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Weekend Trip During Pandemic

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

A road trip in northern New Mexico to get out of the house makes for a nice weekend.

Sandstone cliffs and snow capped peaks of northern New Mexico

The day started by throwing us an obstacle. Leaving Albuquerque on I-25 north we

encountered a stand of New Mexico State Police who had closed the interstate at Tramway Boulevard. We were unaware of the reason for the closure - we suspected a vehicle crash. Nonetheless, we followed the line of traffic to the off-ramp and headed onto NM State Highway 333 through Sandia Pueblo and onto Bernalillo where we hoped to get back onto 1-25. The detour through this old historic route known as El Camino Real, the Royal Road, would delay us about thirty minutes. The Royal Road, for centuries connected Mexico City with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Maybe the delay was heed to slow down. Our destination, Chama, a village near the Colorado border, would still be there.

We reconnected with I-25 at Bernalillo. We, meaning my life-long partner Cheryl and a couple of canines. The trip north would take us through the Río Grande Valley past Santa Ana Pueblo, the village of Algodones, the San Felipe, Santo Domingo, and Cochiti Pueblo Reservations, and up the escarpment known as La Bajada, Spanish for the descent. Here marked the separation between the provinces of Río Abajo, Lower River, and Río Arriba, Upper River. We ascended to the top of La Bajada escarpment, and we could see Santa Fe at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We exited I-25 and took NM Highway 599, a bypass around Santa Fe, for our continued journey north.

The end of 599 connects with US Highway 285, and we left Santa Fe behind us. We continued north past the Santa Fe Opera, Tesuque Village, and Pueblo, through Cuyamunge, Pojoaque, and Nambe Pueblos and on to Española where we crossed the Río Grande to enter the Río Chama watershed. Here the Spanish set up their first European colony at the confluence of the Río Chama and the Río Grande near the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh. The Spanish would eventually move their colony to where Santa Fe now sits - the oldest and highest in the elevation state capital in the United States.

The Río Chama meanders south towards Abiquiu.

We crossed the Río Grande and connected with US Highway 84 north through Hernandez where the famous Ansel Adams took his well-known photograph of a full moon over this village. US 84 winds through the small villages along the Río Chama. The winding road

eventually leads to Abiquiu, once the home of the legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The village and the surrounding area remain as enchanting today as it was in her days. Quaint houses and farms, cottonwood trees, Río Chama, piñon and juniper studded hillsides, and the geological formations from eras long gone, keep this a special place.

We continued north on 84 and drove up the red rock cliffs where we can see the Río Chama meandering out of a narrow canyon. At the top of the cliffs, we could see the Jémez Mountains, a dormant volcano, to the south. In the distant north, striated cliff formations near Ghost Ranch rise above the horizon in colors of red, orange, and yellow. As we drive toward the cliffs, Abiquiu Reservoir glimmers in the late morning sunlight. The Río Chama feeds the reservoir.

Across the rolling desert plain, US 84 took us north past Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center. The center, slowly reopening during the pandemic, offers visitors retreats, workshops, and adventures. For more information visit their website:

Echo Amphitheater

A few miles further north where the majestic cliffs surround the valley, an amazing formation named Echo Amphitheater made for a nice roadside break. The stop, operated by the US Forest Service, has limited services (restrooms are closed due to the pandemic), but a short hike up the trail to the Echo Amphitheater is worth it. The huge concave formation allows sound to bounce off the large sandstone rock face making for a good place to have a concert. On the day we were there, Native Americans were beating a ceremonial drum. The sound could be heard throughout the canyon.

In 1966, Hispanic activist Reies Tijerina organized La Alianza and took over the site, in protest of the federal government taking land from the locals and restricting access to public lands for their livestock. Eventually, Governor David Cargo sent the National Guard which soon disbanded the group, making several arrests. The following year, La Alianza made a failed attempt to perform a citizen's arrest of a local district attorney for violating their civil rights. There was a shootout at the Tierra Amarilla county courthouse and Tijerina eventually went to prison in 1970.

Looking south to the Jémez Mountains from Echo Amphitheater

US 84 moves north into the highlands of north-central New Mexico. This route is part of the Old Spanish Trail that went from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, California. In 1776 two priests traveled this way to find a route to Monterey, California. Unfortunately, they only made it to Utah, realizing that California was much further than they thought. Eventually, a route to Los Angeles formed that meandered into Colorado, across to Utah south to where Las Vegas, Nevada now sits, across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. There were many reasons for why this trailed meandered in such a way, but that's another story.

Chama, New Mexico

We finally reached Chama. This small village offers several restaurants and lodges, incredible scenery, and if you like to get into the backcountry, Chama is a good place to start. Hunters flock here in the fall, and autumn colors attract those looking to see the changes of the season. During the winter, snowmobilers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers take advantage of the snowy terrain. But a great thing to do here is taking a ride on the Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railroad. The coal-fired steam locomotives pull passenger cars on a narrow-gauge track between Chama and Antonito, Colorado. The train rides through the pristine San Juan Mountains. In the past, we have taken this incredible trip in October when the aspens and cottonwood trees take on their golden cloaks. What a memorable experience!

The Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railroad heading to Colorado!

For this journey, we visited some land we are interested in. The dogs needed a break and a place that they could get some running done. Clouds began moving overhead, and a short shower cooled the air. As a photographer, I started clicking the shutter. The dogs were given water, and we headed to find a place for lunch.

In the COVID world, we thought it best to get something to go. At the Boxcar, we picked up a couple of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, with some fries. The sandwiches were good with a healthy cut of ham, place between two slices of cheddar cheese on hearty wheat bread. We ate in the car as it began to sprinkle. Then it was time to head back south. Despite a detoured beginning, the trip fell away pleasingly well. Overhead the thunderheads began to bring down the rain as we headed south. But the road trip was not finished. We headed south to visit with my son who lives outside of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Back southward we trekked through scattered thundershowers. US Highway 84 is a good two-lane road. A few rough places you have to watch out for, but for the most part, it is well maintained. Winter is a different story. We will have to explore that time. In Española, we connect to the four-lane US Highway 285. Approaching Santa Fe, we did not take NM Highway 599 but continued into the state capital. 285 turns into St. Francis Drive across the city connecting with I-25. Santa Fe, "The City Different", was founded in 1610. It continues as the capital since the days Spain reigned over the region. It has become a major player in the world of art and culture. Again the story of Santa Fe is for another time.

We made it through the heavily congested St. Francis Drive to get onto I-25 north and to where my son dwells in a house on a large ranch southeast of Santa Fe in Santa Fe County.

Onto a dirt road, off the beaten path, we ramble for a few miles. We come upon a gate. Cheryl gets out and opens it, allowing me to drive onto the ranch. When we get to the house Zeke, my son has some cold beers waiting and some chicken on the grill. The dogs are in heaven as they romp around the grounds with Zeke's dog.

Cheryl baked some Brussels sprouts and made a salad. We sit down to a good meal. The rain came off and on as does the scattered thunderstorms do in these parts. The ranch sits in a heavy piñon and juniper forest in the mesas that finger out southeast of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The mesas reach out into the plains of eastern New Mexico.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains from south of Santa Fe

Away from the city, this is a perfect location to get some photographs of the New Mexico dark sky, providing the clouds clear up for a while. The Galactic Center of the Milky Way is expected to rise above the southeastern horizon around 11 pm (2300 hrs). It will rise in the southeastern sky and move westward across the sky. Jupiter and Saturn will follow behind, and so will the moon. Ah, but the moon will leave the eastern horizon around 2 am (0200 hrs), and so I have a window of a few hours to capture the images of the Milky Way and the planets before the moon lights up the sky, making it too bright to get good images. So the sky is monitored. Since I am still learning about astrophotography I am always testing.

At around 11 the rain has stopped, but the clouds still cover the sky. Off in the distance to the east, I could see the radiant light from lightning probably in the eastern plains. I lock the camera on the tripod and adjust camera settings for exposure, ISO, and f-stop. The camera is also set to interval so that it will also record a time-lapse. I leave the camera on the deck of the house and patiently wait for a clearing of the sky. The clouds started to break up and I started the time-lapse. Stars gleamed in and out as the clouds moved across the sky.

The time-lapse was discontinued. I look at the images through the camera. To look at these images, I will need to put them through the computer and process them. So it would have to wait until I returned to Albuquerque.

The Milky Way with Jupiter and Saturn in the lower left

The next morning we had a breakfast of sausage and egg burritos. My daughter Rhea and her wife Adrienne joined us. After breakfast, we walked around the ranch. The morning carried fresh air following a night of rain. Wildflowers bloomed in the high desert clay.

Indian Paintbrush

In this new Covid world, you got to find ways to get out safely and breathe! As we returned to Albuquerque it will be a little easier to stay confined!.

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