit friends from South Bend who now live in Wickenburg, Arizona before heading to visit Paul, my son, and daughter-in-law, Katie in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, a few days before our scheduled visit we received a phone call from Mary indicating that her oldest son had just passed away suddenly with a heart attack.  Our prayers are with the Filberts during this sad period in their lives.  At Mary’s suggestion we called other friends from South Bend, John and Martha Borkowski who allowed us to stay in their timeshare in Sedona.  So here we are in this beautiful settting, an oasis in the mountains encased by the desert clime of Arizona.  Our first night here was a simple meal of salad, wine and cheese.  The next day, Christian and MariThé went off to explore the natural surroundings while Melanie and I profited from a tranquil afternoon and morning on the patio that extends into a shaded garden with fragrant aromas of the flowering bushes .  Adding to the charm was a fresh, gentle breeze.  After two weeks of traveling by car, this was a welcome respite. The evening before we departed we had a delicious meal at Judi’s, a restaurant recommended by the Borkowskis.

From Sedona, we traveled to the Grand Cayon, the mother of all the great National Parks.  For our friends from France, the Grand Canyon, was the pièce de résistance, and the primary reason for their southwest tour.  Their reactions will be detailed in the next blog, Enchanted Landscapes II.


Getting Kicks on Route 66

Last spring in southern France, over wine and conversation with our French friends , we all decided to do a road trip together to the American southwest. For them it would be a new way to discover America outside of the big cities like New York, Chicago or Miami. In the months that followed, we began our planning, and with the help of our AAA travel agent we had a well-organized trip that would take us through St. Louis toward Utah and the national monuments.  Along the way, we would visit friends and family in Missouri, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Initially, we were to be five, but,unfortunately, because of health issues, one of our friends, Martine, from whom we rent when we stay in southern France, could not make the trip.  But Christian and MariThé did, and after spending a couple of days in Chicago, they joined us at our home for a week exploring Michiana.  Of course, one of the places we took them was to Shipshewana to see the Amish. They were fascinated, as I continue to be, by the Amish way of living.  Their adherence to a life unencumbered by materialism and technological advances of the modern world is laudable.

Our southwest journey began with a visit to the  Cahokia Mounds, a pre-historic Native American site that began to fade well before Columbus’ exploration of the “New World.”  We explored St. Louis, but heavy rains limited exploring the city on foot.  We had to bypass the botanical gardens, but a break in the weather did allow us to walk through  Laclede’s Landing and the park at the Arch.  The swollen Mississippi and the debris caused by the storm prevented us from traveling on paddleboat down the river. Looking at the Arch in front of the court house, we thought that the Dred Scott Street sign was an eerie reminder of a dark chapter in American history.   In 1857, the Supreme Court denied citizenship to blacks.  The street with the Arch as a backdrop hung in stark contrast to the hope of future generations that the Arch and its magnificent splendor symbolized.IMG_2110

Every time I am in St. Louis, I visit my old neighborhood in the Central West End.  I don’t know what draws me there.  Happy memories are overshadowed by personal pain. Perhaps, it’s the seduction of its quiet, shaded streets of stately three-story brick homes.  I lived at 4728 Westminster Street, just off  Euclid Street with its array of shops, restaurants, art galleries and antique stores.  The neighborhood has a uniquely European flavor.  When I moved there in the summer of  1989, the area had already begun gentrification; my home built in 1904, had recently been refurbished.  The rain that was threatening at Cahokia Mounds met us with a vengeance in St. Louis.   Visibility was so low that for a few minutes I had to pull off the road.  Later in the evening, when the rain subsided, we had dinner at Llewelyn’s, the Irish pub on McPherson Street just around the corner from my old house.  Their sweet potato fries were always a big hit with my sons, AJ and Paul.

The next evening we had a tri-lingual dinner in English, Spanish and French with  our dear friends,  Pablo and Patricia at their beautiful home.  Pablo was the World Languages Chair at Saint Louis University when I was the Academic Vice President.  As it is whenever we are with Pablo,  his colorful stories kept us laughing.


Pablo y Yo

On Sunday I attended Mass in Hyde Park at Holy Trinity, a gothic style church with tall stone pillars reminiscent of European churches.  It was perhaps the smallest Sunday service I’ve ever attended in a Catholic church.  All of the thirty congregants including the priest were over fifty.  But what the church lacked in attendance was overshadowed by its abundance of friendliness.  Stranger that I was,  several people greeted me merrily, welcoming me to the service.  Just before Mass ended I was asked to introduce myself.  I could not leave easily after Mass as several people, including the celebrant, wanted to know more about me.  The celebrant, a man who appeared to be in his late 70s , was the most talkative , revealing his enthusiasm for biking and giving a detailed accounting of how at 1 am in Breaux Bridge, LA as he was biking he encountered a priest walking.   He expressed his surprise at seeing him walking so late at night only to receive the priest’s retort that he too was amazed to see another priest biking so late at night.

The next morning, bidding farewell to Pablo and Patricia, we headed to the Southwest. Finally, after many years of listening to the velvet voice of Nat King Cole singing about the iconic Route 66, there I was on May 1, 2017, rolling along Route 66 in a rented mini-van with Melanie and our friends from Southern France, MariThé and Christian.  As Cole sang the litany of cities and towns along the route from Chicago to L. A.,  we breezed past small and large farms, and cruised slowly through worn, forgotten towns.  On one stretch of the two-lane  Route 66 highway in Missouri, a parade of vintage Corvettes zoomed toward us.    I imagined days of a by-gone era when caravans of cars rolled along long stretches of Route 66, its occupants dreaming of a better future in the West and others, whom fate blessed with more fortune, seeking lazy days on the beaches of Santa Monica.  As we made our way through Joplin, MO on Langston Hughes Avenue, a mural on the side of a brick building caught our attention.  We stopped for a closer look and marveled at the bright colors depicting contrasting images of pastoral scenes juxtaposed with an image of the Harlem Renaissance poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.


The thrill of being on Route 66 was so great that I now have it listed in my Happiness File (Bucket List) to drive the entire length from Chicago to L. A., all 2,448 miles of it.  But before I do, I must read John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the mass exodus to the west of Oklahoma farmers escaping the dust bowl. Though it was the major hub for travelers to California in its heyday, it is now a chain of disconnected highway that at large intervals overlaps with Interstates 44 and 40.  But for those unadulterated remaining fragments, the open road coupled with slow drives through mall towns would be a wonderful way to experience slices of an American past .

Until then, I am content to have this opportunity to experience what it was then like stopping at the original, but non-functioning, Lucile’s gas station, and eating in a replica of a 1950s diner.  In Elk City, Oklahoma, the National Museum of Route 66 gave us further insights into life along this iconic highway.

Now that we’re in Santa Fe, one of our favorite places to visit, we’re enjoying our time in a beautiful and spacious Adobe-style house about twenty minutes from Santa Fe’s center.

IMG_2145   As we arrived, a road runner darted across the property.  During the next three days we were hoping to see him again, but to no avail.  This elegant home was a welcome retreat from the window shopping along the plaza and gallery hopping.  Highlights included introducing our friends to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art at the small museum dedicated to her early work and to the Basilica of St. Francis.  We had scrumptious Mexican food at Tune-Up Café, a simple, rugged local place that we’ve enjoyed on previous visits, and at La Choza, new to us and recommended by a friend from South Bend, and at Café Pasqual, where we’ve also dined before.  But mostly we’ve enjoyed the evenings sitting on the terrace over cheese and wine, watching the colorful sunsets  of red, yellow and orange descend behind the distant mountains.

Before beginning our trek northward to Taos, we visited the student exhibition of seniors from the New Mexico School for the Arts in the Santa Fe Community Center.  Initially, we had thought we were going to an exhibition of painting by senior citizens, but to our surprise we saw a display of art that, in my view, was equal, or superior, to any student art exhibition at a university.

When we first arrived in Santa Fe, we saw several posters around town promoting what we thought would be an exhibition at the International Museum of Folk Art.  So, as we proceeded out of town, we stopped there only to find out it was a sale of folk art.  By the time we arrived, there were hundreds of cars in the parking lots.  The event opened at 10:00 am and we arrived at 10:30 am.  What we did not realize until then is that this is an annual event that draws people from all over the country.  Needless to say, by 10:30 am many of the best pieces had already been sold, but we did manage to buy a beautiful beaded belt and an Indian ceremonial mask.  We learned that much of the art that is sold is bequeathed to the museum by collectors and that the museum then sells the pieces that are not kept in its permanent collection.  The quality of pieces for sale warrants a return trip, but in the future we’ll arrive before 10:00 am.

From the moment we began to see the changing landscape west of Elk City, OK, from a verdant green to the more dusty ruggedness typical of the Southwest, we began to see spectacular panoramic vistas.  Each landscape being  the most beautiful until we saw the next eye-catching scenery.  Seeing this southwestern terrain through the eyes of our French friends was a totally new experience.  Their exclamations of awe and wonderment gave us a deeper appreciation for the beauty of this land.  Their connections to this territory is through the western movies with cowboys galloping across the plain.  As we rolled along, my mind was centered on the Native People who roamed this land, and who almost came to extinction.

The rich culture of the indigenous people is as apparent in the Taos Pueblo as at Cahokia Mounds. IMG_2158 Unlike at Cahokia, there are still Native People living the traditional ways in this UNESCO designated historic site.  Our guide was a young tribal woman who related the  tribe’s history.   She told of the conquest by the Spanish who brought the Catholic faith to the tribe using force to make the Indians build the church.  Today the tribe practices both the Catholic faith and its indigenous religion.  A nursing student, our guide expressed her intention to return to the tribe and work among her people.  Once the tour was finished, we were free to visit the pueblo and the small shops where the Naive People sold their crafts.  MariThé bought jewelry, and Alfred bought Melanie a leather pouch with beading signifying the stepped architecture of the pueblo and the colors of the rainbow representing good luck.  What we enjoyed most was talking to the vendors.  One young potter talked to us about his horse hair pottery; and another elderly gentlemen with beautiful dark tones to his skin, and an expressive face bemoaned how he missed President Obama.  At another shop, the vendor told Melanie that he joined the Navy because he wanted to see the world, and he related to her the different places he had been.  There is a genuine warmth and kindness among the Pueblo people.  For Melanie and me, this was our second visit to the Taos Pueblo.  Each time we feel intensely the sacredness of place and the unwavering spirituality of the Pueblo Indians that has continued throughout generations from pre-historic time to the present.