New Mexico is ancient and atomic, desolate and deluxe. Its profound contrasts are just some of the alluring things that make it the land of extreme enchantments.
Five minutes into my hike at White Sands I stopped to look around. In every direction of this national monument in southeast New Mexico, there was nothing but white, white, white — endless rolling hills of it. I was standing in the largest field of white gypsum in the world, and I was consumed by it already, as if it were literally endless and not just seemingly so. I knew my car was just over there, not even a quarter-mile over that ridge, but it might as well have been another world away.
I adjusted my backpack, marveled at the crisp horizon — the blue of the sky deeper and richer because of the white below it — and followed the trail to my campsite, one of only 10 in the 275 square miles at White Sands. In the next 12 hours I would see only two people.
One of them was a 20-something woman who had arrived at the trailhead at the same time I did. We hiked in together. She told me she was killing time, traveling around the West, Kerouac with an ankle tat and an Instagram account. By contrast, I drove in from a Professional Work Conference, where I had spent the last few days Networking and Making Important Connections with Potential Clients to Grow My Business. I had a sport coat hanging in my car and a carefully planned itinerary in my computer bag.
She looked free — free from worry, obligation, responsibility, even free from shoes. The sand, warmed by the 70-degree day, must have felt soft and pleasant under her feet. I wanted to take my boots off; I double-knotted them instead. We were like characters in a bad coming-of-age movie, where I would teach her responsibility and she would teach me to lighten the hell up.
Starting with the contrast between us, I would learn over and over again in the next few days that New Mexico is a place of extremes.
My friend Andy and I would drift peacefully up, up, up in a hot-air balloon worth five figures (if not more) and zip maniacally down, down, down the dunes at White Sands in a plastic sled worth single figures (if not less). We would elbow for space in a crowded tram high atop Sandia Peak and stand alone in the bottom of deep desert canyons. We would sleep in mega-thread-count sheets at the luxurious Hotel Chaco in bustling Albuquerque and on the hard ground in barren Bandelier National Monument.
New Mexico, we discovered, isn’t just the Land of Enchantment. It’s the Land of Extreme Enchantments.
I said goodbye to my new hippie friend, set up my tent in the shadow of a dune and climbed to the top as the sun crept toward the horizon. I looked east, toward a butte. Horizontal striations made it look like a layer cake—brown and then yellow and then brown and then yellow and then brown again. Then the ridge stopped and the sky began. There were more striations there — purple then red then orange then blue. I spun around and faced west, where the sun had just set. The ridge there was backlit, black and impenetrable, striations hidden.
It was 6:36 p.m., the sun had been behind the ridge for 10 minutes, and the temperature had dropped 10 degrees already. I walked down to my tent to grab my coat. As I descended the hill, the cold air squeezed my chest like a too-small T-shirt. I walked back up, and when I reached the top, the sand radiated heat like an open oven.
Slowly, the world turned black and white. Tucked inside my sleeping bag with a winter hat protecting my head, I looked up at the lights of the universe. A shooting star shot across my vision for so long that I turned my head to watch it go; it disappeared behind my tent.
I turned my gaze from infinity to the present, where a copy of Frankenstein was alight in my Kindle. The book begins and ends with Victor Frankenstein chasing his monster across a vast, frozen, desolate landscape … not unlike where I was at the moment.
Not 60 miles from here, the Manhattan Project birthed its own monstrous achievement. On July 16, 1945, one week after White Sands Missile Range was established, the first atomic bomb was detonated. A mushroom cloud blossomed almost 40,000 feet up. At ground zero of the Trinity nuke test, the blast turned sand into a glasslike substance the color of green jade. They variously dubbed it trinitite, atomsite, Alamagordo glass. It’s not on this trip’s itinerary, but we could have gone to the White Sands Missile Range Museum on the 3,200-square-mile military installation.
Better to let that explosive history fade with the absolute silence that swallowed me. There was no wind, and no trees for it to rustle anyway. No animal footsteps, no highway, no sounds of civilization at all. I drifted off. An hour or so later, a jet landing at a nearby base shattered the silence and shook the very earth itself.
Remember the carefully crafted itinerary I mentioned? Well, man plans, New Mexico laughs. A freak October snowfall cost Andy and me one of the nights we planned to spend at Bandelier.
Instead of camping out, we spent the night at Hotel Chaco. Instead of a rigorous morning hike, we went for a hot-air balloon ride. Both of those last-minute adjustments provided proof, if any was needed, that you won’t run out of things to do in New Mexico, only time to do them.
We arrived at Rainbow Ryders, by far the largest hot-air balloon ride provider in the state, at 6:45 a.m., and the waiting room was already full. “Is this everybody’s first time in a balloon?” asked our pilot, Damian. “Me, too,” he joked. “So we’re going to figure it out together. I just have to watch one more YouTube video — something about landing.”
A hot-air balloon ride doesn’t fit neatly into a rigid schedule. In most other adventures, you know when you’ll start, when you’ll end, and where you’ll be when you’re done. With a hot-air balloon, you get only the first of those three. The rest is up to the wind.
Soon we were aloft in a balloon named Roadrunner. The only noise was the occasional burst from the burner, which shot flames into the 225,000-cubic-foot balloon to heat the air to 160 degrees. The nine of us aboard — seven passengers, Damian, and his co-pilot — talked sparingly, as we were too consumed by the vast and soaring sense of forever up there to bother with small talk.
In front of us, the sun climbed into the sky behind Sandia Peak. Below us, the Rio Grande cut a dull brown-green trail through bright yellow cottonwoods. When we floated over the river, a chill reached us even from a few thousand feet above it.
We drifted at the whim of the wind, as free as the woman I met at White Sands. After an hour, Damian looked for a place to land as we cruised low over a subdivision. I hollered to a woman taking pictures of us from below, “Text that to me!” and she laughed. The noise from the burner apparently drives dogs nuts, as barks reached us from every direction. A few minutes later, we touched down softly in a field.
I follow a simple rule when traveling: Always eat breakfast at a restaurant named after a woman. So when Damian recommended Mary & Tito’s, I said yes before knowing anything else. It looks like a mom-and-pop greasy spoon, and it is, but it’s also a renowned James Beard Award winner.
When we walked in, a customer greeted us, offered suggestions on what to eat, and pointed us to where to sit. I asked how he knew we had never been there, and he said regulars have a certain look, a been-there-ate-that-back-for-more grin that Andy and I lacked.
We stuffed ourselves with carne adovado, and at a customer’s suggestion, asked for the homemade Mexican wedding cake. The waiter doubted they had any left. When he announced some was available, others in the restaurant said we should count ourselves blessed.
After one bite, we did.
The snow melted at Bandelier, so we jumped in the car and headed there (a gorgeous drive that deserves more than this parenthetical), hiked for a couple hours, and camped on the lip of Alamo Canyon. Imagine a hard-packed, rocky desert. Now imagine God pulled out a chainsaw worthy of Him, sliced that desert open, and bid you to not just look inside but to scramble down there. How are we going to get down there and then back up on the other side?
Slowly is the best answer. Small steps, carefully placed. We inched our way along, stopping frequently to gape at the beauty, catch our breath, or both.
One side was in shadow and cold; one side was in the sun and radiated heat. Temperature-wise, it was like day turned to night turned back to day, depending on where you were. Everywhere I travel, they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes. In New Mexico, if you don’t like the weather, move a few feet.
We arrived at the top, and the vertical trail became horizontal, unfolding long and flat before us. Modern Americans would not want to live here. Wild temperature swings, barren landscape, and a lack of water don’t appeal to our sensibilities. The Alamo Canyon and nearby Capulin Canyon, though breathtakingly beautiful, make getting in and out impractical.
But Bandelier is full of ancient sites. The Ancestral Pueblos arrived here 870 years ago, roughly in 1150. It’s not clear what happened, but they abandoned the area after 400 years. They left behind incalculable treasures for archaeologists, from remnants of pueblos to cavates (human-carved alcoves) to pictographs to shards of tools.
The trail ran near Yapashi Pueblo, an unexcavated site, and Stone Lions Shrine, a circle of boulders surrounding two carved lions. Modern Pueblos still use it occasionally. Because the stones form a circle, I couldn’t help but think of a miniature Stonehenge.
Shortly after passing Stone Lions Shrine on the way back to our site, we looked up to see a massive satellite dish in the distance; according to the map, it’s on the property of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The juxtaposition of the ancient and modern reminded me again of New Mexico’s extremes.
For the people who lived in Yapashi, news traveled as fast as their fastest runner. Today that satellite could send news into space, around the world, and back in a blink. If Stone Lions Shrine left Andy and me curious about its origin, what would the ancestral Pueblos think of that dish, not to mention the defense drama, high-tech high jinks, sophisticated supercomputing, and who knows what else that goes on at the Los Alamos lab in the desolate desert today?
We arrived back on our lip of the Alamo in time to watch the sunset. We ate “dinner” with our feet dangling on the edge and sweat drying on our backs. I use quote marks because we had hiked for eight hours and gained more than 2,500 feet in elevation. I craved a meal that would reward that, and I didn’t get it.
I longed for a meal like the one we’d had two nights earlier at Santa Fe’s Luminaria, the restaurant at Hotel Loretto. The tres leches with sweet Cointreau-soaked elderflower macerated berries was so surprising, so perfect in execution, so full of words I didn’t know, I laughed with delight after one bite. It tasted like I feel when I see my old high school friends. When I called home, I almost didn’t tell my wife about it for fear of inadequately describing it.
The freeze-dried meal I ate atop Alamo Canyon was extreme in the other direction. But the view and the silence made up for it. I was barefoot with my boots on, straddling the deep past of the shrine and the deep future of the satellite dish. The sky became orange and then purple and finally black. I had nowhere to be and no time to be there, so I sat and watched it change.
This article appears in our August/September 2023 issue, available on newsstands now or through our C&I Store.