Snow to Desert: Beauty and Joy Along the Way

Yesterday we drove from winter to fall. It was snowing over the peaks when Richard and I left home, so our first stop was to soak in one of our favorite hot springs, Joyful Journey, over Poncha Pass in the northern end of the San Luis Valley. (One of the good things about living along one of North America’s two rift zones–fault lines that split the continent’s crust–is that those same faults provide a way for groundwater to penetrate deep in the crust, where it is heated naturally and rises to the surface as hot springs. Rift zones also bring the potential for major earthquakes–think the San Andres in California–but the faults that dropped our valley floor some 7,000 feet elevation below the neighboring peaks haven’t been active in eons.)

As we left the hot springs, I shot the photo above of the mountains visible from the outdoor pools where we soaked in 107 degree F water: the peaks of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range. The one farthest left is Hunts Peak, a Fourteener, and part of the view from our house on the other side of those mountains.

The snow showers continued on and off as we drove south down the valley. We spotted lots of hawks hunched on utility poles waiting for the weather to clear, not a single sandhill crane (no doubt they all migrated south before the latest storm), and one beautiful golden eagle that made all of the hawks look very small. As we passed Sierra San Antonio (St. Anthony’s Mountain), the volcanic dome that marks the southern edge of the San Luis Valley and our part of the Rockies, we could see sun off in the distance over the high desert in New Mexico. 

And indeed, by the time we wound down the Rio Grande Gorge between Taos and Santa Fe, stopping to visit Richard’s friend, sculptor Mark Saxe, at his Rift Gallery in Rinconada, the snow was gone and we were back in fall. The cottonwoods that have already lost their leaves in our part of the world were just turning gold there. We missed much of the color season this year while Richard was in the hospital in Denver, so it was a treat to go south and see the season unfold again.

We stopped in Santa Fe to eat at the Plaza Cafe for dinner, as a nod to a trip Richard made on this same route 41 years ago as an 18-year-old heading back to Texas to go to college. On that long drive from Salida, he stopped for dinner late one night in Santa Fe and ate at the Plaza before driving on Clines Corners, New Mexico, where he pulled off the road to sleep in his 1950 Ford truck. 

Last night as we drove south out of Santa Fe on the same route Richard took all those decades ago, we watched the sun set over Mt. Taylor, a hundred miles west on the distant horizon. It went down in a ball of golden fire, and the orange glow lingered in the west. Long enough to still be visible by the time we and the highway climbed up onto the high plains east of Albuquerque and into a hellacious east wind blowing sleet and wisps of fog across the pavement in the dark. Not pleasant weather for driving.

This morning we woke to sun peeking through a curd-like layer of rain clouds. We followed a meandering two-lane road down the Pecos River (that’s the Pecos above, winding its way along below red bluffs) thinking to take a scenic route part of the way to Roswell. The route was indeed scenic, but this is New Mexico, so it exactly didn’t go where the map indicated.

It did take us to past this sweet old Catholic church in the tiny town of Puerto de Luna (Door of the Moon), but we had to retrace our route to Santa Rosa and get back on Highway 285, which took us south and east over the high plains under a dappled layer of mackeral clouds that played hide and seek with the light in the most entrancing ways.

By afternoon we had dropped off the grassy plains and into the Chihuahuan Desert, a land of shrubs, grasses, cacti, and wildflowers that display incredible creativity in the genre of “how to stay alive for months and months while waiting for rain.” It’s a subtle and outrageously expansive landscape, one best appreciated on a day like today after a good rain when the desert soil is dotted with rare puddles, the moss that is invisible for 350 days a year appears green and
lush in an ephemeral seemingly miraculous revival before the soil dries out again. On a day like today after a rare rain, desert wildflowers bloom, even in late October.

We stopped to enjoy it at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park outside Carlsbad. (Don’t be put off by the name. It’s not a roadside zoo.) This lovely spot atop a steep butte showcases the different ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert on a trail through sandhills, gypsum buttes with gorgeous layers of glassy crystals, oak woodlands, and other desert habitats. And it provides a safe refuge for Chihuahuan desert fauna who cannot be returned to the wild, like the one-legged burrowing owl, the golden eagle with the broken wing, and the Mexican gray wolves. 

From Carlsbad, we hit the road in earnest and drove steadily southeast across the desert on Highway 285, through Loving, Pecos, and Fort Stockton, where we turned east again, passing by row after row of mesa-top wind turbines that comprise the world’s largest wind farm. (Those turbines don’t look big, but they’re each the height of a 15-story building, standing atop the lonely mesas of west Texas where no buildings rise at all.)

We watched the sun set in a Dreamsicle orange glow in our rear view mirror over the limestone buttes of the Pecos River in west Texas several hundred miles south of where we crossed it at Puerto de Luna this morning, and made it to Sonora in the west edge of the Hill Country just before dark.

If you’re wondering what deep meaning I’m going to pull out of these highlights of nearly 900 miles and two days of road trip, from the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado to the east edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in west Texas, it’s just this: Life is full of beauty and joy, even now when Richard and I live in the shadow of brain cancer. But you only see the beauty and joy if you look.

And there’s Richard, looking.