ANGEL FIRE, N.M.
When it comes to determining in which country New Mexico is located, believe it or not, confusion often reigns. Is it in the United States or is it in Mexico? Sometimes people from outside the state don't know where it is — and yet, for people who find their way there, New Mexico will be an unforgettable vacation destination.
When driving across the state, you will notice welcome signs bearing the name of not just the town, but also the state "New Mexico" and country "USA", in case there is any doubt. This confusion isn't as surprising as it may seem because New Mexico is remarkably unlike any other state in the union.
Having grown up in New Mexico, known as the Land of Enchantment, I had to move away and return before I could properly appreciate this truly amazing place. New Mexico — one of our country's poorest and least populated states — doesn't try to be something it's not. The people there are proud but not arrogant or obnoxious. They can boast of having a rich and wonderful blend of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo cultures that permeates every area of life.
New Mexico — often referred to as Nuevo México — is a place where Spanish is nearly as likely as English to be heard, and where the traditional cuisine is Mexican-inspired, but completely unique. Particularly in rural areas and on Native American pueblos and reservations, some families have lived on the same land for hundreds of years, many still speaking their ancestors' native non-English language.
Coming from Florida, the first thing you notice when landing in New Mexico is the air. As probably expected, it's usually dry and hot. Bring moisturizer and Chapstick because that dryness can take a toll on your skin and lead to chapped lips pretty quickly. But that air can also give a feeling of welcome lightness. Deeply breathe in the air, and you may feel a burden lifting, the heaviness of humidity.
You may also notice you are well above sea level. The high altitude can be tough on some, but drinking plenty of water while avoiding alcohol and strenuous exercise for a day or two usually prevents altitude sickness.
For a state not widely known to tourists, New Mexico has so much to offer visitors: forests and deserts to explore, lakes for fishing and sailing, hot air ballooning, national monuments like White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns, Native American culture, museums of all kinds, fantastic shopping, excellent cuisine and more. On our most recent trip west, our family concentrated on the northern end of the state, primarily in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Angel Fire, with day trips to Taos, Bandelier National Monument and the capital city of Santa Fe. We also spent a night in Albuquerque, home to my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, and location of the hit TV show Breaking Bad.
Just traveling to Angel Fire can be an adventure. When flying above Albuquerque, fight your rowmates to get the window seat. Even from the airplane, there is much to see. The skies in New Mexico are renowned for sunsets, sunrises and everything in between; artists come from all over to create in the unusual New Mexican light.
Because the altitude can be an adjustment, it's a good idea to spend at least your first night in Albuquerque or other cities of lesser altitude, before driving to higher mountain altitudes. I recommend taking a trip up the Sandia Peak tramway, the world's longest tramway. The view of the Cibola National Forest, city of Albuquerque and beyond, volcanoes and the sky is spectacular — and slowly gliding up and down the mountain in a glass box suspended by wires is a rush. Once at the top, you can hike, and from the observation deck atop the 10,378-foot Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest, you will marvel at the 11,000-square-mile panoramic view of much of the state. Dining at High Finance, on the mountain's crest, completes the experience.
'Fire of the gods'
As you travel from Albuquerque to Angel Fire, the three-hour drive offers plenty to ogle — so much so, you may want to allow more time to stop, gawk and picture-take. Vast spaces featuring views of volcanoes and mountain ranges and huge blue skies unblocked by sky scrapers are a delight. If you can manage the drive at sunset, it's worth the effort, as the sun turns the mountains incredible shades of pink, orange and red and creates "fire in the sky" type images. The Spanish-language mountain names reflect the various shades of color that they resemble when the sun sets: the Sandias (watermelons), the Manzanos (apples) and the Sangre de Cristos (blood of Christ), for example.
Legend has it that Angel Fire originally was called "the fire of the gods" by the Ute Indians because of the mysterious orange and red flickering in the sky; the Franciscan friars later changed the name to "Angel Fire," which they deemed more acceptable. When you drive into Angel Fire, this beautiful village at 8,600 feet above sea level literally can take your breath away. If you take the ski lift to the top of the summit, you'll be at 10,677 feet.
Angel Fire, with a population of 1,200, is best known for its outdoor activities. Fabulous skiing, snowboarding, jet skiing, shovel racing, snow shoeing and sledding attract winter enthusiasts, while hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding, golf and tennis attract tourists in the warmer months. A golf ball can fly long and far in this altitude. And a relatively new activity is the zip line tour, offered mid June through mid October. This tour, during which the rider flies 50 stories above the forest floor, peak to peak, on the 1,600-foot tandem zip line, is the first in the state and should be exhilarating even for advanced thrill seekers.
The state's highest peak, the nearby Wheeler Peak in the Rocky Mountains, reaches 13,161 feet above sea level; it took us seven hours to climb from bottom to top and go back. The scenic climb is not treacherous, and the only equipment necessary is good walking shoes. You may also want a decent camera and binoculars for spotting and recording wildlife such as bighorn sheep and the entertaining marmots. An easy walk is to Williams Lake, a perfect place for a picnic or respite. If you choose to climb to the top, you can sign your name in the book and marvel at the incredible vistas.
After the hike, a charming German-style lodge, the Bavarian Hotel and Restaurant, is a welcome retreat for refreshments and relaxation. On a previous trip, we stayed in this hotel, where we were delighted with its comforts and character. Camping in the area is also allowed for up to 14 days without a permit.
Fall is, for me, the best time to visit because the air is cool but not cold, the aspen tree leaves are spectacularly gold and the wandering elk can be heard daily making mating calls. Year-round, gazing at stars and at the wildlife are favorite pastimes in Angel Fire. It isn't unusual to see bears, coyotes, bobcats and possibly even a mountain lion. Deer, elk, prairie dogs and rabbits are sure things.
For accommodations, most visitors stay at the Lodge at Angel Fire Resort or the Elkhorn Lodge, or rent the various private homes and condos. The village isn't known for its great food, but there are a few good restaurants such as Angel Fired Pizza, the Bakery and H2 Uptown. All restaurants close relatively early, though, so be aware.
About 45 minutes down the mountain in Taos are some of the best New Mexican restaurants. Our favorite is Cocina de Taos; the most popular are Orlando's and Michael's. New Mexican food is characterized by the green and red chile sauce that smothers most dishes. Order a plate of New Mexican food and you will be asked "Red or green?" Natives may reply "Christmas," meaning they want food topped with both red and green. Sometimes the red is spicier and sometimes the green, but both will be delicious.
Also in Taos, you can find whitewater rafting, shopping, sightseeing, museums, and plenty of history — such as at the Kit Carson Museum and at the 1,000-plus-year-old Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. Taos Pueblo is normally open every day, but check the calendar at taospueblo.com to confirm and to find out about special Feast Days. The pueblo was named the "No. 2 Native American experience in the country" by USA Today.
The 47th state
A favorite feature of New Mexico Magazine is a page called "One of Our Fifty is Missing," where readers write in to tell their stories of how others didn't realize New Mexico has been a U.S. state since 1912. Often, people have trouble mailing to New Mexico and are told that the company won't mail to foreign countries, for example.
Even when I prepared to move from Indiana to New Mexico as a little girl, my fifth-grade teacher asked me if my friends would need extra postage to mail me letters. She told the class I was moving somewhere exotic. She was absolutely correct, even though I wasn't leaving the United States.
No matter what you do or where you stay in the Land of Enchantment, you can expect to take with you the memories of a unique destination, a place that really is like no other. And you won't even need a passport.
Leslie Farrell is a freelance writer and president of Farrell Communications Inc. in Tampa.