Mountains and sand
New Mexico, Colorado

It feels as if I'm recounting a story from some abstract world with memories drifting aimlessly through the shifting times, even though it has hardly elapsed two years. Just as it has undoubtedly affected everyone's temporal cognition, I have lost bearings on the recent timeline before the pandemic started, beyond what I have thankfully preemptively recorded.

Before we found ourselves here, battling the solitude and isolation of our pandemic-ridden world, I embarked on a road trip to visit the Southwest, with a focus on New Mexico and southern Colorado. Previously, I had overlooked this region because it was just beyond a convenient driving distance and yet not far enough to warrant spending on an airfare. Only a few years earlier, I had by chance found myself in transit through Albuquerque at sunset, and seeing the red-orange glow from atop the southern Rockies, I knew that I had to return at some point.

Unlike previous adventures, this one was to be a hybrid trip, part photography and part vacation with an emphasis on exploration and driving. There was hardly a half-week of lead time in planning with minimal time to study the terrain and trail systems, and I accepted this challenge with an expressed understanding that I would have to minimize risk elsewhere. Traversing an unfamiliar and frigid landscape on foot during winter, after all, usually results in less than preferred outcomes. Moreover, I was already on the west coast without any of my cold weather expeditionary gear, and was simply relying on recent Northeast conditioning to carry me through.

The weeklong trip would cover over 2,500 miles across four states, with temperatures forecasted between 30 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. A maximum of four days would be dedicated to hiking, contingent on my research en route and local weather updates. With limited supplies on hand and no time to acquire more, I packed a minimum equipment set with the hopes of picking up necessities on the way.

White Sands National Park

The first thing I noticed when navigating to White Sands National Park is a notably large government property, White Sands Missile Range, reserved for the military testing. On the NPS website, it states that "from time to time, the missile range that surrounds the park performs missile testing that may require the closure of the park or highway." It's a bit disconcerting that at some unscheduled time, there may be large ordinances in use in the vicinity, but I soon found this risk was definitely worth the reward.

White Sands contains not just ordinary sand dunes that one might expect from traveling across California or in pictures of the Sahara. These fields' white gypsum crystals glistened under the strong sunlight, throwing sharp shadows throughout the valley, a juxtaposition against its own strict uniformity in lightness. The mornings and evenings offered an added dimension in color, painting the midday monochromatic landscape in every imaginable hue. The field is bordered by mountains on both sides, but once stood at the foot of the dunes, I could sense the vastness and completeness of the landscape around me, with sand extending in every direction and climbing on all sides to blend into the light fluffy clouds above. A constant wind whipped through the basin, creating intricate and ephemeral patterns, erasing the many footprints left behind within only a few hours. It also brought quietness in its wake, one of peace and tranquility, the kind that let me feel physically there but with unbounded thoughts.

It was difficult to find success at sunrise, especially trying to navigate the unfamiliar landscape in complete darkness. Sunset, however, proved much more fruitful, in part because a storm cell had been developing over the basin through the late afternoon. As I waited atop a dune, the clouds unfurled overhead imbuing deep blue and purple tones into the evening sky. I stayed long enough to watch the rain fall all around me and immediately freeze, hardening the once fluid landscape. With the approaching storm intensifying and now sporting the cumulonimbus anvil-like developments, it seemed wise to depart promptly.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

As a birder, I've always heard wondrous things about Bosque del Apache, of the diversity and large populations of avifauna. As it was winter, I couldn't expect to experience the immensity of spring and autumn's migratory waves, but since the park was designed for birding, I was looking forward to seeing the wintering residents. I started before sunrise and traveled the empty desert highway until reaching the park entrance. I shouldn't be surprised since this is one of of the most popular birding spots in this country, but I wasn't the first nor the last in the long line of vehicles rushing through the park entrance to get set up before the day began.

The early morning was brisk, more specifically, below freezing. Without an insulating layer, it was challenging to stand patiently without fear of turning into an ice cube. As the sun emerged from the horizon, I could see the countless stacked silhouettes of sandhill cranes arriving at the park. Their staggered V- and echelon formations were backdropped by trailing lines of snow geese, filling the skies with graceful flapping. I took the long driving loop across the gravel to find the sandhill cranes arriving in northern plains as the geese were departing the lake and in search of food outside the park.

I took the rest of the morning to explore the park and casually photograph other wintering birds as they stopped by to say hello. Here's a short list of my findings:

American wigeonMallard
Ross's gooseNorthern pintail
Bald eagleNorthern shoveler
Black phoebeRed-tailed hawk (Harlan's)
BuffleheadRing-necked pheasant
Great blue heronRuddy duck
Great horned owlSandhill crane
Hooded merganserSnow goose
Loggerhead shrikeWestern meadowlark

Since this wasn't a birding trip, I couldn't justify sitting in the park for days on end, but having found myself in such a magical spot, I knew I had to delay my departure by half a day in order to experience another sunrise. The next morning, I headed straight for the lake, where the other photographers had amassed the previous morning. I could hear the occasional muffled conversations of the others as we commiserated together in the cold. With the first rays of the day's light, I could see the silhouettes of the geese on the water as well as the massive flocks of their counterparts filling the skies on route from another locale. Before long, their arrival prompted a northbound departure of the now combined populations, lifting off from the water in smaller squadrons. I had never seen so many birds in one place at the same time, nor had I witnessed such a rapid flux in action. The whole routine lasted just beyond sunrise, and soon, I too was on my way north.

Very Large Array

In stark contrast to the birding extravaganza of the early morning, the next stop was to satisfy that childhood obsession with astronomy. If you've watched the movie Contact, then you probably will recognize these pictures of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, a Y-configuration of twenty-seven radio antennas in the desert. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, going through the exhibits, learning about their immense data collection operation from each of the antennas, and finally getting to stand beneath the massive structures.

Cities and Towns

The next portion of the trip was mostly in covering the central region of the state, passing through cities and towns on the road north. One particularly quirky town I visited was called Truth or Consequences, and I decided to take a look around simply because the name reminded me of the third level of Halo CE: "Truth and Reconciliation". The town was exactly how I imagined a modern day frontier town: cars parked in front of rectangular flat-topped single or double storied buildings built on a wide main street. Many shops were run down or empty, and save for the few tourists getting lunch at the local cafe, the sun-baked town was otherwise silent.

Ahead was Albuquerque, New Mexico's most populous city, and Santa Fe, the capital. Having spent an extra half day in Bosque del Apache, I decided to skip Albuquerque and dedicate more time to explore, rest and resupply at the next stop. Unlike the metropolitan ways of Albuquerque, Santa Fe had the charm of a quaint village. The main streets were festive and the many shops were abuzz with visitors eager to find suitably eclectic and regionally themed trinkets. I window shopped, inspecting intricate hand-painted pottery, fossils, toys (some of which, I imagine, could only be destined to populate nightmares), and western-styled clothing stores. The city also has an extensive art scene, an entire street dedicated to artists showcasing and selling their works. The city surely deserved a longer visit, but I had only one day to spare.

Valles Caldera National Preserve

To the northwest of Santa Fe, in the Jemez Mountains, sits Valles Caldera National Preserve, an ancient volcanic caldera. The volcano, however, is not extinct but remains dormant with geothermal activity that supports the local flora and fauna year round. I barely made it through the park entrance before a few yellow feathers flicking by led me to a flock of horned lark. In New York, I had spent a significant effort in searching for these birds over the many winters, through snow storms, late evenings, along county roads and across expansive farm lands. It's fun to watch the larks foraging for seeds, pulling at the tiny wheat-like strands, often bending to follow the flexing plants as they wave in the wind.

Out-of-town travelers filled the parking lot, most visiting to cross country ski and snowshoe over the mildly rolling terrain of the caldera. With the late morning sun shining brightly down on the sparkling ice, I opted for a short hike to see the historic cabins that were housing the park's caretakers. Next time, I'll be sure to bring cross-country skies, which would enable me to cover far greater distances atop the snowy landscape in search of wildlife.

I was headed north again, but first, I had to retrace the road back to the interstate through Los Alamos, which of course is historically noteworthy. Modern research facilities lined the main road of the tiny town. Few cars were seen in either direction, and the ones I did notice were also in transit to outdoor locations.

Rio Grande Gorge

The last area I had planned to explore in New Mexico was in the vicinity of Carson National Forest and Taos. I didn't plan to spend time in Taos, but it very conveniently situated rest stop. The main attraction was the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge just to the west, and my goal was to catch it at first light. The town itself was eerily quiet, and even the center square was nearly empty when I arrived in the evening.

The streets were equally deserted in the complete darkness of the early morning. I soon realized that my initial temperature predictions were incorrect; it was now close to zero degrees Fahrenheit, and my lack of a sweater and winter gloves made this incredibly painful. The cloud cover broke just for a few minutes permitting the turquoise glow to shine down upon the river. Standing at the frozen and slippery edge of the 600-foot cliff made for some unnerving pictures, especially when the sunlight revealed the features of the gorge more clearly. It took the rest of the day's travels to completely defrost from that morning's endeavor, but it was definitely worth the effort.

National Forests

One of the longer stretches of driving, on my way through to Colorado, took me through the Carson, San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests. I would have preferred to traverse these roads in autumn, but there's a certain tranquility that can only be found when driving through a snowy winter wonderland. Every so often, I'd stumble upon another small village, ski town or random gas station, but other than that, all that surrounded me were open roads, mountains, trees and crystal clear air.

Mesa Verde National Park

The final place of interest was Mesa Verde National Park. Actually, it wasn't even on the itinerary until I noticed it on the map ahead of me. I was finally back on schedule, but since it was the last day of the trip, I figured a few hours for the detour would be worth it. Having negligible research on the park, I stopped by the visitor's center to get the full safety briefing. The park ranger mainly advised me to consider the challenges of driving on ice on the winding mountain road of increasing elevation (noting that past mishaps have experienced "the long way down"), and that it may take at least an hour just to drive to the end and back with snow tires, which of course the rental car didn't have. Moreover, upon rental of the car, I had failed to confirm that it featured all-wheel drive capabilities as I had requested. Upon reading the manual in the parking lot, I realized the only helping feature I had was the all-weather tires. The roads had been plowed the night before, and since then, the remaining slush had re-solidified into ice, and I found myself relying on the bits of sand and gravel to keep the car from understeering at each hairpin.

There was little in the way of wildlife spotting since my attention was fully dedicated to keeping the car moving in the preferred direction. Once on the mesa, however, I had a chance to stop at the many exhibits and learn about the cliff-dwelling lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Evidently, the natives had built these dwellings strategically, offering security as well as clear vantage points.

Now at the end of the trip, all that was left was the long drive home: from Colorado, through Arizona and back to California. I did see the Four Corners Monument from the car, as well as a number of fascinating landscape features, but there was little reason to stop for anything other than gas and food. Given the impromptu nature of this trip, I felt that it was a successful adventure: part vacation, part photography, part scientific/cultural education, and a whole lot of food appreciation.

I hope you enjoyed the photographs, and that this provides motivation for you to visit the region as well!