SANTA FE, N.M. — A year ago, I took a trip back to my hometown to visit family and take in a four-day music festival. I might have done the same this year if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, like a lot of us sequestered this COVID-19 summer, I had to try to make the best of a bad situation when deciding how to spend my vacation time this year.
I sure wasn’t going to spend it at home. I’ve spent too much time there already this year and can feel the walls closing in.
So, eager to get away, but conscious of state-mandated restrictions aimed at reducing virus spread, I set out to cover some new ground in my never-ending quest to travel every highway in New Mexico.
I’ve had my eye on the Enchanted Circle for some time now. I’ve been on the route before, covering stories in Questa and Taos. But in 30 years in the Land of Enchantment, the past eight in the City Different, I’ve never been to Red River or Angel Fire. So, off I went on a three-day, 300-mile, virus-risk-reduced journey through the mountains of northern New Mexico.
I took the scenic high road to Taos – leaving Santa Fe County for the first time in five months – then turned east onto U.S. 64 and found my campsite up a poorly marked Forest Road near Angel Fire.
I spent part of that first socially isolated evening reading. I sometimes re-read “The Wasteland” by my namesake, hoping that one day I’ll understand it.
There was one line of the poem that really resonated this time: “In the mountains, there you feel free.”
I sure did. Free of work responsibilities. Free of cellphone service. Free of having to wear a mask. It felt good.
After a restful night under the stars, I set out to round the 110-mile circle with Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point, at its center.
First stop was Taos. While it was nice to be phone-free for one night, those things can come in handy during an emergency.
The good people at World Cup Café tipped me off I could bum a charge from an outlet at the bandstand on the town Plaza. I wasn’t there long before I met perhaps the most interesting man in the world.
Over the next 20 minutes, Cactus Dave regaled me with enough tales, tidings and testaments to fill a book. In fact, he told me he was going to write one and it was going to be brilliant, and I don’t doubt it.
My quest continued up N.M. 522 to Questa, where the N.M. 38 segment of the circle begins.
Not a lot had changed since I was last there in 2017 to do a story about how the town devastated by the closure of the Chevron molybdenum mine was rebranding itself as the gateway into the newly minted Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument and outdoor adventure.
Questa is a sleepy little town compared to Red River, it turned out. My first impression was, “Wow, this place is hoppin’.”
And, yes, it’s true, there are a lot of out-of-state license plates and every one of them is from Texas.
There were quite a few people walking about and my observation was that most everyone was abiding by our governor’s order to wear a mask in public. How many of them quarantined for two weeks when they got here I do not know.
Perhaps the biggest risk I took on the whole trip was ordering a burger from the walk-up window at the Dairy Bar, which I ate at a picnic table at a park back up the road.
I took a selfie in front of the bar that inspired Ray Wylie Hubbard to write “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” and was off to Eagle Nest.
There were a good number of people fishing at Eagle Nest State Park – none of them feeling the need to wear a mask while maintaining a good distance from fellow anglers – but it wasn’t crowded that weekday afternoon.
These people were New Mexicans, not Texans, as state parks are closed to out-of-staters. Like me, they were angling to escape in New Mexico’s great outdoors the scourge of the virus.
I like taking long walks on the beach, so I did. I even took my shoes off and waded into the water. An unattended fishing pole propped up against a dock suddenly jerked and a girl, cheered on by her family, raced to recover it. But the fish didn’t take.
Nine miles down the road, I stopped to pay my respects at the Vietnam Veterans Chapel, then turned onto N.M. 434 to visit Angel Fire for the first time.
Yup, there are a lot of Texans there, too. They seemed to be taking masks seriously there, as well.
I stopped at a market to pick up some supplies and overheard a man wearing a stars-and-stripes mask compliment another man on his mask, which had TRUMP emblazoned across the front.
I drove up to the ski resort. They were promoting chair lift rides and zipline adventure tours. Maybe next trip.
I closed the Enchanted Circle on my return to my campsite.
I’ve had more fun in my life, but it had been a good day. I met some interesting people and traveled to places I had never been before. Now it was time to lean back in my camp chair and watch the stars turn in the sky.
It felt good to be in the mountains. There, I felt free.