White Sands National Park

As of December 20, 2019, White Sands National Monument became America’s 62nd national park, and just in time for those seeking a very white Christmas.

Spanning 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin,

long shot (3)

the ethereal dunes sweep across an other-worldy carpet of snow-white gypsum–

pan shot

–remarkably cool to the touch,

foot printing .jpg

and perfect for sledding, 

girl on sled (2)

dog and sled (2)

or dog walking.

dog walking (2)

Despite initial impressions of isolation,

dunescape and mountains (2)

within a vast barren landscape…

yin and yang (3)

White Sands harbors a fragile eco-system that manages to survive…

scarab beetle (2)

despite its harsh surroundings…

anchor (2).jpg

and uncertain conditions.

pods

But whichever way the wind blows…

wind texture.jpg

the real fascination of White Sands occurs when the sun dips below the horizon,

sunset (2)

and awakens the magic that ignites the desert glow.

cactus glowing (2)

Have yourself a Happy Holiday and a White Christmas!

Leah and Neal (3)

 

Tent Rocks

Leah and I were yearning for a satisfying hike through the mountains of New Mexico that we’d yet to explore. While we were happy hiking the Tecolote Trail in the Sandia Mountains–which offered pleasant panoramas of the desert floor stretching nine miles to South Mountain, and views of Sandia Crest that had us wishing we could stay longer–

Sandia overlook (3)

…the whipping wind that swept across the overlook killed any notion of lingering along the mesa top to enjoy the spots of fall color that recently dotted the evergreen terrain.

Sandia overlook4 (3)

However, the following day, a stroll through Albuquerque’s Old Town…

San Felipe de Neri

brought us to a photography gallery that showcased Southwestern landscapes and introduced us to Tent Rocks.

Old Town

“That place looks cool. We should go there,” I asserted.

“I agree, but how do you know if we can even get there from here?” Leah questioned.

After consulting Google, I learned that Tent Rocks was a National Monument located within the Pueblo of Cochiti, only an hour north of Albuquerque.

The following day, riding north on NM-14 (part of the scenic and historic Turquise Trail National Scenic Byway), we took a left turn onto NM-301, a rutted, dusty road connecting to NM-22.

We approached the earthen wall of the Cochiti Dam, a controversial water management project approved by Congress in 1960, and finished in 1975 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Cochiti Lake.png

Stretching 5 miles across the desert, and rising 250 feet above the Rio Grande, the resultant lake flooded sacred lands and fields belonging to local tribes for centuries.

We continued west on NM-22 for two miles before arriving at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. We pulled up behind seven parked cars–each one waiting to pay five bucks to the BLM park ranger stretching his legs beside the fee station. Our SUV idled a minute or two, but the line was at a standstill.

The sign post beside us forecasted a 30-minute wait-time from our current position.

“I’m gonna take a walk,” and Leah was out of the car, working her way to the front of the line.

The news arrived in under a minute…offering a Trail Guide.

“All 94 parking spaces are taken,” Leah explains with a hint of exasperation. “They probably arrived when the gates opened at 8am.”

“Okay. So that was two hours ago,” I respond, admitting the obvious. “It says here on the map that the trail is 1.5 miles in and out, so hopefully, a lot of people should be on their way out by now.”

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait here?” asks Leah.

“According to the sign, it’s a 30-minute wait,” I assert.

“Smartass!” she hurls.

After 20 minutes of anticipation, I noticed movement in the ranks! Two cars in front gave up the wait and U-turned, leaving us in sixth place. 

Silly people. If only they had waited a few minutes longer. Soon after, a rash of cars passed us on the way out, and we were on our way, cruising through four miles of dip-after-dip, tribal land road, before reaching the parking zone.

While Leah and Carrie (Leah’s daughter) waited in line for the only outhouse in the vicinity, I caught up on my reading at the trailhead.

slot canyon info

History and Geology

Geologic treasure

volcanic activity

As interested as I was to learn about New Mexico’s volcanic eruptions and its pyroclastic flows, I was itching to get on the trail and weave through the slot canyon.

slot canyon

The canyon walls were so narrow in places, that only one person could navigate the labyrinth at a time.

slot canyon trail

It reminded me of the way that road crews monitor traffic on a one way road…

slot and boulder

…and it was vaguely reminiscent of a similar protocol at the fee station and toilet.

canyon walls

Of course, with so many early hikers already on the trail and now turning back, it made for several occasional stops, and many pleasant exchanges along the way.

However, when the canyon finally opened up, we were greeted with a greater appreciation of what seven million years had done to the place.

canyon trail

hoodoo cliff

hoodoo peaks

Leah and Carrie (2)

Even the trees seemed magical, managing to stand in the shadow of such uncertain footing. 

pine shadow

long root (2).jpg

Once we reached a clearing in the trail, we began our 630-foot ascent to the mesa top, giving us a better perspective of our lair,

peak towers

and freeing us from all obstructions,

canyon pan

until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,

Jemez Mountains (3)

and remind ourselves, once again, why it’s always a good idea to wait one’s turn in line.

Tent Rocks

Balloonatic

While I’m on the topic of balloons (see Balloon Glowdeo™, and Botswana by Balloon) I’ve recalled my first balloon ride from two years ago:



“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaim to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.

“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,” she managed.

“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’? I ask.

“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she points out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents–by floating higher or lower, and returning you close to your original launch point.

albuquerquebox
*courtesy of Drumlineramos

“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrug, “and that’s worth $450?”

“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she warns.

“Your price is sky high,” I offer, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.”

And the call is over.

I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”

And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere.

Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?

“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.

After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.

Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.

A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.

Baskets are unloaded,

unloading the basket

and assembled.

building the basket

The burners are tested.

testing the burner

With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.

rigging the lines

An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.

dawn

raising the dome

filling the balloons

Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,

lighting it up

fire and rigging

and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.

inflation

The buoyant balloon rights itself,

sunrise

and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…

aloft

…one step ahead of a second balloon.

balloon sun glow

All the while, balloons below…

balloon party

…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).

USA balloons

Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,

Roy the pilot

carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,

fiesta panorama

where a birds-eye view of the valley below,

self portrait.jpg

reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)

Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.

baloon portrait

After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,

annoyed dogs

and adoring children–

delighted-children.jpg

Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.

attempting to land (2)

However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.

So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.

landing place

crew pulling us in

After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,

group 2 on board

drifting higher into the blue yonder.

group 2 aloft

Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.

holy touchdown

Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,

gathering air

and folded,

wrangling the rigging

and packed away, until next time.

wrapped up

Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:

The winds…

flight certificate

I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.

 

Balloonatic

“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaimed to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.

“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,” she managed.

“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’? I inquired.

“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she pointed out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents, by floating higher or lower, and return you close to your original launch point.

albuquerquebox
*courtesy of Drumlineramos

“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrugged, “and that’s worth $450?”

“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she pitched.

“Your price is sky high,” I offered, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.” And this call was over.

I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”

And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere else.

Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?

“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.

After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.

Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.

A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.

Baskets are unloaded,

unloading the basket

and assembled.

building the basket

The burners are tested.

testing the burner

With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.

rigging the lines

An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.

dawn

raising the dome

filling the balloons

Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,

lighting it up

fire and rigging

and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.

inflation

The buoyant balloon rights itself,

sunrise

and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…

aloft

…one step ahead of a second balloon.

balloon sun glow

All the while, balloons below…

balloon party

…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).

USA balloons

Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,

Roy the pilot

carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,

fiesta panorama

where a birds-eye view of the valley below,

self portrait.jpg

reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)

Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.

baloon portrait

After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,

annoyed dogs

and adoring children–

delighted-children.jpg

Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.

attempting to land (2)

However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.

So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.

landing place

crew pulling us in

After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,

group 2 on board

drifting higher into the blue yonder.

group 2 aloft

Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.

holy touchdown

Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,

gathering air

and folded,

wrangling the rigging

and packed away, until next time.

wrapped up

Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:

The winds…

flight certificate

I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.

 

Carlsbadland

If Disney were to design a cave attraction, he couldn’t do any better than Carlsbad Cavern, for deep within the Guadalupe Mountains of southeast New Mexico lies an enchanted forest of mysterious-looking limestone formations.

long ears (2)

The journey begins at the ticket counter, where for the price of admission, a visitor can access the cave from a nearby switchback path, or take a high speed elevator 800 feet down to an exploration crossroads that leads directly to a food concession stand.

elevator

While there are a few adventure hikes below the surface for limited numbers of ardent spelunkers, a majority of the nearly 3,000 visitors a day (on average) are content to follow a one-mile self-guided tour of the Big Room along a narrowly paved walkway, where featured formations are illuminated by hidden spotlights and protected from access by stainless steel handrails.

To the casual observer, the speleothems (e.g. stalactites and stalagmites) look like random thousand-year-old mineral deposits. But to the trained eye, many of the formations–whether disguised within wall recesses…

faces

Groot

or standing straight and tall in plain sight–

Chinese emperor (2)

double as custodial creatures who stand guard by rock castles,

castle on the rock

brocoli

and towers…

double dicks (2)

to protect them against invaders who are so fascinated by their structural beauty, that they must scale their delicate walls.

Like vintage Disney design, the spectacle that is Carlsbad Cavern is overwhelming to the senses. Whether it’s looking up at the lion tails,

lion tail (2)

and the crystal chandelier…

chandelier

or looking at popcorn streams beneath rippled water…

natural stream (2).jpg

…it’s difficult to imagine not being seduced…

shaft (2)

by all the stunning eye candy.

eye candy (2)