Monday, December 23, 2002
Dave beat me to the window first thing in the morning, damn it. A light powdery snow had fallen overnight and was still coming down in light flurries. I became a human blur as I donned my fetching faux ocelot booties and raced outside, never mind I was still in my nightie and robe. Snow!
I finished getting dressed hurriedly, probably the quickest start of the whole trip. After engaging in what came to feel like an eternal struggle to get all the stuff we took out of the car back into the same space,
we set out for a camera store so Dave could find something to calibrate his tripod when taking panoramic photos. Dave has a rig whereby he can take a full circle of pictures in 12 increments and then stitch them together with software to make a continuous image. Cool, huh? But we lacked the increment indicator, so went to the only camera store in Los Alamos to see if they could help. And boy did they - pretty much bent over backwards. The funny part was when Dave first told them what he needed, one of the clerks asked, "You work for the Lab (meaning Los Alamos National Lab.)? If you work for the Lab, you might as well get a new tripod - you'll spend more time trying to fix what you got than it will cost you to get a new one." When Dave and I compared notes afterwards, we decided it epitomized the approach that government and the folks that supply it follow: go ahead and spend money - it's easier than the alternative. Dave was soon kneeling in the tripod section with a Xacto knife supplied by the clerk, marking a tiny level he had just purchased with little notches.
Feeling confident that we were armed with the latest advance in photographic doodads, we headed out a little back road toward Bandelier National Park. Fortunately for me, Dave is an awesome driver who spent a great many years in Vermont skidding down assorted road surfaces. He had no trouble managing the car so I could relax and enjoy the ample scenery: manageable mountains with dramatic rock outcroppings the color of sand, covered with pine and such, dusted with snow. When we looked closely, we could see random trees that were either dead or had been scorched during last summer's fire. It was remarkable, really, that they were so difficult to detect. You would think the area would have been devastated, but it sure didn't look like it.
The ranger at the gate of Bandelier park warned us that the hiking paths were all closed because of the snow, but that they might open in an hour or two. We threw caution to the wind and drove on up to the visitor center - a fabulous 30s era CCC masterpiece all done up with carved oak timbers and stucco. We stopped at the lunch counter first and got some tasty food: Dave a green chile veggie burger, Shiree a cup of piping hot posole and a grilled cheese sandwich with green chilies. It fortified us enough that our energy to be devious was restored. The staff at the visitors' center was still warning guests that some of the paths were closed and wouldn't open all day because they'd have to be shovelled by hand. The main loop was open, but only that portion. We walked out of the building like Sylvester with Tweety Bird secretly ensconced in his mouth, trying to look nonchalant. When we strayed from the the main loop and entered the verboten area, there was a good bit of snow and ice to contend with, but the scenery was lovely - a little creek called the Frijoles ran along the path making icy little falls where it pooled. There weren't but a few other people that far along the path, so it was blissfully quiet. After a short hike, we reached the Ceremonial Cave area which we had specifically been warned about - you have to go up 4 enormous ladders and numerous steps, 140 feet straight up the face of a cliff. The rangers had installed an obstacle to block access to the bottom of the first ladder with a sign advising hikers that it was closed. Yeah, right! As short as I am, even I didn't have any trouble scrambling over that rinky-dink plywood diverter.
I'll give it to them, though, it was a pretty difficult climb, so better to wave off the shallow-end-of-the-poolers. The elevation was about 6000 feet and the air was cold and thin, so I was sweating pretty good by the time I got to the top - but boy was it worth the climb!
The area we found ourselves standing in is a large opening in the side of a cliff that had been used for shelter by ancient Indians (Anasazi) in the 11-1500s. Not only had the Indians dwelt in rooms built into the cliffs, but they also constructed mysterious underground structures called kivas, which pundits surmise were ceremonial spaces, each containing a ladder leading down to the space from a square opening in the top.
One of these large kivas is the only feature that remains in the cave we visited. I sat in wonderment atop it and placidly stared at the scenery that surrounded me. Dave set up the VR camera and took some shots.
Eventually, another couple of rebel cave pirates appeared, and we welcomed them as comrades. Climbing down the ladders was a hell of a lot easier than going up.
On our way back to the visitors center, we met an older couple hiking along the path when Dave commended them separately on their excellent ability to choose hats. They had lived in Los Alamos 45 years ago and were back for a visit. Very charming.
We climbed back in the car and headed off toward Chimayo, New Mexico. It's a tiny town between Santa Fe and Taos that's perched in the foothills of the beautiful Sangre de Christo mountains. In order to get there, we took a back road that looked juicy on the map. Somewhere along the way, we made an erroneous turn and found ourselves on a tiny dirt road that served as a county road connecting homes in the Nambe Indian reservation. Dave slowed the car to a crawl to combat the rough road and allow us more time for gawking. It felt like we had been instantly whisked to another world. Elaborate wooden fences assembled from logs, twigs and saplings demarcated the property line between a good number of the homes. The homes themselves were simple and looked extremely well lived in. Occasionally, we would pass what amounted to a fancy house for the area and it would always stick out like a sore thumb. Very, very few people were about, enlarging the sense that we had entered another dimension entirely. We rapidly became hopelessly lost on the winding lanes, but it didn't really seem to matter to either of us. We rolled along fascinated, eyes glued to the windows. And then suddenly, the reason the fates had sent us down this particular path appeared: in front of one of the remote houses, there stood an enormous metal sculpture of twisted metal pieces that formed a giant buffalo head. The maker had artfully welded varying thicknesses and shapes of metal rod into elaborate organic curves, mimicking the huge sad eyes and long flowing beard of a bison. Even more curious, there appeared to be widespread scorch marks on the top half of the sculpture, suggesting that an internal mechanism or chamber was able to generate an impressive amount of flame. Just what every home needs - a giant fiery buffalo head! I wrestled with myself over whether to take a picture or not - it just didn't seem like it would be cool for some reason. Dave was of the same mind and we even discussed it aloud to convince ourselves we'd made the right decision, even though it seemed a pity to trust it to memory alone. But it seemed a thing better deeply absorbed. We slowly rolled away in quiet awe, eyes lingering reluctantly on the buffalo head as it faded from view.
After a little more meandering, Dave caught the road we were looking for and followed it out the rolling two-lane roads to Chimayo. There's a famous mission out there where miracle mud oozes out of the ground, and as a result the church is stuffed full of charming shrines and tokens. It has a giant parking lot for buses and its own rest area. But we were too late for faith. Faith closes at 4:00 p.m. on the dot.
We settled for a memorable and delicious dinner at the Rancho de Chimayo restaurant. When we pulled up to the parking lot in front of the restaurant, we beheld a sight so strange we were practically speechless: a nativity set, complete with camels and wise men, made entirely out of tumbleweeds. I shit you not.
I didn't really do a very good job of capturing it, but the wise men were most curious of all. They all three look as though they had had their crowns pulled down over their heads! Yikes.
As we walked up the path, the staff were lighting some real luminarias (they looked fabulous when we emerged after dark) that marked the entrance. We were seated at a cosy table in the corner of a small room about 15 feet from a roaring twin-engined fireplace. The fire wasn't close enough to be hot, just beautiful and comforting. I drank one of the tangy apple margaritas that is the specialty of the house. To accompany our drinks, we shared a plate of shrimp and garlic cheese stuffed red jalapenos that had been breaded and deep fried. I ordered a red chile plate (damn that was hot) and Dave ordered chile rellenos. But before any of that main course nonsense, there was to be an epiphany. When she brought out our meal, our waitress put down a basket of freshly fried sopapillas that made me want to cry like a baby. They were like the marriage of every tasty hot doughy thing you've ever savored, all wrapped up into one delectable triangle of elasticized air. We absolutely scarfed them down and made short work at the same time of the contents of a little bowl of cinnamon dusted honey that had remained a curiosity until that moment. My dinner almost seemed like a denoument after tasting those damn sopapillas. We ate until we were almost miserable. When it came time to leave, the fire was so engaging that we didn't feel like we could depart without sitting up close to it for a few minutes before we left. We hadn't been there for more than a moment when Dave realized he had left his glasses on the table and went to retrieve them. He was gone for quite a bit and had a dazed look on his face when he returned. Turns out, as soon as Dave's glasses had reached the front desk as a lost and found item, a woman came over and claimed them. A woman that had already left the premises. With Dave's glasses. Only someone with the grace of Dave could have smiled so sweetly and just laughed it off. Oh well.
So Shiree drove to Albuquerque. And Dave spotted the Trail of Lights. Up to now, we had been enjoying the bucolic charms of small town light displays - but Albuquerque was the major leagues, man. They had serious rope light skills, and had put them to use making all sorts of animals, many of them animated. One of our favorites was the blow fish that puffed up in a series of light changes. There were peacocks, bats, spiders and elephants, just to name a few. All over the gardens, hummingbirds with rapidly beating wings of light hovered over giant rope light cacti and flowers. In the lagoon in the middle of the area, there were several rope light carp under the surface, one even rising to break the water. In addition to the Trail of Lights, there was also a great permanent play space for kids with Jack-in-the-Beanstalk size things to frolic with.
Dave and I lingered there until they started to shut the place down, and the security guards began shooing all of us rope light drunks on our merry way.
We wasted no time in finding an unremarkable hotel room and going to sleep.