Leaf Peeping

by wjw on October 6, 2006

Last week, Kathy had a three-day trip to northern New Mexico to recruit students for the college where she works. I decided to go along. This is my favorite season in New Mexico, and this would be a terrific opportunity for leaf peeping.

Our first night was spent in Chama, which sits in a valley of the San Juan mountains. The town is mainly a center for resorts and tourism these days, and includes the southern terminus of the Cumbres & Toltec scenic railroad, lofting visitors over the Rockies to Antonito, Colorado. We’d taken the railroad a few years ago and enjoyed the soul-thrilling views mixed with the oily scent of soft coal and the hiss of steam, but a trip in autumn with the aspens turning gold would have been ideal.

Well, maybe next year. This year was business.

Our drive to Chama took place too late in the day to view the spectacular country on the way. In the motel, I worked late into the night on my laptop while Kathy slept. In the morning, I slept late while Kathy did her presentation at the Tierra-Amarilla high school. The restaurant next to our motel was closed for a private party, so I hiked half a mile down the highway to a local cafe. The breakfast burrito that I ordered was filled with sausage and fluffy potatoes, but no eggs. For eggs you pay extra, and they put them on top, as on enchiladas. Very odd, and very filling, and I missed my eggs.

Kathy picked me up on the highway as I started back to the motel, and we threw our belongings in the car and headed off on the road to Taos. The cottonwoods in the river valleys had all turned to gold, so that the valleys looked like golden serpents winding across the countryside. We turned toward the Brazos Cliffs and began to wind upward through increasingly spectacular countryside. Aspen clung to the mountainside in gold streaks, mixed with the green of ponderosa pine. The air was astoundingly clear and bright. From the top of the cliffs we could see for leagues, the green farm and ranch land, the gold river valleys, the green-and-gold foothills.

On our way into Taos we drove past a large earthship community, each half-buried house with a spectacular view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. These custom-built, earth-friendly, low-carbon-emission homes do not come cheap. At least one of the earthships was open for inspection, but traffic and construction on the highway had made us late and we didn’t have the time. I noticed that the earthships all seemed to have a succession of weird domes or hobbit houses on top, as if they were denying the fact they were supposed to be buried and inconspicuous.

I dropped Kathy off at the Taos High School for her presentation and checked us into the Taos Inn, one of the classic old hotels in the area. It’s made up of several old adobe houses, now connected, and originally built around a small plaza, which is now the hotel’s lobby. We had a small room on the second floor, with what amounted to a private balcony (shared with neighboring rooms) overlooking the lobby. There was entertainment in the lobby every night, and we could watch and listen from our balcony, and drink the wine we’d brought with us instead of paying bar prices for our drinks.

Actually I didn’t do any drinking the first night, because I planned to work. Because of a lack of space in our little room, I’d have to take the laptop onto the balcony and work there.

But first, dinner. Kathy and I took a walk through downtown Taos and ended up at La Folie, which claims to serve country French cuisine. Certainly there are country French elements, but until I see jerked chicken offered at Les Trois Merchands in Cheverny I will remain skeptical of this claim.

Kathy had the jerked chicken, which was quite good. I ordered the boudin noir, a black pudding or blood sausage, which had lovely herbal flavors, and which was served on a bed of an over-dry cassoulet, which confusingly had a different kind of sausage mixed in. A bit of a mixed message here, like the restaurant itself.

Behind the restaurant is a separate chocolate shop run by the same brothers. They also do gelato, so we had one scoop of chocolate and another of pumpkin and shared. Pumpkin and chocolate compliment one another extremely well.

We returned to the hotel in time to catch the last set of the acoustic singer, who was pretty good although we never caught his name. As a courtesy to guests who wanted to sleep (I guess), the set ended at 10pm. Kathy went to sleep, and I got out my laptop. I really got rolling and typed something like 1500 words before I crashed at 1:30am, which is an extraordinarily productive day for me. Nothing like clear, rare mountain air to provide inspiration.

Next day Kathy did her presentation at the Espanola High School while I slept late. I had another disappointing breakfast burrito at Michael’s, then visited the Fechin Museum, the former home of Russian artist Nikolai Fechin. Fechin seems to have been the most talented of the Taos Society of Artists, but his real masterpiece seems to be his house, which he built by hand during the five years he lived in Taos. It’s full of hand-carved carved doors and beams, and is populated by hand-carved furniture he made himself. Russian folk motifs are mixed with Spanish and American Indian symbols, and the whole thing is more cool than I can possibly say.

In the afternoon I took myself off to Taos Ski Valley for some hiking at 10,000 feet, while Kathy wandered around the arts and crafts fair in town. I took the Williams Lake Trail as the one with the best chance of leaf peeping, and indeed there were some great leaves on the way, but once on the trail I was surrounded entirely by pine. I walked an hour up the trail before I ran into snow, which had been packed down so tight by hikers that it turned to ice. I decided that this was too hazardous to continue by myself, and turned around.

That night’s meal was at Alfonso’s, a country Italian restaurant that serves by-God real Italian country cooking. The waitress was raucous and projected attitude as if she had apprenticed in Flatbush, which perhaps she had. I started with a hearty soup of shellfish in a tomato broth, just right for dipping the round loaf of country bread we’d been served. Afterwards I had the rack of lamb in a strawberry sauce, with big whole strawberries just sitting there in the sauce. I don’t remember what Kathy ate, but I know she liked it a lot. There was no room for dessert.

Afterwards we sat on our balcony and drank wine and listened to the blues band playing in the lobby. They were good but needed a real vocalist.

Next morning we had wonderful breakfast burritos at the hotel restaurant— at last a good breakfast burrito!— then filled the car with our crap and headed home via the high road.

Instead of taking the Taos Canyon back south— which is spectacular enough— we took the High Road over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, through Penasco, Chamisal, Truchas, and Chimayo. I hadn’t taken this route in something like thirty years. The terrain alternated between gorgeous mountain vistas and placid view of fields and orchards, all blazing with autumn color.

By the way, this is the route taken by Cowboy, in reverse, in Chapter One of Hardwired. When I composed that scene I was working from memories that were seven or eight years old.

The greatest change has occurred in the village of Truchas. Back in the sixties and seventies, Truchas had a reputation of being as hostile to outsiders as those creepy New England villages in Lovecraft. At least one state trooper vanished from the planet after trying to make an arrest in Truchas. When the New Mexico Prison Riots occurred, the first fatality was a prisoner from Truchas who was believed other prisoners to be a were-dog. Truchas was a stronghold of the Penitente Brotherhood, who had a habit (now denied) of nailing one of their brethren to a cross every Good Friday after a Lent filled with flagellation rituals. (Easter in New Mexico is not a matter for bunnies and baskets of candy, no not us.)

Truchas is now an artsy community full of crafts and galleries. Can yuppies and McMansions be far behind?

I have to wonder at the first person to enter this community with the intention of gentrifying it. How many weapons did he have to carry?

I also remembered a large church— or possibly a penitente morada— on the main road through Truchas, with a wide alcove over the main door painted with the pyramid and the All-Seeing-Eye. I put this building in Hardwired but now I couldn’t find it. I can’t have hallucinated it, and I can’t see them tearing the place down.

Another Northern New Mexico mystery.

We descended into the Espanola Valley via Chimayo, where the priests at El Sanctuario will sell you curing magic dirt that you can rub on your afflicted parts. (They refill the hole every night with fresh magic dirt, so they won’t run out.)

And from Espanola it was the same boring drive home. No magic dirt where we live now, though as it happens there are plenty of Penitentes flogging each other come Lent, so our lives are not completely without color.

~Nayan~ October 12, 2006 at 3:06 am

nice pic 🙂

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