Thursday, October 11, 2007

Propane Rocks

The best way to understand New Mexico is to consider the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Never heard of it, you say? That's the point. In New England, it would be one of the most celebrated natural sites. Nature is audacious in New Mexico, however, so it's just another little park, so minor that the last few miles of road to it aren't even paved. (Indeed, my decade-old Rough Guide to the Southwest covers Cochiti Pueblo, where it's located, but doesn't even mention the site.)

But more on that later.


Photo Gallery

I was in New Mexico for a conference in Santa Fe, a town I've long wanted to visit. I was fortunate that my trip coincided with Albuquerque's celebrated annual Balloon Fiesta. Having now attended, I can confirm that the event lives up to its hype. The sight of literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of large hot-air balloons—in different colors, shapes and sizes, but never mind that, just hundreds of them—is a signt not easily forgotten.

A few practicalities:

  • The most important question—to which I had trouble finding much information on-line—is whether one needs to go to the balloon park at all, or whether one can see the balloons (they are, after all, in the air, right?) from just about anywhere. The cost is modest (about USD 6), but I was more concerned about the crowds. Having made the trip, I can confirm that it's well worth going to the source. The area is so large that it's not as packed as it would seem (even though the numbers are considerable) and you get to literally walk amongst the balloons and balloonists, watching their preparation and ascent up close. Also, it's not always clear which way the wind will blow; the day I went it blew strongly to the north, and the balloon park is already north of Albuquerque, so from the center of town you wouldn't have seen a thing. (That said, some people on-line recommend going up to the high ground of Coors Ave to watch the balloons against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains. This looks like a sound idea, but then you lose the immediacy of the ascents. If you can, do both!)
  • The event is more sensitive to wind conditions than you would guess from the coverage. Winds over about 10 knots lead to cancellation. So don't give yourself only one shot at watching the balloons, or you may be disappointed.
  • Don't drive to the balloon park. There's an excellent park-and-ride system with spots all over town. The extra cost is negligible (about USD 4) and saves you the bother of negotiating the crowded roads and lots. Buy the park-and-ride ticket on-line, print it, get to the lot by 5am, and you'll have a grand time.
  • At the park, there's a little ridge of higher ground at the northern end. Exploit this. It's a great site to set up a tripod, or just to watch the balloons as they drift away over the surrounding suburbs. It's an entirely different experience than watching them from the lower ground of the ascension area, so do both.
  • There's a grand tradition, apparently, of consuming breakfast burritos. Vegetarians will, however, have to hunt for one that doesn't have various animals pre-mixed. You can find food, but you'll have to work for it.

Beyond the visual and human spectacle, there is the problem of finding the balloons at all. I arrived at the park and walked around in a bit of a daze at—this being America—the sheer volume of commerce, everything from breakfast burritos to lapel pins to new-age crystals. After ten minutes of roaming (the Fiesta organizers boast of over a third of a mile of shops), I finally went to a nice lady manning one of the stalls and asked, a bit sheepishly, where the balloons were. She gave a big laugh, tapped me affectionately on the shoulder, said “Well, bless your heart!” as only a kindly Southern woman can, and pointed me off in the direction of the airfield.


At the other end of the human temporal spectrum is the Petroglyph National Monument (they don't have very many Parks in New Mexico—what you'd expect to be a Park invariably proves to be a Monument), one of the few national parks (I'm going to abuse terminology) sidling right up against a major city. There's a standard trail (in Boca Negra canyon) designed for everyone; this is interesting enough, but crowded, and too short to be satisfying. (If you're in reasonable shape, you need barely a third of the amount of time they estimate for each of the trails.)

But the Rinconoda Canyon trail, one intersection south from the Visitor's Center, is barely more challenging but longer, and excellent. This goes into the heart of the canyon through some fairly pristine scrubland. The park claims there are over 500 visible petroglyphs on this path; I can't say as I found more than about 20% of them (but then I was also trying to make time). The second half of this walk feels a bit disappointing—instead of walking alongside the rocks, you're now in the middle of the canyon—until you contemplate the idea of actually living here, as the creators of these petroglyphs did. Better than any interpretive sign, this walk conveys that experience.


Photo Gallery

One of the Southwest's more celebrated Native American sites is Bandelier, the dwelling of the Pueblo Indians from around 1000 to 1500, before poor land management (of a tough land!) caused them to abandon the site. Bandelier is known for its large collection of trails and remarkable rock dwellings, notably the so-called Long House, which is essentially a medieval condominium complex carved into a large mass of rock.

Bandelier may not be the Canyon de Chelly, but it's worth the visit nevertheless. There are two main foci in the park: the visitor's center at the bottom of the canyon, and a campground at the top. There are good trails from each, and a lovely path that connects the two. From the visitor's center a short walk takes you to the Long House and other artifacts, and a mile-long supplement takes you to a remarkable cave dwelling up in a hill. The ascent (and descent!) are not for the vertiginous; though I hate descending ladders, it felt criminal to pass up on the experience so, summoning courage, I trotted up the stairs and ladders. I'm glad I did. It's easy to see that power in such a society must have rested in those with the genes and conditioning to adapt to such a dwelling...while the slow guy got eaten by the bear.

Oh right, bears. There are black bears here. Normally I ignore this sort of information entirely, but my experiences in Banff (where we saw both black and grizzly bears) have made me a little more sensitive to such warnings (and the bear-proof trash cans everywhere were surely not installed merely to decorate or to confound the average visitor). I went to Bandelier early on a Sunday morning—well before the visitor's center opened—which is a great time to go, by the way, because it meant I essentially had the park to myself. To myself and the bears, that is.

The general advice for bear territory is to make noise as you travel, so as to avoid startling a bear. This would be fine but for the exceptional bird life in the park, and walking around reciting high-school poetry is hardly likely to help on that front. So I decided to stay silent (please, save your comments), saw some wonderful birds in the extended trail that goes to the cave dwellings, and returned uneaten and intact.

Of Bears and Other Beasts

In the early afternoon I did one of the overlook trails that emerge from the campground. Here there would be no danger of bears, or at least of coming up on one suddenly, because there are few trees and little shelter. Running late, I was rushing back from the overlook when I saw a snake sunning itself on the trail in front of me. Oh, I thought, what a lovely snake! It was a dark reddish-brown that blended well with the surrounding rock, and it had beautiful little diamond patterns on its back and black-and-white bands on its tail. Wait a minute: Diamond patterns? Black-and-white? Something I'd read back in Texas about snakes started to emerge through the haze of my consciousness, and that something was an instruction to stop. In the half-second it took for that thought to pass from brain to foot, however, I'd taken another step—enough for the snake to raise said tail and emit a loud sound like stones in a tin can. Rattling.

I'm a city boy, and we city boys know more about rats than about rattlers. I have since read that, if bitten by a rattlesnake, don't run for help: the blood circulation helps the venom spread. (Another thing I read, which does not inspire confidence: a wet rattle makes no noise.) My concerns were a little more immediate, however. Should I walk around, stand my ground and wait, or turn tail and run? (I've also since read that, from a safe distance, you can harass the snake into moving: throw a little sand at it, for instance.) Fortunately, I didn't need to learn any of this by trial and (very great!) error. I had already annoyed the snake, and after a few seconds it slithered a bit off the trail...and a bit more...and more. (All this while I was rushing to grab my camera because I know you, dear reader, will demand proof.) Finally it had moved off the trail, but was it lurking behind the large rock that it had passed behind, waiting to strike? I paused a half-minute and then, most beloved reader, having built up a full head of steam I ran, executing as perfect a steeplechase as you can ever hope to see.

Tent Rocks

Photo Gallery

So, back to those tent rocks. These “rocks” are hoodoos, a geological formation caused by the erosion of softer rock that lies under a hard top. We could employ euphemisms all day, but there is only one honest description of the result at Kasha-Katuwe, and it is perfectly accurate, even down to the details: phallic. Someone, surely, has nicknamed these the, uh, Devil's Mojo.

You absolutely should not miss out on Kasha-Katuwe (I liked it so much that I went back a second time, with Daniel Jackson). The thrill begins with the approach. Ever seen one of those roads that just heads off perpendicular to a highway, seemingly to nowhere—these are common in west Texas and other badlands—and wanted to take it to its end? Well, here's your excuse. The road, furthermore, runs just along the base of the plateau that separates Santa Fe from Albuquerque, so you can observe the escarpment up close. And then you're in hard-scrabble John Wayne country.

Which is why it's startling to suddenly see a sign to a golf course. Golf? Is there any grass, or is the entire course a sand-trap? I did not investigate, but a clue lay in the fact that there is also a dam of some size that appears to hold the water of the Rio Grande (and may explain why that river is but a mere dry bed downstream in Albuquerque). The juxtaposition of dam and golf course against the terrain adds an element of surreality.

The last five miles of the drive are on gravel (okay for cars, but not for RVs). This just heightens the sense that you're really getting out there, adding to which, you don't see the formations until you're nearly there. And then, suddenly, the hillside is alive with hoodoos...and that's not even the best part.

There are two marked trails at the main visitor point. One is a walk along the base of the cliff, leading up to an unprepossessing cave. Other than the opportunity to see one or two hoodoos (or hoodoo rocks) right up close (and, heh, heh, very personal), there's not much to be said for this loop...especially not compared to the alternative.

This alternative is the cliff walk (an out-and-back, not a loop), which takes you to the top of the formation. This is somewhat intimidatingly posted as having a 630 foot rise over 1.3 miles, which by my calculation is about a 9% incline. This posting is in fact entirely misleading, because the walk is much better and worse than that: the first mile of the walk has the same inclination as the cave loop, and virtually all the climbing happens in the last third of a mile. (Not that it's particularly hard anyway: from parking lot to the top took me 27 minutes, including pauses to make way for other people on the trail.)

But oh, what a route it is. For what they don't tell you is this: the hoodoos on this route—hidden out of sight from the parking lot and the cave loop—are vastly more dramatic; and the reason for that is that the first mile is through a slot canyon. The canyon alone is worth the price of entry and the drive, a stunning pink-and-grey confection of aggregate worn with utmost drama by wind and water. It's enough to make you forget why you came entirely, and the canyon, not the (remarkable) hoodoos, is the reason I went back to the park a second time. (Well, that and the company, but I was glad to have talked Daniel into going here.)

If you go, do it when the sun isn't directly overhead: the shadows are half the drama here. Also, if you decide not to drive the additional dozen or so miles of gravel to the next overlook, do drive another 300 yards or so, until you get to a gate, and turn around. You'll see an entirely different side of the hoodoos from there.

Interestingly, Kasha-Katuwe is only a handful of miles from Bandelier, but the drive between them is about 70 miles, the long way around. I predict that within ten years the last few miles to the tent rocks will be paved, and in a little while longer it'll be connected more directly to Bandelier. Even in New Mexico, a site this beautiful cannot be wasted. At that point, of course, someone will install an expensive cafe of the “Coyote Grill” variety at Kasha-Katuwe, but there's always the danger that, this being America, someone else will decide to illuminate the hoodoos every evening in a changing spectrum of kaleidoscopic colors. Can't happen, you think? Who could subject a great geological sight to such a travesty? You have clearly never been to Niagara, my friend.

The Cities

After all this, it was hard to care much for the cities. I must confess, too, that something has changed in my perception of the world. As I said initially, I've looked forward to visiting Santa Fe for years. But now that I was there, I couldn't bring myself to care; and what had happened in the meanwhile is Australia, a continent that completely awakened me to the natural world. That, combined with the tweeness and absolute ridiculousness of Santa Fe—a large parking lot, or a bank drive-through lanes, in regulation adobe—left me underwhelmed.

In contrast, Albuquerque exceeded my expectations. The physical location is stunning, and it seems to be a town that underpromises and overdelivers. Even the Nob Hill area, with its studied precocity, has a certain appealing modesty to it, and I was impressed by how few houses had lawns (as opposed to more regionally appropriate sand and rock) yards.

New Mexico is an interesting place. Not only nature but many generations of inhabitants have also been audacious here, with breathtaking effect (visit the Trinity Site for further evidence of that). It can be too easy to think of it—hills of yellow scrub, sky of the bluest blue—as a kind of cut-rate California, but this would be unfair and wrong. It is a slightly precarious place, seemingly dependent less on pure enterprise than on a generous dollop of federal money; and its native tribes lead a very troubled existence. (Surely their casinos do as much harm as good for a list of reasons that seems endless: the disproportionate distribution of wealth, the dependence on an unreliable revenue source, the incentive for young people to become croupiers instead of acquiring real skills, the execuse for those who might otherwise care to convince themselves to do nothing, ....) On the one hand it is a land trying hard to attract other forms of revenue (free Internet access at highway tourist information centers is surely a smart, tourist-friendly idea), but on the other hand I've never heard as many Christian stations on an FM dial.


Vegetarians in Albuquerque will want to check out Annapurna and the Green Light Bistro, both of which now run out of the same location at the corner of Yale and Silver, just south of the main UNM campus. This is hippie fare, but the Indian food is surprisingly pleasant (and their chapati is exquisite). Expect large portions and long waits for service, during which time you can listen to the new age music and read the Hindu philosophy on the order number flag.

Santa Fe has several vegetarian options, but food in the town in general felt a shade indifferent. Various sources raved about brunch at Cloud Cliff, but I was disappointed: the food seemed be liberally dosed in spices and sauces, but they hadn't cooked into anything. Annapurna has a branch here that I didn't visit. Tree House is very good (but drive slowly or you'll miss the entrance), though the menu on-line really has no relationship at all to what you'll find when you visit. I visited the Body Cafe several times, and concluded that their prepared food is indifferent, but their raw food is outstanding. I don't think I had a single good coffee anywhere in the state.

The Sage Inn in Santa Fe is an odd place. It's clearly a dumpy old motel that was heavily renovated. The Web site promises a great deal, but ultimately it's still just a motel, though two steps up from the typical American variant. The location is indifferent, but over time you realize it's actually pretty good (at its price) for Santa Fe: you can at least walk to the Plaza, even if the walk is not hugely pleasant. There is reasonable WiFi coverage, but the redesign clearly slightly predated modern times: there wasn't a single free power point in the room (other than the low-wattage plugs for electric shavers). The front desk staff are a morose, surly, clueless, and indifferent bunch (check your reservation carefully!). But the breakfast is surprisingly good (this being Santa Fe, you get yogurt and granola). If they would tone down their Web presence, improve the rooms for business travelers, and pay double to hire good desk staff, it'd be excellent value.

The Vagabond Executive Airport Inn in Albuquerque tries hard. They have an old facility, and the renovations give it a slightly surreal feel. The rooms are old but clean and enormous. The staff are eager to help: when my Ethernet connection wouldn't work (no wireless), they rushed me new (working) parts in two minutes. They run a 24-hour airport shuttle, and gladly also picked me up from the car rental lot the night before. But they also missed my 4am wake call, which seems pretty inexcusable for any hotel.

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