Returns

Technicolor Wanderlust

Returning to the road in New Mexico in pursuit of making art.

DAVID BENJAMIN SHERRY'S dramatic, color-saturated landscapes of the American west are a modern evolution of the work of photography giants such as Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins. Building on the tradition of the masters, these photos are shot with the same kind of analog 8-by-10 film camera. Standing on a mountaintop, head under a cloth, the artist composes the shots while peering into the viewfinder upside down. The final images are revealed only after the film has been processed, after which significant work is done in the darkroom to arrive at final prints in the trademark monochromatic colors. Sherry’s work has been exhibited in solo shows around the world, and can be seen in the permanent collections of museums including the Whitney, LACMA, and London’s Saatchi Collection. Here, exclusively for Departures, is his newest collection of work — and the story of the journey that was undertaken to make it, documented by his partner, writer Shaw Bowman.

David and I had visited Santa Fe often, usually on our annual drive from Los Angeles to spend the holidays with my family in the Deep South. His large-format landscape photography work also drew him there frequently, and almost since we arrived in LA from New York nine years ago, he’d been itching to return for good. I’d always thrown cold water on those dreams, due to an admitted aversion to both change AND risk, but a proliferation of remote work opportunities, plus pandemic-era home buying incentives, meant Santa Fe was no longer wildly impractical. I, too, am not immune to its charms, so here we are, and I’m happy about it — as I generally am once I relent to his whims.

The afternoon was dedicated to the White Place, an otherworldly landscape of lumpy volcanic rock protrusions the color of bleached bone, and another of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects.

Once Santa Fe County had reached the lowest COVID-19 threat level (called “Turquoise,” obviously) and the rest of the state was opening up too, we decided it was time to experience the splendor at our doorstep. David would get to make a new body of work, and I (along with our two border collies, Magic and Wizard) would get a grand tour of the “Land of Enchantment.” Though I should note that the state’s pueblos — the vibrant, often architecturally dazzling and historically rich centers of contemporary tribal life — were still closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Under normal circumstances, they would constitute an inexcusable, unthinkable omission in any New Mexico–focused travelogue, but we could take solace in the knowledge that we actually live here now and can visit once they reopen.

Factoring in this reality, our first stop would be Taos, and we’d make our way counterclockwise around the state over 11 days, ending up in Portales, three and a half hours east of Santa Fe, where a couple of Moderna shots waited for us at a Walmart Supercenter. In between, we planned for the unplannable — roadside pit stops to capture any especially favorably lit vistas we happened upon, extended waits for clouds to assume interesting or strategic positions with respect to the sun, prolonged or curtailed stopovers in service of getting “the shot” of a key point of interest. It’s at least a half-hour proposition every time David lugs his camera out and sets up a shot, but such is life when perpetuating an analog photography practice in an Instagram world.

Day 1: Santa Fe, Taos

We started our journey by making our way north toward the vaunted “High Road to Taos.” The historic Santuario de Chimayo church was our only stop. David collected some of its signature healing dirt for his bad back (being raised Jewish didn’t seem to be a conflict), and we continued on past Taos and toward the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge to claim an optimal spot to capture the sunset and the rise of the full moon. Thankfully, the wind was uncharacteristically light (we wouldn’t be so lucky the next few days; I’m learning that that’s just spring in New Mexico), and I was thrilled to spot a herd of bighorn sheep in an adjacent field and a few pronghorns strolling along the river 600 feet below us. We were also treated to the first of an inevitable succession of comments from older men about David’s anachronistic camera, which can range from a good-natured “That thing looks heavy!” (today’s remark) to higher concept jokes about it being the latest iPhone. Because art is a cruel master, and sunsets happen late these days, we were obliged to forfeit our reservation at Lambert’s that night, but the kind folks at Doc Martin’s (conveniently located inside the Taos Inn, where we were staying) let us place our green chile cheeseburger and margarita orders just under the wire, so we still got the “Taos’s living room” experience touted on the restaurant’s website.

Day 2: Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, Abiquiu

David aimed to shoot another section of the Rio Grande Gorge, so we drove up to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and braved the near gale force wind so he could capture the deepest and widest point of the gorge from a very precarious ledge. Here the Red River joins the Rio Grande, at a lovely campground appropriately called La Junta, in the parking lot of which David’s camera elicited a “Holy mackerel!” from a gray-haired gentleman. With a couple of shots in the can (or more accurately, in the neoprene sleeve), we were on our way up to Abiquiu, just an hour or so to the west(ish). Our first objective was a twilight portrait of Cerro Pedernal, the narrow 10,000-foot mesa that so transfixed Georgia O’Keeffe that she had her ashes scattered there. After some light off-roading and fence-hopping, David took his shots and we raced back to the Abiquiu Inn, placing our dinner order at the hotel restaurant on our way because it was closing imminently, and it’s the only game in town.

Day 3: Abiquiu, continued

Considering Ms. O’Keeffe’s longstanding relationship with Abiquiu, it’s not shocking to report that it has more than its fair share of picturesque vistas, so we decided to spend a full day there. For the morning, we had booked a self-guided exploration of Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre preserve of which O’Keeffe once claimed seven. The afternoon was dedicated to the White Place, an otherworldly landscape of lumpy volcanic rock protrusions the color of bleached bone, and another of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects. Ghost Ranch was a particular highlight. After loading up in the gift shop (we love a road souvenir), we climbed slowly up to Chimney Rock (a tall, narrow rock formation resembling, not surprisingly, a chimney), entertaining the questions of curious fellow hikers along the way. David’s camera really is a conversation piece! Wizard and Magic are showstoppers too, and I should also note that David’s nifty pop-up camper, built on the bed of his handsome green Tacoma, attracts chatty overlander bros and dads like dog hair to my Patagonia Snap-T fleece — so David’s meticulous process isn’t the only thing slowing us down on this trip. But there are worse places to be forced to linger.

Day 4: Los Alamos, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Springs

Our next destination was Bandelier National Monument, famous for the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, or cavates, carved out of the soft volcanic rock walls of Frijoles Canyon, south of Los Alamos. I suggested we take the slightly longer route through Los Alamos itself, out of curiosity, which meant clearing some fairly intimidating security checkpoints surrounding the storied cradle of nuclear weaponry. Thankfully, a stint in a holding cell was not in the cards. Bandelier is a pretty hands-on experience. Visitors are encouraged to climb ladders into some of the cavates, which is a little disquieting during a pandemic — but that’s what masks and Purell are for. David opted to experience the ruins through his viewfinder. Afterward, we headed deeper into the Jemez Mountains toward our accommodations for the night, Jemez Springs’ no-frills Laughing Lizard Inn (one of the surprisingly few pet-friendly options around). On the way, we passed a dramatically sprawling grassland that turned out to be Valles Caldera National Preserve. It was not on our itinerary, but should have been. David was seized with the impulse to capture the scene on film, and I with the impulse to play ball with the dogs. So we stopped for a half-hour before barely making it in time for last call at Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon in Jemez Springs. I couldn’t not order the chicken fried steak. David was similarly compelled by the jalapeno poppers.


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La Posta de Mesilla combines four of my favorite things: historical significance, kitsch, great food, and margaritas.

Day 5: Farmington, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Grants

Since there is no way to tell if David’s camera is actually working until he processes his film (which can be terrifying), he needed to find a FedEx location in order to overnight the work he’d already done to his lab. This meant a pretty significant detour to Farmington near the Four Corners area. Farmington is the site of a famous mass UFO sighting in the 1950s, and home to “the nicest FedEx worker” David had ever met. Then it was off to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, where we wandered in vain looking for some egg and bird-shaped rock formations. They were promised by the map posted in the parking lot, but we couldn’t find them via our iPhones, as there was no service. David did find some worthy subjects for a couple shots, after which we headed back to the car, grateful to have not gotten totally lost and forced to spend the night on what looked like a hostile alien world from the mind of Gene Roddenberry’s art director. From there we took what seemed like a questionable route to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on some bucolic if extremely rough and poorly marked roads. We arrived too late to see the UNESCO-designated Ancestral Puebloan ruins there, though David did get a shot of the imposing Fajada Butte, lit dramatically by the setting sun. We’ll definitely be back. We rested our backroad-rattled bones at the Cimarron Rose Bed & Breakfast south of Grants, New Mexico, arriving later than planned to the slight annoyance of our hosts (they forgave us). That night I also learned how successfully Airbnb has rewired my brain to be unable to simply say “B & B” on the first try.

Day 6 & 7: El Malpais National Monument, Pie Town, Very Large Array, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Truth or Consequences

We then pointed the Tacoma south, first paying a quick visit to La Ventana Arch in El Malpais National Monument (neither of us can resist a natural arch), then driving across more desolately beautiful grassland toward the one destination I dug my heels in about, in the face of David’s ambivalence — Pie Town. Along the way, we also passed the site of Walter De Maria’s seminal work of land art, The Lightning Field, which means I can mention it here. But back to Pie Town! This unincorporated community sprang up in the early 1920s around a general store and bakery known for its pies, with more pie purveyors joining and eventually replacing the first. As far as we could tell, there is again just one, The Gatherin’ Place, but that was sufficient for our purposes, and my cherry chocolate mini pie was deeply satisfying. The next stop was the truly awe-inspiring if unimaginatively named Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory, immortalized in the film “Contact.” David shot a portrait, and I had some more dog/ball time. The observatory was closed, but we managed to get close enough that the on-site security personnel made us turn off our phones to prevent them from interfering with the instruments. After that, we drove the loop roads around the dreamy Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles another stretch of the Rio Grande. We spotted wild turkeys and a squadron of the pig-like javelinas, though not the sandhill cranes that serve as the area’s main attraction during the fall and winter. We spent that night, and the next, at Ted Turner’s historic Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa in Truth or Consequences, where we mostly just soaked in the area’s hot springs and read on our waterproof Kindles, when David wasn’t loading and unloading 8-by-10 film. We also got to return to our favorite old-school surf and turf restaurant, Los Arcos, where I indulged in both surf and turf; David opted for just the former.

We’d left home as New Mexico neophytes, and returned with a deeper appreciation for the state (and yes, a much better sense of the geography), but also the exciting thought that we’d only just scratched the surface.

Day 8 & 9: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, White Sands National Park, Mesilla

David had been to the Aguirre Spring Campground in the Organ Mountains above Las Cruces before, but I hadn’t, so I was blown away by diverse, unexpectedly vibrant flora (especially the oaks and junipers) and the views of the jagged, titular peaks towering above us. We used this as our basecamp for multiple visits to White Sands National Park, known for its blinding white sands, as well as its proximity to an eponymous atomic test site, now called White Sands Missile Range. It was made famous to me, however, by its pivotal role in the climax of “Space Camp” (which was largely filmed in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, therefore looming especially large in my otherwise unglamorous childhood). The dunes were mobbed by families celebrating Easter, complicating David’s generally people-free shots, but it was fun to see the various ways people can enjoy heaps of sand not adjacent to a large body of water. Sledding was a popular activity — you can rent little garbage can lid-sized sleds at the visitor center — followed closely by selfies (or maybe it was the other way around). What surprised me the most was how cool the sand was, despite the blazing sun overhead. In fact, the best way to experience the park is barefoot. The dogs were in heaven, thanks to all that open space and cool sand under their paws. Dusk is probably the best time to visit, when the surrounding mountains turn purple and the sun puts in stark relief the undulating dunes stretching off in every direction. David shot his last sheets of film here, so he was officially off the clock! Afterward, we sped frantically (once again) back toward dinner, in the Las Cruces area, for what turned out to be the most memorable culinary experience of the trip. La Posta de Mesilla combines four of my favorite things: historical significance, kitsch, great food, and margaritas. I was also grateful to experience a bit of Mesilla itself, especially its well-preserved, landmarked plaza area dating from the 1850s.

Day 10 & 11: Cloudcroft, Ruidoso, Lincoln, Portales, Fort Sumner, Santa Fe

We headed for the hills east of White Sands, bound for Lincoln County, the stomping grounds of notorious outlaw Billy the Kid toward the end of his short life. After a quick and fruitful stop at the Turquoise Shop in the quaint mountain town of Cloudcroft, the rest of the trip was chiefly spent exploring my site-specific, only semi-sincere interest in Billy, whose deep association with New Mexico I had just discovered. We’d even watched “Young Guns,” featuring a young Emilio Estevez as Billy, because of our route through Lincoln where the movie was set. The real Lincoln was a satisfyingly preserved Old West town, as advertised, but we couldn’t stay long because our vaccines awaited in Portales. We then paid our respects at Billy’s grave in Fort Sumner, conveniently situated between Portales and Santa Fe. Upon our return home, we decided to treat ourselves to a celebratory dinner at The Shed on Santa Fe’s plaza, before succumbing to the side effects of our shots and passing out in our own bed, finally.

We’d left home as New Mexico neophytes, and returned with a deeper appreciation for the state (and yes, a much better sense of the geography), but also the exciting thought that we’d only just scratched the surface. There is so much more to see and experience in our enchanting new home state, but for now we’re excited to continue exploring the charms and vistas within walking distance, which are thankfully plentiful.

The Diners and Dives Behind the Story

As David Benjamin Sherry and Shaw Bowman explored New Mexico and its restaurants en route, they often found themselves rushing to arrive before the kitchens closed. Here are the hours of operation and addresses behind every spot they had, or missed, a meal.

Our Contributors

Shaw Bowman Writer

Shaw Bowman is a writer and Emmy-winning producer. He’s held senior digital roles at Comedy Central and Netflix, and most recently served as head of creative at the national political organizations Swing Left and Vote Forward. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner David Benjamin Sherry and their border collies Wizard and Magic.

David Benjamin Sherry Artist

David Benjamin Sherry is an American artist whose work consists primarily of large format film photography, focusing on landscape and portraiture. His work has been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Aspen, London, Berlin, and Moscow.

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