As luck would have it, I was going to spend last Saturday night in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I drove my daughter to the small town of Deming (about an hour west of there) where she could catch the Sunset Limited heading east to New Orleans. Rail travel in this country is designed to fail but those of us who choose to ride the rails make the best of it. That’s not the topic of this little essay, though I may touch on it again.
As my occasional readers might know, I am fond of old hotels and, if given the option, I will choose to stay in an older hotel in the middle of town than in a Holiday Inn Express or Motel 6 out by the interstate. I’m a preservationist and I encourage efforts to keep some of these classic places going. I was initially disappointed with Las Cruces because there didn’t seem to be any older hotels other than the palatial spa/country club. Finally, I saw a listing for a place called the Lundeen Inn of the Arts. Descriptions were murky, but it seemed to be a cross between an art gallery and an inn or a bed and breakfast. It was only for one night, so I chose to stay there.
I’ll save the full-dress description for another time. Just picture in your imagination a large, though semi-hidden, Spanish-Mediterranean house sitting back behind a courtyard wall and surrounded by large trees. Once inside, the walls were covered with paintings and I could see that the structure rambled off in all different directions and to various levels. The front desk was unattended – not a person in sight. I rang the bell about five times before a little girl, about seven years old, came down stairway. She went off to fetch her grandmother who arrived breathless but smiling from the back yard. This was Linda, the lady of the manor, so to speak. We had a brief chat on where I was from and how my trip was going. As we talked she was deciding what room I should have. She decided on the Georgia O’Keeffe Room – upstairs at the end of the balcony overlooking the two-story great room and dining room. Georgia never slept there but the room displayed her paintings – or rather prints of her paintings.
Linda is about ninety years old and has lived in this house for fifty years. Her husband was a prominent local architect who purchased the property – two older houses back then – and re-worked them into this intriguing and somewhat convoluted inn. Linda’s husband died a couple years ago but she is carrying on with the help of her daughter who does most of the heavy lifting (but stays in the background). I’m the Vice-president of the New Mexico Architectural Foundation but was somehow unfamiliar with Mr. Lundeen or his work – so Linda filled me in. He was quite accomplished, was a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, and was responsible for several local buildings in Las Cruces as well as preservation work on some of the old churches or adobe structures in the area. Most of what one sees at the inn is his work – done by his hands – and it is impressive and obviously a labor of love.
We talked of architecture for some time and I learned that Linda was originally from Albuquerque and had a lot of stories about what was there fifty years ago and what has been lost over time. She still is upset over the loss of the 1902 Alvarado Hotel – a grand Harvey House establishment that served as the city’s train station. The hotel was demolished around 1970 and, frankly, I’m a little upset about it myself although I never got to see it. She and her school-girl friends would sneak the several blocks from the high school to “lunch” at the Alvarado and pretend that someday they would be of the proper society to travel and stay in grand hotels. Linda, an artist in her own right, had gallery shows in Paris so I suspect she made it.
Linda had work to do, and so she sent me off to Old Mesilla, the original Spanish community south of town to see the plaza and basilica church. There was an Indian market in the plaza and I ended up buying a hand-woven rug as well and stopped in at a little cantina for a beer and local color. Local color is not what it used to be since everyone has a cell phone to stare at. Linda’s husband had reworked a local adobe house into a fine restaurant on the Mesilla plaza – the Double Eagle – and she encouraged me to go in and see the place. It was my choice for supper and it was not disappointing in terms of food or architecture. The place was a little eclectic with crystal chandeliers hanging from Spanish colonial ceilings and a huge walnut bar. Like many old New Mexico adobe homes, the place is somewhat broken up and it reveals itself to you as you explore. There’s no “open concept” design in these old places so you must wander a little.
My night at the inn passed quietly. There were other guests at the inn although I didn’t meet them or even know they were there until morning. I’ve since seen online reports from other travelers that my room (mine and Georgia’s) was haunted. You couldn’t prove it by me. It was very comfortable, and I slept well. Some folks have wild imaginations.
I met the other guests the next morning. One gentleman was from Albuquerque and was there buying a small condo next door in an adjoining building (once part of the inn). There was a young writer from New York City who was in New Mexico to capture material for a writing project. There was a retired English professor and his librarian wife from Alamogordo. He now is a volunteer park ranger at White Sands National Monument. Lastly there was me, endearingly eccentric as always, and also Linda, our hostess. We began talking around eight in the morning over coffee, continued through breakfast and on to about eleven o’clock when we realized that the day was passing us by. Linda had lots of stories about various celebrities who stayed at the inn…some good and some bad. A movie was filmed there some years ago and movie crews are notorious for not paying their bills. I can imagine the place being the setting for a novel.
Our young writer was enthralled with New Mexico, a common reaction. Her friends in New York think she will move here – she says no but I think she is hooked. She was not much of a morning person but came around after about a half hour. She has written screen plays but nothing we had heard of. Her parents came from Iran back in the days of the Shah’s regime and then couldn’t return home after the revolution.
The English professor is not a writer but has several ideas and notes for writing projects. He is mostly engaged in the park ranger work these days. He spoke of a French couple and their son who went on a hike through the White Sands desert a while back with only a small amount of water. The mother turned back but became disoriented. The rangers found the mother first and luckily checked her digital camera to learn that the father and the boy were also out in the dunes -- somewhere. The parents both died from the heat and dehydration in just a few hours, but the boy survived. The desert is beautiful but can be lethal at the same time. Our young writer friend was heading to White Sands that afternoon, so she was given advice and several water bottles. Our conversation went on like this touching on many subjects but avoiding others. I’ve not talked with people this long in recent months when the topic doesn’t stray to politics. Not this time – no politics and no religion, which are often entwined topics these days.
It was a very pleasant experience. It was a comfortable space with people who had no urgent schedule or agenda other than to enjoy the company and the morning’s conversation. The only other place where I’ve encountered this openness and social commitment to lengthy conversation has been on long-distance trains (I told you I’d be back to this, eventually). A passenger train is a community on wheels. No one with an urgent schedule would choose to travel by rail across the country so they are generally open to meeting new people and sharing in conversation, often for hours…or miles. That is a lost art in this country. We are controlled by technology or the calendar or the clock and are too self-absorbed to even have the inclination toward meeting strangers and getting to know them.
There are few venues left where this can happen. My daughter walked the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a couple years ago and related the interesting transient friendships and conversations she had with other pilgrims. That harkens back to Chaucer and his pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. We really are social animals and need to get back to the idea that our fellow pilgrims have something interesting to say.