Ballooning is an Albuquerque thing. It’s precisely burqueno and in my 3 years here, I’ve avoided it like the plague. The whole notion of walking around looking at balloons amidst a bunch of screaming kids just never really appealed to me. Well, it turns out, I was wrong about balloon fiesta, way wrong.
This year through some friends of friends, I’m crewing for Paul Clinton on Daytripper. He’s been flying in Albuquerque for about 25 years. Through him I’m learning “that ballooning is like sailing, only in 3 dimensions.” I’m also learning about the peculiarities of hot air ballooning at 5,000 feet surrounded by mountain ranges and Indian reservations.

So on a chilly morning, I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s Animals (recall the album cover and that reference almost makes sense) and having awaking dream about curling up in a stack of warm pancakes as I speed past IHOP on the way to the interstate. Basically, the way it works, is that if you’re willing to show up at 5 am, you can lift things and take direction, you can be on a balloon crew. Once the balloon is loaded on the trailer with the fan and the basket we wind our way up Edith toward Balloon Fiesta Park.

Dawn Patrol

I’ve been out with them a couple of times now, chasing the balloon in a truck kicking up dust on the mesa west of town and also driving a not quite fully refurbished prison van to dead end on a cul de sac and then begging a homeowner to cut through their house and yard to get to the ditch and catch the balloon. Getting to the landing is key, so is keeping your cool while negotiating balloon fiesta spectator traffic and looking out for other out of town balloon crews. This part of balloon crew is very important. Once the pilot lands, he needs more weight on the basket to keep it from lifting off the ground again and to get tilted toward the ground so he can let the air vent out of the balloon. Once the balloon is on the ground it has to be carefully packed away, because, hey, you don’t want to deal with a mess the next time your stumbling in the dark at balloon o’clock (usually about 5 am). Once the envelope (fancy name for balloon part) and basket (duh, it’s the basket part) are on the trailer, its time to start drinking beer.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you get to drink it from a vintage firetruck/chase vehicle called the gentle stripper. Other times you sip it from a can as you watch the balloons come in for competition. Other than my actual balloon ride, the competition drop was my favorite part of my virgin fiesta. Basically balloons fly in to the field and try to drop bean bags on an X on the ground, or for the really big money, put a ring on a pole that’s about 15 feet tall. Because Albuquerque’s balloon fiesta is the biggest Ballooning Rally in the world, you get really top notch competitors.
Much like sailing, everyone who intends to fly, meets at a pilot’s briefing. Once the weather conditions and rules are sorted out at this meeting, the competition pilots start to calculate the best place to launch from in order to hit the targets. Strategy, local knowledge and a bit of luck all weigh in to this equation about equally.
On this exceptionally brisk October morning, we had the first two going for us. Paul knew exactly where he wanted to launch from, but unfortunately we had a mechanical, um situation, one of the uprights that holds the burner above the basket had broken the day before and was lodged so far down in the slot where it sits that the spare upright would not go in.

Despite brainstorming and resourceful attempts at removing the piece, it looked like the day was going to be a wash.
I never thought I’d say I was glad to not get a ride, but sitting on the infield with a beer, watching the pros come in to the targets was the non-flying highlight of the week. It’s a really cool sport with some really, really talented pilots and the wind conditions were right for several of them to make multiple attempts on the targets. From my novice observations, the wind conditions were such that the north south wind “dumping” from Santa Fe sped the contestants right to the targets, then they’d rise up and catch a south-north current to head back up and give it another go. It looked like they were using an elevator and a conveyor belt. Very cool.

Competion Drop

All the while we were trying to fix the upright situation the special shapes were taking to the air. I got a lot of cool pictures of special shapes.

Special shapes!

Finally on the final Sunday of fiesta, after 3 weekends of 5 am wakeups, I got my ride. It was a perfect day for flying and everyone was inflating on the field for a huge, sunny mass ascension.

Mass Ascension

We waited until the tail end of the ascension and sailed right up over the field. Balloons directly ahead of us to the south dotted the sunny skyline in a perfect Albuquerque moment.

But all good things must come to an end and just as smoothly as we had ascended, we started to head toward a field to land.


We came in smoothly, softly and slowly right over the top of the Noah’s Ark balloon, still inflated on side. The fine folks from the Smokey the Bear were right there in the field to help us, and by 9 am we were all packed up and enjoying a growler of IPA. Once we got back to the field it was time to enjoy a gorgeous New Mexico day with some more beer and elk summer sausage, another great fiesta in the books.


Angel’s Landing, Zion

Sizing up the Angel’s Landing summit from the Trail below.

The Angel’s Landing Hike at Zion National Park is one of the most terrific hikes I’ve ever done. When I say terrific I don’t mean it so much as, as in great, but terrific as in the root of the word “terror.” This classic Zion hike covers 1400 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles to the absolute top one of the most distinguished peaks in the park.
The first 2 miles are on a wide, paved path that snakes up from the Virgin River. This part of the ascent offers views of the river valley stretching the length of the park. It’s a great first hike upon arriving at Zion to get your bearings in the canyon, from up here you can see everything from the Temple of Sinawava to the Visitors Center at the western end of the park.
Even if you’re not up for the strenuous hike to Scout’s Landing and the white-knuckle ascent to the ridge, do hike far enough to check out the lovely WPA-era stone work on the trail, and Refrigerator Canyon.

View from Refrigerator Canyon.

Named for its chilly environment, Refrigerator Canyon offers a cool, green shady respite from the blazing sunshine encountered at the beginning and end of this hike.
After the cooling confines of the canyon, the steep takes hold again on the Walter’s Wiggles section of the hike. It’s a terraced set of switchbacks that lead to Scout landing. This spot on the trail, named for the engineer who designed it, is always good for a fun photo op.

Serious WPA engineering at Walter’s Wiggles.

Past Walter’s Wiggles, things get serious. There’s a sign or two warning about the steep ledges and harrowing ascent that lies ahead. I have to say, in this day and age of padded playgrounds I’m somewhat shocked at how dangerous, unsupervised and harrowing the final half mile ascent to Angel’s Landing is. For most of the half mile… which took us about an hour to climb, there’s about 18” of rock ledge and a chain bolted to the ledge wall. What’s really scary is that this popular hike gets crowded on a summer weekend. Someone else’s hesitation, misstep or sweaty slippery sunscreen hands could send a whole group over the edge. All that said, once you get to the top, you know why it’s called Angel’s Landing.

View from the top.

The cliffs of Zion that towered over your arrival in the park now cower like foothills in the distance. Kick back, relax and enjoy this summit, because the downclimb back is just as challenging, and the swift descent down those 1400 feet of gain is anything but easy on knees. But when you’re at the bottom waiting for the shuttle and gazing up to the peaks, you’ll always have the memory of what it’s like to look out from Angel’s Landing.

Hump Day Hike Night #1: The Waterfall

On Wednesday nights I do a local hike. This is the first of the series “Hump Day Hikes.” For the first of the series I chose one of the most centrally located and easy hikes in Albuquerque. Looking at the map its the lower part of the Embudo Trail, but generally locals call it “the waterfall hike”at the end of Indian School Rd. Getting to the trail head is easy like sunday morning, you just drive to the end of Indian School Road, pass through the gates and there it is.
One of the things that amazes me about hiking in town, is how few people I see. Whether it’s the Bosque on Saturday morning, or the foothills on a weekday night, you have to wonder, with so much natural beauty around us, what the hell are people doing instead of getting outside and enjoying it? Anyway, fewer people means more solitude, so I’m not complaining.
The hike starts through the canyon on a wide gravel path. It goes up at a good grade with no protection from the sun. It’s deceptively flat looking, but it’s not. There are some forks in the trail to wander about the canyon, but just head straight back, through two fence gates and before you know it the dry arroyo turns to shady creekbed. The well marked path wanders back a bit further to more running water, willows and some rock scrambling. For a weeknight hike I usually turn around at the waterfall, or sit on the rocks and drink a beer, enjoying the sound of the creek , the interesting rock formations and the blue blue sky.

New Mexico is Gorge-ous

Sometimes the best adventures happen as the result of a wrong turn. I was supposed to be heading to the healing waters of Ojo Caliente, but missed a turn along the way and ended up headed toward Taos along a funky stretch of Rt. 68 dotted with junkyards, art galleries and the occasional winery. The atmosphere reminded me very much of the old Taos I remembered from my childhood, you know the one, before they had a casino and a wal-mart. A loose affiliations of artists, beatniks and ski bums all sort of waiting around for something interesting to happen.
When I realized the blue dot of my GPS had strayed many miles from the intended course, I assessed an alternate route to make my way back to the hot springs I was intending to enjoy on this sunny Saturday. I doubled back to the town (using the term loosely, here) of Pilar and found the turn off for Rt. 560. When I sped past Pilar the first time I thought this road was a driveway. After many miles of following the Rio Grande north and south, 560 delighted me by dropping down to the water and following the river along its banks as it snaked through the beginnings of the Rio Grande Gorge.
I was skeptical about how far north I was heading and what sort of river crossing lay ahead, then a single lane suspension bridge appeared and Rt. 560 turned to Rt. 567 I stopped at the bridge to wonder at the river below, and the snowy peaks in the distance. I had 100% by accident, stumbled on a beautiful place on a perfect, sunny fall afternoon.
After I crossed the bridge, the road abruptly turned to gravel and the grade got steep. I was kind of amazed that there was no warning that this would be an unpaved road with steep drop-offs and no shoulder, but hey, that’s New Mexico for ya. Some of the swtichbacks were so narrow, I was half expecting the road to turn to hiking trail and for me to have to return the way I came.
Thankfully, this was not the case. When I reached the top, I stopped to take more photos from the majestic vista, got back in my truck and climbed a few miles higher, then just as abruptly as the road had become gravel, the road was paved again and I was on the top of the mesa, looking at green expanses of land inhabited by very, very few people.
According to my calculations, and those of a few other savvy Nuevo natives, I was due south of the area where the documentary “Life on the Mesa” was filmed. Somewhere to the north, between there and Taos, was the lawless, off-the-grid commune from the movie. I was not headed to “the mesa” today though, I was headed to a spa and was running late, so just like that I was speeding back toward civilization.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Marcel Proust

When I came across this quote, I immediately thought about the drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. A lot of people don’t even know it, but I-25 is not the only game in town. You can save yourself the road rage and traffic jams and travel to our northern neighbor via New Mexico Route 14. When comparing them both on a map, 14 is actually shorter, but the speed limit is lower, so the travel time is virtually the same. What I-25 lacks is the sweeping panoramic views of the less familiar east side of the Sandias, the Sangre de Christos and Santa Fe Baldy to the north, the sweeping plains of the estancia off to the east and the quaint, campy mining town of Madrid, made famous by Hollywood in the movie Wild Hogs.
Rt. 14 winds through foothills and valleys offering spectacular views on an almost empty road. Old timey New Mexico roadside attractions of sanctuaries and sculptures dot the quick trip north. It’s also a great way to wow out-of-town visitors fresh off an airplane with the diversity of the landscapes of the Land of Enchantment.
This drive is so wonderful, its defies further adjective-ification, get a fast car with a big engine that can handle some curves and go drive it already.

Abiquiu Advice

This post is based on a question-and-answer exchange between myself and a colleague at The Weekly Alibi.
dilemma is this: I’ve got my mom coming in this weekend and I wanna plan a drive to somewhere within a couple of hours of here that would be nice for a two-night stay. She’ll be renting the hotel rooms so as long as it ain’t the Four Seasons, price is pretty flexible. Basically I just want to take her somewhere nice and scenic and relaxing that’s a little less of a tourist trap than Santa Fe or Taos. Being new to the area, I don’t know much about travel in these parts. Something with outdoor activities, but nothing to rigorous–just kinda somewhere to chill and paint and see some historic sites and eat good food. I’d greatly appreciate any ideas you might have.
Mom’s are tricky, but you’re right to want to steer clear of Santa Fe in the summer tourist high season.
Ghost Ranch is just south of the town and it’s pretty amazing. Driving up on 84 you can clearly recognize the mountains that are the subject of some of O’Keefe’s most famous paintings. I did a google search and came up with a good looking B&B mom-type place…
I can’t vouch for em personally, but the website looks good.
Another Abiquiu place I’ve heard good things about is the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the desert. Apparently you can stay there, and hike where Georgia hiked. It’s a monastery, so it’s kind of spartan and there are some people there who have taken a vow of silence, but it’s open to the public and the rent rooms. They also brew beer.
There are galleries in Abiquiu, and a big giant lake. I don’t have any notion what’s up there food-wise, but it seems like a fairly upscale outpost and I’m sure they have something. My best advice about going ANYWHERE in this state, bring a cooler and hit up trader joes for wine, bread, cheese, fruit, because when you get outta Albuquerque many towns don’t even have a grocery store and, you might end up eating a gas station burrito.
If you got totally bored you could just take a scenic sunset drive up 84 towards Heron Lake and El Vado damn, I covered all that in my Alibi piece a few weeks back.

Another idea, that would be more remote, is the Circle A Guest Ranch and Hostel in Cuba, NM. It’s north of Jemez Springs in Cuba, NM
I think there’s less to do up there, more hiking & sitting around looking at the mountains, and Cuba is pretty desolate (like there’s a mcdonalds and a gas station). Again I can’t personally vouch for it, but it’s been on my wishlist for some time.
You might want to time it, so you could spend some time in Jemez Springs on the way up, or the way back, there’s more cutesy mom-type activity in that town – pottery, a restaurant, some shops ect.

New Mexico Brewers Guild IPA Challenge

I was excited to participate in the IPA challenge because IPA is such a good summertime, mountain beer. In Texas, where it’s hot, you’re pretty much stuck with hefe, witbier, Tecate and Lone Star, but there’s something about this high mountain air that just makes a summertime IPA taste so good.
I love New Mexico beer. The first time I stepped foot in to the Marble on a wintry afternoon, I knew I was in love. I widely proclaim to my Portlandia friends, that our lil Marble can hang with the best breweries in Beervana. And not only am I blessed with Marble within pedaling distance, now there’s La Cumbres, Il Vicino and Nexus just up the road.
Last week I headed up to a favorite Santa Fe pub, the “old” 2nd Street Brewery (not the one at the railyard!) to sample 18 of New Mexico’s finest IPAs in a blind tasting. Parking was a nightmare, and the patio was crowded, but the beers were delicious. I consider myself to have a pretty good palate, having come of age in Iowa with the dude that wrote the book for beer tasting … (check out before your next fest adventure) so I set to work on my epic tray of generous pours, and guess what? They all tasted like IPA. No Way!

After a jumble of highly scientific testing reports … “this one tastes like Waldorf Salad”… “ew, holy sh!t, I think it’s made with green chile!” and “I’ve definitely had a hangover from this one.” I cast my vote for #11. And I’m pretty sure I was a winner. No, actually, my new favorite tap room, Il Vicino took the top IPA trophy for yet another year. I drank well and ate well, and enjoyed the tasting, but was kind of disappointed that after months and months of drinking IPA all about town, I wasn’t given the blind tasting key to assure my own personal IPA-pertise. “This one has GOT to be from Marbs!” Well, I guess there’s more research to be done, it’s noon on Wednesday, which means I’ve got to run, after all, it’s cask-tappin’ time at Il Vicino! Cheers!