Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of New Mexico

© 2008 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For some time, I'd been thinking about going to the US southwest state of New Mexico. And now the opportunity to do that finally arrived.

[Diary] My flight landed in Albuquerque (ABQ) at 8:15 pm, a few minutes ahead of schedule, to a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun was a huge orange ball just above the mountains to the west. Altitude-wise, the city is just short of a mile high. It being May, I switched my clock back two hours, to Mountain Daylight Time.

I called my first hosts to let them know I'd landed. I rode the shuttle bus to the rental car companies, and picked up my car, a Hyundai Elantra. While I was riding on the shuttle bus, a man dressed in a cowboy hat and boots and behaving strangely ran back and forth across the highway, apparently intent on entertaining the drivers. As I left the airport, officers from two police cars were "interviewing" him.

Thirty minutes later, I was at my hosts' place meeting Tricia and Ann, their dog Happy, two cats, and several neighbors. They served me a meal, and we started to get to know each other. They had traveled extensively, including time in Australia, where they even visited Hutt River Province, Prince Leonard's breakaway "country". Lights out soon after 10:30 pm.

[Diary] I had the bedroom window open all night, and only pulled on a blanket in the early hours. I was awake way too early. Tricia and I had a light breakfast of coffee and toast outdoors in the sun. Ann had left quite early for her work.

Around 10 am, I left for the southwest regional offices of the charity "Save the Children." I spent the morning talking to the director about their current programs, especially the ones involving literacy with which I participated. These programs were for schools with students from predominately Native American and Hispanic families. Another staff member, Liz, joined us for a traditional New Mexico lunch. The official state question in New Mexico is "Red or green?", which means "Do you want red or green chili peppers with that?" The correct answer is "Both".

At 2 pm, the "business" part of my trip was completed, so I headed to the edge of the metropolitan area up to 6,500 feet, to the base of an impressive aerial tramway. It took some 15 minutes to go the mile and a half across, and 4,000 feet up, to the peak. In a deep valley below, we saw the wreckage of a plane crash.

At the top, the temperature was 51 degrees, a drop of 30 degrees from the city below. I hiked a small section of the La Luz (Spanish for "The light") trail, and parts of a few others as well, stopping to shoot video and still photographs along the way. I came across some patches of snow, which had fallen a week earlier. I caught the tram down at 5:30 and was home by 6 pm.

Tricia was a photographer and worked for AmeriCorps, a U.S.-domestic version of the Peace Corps. That evening, she was teaching a photography class to young incarcerated women, so couldn't join us for dinner. Ann and I drove to Old Town where we walked around the shops, and I bought a silver and turquoise necklace from a woman working at her street stall. Ann was Navajo, a Native American tribe to the northwest. She worked for the Santo Domingo tribe on land restoration projects.

[Diary] It was very windy during the night, but it wasn't at all cold. I was awake with the alarm at 8 am, and up very soon afterwards. I joined Tricia for coffee and toast, and then checked my email to see if the outside world was getting along without me; fortunately, it was. We walked Happy to post mail at a mailbox. It was sunny, but a stiff breeze was blowing.

I washed the breakfast dishes, lest I get out of practice, and then packed my luggage, which seemed to have exploded all over the room in two short days. I wrote in my hosts' guest book, said my goodbyes, and departed at 10:15 am. It had been a very good visit.

Soon, I was headed north on Interstate Highway 25 (I-25) to the state capital, Santa Fe (Spanish for "Holy Faith"). (Interstate highways with odd numbers run north/south while even-numbered ones run east/west. I-25 starts in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and runs 1,059 miles through Albuquerque; Denver, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and ends in Buffalo, Wyoming.)

The open-road speed limit was a rapid 75 mph, but I set the cruise control to a sedate 60, much to the chagrin of some other drivers behind me in the so-called "slow" lane.

The terrain was relatively flat, with gently rolling hills and brush on one side, and taller mesas on the other. The 50-mile drive was pleasurable, and I sang to tunes on an easy-listening station on my rental car's XM satellite radio. (Although the road looked rather level, in those 50 miles, I climbed 2,500 feet.)

Just south of Santa Fe, I pulled into a rest stop. They served free coffee, had free internet access, BBQ and picnic areas, and plenty of information.

I took an exit toward the downtown area, and when I saw some Golden Arches in the distance, I decided to pull into McDonald's for a light lunch. I ordered a spicy McChicken sandwich and Coke, which came for the surprisingly low price of only $1.62. The server gave me an unsolicited senior citizen's discount! I must have looked especially wise. I shared a table with an older gentleman who had a small ranch and grew vegetables. He was well informed about national politics and world events, and we had a pleasant chat. Then I pulled out my map and guidebook and made a plan for the rest of the day.

Around 1:30 pm, I put the car into an all-day parking lot, and walked to the Capitol building. A guided tour was scheduled for 2 pm, and I was able to join that. Like some other rural states, the Capitol had no security screening, just police and many cameras. It had a very friendly atmosphere and was quite new. More than 600 pieces of art were on exhibit on the walls, in small galleries, and in the grounds. All the 550 artists at some time lived in New Mexico. And all the art was paid for by private donations.

At 2 pm, guide James lead six of us on a 1-hour tour of the House chamber, a committee meeting room, and the Governor's offices. It was most informative. In odd years, the legislature meets for 30 days, and in even years, for 60. They receive no pay, just expenses.

The building is circular, centered on a rotunda with a skylight roof but no dome. On the floor is the state seal inside a stylized Zia Native American sun symbol of four parallel lines coming out on each of the four sides. These groups of four represent the four seasons, the four periods of the day, the four directions, and the four stages of human life. The circle represents life, no start and no end, just continuity.

At the Governor's office, I asked his receptionist if I could have a business card. She had none but gave me a large color photo of him. He was Bill Richardson, former Federal Representative in Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration.

I walked into the downtown area, stopping off at the oldest European church in the U.S., San Miguel Mission, and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and its garden next door. I chatted with a German couple and another from Canberra, Australia. Next, I visited a western wear store and drooled over the hats and belts, although I thought that $350 was bit much for something to hold up my pants!

I sat in the sunshine in the main plaza area, and watched the world go by. Then I enjoyed all the authentic Native American art stores and drooled again at a shop having all-things sheepskin. I hesitated to try on anything for fear it would fit, and I'd have to buy it!

By 5:30 pm, I was starting to think about food, and soon came across the Plaza Café, a family-friendly restaurant that had some interesting specials. Not being too hungry, I settled on a large bowl of Yucatan chicken lime soup: chicken, rice, mild green peppers, and a good dose of green lime flavor. A fresh roll and butter came with it. I finished off with a cup of very strong café con leche.

At the table next to me sat a family with four small children, including a set of twin boys. I got chatting with the parents, and I asked if the kids were all theirs or had they just rented them for the day. They laughed and said that, unfortunately, the kids weren't rented. They were from Lubbock, Texas.

I walked in the sunshine back to my car. Using a book of discount coupons I'd gotten at a roadside stop, I found a number of medium-priced hotels with good facilities. By 6:30 pm, I was checked into a room with a king-size bed, free wifi internet connection, pool, and Jacuzzi.

I ventured out to a supermarket to buy emergency rations: milk, juice, and dried fruit. Back in my room, I handled email, photos and diary, read the national newspaper, and tried to have an early night. Lights out at 10:30 pm.

[Diary] At 8 am, I joined an international committee for its weekly 1-hour phone meeting. (The trip wasn't all vacation!) By the time I was done with that, the east coast was well and truly into its workday, and email started to arrive.

By 10:45 am, I was downtown and parked in a high-rise parking station. My first activity for the day was a visit to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. She was a well-known American painter who lived to be 100. She spent many years in the area around Santa Fe painting the desert landscapes. The main exhibit was of her works along with a collection of black and white photos by renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams. I paid extra for the audio tour in an attempt to understand the exhibits, but, once again, the understanding of art eluded me, Philistine that I am.

I found my way back to the Plaza café for lunch. It was very busy, and all the tables were taken, so I sat at the counter next to Kathy from Pittsburgh, a fellow Sagittarian. We spent more than an hour swapping travel and life stories, and I invited her to visit me in Reston.

From there, I walked to the park in the main plaza, where I shared a bench with a woman having a brown-bag lunch in the sun. She was a potter and was selling at a stall in a park nearby. It was another glorious day, very warm with a gentle cool breeze and a clear blue sky.

The next culture stop was the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum. The main exhibits were made by members of the Mississippi and Oklahoma branches of the Choctaw tribe. There was clothing, beadwork, jewelry, baskets, and art. Now all that artwork, I understood.

[Diary] By 9 am, I was packed, checked-out, and heading north on Highway 285. Then it was west on 502, stopping occasionally to shoot photos and video of the spectacular rock formations. Although there was plenty of snowmelt in spring, the countryside looked harsh.

I turned south on Highway 4 towards Bandelier National Monument. At the entrance, I paid the fee, and drove the three miles to the visitor center. I took the short trail, along a creek, through the ruins of a 500-year-old Anasazi village, and up to a series of cliff dwellings via ladders. Several caves were open for inspection, and each had ceilings blackened from ancient campfires. Inside, they were very cool. Near the end of that trail loop, a sign to another attraction caught my eye, so off down the half-mile trail I went in search of the Alcove ceremonial site. The ceremonial chamber (kiva) was built on the floor of a huge cave 140 feet up from the canyon floor. It was reached by a series of large wooden ladders and was well worth the effort.

I took my time on the highway, and arrived in Los Alamos around 3 pm. This is the home of the world-famous Los Alamos National Laboratories, which was created in the 1940s to research and develop nuclear weapons for the U.S. with Britain as a partner. It is still in operation today. I spent two hours in the Bradbury Science Museum watching videos and looking at numerous displays including mock-up copies of the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, respectively. It was a moving experience.

Although Los Alamos looked like a nice place to stay, I pushed on up into the mountains with the sun streaming down, a nice breeze blowing, and music playing. I soon discovered the best section of Highway 4, which ran through prime ranch land and pine forests. It didn't take me long to start thinking about living there.

I stopped off at Valles Caldera National Preserve to see some of its 7,000 elk. The preserve is tens of thousands of acres in size, and much of it is down in a caldera formed when the magma underneath ran out when a massive volcano on the edge erupted.

Next came La Cueva (Spanish for "cave"), which consisted of a general store, restaurant, and motel. It was 6 pm, and I got the last room. I paid more than I had wanted, but it was a long way to the next town, the proprietors were very friendly, and they had free internet access. Each cabin/room was named for a bird or animal; I was in Rabbit, right down the end. The bonus came in the form of a totally unexpected queen-size bed. The room was very comfortably furnished and included novels and magazines. The back door led out to a patio and picnic area, complete with BBQs. Just down over the back rail-fence, a stream ran rapidly passed, and, yes, there was even a young beaver swimming there with his small lodge off to one side. I sat in the sun at a picnic table reading the national newspaper as the stream gurgled by. It was hard to image that at 9 am that morning, I was in the state capital.

At 8:05, I went across to the café to eat supper, only to be told they closed at 8! Don't you just hate that when that happens! So, it was on to Plan B, which I made up right then and there. At the general store, I cobbled together some snack food, and retreated to my cabin to eat and do the day's newspaper puzzles. I sat indoors but with the backdoor open. However, once the sun went down, it got cold pretty quickly. I read some brochures that described the places I'd visited. Lights out at 10 pm.

[Diary] It was a cold night up at 8,500 feet, but I had plenty of warm bedding. I was wide awake at 8 am. By 9 am, I was in the diner next door chowing down on sausage, egg, hash-brown potatoes, and toast, tapping my foot to country music. I took my time over breakfast and worked on some puzzles. Then I walked along the creek where a number of fishermen had set up their operations. However, there were no beaver out, probably because of the dogs around.

At 11 am, I checked-out and got email using the motel wifi while sitting in my car. The drive south out of the mountains was very pleasant, but slow. The lush green soon gave way to parched red. After an hour, I hit the main highway, so could increase my speed.

I drove to the outskirts of Albuquerque, and then went west on Interstate 40 (I-40), which goes 2,547 miles right across the country, from Barstow, California, to Wilmington, North Carolina. I stopped along the way for refreshments and a stretch. I was surprised to come across an area with large dark black lava flows. That continued for many miles and was in stark contrast to the surrounding geology.

I got off the freeway at the town of Grants, and went in search of a public telephone. Being one of the (presumably) few Americans without a mobile phone occasionally puts me at a disadvantage. The first phone I found was out of order. The second one had a dial tone, but the buttons worked only intermittently. The third one ate my 50 cents and wanted more money. On my fourth try, I switched to a phone credit card, and actually got through to my next hosts, letting them know I was less than an hour away.

Highway 53 was in good condition, and 40 minutes later, I was at the main ranch gate. Then it was on to several miles of dirt track and up into the forest to my hosts George and Caroly. After 4.5 hours of driving, I was ready to rest.

They built their magnificent adobe, passive, solar house themselves, and were retired on 40 acres. The house had one level, with huge windows facing south, with a great view.

We sat on a patio in the shade sipping cold drinks and getting acquainted. For supper, we had typical southwestern fare: corn tortillas, cheese, chicken and beans. We talked some more and then we each settled down to reading, and in my case, writing this diary. Lights out at 10 pm.

[Diary] My bed was Heavenly, and I had a very good sleep. I was up at 8 am, and not long after, we sat down to halves of grapefruit and waffles with syrup. After the dishes were done, I packed water, emergency rations, hat, and cameras, and headed out for the El Morro National Monument, just a few miles away. There, I paid my $3, watched an orientation video, and then applied sunscreen. The 2-mile hike started at the base of some formidable cliffs, on which Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and settlers moving west had all carved their names, dates, messages, and even a poem at a place called "Inscription Rock". A 12-foot-deep, 200,000-gallon pool lay at the bottom, which is why the spot was so popular.

The trail slowly took me 200 feet up to the top of the rock formation. Along the way, the geology changed several times. Fortunately, there were plenty of shade trees on the way up. From the top, I could see a large canyon down between the two branches of the rock formation. A Native American pueblo (Spanish for "village") ruin was partially excavated. It was occupied in the 13th or 14th century.

Back at the visitor center, I looked at the exhibits, bought a National Park DVD, and had a light lunch. On the way home, I stopped in at a Trading Post where I had a delicious peach-flavored smoothie (milk, crushed ice, and frozen fruit).

Back at the ranch, I rested up, worked on this diary, and went through all the digital photos from this trip, deleting some and naming the others. This tourist thing can be work! Around 5 pm, we had drinks in the shade on the patio. Then at 6 pm, we ate supper there. George grilled kebabs of meat, mushrooms, zucchini, and red pepper. Caroly served a salad. We talked over supper, and then did the dishes before we all worked on individual projects.

I showered and lay in bed reading a guidebook for frugal travelers that Caroly had published some years ago. As I read, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the advice she had given. One bit of information I got was that, at age 19, George had driven from Florida to Alaska to Costa Rica, and from there, to Nova Scotia, in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. What a trip! Lights out by 9:30 pm.

[Diary] I was up with the alarm at 7 am. We all had a light breakfast, and then packed for Albuquerque, me to head home, and them for a big shopping trip.

I left around 8 am, driving east, into the morning sun. It was pleasant out, and I had the windows down, and the stereo blasting as I went down the highway.

At exit 102 of Interstate 40, I went south some 15 miles, onto the Acoma Native American reservation, to an old town built high on a mesa (Spanish for "table"). At the very nicely appointed visitor center, I paid my $12 for a guided tour, and 10 minutes later, a bus took us up to the top. A young Acoma woman, called Tahoma, welcomed us and guided us through the Catholic church, cemetery, and village. Of the 300 dwellings up there, fewer than 20 are lived-in year-round. The rest are only used during Catholic or Acoma festivals, when extended families come to celebrate. I lead a small group back down, via a very steep set of steps carved into the rock. It was challenging, but well worth it.

Back at the visitor center, I had lunch with a retired couple from Alabama. All the food was prepared on the reservation, and I had some rather spicy lamb stew and bread, which was baked in a traditional mud brick oven outdoors.

Back at the ramp to the interstate highway, I picked up a hitchhiker. Originally from Michigan, he'd been working in southeast Arizona, near Tombstone. He was headed to Denver, Colorado, to find work. We chatted the 50 miles to Albuquerque, where I dropped him at a northbound ramp of I-25.

I was looking for a cheap hotel and soon found one with free wireless internet and a king-size bed. For the first time the whole trip I turned on the air-conditioning, and it sure felt good. As I unpacked, I watched some TV, and found that a movie was about to start. So, with my being on holiday, I didn't think that watching a movie at four o'clock in the afternoon was too decadent.

Soon after 6 pm, I walked to Milton's, the 24-hour diner nearby. I had a bowl of soup—just like Grandma used to make—and a BLT, while reading the national newspaper. After supper, I handled email, surfed the internet, and watched some TV. Lights out at 9:15 pm.

[Diary] I was awake a little before my 5:45 am alarm. I got my final email fix, packed my bags, dropped my room key in the "after hours" slot, and was on Interstate 25 for the short drive south to the airport. Weather-wise, it was a very nice, clear morning.

I fly a great deal, and rarely have any problems. However, as the old saying goes, "When it rains, it pours." It started right at the beginning when I returned my rental car; my rental record had been messed up, and the agent was neither polite nor helpful.

Once I got to the terminal, controlled chaos reigned. All the people from a cancelled flight were lined up in the premier check-in line, leaving us premier travelers with the exact opposite of priority check-in. Eventually, I got to the front, but much of the time I'd budgeted for breakfast had evaporated. And, No, United doesn't have a business lounge at ABQ, nor does the airport have a priority security line. So, it was one long line after the other, even to buy breakfast.

Despite having arrived at the airport two hours before my departure time, I got to Gate B9 just before boarding started. When priority boarding was announced, I stepped forward, put my boarding pass into the reader, which promptly rejected it. So, an agent came over, and after some effort trying to figure out why, he solved the problem by issuing me a new boarding pass, but this time, in First Class. Considering I was flying on a free ticket anyway, I did not object. (Of course, having had a rushed breakfast before boarding, I had to decline the nice one they served up front just after we were airborne.)

Once I was on the plane, things seemed to get back to normal. The captain and First-Class flight attendant welcomed me on board with big smiles, a pre-flight drink was served, and all was right in the world, or at least in Seat 2A of UA flight 782's Airbus 319, which was headed for Washington DC, non-stop.

ABQ shares runways with Kirtland Airforce Base, and as we went down the runway, I saw quite a few military aircraft, including two Ospreys, which take off vertically like a helicopter and then fly like a plane once their rotors are tilted. A large number of 4-engine prop cargo planes were present.

I worked on this diary while sipping a mixture of cranberry and apple juice. Then it was time for a short nap. The ride was very smooth, and we arrived at IAD, on-time at 1:55 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, losing two hours along the way. The baggage handlers played "hide the luggage" for a while, but, eventually, it appeared. By then, Jenny had arrived to pick me up, and we were on our way home, in humid weather.

Back home, it was time to unpack from the trip, complete my diary, upload and name photos, and upload and edit video. There was even a little bit of paid work to be done before our house guests (a German family) arrived on the following Friday. And my next flight wasn't scheduled for another four whole weeks!

One interesting fact was that New Mexico was the 47th state to be admitted to the US Union, and it was the 47th state I'd visited.