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The Southwest Chief historic route was first traversed by the earliest Indians who first discovered its twists, turns and passes.

Learning Lessons in the Southwest

What Everyone Should Know About New Mexico

Kris Decker

Kris Decker is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist, humor columnist and commercial copywriter.

I'm hoping there's no quiz at the end of this walking tour. The oldest capital in the US, Santa Fe is rich with history, art, architecture and culture. Strolling the streets, our knowledgeable tour guide steers us back in time, describing the differences between Pueblo and Territorial architecture, the history of New Mexico and the meaning of the state flag's red sun symbol — the Circle of Life.

I try to commit facts to memory, but at every turn, there is something so interesting or lovely that the information threatens to evaporate out of my head. I will my brain to cling to the fascinating facts.

A native of the Zuni tribe performs a traditional Omaha style dance.

We come upon the Loretto Chapel which boasts of a miraculous circular staircase. Because no visible means of support holds the structure aloft, it continues to be a mystery of engineering. Legend has it that St. Joseph himself was the anonymous carpenter who constructed it, staying only long enough to build, then disappearing before the nuns could pay him. (Unheard of, even in 1878.)

Like many a weary traveler before us, we reach the historic La Fonda Inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Records indicate an inn has existed at this corner for more than 400 years. Clearly, they've renovated a few times since then.

Not far from there sits what is now an unassuming little storefront at 109 East Palace. In 1942, however, it would surely have prompted the phrase "there goes the neighborhood," had the community known it was the clandestine headquarters for Robert Oppenheimer and his band of scientists, who were busily collaborating on something called "The Manhattan Project."

An eclectic collection of contemporary and classic art graces Canyon Road.

We end our tour at The Museum of Art, visiting its main hall and courtyard where stunning frescoes decorate the adobe walls. Parting company, four of the group backtracks to a wine bar we'd passed earlier. "I like to stay a little tipsy while I'm on vacation," one of the ladies quips.

The next day, I make a solo pilgrimage to The Georgia O'Keefe Museum. I find it easy to linger for hours, reveling in the presence of her genius — the stunning pieces, her dramatic color choices and captivating technique.

Reluctantly I leave, then perk up when I reach Canyon Road, home to some of the countries most famous art galleries. An eclectic fusion of contemporary and classic paintings, sculptures, glasswork and fiber arts beguile visitors here, while charming cafes sprinkled along the road offer art lovers a chance to refresh and renew.

For more than 300 years, the San Felipe de Neri Church has served Albuquerque.

The following afternoon, the Rail Runner spirits me back to Albuquerque, a 90-minute ride that begins and ends with the Roadrunner cartoon's iconic, "Meep-meep."

My tour guide here leads me through Old Town, telling tales of battles, legends and myths. From atop a wrap-around balcony overlooking the Plaza Don Luis, he points out the peaks of the Sandia Mountains in the distance. Spanish for "watermelon," the Sandia's appear red at sunset, with a thin rind-like ridge of green conifers near the top.

A large gazebo sits at the heart of the lush Central Plaza. Here, musicians play, children cavort and weddings take place. For more than 300 years, the San Felipe de Neri Church has stood to its east, and in just a few short hours, I witness a funeral, a class of first communicants and three separate bridal parties. It's abuzz with community, exactly as its builders intended.

Though it's just another Saturday in May, there is an atmosphere of fiesta here. Wedding guests mingle with tourists, who photograph musicians and performers. Joining in with the other revelers, I recall a Spanish phrase, "La vida es para disfrutar" — "Life is to be enjoyed."