Walk past the Hotel Chimayó, just off the Santa Fe Plaza, and sweep your eyes across my ride: a sleek silver ‘64 Chevy Impala, bathed in the sun, a time capsule commanding the gaze of anyone that lays eyes on her lustrous yet understated carriage. Parked there, she looks refined. Proper, even. But ask nicely, and she’ll drop her back down low, and maybe-with the flip of a switch that controls her hydraulics-bounce it around a little.
She doesn’t have a name, which is unusual for a lowrider, a term that refers both to a car whose suspension has been lowered to inches off the ground, and the person driving it. Most lowriders are personal labors of love, painstakingly put together after spending countless hours and even more cash scavenging for parts. It’s a part of the owner’s family, their story, and the paint job often reflects that, articulating stories of passion, sorrow, pain, and humor, iconographies of faith, struggle, redemption, and community. But my Impala? She’s not only anonymous, but unadorned. She belongs to everyone.
Stay at the Hotel Chimayó and you, too, can ride the passenger seat, rolling past warm, rounded adobe architecture, institutions like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the New Mexico History Museum, and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, plus the vendors selling stunning turquoise pieces around the historic square. The endpoint for the Santa Fe Trail, the Plaza has also been a gathering place for political movements. And it was here in 2016 that Mayor Javier Gonzalez declared May 22 “Lowrider Day.” (“The next best thing to owning a lowrider is admiring someone’s cherry creation,” he said in his proclamation.)
That first Lowrider Day included demos of hoppers, cars outfitted with hydraulics and suspensions capable of not just elevating, leaning, or lowering, but also lifting to towering, near-vertical heights, crashing back down, and bouncing. That last part unfortunately damaged the Plaza’s asphalt, so today’s festivities now include cars suspended halfway up, as if in mid-motion.
“It was only gonna happen for one year,” says Sin Vargas, current Lowrider Day organizer. “But the next year, me, Carlos Munoz, and Casey Montoya formed New Mexico Lowrider and Arte Culture to continue the tradition.”
In addition to Lowrider Day, which changes dates from year to year, you can find car shows online through Vargas’s organization, or just show up at the Plaza on a Friday or Saturday to catch some cruisers in (slow) motion. Come on Good Friday, and it’s mayhem. A lowrider museum is also in the works in Española, New Mexico, but like the cars themselves, it’s taking its time.
That the Heritage Hotel’s whip is a ‘64 Impala isn’t by chance. This is the quintessential lowrider, a 3rd generation model both stretched out and swoopy with an X-type frame that easily lends itself to hydraulic modification. Think of a famous lowrider and you’re probably picturing a ‘64 Impala-including legendary Mexican American lowrider Jesse Valdez’s candy red and pink Gypsy Rose, now in the Petersen Automotive Museum.
But while this car is synonymous with the more recent past, its origins actually date back to Southern California’s post-WWII economic boom. That’s when local vehicle, auto parts, and aircraft manufacturers, among other industries, saw an influx of Chicano war veterans join their ranks, many of them harnessing skills they had learned in the service. And taking their cue from the Anglo-American hot rod craze that swept the country in the 1930s, these newly minted mechanics and machinists decided to put their own twist onto what was becoming a veritable national pastime.
Much like their hot rod-loving counterparts, they wanted their cars flashy. But instead of speed, they went for bajito y suavecito-low and slow. Early lowriders would weigh their cars down with cement or sandbags and cruise the streets as if performing a chromed-out paseo, or stroll, showing off their custom detailing.
Of course, this was the early 1950s, and it wasn’t long before the authorities squashed this overt display of Chicano cultural pride. In 1958, the California Vehicle Code made it illegal to operate any car that’s been modified to sit lower than the bottom of its rims-a law that remains on the books in some cities to this day. Less than a year later, however, a mechanic named Ron Aguirre designed a way to sidestep the restriction. Inspired by the hydraulics planes used for raising and lowering wing flaps, the wily lowrider enthusiast installed switches that easily raised and lowered his car’s chassis, keeping the culture alive through adversity.
We have good ol’ Route 66 to thank for bringing lowriders to northern New Mexico. As New Mexicans set upon Los Angeles utilizing the roadway in search of jobs in the auto industry, lowrider communities sprung up in their wake. The subculture particularly took hold in Chimayó and Española, cities located about 30 miles from Santa Fe and adjacent to the Santa Clara Pueblo, home to the Tewa branch of the Pueblo people. In 1975, Española held New Mexico’s first-ever Lowrider show-the same year War’s very chill, very emblematic “Low Rider” made its debut, a song still played wherever lowriders are found today. Almost 20 years later, MTV declared Española the Lowrider Capital of the World based on lowriders per capita, and in 2018, the city made it official. Here, cars are everything, a fact that very much reflects the struggles of the New Mexicans behind the wheel.”In my town, lowriding, and classic and custom cars have been a source of life for people who have been incredibly disenfranchised by multiple layers of colonization,” explains Rose B. Simpson, a mixed-media and performance artist based in Española and hailing from the Santa Clara Pueblo (Kha’po Owingeh).
“I bought my first car when I was 12, drove myself to Driver’s Ed, and got my license at 14,” she continues. “My car was always breaking down because I was broke, but I wanted my freedom, so I worked construction [to] keep my car running and learned to fix it myself. I projected freedom, safety, my aesthetic, and my identity onto my vehicle from a very young age.”
Lowriders have since broken out of the circumstances of their creation. Adopted by hip hop culture in the 1990s, they were amplified by John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood and songs like Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” (“If I hit the switch, I can make the ass… drop.”) And for the last few decades, Japan has claimed its own lowriding style. “I was in Japan recently and I was like, ‘These guys are killing it!'” says Simpson. “Which is fascinating because they’re not just making the cars, they’re really embodying that ‘90s lowrider culture that I grew up with and valued.”
To get a feel for the subculture’s deep hold,just have a conversation with Simpson. A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, in her downtime the artist goes hard on heavy metal that rumbles. She’s currently working on her first lowrider, a ‘64 Buick, applying skills she gained while one of the only women enrolled in Northern New Mexico College’s now defunct automotive science program. Describing the lack of women in automotive school, she jokes, “The girl’s bathroom was super, super nice-I should have thrown a cot in there and had a little office because nobody goes in there.”
The Buick may be her first foray into lowriding, but Simpson’s been fixing up cars since that first one in high school. And it’s her stunning, non-lowrider 1985 Chevy El Camino that initially led me to her work. Maria, as she’s called, sports a black-on-black paint job inspired by traditional Tewa pottery made by Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo. When Simpson talks about the car she’s affectionate, switching from discussing the technical aspects of buffing paint to describing her as a nurturing vessel in the vein of Nicolas Bouriallard’s Aesthetics of the Everyday.Despite her owner’s dotage, Maria is temperamental, and will sometimes burst into flames if she doesn’t like where she’s being driven. “She’s a character,” says Simpson. “I think she’s a piece of me because, like, if I take her to the grocery store? She’s good, we’re good. But if I take her to a car show, a parade, or she has to go get filmed, she breaks down.”
While all-women car clubs are increasingly popping up around California and muscling their way into New Mexico, lowriding’s machismo culture-like car culture in general-has traditionally been difficult for women to access. When I ask Simpson how she became so confident in her ability to fix up cars, the answer goes back to her mother, a potter.
“My mom built our house, grew all our food, and owns a tractor she doesn’t let anyone drive,” she says. “I never had the feeling that women can’t do something, because of the Indigenous matriarchal women in Santa Clara.”
Though she typically works alone, she has had dreams of an all-women club. But the rising art star with works on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art among other lauded institutions keeps running into one major problem: The women lowriders she knows are just too busy. “I had this idea that I would have a hopper crew,” she says. “That never happened. I was like, ‘Come on, do we have to wait until we’re retired?’ We’re gonna be like these old ladies out there all cackling and shit at the hopping competitions.”
Back at the Hotel Chimayó,you can sip a margarita at the Low ‘n Slow Bar while lowriders congregate under saturated images excerpted from photographer Jack Parsons’ 2005 Low ‘n Slow. A light fixture adorned with glistening hubcaps hangs overhead, below, a diamond-tuck upholstered banquette glitters, orange and red leather doubling as a vintage ride’s bench seat.
But don’t settle for the homage-it’s all about taking one of the real cars out for a spin. One day last spring, I hopped in the hotel’s Impala. My tour guide and driver, Orlie Martinez, turns on War’s “Low Rider” before we set off around the plaza, cruising by windowed storefronts so I can admire our reflection. When Martinez flips a switch, the back drops down, and I can barely see over the dashboard. “I like to roll like this,” he says. “Like a recliner.”
Along the side of the road, tourists pause to ogle. Later, Martinez pulls into a parking lot and, with the help of his car, puts on a show, likening the jerky movements we feel inside to riding a bull. Another switch is flipped and the left side goes up; another, and the right side goes up. He moves it all around and, in lowrider parlance, we’re “dancing.” A crowd gathers and we quickly become the center of attention-and according to Simpson, that’s the whole point.
“It’s soul food, it’s self-love, it’s delicious-it’s when life gets delicious,” says the artist. “Knowing you’re driving something that turns heads, it’s absolutely a beautiful feeling.”“Oh, you weren’t?” asks Justa Armijo Lovato-a.k.a. Justice Lovato-when I admit that, at first, I wasn’t totally into riding around in Hotel Chimayó’s Impala with all eyes focused on me. “I love it. Heck yeah!”
Granted, everything about Lovato appears destined for the spotlight. From her long silky brown hair to her black dress cinched with a concho belt, bright red lips, and strappy stilettos, she’s not what you’d typically think of when you envision a lowrider. But both Lovato, with her Indigenous, French, and Spanish roots, and her award-winning Cadillac Eldorado, Miss 505, emblazoned with pinstripes, Zia symbols, and the words ‘Tierra Sagrada” (sacred land), are physical embodiments of New Mexico itself.
Like Lovato, Miss 505 glitters: her paint job is a customized cream color with touches of pink and red, her interior plush, with wood paneling and red trim. A logo for Enchanted Expressions, Lovato’s car club, runs along the side, while a Miss 505 decal clings to the back window, creating a magnification effect when the sun streams through. She’s nothing short of a visual feast.
“Throughout our whole state, lowriding has been a reflection of our culture and heritage,” Lovato says. “It’s a representation of our individuality and expression put into our vehicle.”
On her wrists and around her neck are striking turquoise jewelry designed by her friend Adam Fierro, a Native and Spanish jeweler based in Albuquerque. “We are two of a kind, with our Spanish and Native roots and our love and craftsmanship of art,” she says. “His jewelry and my car-it takes individuals of the same mindset to make the endeavor successful.”
Slow-rolling metal is in Lovato’s blood. Her mom Julia, a seventh-generation Santa Fean, had an affinity for cars; her dad Rick is a mechanic. In high school, a boy named Julian Lion turned her head with his lowrider Chevy S10 truck. They’ll be married 25 years this year.
“I was 14, he was 16, and he was in a car club,” she says, recalling the man-and pickup-that changed her life. “That was the very first lowrider to actually take [me on] a ride and really draw me into wanting to build my own.”
She graduated in 2002, and after falling in love with the 1985 Caddy driven by Robert De Niro in Casino, her parents gifted her the all-original 1985 Cadillac Eldorado that would eventually become Miss 505. After a five-year stint in the Navy learning aviation mechanics, she and Julian started building her up.
By then, Lovato was fully invested in lowriding. But when she tried joining a few car clubs, she found that the members were often more interested in what her husband had to say. And so, in 2010, she started her own. Enchanted Expressions is open to everyone, regardless of vehicle type or the person behind the wheel. Today there are 25 members, eight of which are women, including Lovato’s mother.
And she didn’t stop there. It was Justice-style ingenuity that got Miss 505 into 2017’s Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico at the New Mexico History Museum, cementing her owner’s place in history as the first woman lowrider exhibited in New Mexico history.These days, the car and driver pair’s reputation precedes them. They serve as ambassadors for lowrider culture in local schools, and the Taos Sheriff’s Department has dubbed her La Reina del Norte (a.k.a. Queen of the North), a title she carries proudly. Walk into the Taos Inn and-if it’s not on loan to a gallery-you’ll see a painting of Lovato and her car by acclaimed artist Tera Muskrat. In Lovato’s home, there’s a room stacked with almost 80 awards. “My whole living room is full because I have so many of them, and it’s such a high achievement for me, especially the Best in Show Awards,” she says. “I don’t want to tuck them away like some people do in their garage-I want to see them every day.”
Awards won’t be Lovato’s only lowriding legacy. Her club continues to inspire future generations. There’s one young enthusiast who routinely swings by to fix up her own sweet ride. “She’s working on a little electric scooter,” she says. “It is so cute.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.
Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She has gone low and slow.
The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’. Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health.
Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid.
Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor.
To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power.
Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.
You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks.
It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties!
An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:
‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.”