When people ask me why I moved to Santa Fe twenty years ago, I answer according to my mood: the mountains, the sky, the light—all familiar answers that most of us offer, particularly if we are artists for whom such attributes are especially important.
Yesterday, I remembered that my primary reason for moving here is that Santa Fe is a town made for women. I thank a woman I met hiking, who was barefoot—she said she’d lived for years in the rain forest where it was too hot for shoes—with this memory.
Not all women hike barefoot here. Certainly I don’t. My favorite trail, La Piedra, is as its name suggests, full off sharp-edged stone. And yet, Santa Fe is a place where a woman could hike barefoot, or bareheaded, or half-naked, or maybe even entirely naked, without feeling as exposed and vulnerable as she would most places in the world.
This doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be exposed and vulnerable. Of course she would be. But with fear, it’s the anticipation that cripples; and I see it here in the increasing number of electronic gates fencing off people’s houses, in the fence I, too, had to build to keep disagreeable trespassers from my pond, and in the anxiety everyone now evidences when seeing my dog, who looks like a pit bull but is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, walking with me without a leash.
Still, there is something about that barefoot woman that remains true of the town as a whole: a freedom that perhaps flies in the face of what we all know about the reality for women, here, everywhere, and apparently always.
Our foremothers also went barefoot, at least in terms of their attitude; the White sisters, 1920’s Bostonians who build a complex of houses and gardens here they called “El Delirio”—and apparently the parties there were delirious—and where they are buried with their dogs. They left the place to the School for American Research which funds scholars and offers programs and has an amazing collection of Native American art closed up in the basement.
About the same time Mary Wheelwright, another refugee from the strangling conventions of the east coast cities, arrived and dedicated her life and money to building the Navajo Museum, designed to look like a Hogan. As the Navajos became more anxious about protecting their spiritual heritage from white exploitation, the tapestries Wheelwright commissioned from her friend, a Navajo shaman, to preserve their rapidly vanishing sacred sand paintings, were relegated to the basement of the museum. It is right that all of us disillusioned Catholics, Protestants and atheists who nibble at the edges of an ancient culture we have nearly destroyed should be prevented from further appropriation; but it is a loss.
And there are and were many others: the three wise women of the Acequia Madre, who started the revival of the Spanish arts that were falling into a decline in the twenties, leading to the big Spanish Market that takes place here later this summer—and all the women who continue to run, and support, the not-for-profits here that ensure the survival of Indian Market (said to be the largest sale of native crafts in the country) and the new and thriving International Folk Art Market.
All these big summer events make us locals grumble because of the heavy traffic that strains our small streets; but they are all tributes to the remarkable women, remembered and forgotten, who made this little town their home.
It’s often forgotten that women who leave the place where they were born, where their families have been established for generations, leave behind our assured place in this society. We start here as nobody and we may well remain nobody. Anonymity is precious but there is a price to be paid.
There is a darker side to this reality, however. Single heterosexual woman, like me, wear out our friends with complaints about the lack of men here—men who could be our peers. There are plenty of penniless, more or less unsuccessful artists, leftover hippies now well into old age, macho cowboy hustlers even Pam Houston might avoid, and delightful gay men who are our best companions—but any woman coming here looking for something else (and that may be increasingly hard to define) should think twice.
A town for women can be a lonely place for women, because the men don’t come.
But I will continue to relish my connection to the barefoot women—especially in this land of Prickly Pear and Claret-Cup Cactus, of spiny Chamisa and thorny underbrush.
We’re developing tough soles.