Someone once told me the problem with skiing in New Mexico can be stated in one word: Texans. Leaving that for a poll, I'll begin by confessing that when I went down for breakfast Sunday morning, after James had returned to the room, warning me, I had a bowl of corn flakes with seven or eight men who'd just driven nine hours from probably Midland, or Odessa, to ski Taos that day, as had James and I flown from respective coasts to meet at baggage claim in Albuqueque at pretty much the exact same time Friday night, about 10:30.
James, it turns out, was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico back in The Day, where he taught German in lieu of the hefty tuition. (James is also fluent in French and plays bass guitar.)
So he knew where to go for a quick bite, after getting the car from Dollar, with ski rack at extra charge and the insurance we got because you never know. Like the folks who were standing by the side of the road up the hill to Ski Santa Fe the next (Saturday) morning, looking down at the ditch and their tilted-over SUV down in it. While snow was all around, none was on the road, nor was there ice - we motored up in our fine Dodge Neon without incident - so their misfortune was inexplicable.
One might surmise they were Texans but that might reflect a jump to conclusions.
We ate at Il Vicino, on Central, next to the artfilm theater. I had the Rustica pizza, which was delicious. What I didn't finish stayed in the car at night, colder than your refrigerator, and supplied me with a few bites the two mornings after, on the drive to the hill.
We later saw the Texans on the hill, from chair 8. They moved in a pack, skiing to a spot, then starting off again, one by one, in syncopation. It seemed they might have at one point taken a lesson together, and taken to heart the suggestion to keep their hands ahead, because a few of them were really reaching. I admired the nine-hour drive. I thought they'd be pounding the beers at lunch, where we saw them again, but they were not. They looked a little bleary-eyed, like grown men who'd be in bed early that night.
Also from chair 8, looking straight ahead, I saw a skier dance a few turns down Oyster, shoot the trees and come out the other side on Spitfire. The High Traverse was open. While the trails in both basins, east and west, were for the most part pretty darn hardpack, with fluffy slough off to the sides here and there, and better east then west, where the sun was hard-pressed to peek in, the lone skier had the West Blitz trees to himself, and was surely finding things others didn't feel like hiking to get, assuming they had the skills to get themselves down intact.
Taos forces you to at least give thought to the idea of hiking for turns. A thought that, when extrapolated, arrives at a point when skiing started. When someone had to get somewhere through snow, and adapted. When someone else decided to go through snow, too, or at least on top of it, downhill. And turn. There wasn't always someone to brush the snow off the heated, padded seat of the high-speed sofa sixpack that dropped you off onto a nice little ramp at the top, down which you skied to a large billboard trailmap, at which people pointed the tips of their poles, telling their partners where to meet in case they got separted after their mid-mountain lunch, in the restaurant right over there.
James informed me that snowboarders ARE in fact allowed on the mountain. When they belong to employees and it is the last day of the season, in the spring, when the trickle of skiers coming into the valley has stopped.
Our first day, though, was at Santa Fe. It was my first day since the first weekend in May, at Mammoth (The Cornice is noticeably steeper than Al's Run, by the way), and James's first since April, at The Canyons, where on the last run of the last day of his season, one of his skis hit something that will remain a mystery and James very soon thereafter had himself a broken right femur.
Deer Valley must come to Ski Santa Fe for grooming tips because SF's was velvet. 8:30 a.m. turns on shaded runs in cold temperatures were user-friendly, the snow accomodating. Later, with a little sun added, it was springtime, and skis slid and sliced, the proverbial hot knives through the equally proverbial butter.
We shared a chat mid-morning with a fifty-ish man on the Roadrunner chair, which runs above a friendly mogul meadow. Going right as you get off the chair you find the happily named Gay Way, a wide and gentle pitch on top that drops slightly and swoops you down along the ski area's boundary. (You can, if you're so inclined, hike a-ways to Tesuque Peak and ski to the road where a driver can meet you at a well-marked spot.) Heading left off the chair steers you onto a mountaintop trail marked blue but it's really a green catwalk that extends along the ridge and from which one drops left into short and moderately pitched bump runs, or stays on to where the catwalk ends, turns left and becomes a broad cruiser back to the base of Roadrunner, if you want, or on to the bottom (carry your speed through the Roadrunner area and onto Sunnyside).
This guy had come up from Albuquerque, where he'd moved from Park City. The Church's influence had proved too much in Utah, and Santa Fe was, he fairly exclaimed, a little "out there." He hailed from Jersey, originally. He was talking about how he had tired of driving the kids through snowstorms to dance lessons down the the valley when we drifted over his two girls who were under the chair in a ski class. He mentioned something about an Albuquerque private school that was "the best in the country." I don't recall the design of the gold-embroidered graphics on the back of his black Bogner one-piece, but I'm sure they were attractive.
The third day, Monday, we skied Angel Fire, which involves a not-long and very beautiful drive east from Taos that empties into a valley from which you look to one side at Angel Fire's mountain, a gem of a revelation, and to the other at Wheeler Peak, its 14,000-foot cap packed in gleaming white.
Though a "smaller" mountain, Angel Fire skis significantly larger than its listed acreage, all of which rolls down in trails below timberline. Even with a large chunk of the hill not yet opened (though one was moved to wonder WHY as one rode the Chile Express from the base and saw a handful of perfectly fluffy trails unmarked and roped off), AF offered us plenty on day that offered cloudless skies and sweet spring conditions.
James discovered a cruiser-burner that is now my favorite, a snake called Ariba that drops like its brethren blues from Highway, a green traverse one accesses from the top of the Southwest Flyer chair. Slower skiers, stay right on Highway. Speed seekers tuck through it, hoping to carry speed onto the four or so twisty, dropping blues that parallel and intersect one another and race to the base of the chair.
Which is where James introduced me to Jeff, whom he'd met and who has been in AF for a little over a year, having come out from Boston at age 40 to build his house. And, for a living, those of others settling in and around the area. He's a self-taught craftsman who has worked with "some of the best," including Bob Vila (I kiddingly asked if he watched This Old House), whom he called an "idiot" (citing one of more than one incident of borderline incompetence). Jeff oozed a benevolent but always-aware streetsmartness that had been earned the hard way, some of the wear self-inflicted. He'd cleaned himself up and is the father of a two-year-old boy, Dalton, whom he picked up at the end of the day from the daycare center. He said his wife had just been hired at the mountain. And so he declined our offer to join us in ducking a rope to get at some of that soft fresh. It wouldn't go down well back in the office. In the end James and I opted to stick to the rules anyway, and he and Jeff and I tucked down Lower Jasper's, merged onto the flats of Lower Domingo, and ended the day that way, pausing at the deck of the ticket window to bask in the warmth.
The next day we left early for the drive back to Santa Fe, where we spent a half-day before packing it up and heading back toward Albuquerque and our respective departure flights.
On the drive back I looked beyond the edges of I-25 and the assorted mobile home villages and the families of rusted out automobiles that attended them like nursing metal mammals and had seen their best days years and a couple hundred thousand miles ago. I wondered what percentage of them still ran, or, if they didn't, how many could sleep in one on a cold winter night.
The Rio Grande meandered alongside for awhile. If she were a woman she would go out without makeup or lipstick and be soft-spoken and simply turn away from foul behavior. Silent men with things on their mind and in need of sustenance despite their solitary bent would fall in love with her; leave flowers at her doorstep; and imagine pulling the pin from her mud-colored hair to watch it fall onto her bare shoulders.
The women I'd seen in the Whole Foods Market in Santa Fe - some of them, anyway - with their expensive etherealness and herbal tea-and-aromatherapy-induced clear eyes would secretly wish her misfortune and seek out the doctor who could make them look like THAT, no matter the cost, as long as it could be done by the time summer came around, when the foyer at the Opera's opening fete would be crackling with the rustle of turquiose and silver and diamonds and black fabric that highlighted the tans and brought out the color in the tinted contact lenses.
The river bent right somewhere - I missed its exit when I looked to the left at a scrolling lightbulb marquee that showed Paul Anka is still alive and would be at the reservation casino, the name of which I forgot seconds after I'd read it - and carried on south through the state toward Las Cruces and where Texas met Old Mexico and sent mixed messages south.
When we stopped at a coffee house in Taos the third morning, for my double-espresso, and talked briefly with the black dog in the back of the red pickup, then crossed the street and walked into the bright rising sun looking for a picture to take, I expressed my interest in Kit Carson, whose likeness and brief history was etched into a wood block. James remarked, "When I think of those frontiersmen, I think of slaughtered Indians." Then we went skiing.
If you're not careful you'll bump into some pretty good eating in Santa Fe and Taos. It happened to us, twice. The first time was James's fault. He knew a casual spot in Santa Fe we eventually found after a hunt up and down stairways and around corners. I had Chalupas that, I'm guessing, bear little resemblance to the one a fast food chain's chihuahua mascot yips about. And I'm glad J asked which pepper is hotter, red or green, because I'd assumed the green was milder and ordered it. I'd've been in a culinary situation, because the red I switched to was quite zesty enough.
The following night we ate at The Green Apple in Taos, where I had the fish tacos (catfish) in blue corn tortillas with guacamole and perfect salsa to the side. We also had the pleasure of getting a little-on-the-hostile-side lesbian waitress who could, I'm guessing, pick from a list of a billion things she'd rather do than refresh our water glasses, though she did, prolifically, and each time a little more splashed onto the sleeves of my shirt. On the last re-fill I moved them under the table in time and offered my most heartfelt Thank You Very Much.
There is no shortage of Art in Taos and where there is Art, there are Artists, who are sensitive, intuitive; they have highly receptive antennae. So she must have been an artist because fleeting eye contact as she walked away indicated she'd received my Thank You in the spirit intended. (The tacos, by the way, were only superb.)
While in Santa Fe, I picked up a sixer of my trusted Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to take a chance on an unknown and run the risk of being disappointed. On drives home from ski days I look forward to the taste of prime liquid bread, and Sierra has never let me down.
At the ABQ airport, though, with James jetting back to New York and me with another couple hours pre-flight, I asked the young lady at the bar what she had on tap. I took a chance on the Cabezon Stout and found it helpful enough. Wasn't quite the caliber of a Sammy's, and wasn't what a Guinness will offer but it's a worthwhile effort. Main gripe: thin for a stout. Stout's aren't thin.
Next stop: Utah. See you there.
[ December 16, 2002, 06:01 AM: Message edited by: ryan ]