A New Mexico Getaway for Abby and Richard
My wife Abby and I hadn’t traveled at all since before the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. The last time we went anywhere significant together was Pagosa Springs in October 2019 for our 15th anniversary trip, The Winding Road.
The Road to Taos
We were eager to get on the road again.
Among my goals for this trip was a chance at finally – after 40 years of promising myself to do it – climbing the high point of New Mexico, the 13,167-foot-high Wheeler Peak, near Taos.
We set out from our home in Byng, Oklahoma for the drive to Taos.
Part of our plan was to get away from chain motels, hoping that something local would be more charming and provide us with a better experience, but I didn’t want to pay a fortune for it.
I decided to try the Kachina Lodge in Taos, and it was a great choice. In addition to spacious rooms and a recent remodeling of the entire facility, there was a large courtyard where I could walk Summer the Chihuahua, and the location was within walking distance of the historic Taos Plaza, which I wanted to prowl and photograph.
Taos in the Afternoon
I walked the four blocks from our motel to The Plaza in the center of town. It is much like I remembered it from 1981, and much like the historic Plaza in Sante Fe. It was nothing short of a gorgeous day.
On my first walk to The Plaza, I made friends with Mayé Torres. I gathered from her friendliness that she makes a lot of friends like me as she sits in front of her studio. She seemed sympathetic, empathetic, energetic, kind, fair.
The town of Taos appears to have suffered more than many due to the pandemic. Many businesses appeared shuttered, including iHop, where Abby and I had lunch in 2019. Flags on the streets say, “Taos is art,” but unfortunately, Taos is also a mix of poverty and success.
The Plaza at Taos is a lot like the one in Santa Fe, from the immaculate art studios to the overpriced coffee.
Taos in the Evening
As I was planning this trip, I asked my long-time friend Scott AndersEn if he was interested in hiking to Wheeler Peak with me.
Scott presently lives in Utah, and hikes mountain trails nearly every day, so he seemed like an obvious choice. He was very excited about the idea. He made a two-day drive from Utah, arriving at about 4 p.m.
Scott and I tried with only moderate success to photograph The Plaza in evening light.
We encountered a group of five young people who were making posed selfies on The Plaza.
In the past when I searched for information about Wheeler Peak on the web, most of the accounts painted a bland, colorless picture of rocks and haze, but the actual experience was much better than that, and I hope I have captured at least some of what I thought was a beautiful, inspiring landscape.
Scott and I left Taos at sunrise to be on the trail early. In town and at the trail head, I was a little surprised at how cold it was. I wore jeans and a long sleeved shirt, which I wouldn’t have expected on the first full day of summer.
Hiking to Wheeler Peak was about what I expected: grindingly slow, a challenge to my lungs due to the elevation, and an exercise in bargaining, by which I mean as it got higher and harder, I would make bargains with myself to keep going. “Richard, you can make it to the top of the next switchback. Richard, you can make it to that rock outcropping. Richard, you can take six more steps.”
The last 800 feet or so to the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Mount Walter was the hardest, but also the most inspired part of the climb, since by that point, I was not backing down.
Another reason I never considered backing down was a wild card: a new friend we met at the trail head named Kathy Schoettle. Scott asked her if she’d like to join us, and she was great company. She told us she taught high school and coached softball for a living, and her coaching nature came out as she checked on us constantly, encouraged us when it got difficult, and congratulated us when we met a goal.
There is a lot of talk about one rise or the other being a “false summit,” but if you can read a topographic map, there is no question about which peak is which.
I was surprised to learn on the Wheeler Peak Wikipedia page that the trail we took was relatively new, having been constructed in 2011. It is the steepest route to the top, but also the most direct. The route starts at a hiker’s parking area at Taos Ski Valley, and follows the William’s Lake trail for the first two miles before intersecting with the Wheeler Peak trail, which climbs for two more miles on switchbacks, passing through scree fields and a couple of snow cols.
On our way down, Kathy suggested we make the short hike to neighboring Mount Walter at 13,141 feet. Although it was just a five minute walk, it made it technically possible to top two 13,000+ mountains in one day.
The total elevation change is 2982 feet. It took us a little more than three hours to get to the top.
This hike was also much more beautiful and interesting than what I found out about it on the web. My take is that few real photographers actually make it up there.
The route back down the mountain followed the same trail, and made clear to me what wasn’t clear on the way up: how steep the trail was above its intersection with the Williams Lake trail.
Looking for Images, and The Church at Night
The next morning I decided to strike out to the north and find some roads I’d never driven, and try to find some interesting images.
That evening, with Abby snug with Summer the Chihuahua in our charming lodge room, I drove the few miles south to Rancho de Taos, home of the historic, and beautiful, San Francisco de Asís Mission Church.
Abby and I photographed the famous church in 2010, on our sixth anniversary vacation The Sixth Sense, but the light was flat and we only spent a few minutes there.
The front of the church actually faces east, meaning the sun set behind it.
Many photographers have taken a crack at photographing this immaculate house of worship over the years, including the great Ansel Adams, who talks about photographing it in his excellent book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. His photo in the book was made in 1929, of the back of the church.
“The front aspects of the church are moderately impressive… it is the rear elevation that that defines this building as one of the great architectural monuments of America,” he says in his book.
Rancho de Taos was a very different place in 1929. It was far less cluttered, and, I am sorry to say, less riddled with poverty.
When I pulled in to the parking lot, for example, I saw a very run-down car parked at the edge of the lot, with someone I couldn’t really see hunched down in the driver’s seat. I immediately thought he/she was waiting on a drug deal, so I went around the block, where I saw some amazing, depressingly impoverished homes.
I returned in about 10 minutes and saw another very run-down vehicle pulled up next to it. Within a couple of minutes, the deal was done and both vehicles left.
I set up a tripod and began making five-frame bracketed exposures which I would then blend to make high dynamic range (HDR) images. I also added some light to the shadowy left side of the scene with an LED light stick.
The Winding Road Home
Thursday we checked out of our motel room and headed south for a leisurely drive home. We planned to be in Madrid, New Mexico for lunch, and eat at our favorite restaurant in the world, The Hollar.
Once there, we found it was a beautiful day to eat outside. Abby had a shrimp basket, and I enjoyed a veggie burger and sweet potato fries.
We drove east, stopping at Clines Corners so Abby could shop for a souvenir or two. While we were there, it stormed on us, then as we departed, a dust storm kicked up just to the west. We outran it, but stopped to photograph it twice.