Travel

This 20,000-Square-Foot Psychedelic Funhouse Is America's Craziest New Destination

I have seen the center of the universe, and it is located inside a dinged-up clothes dryer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Swing open the door and there's a smooth metal chute leading into dim purple darkness. Crouch down, slide through, and emerge like a spelunker into a tiny crystalline cavern, a mirrored womb that refracts the warm, amethyst glow of the infinite. Hello, cozy void. The ancient Greeks had a term: omphalos, the belly button of the world. Ponder that! And then move along, because someone's sliding into infinity right behind you.

This cosmic interlude is just one of many at Meow Wolf, America's newest all-ages psychedelic-fantasy funhouse/big-budget indie art experience, located inside an enormous former bowling alley. I say newest, but, as you might guess, there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. If you've been waiting for an excuse to get yourself to Santa Fe, this is it.

Meow Wolf
Lindsey Kennedy/Meow Wolf

An unmissable experience in an alluring desert town

For a meager $18 ticket price, you too can explore the massive mastodon skeleton, entombed in a pearlescent ice cave, that you can play like a marimba. Or hit a fortune-telling ATM set along a Ralph Bakshi version of a Shibuya alleyway, dispensing sage aphorisms like ENTROPY REQUIRES NO MAINTENANCE. Or climb a spiral staircase inside a tree trunk that ascends to a spaceship cockpit. Or get acquainted with the "Laser Harp." Or amble through the cross-sectioned mansion that houses the aforementioned laundry room -- along with a gender-fluid teen's bedroom, plus a kitchen refrigerator that's actually a doorway to an inter-dimensional teleportation station. Just to name a few.

The American Southwest in general maintains a mystical aura, wrought as much by its stark surrealist landscapes as its indigenous history. I'd long ago drove gawking through the Four Corners and Arizona’s Monument Valley, and backpacked the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands National Park in Northern Utah -- power spots, for sure. Santa Fe never made the list because it occupies its own little out-of-the-way nook separate from dramatic roadmap highlights. But a few weeks ago, when my girlfriend was sent to Santa Fe for work, I got the opportunity to indulge my nagging fascination with the place. Per her description, Meow Wolf was going to be worth the trip alone. It opened its main permanent exhibition, "The House of Eternal Return," in 2016, then closed in early 2017 to upgrade it: more art, more interactivity. We got there soon after the reopening and found it utterly unique, totally unmissable.

The whole complex is a mind-boggling, life-affirming cathedral of the human imagination.

We flew Seattle to Albuquerque direct, then zoomed out of town in a rental. Albuquerque seemed the strip-mall hell suggested by Breaking Bad, and Santa Fe's alluring weird is only an hour's desert-highway-drive away. We arrived to a brittlely cold starlit night and an alien smell that infused the air with a heady melange part tire fire, part backyard barbecue. That was the piñon, we were told, wafting from local pine smoldering in countless unseen chimeneas around town. Piñon pine nuts have provided a food source to indigenous folks for millennia, and its wood provides the timeless scent of Santa Fe. Not 15 minutes in and the place had already set its hooks.

Meow Wolf
Lindsey Kennedy/Meow Wolf

The massive hallucinatory space is partly funded by Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin

So picture yourself in this desert environ where the strange and magical seem to be part of the very air, and then imagine you want to turn it up to Homer Simpson-on-Guatemalan-insanity-peppers surreality. That's when you head to Meow Wolf. Its immersive environments are threaded by an underlying storyline, revealed through A/V stations and clever plants of (probably) fictitious brochures and newspapers. It entails astral projection, a vanished cult leader, a covert government agency, and the town of Mendocino, California. Simultaneously grandiloquent and twee, sinister and playful, Meow Wolf is basically what happens when the drama club and AP art class are given a few million bucks and free reign to freak out the squares.

 

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Its endowment comes courtesy of Santa Fe resident and Game of Thrones mastermind George R. R. Martin to the tune of $3.5 million, plus another $2.5 mil in city grants and Kickstarter funding, which last April allowed Meow Wolf to open inside a 33,000sqft former bowling alley (of which 20,000 house the main exhibit). That's a major cash infusion for a DIY arts collective that started some eight years ago throwing free punk shows in dingy warehouse spaces around town. The money paid for more than 130 artists from around the Southwest -- visual artists, sound and lighting designers, engineers, fabricators -- to execute a hallucinatory theme park with Tim Burton-esque ambition and Disney-like professionalism.

Meow Wolf
Lindsey Kennedy/Meow Wolf

Along with the permanent installation "The House of Eternal Return," Meow Wolf includes classrooms for after-school art programs, a ceramics studio, and well-appointed maker space. A sizable bar serves local beers -- word to Duel Brewing, a Belgian-style micro located across the street. True to its roots, Meow Wolf is also the country's coolest new concert venue (the stage is inside the exhibit). The whole complex is a mind-boggling, life-affirming cathedral of the human imagination.

We spent three hours there on a Friday afternoon in late February, sober as a judge, sharing the space with tourist families and packs of local teens, and still didn't see the whole thing. We went back the next night several margaritas deep (more on that in a minute) for an all-ages concert by DC art-punk band Priests and found the place packed with Southwestern weirdos whipped into a froth of creative energy. In their own ways, both visits were unforgettable. As soon as I left I wanted to go back.

 

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Explore the charmingly weird, always authentic Santa Fe

That's Santa Fe though. The town is magnetic -- and ancient -- in its outsider status. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Santa Fe was already 166 years old. New Mexico didn't become a state until 1912. Santa Fe has long harbored a thriving creative class, drawing California castaways, Zen practitioners, desert sojourners, and, of course, Georgia O'Keeffe. The census finds more artists here per capita than anywhere else in the nation.

The town's history paved the way for Meow Wolf, and in return, Meow Wolf provides a millennial, DayGlo alternative to the turquoise squash-blossom necklaces and painted cow skulls that signify the city's entrenched aesthetic. Emphasis on entrenched. Spanish Colonial and Native American cultures feel very much alive here, somewhat by means of contrivance: The Historical Zoning Ordinance of 1957 rules that all buildings within city limits must adhere to the "Pueblo Revival" style of adobe architecture. Like New Orleans, Santa Fe almost seems a caricature of itself. But it's the caricature that's corny, the facsimile reproduced and exported for mass consumption. The original source material -- the place itself -- remains as authentic and immutable as the high desert sky.

bakery in santa fe
Bakery in Santa Fe | Drriss & Marrionn/Flickr

Keep that in mind as you sit down to meal after meal of New Mexican food. Locals will detail a series of must-try restaurants -- The Shed, La Choza, Tia Sophia's -- that all serve essentially the same menu: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, pinto beans, chips and salsa. But every one of these places simmers its beans from scratch, makes the tortillas from scratch, and cooks its chile sauces (simply "chile" in local parlance, it comes either red and savory or green and tangy) from scratch.

Flavors here run deep, deep; some of these recipes are centuries old. A friend told me that Maria's New Mexican Kitchen "wrote the book" on margaritas, and he was right: Maria's owner Al Lucero published The Great Margarita Book in 1999. (That said, Maria's use lemons instead of limes as base mixer, a decision it claims is based on consistency of flavor that I can't get behind.)

The culinary corollary to Meow Wolf is the restaurant Eloisa, which eschews the standard Santa Fe palette of purples and pinks for a sleek black-and-white space inside the Drury Plaza Hotel. Here Santa Fe-born, world-traveled chef John Rivera Sedlar modernizes Santa Fe's traditional cuisine with such studied, loving finesse that dinner feels like an evolutionary inevitability.

Which in itself is a revelation. A town as old as Santa Fe, with its long legacy of art and architecture, its iconic Road Runner landscape, is right now producing some of the most wildly vital culture in America. Meow Wolf recently began offering open grants amounting to $100,000 to DIY art spaces across the country. Word is additional outposts are in the works, first in Denver, then Austin, and perhaps Seattle. The universe, after all, is forever expanding.

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Jonathan Zwickel lives and writes in Seattle. He's senior editor at City Arts magazine and contributes to Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Believer, and SPIN and is the author of Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography, published in 2012 by Greenwood Press. Holler @zwickelicious.