Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t care for Mexican-style food, you should stay the hell away from New Mexico.

Me? I love the stuff. After being entirely unable to find tonight’s designated brewpub (Second Street Brewery), I drove around until I found a different brewpub, Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery. Good beer, if a bit too much emphasis on IPAs, and excellent food.

It was important to me that I find one brewery or another, because tomorrow, I leave the water desert and enter… the beer desert. No breweries in the Beertabase near my route for a few days.

First thing this morning, though, the route took me near Four Corners – the one spot in the entire country where four states come to a common point: Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

That concept always struck me as kinda cool but mostly silly. After all, the state boundaries are largely arbitrary in that region; most don’t follow anything real like rivers or mountain ridges. But I’ve spent most of my adult life working for and with surveyors, so from that perspective, I wanted to see it.

The official corner, complete with tourists.

Which means that I finally managed to set foot in Colorado (a stopover at the Denver airport twenty years ago does not count).

Two things, though:

First of all, the site not only divides four states, but two nations: Navajo and Ute. The Navajo maintain the site, and they’ve got booths set up in all four states for a massive marketplace. And the stuff they sell is pretty cool – some of the usual tourist trap crap, but also some very awesome art and jewelry.

But the greatest amusement value, for me, is that it’s in the wrong place.

The geographical coordinates, based on Wikipedia (which as we know may or may not be correct, but the point remains that the point’s off), are: 36°59′56.31532″N 109°02′42.62019″W. While the longitude is fairly close (it was never meant to be based on Greenwich-standard meridians, which are the ones used on maps these days), the latitude should have been exactly 37 degrees north.

Without getting too technical, though, I’ll first say that the corner is the corner – the surveyed point takes precedence over any theoretical values; this is a principle that holds true for most surveyed lines. And considering that the latitude line was surveyed around the turn of the last century, before any kind of GPS or modern survey techniques, I’d say they were damn good.

See, surveying a straight north/south line – a longitude line – is pretty simple, once you know the longitude of a given point (which is itself tricky – it requires an accurate timepiece and knowledge of where certain celestial bodies should be at a given time) you just survey a straight line north or south. Simple in principle – though it still requires good survey skills.

In contrast to the mathematical trickiness of determining longitude, determining latitude is fairly simple: you set up a level instrument and take the angle from horizontal to celestial north, which is close to but not spot on the North Star, Polaris. (Or the south celestial pole if you’re in that other hemisphere.) That angle is your latitude – if you’re at sea level, which is useful for sailors. Takes skill, sure, and there are complications, such as local elevation above sea level (which itself is fairly arbitrary on a world with tides). With a quick search, I couldn’t find the actual elevation of Four Corners, but it’s very roughly a mile above mean sea level (based on signs in the vicinity that proclaim a 5000 foot elevation).

Okay, I’m getting too technical after all, but just one more point: while a latitude line appears straight and horizontal on a Mercator map projection, when you’re on the ground surveying the thing, every so often you have to bend the line to approximate a very large radius curve – it’s not a “straight line” from the perspective of spherical geometry. The only latitude line that’s truly straight (ignoring the curvature of the earth) is the equator. Look at the 37th parallel from a point on the 37th parallel, viewing east or west, and there’ll be a very slight curve to the north.

So, all things considered, it’s pretty damn close. We could get it much, much closer with modern GPS surveying techniques, and you’d find that spot to be located about a third of a mile away. But again, it doesn’t matter – because the surveyed boundary takes precedence over the theoretical one.

Surveying isn’t a glamorous profession, even though at least two of the U.S. Founding Fathers (Washington and Jefferson) practiced it, but they have some pretty serious responsibility in a country where land boundaries determine so much.

Okay, enough about that. Back to important stuff.

When I was going through my Beertabase, I discovered another unique thing in New Mexico: an abbey brewery. Common in Europe (some of my very favorite beers are from Belgian monasteries), you don’t get a lot of that in the U.S. As far as I know, this is the only one (if there’s another, I’ll find it eventually). And it was close to my route – close enough to the route, but remote enough from other places, that I knew that if I didn’t visit the [warning: audio on the linked page seems to start automatically] Monastery of Christ in the Desert on this trip, I might not ever make it there again.

Just in case it’s not clear, that is not the building where they make the beer.

So I drove 16 miles along a single-lane, rutted, gravel road, past some of the most amazing scenery I’ve encountered, and then had to walk the final 1/3 mile or so to the gift shop.

Where I discovered that they don’t actually sell the beer there.

In fact, disappointingly, I think they contract with some other brewery to actually make the beer – but from what I understand, it’s still under their supervision, and the trip was totally worth it, so… no regrets.

I probably should point out that I’m not Catholic. In fact, I’m not religious in any conventional sense – unless you count what Ben Franklin supposedly said: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the scenery, setting, solitude or serenity of the place.

I even got to meet one of the monks, at their gift shop, where I made some small keepsake purchases (including a little book on abbey-style brewing around the world). Anything to support the Cause (that is, the Cause of promoting craft brewing regardless of the religious or political affiliation of the brewers).

On the way from there to Santa Fe – a good hour’s drive – I stopped in a local convenience store and picked up a six-pack of their Abbey Ale. Haven’t had any, yet, but I will.

I’ll just leave you with one more pic to give you a better idea of the setting.

Yep. Totally worth my car’s ruined suspension. (Just kidding – my Subaru can take way worse than that)


About Waltz

An international man of mystery, Waltz is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. Kind of a puzzle burrito, actually. With conundrum cheese and secret sauce. And a side of Riddle Rice.

Posted on September 22, 2012, in Beer, Science, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. So, I have to ask… red or green chili with your meal? I got so tired of that question. I’m not a really big Mexican (or even NEW Mexican) food fan. Hot is not my idea of good. Strangely, I do love Indian food a great deal. New Mexico is not an ideal place to live if you’re not a chili fan (the vegetable, not the soup) which, I suppose, is why I stayed for 5 years. I’m glad you got to go to the monastery though because there are some truly impressive religious communities in New Mexico if the overwhelming majority are of the judo-christian persuasion. Also, I found the people in general to be some of the nicest I’ve had the pleasure to live near.

  2. I have *got* to come back to New Mexico, now that I’m old enough to remember it…

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