Something buzzing in the desert

Sasha Abramsky finds an alternative America in New Mexico, where high above sun-baked desert sits an isolated city of crafts, culture and the odd violin
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The Independent Culture
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, high in the mountains above the desert plateaus that once hosted nuclear explosions, an apparition standing at the back of a cathedral, under a frieze of the crucified Christ, plucks at a viola and begins to sob.

The skinny old man paces up and down in his patched jeans and long white shirt, fingering his instrument and chanting the notes as he plays. "C, D. C, D. F, C. F, C." He has an ecstatic expression on his face and his eyes light up. He is having a mystical experience. He falls to his knees, never stopping the playing and chanting and he bows down to the floor. "C, D. C, D." The whispering, cracked old voice continues. He begins panting with emotion, shouts out "Whoops!" as he hits what must be a wrong note in his litany, reaches down to a pew and picks up his bow. He begins playing Amazing Grace, and as he plays he sings, and as he sings he sobs.

The apparition wanders in the dim light at the back of the Spanish-styled cathedral for an hour. And finally, as the early morning gives way to mid-morning, a priest walks in, approaches the violist and starts to scream at him, "You are not allowed in here! I told you to play in the back room! You are not allowed in the church!" And he hustles the weeping violist into a little vestibule behind the main body of the cathedral and slams the door.

The mystic's name is Jimmy Langenbruner, and when he shakes my hand his 74-year-old skin feels as frail as ancient parchment. His friends, he says, call him Uncle Jim. When he was satisfied that the priest had left, he began playing his heartbreaking music again, very softly, at the back of the cathedral, and his eyes lit up once more.

I left the cathedral and Uncle Jim's music and headed back to the square, to Santa Fe's old adobe Spanish heart and the shop windows crammed with ethnic clothing, jewellery and statues. The stores which, a couple of hours previously, were silent reminders of the fact that I had woken up way too early for my own good, by the side of the road and stuffed into a sleeping bag in the front seat of my car, were now crowded with the Southwestern chic crowd - tanned, self-confident, and adorned with silver and turquoise bracelets and belts. The Tex-Mex restaurants were serving guacamole and burritos.

New Mexico and its neighbouring states are enigmas in America's popular self-image. In a country that is supposed to have a linear history from east to west and to have been created, in its modern form, by early northern European migrants settling in the 13 colonies strung along the Atlantic seaboard, and - over the centuries - journeying ever westward, the history of the Southwest is frequently ignored.

In pop-history mythology, as the pioneers travelled westward into the unknown, so they conquered, cultivated and modernised. By the early 20th century, movie stars and moguls were sitting in futuristic palaces overlooking the endless beaches of southern California and the expansion westward was complete. Less well known is that the city of Los Angeles was first incorporated in 1781 and that the oldest government building in the country is not in Philadelphia, Boston or even New York, but in the small New Mexican mountain town of Santa Fe.

Of course, both Los Angeles and Santa Fe were, when first populated by Europeans, part of the Spanish-Americas. In fact, until 1848, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas were Mexico's northern territories, underpopulated wildernesses possessed of a spectacular and unconquerable beauty. In that year, the United States defeated the Mexicans in war and signed a treaty in which Mexico ceded most of the Southwest to the United States. Five years later, Mexico was forced to sell its remaining territories in Southern Arizona and New Mexico for the somewhat paltry sum of $10 million.

Like much of the Southwest, Santa Fe's early history was ferociously bloody. The first Spanish governor was Juan de Onate, who entered the region in 1598, and proceeded to cut off one of the feet of every native man he encountered. The second governor, Pedro de Paralta, began building up Santa Fe in 1607 and, within five years, the city possessed a large arsenal, a jail, a chapel, and, in 1610, the Palace of Governors. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the small town began to acquire prominence as a strategic trading post along the Santa Fe Trail, and the Palace became one of the more important landmarks in the region.

Nowadays, it is a museum. And the paved area surrounding it is ringed by Native Americans from nearby reservations selling their wares: trinkets of silver and turquoise, leather belts, woven serapes and ponchos. Every morning, before the rest of the city rises, the would-be merchants stand in line, drawing numbers to see who will get to occupy one of the highly prized spaces that day. The winners set up their exhibits on woven blankets spread out on hot stone, selling small reminders of a once-proud past to the residents and affluent tourists who flock to this high-altitude art community. The losers depart to await another day. The art costs many times what it would out in the desert heat in the crumbled-down stalls set up mournfully on the sides of the freeways, but the suntanned tourists buy in abundance.

Santa Fe has been a sanctuary for artists and hippies for decades now. It is a cosmopolitan island in a state so remote that huge tracts remain sealed off as military testing grounds, un-mapped in atlases, out of bounds to all civilians, in a state where green-glass deserts still hint of the atomic testing at Los Alamos, and where ranchers periodically rise up in armed rebellion against federal agents from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hard to reach by airplane, tourists generally drive into the area, either flying into the city of Albuquerque and renting a car or - for those with more time - driving across country from one or other of the coasts, detouring off the interstates that sprawl across the continent and winding upwards more than 7,000 feet into the narrow streets of Old Santa Fe. There they come upon a near-perfect climate - crisply cold in winter, rarely too hot in summer - pure air, and a community which looks like it might have been born out of a Disney strategist's vision of what history should look like, with the added advantage of actually being real.

City ordinances insist that all buildings in the centre of town are designed in 17th-century Spanish adobe style: low, muddy-brown coloured buildings, arches, internal courtyards.

There is something somewhat twee about Santa Fe, so removed from both coasts, so secluded in its determined bohemianism. But there is also something powerfully seductive about it: on Saturdays, artists set up stalls in the old Spanish square; craft shops sell hybrid stocks of Native American and native hippie work; cowboys in tight-fitting jeans, pointed boots and ten-gallon hats sip cappuccinos in air-conditioned cafes.

Santa Fe implies restaurants, museums, old chapels and new art. Like other creative centres around the Southwest, it is a delicately crafted mirage. History forms a permanent backdrop to the Bohemian present here; but, unlike in the depressed little villages that dot the lowland desert, that history is never allowed to overshadow the carefully nurtured affluent tranquillity that makes that present so appealing.

Back in the cathedral, away from the day's gentle chaos outside, Uncle Jim continues to play his eerie music. And Manny, the priest, continues to bustle him into the back room. The inside front wall of the building is covered with a frieze of the saints. And one of them is Saint Salonica, carrying a violin. Uncle Jim's voice, so faint and light that it sounds as if it could be carried away by the birds, intones: "I said to Manny, `You're the kind of priest who would have exiled Salonica to Peru.'" He smiles and continues his endless playing. Amazing Grace. Over and over again.

! Trailfinders (0171 938 3939) offers return flights to Albuquerque from pounds 322 off season. From there it is an hour's drive to Santa Fe, buses run direct from the airport. Accommodation in Santa Fe is widely available both in hotels and youth hostels. For further information contact the Santa Fe CVB (001 505 984 6760) or the New Mexico State Tourism Depart- ment (00 l 505 821 7400).