Land of Enchantment: Our New Mexico vacation

Golden yellow aspen trees intertwined with evergreens dot the 18-mile drive from Taos to Taos Ski Valley in October. Photos by Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Public Affairs.

Golden yellow aspen trees intertwined with evergreens dot the 18-mile drive from Taos to Taos Ski Valley in October. Photos by Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Public Affairs.

By Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Oct. 26, 2017)

As a retired Soldier who served almost 28 years in the Army, it’s a safe bet to assume that I like to travel. I’ve lived all around the world – from Korea to Germany, Turkey to Hawaii.

Three weeks ago, my wife and I headed north from El Paso to begin our eight-day New Mexico adventure, starting in Taos and working our way back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Now, for those of you not familiar with New Mexico, other than going to the casino in Sunland Park or training in the Chihuahuan Desert on Fort Bliss, it is truly a beautiful state – one with lots of mountains, desert and sky.

The six and a half hour drive to Taos took us from the high desert of western Texas and south-central New Mexico to higher elevations in the northernmost part of the state. We packed in excess – shorts, flip-flops and lightweight shirts for Texas, and cooler-weather clothing for the bulk of our trip.

We spent our first day familiarizing ourselves with the area, driving around town and checking out the 34th Annual Taos Wool Festival. Yes. You read that right … a wool festival.

Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 150 people and is the only living community in the Registry of National Historic Landmarks.

Now, we’ve been to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, twice (we were the only sober people there). We’ve been to the Garlic Festival in Saugerties, N.Y. (you have to try the garlic ice cream!). And we’ve even been to the Corn Festival in Shippensburg, Pa., but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a sheep sheared in front of you – his (or her) thick coats of fur dropping to the stage to reveal a rather naked looking, much smaller sheep than had first walked onto the shearing stage. I could make a joke here but that would be really baaaaaaaaahhhhd.

One of the llamas at the 34th Annual Taos Wool Festival. Photo by Vickie Brantley.

There were some serious shoppers at the wool festival, knitters and darners and all kinds of crafty folk. We saw Angora rabbits, goats, llamas and of course, nude and not-so-nude sheep. We saw beautifully-colored yarns spun from the wool of the animals, talked with some vendors who lovingly bragged on how fine their animals’ wool was and many even showed off first place blue ribbons their animals had earned.

There were some very proud people at that wool festival. And some proud animals.

I’m still itchy.

Next we ventured west of Taos a few miles to the fifth highest bridge in the United States, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in El Prado. The bridge is 650 feet above the river and spans almost 1,300 feet across.

The 64-mile-long train ride goes from Chama to Antonito, Colo., through deep gorges, mountain cliffs and high desert terrain.

As you drive into Taos, if you look to the left you can see flat land bisected by a rather large crack in the surface. That large crack leads you down to the Rio Grande. For the adventurous, you can raft, kayak or canoe the river. For the less adventurous, you can stare at the river, walk on the bridge and take lots of scenic photos.

Or you can do what my wife, who is afraid of heights, did – walk on the roadway instead of the sidewalk next to the railing and only go out about a third of the way. Hey, I’m not judging. Baby steps. She jumped off a large rock into Waimea Bay on our Hawaiian vacation last year while I had to be pushed off. She’s afraid of heights; I’m afraid of falling.

So after surviving our first day in Taos, we checked into our Airbnb and settled in for the night.

The next day we visited the Taos Pueblo, the only living community to be listed in the Registry of National Historic Landmarks and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Pueblo, made entirely of adobe – earth mixed with water and straw – is estimated to have been built between 1000 and 1450 AD. The buildings have thick walls to keep the inhabitants cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and the roofs are supported by large timbers covered with packed dirt.

The Taos Indians have lived in this valley long before America was discovered and the pueblo is made up of many individual homes, built side-by-side with common walls but no connecting doorways, kind of like an apartment complex.

One hundred and fifty people live there full time, and the Taos Pueblo is a sovereign Pueblo Indian community, the northernmost of the 19 pueblos in the southwest. The Red Willow People have continuously inhabited the Taos Pueblo for more than 1,000 years.

There are shops inside the Pueblo selling Native American jewelry of silver and turquoise, smudge sticks and unique textiles. And yes, there is a substantial military/retiree discount offered to enter the pueblo.

From the pueblo we headed north to Taos Ski Valley at about an elevation of 9,000 feet. Although there was no snow, it was sunny but cool and the golden yellow aspens were blowing in the breeze.

I’ve seen autumn in Vermont and New York, but the strips of yellow aspens linked throughout the evergreen trees were a sight to behold.

Taos Ski Valley is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and was originally settled by miners in the 1880s. The ski lodge and runs were created in 1955 by a Swiss-German and his wife who were both avid skiers and wanted to provide a budget-friendly ski experience.

Walking around the village of shops, you feel as if you are truly in Europe. It was reminiscent of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. During the warmer months, they offer ski lifts to the top where you can hike or bike. We can’t wait to see it with snow on the ground.

On the day before our last day in Taos, we drove to Chama, about 90 minutes northwest, to catch a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway.

Built in 1880, the track between the two towns was part of the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and was used for silver mining.

The black smoke billowing from the coal-fired steam engines contrasted sharply with the white steam. When you stepped onto the train in one of three different classes of seating, you truly felt like you were stepping back in time.

The 64-mile long train ride took us from Chama to Antonito, Colo., through deep valleys, high desert and along perilous cliffs. The scenery was breathtaking. Literally. We were more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

And we saw elk, deer, antelope and snow! We saw snow in October! That hasn’t happened since we were stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., near the Canadian border. It doesn’t take much to excite the kid in me.

It’s a great adventure for children and children at heart. This is a definite must-see if you ever find yourself heading to Taos.

Heading back to Taos from our Wild West train ride, we had an unexpected nighttime adventure on the highway – a bright, white light waving up and down. I slowed down and realized it was a cowboy on horseback, in full leather chaps, long leather coat, hat and gloves, warning us that his cattle were about to cross the road, on an uphill curve, and he needed our help to get them across safely. He asked us to turn on our hazard lights so other traffic would see us and slow down. The sight of five black and white herding dogs running all over the place, ensuring the massive cattle made it across, was quite the unique experience. We were technically cowpokes for about 10 minutes.

With the knowledge that we saved about 20 cattle from a possible pile up on the darkened highway, we headed back to get ready for our next adventure – Santa Fe.

Get along little doggies. Get along.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series.