Part 1: Sandia Peak
The license plates of New Mexico will assure you it’s the Land of Enchantment, although locally you may hear it referred to as the Land of Entrapment, a nod to the droves of visitors who arrive for vacation/school/yoga retreat/enlightenment/rehab and find themselves lingering far longer than they intended. (Albuquerque even has a pawn shop named for the phenomenon.) I have first-hand experience with this. After three years of grad school in Santa Fe, I rattled home to Jersey in my clunky gray Buick, only to turn her westward again just a few months later. I landed in Burque for another year, just to make sure I was really ready to say goodbye.
I’ve been back on the east coast for six years now, and I still talk about New Mexico all the time. I belong irrevocably to The Garden State, but I also carry a little piece of the desert in my heart. New Mexico had shaped me forever, and in order for Mark to truly know me, he would have to know New Mexico. So this spring, after backing out of a one-year anniversary cruise that turned out to be nothing more than a crappy time-share pitch (ask Mark about it sometime), we found ourselves with some unclaimed vacation days and decided it was finally time to be enchanted.
It’s late afternoon when we descend over the Sandia-Manzano mountain range. The plane itself seems to be craning to catch a glimpse of the foothills in that famous Southwestern light. As I watch the other passengers, I try to remember the magic I felt the first time I experienced these mountains. How would they express their first view of the Sandias? An excited dad describes the window view to his children in a thick Middle-Eastern accent: “It’s brown! New Mexico is brown!” I concede that this is an accurate, if somewhat lackluster, first impression.
It feels strangely normal to haul my luggage through the Albuquerque Sunport. With its gleaming vigas, bronze sculptures, and colorful landscape paintings, it is still the prettiest airport I’ve ever visited. We drive downtown and check in at the modern/historic Hotel Andaluz, where we barely pause to put our bags down before heading back down I-25 and into the Heights. When your goal is to cram four years of experiences into a five day road trip, you can’t afford to waste any time.
First on our itinerary (painstakingly prepared, as always, by Mark), is the Sandia Peak Tramway. “It’s the longest tramway in the world, you know!” I had bragged as we hastily cobbled together our plans back home. I knew this to be true because once upon a time, this fact had been proudly plastered over every shred of promotional material the Sandia Peak Tramway people had ever produced. Yet, when we arrive at the visitors’ center, there are no claims of this kind to be found anywhere. It appears that bragging rights have been revoked. But who has stolen the coveted title? Depends on who you Google: either the “Wings of Tatev” in Armenia, the Norsjö aerial tramway in Sweden, or the Ba Na Hills Cable Car in Da Nang, Vietnam.
We cram into the little metal box like tourist-flavored sardines. Our guide begins a familiar speech peppered with corny jokes as we watch the cliffs pass beneath us in the late afternoon sun. We sway from side to side as our car reaches the connector pole; everyone gasps as we dip haphazardly forward before continuing our ascent.
We disembark, pulling our winter coats on over spring t-shirts, and I lead Mark along the narrow strip of path that clings to the mountain ledge. The air is chilly but the sun is brilliant. The city sprawls before us, the miniature Rio Grande glistening through it. We pause at a fossil embedded in the rock to ponder our insignificance in light of the fact that this 10,000 foot mountain once sat at the bottom of a sea.
A man approaches us. I recognize him as the passenger who had competed with the tour guide’s speech by loudly and enthusiastically sharing the details of his Southwest journey with the entire tramcar. It occurs to me that he has been lazily tailing us since we got off the tram, and I begin to wonder where he falls on the vacation/school/yoga retreat/enlightenment/rehab spectrum of the Entrapment set. He announces that he’s from Philly, then he dives right in: he wants to know if Jesus really died for our sins. We smile blandly, smart enough to recognize a loaded question when we hear one. He searches our faces, repeats the question, assures us that he really needs to know. We tell him that we aren’t quite sure; this seems like the safest response for two people hoping to avoid confrontation with the man standing very close to them at the edge of a very tall mountain.
The gentleman from Philly nods, seemingly satisfied with this answer. He tells us he has come here seeking the truth, then he breaks abruptly into an impromptu hymn. The three of us turn our collective gaze to the lavender valley below as he reminds God of all the hard times, then thanks God for all the good times, for this mountain, for New Mexico. Eventually he thanks us too, then we shake hands and part ways.
It isn’t until he has meandered out of earshot that Mark reveals that he had been prepared to shove our new friend off the mountain at any moment should the need arise. See, we come from a land where eye contact from strangers usually indicates that you are about to be mugged, killed, or strong-armed into buying something you really don’t want. I laugh, because we are surely not in Jersey anymore.
We head back up the trail to the High Finance restaurant, which I am comforted to see still bills itself as a dining experience “above them all!” A couple of State Pen Porters in hand, we watch a furious orange sun dip below the Three Sisters volcanoes, then the lights of Albuquerque spread out below like so many strings of twinkling Christmas.