Thursday, 23 October 2014

Santa Fe, Los Alamos (the town that didn’t exist) and Taos

The start of the Kasha-Katuwe walk

A few more days and a few more experiences, but our time in the US is getting very short. This time next week we should be in Hanoi, Vietnam, grappling with a new culture and jet-lag.

I don't know what she's doing. I told her it looked like a toadstood, so maybe she thinks she's a fairy!
The start of the slot canyon
We are now in Taos, New Mexico, which is about a two hour drive from Santa Fe, where we spent four days in ‘Americas Best Value Inn’ which was actually a very pleasant experience. The rooms were pretty good and it had a good complimentary breakfast, an indoor pool and Jacuzzi plus a games and fitness room, all for less than $60 per night (for both of us).

Santa Fe is the last town on the old Route 66 we’ll be visiting on this trip and it’s a grand old town, the oldest and highest state capital in the US. We visited, on Sunday, the little known Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument after being tipped off to it by Carrie-Ann at our Albuquerque airbnb stay. It’s a slot canyon, carved in old volcanic rock and hardened ash that has fabulous layers of different coloured rocks that weaves a narrow (very narrow in places) course through high sided walls, eventually leading up on to the top, giving expansive views around. People we met on the way were mainly locals who were surprised we knew about it, so it pays to stay at airbnb places as you find out local stuff!

The view from the summit
A plaque on an ordinary building in Santa Fe. This is where people 'disappeared'
Los Alamos is the other local place I wanted to visit. Classed as the ‘Town that Didn’t Exist’ in WWII, it was the place that boffins of the US, UK and clever people who had fled Germany to avoid persecution went to and ‘disappeared off the map and records’ to develop the atom bomb. It was one of about 10 sites around the US that developed discreet parts of ‘The Bomb’, but Los Alamos was the place where they all came together under the code name ‘The Manhattan Project’ or, as it was originally named ‘The Manhattan Engineering District’. 
Santa Fe town
It all started following a letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklyn Roosevelt warning him that German engineers were working on the bomb and it was imperative for the US to get there first.

The Plaza Santa Fe
Los Alamos is a quite large town built on the top of a Mesa surrounded by canyons, on the slope of an extinct volcano and is in an isolated and hidden place, just the ideal location for such an operation. It’s still a major employer in the field of nuclear and environmental physics at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, so we could only visit the museum, which not only details the history of the bomb development and the thought process President Truman went through to justify using it rather than risking hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides from a ground invasion of Japan, but it goes into nuclear theory and its development over the years to date. Fascinating!

Santa Fe central square
More Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe is also a great place to eat and it was all on our doorstep, but mostly across the very busy, three lane each way dual carriageway that is Route 66. Best to use the crossing, but even when all the cars stopped and we commenced a brisk walk across eight lanes (two extra one’s for left turning traffic at the lights) plus the central reservation, we only just made it in time before the lights went green and eight lanes of traffic started accelerating! 
The Santa Fe Express
How do disabled people get on!? We tried the Vietnamese restaurant, just to get an idea for our forthcoming trip and the Jackie wanted to try the ‘Souper Salad’ restaurant. All you can eat salad buffet – salad!? I wasn’t keen, but they had Mexican stuff as well, plenty of chillis to add to the salad, plenty of cake, custard, jelly, cream and an ice cream machine, so I was well pleased and very, very full!

I didn't mention that we went climbing, but we did on our way to Los Alamos. This was the route to the climbing crag. 'Park by house 719 in Meadow Lane, White Rock and walk down the path between 719 and 721. Walk to the edge of the cliff and scramble down, then follow the path down below the first set of crags to some below' we read on the internet. This was the bottom of the scramble down, where now?
This was the topo map we got off the internet, the only info we had other than vague directions of where it was
We scrambled around from crag to crag until we found this and decided this looked like the topo photo above. we did 4 routes, numbers 12, 7, 11 and 10 in the table below. The red crosses on the routes are the position of the bolts we clip into, but you can't see them on our photo
Here's an enlarged part of the topo photo above
This was the view we had from the crag
Entering the Taos Pueblo
Our drive to Taos was along ‘the High Road’ which, along with ‘The Low Road’ are supposed to be very scenic drives. The High Road was quite scenic and we’re glad we took it rather than the Highway, but it was nothing that special. As we had plenty of time, we went on to the Taos Pueblo, which is a settlement of dwellings and ceremonial buildings of Pueblo Indians and has been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years. 

The 150 year old church
With our guide outside the bread ovens
The Adobe buildings are constructed of earth, straw and water mixed together and baked in the sun in a construction of mud bricks and a final mud covering (Adobe is the Spanish word for ‘mud brick’). A couple of the buildings were described by our guide as being more than 1000 years old, but as they require annual recovering and major maintenance, we wonder just how much of the original remains! 
The church is catholic and, although the present one is only 150 years old, there was an original built by the Spanish in the 1600’s in order to convert the natives to Christianity. It was burnt down in protest some years later, rebuilt with the natives consent, blown up again by the US military and rebuilt again in its present form!

Interesting story here. You see that guy on his phone, sitting outside his Adobe shop? Inside he had, among Native Indian artifacts, a book by Helen Mirren. When we asked him about it he said he and her dated for a while and became lovers. He said he was in a play 20 years ago with Helen Mirren, who was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and he got to know her. Many years later she came and found him and presented him with the book.
The Rio Grand Gorge bridge
Still early, we drove out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge as Fred had told us how impressive it is. We drove across flat, semi desert land wondering just where it was. The signpost said only a mile, but it was flat land with apparently nothing to see. Reduced speed notices and a flashing sign warning of congestion told us we must be near and then the only sign we could see was what appeared to be a barrier either side of the road ahead. As we got to it there was a huge gash in the land and, as we went over the bridge we looked down nearly 800ft to the Rio Grande river below, quite amazing! 

And there's the view looking straight down!
Parked the car and walked back onto the bridge for a vertigo inducing (if you’re that way inclined) experience of looking straight down to the river churning into rapids so far below. A white-water rafting experience of that river looks like it might be fun! Back in the car and onto Earthship, a community of off-the-grid houses built to be as eco-friendly as possible, using only renewable sources. On the drive back along the flat road Jackie suddenly said ‘What’s that in the road?’ I hadn’t spotted anything, but stopped, turned the car round and went back. 

The Earthship community
The best picture I got of the tarantula
Jackie jumped out of the car and ran back to see the male tarantula spider I’d unwittingly run over! Oh well, back round again and off we went again until she again shouted. I stopped and we both ran back to see another male tarantula spider walking across the road. It’s not going to live long in the middle of this busy road, but I’m not going to move it! I got close with the camera and took a few photos, but as it was moving they were all a bit blurred, this is the best I got, being a male it is much smaller than the big female, but he’s still pretty impressive!

Today's walk up through the ski resort to Williams Lake
Finally we arrived at our next airbnb home stay at Andrea’s in Taos. She lives on her own and has a great house in Taos, renting out her two spare bedrooms through the airbnb site. She was originally from Sweden, grew up skiing near Stockholm and came here as a student twenty odd years ago. Although Taos is in New Mexico and in semi desert it stands at 7000ft, rising to about 10,000ft a few miles away at the Taos Valley Ski Area. 
Through a light dusting of snow
This appears to be not your average beginners resort but an area for intermediate, advanced and ‘off your head’ skiers! Andrea seems to fit into the latter type as she coaches children in, not just off piste skiing, but wilderness skiing where you hike up hill with your skis (you’re not allowed to ski tour with skins in the resort apparently) and then ski down in the most extreme way over rugged terrain, making as many leaps off craggy edges as possible, some with drops of up to 10m apparently! 
That's quite a big cat paw print!
She coaches school teams that compete around the US and the world, so she has been to many top class ski destinations around the world. In the summer, she hangs up her skis and takes people out white water rafting and, yes, she regularly takes rafting trips down the Rio Grande Gorge and under that bridge we looked over earlier. Wow!

Today we took a walk (hike) up a track from the Taos ski area up to Williams Lake, a 2 mile, 900ft ascent hike up to an altitude of 11,040ft (3365m). Not too far, but at that altitude the lungs are really sucking in as much air with 25% reduced pressure as possible and, although the ski area is not open yet, it won’t be long as a light covering of snow was on the ground and the temperature was only 5 or 6 degrees C. 
At Williams Lake with spectacular scenery
As we walked past the ski lifts we could see the reputation this area has, steep interesting slopes – we want to come back here in the winter and ski, but probably not to Andreas standards! Further up we saw a few chipmunks and squirrels hopping about and a few small cat tracks in the snow, but then we saw some very big cat tracks, someone had been walking on this very recently and it was big! We followed the tracks for a while and then they went off our track and across uphill into the trees, were there two big eyes watching us from the woods we wondered. We decided it would be a Cougar or Mountain Lion and I would have loved to have got a photo of it, but probably not to get too close!

We were told this was a type of Jay
At the lake
Last night after we arrived at Andreas we sat chatting for ages as we got on so well. Just before we arrived she had cooked a big plateful of cookies (biscuits to us) and, my favourite: apple crumble and custard! Unbelievable, what a host, so we sat down to tea, cookies and apple crumble and just chatted, us finally going out to eat and Andrea going out to meet her friend for the evening. We got back to an empty house and I thought I’d sit down, sort out the photos and write this blog. Just then there was a knock at the door and Joseph, the other house guest arrived and what a great bloke he is. 
An interesting sculpture of George Washington in Taos Plaza
He’s mid-thirties, originally from California, but resident in New York for a few years now to complete his master’s degree in (I think) sociology and then working to rehabilitate prisoners. Fed up with life in New York he’s moving back to California to live and is doing a road trip via Canada and here on the way (it’s a long trip!). He was so interested in what we had done and started taking notes of where to go on his way, then interested in our experiences in Nepal as his girlfriend is Nepali and he’s considering going to Kathmandu to live (yikes!) that time went on. Andrea returned home, we all carried on talking and now it’s 10pm. No photos done, no blog written, but worst of all Joseph hadn’t eaten, hadn’t even bought his stuff in or seen his room. Most restaurants were now closed for the night, but we had all had a great night! He’s apparently stopping tonight as well, but Andrea is out, so we may go out for a meal with Joseph and find out a bit more about his life. Stopping at airbnb houses is fabulous, you just wouldn’t see this sort of life in Motels!
Another sculpture and a painting in Taos Plaza. The whole area is filled with galleries, how do they all survive? They are all excellent works of art, but are there enough buyers to support them all?

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