The Summit, June 2021

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.

Photographing the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos at night was on the shot list I composed when planning this trip. Abby and I had made a few images of it in 2010. This image, made about 30 minutes after sunset, was exactly as I had envisioned it.
Photographing the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos at night was on the shot list I composed when planning this trip. Abby and I had made a few images of it in 2010. This image, made about 30 minutes after sunset, was exactly as I had envisioned it.

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.

Summer the Chihuahua investigates our new surroundings at the Kachina Lodge in Taos, New Mexico.
Summer the Chihuahua investigates our new surroundings at the Kachina Lodge in Taos, New Mexico.

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.

The exterior of the Kachina Lodge was recently repainted with native art.
The exterior of the Kachina Lodge was recently repainted with native art.
Abby sits outside our Kachina Lodge room with Summer the Chihuahua.
Abby sits outside our Kachina Lodge room with Summer the Chihuahua.

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.

Steel flowers spin in a light breeze as I walked the four blocks from our lodging to The Plaza in Taos.
Steel flowers spin in a light breeze as I walked the four blocks from our lodging to The Plaza in Taos.
Visitors look over the various shops and galleries on The Plaza in Taos. Abby and I have made many similar images in nearby Santa Fe.
Visitors look over the various shops and galleries on The Plaza in Taos. Abby and I have made many similar images in nearby Santa Fe.
I love a good cup of coffee, but I'd had my fill by the time I passed this Taos cafe.
I love a good cup of coffee, but I’d had my fill by the time I passed this Taos cafe.

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.

Mayé Torres smiles for passersby at her gallery on The Plaza in Taos.
Mayé Torres smiles for passersby at her gallery on The Plaza in Taos.
Torres left this typewriter on the sidewalk in front of her gallery, and invited anyone who wanted to type something with it. I think this is a great idea that I might do someday myself.
Torres left this typewriter on the sidewalk in front of her gallery, and invited anyone who wanted to type something with it. I think this is a great idea that I might do someday myself.
Mayé Torres gestures as she greets a visitor to her gallery on The Plaza in Taos.
Mayé Torres gestures as she greets a visitor to her gallery on The Plaza in Taos.

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.

I used a polarizer to set this colorful metal sculpture off from the midday sky.
I used a polarizer to set this colorful metal sculpture off from the midday sky.

The Plaza at Taos is a lot like the one in Santa Fe, from the immaculate art studios to the overpriced coffee.

This bronze sculpture of Taos founder Antonio José Martínez was dedicated in 2006.
This bronze sculpture of Taos founder Antonio José Martínez was dedicated in 2006.

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 AndersEn attempts to photograph some blue lodge poles on The Plaza in Taos.
Scott AndersEn attempts to photograph some blue lodge poles on The Plaza in Taos.

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 looked around a bit in the late afternoon before trying to find something to eat. This view looks southwest in The Plaza.
Scott and I looked around a bit in the late afternoon before trying to find something to eat. This view looks southwest in The Plaza.

Scott and I tried with only moderate success to photograph The Plaza in evening light.

The Plaza in Taos begins to take on mixed light at dusk.
The Plaza in Taos begins to take on mixed light at dusk.
I was happy to be prowling around The Plaza in Taos, looking for photo ops, and it shows. Of note: it was cool enough for me to be wearing a long-sleeved pullover.
I was happy to be prowling around The Plaza in Taos, looking for photo ops, and it shows. Of note: it was cool enough for me to be wearing a long-sleeved pullover.

We encountered a group of five young people who were making posed selfies on The Plaza.

This group of young people were attempting to make an energetic group photo at dusk on The Plaza.
This group of young people were attempting to make an energetic group photo at dusk on The Plaza.
The setting sun mixes with lights from shops on The Plaza.
The setting sun mixes with lights from shops on The Plaza.
Lights come up in shops on The Plaza as the golden moment becomes the blue hour in Taos.
Lights come up in shops on The Plaza as the golden moment becomes the blue hour in Taos.

Wheeler Peak

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.

Your humble host points to his trail map of the route to Wheeler Peak, the high point of New Mexico at 13,167 feet.
Your humble host points to his trail map of the route to Wheeler Peak, the high point of New Mexico at 13,167 feet.
You can see our entire route in this Google Maps screen shot.
You can see our entire route in this Google Maps screen shot.
Scott and I pose for a photo at the Williams Lake trail head.
Scott and I pose for a photo at the Williams Lake trail head.

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.

Not far from the Williams Lake trail head, we came across this beautiful rockfall.
Not far from the Williams Lake trail head, we came across this beautiful rockfall.
I thought this tree looked a bit like Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
I thought this tree looked a bit like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
Early on in our hike, I made this image looking southwest toward Lake Fork Peak.
Early on in our hike, I made this image looking southwest toward Lake Fork Peak.
We heard - then saw - dozens of marmots on the Wheeler Peak trail.
We heard – then saw – dozens of marmots on the Wheeler Peak trail.
Ground squirrels also kept an eye on us as we climbed.
Ground squirrels also kept an eye on us as we climbed.
Despite it being the first full day of summer, there were still several sections of snow to cross on the Wheeler Peak trail.
Despite it being the first full day of summer, there were still several sections of snow to cross on the Wheeler Peak trail.
With a half-eaten apple in his mouth, Scott took a wrong step and ended up knee-deep in snow.
With a half-eaten apple in his mouth, Scott took a wrong step and ended up knee-deep in snow.

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.”

Hopefully, images like this one by Scott will help express the alpine beauty of the Wheeler Peak trail.
Hopefully, images like this one by Scott will help express the alpine beauty of the Wheeler Peak trail.

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.

Sections of the Wheeler Peak trail above the tree line were quite steep and rocky.
Sections of the Wheeler Peak trail above the tree line were quite steep and rocky.
Scott grinds up one of the steeper switchbacks near the top of the trail. I hope this image helps illustrate how steep this trail was in places.
Scott grinds up one of the steeper switchbacks near the top of the trail. I hope this image helps illustrate how steep this trail was in places.

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.

Kathy makes a good pace across switchbacks in the beautiful alpine surroundings of the Wheeler Peak trail.
Kathy makes a good pace across switchbacks in the beautiful alpine surroundings of the Wheeler Peak trail.
Kathy Schoettle, Scott AndersEn and I pose on the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Mount Walter, both 13,000+ feet peaks. By the time you've made the saddle, you've made the peaks.
Kathy Schoettle, Scott AndersEn and I pose on the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Mount Walter, both 13,000+ feet peaks. By the time you’ve made the saddle, you’ve made the peaks.
Kathy photographs Scott on the trail.
Kathy photographs Scott on the trail.

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.

Looking west from near the top of the Wheeler Peak trail shows peaks on the other side of the valley, and, well below, Williams Lake.
Looking west from near the top of the Wheeler Peak trail shows peaks on the other side of the valley, and, well below, Williams Lake.

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.

Kathy and Scott make a final push from the saddle to the peak.
Kathy and Scott make a final push from the saddle to the peak.

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.

This view from Mount Walter shows Wheeler Peak on the left.
This view from Mount Walter shows Wheeler Peak on the left.

The total elevation change is 2982 feet. It took us a little more than three hours to get to the top.

Kathy, Scott and I pose for a photo made by a fellow hiker at the top of Wheeler Peak.
Kathy, Scott and I pose for a photo made by a fellow hiker at the top of Wheeler Peak.

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.

Kathy, Scott and I shared Kathy's peanut M&Ms as our reward for making it to the top.
Kathy, Scott and I shared Kathy’s peanut M&Ms as our reward for making it to the top.
Several hikers brought their dogs up with them, and the dogs all seemed content with the climb. Maybe one day I could bring Hawken the Irish wolfhound along with me.
Several hikers brought their dogs up with them, and the dogs all seemed content with the climb. Maybe one day I could bring Hawken the Irish wolfhound along with me.

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.

You can see the  Scott’s trip reports from this hike here (link), and here (link.)

Your host celebrates his arrival on the high point of New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, at 13,167 feet above sea level.
Your host celebrates his arrival on the high point of New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, at 13,167 feet above sea level.

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.

Scott made this image of Abby and our Chihuahua, Summer, with my Fuji X-T10 mirrorless.
Scott made this image of Abby and our Chihuahua, Summer, with my Fuji X-T10 mirrorless.
This is one of my quintessential images of New Mexico; a lonely road that seems to disappear into nowhere.
This is one of my quintessential images of New Mexico; a lonely road that seems to disappear into nowhere.
The town of Arroyo Seco is at the bend in a highway, and it seems like the residents are aiming to make it the "next Taos," with a sense of smallness and charm Taos had decades ago.
The town of Arroyo Seco is at the bend in a highway, and it seems like the residents are aiming to make it the “next Taos,” with a sense of smallness and charm Taos had decades ago.
This is a color image from the same truck in Arroyo Seco as in the last image. This truck is in Arroyo Seco print and web products, so my guess it someone placed it in the middle of town on purpose to attract business.
This is a color image from the same truck in Arroyo Seco as in the last image. This truck is in Arroyo Seco print and web products, so my guess it someone placed it in the middle of town on purpose to attract business.
Large wooden rabbits stand at the entrance to ... something. There was no sign, but it was clearly home to an art installation of some sort.
Large wooden rabbits stand at the entrance to … something. There was no sign, but it was clearly home to an art installation of some sort.
I found this traffic mirror - placed to fill a blind spot in the curvy road - on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
I found this traffic mirror – placed to fill a blind spot in the curvy road – on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
I found this fresh peace rose on a fence post at a cemetery on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
I found this fresh peace rose on a fence post at a cemetery on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
A statue of The Christ hangs on a plywood sign at a cemetery on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
A statue of The Christ hangs on a plywood sign at a cemetery on Arroyo-Hondo Road.
I spotted this makeshift roadside memorial on U.S. 64 near the Rio Grande Gorge.
I spotted this makeshift roadside memorial on U.S. 64 near the Rio Grande Gorge.
I saw, and crossed, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge first in 1982.
I saw, and crossed, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge first in 1982.
A network of easy trails stretches south from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
A network of easy trails stretches south from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Water flows and falls on the Rio Grande 800 feet below, so far below that you can't really hear it.
Water flows and falls on the Rio Grande 800 feet below, so far below that you can’t really hear it.
I don't know who made this bold tag on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, but it was fresh.
I don’t know who made this bold tag on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, but it was fresh.

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.

This was my setup for the first in a series of images at dusk at the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos.
This was my setup for the first in a series of images at dusk at the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos.

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.

The back of the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church faces the road, and the parking lot there is home to a steak house. It is a handsome structure, but I am not as impressed with it as Ansel was.
The back of the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church faces the road, and the parking lot there is home to a steak house. It is a handsome structure, but I am not as impressed with it as Ansel was.

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.

This is a single frame, lightly-edited version of what I was trying to accomplish photographing the church in Rancho de Taos. The greenish light coming from behind the bush on the right was from my LED light stick.
This is a single frame, lightly-edited version of what I was trying to accomplish photographing the church in Rancho de Taos. The greenish light coming from behind the bush on the right was from my 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.

With Summer in her lap, and wearing a new Taos shirt I bought for her, Abby smiles as we drive the winding mountain road southeast of Taos.
With Summer in her lap, and wearing a new Taos shirt I bought for her, Abby smiles as we drive the winding mountain road southeast of Taos.

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.

Abby and I photographed each other with Summer the Chihuahua at The Hollar restaurant in Madrid, New Mexico.
Abby and I photographed each other with Summer the Chihuahua at The Hollar restaurant in Madrid, New Mexico.
Lunch at The Hollar is Madrid, New Mexico, is almost enough reason by itself to drive to New Mexico.
Lunch at The Hollar is Madrid, New Mexico, is almost enough reason by itself to drive to New Mexico.

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.

Thunderstorm winds kicked up an impressive dust storm just as we were leaving Clines Corners, New Mexico.
Thunderstorm winds kicked up an impressive dust storm just as we were leaving Clines Corners, New Mexico.
As we drove east toward home and had escaped the dust storm, this segment of rainbow appeared.
As we drove east toward home and had escaped the dust storm, this segment of rainbow appeared.
I spent nearly an hour photographing San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos as the post-sunset light matured, mostly shooting five-frame brackets to assemble as HDR images later. This might be my favorite image of this trip.
I spent nearly an hour photographing San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos as the post-sunset light matured, mostly shooting five-frame brackets to assemble as HDR images later. This might be my favorite image of this trip.