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Meeting the Mogollon

New Mexico day two


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We had spent our first night in the state in the now-closed Inn on Broadway, situated in a lovely house with bags of character (and now operating, I have realised, as Serenity House B&B). The house is over 100 years old (which I know is old by US standards, although our own home in London is the same age and we think nothing of it!) According to our host, who welcomed us, it was once home to a madam who ran a string of brothels in the area, though I noted there was no mention of that on their website – perhaps they thought it might deter some visitors?

Anyway, we had a very comfortable night’s sleep in the pretty Hummingbird Room. Waking early, as I usually do (and always on holiday) I wandered downstairs in search of the morning coffee that had been promised. I was poured a large mug and it was suggested that I might like to take it out on the porch, which I did. I was joined there by the resident cat, Midnight, who was very friendly – so much so that getting a photo was quite a challenge as she kept coming too close to my camera, and to the rather hot mug of coffee I had to put down in order to take it!

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Midnight the cat

Once Chris and the other guests were up, we had an excellent breakfast – cheese muffins with delicious chilli marmalade, fresh melon and blueberries, raisin pancakes and crispy bacon. The only sour note was introduced by our hostess who, although very friendly, spent rather too much time complaining to the whole room about a recent slightly unfavourable review on Trip Advisor. The message was clear – a better review was expected from us!

Pinos Altos

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The (closed) museum in Pinos Altos

After breakfast we checked out and drove north out of Silver City on winding Highway 15. A few miles out of town we made a little detour into Pinos Altos, a sleepy remnant of the once-Wild West. The town was founded when three frustrated 49ers stopped to take a drink in Bear Creek and discovered gold here. Word spread, as it always did, and soon there were over 700 men prospecting in the area. Roy Bean operated a mercantile here in the 1860s before moving to West Texas to gain fame as Judge Roy Bean. Today several buildings of that era remain and have been restored, including the Buckhorn Saloon which is still open for business in the evenings (but not on the morning when we visited).

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Buckhorn Saloon

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Buckhorn Saloon and old opera house

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A peek inside the Buckhorn Saloon, and a rather less well-preserved building

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Town Hall sign

The small town hall above and the fire station in my photos below are not in the town itself but on the main road just before the turning off. They were beautifully lit by the morning sunshine, unlike many of the more interesting buildings in Pinos Altos itself which were unfortunately in shadow. I guess you need to come in the afternoon if you want to capture the saloon at its best, and if you made it late afternoon, you’d be able to enjoy a drink or meal here too.

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Fire station, Pinos Altos

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Fire station sign

But we had other places to visit today …

Gila Cliff Dwellings

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The Trail of the Mountain Spirits

From Pinos Altos we drove on north along Highway 15. This is not the easiest of drives – a sign soon after leaving Silver warned us that the journey time to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is about two hours. This may seem surprising as it is only 43 miles but at the speed you need to drive this road (SLOW) it does take close to two hours. It’s worth it however, as this is really a lovely drive with lots of stunning views along the way. It is part of one of the state’s many Scenic Byways, this one known as the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. We made a point on this trip of driving as many as possible, so there will be more in future blog entries for sure. There are few places on this one where you can pull over to admire the view, however, so it was hard to get any photos this morning.

The highway ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. These were built by the Mogollon people within the natural caves high in the cliffs lining the canyon of what today is called Cliff Dweller Creek. They lived here between 1275 and 1300 AD, farming the valley floor by day and retreating to the safety of their lofty homes at night or when danger threatened. Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms in the six caves, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families. There are also structures used for storage, and signs that some were used for ceremonial purposes. What makes them special is the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings. This makes it easier to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like.

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Cliff Dwellings panorama

Before reaching the Cliff Dwellings themselves we made a short detour to the Visitor Centre. There were interesting displays of Mogollon artefacts from the caves and surrounding area, and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache who consider this wilderness to be their homeland. There was also a video showing what life may have been like for the Mogollon who built and occupied the Cliff Dwellings, but we decided to skip that and head on up to the dwellings themselves. We also bought a few post-cards and had a chat with the helpful rangers who told us a bit more about the path to the dwellings and also about some good places to picnic.

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Visitor Centre

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Memorial to Geronimo at the Visitor Centre

Outside the centre we spotted a memorial to Geronimo near the entrance to the parking area. The Chiricahua Apache chief was born very near here (‘By the headwaters of the Gila’, as the monument says). He was one of the fiercest warriors who ever lived, but he didn’t turn to fighting until after the senseless slaughter by Mexican troops of his mother, wife, children, and other tribal women in 1858. During his time as a war chief, Geronimo was notorious for consistently urging raids and war upon first Mexican and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1886 he surrendered to U.S. authorities and the Government moved him and the remaining Chiricahua Apaches out of their homeland. He became a celebrity in later life, but was never granted his wish to return to his homeland.

After checking out the Visitor Centre we went back to the car to drive the two miles to the main parking lot for the dwellings themselves. It isn’t possible to see the cliff dwellings from the road so you have to be able to walk a short-ish distance even to see them from a distance. As we set out a ranger gave us a leaflet (the ‘Cliff Dweller Canyon Companion’) and explained the walk. He also asked if we were carrying any food or drink – only water is allowed on the trail so everything else has to be left in your car. We had already eaten our lunch at the picnic area near the car park, so were fine to continue.

From the parking lot the path led across the West Fork of the Gila River, which was largely dried up when we were there (late September). It then followed a tributary stream, Cliff Dweller Creek, on a path that ascended a little, with a few steps in places.

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West Fork of the Gila River

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Along Cliff Dweller Creek

So far the walk was easy, although not accessible for anyone with real walking difficulties (we noticed that one elderly lady turned back, leaving her husband to do the walk on his own). The path was mostly shaded and there were glimpses of the cliffs above us, although not yet of the caves themselves. Looking out for wildlife we spotted a good-sized lizard, which a ranger later identified for me as a Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard.

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Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard

After about ¼ mile the path brought us to the viewpoint from where you can get a first glimpse of the cliff dwellings.

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First view of the dwellings

This is the point to turn back if you find walking difficult, as the path is about to get a lot steeper. The trail is described as being a mile in length, but we felt that it was probably longer than this, though it’s hard to judge when you’re stopping frequently – either to catch your breath on the steep parts, to take photos of the fantastic views in places, or to explore the interior of these fascinating caves. On the late September day when we were here it was also pretty hot, especially on the long shade-less descent from the caves, so in mid-summer it must be even more so.

I don’t however consider myself especially fit or accustomed to hiking, and I had a bad back on our visit, yet I did make it to the top and around the full loop without too much difficulty, so I was glad I had given it a go. The steepest part is that immediately beyond this first viewpoint – a series of steep steps winding upwards until you emerge at the level of the dwellings.

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The dwellings seen from the top of the ascent

From here it is a more level walk along the face of the cliff to cave one.

Exploring the caves

What makes the Gila Cliff Dwellings special is not their size (several other places, such as Bandelier or Chaco Canyon have bigger groupings) but the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings, and can do so if you want to on your own. This makes it easier, I think, to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like. This was why we deliberately chose to explore on our own, rather than take a guided tour.

Whether exploring alone or in a group, there are six caves that you can get a close look at on this trail, although as four and five are linked it may not feel like that many. The first one is the smallest and has very little in the way of structures, but moving on to cave two we could see some of the original Mogollon constructions. These had already been vandalised when the dwellings were first properly explored by experts, but about 80% of the original structures remained, and the rest have been carefully restored.

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Dwelling in cave two

There are more structures in cave three, which you need to climb up to. This is where you can really get a sense of the long-ago inhabitants, as you look up at the roof of the cave blackened by soot from their fires, or look out across the valley from its cool interior, as they must have done.

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Cave three from cave two

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Looking out from cave three

Caves four and five are linked, and I confess that I couldn’t work out exactly where one ended and the next began, even though a helpful ranger whom we met here explained it – the small structure to the right of my photo below, with what appears to be a window, is at the point where cave four becomes cave five. There is apparently a mystery surrounding the purpose of this structure, which is too large to have been a storage area (and in any case has sooty walls) and too small to have been a dwelling.

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Cave four, with five beyond

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View from cave five

Without that helpful ranger we would not have known to climb the ladder propped against one wall in cave five and and would have missed seeing the pictograph painted there by the Mogollon, and the remains of some corn husks on the floor below.

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Pictograph in cave five

To exit these caves we had to climb down a wooden ladder of about a dozen steps. This was the longest of the ladders but like all of them was sturdy and stable so should have been easy enough to descend. However it was in full sun and the wood had got surprisingly hot – so much so that I could barely hold it!

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Ladder from cave five, after descending, and looking up at cave six

The trail then took us past cave six, which you can’t enter, and then looped round the cliff face before descending steeply to rejoin the outward trail just before the bridge.

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Panorama of Cliff Dweller Canyon on the descent from the caves

Lake Roberts

By the time we had finished our walk it was time to leave. We needed to retrace part of the winding route along Highway 15, and drive a little distance on nearly-as-winding Highway 35, to reach our base for the night. Unlike this morning, we did find one place where we could pull over and properly take in the view.

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On the Trail of the Mountain Spirits, near Gila Cliff Dwellings

There is no accommodation at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and many people visit as a day tour from Silver City (which is perfectly possible, though it’s quite a long drive). But we wanted to have more time to explore the caves than this would have allowed for, so I hunted around for other options and found a group of cabins in a rustic spot near Lake Roberts, known unsurprisingly as Lake Roberts Cabins.

We knew this was a pretty isolated location, with no restaurants in easy reach, so we planned to make our own dinner in our small cabin. The website told us that the on-site General Store sold ‘Groceries, including canned goods, microwave dinners, and other convenience foods …Staples like bacon, fresh eggs, milk & butter … and Seasonal garden fruits & vegetables’. So we planned to buy the makings of our evening meal there on arrival. However when I had rung to confirm our reservation a couple of days before, and to enquire about the store opening times, the owner told me that although they stayed open till about 7.00 pm, he had been running the stock down as it was late in the season (the last week in September) and he would have very little from which to make any sort of meal. So we shopped ahead in Silver and when I saw how empty the shop was, we were very glad that we had!

But before eating we had time to check out Lake Roberts itself, about half a mile away from the cabins. The lake was created in the early 1960s by damming Sapillo Creek, but it nestles among the pines in a very natural-looking way, although its deep blue waters are perhaps a surprising sight in this otherwise quite rocky landscape.

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Lake Roberts

Back at the cabin we made our simple meal and relaxed. At one point during the evening we spotted a deer from our porch, although unfortunately not when I had a camera to hand.

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On the porch of Cedar Cabin

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The seating area

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The small cabin suited us just fine. We had a small sitting area with a sofa and a table and two chairs. There was a TV for watching VHS tapes only, which could be borrowed free of charge from the store, so we watched a film after it got too dark and chilly to sit out on the porch.

A kitchenette opened directly from this, with a microwave, two ring gas stove, fridge etc, and all the crockery and cutlery two people might need. The bedroom was really only big enough for the double wood-framed bed, which was comfortable enough but very creaky – when one of us turned over, both woke up! Although it got very chilly after dark, being quite high above sea level here, the cabin stayed warm all night, so despite the creaking bed we were very happy with our choice of accommodation.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:24 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes road_trip history views national_park new_mexico Comments (7)

From outer space to the Badlands, via a pie!

New Mexico day four


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Sunday morning, Socorro

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San Miguel Church, Socorro

It was Sunday, so we started the day by attending mass at the historic church of San Miguel in Socorro. Or rather, in the church’s very functional parish hall, as unfortunately the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage. It was a lovely service nevertheless, as one local couple were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary (their 65th, if I remember correctly) and a big fuss was made of them by the priest and community.

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San Miguel Church

But it was a disappointment not to be able to see inside the church, as it has a lot of history. The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, as Nuestra Señora del Socorro – Our Lady of Succour. But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south, and it wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the by-then ruined church.

According to a small leaflet about Socorro’s history which we picked up at the local tourism board, ‘There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.’

The local history website http://socorro-history.org/HISTORY/smiguel/church.html has a more detailed history and also mentions that the church reopened after extensive work in 2015, in time to celebrate its 400 year anniversary.

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San Miguel Church

Before leaving this pleasing small town we checked out one more sight. Just south of the Plaza is this odd-looking memorial.

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Jumbo fragment

This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today a number of townspeople apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range.

Magdalena

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Main Street, Magdalena

In planning our route I could have opted at this point to carry on north up I25 to Albuquerque and the northern part of the state, but their were several sights to the west that had grabbed our attention, so instead we left Socorro on the much quieter Highway 60, heading out onto the Plains of San Augustin. A few miles west of Socorro we stopped at the only real town (albeit a small one) on this stretch of road, Magdalena.

It would be quite easy to miss Magdalena, but we were very glad we had stopped to explore a little. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!

Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.

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Old bank, Magdalena

The former Bank of Magdalena sits on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the tourism website (http://magdalena-nm.com/trails-end/walking_tour.html), suggest that it has also served as a café (and possibly still does?) although when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.

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Ilfeld Warehouse

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Old lamp

Another brick building of note is the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.

Opposite the Ilfield Warehouse is at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to see this old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is on permanent display here.

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Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot

The Very Large Array

Further west along Highway 60 we reached one of the main sights that had drawn us to this part of the state. The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.

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The Very Large Array from afar

These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe. Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic.

We did the self-guided walking tour which allowed us to get really close to one of the dishes and also taught us all we ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour was free (I note they now charge $6 which is very reasonable for what you get to see), although we were invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet.

We started in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explained the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits covered some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there were some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.

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Dish at The Very Large Array

But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile, I would say, and is clearly signposted. There were a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for sure was arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. We were in luck as it adjusted its position while we stood there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.

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Getting close to the dishes

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A close look at a dish and antenna

From here we looped around to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace gives a general view of the whole array. Photos taken from here show just how tiny people appear next to the dishes.

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View from the Research Centre

Back at the Visitor Centre we bought a couple of postcards and revisited a couple of the exhibits that had taken on fresh relevance after our walk, and got some cold drinks from the vending machine.

On our way back to the main road we stopped at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.

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Our hire car near the VLA

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Railroad crossing near the VLA

Pie Town

When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across empty plains, for us the effort was well rewarded.

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Pie Town sign

The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. But the coming of the interstate (I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here) meant that the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed.

It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café, and today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival (http://piefestival.org/).

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The Pie-O-Neer Café

In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, the aforementioned windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés ...

These may not be exactly beautiful but they have a certain faded charm and are very photogenic.

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In Pie Town

We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends, but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room, which was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.

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Stop here for pies

It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, great fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon, plus an orange juice each.

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Cute salt and pepper pots

Then it was time for pie. The slices looked very generous, so we decided to share one, and of the many on display opted for cherry. We had to wait a little while to taste it however. The one negative about this café was the slow service – there was just one harassed waitress (possibly the owner) and a girl bussing tables, who helped out a bit by carrying out plates of food but didn’t seem up to the task of taking orders. With all the tables full inside, a few outside, and people coming and going all the time it was perhaps not surprising that we sat for quite a while after our eggs and bacon waiting for the plates to be cleared and our pie order taken. We were enjoying watching all the bustle, but we still had a long way to drive, so in the end I got up and placed our order at the counter, which worked fine.

Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn' Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn' Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site, and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin referred to there, which they were in the process of restoring and which was Dan’s boyhood home:

‘Dan's father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan's mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’

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DanCyn' Windmill Museum

The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’ but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside. I hadn’t read about the cabin before our visit or I might have been tempted to disturb their Sunday in the hopes of finding it now installed!

Quemado

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Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado

From Pie Town Highway 60 continues westwards towards the border with Arizona, and twenty miles down the road is the next little town, Quemado. Here the small stone Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, with its tiny graveyard, is very photogenic, from the outside at least. I would have loved to have seen the inside too, but it was Sunday and a Mass was in progress, so I didn’t enter.

El Malpais National Monument

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View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument

Quemado was the furthest point west that we came on this trip, as here we turned north on Highway 36 and branched off on Highway 117 which runs through one section of the El Malpais National Monument – the other lies further west and was a bit too far off our route. But although we were only here for an afternoon it was long enough to do a couple of short walks and to drive up to the Sandstone Bluffs to see the awesome vista above.

El Malpais is Spanish for Badlands, and you can easily see how the area got this name, as much of it is formed from the outpourings of lava from McCartys Volcano. It is bleak in a way, but also ruggedly beautiful, and that view from Sandstone Bluffs is one that will stay with me for a long while.

Lava Falls

Entering the park from the south we weren’t able to stop off first at the Visitor Centre, which is on the outskirts of the city of Grants (where we would spend the night) so we relied on the information in our Moon Handbook to New Mexico and my pre-holiday research.

Our first stop was at the Lava Falls trail-head, just inside the park, where a trail leads across the McCartys flow, the result of a series of eruptions of nearby McCartys Volcano around 3,000 years ago. Here you can pick up a leaflet about the trail. We decided against doing the full length of it as we had only limited time in the park. Although this trail is only a mile in length you do need to take your time here as the route is marked out by cairns and you have to navigate carefully, only leaving one cairn when you are sure you can see the next ahead of you.

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The lava field

But we did walk the first few hundred yards in order to really appreciate this unreal landscape. As soon as you get beyond sight of the small parking lot you are surrounded by lava and it can seem quite disorientating. The lava here is relatively ‘young’ in geological terms, having been deposited just 3,000 years ago. Even in a short stretch of the trail you can see various formations which are described in the leaflet – Ropy Pahoehoe (smooth basalt with lines like rope), Lava Toes (small lobes of lava formed when hot lava breaks out of semi-hardened lava), A’a (rough broken basalt), pressure ridges and more. As the leaflet explains:

‘Cracks, ripples and bubbles tell a more intricate story. When lava spilled out of McCartys crater, it did not just settle over the ground in a smooth, even layer. It was a dynamic force that took on distinctive features as it flowed over the land. Pressure ridges collided and cracked; collapses sunk into empty cavities; squeeze-ups pushed their way to the surface through weak spots.’

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Daisies and lava

What fascinated me more than the different formations, however, was the way in which plants had made a home in what seemed to be a totally inhospitable environment. There was no sign of soil, yet grasses and flowers peeked from every crevice, and lichens crept across bare rocks. These also served to make my photos more interesting (I hope!) as black lava alone can look very dull.

La Ventana Arch

La Ventana is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico, at 135 feet, and was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.

It actually lies not in the National Monument (incidentally, as a Brit I always find it odd that a large area of land can be called a ‘monument’, which to us is usually a statue or other stone structure!) but in the neighbouring El Malpais National Conservation Area. The arch is very accessible (just a short walk along a gently climbing trail) and is a very impressive sight, although having seen the arches in Arches National Park some years ago we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t possible to get to a position where this arch can be seen silhouetted against the sky. Well, maybe it is possible, but it would involve a lot of scrambling across a rocky hillside dotted with warning signs about not going off the trail!

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La Ventana Arch from the trail - the last photo taken at the closest accessible point

The first part of the trail was paved and could be easily followed by someone in a wheelchair. After a while however, the paving turned to a rougher stony track, but not before we had seen the arch in the distance. From here it ascended slightly but it was a very easy walk which most people will manage in about 10 minutes or so.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

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Sandstone Bluffs

This was probably my favourite of the three stops we made in El Malpais, towards the northern end of this section of the park. An easy drive on a gravel road (fine in a 2WD) brought us to a ridge of sandstone high above the lava flows. From here we had a magnificent view of the El Malpais lava flows below and the sweeping expanse of the landscape beyond. Standing here our feet were on 200-million-year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, while below us were the beds of much younger (3,000 year-old) lava that swept through and around the bluffs when McCartys Volcano erupted, and beyond lie the distant range around Mount Taylor.

There are no marked trails here, you simply park in the large parking lot and explore wherever you want to. We just walked along the edge of the bluff to get a variety of views, but you can, if you don’t mind heights and have the time that we lacked, walk further out on to the jutting peninsula of sandstone. You need to be aware though that there are no rails or walls here separating you from a very steep drop here, wherever you choose to walk.

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View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

Unfortunately, soon after our arrival here the sun decided to dip behind the late afternoon clouds, and showed no sign of revealing itself again (we were to have a storm later in the evening). This made the landscape a little flatter than I would have liked in the photos, especially my panorama shot above which really doesn’t do justice to the amazing vista. But it does give a really good sense of the scale from the tiny figures just visible on the outcrop on the right. In the distance in this photo you can see a range of mountains, with Mount Taylor towards the left-hand end of the range and Gallo Peak towards the right. Taylor was named for the 12th American President, Zachary Taylor. It is the highest point around here at 11,301 feet and is known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people, who believe it to be the home of the Rainmaker of the North. Gallo is also known as Ram Peak by the Acoma and is 8,664 feet high.

Overnight in Grants

That disappearing sun was our cue to leave the park in search of accommodation for the night. We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation in Grants and had originally intended to look for something near the centre to take advantage of a local restaurant or bar, but when we drove into town everything looked pretty quiet, late on this Sunday afternoon, and the Mexican restaurant recommended in our guidebook was very decidedly closed, so there seemed no point in staying here.

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Our nice big bedroom!

While we’re not enamoured of the motel strips found on the outskirts of US towns as a general rule, on this occasion it seemed to be the most obvious choice, and with what looked like a storm brewing we opted for a motel with its own restaurant, the Best Western. It proved to be a good choice, starting with the undeserved discount we received on check-in – the receptionist asked if we were AAA members, we said not, and she gave us the discount anyway!

Our room was one of their standard ones but was more than adequate for our needs – a good size, with two queen beds and located at the back of the building in a quiet corner. We couldn’t really hear any traffic at all here, and although we could hear the trains whistling now and then during the night, I had no complaints as I love to hear them blow. We also got a great view of that approaching storm, as a bonus!

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Stormy Grants sunset

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Chris in the restaurant

We ate in the motel’s restaurant that evening, the New Mexico Steakhouse, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. The décor wasn’t bad for a hotel restaurant either, if not particularly imaginative: faded textiles, large booths around the edge, and lots of old Western paraphernalia attached to the walls. There were saddles, stirrups, rifles, but also assorted household items such as jugs and enamel bowls – the sort of stuff we’d been seeing piled high in so-called ‘antique’ shops (aka junk no one else had a home for) but which worked well in this setting. The service was friendly, and the sole waiter coped well with a reasonably busy room. We were pleased to be shown to one of the booths even though there were just two of us, and he immediately offered to bring beers from the bar across the lobby if we wanted a larger selection than the few on the menu, which we did!

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Pollo Santa Fe

Chris decided to keep things simple and went for the traditional cheeseburger (he could also have had one served New Mexican style with green chilli). I chose the Pollo Santa Fe, a chicken breast covered with melted cheese and green chilli sauce, served with rice and beans, and in a fit of guilt at how unhealthily I had been eating, added a house salad. This latter came with a good blue cheese dressing (yes, I know I said healthy, but ...) and was a generous enough size for us to share. My chicken dish was delicious and I really enjoyed it.

We then decided on a night-cap in the sports-themed Rookies Bar which was very large and very empty – just us and the barmaid! It seemed that most of the people who’d been eating in the restaurant were staying in other nearby motels and had come over to eat here as it was probably the best choice in this rather uninspiring strip. So after one drink we left and relaxed in front of the large TV in our room before another fairly early night. It had been a busy day, with our longest drive of the trip so far.

Incidentally the Best Western seems now to be a Red Lion Hotel, and both it and the steak house restaurant get much less positive reviews than I gave them eight years ago on Virtual Tourist.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:12 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes buildings architecture road_trip history views church photography national_park science space new_mexico Comments (8)

Around Santa Fe

New Mexico day eight


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the courtyard of the Burro Alley Café

Although we had enjoyed yesterday’s breakfast at Café Pasqual’s, it was quite pricey, so we looked elsewhere today and found the Burro Alley Café, conveniently located a couple of blocks from our casita. Today it appears to have been turned into a burger restaurant, but back in 2011 it was a bakery and café, perfect for breakfast time. It had a really pretty courtyard opening onto the lane that gives it its name, with some small trees which would have given welcome shade in the heat of the day. This morning though we were happy to sit in the sun. The courtyard walls were adorned with brightly painted wooden shutters which were very photogenic and kept our cameras busy while we waited for our order.

The bakery produces excellent pastries served fresh for breakfast. Chris had a chocolate one while mine was a huge almond one, both served still slightly warm from the oven. With two glasses of orange juice, a cappuccino for Chris and a double espresso for me (hooray, real caffeine!) we paid roughly half the cost of previous day’s breakfast.

Bandelier National Monument

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Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument

One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe was to do a day trip to Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it on Virtual Tourist and elsewhere, and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting. Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier’s area. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting – Tsankawi. So that was our planned destination for today.

Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. The park’s website gives the following directions:
‘Coming from Santa Fe you'll turn from State Highway 502 to State Highway 4. Less than 1/4 of a mile past this turn Tsankawi will be located on the left hand side of the road. There are no signs for Tsankawi on Highway 4. If you get to the stoplight, you've gone too far. A large gravel parking area adjacent to the highway and a sign on the fence will indicate you've found the place.’

We followed these directions and had no problem finding the place, although even so we overshot the parking area and had to turn around.

There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid – they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all. We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it, but they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so, as it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.

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Near the start of the trail

Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term, as while it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going, mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high so as to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.

But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one, as the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember that they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.

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Ancient stairway, and the first of several ladders

The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point. The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs (rock carvings, as opposed to rock paintings which are known as pictographs).

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Petroglyph

We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.

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View from the mesa top

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Looking towards Los Alamos

Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors lived at Tsankawi, while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.

The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has revealed that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here, although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area, so we were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. The village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery, men carving tools from flint or skinning animals, children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.

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The site of the pueblo

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View from the pueblo

The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived, and that is where the trail now took us.

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Cavates

We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk, but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places the ancients called home.

The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them, and as several are right by the trail it is easy to enter them) you will see the ceilings and walls of some blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires, evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment.

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Ladder down from the mesa (you can see the ancient staircase beside it), and looking our from a cave

It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls, as even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.

A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any here, although we did spot some at several points along the trail.

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Petroglyphs

Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries – and no doubt by exposure to people too.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:
‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’

But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi – some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here and are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times (between the late 1800s to early 1900s). But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings. As always on National Park land (or indeed anywhere else of historic or natural significance) the rule must be, ‘look but don’t touch’!

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Lone tree at Tsankawi

Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs, and they were clearly moving faster than we were – especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm, so we quickened our pace to make sure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead. In the event, no storm ensued, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment.

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Storm clouds gathering

We ate a picnic lunch while planning where to go next. I realised that we were quite near Española and as I’d read about an interesting sight there, we drove over to check it out.

Chimayó Trading Post, Española

Española is an unprepossessing town a few miles north of Santa Fe, but is home to a little gem. To step inside the Chimayó Trading Post is to feel yourself transported back around a hundred years, when the pace of life was slower and nothing was ever thrown away, because it might just come in handy one day. And it seemed to me that many of those un-thrown away items have found their way here, to Española. The location of the Trading Post, marooned on a small triangle of land surrounded by busy roads, is somehow apt, because the place itself feels like a perfect slice of history marooned in the 21st century.

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The Chimayó Trading Post

And if you’re wondering why a trading post in Española should be named for a neighbouring town, well apparently the building was originally built in nearby Chimayó in 1926, but was moved to this location in the 1930s. Behind the store is the Trujillo House, dating from around the same time. Both it and the store have been in the Trujillo family ever since, as we were to find out when we met Leo Trujillo inside.

We parked our car next to the trading post – the only car in what was quite a large lot. After taking a few photos of the appealing exterior, we pushed open the door and entered. Immediately a wavering voice to our right announced, ‘This place is going to be in a book you know. But you’ve come too early; it won’t be out for a month.’

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Leo Trujillo

This was our introduction to Leo, the owner of the trading post. The trading post has, as I said, been in this location since the 1930s, and it seemed to us that Leo must have moved here then too, and possibly been sitting inside behind the counter where we met him ever since, as his age and that of many of the objects for sale here seemed about the same, and he seemed as much of a fixture as they did too. From old brass beds to china dogs, kachina dolls to copper kettles, wooden santos to porcelain tea-cups, National Geographic magazines from decades past to antique furniture – even a fairground horse! This place is a treasure trove / junk shop / total dump, depending on your perspective, and all three perspectives are valid in fact – it just depends what your eyes light on next. You could browse here for hours, if so inclined, or give it all a cursory glance and dismiss it as being too chaotic to face the search.

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Items for sale

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Our purchase

As we rootled around, and took our photos (having asked and been given permission), Leo continued to chat, even when we were more or less out of earshot. Mainly he talked about the objects, telling us to be sure to look in this corner or that. But he also mentioned that someone he referred to as ‘the girl’ had gone to buy his lunch, and that when she returned she would show us the house if we would like. We had no idea what that might involve but it sounded interesting, so we agreed.

Meanwhile we picked out a few (old) postcards, and as a memento of our visit I also chose one of the samplers of Native American weavings (they can be seen on the bed in my photo above, and ours now hangs in our kitchen). Leo carefully hand-wrote our receipt in lovely old copperplate, and threw in an extra postcard as a gift.

Just then ‘the girl’ returned with his lunch and agreed that she could indeed show us the house. So she led us to the back of the shop and through a half-open door into the house behind. This was Leo’s home, and had been so for many years. Our ‘tour guide’ explained as we went from room to room that Leo had worked as cabin crew for Pan Am, meeting his wife there, and settling down here in retirement. But before retiring their jobs had taken them all over the world, and wherever they went, they collected the things that most appealed to them, with the result that the house is as much a treasure trove of antiques as the trading post itself.

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Inside the house

So it was perhaps not surprising to see some things that would look more at home in an English country house or Chinese pagoda than in the western US. The kitchen too was fascinating, and more or less unchanged since the 1930s I suspect. We also enjoyed meeting Leo’s cat, named by his owner as Obama (because he’s ‘black and white, like the President’).

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Obama (taken by Chris)

Sadly I have learned from an interesting article I found online while updating my Virtual Tourist notes for this blog that Leo died in 2017 – his nephew Patrick now runs the store (see Chimayó Trading Post is Española landmark). So it seems that the house may well be very different these days (Patrick is planning to open it as an art centre where visitors can meet and buy directly from the artists) even though, thankfully, the store seems little changed.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to both ‘girl’ and Leo and left. Back outside we walked round to the side of the building to see the house’s exterior, and found that to be almost as fascinating a hotch-potch of items as the rooms inside – our eyes being particularly caught by an old street sign from Shoulder of Mutton Alley, a tiny side street in London’s docklands! We also learnt, from a sign on an outside wall, that this house, known as the Trujillo House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

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The Trujillo House

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Outside the Chimayó Trading Post

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Trujillo House detail

If you are interested there are lots more pictures of the house (including some interiors) and store on the Historical Marker Database website http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=34205], as well as one of Leo taken in 2010, not long before we met him.

Abiquiu

From Española we then drove further north up Highway 84, keen to see something of the landscape that had inspired Georgia O’Keefe after our visit to the museum yesterday. Unfortunately the weather chose that moment to turn rather overcast (maybe the clouds we had spotted from Tsankawi had finally driven away the blue sky), but nevertheless the landscape was very impressive and well worth the drive.

Once beyond Española the drive was pleasant enough, but it was after we passed the small town of Chili that it started to get more dramatic. At first the drama came from the contrast between the lush green valley of the Rio Chama and the more barren hills on either side. Then as we neared Abiquiu the rocky outcrops got more eye-catching and the colours richer, with reds and whites predominating.

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Cerro Pedernal from near Abiquiu Lake

The village of Abiquiu, home to O’Keeffe for more than 40 years, tends to keep itself to itself, and visitors are not really encouraged, much as is the case with many of the pueblos. You can tour the O’Keeffe house, but only with a prior reservation. We hadn’t planned that far ahead, so decided to give the village a miss and instead headed for Abiquiu Lake a few miles further up the road. This is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the approach road is a little less scenic than you might hope, as you pass a small power station beside the road, but once beyond this you can park up by the Visitor Centre and stroll up the slope behind it to the point known as the Overlook.

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Abiquiu Lake panorama

Here we had a magnificent view of the lake, and beyond it the distinctive flat-topped of Cerro Pedernal, the mountain that found its way into so many of O’Keeffe’s works. It was rather windy on this somewhat exposed ridge overlooking the water, but in better weather it would be a marvellous place for a picnic. The path leads past labelled examples of local shrubs and flowers, and I was able to identify a couple that I had been admiring during our travels round the state.

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Rock formations at Abiquiu Lake

Because of the wind and rather dull skies we didn't linger long here, and instead headed back to Santa Fe to relax in our casita for a short while before dinner.

Back to the Shed

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Chris at the Marble Brewery

We had reserved a table for dinner at the Shed, having been impressed when we ate lunch there on our first day in the city. Beforehand though we went to a bar we had spotted on the previous day, the Marble Brewery, which had a terrace overlooking the Plaza I say ‘had’, because like several of the bars and restaurants we enjoyed on this trip it has sadly since closed down). There were a number of ‘house beers’ to choose from, all available in three sizes (pint, 10 oz or 5 oz), making it easy to try several different beers in one visit, and the waiting staff were also happy to bring a small taster if you wanted to try one before committing. Chris favoured the India Pale Ale while I rather liked the Marble Red which had loads of flavour.

Then it was on to the Shed for our 8.30 reservation. We actually arrived a little early, but got seated by 8.20 or so. Our table was inside, in one of the smaller rooms off the main one, which was very cosy with only a few tables and less noisy than the larger space where we’d had lunch the previous day.

Having rather bigger appetites than we had come with yesterday lunch-time, we were keen to try the New Mexican dishes for which they have such a good name. So we shared some chips and salsa to start with, which Chris followed with the ‘layered enchiladas’ – two blue corn tortillas layered with cheddar cheese, onion, covered with red chilli and baked – a sort of New Mexican lasagne! I had the taco plate, made with two soft blue corn tortillas filled with cheddar cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce and a choice of meats – I opted for chicken (I could also have had ground beef) and green chilli (I could naturally also have had red). These were served with pinto beans and rice.

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Salsa, chips and a 'Shed Red'

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Taco plate

Both meals were excellent, but mine especially so – one of the best I had on the whole trip! To drink I had a ‘Shed Red’, a margarita with pomegranate juice, which was very good, without reaching the dizzy heights of my green chilli version of the previous evening. Chris had a beer, we shared a cheesecake for dessert, and found the bill to be really reasonable. I can see why this restaurant is a favourite with Santa Fe locals – it would be a regular haunt for us too if we lived here!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:16 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes people food road_trip restaurant culture history views shopping national_park new_mexico santa_fe Comments (4)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

Ain’t no mountain high enough ...

Ecuador day six


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cotapaxi

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Overlooking Quito

Up early today as we were off again for another overnight trip out of the city, this time heading south to the area around Cotopaxi. I love mountain scenery, so this had been a must-see on my list when planning our trip to Ecuador. And the mountain did not disappoint, although for several reasons I was not at my best that day to appreciate it in all its glory.

We left Quito quite early in hazy sun and drove south with Jose Luiz, our guide from Surtrek, along the Panamerican Highway. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint overlooking the city to get a different perspective of its unusual shape, squeezed between the mountains.

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To the south of Quito this stretch of that famous road is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes because it passes between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes with several active and inactive volcanoes, of which the highest and most famous is Cotopaxi. Some of the volcanoes were very clearly visible, but others were disappointingly shrouded in cloud which seemed to build up the further south we travelled, including Cotopaxi itself.

A visit to a rose farm

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Jose Luiz suggested that we delay our drive up the mountain as he thought the weather might improve in a bit, and proposed that we detour to visit the rose farm belong to the hacienda where we were to stay later in the day. I was more interested in seeing the mountains than in roses, but as we couldn’t see any mountains just then, it seemed a good idea.

There are a lot of these rose farms in the area, but only a few can be visited. The one we went to is only open to those staying at the Hacienda la Cienega and security was tight, with Jose Luiz having to sign us in and accompany us everywhere while on the farm.

Rose-growing is an important part of the Ecuador economy and has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Many people in this region work on the farms. Jose Luiz explained that most of the roses grown here are exported to the USA, Russia and Indonesia. We saw the many varieties being grown here, under plastic to protect them from the cool nights. The climate here in the equatorial highlands, especially the consistent year-round hours of sunlight, means that the bushes produce a crop every six to eight weeks, making this a lucrative business for the growers and an important one for the country.

Fairly unusually for Ecuador, it seems, this is an organic farm – one of only four in the country. It switched from using the pesticides that are common here (including, or so I have read, some that are banned in more developed countries) and now prides itself on using only natural pest-control methods, including growing herbs to deter them near the entrances of the greenhouses and putting little bags over the most vulnerable blooms.

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Jose Luiz and Chris among the rose bushes

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We then went into the packing area where we could see how carefully the flowers are graded. The least good (that is, the smallest or those with too short stems) are kept back for the domestic market where they are sold very cheaply – you can get a large bunch (25 flowers) for the price of a single rose in the UK or US. The rest are packed in bunches of 12 and exported in refrigerated containers from a local airport.

In one corner of the packing room we saw some very unusually-coloured blooms. These are specially produced for the Far East market and are dyed with food colourings just as I used to do to carnations as a child!

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Grading the flowers

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And packing them

To Cotapaxi

After leaving the rose farm it was time to head for the mountains – well, for Cotopaxi specifically, the main object of our trip. We drove back north a little, and turned off the main road to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. The road through this lower part of the park was a bit of a mess, undergoing a lot of work that is intended eventually to improve access but in the short term has made it bumpy going! Jose Luiz explained that the previous Easter the President of Ecuador had come here for a camping holiday with his family and was so horrified by the state of the gravel road that he immediately ordered that it be tarred.

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Scenery around Cotopaxi

The road wound up through the pines until we reached the official entrance to the park. Beyond here we were above the tree-line and the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. It was dull and a little drizzly in the low cloud, and we wondered if we would get any sight of the peak of the mountain, but our companion was optimistic that on the other side the weather would be better. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed.

But we were still some way below it, down on the altiplano, or paramo as it is known in Ecuador, at around 3,800 metres. The road continued upwards across a barren stony terrain until we reached the parking lot. By now we were at 4,300 metres.

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Cars parked below Cotopaxi

From here it is possible to walk up to the refuge near the snow line (at 4,800 metres). But the altitude made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!

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Clouds swirling around Cotopaxi

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Trying to pretend I feel OK!

It is relatively unusual for me to suffer like this at altitude. We had already been in Ecuador for nearly a week, spending our time in and around Quito. The city lies at 2,800 metres, which can be high enough to cause shortness of breath and making climbing its many hills a challenge (altitude sickness is generally thought to be possible anywhere above 2,400 metres). But we had both found that we didn’t really notice the altitude too much, apart from a slight breathlessness on the hotel stairs at times, and I had been hopeful that Cotopaxi would not be a problem either. But I think the problem was that I had woken up with a slight headache and the altitude turned that into a pounding one somewhat spoiling what would have been a super day. Even the local remedy of coca tea, which we bought at a little café and gift-shop inside the park made no difference, unfortunately. [On our second day in this area, when we went nearly as high, I had no problems, thankfully.]

It had nevertheless been a special experience to see this magnificent mountain. Whether you admire it from the plains below, drive up to the parking lot, walk up to the refuge or even climb to the summit (5,900 metres), a visit to Cotopaxi is a must when in Ecuador!

Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain. But the mountain is also potentially the bringer of disaster. A still-active volcano (it last erupted about 70 years ago), an eruption today would cause the ice in its glacier to melt and to flood the valley below, bringing destruction to nearby Latacunga and as far north as the southern suburbs of Quito. Latacunga indeed has already been twice destroyed by such an eruption, in 1744 and 1768. The last major eruption was in 1903/04; does that mean that one is overdue?!!

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On our way down from Cotopaxi ’s parking area we stopped to take a short walk and see some of the hardy plants that grow in this altiplano or paramo landscape. Here we saw the chuquiragua plant, which Jose Luiz told us is the national flower of Ecuador. This is a low shrub which grows only in this country and neighbouring Peru. It has yellow/orange flowers which the hummingbirds like to visit for their nectar – indeed we saw an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird here, which is the highest-living hummingbird in the world. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the bird (though I was able to later in the day, as you will see), so am using Chris’s photo here, with his permission!

Other plants that grow in this tough environment include valerian and lupine. I took a photo of the latter and of a pretty yellow flower, which fellow blogger aussirose has suggested is probably a hawkweed - thank you Ann!

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Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird

Tambopaxi Lodge

When we were back “down” (at 3,800 metres!) on the paramo Jose Luiz drove us to another area of the park with a bleak but to me very appealing landscape. Here we had a good lunch at Tambopaxi Lodge, sitting in the cosy dining room with views from the window (when the clouds permitted) of not only Cotopaxi but also another volcano, Rumiñahui (4,721 m). We were also pleased to get another look at an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird, this time a female, who visited the feeder outside our window several times during the meal.

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Female Hillstar Hummingbird

Our meal started with a really tasty and warming pumpkin soup. This was followed by pork chops, which needed the excellent spicy sauce, aji, to liven them up. We had mango mousse for dessert, and a choice of fruit juices – I chose the very good mango juice.

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Tambopaxi Lodge

Laguna Limpiopungo

After our lunch we retraced our route back past the turnoff to Cotopaxi and stopped a little further along the road at the Laguna Limpiopungo. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot, and an oasis of sorts in the paramo for all sorts of birds.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

A short walk from the car park brings you to a viewing platform where a notice board helps with identification. We saw a number of these, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Teal, Andean Coot (so much bigger than the Coot we have here in England!), Andean Gull and nearby an Andean Lapwing. Other birds that can be seen here, according to the notice board, include the Caracara and Solitary Sandpiper, but we didn’t spot either of these.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

From the platform the path continues right round the lake, a circuit of just over a mile (just under two kilometres). We considered taking it, but it had started to rain, and the path was fairly uninviting as a group of construction workers was relaying it. So we decided to abandon the idea and instead just spent a little time with our binoculars, enjoying the bird activity.

We also had more good views of Rumiñahui from here. Unlike Cotopaxi this volcano is dormant and sits just below the snowline. It is named after an Incan general who fought against the Spanish conquerors, leading the resistance against them in this part of the country. Defeated by them in a battle near another volcano, Chimborazo, he had Quito burned to the ground rather than let it be captured by the invaders.

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Rumiñahui from Tambopaxi

As we drove away the rain got heavier, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful. I have read that Limpiopungo is at risk of disappearing because the waters that feed it are being diverted for irrigation purposes. It would be a real shame if this lovely spot is lost, not only for those of us that visit the park but also for the many birds that come here.

Hacienda la Cienega

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Hacienda la Cienega

Leaving the Cotopaxi National Park in the rain we headed for our base for the night, the Hacienda La Cienega, arriving here in the middle of a storm. We received a friendly welcome and were shown to our room, having arranged to meet up with Jose Luiz later for dinner.

The room, number 31, was on the far side of this historic property and was a good size, with a large and comfortable bed, and was nicely decorated. We were pleased to see that it had a heater as well as a fireplace, as the day was chilly at these heights (over 3,000 metres above sea level I believe) and the fire not lit – although later it was lit for us, and very cosy it was too!

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Our bedroom at the hacienda

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One of the corridors

We went to the small bar to see if we could get a coffee but the friendly manager immediately proposed that we sat in the then-empty restaurant (it was only about 4.30 pm) as there was a good fire going. He brought us a cafetière of excellent coffee and even lit some candles! Later in the afternoon we went to sit in one of the hallways to take advantage of the free wifi (which didn’t work in our bedroom) and again staff hurried to make us comfortable, stoking up the fire in the wood-burning stove. Later the rain stopped and I took a brief walk in the courtyard garden, its lush tropical trees and bushes dripping and birds starting to sing after their soaking.

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In the garden

The hacienda is packed with history! It dates from the early part of the 18th century, and was so well built that it survived the 1744 eruption of Cotopaxi. It has played host to numerous famous people, including Charles Marie de la Condamine, a French scientist who participated in the 1736-44 Geodesic Mission that determined the true shape of the earth (and identified the location of the equator just north of Quito) and to Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer/naturalist who studied Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802, and who is best known for proposing the theory that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (and for having an ocean current named for him!), as well as many of Ecuador’s former presidents.

On one side of the courtyard is the small but beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary. It can apparently be used for weddings, and Jose Luiz told us later that on some visits his tourist guests have been accommodated for dinner in one part of the dining room while the wedding party celebrated in the other. The chapel doors stood open when I was exploring the garden, as they did the next morning, so I was able to have a look inside at the lovely wooden altarpiece, unusual reed ceiling and several old paintings.

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Inside the chapel

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In the restaurant

In the evening we had dinner in the hacienda’s atmospheric restaurant, along with the only other people who appeared to be staying here, another couple and their guide. I had read good reviews of the food here, and seen an extensive menu, and as it was my birthday I was looking forward to a bit of a feast! But we discovered from Jose Luiz that our dinner was included in our tour and was a set menu. No matter – it would still be good, I thought. With hindsight though I wish we had asked if we could pay the extra to choose from the menu, as the meal proved to be rather disappointing. The vegetable soup was OK, but the chicken curry poor (we are used to good curries here in England) and served with pallid, floppy potato chips! They did however make a bit of a fuss about my birthday. I had not mentioned it at all to Jose Luiz, nor he to us, but Surtrek had clearly noted my date of birth and when the time came for dessert I was brought a slice of chocolate cake with a candle in it. Chris and Jose Luiz meanwhile were served a slice of something called “fruit cheese” – a sort of blancmange or mousse-like concoction. Chris and I decided to split our two different desserts and I was pleased that we did, as the fruit cheese was much nicer than my birthday chocolate cake, which seemed dry and stale. So altogether not an especially good meal and a somewhat unsatisfactory end to our day.

But overall it had been a good day: the clouds had cleared for us, we had seen Cotopaxi and the other volcanoes, and the fire was lit in our cosy room.

And tomorrow there would be more wonderful scenery – and no headache!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains birds volcanoes national_park cotopaxi Comments (6)

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