Albuquerque: A city of 300-year-old Churches, Native Art, and Hip Restrooms

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Jesus died for this selfie.

It’s become an all-too-familiar theme. I arrived in town behind schedule, during rush hour, disorganized and acutely malodorous from three days without a shower. Only this time I felt even worse about it because I was staying with relatives.

My Grandparents live in a gated retirement community in Bernalillo, just outside of Albuquerque. They come from a side of the family I don’t see too often but are nonetheless influential in my life. My grandfather in particular has always loomed large. He’s a published author and former professor of literature who encouraged my writing from a young age. I admit this somewhat reluctantly because I don’t want you to blame him for the shoddy quality of this blog, but facts are facts and I owe him a lot.

Using my grandparents’ house as a base of operations, I set about touring Albuquerque for a day and a half. One of the first things I noticed about it was how cheap and abundant parking is downtown. This is important. In fact, I’ve come to view parking access as a fundamental criteria by which to judge a city. In that regard Phoenix, Albuquerque and Minneapolis score high; Seattle, Portland and L.A. not so much.

Having fallen behind on almost everything related to the Tour, I spent most of this morning at a downtown coffee shop trying to catch up on this blog and make arrangements for the next few days of travel. The coffee shop was called Deep Space and it was one of the finest cafes I’ve frequented since my journey began. Not only was the service pleasant, the WiFi strong and the espresso impeccable, but there was one other thing I appreciated that often gets overlooked when it comes to cafes: the restroom.

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Seriously, I love it when cafes actually put thought into what goes into their restrooms. This one outdid them all. Every square foot was adorned with some kind of kitchy photograph, local flyer, thrift store radios, or some other amusing piece of found art, all of it disparate yet somehow aesthetically unified. Plus, check out the hand wash sink:

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Yes, I know the photo is out of focus, but isn’t this genius!?!

When you spend so much time in so many restrooms you tend to pick up on details like this. Well done, Deep Space.

The rest of my day in Albuquerque was filled with delightfully cheap and enriching amusement. I visited the Old Town plaza, the original site of the city’s 1706 foundation. One of the most fascinating things there was the San Felipe de Neri church. This historic and gorgeous edifice was built in 1793 (after an original church from 1706 had collapsed due to rain) and still performs services to this day. I’m not a Catholic or even a Christian but as a history buff and admirer of art and architecture I had to appreciate this exhibit of living history.

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The rest of the Old Town plaza is basically a series of shops housed in centuries-old adobe buildings. Some of them are bland and touristy but others contain neat works of art and jewelry by local and Native American craftspeople.

Finally, I visited the Albuquerque Museum, a fascinating diversion for the absurdly low cost of $4. Their most recent exhibit, and the one I was immediately drawn to, was “Hollywood Southwest,” a gallery devoted to New Mexico’s role in the film and TV industry (I know this nickname has been established, but is it too pedantic for me to note that Albuquerque is both North and East of Hollywood?). Although I obviously went there for the Breaking Bad stuff, the history of New Mexico in film goes far beyond that. Hundreds of films have been shot there (and this will only increase over time) everything from early D.W. Griffith shorts to Natural Born Killers to The Longest Yard.

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From the Albuquerque Museum: actual props used in Breaking Bad.

But my favorite exhibit at the museum was dedicated to, of all things, tuberculosis. Turns out this once-feared disease has an intricate relationship with New Mexico’s history. You see, back in the 19th and early 20th century it was thought that you could cure a TB patient by relocating them to a warmer, dryer climate at a higher elevation. New Mexico – then a totally irrelevant part of the country – satisfied this criteria and soon dealt with an influx of patients. Tuberculosis “climate therapy” became something of an industry for the state and ultimately proved a huge boon to the region’s economy.

I love this kind of history, the kind that’s too obscure, strange, and esoteric to wind up in textbooks but is nonetheless intriguing and important. One of the longstanding goals of Ghost on the Highway has been to gather weird little stories like that about every city I visit, and for the most part I have not been disappointed.

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A statue in front of the Albuquerque Museum, commemorating the first Spanish settlers of the city.

That’s about all for now. Tomorrow I’m going to Carlsbad Caverns and camping there so you most likely won’t see a post for a couple of days. Nonetheless… stay enchanted, ghostlings!

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