Monday, October 12, 2009

Mass Happiness in New Mexico

There's a new Mexico?
-Mr. Burns, "The Simpsons"

Every Fall, we love to go to New Mexico. The cool, crisp, dry air refreshes the soul as much as strolling around looking at the best art of the West. Outside and out of town, the low sunlight dances through the trees, among the snow dust and golden underbrush, daring decades of photographers to ration their film (and, if the digital age has spoiled patience, stretch a canvas instead and make it so!)
When the sun sets, and before it has risen cleanly, the temperature is downright cold. Ladies of a certain age take this opportunity to layer themselves in elaborate scarves, hats, shawls, and jewelry; while the men, or at least this one, choose a baser course: chile.
By putting a fire in the belly, one can continue to stroll New Mexican alleys morning and night in perfect comfort.

OK, besides chile, another way to put fire in the belly is through copious amounts of wine: part of the fun of visiting northern New Mexico is to visit Trader Joe's and stock up on 3-buck chuck.
This year, we also made it a goal to visit the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Jessica has been wanting to visit this for the past several years, but manana manana manana...Time's a wasting, let's head down to the A-B-Q.

Leaving early afternoon, dreaming of southwestern food, we made it about an hour before pulling off for Wahoo's in Denver. Good ol' Wahoo's, but it cost us: a $25 parking ticket for having a foot or so of my car in front of the meter. Ah, the delights of the big city. Again we were off for Albuquerque, eventually arriving around 9:30 or so. Just a few miles north of our hotel, we spotted a strip mall Chama Brewing Co, and stopped in for a bit, quite pleased with the flickering fireplace and trickling fountain near the entrance, a friendly staff, and a delicious pumpkin spice ale on tap. Satisfied, we made it down to the hotel...almost: picked up some Dunkin Donuts donut holes first and some coffee in the thermos for the next morning.

The next morning was to begin at 5am, so we could make it to the park 'n ride and eventually the fiesta grounds by 6:30 or so. Although we had extra donut holes in hand, it turns out this Days Inn near I-25 and I-40 was kind enough to begin breakfast at 4am. MMM, frosted flakes and waffle, together at last. Soon we were in line at Cliff's amusement park for the ride to the fiesta. As expected, the area was abuzz with folks trying to get there, and the park 'n ride was definitely the way to go.

We took our seat on the school bus, on a 'hump' (the right wheel well), and half-napped until getting closer, when we saw the gorgeous glowing lights of early balloons taking off for "Dawn Patrol." This was just a taste...

The grounds themselves were alighted with various vendors of various burritos, and it just got better from there.

Dunkin Donuts, yes, was in the house, and other memorabilia and things for the kids. We headed to the middle field, at the end of dawn patrol, and watched a few balloons start taking off toward the moon.

And then, the "Mass Ascension" began. For about an hour, the grounds were a stimulation-fest of color and motion. We raced around, staring and taking pictures, getting as close to the balloons as possible. What a refreshing return to pre-9/11 -- without rules and paranoia -- to a time when we were, maybe, 9 or 11 years old, when the world still had magic. This is said to be one of the most photographed events in the world, but like most things, the pictures don't do justice to the feeling of craning your neck straight up, twirling around, and seeing all the colours.

There is also no shortage of novelty balloons, often competing for "fan favourite." Announcers provide play-by-play description of the balloons as they're taking off, similar to the Macy's Parade.

My favorites?

After a few hours, as the sun finally started warming us, it was time to head back.
Let me not mince words: Every child, and every parent, every childless parent and parentless child, child at heart and heartless alike, should go see this event at least once. Mt. Rushmore and Disney-whatever are far down on my list for kids, but this is near the top.

So long, Albuquerque! It's off to Santa Fe and Taos. We can never decide which one we like more, so why not hit both?
First, we stop in Santa Fe just in time for breakfast at Tia Sophia's. We haven't been there in 3 or 4 years, but the huevos, blue corn tortillas, and chile are worth the inevitable weekend wait.
Jessica finds "bead heaven" next door anyway, and has enough baubles to keep her busy in the coming months. We stroll around some more, fairly leisurely, before hitting Trader Joe's on the way out of town. Several cases of wine later....we're off to Taos, where the Dona Luz Inn B&B is waiting for us.

By mid-afternoon, we meet Paco at the B&B, store our things in the room, and head off to town.
Again, we stroll around fairly aimlessly -- the only specific store I can think of is the bookstore, which always has a cat that needs scratching -- yes! there she is, sleeping upon a shelf. Before the sun drops too low, we grab some drinks outside. An old woman and a younger man are chatting nearby -- she doing most of the talking, as she not-so-surreptitiously smokes a cigarette, while describing various aspects of her past life across the world. Who could she be?
An Aunt thinks Jess, but why the long biography?
Old French Whore says I, as Jess furrows her brow at my judgment. Am I not made in the image of my creator? Eventually, the waiter asks her to snuff out her cigarette -- "I know, I was seeing how much of it I could get before you said so."
And then, we head back for a quick nap, before the main event:
Dinner at Orlando's.

Yes, we love Orlando's, on the edge of town, we love it so much that last time a drunken driver (in New Mexico, no less!) drove straight at us in our lane, and still did not deter us. It's small and packed, yes, but we don't mind waiting outside by the fire with drinks: Santa Fe Nut Brown for him, and a "Mike-a-rita" for her -- they don't do tequila (in New Mexico, no less!), but they mix up a Mike's instead.
We had a brief conversation with a former Front-Ranger who raved about the technical mt. biking in the area, and then settled in with a couple from South Africa who were touring North America.
Starting from the Arctic Circle.
They had swung down from Alaska to New Mexico, where they enjoyed Taos, and were headed east to Houston (sorry!), where they were to take a brief flight to Costa Rica (Pura Vida!) before resuming a swath across the American south. With limited experience, we told him about our voyage along the World's Longest Yard Sale; his eyes lit up, as he was looking for the authentic, deep south, little diners and all. While we can't speak for Mississippi, we put in a good word for Alabama and Tennessee backroads. "Don't waste too much time in Atlanta," I suggested, "but spend some time in Charleston for sure."
As we talked, our seething envy must have been obvious, as he politely suggested that we lobby Obama for more vacation time for citizens.
Amen. At least some people are able to see and enjoy all of this great land, even if the folks that live here can't, won't, or simply don't.

Our number was up, dinner at last, where I will skip the intimate details, except to say that not a single shrimp, pizole, or pinto bean survived on either of our plates.

We retired in comfort to the B&B, where I enjoyed keeping a wood fire burning all night in the kiva.
Breakfast in the morning was a surprisingly simple affair of boiled eggs, yogurt, toast, etc. Filling, and it does make the B&B cheaper, I suppose, but doesn't fare well for ranking of the second B in B&B.

Onward and upward, for a hike to William's Lake!
William's Lake is a popular hike at the top of the Taos Ski Road. We've enjoyed it up there in the winter, so decided to check it out in the Fall.
Some of the aspen in the area were still clinging to golden leaves, and a few skinny-tire enthusiasts were out enjoying it. Soon, we were up on dirt roads past the Ski Area, to the trailhead.

The hike is an easy and popular couple miles through the forest, up to a cirque, with the lake resting in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. We hadn't ruled out tagging Wheeler as well, but decided to play it by ear. We saw a manageable handful of folks enjoying the day, but were slowed by some ice and snow on the trail, a little more than expected. We carefully picked our way up, where the view and the wind opened up abruptly.

We poked around the northeast end of the lake, finding a trail that went straight up into the trees on Wheeler. The trail was a bit sketchy but still manageable. Clearly, past treeline, it looked quite snowless and easy, but that's where the wind would be even fiercer, as shown by swiftly moving clouds swirling over the cirque, so we decided to turn around, leaving it at a mellow lake hike. We carefully returned down the snowy trail, hoping to return some other time perhaps for a shot at the peak. At this point, however, the cotton and dogged masses were awake and coming up toward the lake, so I shudder to think about the summer crowds. Nonetheless, this undoubtedly saved us hours of time and probably marital happiness. With some extra time, why not...
Stop at the Bavarian Lodge at the base for lunch?

We had been there before during a ski day and enjoyed soup by the fireplace inside. Today, we opted for the sunny Sunday sundeck, and two surprisingly delicious, sausage-like veggie burgers.

Full on a German double bock, we doubled back down the mountain, where I made it about 4 miles down, before a nap hit me head on.
I looked at Jess, seeing if she minded pulling over or driving. Was she snoring?
25 minutes of napping in the car, my vigor was renewed...enough to make it a few more miles down to Arroyo Seco, a cute little pueblo with a few artsy shops and Taos Cow.

Mmm, ice cream and sunshine, and I seem to recall the coffee being good.
Turns out, I drained the pot with my trusty Thermos, and they gave it to me free. Sweet. Out of guilt, I had to buy (and devour) a small cone of Cherry Ristra. I wasn't even sure what was in Cherry Ristra -- would it be spicy? -- but they had me at the name, and it turns out it had chocolate in it, too.
Everything's coming up Milhouse!

Now, satiated for a few more minutes (I only had a dollar left in my pocket, anyway), why not tack on a side trip to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, only 7 miles from the intersection at the ski road?
We'd been to Taos a fwe times, but never made the effort. This time we did, parking on the edge, walking across, and taking pictures:

Turns out, it's just about as overrated as we thought it was. Meh. A native was soliciting money as his car broke down and was getting towed, so I gave him my last buck. We doubled back and headed north, treated to a face full of fourteeners as we hit Fort Garland, and then headed home.

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