Friday, January 8, 2016

Days 3-5 : Albuquerque to Las Cruces and White Sands... and Back Again!

Hundreds of snow geese take wing at the El Bosque de Apache Wildlife Refuge. We avoided armed takeover of buildings there.

"To be seen fully by someone, then to be loved anyhow--this a human offering that borders on miraculous."
                        --- Elizabeth Gilbert

Sorry to stack up the blog, but I have been a bit ill the last few days, so I haven't been staying up late to get it written. But for those would-be travelers to New Mexico, vicarious sojourners and the just-plain-nosey amongst you, rest assured, I will give you the 4-1-1 about what there is to do in the neighborhood.

Wednesday morning, we began our excursion toward Las Cruces with the ultimate goal of hiking in White Sands National Monument on Thursday. Las Cruces is a four hour jaunt straight down I-25, so to break it up a bit, we decided to meander through the El Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge. This was about 1/3rd of the way into the journey and a very welcome diversion. Currently, in addition to many sandhill cranes snowbirding for the winter, there were thousands of snow geese (which the ranger said was not typical), Canada goose and numerous duck species. The wildlife refuge has a double loop scenic drive that you can take on hard pack. As you see below, it's quite a lovely surrounding.
El Bosque del Apache Wildlife Preserve
There are numerous small bodies of water and additionally a large field where corn generally grows. Most of the snow geese and ducks were on the water. The cranes were hanging out with the corn.

One of many small canals.

Canada goose in the forefront of this shallow pond, Cranes in the rear. We were told elk were often in this area as well but the only large mammals we saw were Paul and a couple of snowbirds in an RV from Ontario. As you can see, no shortage of birds for watchers. Apparently, there are also bald eagles, but again the only baldie we saw was ...Paul!

Bald Eagle scout
We really enjoyed the drive. Ordinarily, we would have walked this pathway, but I didn't feel well enough to do it. It ended up being a good thing, because while we were there, a bit of hail began to come down.

Yes, that's hail or at least, grappel.
We would highly recommend this refuge as worth your time if you are passing through. There is also the Servilleta Refuge which is a little further off the freeway, but apparently much larger and may offer even better viewing. With all the birds we saw, it's hard to complain.

Southern New Mexico near sunset.
The rest of our drive was uneventful-- gandering at the changing New Mexico landscape which alternated between nearly barren desert, mountains of all descriptions, including snowy ones and the watery expanses off the Rio Grande. Paul got really excited when we passed Truth or Consequences, the only city we are aware of named after a game show. I'm surprised Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune haven't followed suit!  He ate at a little Mexican cabina called Carmen's Kitchen. Whenever Paul eats in New Mexico, the words "green" and "chile" most be spoken. 
Paul's lunch stop. Not sure what he had except that it was probably green chile!

We discovered that Truth or Consequences looked from a superficial standpoint to be somewhat inconsequential. As Paul likes to say, "There's no a whole lot of there there."

Some of you may know that I like silly signs so here are a couple of ones that floated my boat.

Seriously? Couldn't you just name the town Pleasanton or something? This town was big enough to be approached from exit 59 and 51, giving me two big laughs!

Okay, it's not spelled the same, but really? Why not name the store Jim's or Bob's? For added fun, it was right across the road from Dick's (sporting goods). As far as store size goes, Dick's won.

The food porn section is unfortunately suspended, because I wasn't eating. Paul enjoyed yet another pepperoni pizza. No New Year's resolution to eat less pizza for Paul!

The next morning, we headed out to White Sands National Monument. It's not a monument at all, as are nearly all the government "monuments."  It's more or less a preserve for the gypsum sands of the New Mexican desert and their sparse inhabitants. 

On the way there, it is possible to visit the White Sands Missile Range Museum. The Trinity Site, which is where the first atomic bomb was exploded is actually open twice a year on a Saturday in April and October, but obviously we missed that rare opportunity.  For future travelers, entry to the range requires a valid driver's license, car registration and proof of insurance to get a pass at the entrance. In the month of January when visitors are scarce, it took about 15 minutes. I would think it could be more in the summer.  Since Paul worked for so long at Oak Ridge (and his mom worked there when she was in high school), it was an interesting experience to see the hodgepodge of stuff they made the museum out of. Frankly, it's not all that organized or well kept, but there is an occasional treasure amongst the lot. 

Rockets have their own slide rule. Who knew???

A "portable calculator" from the 40s. Probably weighed 40 lbs.

Various missiles

The V2 rocket

This is a collection of devices tested on the site that is outdoors at the museum.

A patriot missile. It says SCUD BUSTER on the side.
This museum is really out of the way, so you wouldn't likely just "happen onto it." But it was worth the sidetrip of only a few miles off HWY 70E toward Alamogordo, if you are headed to the White Sands National Park. Entry fee is free.

A couple of interesting sidebars in this museum are: 

(1) an exhibit about surviving nuclear fallout which includes survival rations and a survival sanitation kit with 10 rolls of toilet paper and a makeshift potty and 
(2) A room full of paintings made by a survivor of the Bataan Death March. They are heartbreaking but fascinating as well. 
(3) Photos of the original ranchers, the McDonalds, who owned pretty much the whole valley there (tens of thousands of acres). Apparently, they sold most of the land to the feds, but some family members are still living on the retained property.

There is a picture of the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge in the room which talks about the Trinity test. Paul said it was odd because the K 25 plant didn't exist at the time. They didn't picture or mention Y-12. There were numerous photos of Robert Oppenheimer and Brigadier General Leslie Groves everywhere. 

If military weaponry isn't your cup of tea, however, nearby is the White Sands Monument. This place is really fascinating. The New Mexican landscape is an ever-changing thing anyway, but this location is spectacular. Right in the middle of what is essentially a big brown plain, sits an area of brilliant white sands (they weren't using their creative brain when they named it!)

White sands, black clouds
The whole area of the preserve is only about 10 acres, but the white sands consume 275 square miles of desert. White sands is one of only a few gypsum sand fields on earth and is by far, the largest one. Interestingly enough, gypsum is water soluble, but there's so little water in this section of New Mexico that even if dissolved, it will eventually reform sand.  And the water table is only about 12 feet deep here, so it's a unique situation. 

Paul enjoys his lunch at the Monument in the windbreak picnic area.
There is plenty of recreation. As you can see, just looking at it is pretty entertaining. But there are many picnic areas and people sled and surf on it just like it was snow. Paul kept saying his mind was registering "snow" even though we were on sand.

Paul feeling small in the white sands national monument.
We decided to hike the Interdune Boardwalk Trail which was short but easy and then the Alkali Flats Trail. The Alkali Flats was rated as strenuous and was approximately 5 miles across the desert in a loop fashion. We didn't think it looked all that challenging, but after climbing up and down 60 foot dunes for about 2.5 hours, we learned to respect the landscape. We couldn't imagine doing this in the summer. It was around 50 degrees out when we did it with a wind pretty much blowing 10-20mph the whole way. We were always happy to get off the top of the dunes and out of the bluster. But in the summer, this area would be downright dangerous. We read that a French couple died out here last August and the woman, who had left to go back to her car, was only about a mile and half into the 5 mile loop. The husband collapsed later. Fortunately, their 9 year old son survived, but this is a real tragedy and teaches us to respect the warnings NOT to hike here between 10 AM and 4pm April to October. It was manageable for us. I know I wouldn't do it in the heat.

Last night, we returned to Las Cruces which isn't a very big place and tried one of the local breweries.

I wished I'd felt well enough to enjoy the beer sampler. Paul did most of the work and went bonkers for one particular beer: You guessed it--the green chile!
The Pecan brewery apparently has a signature pecan based beer, but Paul liked the green chile. No surprises there! He ate the short rib tacos and appeared to enjoy them. I tried to eat some stew, but my stomach objected. Oh well. It's making dieting in the New Year easy!

Today, Paul had an appointment for work, so we moseyed back up I-25, enjoying the scenery. We only had about an hour to play, so we went to the Rattlesnake Museum. Okay, snake phobics, there will be some snake photos so feel free to skip this!

This museum is in the Old Town section of Albuquerque and is the largest rattlesnake museum in the world....and it's pretty tiny. But for $5 and a gander at some snakes close up, who is to complain? No handling required.
The location in Old Town.

The Eastern diamondback. Not my first encounter with the animal...

Timber rattler

Albinism amongst snakes.

The western diamondback.

There were some gila monsters, tortoises and horned toads for your pleasure as well. 

Not sure where we will eat tonight, but you don't have to look at pictures of it! Surely, it won't be snake.

I have to thank my wonderful husband for such a great anniversary trip--hikes, snakes, sand, mountains....quite varied and all completely enjoyed.

"Marriage is not 50-50. Divorce is 50-50. Marriage has to be 100-100. It isn't dividing everything in half. It's both parties giving it everything they've got."
                                                                                ----Dave Willis

Paul's Ponderings:  Quite an eventful few days in New Mexico.   Driving around here makes you appreciate how big both the western US and US in general really is.   Massive valleys with mountains and long stretches of road with nothing but scrub and tumbleweeds.  And the clouds and shadows really compliment the natural vistas.   The wildlife refuge was incredible, with the flight of 100s of snow geese being worth the trip alone, never mind the sandhill cranes, ducks, and more in large numbers.   Who knew New Mexico had so much wetland?

I've always wanted to see White Sands and was not disappointed -- it's otherworldly in a way that only remote desert can be....unlike much of New Mexico, this is largely free of plants so you are just looking at huge hills of white sand.   It's all quite stunning and remote.   

Something I had not seen was that the US Immigration Service had set up roadblocks here and there on the road and diverted all traffic into an inspection of a sort.   Ours amounted to "are you both US citizens; have a nice day".   

Even though there were several winter storm like events out here while we were in the area, we dodged pretty much all of them, although it is snowing lightly as I write this!   

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Day 2 Albuquerque: Paseo de la Mesa and Eating at a Mesa

Looking across the desert grasslands of the West Mesa Open Space at the grey clouds over Sandia Mountains

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness. Let the winds of heaven dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls."
Kahlil Gibran
Hiking in the grasslands. It's for the birds...or at least that's the inhabitants we encountered.

What is my very favorite thing about vacation with the hubby? Is the hiking? the dining? the quality time together? Sometimes. But today, it was snuggling in bed until 10 AM. Oh yeah. I rarely sleep past 7AM and when I do, it is almost never with the hubby. So today was a great treat, because we got to be lazy, cuddly and warm...all with a bit of snow happening outside! Thankfully, the snow didn't stick!

This hotel has a very nice complementary breakfast, mostly pastries and yogurt, but very high end stuff. Today, they served us quiche. Paul had a scone and I had a handpie, much like the ones my grandmother used to make. Delish! Then we were off to today's adventure: Paseo de la Mesa in the West Mesa Open Space.
It's pretty chilly and bit windy in Albuquerque, so it paid to bundle up a bit for today's hike.
A few years back, we visited Petroglyph National Monument in the northwest section of Albuquerque. This place was really enthralling. It protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock by Native Americans and early Spanish settlers from 400 to 700 years ago.  We highly recommend a visit. There are three trails through the mesa and petroglyphs---one as short as a 1.25 miles with a very high concentration of drawings and the 2.5 mile Rinconada Canyon loop which features about 300 carvings.  But that's not exactly where we went today, although we did stop into the visitor center to get directions to the hike in the West Open Space. We were greeted by one of the few wildlife finds of the day...
The roadrunner...the coyote's after you!
The Petroglyph park is contiguous with an area administered by the City of Albuquerque. The West Open Space is one of Albuquerque's lovely preserved lands that is open for the public and off the pathway of motorized vehicles. This particular area is in the vicinity of five extinct volcanoes that make up this section of the city and parts of the petroglyph park and the open space. The 4,200 acre parcel of land is predominantly north and east of the volcanoes and preserves vast expanses of mesa-top lava flows, small volcanic features, archaeological sites, arroyo courses and wide vistas.
The Mesa Grasslands Preserve consists of over 3,800 acres west of the volcanoes in the Rio Puerco Valley. This area provides valuable habitat for certain plant and wildlife including an open range for herds of pronghorn antelope. We never saw one antelope today, unfortunately. The signs on the way onto the walking path warn of rattlesnakes, but at 41F, no rattlesnakes were wandering about. Nor much of anything else. Paul and I saw one biker on a 9 mile hike across the grasslands and that was it!
A hot air balloon, seen firing the canopy above the grasslands preserve.
We had nice views of the extinct Butte and Bond Volcanic Cones along the way. The path is fully paved and follows the "services" going out to an airport at least 5 miles away. We never saw the airport, but encountered electrical lines, water lines and fiber optic cable placements along the pathway. 
Volcanic rock and snow

A look out at the mountains. Apparently. on a clear day many peaks are visible but we didn't exactly have clear skies. It was overcast and grey all day and made everything look a touch desolate.

One of the numerous birds we saw. I don't know this species but it was joy to see. We also saw quail and many smaller brown and grey birds that hopped amongst the grasses. We saw a raptor as well but it was too far off to identify.

The tumbling tumbleweed was a constant companion.

As you can see from the photo above, the West Mesa Open Space is fully paved for its 4.5 mile length. The grasslands, mesas and volcanic remnants were very bleak in appearance. It's not a hike for dramatic scenery in the wintertime, but I enjoyed walking amongst the barren landscape and watching the birds. There were some uphill sections, but overall, the only real challenge was the 9 miles out and back, which Paul and I are well conditioned for. I truly loved being out there. I would consider re-hiking this in another season of the year on a clear day to get the mountain views. But not in midsummer, as there is ZERO shade. 

After our hike, we thought a slice of pizza was in order so we went to Dion's. This is an Albuquerque chain with half a dozen or so locations. Uniquely, if they sell you one slice, you can still pick the toppings.
Veggies for me. Paul Parris is pepperoni pizza pie man.
We were able to come home, nap and shower and then we were off to Mr. Parris's culinary tour of Albuquerque. Tonight featured restaurant: Zinc. It's on Route 66, so we got our kicks there!
The interior of Zinc. Love the stars!
This place has some New Mexican features but also is a meshed type of cuisine with numerous other influences. We started with cocktails.
A 505-75 for me and the New Mexico/Mexico silver coin--a margarita of sorts--for Paul.
Food porn is about to occur. We split the appetizers and had a full entree each. But they were definitely east Tennessee size so I would not recommend it unless you are really hungry. We could have easily split one and ended up with a hefty "go box."

Duck eggroll with peanut puree

Tortilla chip encrusted stuff pork chop

14 oz ribeye with green chile horseradish for our cowboy Paul

Pumpkin pear upside down cake with creme anglais and milk chocolate ice cream. Yum.
This was a really nice meal...and way too filling. Even with a go box, I ate more than enough.

So overall, a nice relaxing day to sleep in, take a beautiful walk across a grassland and mesa preserve that represents a large part of the New Mexican ecosystem, and a really tasty meal to conclude. Another great day on this anniversary celebration.

"A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person."
Mignon McLaughlin.

Paul's Ponderings:  A great day out....I ended up doing a bit of work, but it did not interfere with our plans.   The weather was a bit more damp feeling than yesterday, but not a hindrance to hiking or being out and about.   Since we ended up doing about nine miles of walking we were eligible for a nice dinner at Zinc, where I'd never been before, despite having come to Albuquerque regularly for over 15 years.   Overall, a great day and tomorrow we head south to Las Cruces and White Sands!

New Mexico Day 1: Happy Albuquerque Anniversary!

The approach into Albuquerque from 10,000 ft. Snowy mountains.
" A perfect marriage is two imperfect people who refuse to give up on one another."

Paul and I celebrated our actual 4th  anniversary on December 31st by going over to the Monteagle Inn in Monteagle, Tennessee over on the Cumberland Plateau after I got off from work that day. The inn is really lovely and only about a two and a half hour drive. There is plenty of hiking, rest and relaxation and surprisingly good dining opportunities. My family drove in on New Years Day from several directions and we spent a coupla days there bringing in 2016. Lotsa fun.

Every year, one of us takes his or her turn planning a marriage celebration trip and this year, the privilege fell to Mr. Parris. His choice: New Mexico. This is a state we are both "enchanted" with (Yes, the inhabitants VOTED on the state motto :). We have been before both separately and together. We love the Taos area as well as Albuquerque. I have also been to Santa Fe and found it lovely and artsy/fartsy. Two years ago, we planned a trip to White Sands for my birthday, but Paul's work meeting got moved to D.C., so he thought this would be a good time to plan to make that missed visit happen.

There were major snow storms in the region last week, so the remnants of those were seen as we flew into Albuquerque (pictured above.)

Fortunately, there are just patches of snow left in the shady areas, and it didn't affect driving at all . We are planning hikes for our stay in Albuquerque for the first two days that don't require cramp-ons. And that is pretty easy to do here, as many living here people are outdoor aficianados. There are many greenways and public paths that eschew cars and traffic.

We started by checking in to our hotel for two nights, the Parq Central.
The Hotel Parq Central. It used to be the hospital for the railroad.

Lovely rooms

The whole lobby area has a chic clean lined appearance.
We stayed here overnight 2 years ago on our way to Taos. This is a really beautiful hotel and like nearly everything in Albuquerque, reasonable to the wallet as well. If you are a budget traveller, you will find most of New Mexico very affordable.  This hotel used to be a hospital for railroad employees and has been repurposed beautifully. (I thought I was getting out of the hospital for a few days, but I guess if I have to be in the hospital on vacation, this is the only way to go.) There is a rooftop bar called the Apothecary that specializes in craft cocktails and even uses some local hooch.
The rooftop bar. We decided 38 F degrees wasn't attractive. They also have indoor seating.

Paul always says when dining in New Mexico, the question you often hear is "red or green?" Although that is about the chile sauce on the average night, tonight it was about the happy hour drinks. We said, "Both."
Paul had the greenish rosemary gin and tonic and I had "flanders poppy."
Instead of the DO NOT DISTURB sign, they have kitchy ones that remind us this was once a hospital.
Quarantine, anyone?

Even though we didn't get to the hotel until about 2pm, we were able to find a really great hike we could drive to before dark and get in a couple of hours/6 miles or so walking. The Paseo de Bosque Trail, passing north , through and south of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande del Norte River, is a 16 mile long greenway, car-free. It is open to walkers, bikers, and equestrians. On a Monday afternoon at 2:30pm, there were very few exercisers. It is meant to preserve habitat predominantly for birds along the river and its branches, creeks, ponds, etc. and also to provide a place for homo sapiens to enjoy them. And we did! There are several blinds for viewing mostly waterfowl. But in a  very nice event of serendipity, we found out that the sand hill cranes migrate to this region every winter. So we go to enjoy them feeding, flying and their beautiful speaking as well. Who knew? (Well, okay, the lady at the nature center directed us to their favorite cafe.)
Beautiful sand hill cranes in a field along the Parque de Bosque Trail. The colors were so subdued in the grey fading light. They have a very pretty call that sounds like they are "rolling Rs." Very Spanish!

We don't know how many mallard pairs we saw along the river, but it was plenty. They mate for life. Apropos to our own special occasion.
Plenty of mallards enjoyed their evening swim.

The Rio Grande del Norte

A good idea about the landscape we traversed in Parque del Bosque

This paved path extends 16 miles. There is an unpaved path beside it you can see to the right on the photo. No cars!

A smattering of snow, the Sandia mountains just before a bit more snow came our way.
As walking fools, we were so happy to find this little piece of heaven pretty much within the metro area and to see the ornithological miracles along the way. The sandhill cranes were unexpected but highly enjoyed.
These guys overflew us. Wouldn't be Albuquerque without a balloon!
Then we were back to the hotel to get ready for a dinner. Any trip with my husband is a culinary adventure and tonight, he selected Artichoke Cafe. First off, it's easy walking distance to the hotel, allowing him to enjoy that second (and okay, maybe even a third) glass of wine without worrying about his safety and that of others. In addition, it's fantastic food. It has a trio of chefs and they all pretty much rock!
Red or green again at dinner!
The menu is full of New Mexican homage but also plenty of classically French touches. You really cannot go wrong no matter what you order. In addition to their already spectacular house menu which changes seasonally, they have nightly concoctions. Warning: Food porn section.
We split this great salad with apples, walnuts and a sprinkle of local goat cheese.

This short rib with a chile polenta was pretty much melt in your big fat mouth. YUM!

My entree was equally delicious, Humboldt Fog ravioli. That should be illegal. Fortunately, I only ate half. Otherwise, I would need a real hospital instead of a redone former one.
We will spare you the dessert pictures because we got so excited about it, we ate the stuff before we took a photo. It was ice creams: honey pine nut, red chile caramel and rosemary vanilla. Excellent.

They do make wine in New Mexico and we have occasionally indulged in some, but the Artichoke cafe didn't offer any. I don't remember ever having a bad one from this region, but I am sure they make them. They are able to grow some of the "French" varietals and we are told Syrah does pretty well here. We may get a chance to sample later in the trip. For this meal, an Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was recommended. It's usually hard to go wrong with that!

We didn't know this producer but it didn't stem our enjoyment.
All I can say is it is a good thing we walked about 8 miles total yesterday!

The return to Albuquerque was welcome. A nice hotel, a gorgeous walk (bundled up but not cold), a warm and cozy restaurant with great food, a wonderful husband of four years. A charmed life. We know how fortunate we are!

Four years and still smiling in the Parque de Bosque!
"Marriage is a mosaic you create with your spouse, millions of tiny moments that create a love story."

Paul's Ponderings:  We had a nice uneventful trip out (thank you Delta) and despite some trepidation, arrived to find the temperature was manageable.   Even more so, it was manageable for a hike along the Rio Grande and viewing of some great bird life, particularly the cranes.   We had a nice walk and then a great evening out at the Artichoke Cafe, where we've dined once before.  They are predicting snow overnight, so we shall see!   New Mexico is so different than what we see at home and the light this time of year is quite a change from in summer, so it's a great chance to see it all differently.   A great start to a fourth anniversary trip!