Blue and white. These are the only colors I see. Mounds of chalky white sand under a blue sky with swirly clouds. The wind blows constantly moving entire piles of sand and leaving traces of squiggly lines over each dune. It’s an area of 275 square miles of bright white gypsum called White Sands National Monument and even some of the small creatures who have adapted to this environment are, you guessed it, white.
We called the park to ask about planning a visit and find out they are closed for 3 hours due to missile testing. Now I am more curious about the missiles than the sand. We catch up with a ranger who is walking back and forth at one of the viewing areas to answer questions. (Side note: I have probably mentioned the rangers before and have to say it again. If you get the chance to travel to some of the amazing parks in this country, go chat with a ranger, or join one of their talks or tours. You will be amazed at their wealth of information and how completely thrilled they are to be working there.) I jump right in and ask about the missiles. In 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government dedicated the area around White Sands as the missile range. The first atomic bomb was tested not too far from this site. The ranger said occasionally the missiles get off track and land in the park. She said they have found pieces and parts around the park, “If you see something metallic lying in the sand don’t pick it up, report it immediately.” If missiles are flying, I think it is a good thing they close the park during tests!
We see people sledding down the dunes as if they were slopes of snow on round saucers. Others have brought their horses to trot over the sand and pose for pictures. We decide to drive and climb. On the top of one dune we look in every direction and can only see white sand.
Tucked in our map is a list of places that have been recommended by folks we have met along the way and it’s like a wild weed that will not stop growing. One couple from Mobile, who we spoke with back in Natchez, said we absolutely had to see Chaco Canyon. A gal we chatted with at the Santa Fe Brewing Company gave us a list so long we were fearful we might never leave New Mexico, including several other breweries along the way – so we might be walking rather than driving out of New Mexico. Another must is the Turquoise Drive which starts in Albuquerque and winds up into Santa Fe and then connects with the High Road to Taos. Scenic driving here we come.
Have I mentioned that we started this journey thinking we could out smart winter? Yes, maybe we picked a bad time to begin a northern route, but we were heading south and southwest – to sunshine and warm weather! We have seen more snow, ice and freezing temperatures than some of the colder northern states. As winter gives us snow and laughs in our faces, we add more layers of clothes, turn on the heater and keep going.
It’s a clear day when we start the Turquoise Drive. Sipping on strong hot coffee we are ready. Only a few patches of snow remain on the side of the road when we begin an ascent through the Cibola National Forest to the Sandia Mountain point. The snow builds from patches to mounds and then the road is covered completely until we reach the top where it’s gusting and blowing as if to say, “Did you think you were going to miss me? HA!” We pull on our coats and head over to the very top of this mountain to see what lies below. We walk right to edge and the view has opened up below us. We step back on instinct to fight that feeling which is pulling us over and down. We are birds floating above the world with a wide open view at 10,678 feet. For a few minutes we can’t feel the cold, or the gusts, or that feeling of vertigo…and then we can, so we run back to the truck and crank up the heat. I ask Colin if he is as cold as I am. “You see this coat?” He says this while unzipping his coat and allowing me to notice. “Rob Heaney gave me this coat,” and then he pauses and looks away from me as to talk directly to his friend and shouts, “Thank you Rob Heaney!” “This coat is made with Gore-tex and…” I interrupt him because I don’t know anything about Gore-tex and ask him what that has to do with it. “Let me tell you this…when Rob bought this coat and questioned the price compared to the others on the rack, the saleswoman at REI gave him the short version, ‘Because it’s the shit’, she said. And Rob bought the coat.” The reason I am not as cold as you is because this thing is The Shit. I don’t look at my coat the same after this.
It takes us twice as long to go down as up, but we enjoy the pace. The road swings through towns that had a gentle pulse before and now almost ghost like. They are towns that have seen Native Americans and Spanish settlers. They went through boom times and dead times . They are tucked between low mountains with tiny churches and adobe style homes. Vacant store fronts show signs from the past. We pull into Golden and find Henderson’s store. The store has been in the family since 1917 and full of Native American arts. Beautiful Navajo rugs hang on the walls, turquoise jewelry sits behind glass cases and pottery rests on the shelves. The owner tells us about the town and his family store. 90% of the store’s collection walks right through the front door in the arms of artists who come from different parts of New Mexico to sell their work. We buy two kachinas that are dressed in masks and in the middle of a dance. Farther down the road is a booming touristy town with colorful signs leading the way. Quirky stores with half their goods on the sidewalk advertising local art and other souvenirs. As we near Santa Fe we are trying to figure out how to get to Hyde Park for camping and then we see a sign; Santa Fe Brewing – I’m sure they will know how to get there! We get lots of advice, a list of places to add to our growing weed and the beer was worth the stop. We especially loved the Black IPA and not too upset about the Happy Camper IPA and both were available in cans. As we get ready to leave, the bartender who was also a part of our conversation about getting to Hyde park, gave us a smile and said, “You guys are going to freeze your asses off tonight…have fun!” She was right.
We woke up to a hard snow fall, but something about it was beautiful – once our brains thawed out and the feeling in our toes and hands came back. We found coffee in Sante Fe, where everything is brown and in adobe style – even the McDonalds and the Starbucks. Coffee gives us exactly what we need. It warms the soul, shakes out the dull and sends a positive vibe to the day ahead.
Which we needed because today we were going to tackle the High Road to Taos. The snow made it hard to see beyond the first set of hills so we slowed down to a crawl and found the town of Chimayo. There is a weaving shop that has been in the Ortega family for 8 generations. Inside it looks like there are 8 generations worth of rugs. Neat piles are lined up along the window and master pieces hung on the walls. They are colorful with the traditional styles with diamond patters and borders. We have read and heard about a church in Chimayo that has healing dirt. Colin says he wants to go directly to the church and jump in the hole of dirt and splash around like a baby bird in a puddle. He is going to get his chance because we are only a mile away. A sign for El Santuario de Chimayó leads us in the right direction. It’s tucked back behind a village square, a brown adobe church with two bell towers built around 1817. We pass through an arch with a cross on top and notice the stucco gate has several religious paintings. There are a few people checking things out, but it is so very quiet. The only sound we hear are foot steps crunching in the snow . We are not exactly sure what the rules are for seeing and touching the dirt so before going inside the church we head for the visitors center. There are two ladies trying to figure out something on the computer when we enter the small office. They explain that this is a very sacred place. People come from all over, sometimes by foot, to pay respects and to ask for healing for themselves or for someone they know. The ladies are curious about where we came from and why we are here…Virginia and just passing through. They encourage us to go inside the church and have a look. The church smells of old wood and burning candles. We walk past the pews and enter a side room where a short archway leads to a tiny room with one window and a space dug out in the floor filled with dirt. We notice one guy kneeling on the ground next to the hole while passing the dirt from one hand to the next. His friend stands next to him and we back away to give them space. No one speaks. For a long time the guy continues to kneel and work his hands in the dirt below him. We wonder in silence what he is asking for: Is he sick? Is he here for his family? How far did he travel? When he slowly stands and moves out of the room we duck through the arch and squat around the dirt and look at each other like, you go first. I lean over and whisper to Colin that it might not be appropriate to jump in and splash around. He nods in agreement. We pay respects and leave quietly.
The road doesn’t lie and leads us right to Taos. A town that has a look of Santa Fe, but smaller. A historic plaza built in the middle bordered with adobe stores and narrow side alleys lined with cafes and everything is full of the Christmas spirit. Music plays from speakers set up in the town square and the trees are sparkling with lights. Colin hears from a good friend, Dennis Carmody, that Eske’s is the place to get something to eat (we don’t think twice about taking his advice since he has always steered us in the right direction). We end up behind a few store fronts and a large parking lot to find Eske’s Brew Pub; http://www.eskesbrewpub.com/ It is exactly the kind of place you want to land after a day of driving through snowy roads and forgot to eat lunch. Eske’s is a small and cozy but not cramped. Warm and friendly with some Grateful Dead tunes playing in the background and wait a minute, does that menu say they have a green chile beer?? New Mexico is the land of the green chile and we are learning fast that this is a very good thing. Not too hot with the perfect amount of slowish-medium heat. The kind that I can handle. They have a green chile stew that I order and Colin gets a burrito with the green chile stew on top. I try a tasting of the green chile beer and realize it’s better in the stew but Colin thinks it works. We take in the warmth and fill our bellies with green chile. It’s the kind of place you don’t want to leave. But we do and we leave happy.