NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 2

(Part 1 here.)

Bandelier National Monument

I haven’t budgeted enough time for this place. This is obvious the second the road starts down into the canyon, where the long shadows of one wall already reach across the aspens for the other. The old-man ranger by long practice seems to recognize the error in my expression: he offers a minute-by-minute sequence of things to see, optimized—without my asking—to avoid crossing paths with the other late visitors and their loud, sticky children. That’s a professional.

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I follow his advice and have a few minutes in the cliff dwellings with no one else in sight. I can run my hands along the polished wooden ladders, lie flat in the whitewashed cave, and imagine ritual fires spitting sparks into the night.

Ghost Ranch

This is Georgia O’Keefe’s old place, now a retreat center for the Presbyterian Church. A low-slung ranch building houses a dusty museum with reconstructed pottery and unlocked drawers full of fossils; table signs in a clattering mess hall welcome attendees of a men’s wellness clinic and an art camp. I feel, unusual for me, both conspicuous and safe.

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The trails trace white-sand river washes edged with cottonwoods that light up in the morning. They traverse the base of flawless red rock walls, smooth as if they’ve been cut from butter, ascend boulder-strewn gullies and top out on the mesa. The horizon is empty and the desert enormous.

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I thought the ranch was named by its new owners for the ghost—father and son—but when night falls in the campground the wind comes moaning through the canyon to change my mind.

La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs

This is my favorite kind of BLM site: a clear sign on the road followed by a dirt lot and no explanation. And the other classic feature of a BLM site—that is, hard-eyed, meth-y men staring at me in the parking lot—doesn’t appear until I’m getting in the car to leave. I’m so pleased with this timing that I smile and wave.

The petroglyphs themselves are excellent: there are more, better preserved, than I’ve ever see anywhere else. You’ll spot one—maybe a thunderbird or Kokopelli—and be impressed enough with that, then find that dozens more materialize out of the boulder field before your eyes. Turns out they’ve been there all along.

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The World Gay Rodeo Finals

I like a nice set of three and a rodeo anyhow; this year I’ve been to a black rodeo and a Mormon rodeo and am obviously not about to miss this. Except that when I arrive—to the massive fairgrounds complex on Albuquerque’s sprawling southern edge—there is no sign of any such thing. I wander past empty parking lots, a Chinese lantern festival, the FFA barn (prominently sponsored by McDonalds), a furniture expo in teardown … no trailers, no signs, nothing.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve fallen for a mean Trump-country joke when I hear, on the shifting wind, the faintest notes of Diana Ross. A-ha, I think, and when I follow the sound to its source I find, with his eyes closed, clutching the microphone, under the steady gaze of the brick-house drag queen judge in a rhinestone vest, the final contestant in the lip-sync contest.

Honey, you’re my one shining moment
And if I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you
If I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you

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Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)