New Mexico

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Full of hot air

Written by Chaz on 29 November 2012

In early October, I made my third trip in the last year to visit my uncle Eric, aunt Teresa and cousin Madison near Albuquerque, New Mexico. My trip was timed to coincide with the legendary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest gathering of hot air balloons. Yes, it’s kind of an unusual thing, but it was a terrific excuse for more time with my aunt, uncle and cousin. I arrived late on Friday, and they met me at a hotel downtown so that we could stay near the fiesta itself.

We rose early on Saturday morning, the first day of the fiesta, and at 5 a.m. began a marathon journey up the interstate through horrible traffic to the fiesta grounds. Just as we finally arrived at the parking lot, we heard on the radio that the morning’s mass ascension — the fiesta’s pinnacle moment, in which upward of 750 balloons rise simultaneously into the air — was cancelled. So we diverted course and grabbed some breakfast. My aunt and cousin returned home, while Eric and I headed north to Los Alamos, home of the nuclear research lab and Bandelier National Monument, known equally for its desert scenery and its petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that suggest human presence as old as 11,000 years ago. The park is accessible only by a shuttle bus operated by the humorously named Atomic City Transit.

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We set out on the ruins trail and were soon surrounded by the scenery of Frijoles Canyon, passing cliff dwelling after dwelling. It was a beautiful October day.

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Bandelier was severely affected by the Las Conchas forest fire in 2011, leaving the park much more vulnerable to flash flooding after much vegetation was destroyed. As a result, the facilities are now more spartan, and documentation of flooding was everywhere.

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We continued past the simple nature trail on another longer trail to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling so high that is accessible only by four ladders rising 140 feet.

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We returned to the shuttle bus via the other half of the nature trail loop, where more fire and flood damage was evident. From Los Alamos, we beelined back to my uncle’s house for rest, relaxation and a delicious dinner of dry-aged steaks.

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After dinner, we debated our plans for the next morning, when the balloon fiesta had another mass ascension on the schedule. But the weather again looked threatening, and it would likely have been another grueling trip through heavy traffic, so we decided to scrap it. This, of course, guaranteed that the 750 balloons ended up making it into the early morning air, a sight we saw only on television.

But we had a backup plan, and Sunday morning found Eric and me on our way to Pecos National Historical Park, site of both more American Indian dwellings and a Civil War battle. The drive up to Pecos was beautiful, beginning on a dirt road that seemed even more rural than others my uncle and I have traversed and continuing past the autumnal colors of the desert.

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We began our Pecos visit with a loop trail through the ruins, which showcase both the native dwellings and the ruins of the buildings constructed by the Spanish conquistadores who moved through the area. The trail followed a ridge, giving us excellent views of the area.

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From the ruins trail, we drove over to the park’s newest trail, a historical walk through time that explains the Battle of Glorieta Pass. One does not think of New Mexico as a theater of the Civil War, but in fact it was, and the trail gave us a sense of how the area’s geography influenced the fight. Curiously, the trail is behind a locked gate, and we had to get the code from the visitor center. Perhaps as a result, we were the only people there.

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Making sure to lock the gate behind us, we began driving back toward Eric’s house but took a short detour over to the tiny train station in Lamy, New Mexico. As it turned out, the Southwest Chief was arriving shortly, so we stuck around to see the train — the checkpoint’s second viewing, in fact.

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After the train rolled out of the station on its way to Chicago, we realized we were both starving. So we turned the car around and headed north again to Santa Fe, where we waited for nearly an hour for a table at Cafe Pasqual’s, an adorable New Mexican restaurant. I opted for the mole enchiladas while my uncle had the green chile bison burger, which had caught my eye as well. The mole was outstanding, and was definitely something one doesn’t often find in Boston, making it well worth both the trip and the wait.

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After our late lunch, it was finally time for a visit to the main attraction of the weekend that we had failed to take in thus far: the balloon fiesta. Though we would not make it to an ascension, we planned to see an evening glow, in which the balloons inflate and light their burners simultaneously to create a sea of glowing balloons around the fiesta grounds. We arrived just in time for the launch of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, in which ballooners compete to see how far they can make it from Albuquerque before landing. The winners ended up making it 1,626 miles to the North Carolina coast.

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As the sun began to set, the balloons began to rise as they were inflated, and the main event was about to begin. Though it was no ascension, the evening glow was still very neat, and gave me a sense of the sheer number of balloons involved in the fiesta.

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And as it got darker still, balloons of every shape began lighting up all around us, creating an amazing evening scene.

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We left before the inevitable traffic began, my appetite whet for another more complete visit to the fiesta. I left New Mexico early the next morning, grateful for another terrific visit to the Southwest!

Family time and relaxing eats

Written by Chaz on 2 August 2012

Heading northeast from White Sands, we blew through Alamogordo and made our first stop about halfway to Tularosa. All along the highway was farm after farm growing a crop I had never seen before: pistachios. The nut, a desert native, thrives in high sun and low humidity and needs long summers to ripen properly. As a result, it has become very popular in New Mexico, which meets those criteria perfectly.

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We stopped at the Eagle Ranch pistachio grove and, after taking a look at some pistachio trees, went into their store to sample their wares, which included not only several flavors of pistachios but also a selection of pistachio wines. We had a taste of a few and selected one to take with us for dinner. There’s nothing like a bit of wine at 9:30 in the morning to get you going.

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Eric had promised that he would take us to a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place attached to a gas station in Tularosa for huevos rancheros, which sounded like a location our food guru would approve of. But when we arrived, it became clear that we had made a huge mistake. What had once been was no more.

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Fortunately, there was another gas station nearby that also had a Mexican restaurant attached. Welcome to New Mexico. Eric had the huevos rancheros while I opted for another menu items that was basically the rancheros with scrambled, rather than fried eggs. The dishes were good, though no comparison to Eric’s own homemade version.

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From Tularosa, we continued northeast to Eric’s house in Ruidoso, where we spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun, swimming and having some family time with my aunt Teresa and cousin Madison. We discovered when we arrived that the forest fires we had seen from White Sands had become enormous and were very close to Ruidoso. The highway that we would use to return to Albuquerque the next day was closed, so we would have to leave much earlier to retrace our steps to Tularosa and head north from there.

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Eric was planning to grill steaks for dinner and add some New Mexican flair with a topping of onions, mushrooms and spicy tomatillo, a combination he had recently discovered.

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The steaks turned out excellently, and were joined by green beans, a delicious salad with strawberries and pecans, and the pistachio wine.

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We sat out for a while after dinner, watching hummingbird after hummingbird visit the feeder hanging near the porch, as well as a family of deer that made someone very excited.

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The next morning, we rose early in anticipation of our long detour back to Albuquerque and headed out for breakfast in downtown Ruidoso at Peña’s Place, where we beat the morning rush and grabbed a table on the porch.

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At Peña’s, the breakfast burrito proved to be the most popular choice at our table. I ordered mine “Christmas,” which refers not to a holiday in December but to the combination of both red and green chiles. My aunt Teresa opted for the eggs benedict. All were excellent.

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Before we headed off to drive back to the airport in Albuquerque, we took a moment to do some family portraits.

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After the pictures, Eric and I bid farewell to Madison and Teresa and hit the open road.

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A few hours later, I was saying goodbye to Eric at the airport. Though my visit to New Mexico was just a weekend, we had seen and done so much that it felt like a much longer vacation, peppered with excellent eats, terrific nature and wonderful family time.

A night in the white dunes

Written by Chaz on 30 July 2012

IMG_1943Eric and I continued our journey east from Las Cruces through the Organ Mountains, headed toward White Sands National Monument. Based on a bit of Internet research I had done, we took a short driving detour through the Organ Mountain National Recreation Area, which sits just east of town on Bureau of Land Management land. It turned out to be a perfect detour on a hot desert day: a one-way scenic drive into the small but dramatic cluster of mountains that looped right back to the highway.

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White Sands National Monument is encompassed entirely by the enormous White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity nuclear test. Fortunately, lawmakers had the foresight to carve out the most beautiful portion for protection as a national monument. But the rest of the missile range remains in some mysterious use by the military, and in fact the park and the highway through it are closed from time to time to allow for unknown military exercises. Already, from the Organ Mountains drive, we could see mysterious government buildings out to the east in the middle of the desert, and we were warned to mind our business by a rather ominous sign.

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Returning to the highway, we pushed east toward the monument, stopping only briefly at a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint that was nearly 100 miles from the Mexican border. I had no idea that these internal checkpoints existed, much less that they could possibly be constitutional, especially since the only check performed seemed to be whether the occupants of each car were white. But there it was, and of course, Eric and I were waved through the absurd checkpoint without even a question.

The entrance to the national monument lay just beyond, and we pulled into the visitor center to register for the backcountry permit that would allow us to hike and in spend the night. At 4:30, only three of the 10 campsites had been reserved, so we had our pick of sites, choosing one that was a little further in so that we would be less likely to see other campers. The park ranger also gave us a stern warning about unexploded munitions that could still be scattered around the park from military tests of yesteryear. Given that the park is sand dune after sand dune, the chance that you would actually be able to avoid stepping on an unexploded munition seems low. Fortunately, we ended up emerging alive.

We stopped to apply sunscreen, since even in the late afternoon the sun was still roasting the desert, and were then ready to begin exploring.

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Our first stop along the eight-mile Dunes Drive was the Playa Trail, a short walk into a desert playa, essentially the remainder of what was long ago a lake. Though the park’s trademark white sand dunes were visible in the distance, we were not quite there.

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Our second stop was at the Dune Life Nature Trail, a loop trail that took us deeper into the beautiful white dunes. Our walk was narrated on a series of signs by Katy the Kit Fox, who explained that not very much wildlife is able to survive in the dunes, because there just isn’t anything to eat — not to mention the lack of water.

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But, as the signs explained, some things can survive in the dunes. Two struck me as noteworthy. In some places in the dunes, there are actually cottonwood trees growing right out of the sand. Cottonwood trees thrive near riverbeds, and because they need so much water, that’s usually the only place they can be found. In fact, the last time I saw them was along the Virgin River gorge when we were in Zion National Park. How, then, can they possible exist in a place as dry as White Sands? Apparently a generous aquifer is just a few feet below the surface in some places. You’d never know it from the surface. But these trees have their roots essentially in a riverbed, just as they like it.

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The second amazing bit of wildlife was three species of lizard that have all evolved, only within White Sands, to be white instead of their original darker colors so that they can avoid predators. As the dunes are only about 6,000 years old, this evolution is much, much faster than you can usually find anywhere else, and as a result, the lizards have gained national attention. The darker lizards must have been simply unable to survive at all.

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Returning to the car, we made one more stop at the Interdune Boardwalk, a short promenade into the dunes where we asked a stranger to take a picture of us.

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We drove the rest of the Dunes Drive around to the backcountry camping parking lot. On the way, we saw people engaging in what is apparently one of the most popular draws of the park: sledding. In a flat place that won’t get much snow, the dunes are a fun place to sled year-round.

The backcountry campsites are arranged around a loop trail, each about a mile’s hike from the parking lot — somewhat closer to the car than my last backcountry experience. We stopped in the parking lot to get our things together before heading into the dunes. It was a bit more organized than in the parking lot of the North Kaibab Trail, starting with the fact that we had actual backpacks.

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Along the mile-long walk to our campsite, we began to hit the true unadulterated beauty of White Sands. The unblemished snow-white dunes were unreal in their scale and grandeur, especially as the sun began to hang lower over the desert. If you visit White Sands and do not opt for the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, I highly recommend the backcountry camping trail as a much shorter but equally beautiful alternative.

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We arrived shortly at our campsite and set up our tent in our incredible surroundings.

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Though our tent was in a dune basin, we climbed to the top of the closest dune to make dinner and watch the sunset. We had brought freeze-dried chicken and rice for dinner. Expiration date: “lasts for years.” We set up the camp stove and began to boil water as the evening light fell over the endless ridges of white sand that surrounded us.

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After we resolved some technical difficulties with our camp stove, the water boiled and we poured it into the plastic bags of dried chicken and rice. A few minutes later, our delicious feast was ready.

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As we watched the sunset from our position atop the dunes, we could see a forest fire raging far in the distance. Little did we know how close it would end up being to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso.

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We rose at 5:30 on Saturday morning and struck camp, stuffing everything back into our backpacks for the short hike back to the parking lot. The dunes looked radiant in the early-morning light.

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We had a quick bite to eat at the car before driving to the trailhead of the Alkali Flat Trail, a longer five-mile jaunt into the dunes. We rose early to avoid the extreme desert heat that the day would bring, and sure enough, the temperature had not reached 80 degrees by the time we returned to the car at about 8:30. Our 6:30 start also meant we were the only people on the trail, as the gates to the park aren’t open until 7:00. The only way to be inside the park earlier than that is to spend the night.

The Alkali Flat Trail, which guided us using a series of plastic orange posts that sometimes were not as evident as one might like, took us nearly to the edge of the dunes, where the sand fades into a large alkali flat. Off in the distance we could see more military buildings.

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We returned to the car, tired but accomplished, and logged our time-out in the trail register in the parking lot, presumably used to make sure no one is lost in the dunes.

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Though we didn’t meet Katy the Kit Fox during our time in the park, we did see evidence of plenty of wildlife. Seemingly around every turn was a new set of footprints, some apparently from mammals or birds, others from a creature we had been warned about at the visitor center — the stinkbug.

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I had wanted to visit White Sands for a while, since I realized how close it was to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso, and my eagerness grew when I discovered you could spend the night deep in the dunes, which sounded like a particularly exciting way to experience the park. The adventure didn’t disappoint. White Sands was absolutely beautiful, and spending the night under the stars among the dunes rated up there with our night in the Grand Canyon. As we explored the park’s trails, each fresh vista of dune after white dune was breathtakingly different from anything I’d seen before elsewhere.

We drove out of the park and turned east again, toward Alamogordo and lunch.

Just shy of another border

Written by Chaz on 28 July 2012

I spent a weekend in early June with my uncle Eric, who lives outside Albuquerque, and his family. I last saw him over Christmas, when we explored local culture and did risky things in the snow. I’ve still been traveling to Texas to work, so I was once again able to tie a visit to a business trip. In fact, I met Eric on a business trip of his own. He had been in Las Cruces, N.M., so I flew into El Paso, Tex., not far away, and he picked me up there. We had planned quite a weekend: a bit of tourism in El Paso, a day in Las Cruces, a night camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument, and the rest of the weekend with Eric’s family at his vacation house in Ruidoso, N.M.

We started the weekend immediately upon my Thursday evening arrival with a visit to El Paso’s L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” because it is across the street from the enormous Concordia Cemetery and vaunted by our favorite source as one of the best places in El Paso for Mexican food. (Though I had pressed Eric to take me across the border into Old Mexico, the violence in Juarez now makes this a terrible idea. Not so long ago, I crossed into Juarez with Eric and his family with no concern, but now that would be unthinkable.) Despite being in what looked like a bit of a seedy area of town (after all, next to an enormous graveyard), the streets around L & J were packed with parked cars, as was the restaurant itself.

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My uncle and I started by ordering a pair of margaritas, which my uncle immediately — and I do mean immediately — followed up with a beer order. Inspired by his boldness, I ordered a Mexican beer. The waitress skeptically asked whether we wanted all our drinks together. We said we could tolerate a slight delay on the beer, and put in an order for chile con queso. I was envisioning a beef (like chili) and melted cheese situation, but this was literally just chile con queso: fantastic green chiles in delicious melted cheese. Eric said it was the best he’d had, and I agreed.

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Our main courses were equally fantastic. This wasn’t the Tex-Mex that I’m used to in Dallas, but the real thing. Eric ordered chicken enchiladas with green chile, while I took the Times’ recommendation and went with the caldillo, a Mexican stew of potato and beef with green chile. Simple flavors, simple composition and an ethnic food experience totally new to me.

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Eric insisted that we follow up our main courses with a sopapilla, a puff pastry smothered in sugar and honey. Light and delicious.

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After dinner, we walked across the street and into the cemetery to find the grave of John Wesley Hardin, a Civil War-era cowboy and outlaw eventually shot to death in a saloon in El Paso. The cemetery fit perfectly into the desert landscape: cactuses between graves surrounded by orange dirt. Hardin’s grave was surrounded by a cage to protect him from people like us.

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From the cemetery, we drove across town to the University of Texas at El Paso, where there is a desert garden that was one of the very few tourist sights I could find in El Paso. The Centennial Desert Gardens were actually very nice, with a variety of plants that I don’t see everyday, and Eric rolled his eyes as I walked around taking pictures of things I found interesting and beautiful.

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From the garden, we headed onto the interstate to drive back to Eric’s hotel in Las Cruces, stopping only briefly for a view back toward El Paso through mountains.

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Before long, we had crossed the border into New Mexico, and were soon heading to bed.

The next morning, Eric headed off to work while I opened my computer and made a virtual commute from his hotel. Thanks to the time difference, I was able to start early and finish early, so I was nearly ready for the weekend by the time Eric and I headed to a late lunch at Nellie’s Cafe, a well-known Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces. Even though the restaurant was just barely a storefront, when Eric texted a picture to a friend of his, the friend replied that they must have made improvements. But the little hole-in-the-wall was still sporting pretty legitimate credentials.

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We were seated by Nellie’s exuberant son Danny and began our meal with tortilla chips and salsa. These weren’t your mother’s tortilla chips, though — they were still hot, and more flavorful than any I can recall. Inspired by their quality, we ordered another round accompanied by more chile con queso. For my main course, I ordered the tostadas compuestas, which featured three hard tacos of different compositions: one with red chile, one with green chile and one with avocado. The dichotomy between red and green chiles is a recurring one in the cuisine of New Mexico. As I learned, either color can be hotter in a given restaurant, and either can be tastier. You have to ask at each restaurant and balance your preferences. Eric went with the combo platter, which was roundly recommended. It was immediately apparent from our plates that we were beginning to transition from the Mexican food we had had in El Paso to the unique culinary blend that is New Mexican cuisine.

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Though not quite as flavorful and exciting as L & J Cafe, Nellie’s was much more of a scene. Las Cruces is, of course, a much smaller town that El Paso, and I’m sure that contributed to the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else. It was a fun dining experience, which you can’t always say.

From Nellie’s, Eric and I drove slightly west, to old Mesilla, a small town near Las Cruces known for its historic square and old-timey feeling. Having not so long ago been to both old Albuquerque and old Santa Fe, I had to comment to Eric that I was starting to get the feeling “seen one old square, seen ’em all.” There was a pretty Catholic church and a nice square whose architecture wouldn’t feel out of place in old Mexico, but that was about it.

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Mesilla, of course, receives a lot less traffic than its historic neighbors to the north, which did give it a bit of a more homely feel. I was able to take one photograph that may be the closest we ever come to the caption: “The checkpoint visits Havana.”

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Having scoped out the scene in Mesilla, Eric and I high-tailed it east out of town and through the mountains toward our next destination.

Southwestern charm and cuisine

Written by Chaz on 18 March 2012

After Christmas, my aunt, uncles, grandmother and I went exploring in both of New Mexico’s most well-known cities. First, we drove into Albuquerque and split along gender lines — my uncles and I drove just west of downtown to Petroglyph National Monument, where we took a short hike through ancient rock drawings that also afforded us a great view of the city.

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Albuquerque is well-known for its annual balloon fiesta, and while I have never made it for the festival itself, we got a glimpse of what I’ve missed as we were driving away from the monument.

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We drove into Albuquerque’s historic center, the Old Town. The business hub of the city moved east many years ago with the arrival of the railroad, but the square is still fun to see for the old San Felipe de Neri church. We stopped in at a nearby restaurant, the Church Street Cafe, for some chips and margaritas, which were fine but not as great as we were hoping.

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My uncle was very amused by a dog on the roof of a shop, spotted as we walked back to the car. Dogs were always on roofs when I spent four weeks in a small Mexican town several years ago, but my uncle still loved it.

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The next morning, my uncle whipped up some delicious huevos rancheros, a common breakfast dish, to fortify us for the day’s travels.

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We drove into Santa Fe, beginning our visit at the city’s central square, which probably looks nicer in summer.

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We headed over to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, which was very cool but not that big. O’Keeffe spent much of her life in New Mexico and drew inspiration from its landscapes. We then walked over to the Loretto Chapel, famous for its miraculous spiral staircase. The church had originally been told it was not architecturally possible to build a staircase to its choir loft, until a mysterious carpenter came into town, built it, and left before he was paid. That’s a very nice story, but the staircase is nothing special, I thought. It has no visible support structure, which people think is miraculous in and of itself, but obviously staircases can be built this way or this one would fall down.

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We couldn’t get into the best Mexican place in town for lunch, so we headed to a little place off the square for tortilla soup and enchiladas.

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On the way back to my uncle’s house, we stopped in Madrid, N.M., for a drink at the Mine Shaft Tavern. Madrid, pop. 149, has become something of an artists’ colony, with galleries lining the small highway. The bar was actually pretty hopping.

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I had to work the next day, but my grandmother and cousin spent some of the afternoon make pizzelle, which we all enjoyed.

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My uncle grilled mahi mahi for tacos for our final dinner in New Mexico, with some shrimp to go with it. We had all the fixings, and I made margaritas to accompany them.

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The resulting tacos were light but full of flavor. Fish tacos are one of the best things about the success of my seafood odyssey.

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The next day, my uncle drove my grandmother, my other uncle and me to the airport for our flight out of town. We got one last photo together in the airport lobby to commemorate a wonderful and very memorable holiday together.

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Christmas with the family

Written by Chaz on 6 February 2012

Though the real world usually makes it harder to spend time traveling, sometimes it makes it easier. I’ve spent much of the last couple months in Texas for work, and since I was going to be so close, I decided to spend the Christmas holiday at my uncle Eric’s house just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My grandmother was also coming down from Fargo, North Dakota, where my dad grew up, and my other uncle was coming with her from Minneapolis. So I was very happy to have the opportunity to join all of them.

I arrived a few days before Christmas, and had to do some work the day after I arrived, which was still a normal working day. Luckily, my uncle, who is an avid and proud hunter, provided his home office, which was more than adequate.

Chaz’s N.M. office

We had a ton of snow in New Mexico the day after I arrived, and our trip into Albuquerque to pick my grandmother and uncle Joel up at the airport was a bit dicey. They had even closed the interstate. But we made it there and back safely, and set to work immediately taking full advantage of the snow with my uncle’s ATV, some rope and a couple sleds.

Though probably not the safest activity I’ve ever engaged in (“Try not to fall off into a cactus,” my uncle said), it was really fun.

The culinary portion of my time in New Mexico began on Christmas eve, when my cousin helped my grandmother make some holiday cookies before my grandmother turned her attention to our family’s Christmas eve tradition: oyster stew.

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Oyster stew, it turns out, is very simple. You just cook the oysters until the edges curl and combine with butter and cream, then serve. It only took a few minutes before we were ready to sit down at the table.

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My seafood odyssey has come a long way, but oysters are still a little much for me. I didn’t object to the stew, though. What’s not to like about butter and cream? And I guess this is why they call them oyster crackers.

We woke up the next morning to a pile of presents from Santa Claus and a delicious egg bake prepared by my uncle Eric.

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After presents and breakfast, my uncles, my cousin and I tied the sleds back onto the ATV and headed out for some more sledding (if you can call it that).

Ever the outdoorsman, my uncle couldn’t conceal his glee when we found some bloody snow that had been the site of someone’s dinner.

We headed home to make the Christmas turkey, and my uncle and grandmother worked together for a while in the kitchen on getting things ready. My uncle had found his mother’s old kitchen apron under the Christmas tree, apparently salvaged from his childhood home, and was seen sporting it in the kitchen for much of the rest of the week. I love the traditional turkey meal (it’s a big part of why I love Thanksgiving), and it turned out wonderfully. Of course, there was a little familial strife in the kitchen along the way, but what can you do.

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We suited up the next morning to head out to Sandia Peak for some skiing. It was my first time skiing outside of the beautiful state of Pennsylvania, and the conditions were way better, just as everyone says. We were very fortunate to have gotten as much snow as we did. I read in the newspaper that New Mexico had the best skiing in the country that week.

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My trip was off to a great start!