SANTA FE • Before this one went crazy, I visited an even crazier world.
This was at the end of February, which feels like forever ago. Everyone lined up really close to each other, which was then a normal, acceptable thing to do.
They eagerly waited to enter a playground like no other, an installation that is inadequately described as an installation, but rather a multicolored, multisensory multiverse existing somewhere between domestic, natural, mythical, technological and utterly fantastical dimensions.
“A modern-day ‘Twilight Zone,’” wrote the Los Angeles Times upon the House of Eternal Return’s opening in 2016.
“A mind-bending, explorable art experience,” describes the inventors themselves, the collective called Meow Wolf.
Under the gaze of Santa Fe’s own chief warlock, “Game of Thrones” novelist George R.R. Martin, local creatives transformed a bowling alley into a 20,000-square-foot sci-fi realm. They crafted it in such a way that people would have to interact with it to solve the mystery of the Selig family, who disappeared after experimenting with some force that fractured time and space and warped their Victorian home.
And so people interacted.
They opened this closet door and found themselves in what appeared to be a spaceship hall. They placed their hands on scanners and doors swung open to a forest, a cushy floor from which tentacles appeared to sprout.
They tapped oversized mushrooms and watched them glow. They felt bright and oddly-textured plants bursting and crawling amid twisting and turning iron. Giant hands reached from somewhere or nowhere, tending to oversized gardens.
They crawled through a fireplace, slid down a dryer and stepped through a fridge, transporting to an aquatic scene, to an ancient, candy-colored cave, where lived a mastodon skeleton, whose bones could be played like a drum.
In another room, they could play a harp of lasers. Elsewhere they could play an out-of-tune piano with a dragon as their audience.
They could duck into an igloo of eyeballs belonging to unseen creatures. Up through a tight stairwell, they could observe a melting, Steamboat Willie-themed kitchen.
Other slim passages led to an encased anatomical heart, beating some melody, blending with a message overheard in another portal: “You are OK” — a soothing message for anyone in psychedelic overdrive.
The House of Eternal Return is closed until further notice. Of course it is.
Very few public places can be open during the coronavirus pandemic, much less those that are just for entertainment and where everyone happens to touch what everyone else touches, where quarters hardly allow for 6 inches between bodies let alone 6 feet.
Guessing what the immediate future holds is like guessing what you might find behind every door at the House of Eternal Return. But in this time of no-touching and social-distancing, it’s quite hard to imagine a return there.
We’ll all be counting our losses as things go back to normal, which very well might be a new normal. Among them, I wonder if we’ll have to count this otherworldly getaway, which was built to be exactly that: a getaway.
No, it wasn’t just for entertainment. It was to be an escape. We could all use an escape.
That’s why Meow Wolf has been expanding beyond Santa Fe.
“The one in Denver is going to be three times this size!” a House of Eternal Return bartender excitedly told me.
Actually, it’s supposed to be more than four times this size. It’s supposed to open in 2021.
The House of Eternal Return is supposed to reopen. The experience shall “remain,” a spokeswoman tells me via email, and “notes are being added to the list every day” related to future cleaning, capacity and social distancing measures. The Denver complex is still slated for 2021, she says.
And hopefully — hopefully — Coloradans will love their Meow Wolf world as New Mexicans have loved theirs. They packed the place on the Saturday I was there; I had to make reservations the next day, for that Saturday was a discount day for locals, and every hour was sold out.
The poor fella at my hotel’s front desk couldn’t get a ticket. He’d been before, so many times in fact that he said he had lost count.
Aside from the hotel, he practiced holistic healing, which occurred to me as being a very Santa Fe thing to do on the side. The conversation about Meow Wolf made him recall a theory, a simple remedy for low spirits young and old: “Maybe we’ve just forgotten how to play,” he said.
In the House of Eternal Return, people played.
I had thought, sort of dreaded, it would be overrun by hipsters and high 20-somethings. To my surprise, there were many more toddlers.
I also was not expecting so many elderly people. That was somehow nice to see. Them in this timeless playground. Some came alone, it appeared. That room with the laser harp? There was a woman in there who just sat, listening, smiling.
The House of Eternal Return is true to Santa Fe, “The City Different,” as it calls itself. Another top attraction is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, celebrating the fiercely independent artist who felt inspired by New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, with desert and sky that seem equally vibrant and endless.
The possibilities seem that way, too. Sante Fe’s downtown is a uniform square of adobe structures, honoring history and calling no attention to themselves. But you might walk into one and discover a gallery like you’ve never viewed, or a dress like you’ve never worn, or a flavor like you’ve never tasted.
You might even find a miracle. That’s what they call the staircase at the Loretto Chapel. It was constructed on a prayer in 1878, tightly spiraling in a way that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
There was a young man greeting guests the afternoon I was there. He implored people to take a squirt of sanitizer. He sprayed disinfectant as they walked by.
“We want to prevent the spread of corona here in beautiful Santa Fe,” he said.
This was at the end of February. Before we realized no place was immune, not even beautiful Santa Fe. Before we realized the impossible was possible.
Then again, I had already realized the impossible.
To be sure, it was a much different impossible there inside the House of Eternal Return. A moment of sheer wonder. Like magic.
Like a great spell had been cast upon me, one that could only last so long.