angel fire. that kind of albuquerque morning where the sky is ablaze. magenta, cerise, amaranth, crimson.
6am, sad news reaches me on a day already planned to be in the car for eight hours to colorado, my sister, eventually london. I-25 seems too businesslike for all the many things in my heart this day, and when i pull into santa fe just before 7am, i know i’ll go off-course.
i consider the high road to taos and after a brief consultation of google maps in the alberston’s parking lot on cerrillos road, i realise i actually don’t know what the high road to taos even is.
we always took the low road. the two-laner carving its way along the reticent rio grande through the gorge, past embudo, the rafting center, then pilar. NM highway 68.
the high road goes through truchas, an unincorporated village with an adobe church. it set the scene for the 1988 film the milagro beanfield war, which, if you haven’t seen it, is worth a watch, if for nothing else than to understand rural northern new mexico (which is in fairness a skill probably of use to few not actively raised here). state road 76, up past chimayo and the santuario with its holy well and the good red chile stands; all the cañadas and miles of hand-dug acequias.
it was cold last night, a hard frost, and the 8000-foot altitude of the high road could mean ice. i’m in the mood for exploration, but not for off-roading particularly, and so set out on the well-trodden low road. this feels fitting – a road i’ve driven many times in my life, both in the back seat as a child for weekends visiting taos pueblo or tagging along to gigs my dad was playing at the sagebrush inn with bill & bonnie hearne, and then behind the wheel as an adult driving to and from something i seem to be revisiting in more ways than one, this trip home, this year.
it’s early and i make an unsuccessful stop at walmart in española to buy a six-pack of local marble red beer for my sister and to bring back to london. everyone present in walmart española at 8am on the monday after thanksgiving is either driving a mobility scooter and perusing ugly christmas sweaters or gossiping in norteño spanish or both.
at the embudo station restaurant, i want to pause but forget where the turn-off is, and being tailgated by an impatient electrician’s truck, i push on. we used to make trips just to eat at embudo station, crossing the rio grande via a small bridge and settling onto a table under cottonwood trees, always shaded by the canyon walls which begin to climb here and higher as you go northwards toward agua caliente.
maybe the last time i drove this road was 2004, could that be right? on the way to and from the kind of last-hurrah tryst that signals the real and final end to a love affair you will never forget. three quiet nights in taos savouring all that, a glass of wine, things you’d rather not say, hot tears as you pull away from it and back down the canyon, not knowing where life will take you.
in taos, i pause at a blake’s lotaburger for one more green chile breakfast burrito. it’s a typical 1950s-styled white stucco fast-food joint with hard plastic red-and-white umbrellas shading hard plastic picnic tables no one ever uses out the front, and big letters spelling LOTABURGER in flintstones-esque font across the front. inside, a lady in a hair net takes my order from behind a red vinyl countertop and when i ask for the burrito ‘green’ she queries: ‘chile or sauce?’ i baulk here: how can i have been out of new mexico for so long as to be confronted with a chile-ordering question i’ve never heard. well…chile then, if there’s a difference?
from here, i follow the little 585 bypass across southern taos shortcutting to US highway 64, falling back into old habits. adjusting the music selection and steering with my knee while i unpeel the aluminium foil from around the egg-hashbrown-chile-filled burrito. there are no spillages, and no accidents – i’m still a new mexican after all.
US highway 64 is tremendously long. it goes right the way from the new mexico-arizona border to the whalebone junction at cape hatteras in north carolina – literally, as far east as you can go to the atlantic. i am at the western end of it and, out here, it’s just a tiny two-lane mountain byway that doesn’t feel like it would go anywhere at all except up over remote palo flechado pass and into angel fire and eagle nest. and in reality, that is all this highway does out here.
these places were the stuff of dreams on the evening weather report when i was a child. first of all, they have magical names that seemed even more magical as a kid. second of all, they were always forecast to get snow in the winter and for that i was constantly wishing to go to them.
the high alpine deserts of southern colorado and northern new mexico were home to the muache, a southern tribe of the ute people, who came here specifically to perform fall ancestral ceremonies to the great spirit. they were the first here, and the first to notice the evening alpenglow that seemed to pulsate in blazing colours around a peak that later came to be known in spanish as agua fria: cold water peak. they called this glow the fire of the gods, and later in the 1780s, franciscan friars altered the semantics, poetically giving us angel fire. indeed, it was because of this burning colour that the spanish called the entire mountain range sangre de cristo: the blood of christ.
though it’s now just a ski resort (and a blissfully hidden-away one at that), angel fire is the sort of place where you feel in a bit of a dream. weaving my way down a gently switchbacking road through pine forest that had climbed to nearly 9100 feet at palo flechado pass a few miles ago, here opens an expansive, treeless brown valley surrounded on all sides by lumbering, dark-green peaks. swathes of this pasturous flatland are still covered in a snow that fell over the weekend.
there is not a single car heading northeast with me, so i pull off, roll down the driver’s side window, and begin snapping pictures of 13,167ft wheeler peak, the state’s highest mountain. though i know it’s treacherous, from here, it looks tame and seems almost ordinary compared with the mountains of similar altitude i crossed in tibet a few months ago.
eagle nest – a resort village of under 300 – is next, and its lake is already partially frozen despite the white november sun that has come out and is bleaching everything in my windshield into a washed-out instagram filter. effectively it’s a one-street town lined with mining-style clapboard buildings. nothing is open. i pause briefly at a pull-out with a bathroom just past the village limit and spend a few minutes gazing at the lake until my eyes can’t take the sun glare anymore. then back into the camry, belle & sebastian getting me through new mexico like they did tibet, too.
minutes pass like hours for the rest of the 35 miles to cimarron, turning from high heaven to hell, as the road winds into a landscape of charred pine trees and burnt earth. it sometimes takes years for an arid landscape to recover from a forest fire in the southwest, and i mentally scan my memory for a fire that might’ve caused this devastation when i was younger. later, i read the damage was far more recent: in june this year, the ute park wildfire devastated nearly 37,000 acres right here and i am driving through ground zero of the aftermath. homes gone, animals lost, memories vanished in seconds, minutes, long and tortorous singeing days. and a few short months later, cars so casually zipping through a place that was literally engulfed in flame.
how long i will have to wait to drive this road again to see things growing?
the land flattens off at cimarron – another place-name-of-dreams (it could mean ‘where the wild things are’) – an all-but-forgotten town that once was a centre of trade for wagon trains and coal miners – at this point, US 64 is now following the course of the santa fe trail. a few signs posted along the highway through town denote outlaws and miners and fur trappers that once made this place busy, now a dusty memory in roadside black-and-white.
after this, you wave goodbye to the mountains for good. to the son of god peaks, the rockies, to the pine trees, to any trees at all. from a 10,000ft apex less than 50 miles west, here is the flat desert, occasionally dotted with far-off buttes and blue mesas, eventually to give way to the kansas prairie.
before that, i’ll reach I-25 and then turn north to colorado and a plane home.
but i’ll go with new mexico – with angel fire – in my chest.