Day 5 – Albuquerque

I’m about to write about Albuquerque and I can’t even spell it correctly on my first try. Perhaps it’s because I’m out of practice, considering we’re now closer to the one-year anniversary of the road trip than the trip itself.

Oh well.

I woke up around 7 a.m., rolled onto my stomach and pushed the musty cabin curtains aside. Fresh snow covered the picnic benches, tents and cars smattered across the campground and the Sandia Mountains beyond.

Sparkle is my favorite color, so morning light paired with powdery white snow is irresistible (as was Edward Cullen, in my youth, I’ll admit that). I poked Garrick and sang a few lines about snowflakes on lashes and whiskers on kittens. He groaned and wiggled downward into his sleeping bag, cinching the top decidedly above him and taking the shape of an army-green cocoon.

“I don’t need no man!” I tried. Nothing. “I’m going to go get more cats?” Nope. I shrugged, laced up my boots and marched out of the cabin. I crunched through the snow to the bathrooms, eyed the steam rising out of the toilets and decided peeing in the woods was more invigorating, anyway.

Maybe my head was still stuffed with the idea of getting lost below the Earth in a cave, or above it in a spaceship, but as I walked past the old Airstreams and VW buses, I began to think about disappearing. I could live in a campground like this, no backstory, no questions answered. Eventually I could just wander into the woods, Sally Supertramp style, “…Unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

I scooped up a handful of snow.

“…Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”

I took a bite of the snow and embraced the brain freeze.

“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted.” *

I took few more laps around the campground, became bored and lonely and made my way back to the tiny cabin.

“‘Happiness is only real when shared,’” I bellowed as I threw open the wooden door and stamped the snow off my feet.

The army-green cocoon stirred and emitted a muffled, “Mrrghh, breakfast?”

I found this equally romantic, and soon Garrick and I had packed the car, returned the cabin key and were weaving our way through the mountains, east, toward Albuquerque, together.

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Our cabin at the Turquoise Trail Campground, pre-snowfall.

Before heading into the city, we visited the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, located on the opposite side of the mountains from where we’d spent the night. The tram, which evokes images of a vintage Swiss postcard, takes visitors 2.7 miles via a cable to the top of 10,378 foot Sandia Peak.

Filing into the little tram car, I noticed a sign that said, “Temperatures at the top of the tramway can be as much as 30 DEGREES COOLER.” I tugged my hat further down and frowned, because I do not like to be cold and I do not like to be yelled at by words. But then the car lurched forward and began swaying rhythmically on its upward ascent before my tram-mates had finished their first exclamatory noises. I grinned up at Garrick from under my hat, because I do like perilous situations, even ones that are mostly pretend.

A staff member accompanied the small group of tram riders and offered insight on the sights passing below. We were told stories of the bears and mountain lions that lurked in the rocky woods and canyon beneath us.

“Do you see that rock amidst the cluster of trees to your left?” Our guide said, pointing to a stone I could obscure from my vision by lifting a hand to the window. “That’s seven stories tall.”

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A tram car making its way up the cables.

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The inside of the tram car.

All boggling facts were met with sounds of awe and respect from us riders, and both kids and adults moved about from window to window, peering and pointing with much enthusiasm.

At the top, the tram car docks (also a rather exciting feat) and visitors exit onto a series of wooden decks that overlook an 11,000 square mile panoramic view of New Mexico – the forest and canyon sweeping below and the desert stretching beyond.

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10,378 feet up with an 11,000 square mile view.
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You make me dizzy. Just kidding, it’s the altitude.

The other side of Sandia Peak consists of steep ski slopes and winding trails. They weren’t in operation when we were there, so we wandered around the whimsically colored lifts and chairs before setting off on a trail through the alpine woods at the top of the mountain – the Cibola National Forest, to be exact.

We trudged up a hill and I became winded before reaching the halfway point. “I am so much more out of shape than I thought,” I said, wheezing. “I think all the cheese is finally getting to me.”

“Or the altitude,” Garrick said without turning around.

I remembered altitude sickness was a thing, and tried running and jumping side to side a bit. My body felt both thick and heavy and I felt my heart thud in my head, so I pretended I was an astronaut for the rest of the hike.

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A trail in the dense Cibola National Forest.
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I’ve never been skiing, but this made me want to.

There used to be an eatery called High Finance Restaurant atop Sandia Peak, because Lord knows we can’t leave any land untouched by the option of fast, probably fried sustenance for purchase. But the site had been recently shut down when we were there and has since been demolished. A new, larger restaurant will open in its place in Summer 2018. Hopefully they’ll have penny smashing machines and T-shirts that say “Cibola National Forest, king of the bad altitude” or “I puked on the peak.”

A couple hours of poking around proved sufficient, so we climbed back aboard the tram car and found the ride down nearly as amusing as the way up.

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Notice the tiny shadow that is the cable car packed with people.
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Older tram car models, resting in retirement at the base of the mountains.

It was time to check into our Airbnb, and though we drove through several grittier neighborhoods to reach it, the street that housed our base for the next two nights was neat and quiet. Our host lived in a long adobe rectangle surrounded by a small, black iron gate. We were to stay in the mini house in the back garden. The initial exchange with an Airbnb owner is always interesting – you both smile and nod a lot while mutually thinking, “Gosh, I hope you don’t murder me tonight.”

For $45 a day, our lodging was incredible. The adobe cottage had a living room, kitchenette and dining area that filled the main space and a separate bedroom and full bathroom. It was clean, tastefully decorated and stocked with books and magazines on what to see, do and eat in Albuquerque.

There would be time to revel in our new quarters later – too much of the city lay unexplored.

We started in Historic Old Town, where Albuquerque began in 1706 when several Spanish families settled in the spot near the Rio Grande. We’d never seen anything like the structures that wound about the crisscrossing streets.

Most of the adobe buildings are Pueblo-Spanish style and made with flat roofs, stuccoed walls with rounded edges and large wooden support beams. Scattered amongst these were ornate Victorian buildings built in the late 1800’s after the arrival of the railroad. Detail was everywhere – carved into the wooden beams on the squat adobe homes and etched delicately into the lattice along the Victorian porches. The doors and window frames on the adobe shops were painted bright turquoise, red or yellow, contrasting brilliantly with the rich clay color.

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Ristras are strung along a Pueblo-Spanish style shop front.

It seemed like every other shop had a narrow, one-person-wide alleyway next to it, covered with vines and hanging artwork and leading to a courtyard surrounded by more shops.

“I feel like a kid again for the second time this week,” Garrick said, referencing the giddiness evoked in Carlsbad Caverns.

Ducking and weaving around hedges and corners, I had to focus to keep track of him. Garrick loves buildings, he likes to point at banks and announce, “That used to be a 7-11, I can tell” and talk about mixed use development projects versus historical restoration.

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We popped into The Candy Lady, where Garrick contemplated purchasing green chile chocolate but settled for a chocolate covered banana. I think it’s offensive to pair chocolate with vegetables (bananas are healthy enough to count), so I got a chocolate covered pretzel. We sat at a two-person cafe table in the front window of the shop and watched the lively show of people darting in and out of stores and restaurants and running across the street with armfuls of shopping bags.

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Sugar levels restored, we walked back toward the main square and down a new street. “Rattlesnake Museum,” read a nondescript wooden sign hanging outside one of the shops.

“The largest live collection of different species on public display in the world!” a yellowed, typed page next to the sign told us. “The Rattlesnake Museum is an animal conservation museum displaying a greater variety of species than the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the National Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo and the Denver Zoo ALL COMBINED.”

This was so exciting that I wasn’t even that upset by the yelling words. I love snakes. I think they embody the unfortunate detachment so many people possess when it comes to the natural world.

We walked right in and bought our tickets – you know it’s love when you don’t have to consult on what is obviously an exciting opportunity.

The museum was more informal than exhibits found in a zoo. It had many regular sized rooms, each with habitats containing live rattlesnakes, information, skeletons, news clippings, artwork and figurines featuring the slithery stars. Though the rooms were full and a bit ADD-provoking, everything was clean, orderly and delightful.

“It’s like we’re at the house of a friend who really, really likes rattlesnakes,” Garrick said.

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The museum contained other reptiles and amphibians, too, like this adorable snapping turtle.
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A display cabinet memorializing Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.

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We met many snakes, gazing at them close up with only a piece of glass separating the encounter. Unlike the frenzied streets outside, the museum was quiet, with just a few other visitors snaking (pun intended) their way through the series of rooms.

Stooping to cage-level, we peered in at a coiled rattler, who reared up and shook his rattle so fast it was only a blur. The sound evoked something primal and the hair on our arms rose. We were quick to dub the moment a trip highlight.

After several hours in the museum, we wandered onward to the chic Old Barrel Tea Company, where we sipped our hot drinks and waited for the sun to sink. We wanted to do one more lap around Old Town in the dark before we left, to see the Christmas lights. It was worth the half hour wait.

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A Christmas tree made of plastic water bottles.
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Night settles into the streets of Old Town Albuquerque.

Along with buildings, Garrick really likes Food Network. He heeds the advice of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” like it’s food scripture and I have learned to follow suit. Guy has yet to let us down.

We sat in the car and watched the clip about Golden Crown Panaderia before heading into the restaurant, located in a residential section of the city. The inside was packed and we were given biscochito cookies to nibble on while we waited for our order to arrive. The traditional Spanish treat has butter-based dough and is sprinkled with cinnamon and anise.

Garrick chose a pizza with green chile crust, while I selected one with blue corn crust. The New Mexico crust-spin on the best food ever worked, and we ate everything on our plates, including the additional biscochito cookies brought to us.

Though we were full, we understood eating and drinking one’s way through a city is quite possibly the truest way to become a part of it, if only for the night, and so we offered up a prayer for hasty digestion to the travel gods and set off for the Marble Brewery taproom on the Westside.

On the way we noticed a speed limit sign with 18 printed on it. Shortly after we saw one that was marked at 23. This city is full of unexpected delights, we marveled, and raised a toast along the same lines a few minutes later as we settled in to the task of a 14-flight beer sampler.

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*The quotes at the beginning of this post are from Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Here’s one more. It happens to be my favorite:

“It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.”

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