#8 Northern New Mexico & Southwestern Colorado (April 2013)

NORTHERN NEW MEXICO
Spring Training In Albuquerque & Santa Fe
We're both as subject to the pull of inertia as the next person: whatever we're doing is what we are most likely to continue doing. Our travels in the SW were focused on hiking and, despite Bill spending weeks in March and April making detailed plans and reservations for our summer biking and hiking trip overseas, we had a hard time extracting them from their shoe-horned-in positions in the backseat of the truck and riding them.

While in the depths of summer trip planning Bill would say "I suppose a 45 mile day with a pass might be too much…" or "How do you feel about two 31 mile days back to back?" I'd bite my lip and think, "Given we haven't ridden at all for 3 months, let alone loaded bikes since August, it all sounds awful…and then there was that persistent pain in your hands when we were riding before…." It would seem that such intense visualizations of the future would have jarred us into action, but they did not. When pressed, Bill wasn't planning on doing any riding until we returned to Portland a month before flying to Europe and even then, I would predict he'd have a hard time breaking loose from the pull of inertia to get himself in the saddle.

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Santa Fe's multi-use paths were easy to access & pleasant.
So on one truly nasty day in Albuquerque when it was snowing on our favorite trails and intermittently in our RV park, I said "Let's go for a bike ride". The weather actually got worse instead of better as forecast while we rode and we were cold and wet from the rain and wind when we returned. But that inertia thing is amazing--we went out on the bikes again the next day. We'd intended to stick to the safe-feeling urban bike paths as we'd done the first day but reluctantly decided to risk riding with cars again on the nearby old Route 66. Within minutes of being on the open road and heading out of town into the hills, we were in our element again. The intermittent, non-sticking snow stopped when it was time to turn around and we rode back to our camper under broken blue skies. The wind and air was still icy cold but the sun was warming and we were thoroughly exhilarated by being back in the saddle exploring a new venue.

The next day we pried ourselves out of Albuquerque and drove to Santa Fe, all of 60 miles away. The new RV park office happened to have an entire wall of tourist info that included a single copy of the free map entitled "Santa Fe 2012 Bikeways & Trails Map" (www.santafempo.org). Bill's head was already deep in the Dolomites from attempting to secure the last 3 reservations for the touring part of our summer trip when I dangled the informative new map in front of him--a trophy find guaranteed to disrupt the inertia of his current activity. Suddenly the vague notion of initiating our spring bike training in New Mexico snapped into focus.

Both Albuquerque and Santa Fe have loads of bike routes with a number of them being long distance and some with significant elevation gain. The vision became clearer: we could actually plan our European bike trip training into our amorphous itinerary for the spring of 2014 instead of hoping it would happen like we were doing in 2013. We didn't have much time left to give to Santa Fe for 2013 but we could do route reconnaissance for next year.

The plan for 2014 refined rapidly. We'd begin by spending 7-10 days in Albuquerque getting our fill of both the local hiking and biking, then throw the mostly assembled bikes in the back of the camper instead of re-squeezing their bits and pieces into the backseat of the truck. After the short drive to Santa Fe, the bikes would be immediately unloaded from the camper dinette and be ready to ride after installing their front wheels. We could take another 7-10 days in the Santa Fe area for hiking and biking, either staying at a single RV park for the duration or moving to the opposite end of town part way through our stay for ready access to new routes.

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Santa Fe's arroyos weren't exactly fascinating but the blue sky was captivating.
The emerging plan sounded like a winner for us next year and you too might want to consider a similar spring training extravaganza in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe corridor. They are both high, with Albuquerque being around 6,000' and Santa Fe being about 7,000', which adds an extra buzz (OK, challenge) to your exertion from the thin air. Both areas are hot destinations for cycling and hiking, so maps and guide books are available. The public transit system in Santa Fe is bike-friendly, including the modern rail system connecting the 2 cities. And how lovely--the air is clean. Of course, both cities are loaded with lodging and restaurants, which is quite unusual for such great hiking and biking venues.

Not a hiker/biker? Santa Fe looked like a great city for an urban walker to put in serious miles away from traffic without repeating the same route twice. The extensive system of paved, multi-use paths along arroyo's is peppered with parks, making for pleasant walking. Were it me, I'd combine using the previously mentioned trails map with a little online research about the very inexpensive bus system to devise 'walk & bus' loops for the most variety and for a nice break from the cold, gray winter days in the more northern bands of the country. Regardless of your mode, you could mix your exertion with sightseeing because places like Taos and Bandelier are also in range for day trips.

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The unusual high water mark at Bandelier got out attention.
We are learning that the SW is potentially subject to all of the blizzards that slam the midwest, though the SW usually only experiences them as a drop in temperature and an up-tick in the winds. The temperature drops were always disappointing but seeing that it was topping 100˚in Big Bend in early April while it was snowing in Colorado took some of the sting out of it. The amount of precipitation is usually minimal: our relative 'soaker' in Albuquerque was 0.08" of rain in 24 hours. So, all in all, Santa Fe and Albuquerque are a good gamble for some robust outdoor play in the early to mid spring.

Bandelier National Monument, NM (about 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe)
Frijoles Canyon
High water marks on the interior staircases of B&B's and on the exteriors of public buildings in Germany and Austria were fairly common sights when we bike toured in those countries. Simultaneously fascinating and sobering, we stopped to ponder the local significance of almost every one that we saw, signs that usually listed numerous flooding events over decades. And then there was the time that we narrowly escaped being trapped in Decin, Czech Republic by the major flooding event in Central Europe in 2002 and returned a few years later to inspect the high water plaques noting its reach. High water events and their markers are a rarity during our US travels--especially in the desert SW. But like when in Europe, we stopped to ponder the significance of the high water signs around the visitor center at Bandelier National Monument this spring.

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We only found patches of superheated soil along Frijoles Canyon.
We were stunned to learn of the series of traumatic events that devastated Bandelier months after we visited it in April of 2011 in our rented RV. We were on our way back to Europe for the summer of 2011 when a lone aspen tree toppled by high winds struck a power line on June 26 and ignited the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history at that time. The same high winds that brought down the tree whipped up the flames to the point that they were jumping roads and bodies of water. The fire was estimated to be traveling at a mile a minute at its peak. Over 60% of the Monument forests were scorched--almost a third of them in the first 12 hours.

A group of 100 Boy Scouts had just disembarked at the Frijoles Canyon visitors center 15-20 miles from the origin of the fire when it began. Smoke from the blaze was quickly evident at the Canyon but the local rangers dismissed the darkening skies as being caused by dust from the high winds because they hadn't received an alert. The call finally came in: a raging fire was headed right for them. Rangers at the Monument who were recreational runners were immediately recruited to literally run to the limits of the Pueblo ruins and day hiking trails to round up all of the visitors and then they and the staff began evacuating. Luckily, the threat of wildfires had caused the forest service to close the backcountry trails to hikers earlier in the season so none were at risk on those more remote trails.

The backcountry higher up the canyon and closer to the source of the fire was open however. Rangers driving vans sped out as was possible on rough roads to scoop up the backcountry hikers--one of the benefits of their permit/registration system, so there were no fatalities on the trails from the fire. The fire was so hot that it vitrified the soil, literally turned it into glass. Fires are usually healthy for forests because numerous plant species use fire as a trigger to germinate their seeds but this fire superheated the soil. The resulting sterilization and vitrification of the soil thwarted the usual and immediate regrowth process of the plants. Even in this less-heavily vegetated land, the last of the fire wasn't completely extinguished until the first winter snows.

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The ugly concrete barriers & sand bags are here to stay.
Surprisingly, the 3/4-1" of rain that fell on the higher ground at the initial burn area almost 2 months later on August 21st wasn't sufficient to extinguish the last of the hot spots but it was enough to cause a devastating flash flood downstream at Frijoles Canyon. The vitrified soil in the burn area instantly shed the rain water rather than absorb it as usually happens and all of the water falling on the surrounding mesas poured into the canyon, rapidly accumulating in the valley floor. Fortunately the Monument was still closed to visitors at the time because of the smoldering fires so a second evacuation wasn't necessary. An on-site ranger captured the intense flooding in a brief video that now runs continuously at the visitors center--a truly amazing piece of footage. The huge, destructive expanse of water on the canyon floor began retreating after only a half an hour of flooding.

A very ugly and substantial low wall of concrete barriers and sand bags still mark the high water threat at the visitors center and await the next flash flood. Bridges removed before the flash flood to prevent potentially devastating damming during a high water event haven't been rebuilt. Because of the extensive area of vitrified soil that is preventing any growth which would lead to reforestation, the exceptional flood risk in Frijoles Canyon is expected to persist indefinitely.

Elsewhere in the canyon, major landslides destroyed a portion of the trail leading to the Rio Grande below the visitors center, an area that is expected to further erode so the trail isn't being rebuilt. Fortunately the major Ancestral Puebloan ruins at the Frijoles Canyon visitor's center were spared, but Bandelier National Monument is still scarred and vulnerable.

Juniper Campground
The dramas of the 2011 fire and subsequent flash flood are totally invisible on the mesa above Frijoles Canyon where one of our favorite campgrounds resides. We fell in love with Juniper Campground during our 2011 visit and I think of it often when reminiscing about that, our first RV trip. I'm sure most people would roll through and say "This couldn't be the place she talked about" because I suspect some of the magic was that of the moment but the kind that is nonetheless etched in one's being.

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Bobby, our chatty Texan neighbor at the Bandelier campground, was sporting his newly patented deer skinner.
For me, it was the perfect combination of bright blue skies, sparkling clear air, quiet, and campsites with junipers creating a sense of boundaries without being overbearing like the nearby Ponderosa pines were prone to doing. There is no posted maximum size limit and generators are allowed, but the small camp slots select for those in short rigs and tents and usually there aren't any generators rumbling. Ahh, sweet….heavenly…. The lack of hook-up makes it a less comfortable extended camping experience than we'd prefer but that never keeps us away.

Had we not already bonded with Bandelier and the campground, we might of skedaddled when it started snowing at the end of our hike 24 hours after arriving. Another amazing example of the arctic storms that clobber the midwest but graze the SW--it had been about 80 degrees at the end of the previous day's hike in Bandelier. We were among a handful that stayed to awake to a 21 degree reading on the weather gauge. Fortunately, we knew the forecast included a turn for the worse and decided to arrive as planned because it had been one storm after another everywhere that we'd been this traveling season.

SOUTHWESTERN COLORADO
A Corner of Colorado

I always long to know the backstory, the history, when political boundaries roughly match abrupt flora changes, as was again the case when we crossed from northern New Mexico into southwestern Colorado. The look of the land and of the small communities changed so rapidly while traveling north that we were both saying "We must be in Colorado" though the "Welcome to Colorado" sign was a few miles ahead. The whole milieu radically changed from desert to mountains though the 'before and after' elevation was generally unchanged at around 7,000'.

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We were spellbound by this concentration of color at our southwestern Colorado campground after so much time in the desert.
Ponderosa pines that were few and far between in Albuquerque and at Bandelier were present as forests in Colorado. Exposed soil and rocks defined the predominant theme in the desert whereas in Colorado most of the ground was covered by short, hardy, green grass that frequently had "golf course?" popping up in my mind but it was instead the default ground cover. "Look at all of those colors packed together" was my comment when admiring at the vegetation surrounding our campground pond our first night in Colorado. A stand of shiny green Ponderosa pines formed the backdrop to the gray-sage green leafless cottonwoods, which were fringed by mustard yellow and then rosy red tips of new growth on the brush at the water's edge. In the desert, the cottonwoods and pines would be few in number and miles apart and a significant color splash usually came from the reds and yellows of sandstones, not the vegetation.

The prosperity difference between the 2 border regions was equally stunning. "Life is hard" was the overall message in northern New Mexico; "Life is good" was the immediate conclusion when scanning the scene from the road in Colorado. The New Mexican desert communities' rag-tag look was replaced by gated rural hunting estates in Colorado. Of course, it wasn't all black and white, but it would be a no-brainer if one was pressed for a snap decision as to where you'd want to live.

Santa Fe and Bandelier aren't much more than 100 miles from the border with Colorado and yet the "Open" sign was out for tourists in New Mexico whereas the "Closed" sign was dominant in our corner of Colorado. We spent our first night in Colorado outside of Pagosa Springs, a recreation area peppered with RV parks, but only 2 were open and just. The place we stayed had only opened for the season a few days before we arrived. The people we chatted with at the little RV park were thrilled that the sun had finally made its debut whereas we'd had sunny skies part of every day for weeks in New Mexico despite having bouts of snow flurries. The differences in the climate and prosperity between these 2 adjacent regions couldn't be explained by the elevation and we once again had to settle for no answer at all to our questions.

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Cliff Palace was only used for 100 years--then the residents packed it up & left.
Mesa Verde National Park, CO
There were so many midwest winter storm systems that dropped farther south than usual this winter and spring that, once again, we arrived at our new destination, Mesa Verde, on a lovely day and the next day the temperatures plummeted. The storms were impossible to avoid so we had decided to press-on with Bill's planned route if the roads were safe, as in both free of snow and no horrific winds. It didn't take long at Mesa Verde to be glad that we came despite the 20 degree temperatures and piercing winds.

The Park is officially open year round, with the 2 visitors centers being open as well as the trails for cross country skiing in the winter. But the iconic features that people come to Mesa Verde for, the Native American cliff dwellings, are only open from April/May until mid-October. Being there the third week of April gave us access to about 2/3's of the cool sights with everything being fully open to the public by the end of May. Even the campground was essentially closed, with a small loop being open but not with the usual services, like showers and some hook-ups.

We quickly sorted out that not only were we missing some of the 'good stuff' by being early in the season, but that there also weren't many hiking trails in the Park at all. The majority of the trails were 2-2.5 miles long (or less) with the largest elevation gain being 1000', which left us doing one hike, then driving to the next trailhead to do another to increase our mileage for the day. Cycling was our back-up plan for our Mesa Verde outdoor experience but the published statement "bicycling is not recommended" was well founded. The narrow roads were very well maintained but shoulders were often non-existent and the drop-offs were frequently a thousand feet or more. Plus, the sometimes stunning views meant that drivers might not have their full attention on the road. Too bad cyclists weren't allowed to ride on the major road in the Park that is only open to vehicles during the summer.

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This new statue dramatically depicts the harshness of life in the seemingly exotic cliff dwellings.
Our first half day in the Park was spent discovering what wasn't: no biking; minimal hiking, and only partial access to the preserved cultural heritage sights. But it only took a few minutes of listening during our hour-long, ranger-guided tour of Cliff Palace the next day to forget what wasn't available to us and to be mesmerized by this ranger's information base.

We are relatively new to Native American cultures but are well studied on the broader subjects of evolution; the development of agriculture; the effect of population and other pressures on cultures; health issues of earlier cultures; and the like and we were dazzled. Our guide got an A+ by us for his presentation and we told him so. He talked a mile a minute and what ever their information base, everyone in our group walked away knowing more about the Ancestral Puebloan culture from 550-1300 ce than they started with. And I was so glad I'd allowed 2 hours after this tour and before the second of 2 that day so we could discuss and digest what we'd learned, as well as come up with a string of questions for ranger #2.

One of the most fascinating theories the ranger shared was that these alcove houses or cliff dwellings that look like the pinnacle of the culture actually may have marked the beginning of its decline. He commented that there is now substantial archeological evidence to suggest that there was a huge uptick in violence at the time that the Puebloans moved off the top of the mesa where their fields were located and under the mesa and into the cliffs. The difficult access to the cliff dwellings using chiseled foot and hand holds and the substantial walls they built made them much more defendable than their former houses on the mesa top.

A drought that eventually lasted 25 years, almost until 1300, and the depletion of the forests, large mammals, and soils suddenly made life for their previously rapidly expanding population dire: too many competing for too few resources. Even with these awesome homes, the cliff dwellers occupied them less than 100 years and then completely abandoned them.

The ranger spun other stories that were a perfect fit with what we knew and then some. He began with stories about the development of corn in South America 10,000 years ago and that the red in the rocks at Mesa Verde weren't due to the usual causes of either iron or organic material in the layers but instead overheating by multiple wildfires. We were all ears when he spoke of the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly Anasazi) health challenges. A 50% mortality rate for newborns and a life expectancy of 30-35 years painted a grim picture. The corn meal they relied upon for food wore their teeth down from the stone grit mixed in it and the high sugar content of the corn rotted their teeth. Tooth loss and abscesses were common. Being burdened by 10-15 different parasites was common and then there were the nutritional deficiencies of iron, calcium, and protein plus general malnutrition and osteoarthritis from a life of hard labor. Clearly the architecture was grand but life within the buildings was meager.


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Eating corn ground in these stone querns inadvertently ground-down the Puebloans teeth.
Four days at Mesa Verde gave us sufficient time to study the museum exhibits, visit all 3 of the available cliff dwellings, do all of the hikes over 2 miles long plus a few of the shorter walks, and track down several rangers to answer almost all of our questions. We felt like we got a better handle on the Ancestral Puebloan history with 1 visit to Mesa Verde than we had from 4 visits to Bandelier over the years. Given that the missed sights within the Park are only open in the summer when the school kids descend upon the Park, which is when we prefer to be in Europe, we probably won't be back. A thorough first visit to Mesa Verde made it feel complete and would free us to pursue other destinations in the region next time, like Chaco Canyon.

On To Utah
We were down to about 2 weeks before we needed to arrive at home when we left Mesa Verde and Colorado and crossed into Utah. Canyonlands and Moab were our last sightseeing/hiking/biking destinations before 5 days of focused driving to get us home on time. We hoped to arrive home a little better organized than previous years and were trying to get motivated to start the overdue deep cleaning of our camper while still on the road. After living in our camper over 11 months since purchasing it, it was time to do things like emptying the drawers and cabinets to remove the crumbs and wash off those suspicious bits of black (mold??) on the inside surface of our ceiling vents.