An early morning moon lit the Sandia Mountains with a bluish haze as we made our way up the path to glimpse the rising sun. A chilly breeze rustled the golden leaves of the aspen trees and there were traces of an early snowfall as blue jays and other small birds flew about in their never ending quest for food. The mood was magical and we reveled in the serenity of the New Mexican dawn.
Franz and I had come to Placitas to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family just outside of Albuquerque. Placitas is nestled at the base of the Sandia Mountains and overlooks the Rio Grande River and the old city of Bernalillo. This area is rich in culture from the numerous Native American tribes that have called this home since they emerged from Mother Earth. Pueblos, Navajo, Apaches, and other tribes have coexisted with the Spanish and Mexican people that had later settled in the region as well. This mixture of people have lent New Mexico a unique heritage that is expressed eloquently in its architecture, art, food, music, and dance.
And did I mention food? This area is known for the spicy and mouth watering cuisine from the simple to the sophisticated and every year I happily taste my way through many of the local eateries. Among my favorites for comfort foods I enjoy the Range Cafe in Bernalillo for American standards with a Southwestern note, and for fusion European/Southwest cuisine Blades’ Bistro in Placitas is a pleasurable place to pass the evening. Going into Albuquerque for simpler fare the must haves are Christie Mae’s for the BEST chicken pot pies and lemonade in the Southwest and for Mexican fast food you can’t beat good ole’ Taco Cabana. Also Sadie’s of New Mexico is an Albuquerque institution and the food is as authentic as it gets. A bit farther afield on the outskirts of Santa Fe is the unassuming but amazing Palacio Cafe. After I had my fill of Thanksgiving turkey I had a hankering for tamales and and satisfied my craving at the lovely La Plazuela At The La Fonda that has a reputation for innovative Southwestern cuisine. The old world Spanish setting was festive for the holidays that made for a special lunch ambience.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Golden and rust colored reeds and wild grasses swayed along the marshy banks of the Rio Grande. Sunlight peeked through the clouds and graced us with a glimmering rainbow that crowned the fertile landscape. We had driven about 2 1/2 hours from Placitas to visit the windswept wetlands of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Flocks of birds of many varieties were everywhere and the waterways were teeming with wildlife. We caught our first glimpses of its most well known winter residents, the greater sandhill cranes. You can’t miss them as they are quite large standing four feet tall with a wing span of more than six feet. The immature cranes are rust colored and they become grey as they age and they can live up to twenty five years. They also have a reputation for their elaborate mating display to attract potential mates that sometimes encompasses entire groups in the breeding ritual. Their dance is a mixture of bowing, bouncing, jumping, wing flapping and spreading with some performances that even include the throwing of small objects into the air.
The visitors center offered a good overview of the parks history and the various plant and wildlife contained within it. An updated board posted the different bird sightings and the day we visited it listed: Sandhill Cranes Greater & Lesser 3899, light Geese Snow & Ross 13401, Canada Geese 210, multiple variety of ducks 9269, water & shore birds 245, raptors Eagle, Hawks and Falcons 60. During our visit we saw almost all of the listed birds including a majestic bald eagle. The day’s highlight was at dusk as we shivered in the cold and windy viewing area to await the return of the masses of sandhill cranes to the safety of the wetlands for the night. What a feathered spectacle!
Snow dusted peaks of the Sandia mountains glistened in the distance as the West Mesa beckoned us to the volcanic rocks nestled at the base of the Albuquerque mountains. These boulders are marked with the carvings left by the earlier Ancestral Pueblo peoples and the later Spanish settlers from 400-700 years ago that today is the Petroglyph National Monument. The basalt stone has proved to be an enduring canvas that relays the information left by the earlier people comprising over 24,000 petroglyphs that is spread over 17 miles in a series of monuments that make up the park dedicated to their ancient artwork.
Our wanderings around the monument led to an encounter with an American Blacktailed Jackrabbit. We observed him hopping about as he fed upon the fragrant sagebrush. The indigenous Jackrabbit differs dramatically from the European hare not only in its size, which is massive, but it has extended long ears that have earned them the nickname “jackass-rabbit.” Their hop is unusual too due to their long legs that help them achieve great speed quickly to avoid the numerous predators that hunt them.
The Southwest terrain has endless possibilities for day journeys. And one road trip I would never tire of follows a picturesque canyon route called The Orilla Verde Rio Grande Gorge. The thoroughfare runs through a volcanic plateau into the deep riparian gorge that is filled with willows and cottonwoods and holds abundant wildlife such as various birds, beaver, and muscat. The area is also open to all kinds of recreational activities such as fly fishing, river rafting, hiking, and camping.
The canyon has a hippie vibe to it and today is a refuge for some of the 60’s generation and others who escaped the hustle of the city and chose to live off the grid in alternative communities that have taken root here along the canyon. Some visitors are taken aback to find wineries along the route as well and are not aware that New Mexico is home to the oldest grapevines in the United States. The prized plants were brought here by Catholic padres who toted the desirable vines from Europe to take root along the river and they flourished in the warm climate and sandstone soil.
We stopped at the Vivac Winerys to partake in their offerings and we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the red wines. The host was quite a character and it is well worth a visit. I look forward to my next Southwest summer sojourn.