US Route 285 redux

Route 285, which runs near our home south of Santa Fe, is a big part of my life. I bike south on it through the high-desert beauty of the Galisteo Basin. I drive north to Colorado ski areas and the Arkansas River Valley. It is the major thoroughfare through New Mexico’s capital, and we shop in stores along its route.

Last week, my wife and I looked forward to traveling home on it from its southernmost point, a small Texas town called Sanderson, 20 miles from the Mexican border. We’d be heading northwest towards Fort Stockton and Pecos, two undistinguished West Texas towns, and across the New Mexico line to Carlsbad, then Roswell. We expected a beautiful drive through sparse cattle country. Instead, we found ourselves in a Western version of Mad Max meets Dante’s Inferno meets L.A. freeway at rush hour. The culprit: our oil and gas industry run amok.

Ironically, we were returning from a 4,300-mile road trip through a long slice of Mexico, depicted in recent years as a perilous hellhole. During our month long trip, in a country once known for its bad roads, no where we drove approached the miserable condition and dangerous truck traffic we encountered along the 140 miles between Fort Stockton and Carlsbad.

We faced four-inch deep potholes the size of manhole covers, a surface that rolled like a wind-driven sea, the painted center line long ago worn away, and a steady 80-mph river of water tankers, semi trucks, and oversize pickups hauling huge compressors. The highway, made for lighter traffic, could hardly withstand the heavy load.

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Torres del Paine, Chile

You need to be in good shape to get the most out of Torres del Paine National Park. It is a hikers’ world. Backpackers extract the most out of the experience because they get into and around and through the extraordinary beauty of this craggy massif of granite and sedimentary rock. Limited in time and youth, I did not do the seven-day circuit of the massif, but I hiked two challenging day routes, including what is generally considered the most difficult, the trail to the foot of the torres, or towers in English. It’s a nine-mile trek with a total 4,000-foot gain. The last kilometer is steep and hard, but the payoff is worth it:

Like everything that pokes above ground level in these parts, a couple of hairs north of the fearsome Roaring Forties in latitude, the massif is blasted by gale-strength winds. It is so impressive that experiencing the gusts that can knock you over is worth a visit in itself, and far better than a roller coaster because its nature in its

Torres del Paine is a dance of light and shadow, of rainbows and glaciers, of guanacos and pumas, of soaring buzzards and eagles that surf the storm. It is erosion and change and elemental forces. A human feels small on this stage. Where it’s flat, the pampas feels like an ocean, as U.S. pioneers in stagecoaches described the Great Plains. Beret-topped gauchos in heavy parkas come and go on horseback, providing color. But they don’t ride like our cowboys nor do they look like them. More like Andalusian horsemen I know from Spain, a riding style that seems more a part of the horse rather than a rider on the horse. Like mythical centaurs. I wondered if they ever dismounted. Whenever I saw one, wind whipped his clothing. Dressed in so many layers, he was shaped like an egg. Or maybe the gauchos just eat and drank a lot, which is understandable in this climate.

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Chillin’ in Chiloé, Chile

Dark rain clouds threatened all morning as we hiked over lush green hills, through forests of wind sculpted trees, and past exotic ferns and flora that reminded me of Tasmania. As my guide, Carlos Toledo, and I crested the summit, clouds parted, the sun shined through the last hint of mist, and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean arced around us. To the north and south, long windswept beaches and rocky bays stretched to the horizon and, from a craggy islet several hundred feet below, rose the barking of sunbathing sea lions.

As I discovered over the next several days of exploring Chiloé, Chile’s largest island, and some of the surrounding archipelago’s waterways, this spot is about as dramatic as the island gets. Compared to the rugged peaks and glaciers of Patagonia, the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert, or the steep ski slopes of the Andes, Chiloé is subtle and soothing, with rolling hills and meadows where sheep graze and wildflowers bloom. It has echoes of Ireland or Nova Scotia, and of Oregon’s coastline.

The island feels anchored in another, more bucolic era, a place apart. The Spanish first populated it in 1567, but isolated from both the capital and the mainland, the Spanish and indigenous people intermarried and developed into hardy, independent-minded seafarers and sheep farmers. They developed a unique way of speaking, a distinct cuisine, a credo of self-reliance, and a religious mix of myths, fanciful tales and Catholicism.

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Iceland: water, water everywhere

What strikes me most about Iceland is the water. It’s ubiquitous. It rains, it mists, it freezes, it steams and it erupts. Iceland is home to earth’s second biggest glacier, and to bubbling cauldrons and spouting geysers. Ocean surrounds the island, rivers divide it, hot springs heat it. Every house, every building, is powered by geothermal electricity and heated by hot water that streams through pipes like blood pulsing through bodies. Reykjavik’s city hall seems to float on a lake, waterfalls run wild across the countryside, and the island’s iconic Blue Lagoon lures tourists to interrupt transatlantic flights just to loll in its eerie neon-blue waters.

Am I infatuated with water because I live in the arid Southwest? Probably.

A 5-minute downpour in our summer monsoon is an occasion to celebrate. In Iceland, I soaked up even the near constant drizzle with joy. My photographs reflect it. They’re all about water in all its forms, including the consequences of all that water, like the spongy spring-green moss that grows on the equally ubiquitous lava. A very young island, it seems to be in or near constant eruption. You sense the tectonic forces in almost all the sights you see.

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Rafting the Grand Canyon

I had put off rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon for more than 20 years. I needed enough money to do it the right way, I thought, the way of the purist: 18 days in a 17-foot dory down the entire run, Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead. But getting to a certain age, I decided I had best do it before I couldn’t. Kathryn and I settled on a j-rig — scorned as the cruise ship of the river — with 16 fellow passengers on one hulk of a boat made up of five rubber pontoons attached side by side.

The 5-night j-rig trip has its advantages: affordability and protection from the wrath of the worst rapids were the two I liked. For time-pressed visitors or newbies wary of spending much longer on the river, its outboard engine offers a faster run. For the gregarious, there’s a bigger sampling of people to befriend. And with four different areas to sit in, guests can choose the intensity of shock they want to face as the boat bangs through some of the larger rapids’ monumental waves: straddling the pontoons up front offers total impact and full drenching, the raised cargo boxes get you above much of the direct assault, while the decks behind provide human shelter from heavy spray. It also has a lot of storage room for food and passengers’ bags and booze, as well as the roomy tents and comfortable cots the company supplies.

Engine noise? Yes, it is there, but less intrusive than I had feared. When we did float, as when our guides, Ronnie and Jeff, had to tinker with the engine after hitting a small log, the silence was precious. I doubt you get the full measure of this towering red rock cathedral without that silence. And floating at the speed of the river in a non-motorized raft, locked in to the natural flow, at one with the river, is what an ideal river trip is all about.

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Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch

It’s a strange beast, this vast ranch owned by Ted Turner since 1996. A century-old guest ranch devoted to hunting and fishing, long a favorite of Texans and other Southerners, it is turning a new skin under Ted’s management. Molting, changing, broadening its market. Becoming less Pennzoil, which owned it for 30 years, more Ted Turner conservationist, though the oil company retained rights to drill for natural gas.

It’s beautiful country, high desert to fir-covered mountain, broad meadows blanketed in wildflowers all summer. Fifteen hundred buffalo graze the lands, one of only two genetically pure herds in the world. Elk and antelope, bear and wolves. Fourteen hundred-year old pottery shards, grinding stones, arrowheads, pit houses. More than half a million acres roll over elevations ranging from 5,000 to 12,000 feet. It’s one of the largest private ranches in the country.

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Moonlight in The Lightning Field

We arrive at Quemado, an impoverished tumbleweed town in central New Mexico that cuddles up to the Arizona border, in time for lunch at one of the two cafes. A sassy, frontier waitress takes our orders, a toothless old cowboy hangs his head at a corner table. Both straight from central casting. We arrive at a sun-bleached wood building just before two, it’s door ajar, a discrete sign stenciled on the window says we’re at the right place. No one’s inside, but a note tells us to sign the open registration book, they’ll be along soon ‘nuf to pick us up. (Yes, the setting calls for a little twang.) We wander back onto the street. I photograph the beat-up old retail building across the way. Back in Time, it’s called, back when it was once open. Not a car moving along this remote two-lane highway. The town sot wanders by, a happy grin on his face, says something that is hard to catch. He also has no teeth.

A van swings ‘round the corner just up the street and pulls along beside us. The driver, a woman born and bred in the ranch country outside of town, helps us throw our bags in the back. “Okay to leave our cars right here?” No problem, she says, nothing has ever happened to them in the 30 years we’ve been doing this.

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Salida Country & the Arkansas River

Route US 285 shoots straight north from Santa Fe, where I live, to where it intersects with I-70 near Vail at the core of Colorado ski country. It’s a moving panorama of beauty all along the two-lane highway, from the broad plateau that looks east towards Taos’ magic mountains to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. After a low pass, it skirts the upper reaches of the Arkansas River for about 60 miles until it climbs past Leadville at 10,000 feet. Along the way, 24 of Colorado’s 53 14,000 foot-peaks punctuate the scenery. With the greatest density of high peaks in the lower 48 states, it’s stunning.

Since I usually drive the road in winter, I decided to explore the Arkansas River valley from Salida to Buena Vista, its two main towns, with my wife and two friends at the height of summer. Until recently, they were ranching towns with some recreational tourism based on running the river’s rapids and scaling the high peaks. Salida’s outdoor cred has been soaring for some time — a friend likened it to Aspen back in the 60s — but lately its more northern sister, commonly shortened to BV, has jumped into Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry in a big way. Now the two vie to outdo each other in river-running / mountain-biking / mountain-climbing / beer-brewing bona fides.

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Splendor in Alaska / Fjords NP

On the drive back to Anchorage, I stop in Seward for the night. Long a fishing town on the eastern shore of the Kenai Peninsula, it was named for William Seward, Secretary of State under President Lincoln and dealmaker for the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Seward is popular with tourists as a departure point for boat trips into Kenai Fjords National Park.

I sign on with a group promising an all-day adventure that takes us to the tongue of a glacier. A large motorboat ferrys campers and trekkers to various beaches along the Fjords’ many inlets. It drops us several miles from Holgate Glacier, where we unload the kayaks.

It’s a beautiful day for paddling. We head out for several miles along the shore, stopping occasionally to explore boreal forests, until we get within a few hundred yards of the glacier’s front wall. There we scatter, with some heading closer to the glacier, others playing among large chunks of calved ice, though not big enough to be bergs. A sightseeing boat from Seward provides scale to the glacier’s enormous 400-foot-high face, which rumbles and moans in its slow progression to the sea as we skiddle about.

“I never get tired of this dynamic, ever-changing landscape,” says a Kenai Fjords National Park ranger who paddles over to check us out. Just as we’re talking, a big section of ice calves into the inlet with an explosive percussion. It sends waves toward us that quickly dissipate in the deep fjord. “As I was saying, this landscape is dynamic, living, unpredictable and wild.”

 

 

Splendor in Alaska / Lake Clark NP

Next stop: Soldotna, on the Kanai Peninsula. But skirting the north shore of Turnagain Arm on the drive from Anchorage, I turn into the funky ski town of Girdwood for a lunch break. I often ate in a restaurant during winter visits to Alyeska resort, which I like for the backcountry cat-skiing and heliskiing operations, and I wanted to see what it’s like on a sunny summer day. The resort’s lift-served mountain, a 3,000-foot peak that rises directly above Cook Inlet, offers the weird feeling of skiing down to a beach. Alyeska also offers some of the steepest in-bounds ski slopes I’ve ever seen,steep enough to turn my stomach as I picture jumping in off the edge.

From Soldotna, a bush plane flies me west across the Cook Inlet to remote Lake Clark National Park, passing on the way the snow-laden cone of Mount Redoubt, a 10,197-foot volcano that rises like royalty from the sea. As we buzz past a volcanic black-sand beach, then swing back around to land on it — the flight is timed to coincide with low tide — I spot three brown bears grazing on meadows no more than 200 yards away. Brown bears are grizzlies that live on the coast. They tend to be fatter and healthier-looking than their inland brethren due to their protein-rich diet of salmon once the fish start running upstream in August.

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