Welcome to Bajada Bill and Cactus Kate’s seventh week on the road with Beatrix, our 2022 Toyota Highlander, and Marion our 1979 Trillium trailer. For the past two weeks we’ve enjoyed north-central New Mexico, a geologic ‘triple junction,’ comprised of the Rio Grande rift, Colorado Plateau and northern Jemez Mountains’ volcanic field. The result? We’re embraced by colorful geology up to 1.2 billion years old, sandstone with dinosaur fossils, and a rich history of indigenous people and artists.
The area national forests were closed May 19, in the face of New Mexico’s largest wildfire, burning more than 300,000 acres, about 468 square miles. We were camped at 6,400 feet in site 26 above Abiquiu Dam, a superb campground managed by the Army Corp. of Engineers. In our lifetime of camping we nominate Cyndy and Al, the hosts of the campground booth, as the friendliest and most helpful folks we’ve met. The vistas of Abiquiu Lake, fed by the San Juan and Chama rivers, and the surrounding mesas and cliffs have seeped into our soul.
Earlier that week we drove up along the shoulders of The Pedernal, a 9,866 foot high prominent mesa that dominates the Abiquiu skyline, a favorite subject of artist Georgia O’Keefe. She first visited nearby Ghost Ranch in 1934, and later purchased property in Abiquiu in 1945. Regarding the Pedernal mesa, she said: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” Her ashes are scattered here. Its presence is our assurance of beauty in the world.
We wound through cross-bedded (wind created patterns) of red, cream and gold sandstone along FR 100, ascending above juniper and piñon sage country, ascending to ponderosa pine and aspen.
At 9,000 feet in elevation we wandered like happy children through old and young aspen trees and meadows.The breeze carried the energizing scent of ponderosa pine. Sitting on a flat boulder we watched white-faced and black cows resting in the lush high country meadows while their babies grazed. Bill finished the second half of his ‘world famous’ cheeseburger from Bode’s General Store in Abiquiu, where we ate at every day. We thought it ironic that he would be eating a hamburger while we were looking at peaceful cows and their babies.
Returning that afternoon we ate a quick dinner in our campsite. I walked over to our neighbors Karen and Jessie from Albuquerque. They visit here whenever they get the chance.They had taken a liking to Marion and wanted to see her interior. Their current rig, a tiny teardrop, allowed them to slide in like loaves of bread and they were looking for a rig they could stand up in.
Energetic Karen invited us to join them and other campground neighbors, Cheryl and Larry, from Eugene OR, to follow them to Plaza Blanca, located on private property owned by the Dar al Islam campus near the town of Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keefe called it the ‘white place’ for its strange white hoodoos. Visitors are asked to email the center at –email@example.com– for gate codes to access the site. While Karen led the others around the whole complex of white stone towers, which she had often walked at night in days past, we opted to exit the way we came in as the sun was setting, as we did not fancy walking in the dark through unfamiliar terrain. Back at camp we waited up until we saw the reassuring headlights of our neighbors driving into camp by 9:30 that evening. Glad they survived the trek in the dark. Having just climbed into our sleeping bags, there was a knock at the door. There was Karen, assuring us of their safe return and pointing out the red moon rising.
Tuesday, May 17, Bill was feeling poorly. His uvula, the teardrop shaped tissue at the back of the throat, was inflamed and enlarged. A chat with a Kaiser consulting nurse recommended he visit a walk-in clinic. We checked in at Christus St. Vincent’s Regional Medical Center, outside Santa Fe. After two and a half hours he was seen and prescribed an antibiotic.
Since we were in Santa Fe, we thought we’d give it another try, since we hadn’t been able to ‘get’ its vibe earlier. Downtown we ordered delicious gelato from Echo Espresso & Gelato, and began talking with a lifelong Santa Fe man who recommended we eat at La Choza, a local’s favorite. It’s popular and we waited 45 minutes before being texted that a table was ready in the colorful friendly place. As promised, our food was delicious, though our northwestern palates were not ready for the heat of red chili. Wowsa! We ate the green chili side of our enchiladas and packed up the red chili (New Mexicans often order ‘Christmas’ chili, meaning a combination of red and green) to have the following evening mixed with yogurt to cut the heat.
The next morning, supposedly our last in this country, we drove out once again to Echo Amphitheater—closed as of this writing due to the Calf’s Canyon-Hermit Creek fires— and sat on a bench looking out at the red, yellow, cream and gray carved canyon. We smelled the juniper scented air. We marveled that the bottom layer of the sandstone was once located near the equator 200 million years ago and slowly traveled north via plate tectonics.
I thought about how desiccating the desert air is on our skin and in our nose. Texting our neighbor Lisa, who used to live in New Mexico, she texted back:
“It is indeed desiccating, which is why I wear arroyos on my face, after working outside at 7,400 feet in sun, wind, dust, etc. But the upside to the low humidity is the lack of arthritic pain. Much less down there for me than here.”
I texted back that Lisa was beautiful in our eyes and I’d rather have skin that looked like juniper bark than be afflicted by arthritic pain. We shall see….My neck and hips, which feel achy on Whidbey, felt great in this dry climate. Bill loves the high elevation light he misses on Whidbey.
Regarding the fires, Lisa commented: “One of the things that is so sad about the fires is that it takes so long for a tree to grow in this climate, and it will be many lifetimes before the forests return.”
We slowed down in Abiquiu and appreciated this land, which took more than 200 million years to form and deserves our homage and respect.
Thursday, May 19 we left Abiquiu and headed for Taos. With reservations the next three nights at the Taos Valley RV Park, we would be camping near the main highway just south of town. Shoehorned into a tiny space, we camped amid a canyon of big rigs. The park’s hosts Rich and Elena, and their friends and co-workers Mike and Stephanie, were welcoming and loved everything Taos.
Wanting some coffee, we stopped in the nearby town of El Prado at Elevation Coffee, whose artist owner Janet recommended we visit Taos Cow for ice cream and a sit along the Arroyo Seco Creek. We needed a quiet respite after the hustle bustle of tourists in Taos. Frankly, we had expected Taos to be the same after 27 years, the last time we were there. Now it’s busier, there’s graffiti on buildings and fences and little libraries, and a number of homeless who stand on street medians asking for handouts. Whoa! We had to re-adjust our lens from previous expectations.
Bill said that Janet “read us like a book and didn’t miss a page,” when directing us to Taos Cow, in creative Arroyo Seco, where we visited each of the four days we were in Taos. Delicious espresso ice cream with dark chocolate chunks, amazing blueberry muffins for Bill, breakfast burritos, green chili stew. How this little food trailer by the stream can continually create food made with intention and love, we don’t know, but it satisfied us deeply. Our first day there I talked with a tween boy, so bright and full of life. I asked if he went to a Waldorf School, because he reminded me of the students I met when I worked at the Whidbey Island Waldorf School. He told me he attends the Anansi Charter School nearby. Its mission promotes learning, emotional intelligence and community service, among other lofty goals.
We visited the school during our Taos stay. I was impressed by the poster near the front door that read “Kindness takes courage.” The two front office women told me the school’s sixth grade class held a bake sale and raised $3,500 for Ukraine. They also brought in food and raised money to help families displaced by the fire and provided food for the village of firefighters stationed in Taos.
Friends with Larry Quintana in Langley, he asked us to contact his stepmom and half-brother while visiting in Taos. Saturday May 21, we took Amy and Jake Quintana out for breakfast at the famous Michael’s Kitchen, in business since 1974. Their sopapillas, or Indian fry bread, are famous. We enjoyed delicious New Mexican breakfasts. Amy took us to the Lilac Festival, to the farmer’s market in the downtown plaza, to the Rio Grande Gorge, the Earthship Biotecture off-grid self-contained community, and Millicent Rogers Museum.
Full of energy and so easy to be with, Amy married Larry’s dad in the 1980s. She told us the Quintana family dates back to the 1300’s. She works for the state as a certified procurement officer for the 8th district court. She and her late husband Steve once ran the municipal airport, and she once served on the Taos Town council. She knows everyone, it seems. Jake is fun and runs a gaming store called Popolos, named for his grandfather. Seeing Taos through their eyes and memories helped us appreciate this town we once fell in love with and where our son was conceived in 1992.
While we listened to local radio, 93.5, and learned that the town would go 100% solar during daytime hours starting in June, read the notable journalism in the Taos News about the community service groups, the support for artists, the authenticity and resiliency of the people there, we came away impressed once again by the little town of 5,000. Speaking of resilient, Amy told us of a tornado that hit her home last December, ripping the swamp cooler off the roof and depositing it in her front yard. I asked her if she went to work that day and she calmly replied, “Sure. I have to pay my bills.”
We returned to Abiquiu, where we found camping at site 21, the welcoming faces of Cyndy and Al, the much missed wild beauty of multicolored canyons. We canceled upcoming reservations at Heron Lake, north of here, wishing to soak in as much as possible of this wild ancient beautiful land.
We visited Sharon, the librarian at the Abiquiu Library. The adobe was once her grandpa’s house. She lived in it for a while, and she and her former husband built the garden walls. Her parents donated the building for a public library. I sat outside in the garden, and Sharon loaned me an extension cord so I could plug in my laptop and write my blog. She said she grew up in Abiquiu, went to the local elementary school, and bussed for high school to Española, 23 miles away. She always loved reading and it’s a natural for her to be running the little library now.
Cyndy at Abiquiu Lake Campground welcomed us back as returning pennies and let us know she is a chaplin. Having adopted Moose, a black Lab mix dog, she told us Moose had been singing greetings to visitors that day. “You know that Dog is God spelled backwards,” she told us. “There are no accidents.”
That evening we drove under threat of rain along County Road 194, nearby our campground. The canyon, cut by the Rio Arriba Creek, is full of hoodoos, Indian headdress formations, purple, orange, green, and yellow stone. The sunset along the canyon walls was a fitting end to a day filled with our wanderings, including a previous sighting of an Indigo Bunting in the reeds along the Chama River below the Abiquiu dam.
We have a couple of more days to let Abiquiu’s unspoiled beauty soak in before we leave Friday for southwestern Colorado and to spend time with our friend Gordy Blair. Stay tuned. Adios from Bajada Bill and Cactus Kate.