Hola! From Cactus Kate and Bajada Bill as we post Chapter 6 in our 2022 On the Road series. So far we’ve visited Bishop CA, Gardnerville NV, Tucson AZ, Phoenix AZ, Silver City and Truth or Consequences NM. This week we stayed with former neighbors and friends in Albuquerque, camped at Fenton Lake, and Abiquiu Lake. Meanwhile the Hermits Creek fire, originated by a Forest Service prescribed burn, continues to burn, meeting with the Calf Canyon fire. So far 288,942 acres have burned. The fires are expected to hold the record for greatest area burned in the state’s history.
Leaving Elephant Butte, we drove north to Albuquerque where our former neighbors and friends Claudia Mitchell and Girard Del Monte live at 6,200 feet. They moved to a lovely home last January in Sandia Heights above the city at 6,200 feet. The homeowners association requires they landscape with native plants. It is common to see mule deer walking through their backyard. Solar panels generate electricity and their bill is only $5 a month.
Artists, whose work was shown at the Rob Schouten Gallery in Langley, they are getting their studios set up. Claudia paints remarkable landscape and animal portraits. Girard crafts exquisite wood boxes. They have revived the flagging garden, repainted, and poured their love into their adobe-style home. Claudia has become immersed in New Mexico geology, flora and fauna. She taught us the word bosque, which is a forested area along rivers. We admired the neon green river oases of the cottonwood and aspen in the otherwise subtle desert colors throughout New Mexico.
They drove us to the top of Sandia Mountain, 10,679 feet high. Windy with stunning views, we gazed down at the couple’s home. Later we walked a part of the La Luz Trail, which leads to the summit. Depending on the winds, folks can ride a tram over dangling cables up the mountain. Red flag warnings were on and the tram was closed on the day we walked the base of the mountain.
Later that afternoon we sat outside in the afternoon shade watching the locust tree leaves flutter in the breeze and the shadows growing on Sandia Ridge. The couple are thrilled to be living where there is sun and high desert beauty. After delicious dinner, Girard shared a photo book honoring his Italian grandfather’s stone sculpture on important monuments in Washington DC.
While James Earle Fraser is credited as the sculptor of the glorious figures, it is actually Girard’s grandfather Arone Giovanni Del Monte who carved the marble figures for the pediment on the Supreme Court Building, and other notable D.C. landmarks, leaving a remarkable legacy in his honor.
We said our goodbyes to Claudia and Girard, thanking them for their hospitality and bonhomie. We drove toward north on Hwy 550 toward Jemez Springs through the Zia Pueblo. The Zia, depicting the sun, is the state’s symbol. There is some controversy about its being taken from the Zia people
We stopped at the Welcome Center of Jemez Pueblo. Besides hosting an excellent gift store, the center features a museum depicting the Jemez people’s ancestral village of Gyrotahownlanew, where the giant once stepped. Construction of the village began in early 14th century.
We walked beneath red sandstone cliffs across from the welcome center. The beautiful slick rock walls towered above us. Some hoodoos have formed. The trail to the hoodoos was filled with hundreds of grasshoppers in various shades of gray and pink and green. Along the road are food booths, used by Jemez people. They were closed during COVID and expect to reopen.
We climbed along Hwy 126, traveling through the small town of Jemez Springs, heading for Fenton Lake State Park. We noticed that a nearby NFS campground served as a staging area for the village of 1,000 fire crew who are battling the Cerro Pelado fire to the east.
Camped at Site 3E Loop D at Fenton Lake, we are at 7,680 feet. The desert has given way to ponderosa pine forest. Our lake is for fishing only. The lake is stocked with trout—browns, rainbows, and Rio Grande cut throats from the nearby hatchery. Our neighbors Donna and Chet, who live and work near Albuquerque, book a site every month during fishing season, so they can camp and fish here. They spend most of their day on beach chairs with their poles in the lake. Chet told us they practice catch and release. Donna’s remarkable friendly nature and her neon orange fingernails add to her persona. She told us about Big Ted, a trout that lurks in the lake. Later, she caught a 23-inch trout during her visit. Chet said they gave it to a Native American family.
There are pit toilets at Fenton Lae. We rigged up our solar shower, a plastic bag with a black backing, which heated in the daytime sun. We hung the bag from a nail on our campground tree and washed our hair. The power was shut off the first two days due to fire threat.
May 10 we drove into Jemez Springs, behind the exiting fire crew, camped at FR 376, where we hoped go to visit tent rocks or hoodoos. But nearly all the NFS campgrounds, hot springs, and points of interest were closed due to fire threat.
We stopped in Jemez Springs to eat breakfast at Highway 4 Café and Bakery. Bill ate a good breakfast burrito. I ordered a GF breakfast of eggs, bacon, and potatoes in a delicious green chili sauce. We really like the tiny Jemez Springs library. I bought six books for three dollars there, mostly Tony Hillerman paperbacks.
We were able to visit the Gilman Tunnels, originally blasted through the mountains to accommodate the Santa Fe railroad. It’s a one-lane passage and we were glad not to meet oncoming traffic. We were saddened to see graffiti along the road. Stopping to admire the narrow canyon along the Guadalupe River, we were amazed to see a whiptail lizard leap several feet.
Returning to our camp that afternoon we learned that a flatbed carrying a dozer missed a curve, toppling the dozer through a guardrail, causing a small brush fire that was quickly put out.
That evening we walked through other Fenton Lake campground loops, still closed for camping, admiring the meandering Jemez Creek below the lake. A mama mallard duck guided her babies through the reeds. We watched in awe hummingbird moths feeding from a fragrant flowering bush.
In the evenings we enjoyed sitting at the side of the lake watching concentric circles revealing dozens and dozens of trout jumping for the minuscule flies skimming the water’s surface. An osprey fishes. The trout are so plentiful, it has only to skim the surface with its feet to make a catch. A kettle of vultures wove along the thermals in beautiful flight. They settled as a committee on the nearby beach for the night. The red rock cliffs, burned in 2018, reflected as a shimmery copper in the lake. A peaceful way to end the day.
Debbie, our campground host, volunteers each season. She camped in a vintage AWARD, a Canadian-built trailer. A real character with painted eyebrows, she lives part time in Albuquerque, and spent ten years in the army. This is her favorite park and she comes for the fishing and camping in the cooler forest. With the power outage, our trailer fuse blew. She rummaged in vain through her trailer’s numerous cubbies, but could not find the right fuse that we needed. Still, we thanked her for her time.
We said goodbye to Fenton Lake after three days, and drove to Santa Fe so Bill could load up on his favorite bakery at the Sage Bakehouse. While friends rave about Santa Fe, we have yet to dive in and get its feeling. We experience a reverse magnetism there, for some reason and we cannot find our way. We needed lunch and found a hip fun place outside Santa Fe, the Village Market in Tesuque. It feels like Malibu, where celebrities might be spotted.
My shrimp enchiladas in New Mexico chili sauce were sensuous. Accompanied by tequila lime rice and excellent pinto beans, I savored each bite and saved half for the evening dinner.
Before we sat down, a turquoise Rolls Royce pulled up. Soon after, a handsome older gent and a 30-something young woman carrying a bejeweled dog stood in line behind us. I chatted with them and learned the young woman was bored with Santa Fe life. The man she was with chuckled. They were seated next to our table. After sipping a tequila cocktail the young woman became more animated. She told us of her misery working for a corrupt gallery owner. She recalled a trip west, meeting a Native American man who gave her a red tail hawk feather. She believed it saved her life when driving the road through Texas and nearly going off the road with the mirages.
May 12 we pulled in at Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir managed very well by the Army Corps of Engineers. It took three tries before we found the right campsite for pit toilet proximity and water spigot availability. Site 26 perched above the reservoir gives us a grand vista of nearby Ghost Ranch and the famous mesa Cerro Pedernal (pronounced like paternal with a ‘D’), which was depicted in artist Georgia O’Keefe’s Southwest paintings and where her ashes are scattered.
Cerro Pedernal, locally known as just “Pedernal”, is a narrow mesa in northern New Mexico. The name is Spanish for flint hill.
We visit daily at Bode’s General Store and deli in Abiquiu. I am grateful for the excellent chili breakfast and lunch burritos, the cool gift store, and the wifi, which allows me to write and publish this story. Nearby we love the milkshakes and tacos and creative staff at Fire N Ice.
We visited nearby El Rito, and its sweet non-profit library, funded 80% by donations. Lynnette, the library director, clearly has pride in the historic adobe building and the community. She told us of all the Californians moving here.
We visited Echo Amphitheater, a magnificent layer cake of Estrada Sandstone, topped by the gray Todilito limestone formation. There is an echo to be heard when following the well-built ADA accessible trail into the open cavern. We learned from an information board that the whiptail lizards are all females who reproduce asexually. They can leap like nobody’s business. We lingered here a long while, mesmerized by the patterns of red, yellow and gray stone towering above us.
That evening we visited the Abiquiu Lake ‘beach,’ a difficult entry through tumbled stone. I did not swim because the wind whipped the waves into a murk and I did not trust the bottom surface. We met a young woman, a PhD student in astrophysics. Akshatha Vydula, here from India, is interning nearby in Los Alamos, studying the origin and expansion of the universe through FM radio waves. We learned the static we hear when tuning FM stations represents the universe origins.
The following day, May 14, we drove for an hour along a single track dirt road through stunning red rock canyons to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine retreat center. The padres there chant at various times of the day, run a small ranch and gift store. We arrived while Mass was going on, followed by lunch with the guests. We had the place to ourselves. We sat on the veranda, appreciating the cool shade on this hot day. This route is also home to numerous NFS campsites where river rats float along the Chama River. The popular Big Eddy is a takeout site for river raft companies.
We had reservations at nearby Ghost Ranch, a learning retreat center, and former residence of artist Georgia O’Keefe. Bill had the notion to visit the campground. Good thing we did. The road in to the campground was dusty, rutted and had a low clearance. The campground was hot and dusty, a neglected distant relative of the learning center, and $40 a night. Not happening! We cancelled our reservation there and booked an extension for $6 a night at our beloved Abiquiu Lake. The campground attendants, Cyndy and Al, host the booth with their faithful hound Moose. Cyndy’s love for the place is remarkable. We are always happy to see her welcoming face looking through the framed window of the booth when leaving or arriving at the camp.
After a mysterious sleepless night Saturday May 14, we drove the next morning to the sacred town of Chimayo and visited the international pilgrimage site of Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic Church, built in the early 1800’s, where thousands have claimed miraculous healing. It is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the United States, averaging 300,000 visitors a year.
In the 36 years since we last visited, the site has grown to include gazebos honoring various Marion appearances, such as Guadalupe. We learned of Lavang, who appeared to persecuted Catholics in 1878 in Viet Nam. An alcove is posted with hundreds of photos of people cured of their ailments, or those who need prayers. Sitting in the cool chapel, looking at the depictions of Christ and the saints, I felt moved to tears by the faith that permeates its walls.
Later, we picnicked along the river under the shade of fluttering cottonwoods. Returning to camp, we sat outside watching remnants of the lunar eclipse, which emerged as a rust-colored smudge through the cloud layer.
We visit Bode’s General Store twice a day, an unpretentious oasis in the tiny village of Abiquiu. We met Anna Maria Thomasella, who works in the dry goods section of the store. Born in Sicily, she raised her children in Sherman Oaks. Her children attended St. Cyrils, just as Bill did, and where he served as an altar boy. Anna Maria is welcoming and warm. She told us of meeting an artist wearing a butterfly jacket and pin. Anna Maria’s mother had recently died and the butterfly reminded her of her mom’s spirit. The artist gave her the butterfly pin and had a painting commissioned to commemorate the meeting. Anna Maria said she has the painting in her home and is still in touch with the artist. Very heartfelt is Anna Maria. We are blessed to have met her.
Monday we woke to smoke. The wind had shifted, coloring the sun red. Sobering.
We drive to Taos Thursday and hope the smoke is not too serious.
That’s the news from Cactus Kate and Bajada Bill.