Crossing the border into New Mexico was exciting for me. Even though we were first stopping in a new town, Taos, it felt like I was returning to one of my homes.
I lived in New Mexico for 9 months right after graduating UCF, and worked as a biological technician intern for the National Park and National Wildlife agencies all throughout the state. (Here is my first blog if you are interested in reading more about that experience.) I have very fond memories of that time. Exposure to the different desert landscapes, flora, and fauna gave me my first since of how much diversity there is outside of my home state. Being from Florida, it took me a while to discern that not all desert environments are the same as Thunder Mountain at Disney (my only “western” exposure.) It was wonderful to see familiar plant and animal life this time around, and realize I have not lost a lot of what I learned during my first time in the Land of Enchantment.
I was also excited to share some new and old places with Eric. Taos is on our possible to-live cities since it is a great combination of high desert and ski town. I had not been north of Santa Fe, and we didn't have much planned for the town, but after visiting so many cities, we feel like we can get a pretty quick read on an area.
Taos was as lush as can be with still being a desert. We drove up the mountain roads towards the ski valley where we slept in front of a fake Swiss village at the base of a ski lift. Not quite a Wal-Mart, but equally as free. There we talked with a 'local' who informed us of the budding changes that were about to happen to the tucked away town. The ski valley was recently bought out by a new company and they are looking to create more of a luxury ski get-away rather than the small unique mountain vibe it currently has. Apparently, those who live there are pretty divided for how this will shape the future of Taos, weather this will be a good or a bad thing. This has been a very common theme for all small cities we have spent any time in. “Locals” are usually up in arms about some kind of change that will bring more tourists/new residents/ change in demographics. It is impossible to avoid this conflict for an area it seems. If we choose a small town to reside in in the future, we might find ourselves on one side of that type of argument as well.
Regardless, we liked Taos. We also drove down Earthship Road which was odd, but left us with a since of “good for them!” This is a community of 'volunteer anarchists' as they claim, and it seemed each housing unit was just a bit more over the top than the next. We are all weirdos, and we just have to find our similar weirdo community where we fit in.
Continuing down the main vein of I-25 we headed towards our second destination, Santa Fe. Both of us have been to Albuquerque many times while moving across the country, so we avoided that metropolis. I took a small solo vacation when I lived in New Mexico to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and some stops along the way up from Las Cruces, so I had a general idea of where I wanted to visit as we went south.
Santa Fe is a cool city, but I have no desire to live there. Eric had never seen it, so we decided to hang out there for 3 days. We got a spot at an RV park right in the middle of town which wasn't much to look at, but had showers, laundry, and quick access to city hot spots. Over the next few days, we walked around downtown, Canyon Road, ate some new foods (blue corn donuts and everything with green chilies) and I went dancing.
A whole day was devoted to exploring the famous interactive art 'experience' called Meow Wolf. I don't think this place can be described in words, you really do have to go for yourself. But I will try, if only to remind myself about it later in life.
This 'museum' is a collection of interactive modern art installments all linked by a deep rabbit-hole of a story line. Think children's science center combined with art museum combined with an escape room and you have a 1/100th of an idea of what it is like. Visitors are encouraged to explore in any order they like, and let their curiosity lead the way. We started off walking into the 'house' and choosing whatever path distracted us first. You enter a labyrinth of hidden hallways, obscure worlds, distorted perspectives, and a million things that are not what they at first seem. The more time we spent exploring, the more story line we pieced together, and the more insane we went.
It is recommended to spend no less than two hours here, and we stayed for about 6. Even after all that time, we still missed a lot of the story line, and were driven mad by riddles that may or may not have existed. I could see returning again and again and always finding something new. You are immersed fully in color, music, texture, story, space, and child like wonder. I highly recommend the visiting any of the Meow Wolf installations (Santa Fe, Denver, San Francisco soon) for a unique afternoon. They also have concerts there, which would be amazing, but we could not afford the extra cost at the time. Later perhaps.
After our city 'vacation' in Santa Fe, we continued south towards our third destination, the Very Large Array. I had fond memories of visiting this astrological location previously, but was not expecting it to be equally as mind blowing as the first time. It was also fun to watch Eric learn about this important research station. As on of the leaders in deep space telemetry, the VLA is a premire site for astronomical radio observations.Astronomers from all over the world have used the VLA and have made key observations of black holes, discovered magnetic filaments and traced complex gas motions at the Milky Way's center, probed the Universe's cosmological parameters, and provided new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emission. This large telescope is comprised of 27 individual telescopes that can be arranged in different Y configurations on fixed tracks to detect various types of radio waves at different distances (astrological interferometer).... or something like that.
SCIENCE! Is realistically the best way to describe it. Our little puny human minds were turned to mush just trying to understand the magnitude and complexity of the universe. It is always humbling to see how little we know about our existence and the workings of our vast surroundings. It is nice to be taken off the planet for a bit, and it is calming to both of us when discoveries remind us that nothing we do matters in the grand scale of time. Yet at the same time everything matters in our world.....it left us having really stupid philosophical discussions on the drive to our Wal-mart hotel in Socorro for the night.
On to the fourth New Mexico destination; Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I worked here for a stint assisting with elk population studies and participating with mountain lion research. It stuck with me as a hidden gem of the desert, and is a premier birding location in the Southwest. Now that I am into that, I had to stop to reminisces and geek out at some new birds. It did not disappoint. Although it was not prime migratory bird season, I am so new to birding that I added about 12 new sightings for me. Eric was kind enough to let me drive as slow as I wanted around the loop road, stopping and attempting to identify everything. He took photos of the birds as I hurriedly spotted them through binoculars and speculated wildly about what they were. Once confirmed through call and sight, I checked them off in my life-list at the back of all bird field guides. NERD! Thank goodness Eric was entertained by the photography, because this would have otherwise driven him crazy. Hehe, just wait till southeastern Arizona 😉 Some bird highlights were western tanager, neotropic cormorant, and the ring-necked pheasant, along with many more.
The fifth stop on the docket was a quick one. I had to stop at Sparky's for a green chile cheese burger in Hatch to see if it was as good as I remembered. Oh boy was it! A locally sourced beef patty, char-grilled with just enough grease running down your hands as you pick it up, smothered with sharp cheddar, loaded with green chilies and not much else on a soft toasted bun. It took all of five seconds to scarf it down. Not better or worse than in-and-out, but different and oh so tasty. Eric enjoyed a new drink, green chile lemonade, which we both decided needed tequila (and will be called a Hot Hatch), It was a delicious detour on the way to our sixth destination.
Finally, we entered the city of Las Cruces! Arriving on a Friday night, we were surprised to land a sweet campsite in the Aguirre Springs campground on the back side of the Organ Mountains. It was bizarre driving on roads that I hadn't been on in years. I was taken aback at how familiar this city felt to me, and although I knew I would visit Las Cruces again at some point in my life, I didn't really expect it to feel like returning home. I loved my time living in New Mexico, but I kind of feared that I would return and find it less likable, less impressive than it was when I was fresh out of Florida. Driving on highway 70 and turning towards the daunting spires that make up the Organ Mountains I was happy to feel the same awe I felt almost a decade ago.
Both Eric and I were equally captivated by the landscapes around Las Cruces, and enjoyed walking down memory lane over the next week. Saturday morning we went to the main farmers market I used to go to every weekend, and I was happy to see it hadn't changed much (no waffle guy though 🙁 ). Still an eclectic town with lots of diversity, a young crowd from the University mixed with traditions from the senior population, I was so elated to walk the Main Street market again. As we visited a few other spots around town, we though back to old memories and made some new ones. The old Fish and Wildlife trailer looked exactly the same, though the compound showed signs of change. Eric's fire pit he built when he came to visit me years ago was still there. The beer at the High Desert brewery was still delicious and the spicy margaritas at La Posta were still so extra. We went sledding in White Sands National Monument at sunset again, but added backing packing overnight this time around. The town was just having another regular day. There was a wedding celebration in the Basilica San Albino, red hat society ladies were meeting in the park, families were congratulating recent graduates from the University, people were out hiking, shopping, and eating. It was wonderful to just be apart of.
Spending a few days hiking in the Organ Mountains and hanging out around camp allowed enough time for Eric and I to see the two lizards I wanted to show Eric (Collard Lizard and Texas Horned Lizard) along with a few new birds. I enjoyed working out around camp as well. With a view like the Organ Mountains to jog around, running was actually fun. The campsite we had was our favorite spot yet. Every morning we woke up and could see the knife's edge of the mountains out the window of the trailer. Even with high winds, hail, rain, high temperatures, and ample tarantula hawks, we were sad to leave such an awesome spot.
The other reason we were sad to move on from Las Cruces was because of Miguel's. I had talked about using most of my restaurant budget in New Mexico for a while. Between burritos (with green chiles), gorditas (with green chiles) huevos rancheros (with green chiles) green chile cheeseburgers, tacos (with green chiles), breads (with green chiles), fresh horchata (without green chilies) I knew I would gain a few pounds and loose a few dollars. What I didn't expect was finding a great gluten free restaurant that had some of the best New Mexican food I've ever had. Both Eric and I agree that their green chile pork is something to aspire to. I can solidly say their green chile pork gorditas is in my top best meals of all time. They also gifted us a slice of delicious home made chocolate cake, since we had eaten there about once a day (and we payed cash when their card machine broke.) When we visit Las Cruces again in the future, we will absolutely return to this spot, especially because we are about to hit the 'free dessert' on the punch card.
We talked a lot about why we like Las Cruces but why we still wouldn't choose to live there. Among other reasons, a big revelation was the thought of only being able to drive to more desert on the weekends. There is not much water to play in, and water wars are already on the horizon. Although we love spending time in the desert, we both feel that lush, wet forests are where we feel most at home. We would miss trees too much. The feeling of constant exposure was tiring. We realized how much privacy, and the feeling of solitude is important to us, which we only feel when we are in forests. Even with such biodiversity, I don't think I could feel like the desert is my true home.
I look back on my work experience as positive, but I also know I wasn't mature enough for the work I was doing. After collage, I didn't have the patience to be apart of long term science. I wanted to adventure and chase animals and be a hard worker. Since then I have learned to appreciate and get excited about 'data over time' research. I love birds, insects, and botany stronger now than I did before. I thought a lot about what I want to do in the future, just like I did back then, but now I find myself ready for that kind of work. I don't want to be the boots on the ground, I want to be the head honcho. I no longer want to work day to day, but develop land management plans and lead biological studies overtime. Reflection upon my experiences during my SCA stent constituted my desire to be an Ecologist. More schooling might be in my future. I also was able to see how far both Eric and I have grown professionally and personally over the years. It felt fulfilling. It felt good.
On our way out towards Arizona, I knew this would not be the last time I visit New Mexico, even Las Cruces. It was wonderful to experience the Chihuahuan desert again, bond with the landscape and state in old ways and in new. I will have to agree with the state motto, New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment.
15/10 would eat gorditas for the rest of my life again.
Song: She Blinded Me with Science – Thomas Dolby
Phantom of the Opera song – Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies