The 2013 New Mexico National Tour 



                                                              Louis Mraz

                                                    A personal perspective 



The New Mexico National Tour was held in October.  A goodly number of Hi Country Regional Group members attended, but this story is my personal perspective.  The Tour to the Tour was scheduled to leave Denver early on Saturday morning, October 12th.  I was intending to drive my usually dependable ’51 Mercury.  A late Friday afternoon test drive to make sure everything was working OK went just fine.  Upon arriving home, I tried to put the car in reverse, intending to back up, but nothing happened.  According to Professor Sawin, the shifting tube in the steering column had apparently failed.  So now what?  Because my ’53 Mercury is out of service at the moment (needs some front end work, as yet uncompleted)), there was only one other choice, my stock 239 Y block powered ’54 Ford Victoria. 


Saturday, October 12th.  The Ford was loaded up, I said a small prayer, and off we went on a bright and early Saturday morning.  Since I had not driven the car much this summer, and had not test-driven it in advance of leaving for the tour, I was trusting that everything would be fine.  Departing Morrison on US 285 we went up and over Kenosha Pass (10,001 ft) and Red Hill Pass (9993 ft), on thru South Park, then over Trout Creek Pass (9346 ft).  The car was running smooth and nicely.  The day was bright, sunny, and crisp, with impressive scenery to delight the eye.  Everything was right with the world.  Lunch was at the Country Bounty Restaurant in Salida, a very nice place to stop.  If you can snag a piece (it goes very quickly), I recommend their chocolate moose pie!!!  It is worth a special trip.  Leaving Salida, we went over Poncha Pass (9010 ft) on our way to the San Luis Valley and Monte Vista.  An opportunity to stop presented itself at Saguache.  This is a small town, and things were pretty slow, even for a fall Saturday afternoon.  But the local consignment/antique store was open, and who can resist a bargain?  We helped to keep the town green, got some really good stuff, and the best part, inexpensively.  Everybody needs more stuff --- right?  Unscheduled stops like this are part of the fun when touring.  The car continued to run beautifully.  There is nothing (old car wise) quite as nice as blowing the cobwebs out of the machinery.  That evening we had a bit of wine and cheese and then dinner with the other Hi Country folks traveling with us.  Great fun and fellowship.   


Sunday, October 13th.  We departed Monte Vista early in order to arrive in Antonito at 9:30 or so. Why?  Because Antonito is one of the terminals for the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad, and we wanted to see and experience the steam engine and train depart for the trip to Chama.  Seeing a vintage steam get ready and then wind up and start to move is a sight not to be missed.  It is a very focused (and noisy) reminder of the way things used to be.  We were also on our way to Chama, following the beautiful Conejos River for part of the journey.  The trees along the banks were resplendent in their fall finery.  Leaving the river valley, we went up and over La Manga pass (10,230 ft) and Cumbres Pass (10,022 ft), each a good second overdrive gear climb.  Drivers of the cars going the other way did double takes!  What was that old Ford doing up here in the middle of nowhere?  Beautiful fall colors, bright blue sky, and great mountain scenery, not to mention a very interesting drive was the order of the day.  I’d do it all again.  As noted, one of the more interesting aspects of driving a vintage Ford way out in mountain country is the typical reaction of drivers going in the opposite direction.  Waves, thumbs up, pictures taken, and high fives of course, but more usual are the looks of absolute disbelief at what they’re seeing sharing the road with them.  The astonished looks were priceless.


 Arriving in Chama, we quickly found our accommodations, the Elk Horn Lodge, which has been a visitor mainstay for a long time.  It was great fun, and took me way back in time to when I first started to travel --- and that was a long time ago.  The Lodge has both tourist type cabins and old style (but nice) motel rooms.  We had a cabin that featured an Americana type theme, complete with quilts and wall hangings.  The lady behind the check-in desk was also the owner, and an author as well.  Of course I had to buy a book.  Visiting the “office” was always fun, and the coffee provided free of charge was always hot.  Oscar, the lodge cat, was always there to greet us in his most welcoming fashion.  Oscar was a stray the owner picked up in Albuquerque, who found his role in life greeting visitors to the Lodge.  We quickly discovered the river running behind the Lodge, and more importantly, the walking trail along side the water.  We also had the pleasure of watching a group of deer munch their way across the grass lawn.  Visiting with the other tour participants staying at the Lodge was a pleasure.  The parking lot was full of interesting vehicles and owners, along with the usual tire kicking that goes in such situations.                                           


Monday, October 14th.  We spent the better part of three days in Chama, and did not regret a minute.  Visiting the center of town, with its collection of small shops, was most interesting and we did not leave empty handed.  Monday saw us visiting the nearby town of Los Ojas, where we stopped at Terra Wools (a great weaving shop) as well as the small business, Otra Vuelta Tire Recycling, located directly across the street.  This small shop specializes in making door mats, pickup truck bed liners, and similar products from recycled tires.  All the work is done on the premises by the owner.  The process is quite fascinating, results in an interesting line of products, and is not at all messy.  We purchased three mats.  Had we not visited Chama, we would never have known about these places.  Monday afternoon was also the guided tour of the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad yards and shops for National Tour participants.  Led by a knowledgeable individual, the visit was quite fascinating.  Monday was a busy day, which ended with a wine and cheese party to help folks meet each other.                                  


Tuesday, October 15th.  This was the day for the long awaited Cumbres and Toltec steam powered narrow gauge train ride.  The trip is an all day adventure with a nice hot lunch included in the price.  It was a chilly morning, but the coaches were enclosed, the comfortable seats were reserved, and to top it off, hot coffee was available.  What more could you possibly want?  We left more or less on time, and started chugging up the mountain.  A hard working coal fired steam engine does produce a lot of black smoke!  Overall, the scenery was spectacular, the fall colors gorgeous, and the long views splendid.  The road crossings were interesting, as we watched the rail fan folks who were there to watch the train go by.  The working railroad stuff --- bridges, passing tracks, trestles, water towers, tunnels, cuts into the side of the mountain, etc. were delightful.  Warm sun, blue sky, fluffy white clouds, high snow capped mountains (as well as an occasional patch beside the tracks) and brilliant yellow aspen trees made the day memorable.  It is hard not to be continually looking outside the coach for the view of the engine working ahead.  The experience (including --- occasionally --- cinders from that same hard working steam engine chugging up 10,000 ft mountains) is not to be missed.  It is an opportunity, not unlike driving our cars, to participate in a way of life now mostly gone from our normal daily experience.  One trip was not enough --- there is simple too much to see, absorb, experience, and enjoy.                          


Wednesday, October 16th.   While we were in Chama, the weather turned colder and occasionally cloudy.  The folks driving open cars conceded there was now a bit of a nip in the air, and a couple of them went out and bought gloves.  Wednesday morning we all awoke to find a dusting of snow, perhaps an inch or two, on the cars.  Things like that can happen in October when the town elevation is close to 9000 feet.  The snow did not hurt anything or change any plans, but it certainly did give a different look to the countryside.  All the green pine trees and other evergreens had a lovely jacket of fluffy white snow, just like the images you see on picture post cards.  Off we went on our way to Taos, steadily climbing and crossing Brazos Summit (10,500 ft), then on to Tres Piedras and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  On the way over the summit, we passed a gaggle of 356 Porsche coupes making really good time (translation: they were moving fast) going in the opposite direction.  That is certainly something you do not see everyday, much less way out in the middle of nowhere and way up in the New Mexico mountains in October.  I wonder if they were as surprised to see our old Fords, as we were to see their vintage vehicles?  Most of the tour group stopped in the rest/parking area adjacent to the bridge.  The bridge is an awesome sight, and a great bit of engineering.  You can walk out onto and across the structure using the sidewalks provided.  Mid way across, look down --- 650 feet way down --- to the river far below.  Your immediate reaction is to hold onto the bridge railing --- tightly!!  At this point, the Rio Grande has cut a deep and steep sided gorge into the otherwise gently rolling high desert countryside.  It is, to say the least, an impressive sight and well worth a stop. 


The tour arrived in Taos a bit after midday.  Taos, sitting in the shadow of the Sangre de Christo Mountains is always interesting.  Many folks on the tour went down to the Plaza, which is the center of town.  Art, in its many and varied forms, is the big thing in Taos, and there are lots of galleries to indulge your interests.  Some folks also toured the Taos Pueblo, formally founded in 1320 AD, but older than that.  And some folks just hung out in the motel parking lot and visited.  For me, the frosting on the cake was a parking lot conversation with gentleman from Australia.  He was just astounded that we were all driving these vintage Fords on what amounted to a motoring vacation, and (I think) would have tagged along if he could have arranged it.  For those of us interested in a bit more scenery and great driving, a sub tour featured the Enchanted Circle Loop (Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest, Bobcat Pass [a modest 9800 ft], and Angle Fire), which started and ended in Taos.  No matter how you spent your afternoon, a good time was had by all. 


Thursday, October 14th.  Setting off from Taos, the tour group drove south on SR 68, the “High Road” along the Rio Grande River, which was another very pretty run.  The thick tree growth along the river (again) showed great fall coloration.  The first stop of the day was at the “Classical Gas Museum” in Embudo.    This place, which is a fascinating assemblage of “stuff”, much of it (more or less) auto related, is a bit hard to explain.  It is part museum, part store, part junk yard (in the best sense of that word), and part an eccentric collection of loosely related things.  How else do you explain a badly weathered (patina) V-8 60 powered race car and Greyhound Bus signs?  You certainly had to see and experience it.  It was well worth the stop.  A few tour participants came away with a souvenir or two, but I escaped unscathed.  As the tour pulled into the “museum”, other people also stopped to marvel at the cars and upon seeing all of the out of state license plates, inquired about what we were doing.  This was a common reaction reaction during the tour --- marveling that we were driving these old cars on vacation.  Just down the road from the “museum” was an unadvertised stop, the Black Mesa Winery.  This is a small, boutique type vintner located in an attractive setting with a friendly and inviting tasting room.  A few of us made the pilgrimage to let the right seat passengers sample New Mexico wines.  My wife tells me it was very good stuff, and a few bottles went home with us. 


Chimayo was the next planned stop.  Up a side road from Espanola, the small town was full of interesting things to see and do.  We visited an eclectic car collection, visited the very interesting Chimayo Trading and Mercantile store, and then had a wonderful lunch at the Rancho de Chimayo, an attractive restaurant presented in the very best rural New Mexico style.  Later, we both got into a bit of expensive trouble at the family run Ortega Weaving Shop (Donna loved the place, as did I).  But isn’t this part of the fun of a loosely organized tour that includes plenty of free time together with the encouragement to stop and explore as the mood strikes you --- especially in a part of the country you may not have previously visited?  We could easily spend more time in Chimayo. 


After Chimayo, we drove on to Santa Fe (partially using back roads called out in the touring instructions), where we stopped for the night.  The city has a long history, begs to be explored, and has just celebrated its 400th birthday.  Earth tones and turquoise, with Spanish/Pueblo adobe style construction, tend to define downtown, and especially the Plaza area.  With the Palace of The Governors on one side, and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on the other, and an inviting tree shaded green lawn between, a visit to the Plaza is not to be missed.  You could easily spend all day wandering and sampling the restaurants, shops, galleries, and museums.  The compact downtown area is ideal for strolling, and many tour participants did just that.  Something is always going on to capture your attention. 


Friday, October 18th.  Friday took the tour up to Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos.  We started early in order to get choice parking spots at the Monument Visitors Center.  It is only 50 or so miles from Santa Fe to Bandelier, but the land changes dramatically and they are worlds apart.  The drive up onto the Pajarito Plateau is great, but it does not really prepare you for the visually spectacular drive down into the canyon.  Bandelier preserves the remnants of an Ancestral Puebloan (nee Anasazi) community established about 800 years ago.  Easy walking paths lead you to both pueblo style and cliff dwellings.  Ladders, if you are interested and able, allow you to visit some of the cliff dwellings.  Cozy and compact (as in very small) describes the size of the rooms.  All of this was very interesting and informative.  Bandelier is yet another location where we could easily spend more time. 


Los Alamos, where we spent the afternoon, was far more interesting than I had expected it to be.  You could easily spend several days here and not begin to see everything.  Los Alamos was the home of the WWII Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb).  We visited the Fuller Lodge, which was the local headquarters for the Project, and the adjacent museum, The Los Alamos County Historical Museum.  I could have easily spent the better part of the day in this one museum, not to mention the nearby Bradbury Science Museum.  Lots of history, both man made and natural, is present here.  This whole area was formed by massive volcanic activity.  That is why there are still lots of hot springs in the region.  The volcanic history, including one of the largest calderas on the face of the planet, is preserved and presented in the huge Valles Grande Caldera National Preserve, west of Los Alamos.  One more reason for another visit.   


Saturday, October 19th.   Saturday was the time for the run back to Denver.  By now, we were driving by ourselves because many of the tour folks had departed at the conclusion of the Friday events.  We opted to stay in Santa Fe one more night in order to visit with friends and to get a fresh start in the morning.  The drive back used some very scenic roads over which I had never before traveled.  A number of interesting places called out for a stop, but we were on a mission to get back to town.  Maybe next time. We passed thru Antonito again, and had a second opportunity to watch the big steam engine fire up and depart.  It was every bit as impressive as the first time.  The ’54 Ford ran without a problem during the entire 1200+ mile trip.  It was a little cold blooded in the morning (but then so am I) when starting after a long night, but once it warmed up, things were fine.  The trip back involved three more 9000+ ft passes, for a total of 12 --- I think.  After awhile, you stop counting. 


Did we have fun?  You bet!  Good folks, new friends, great sights, spectacular fall colors, fascinating adventures, interesting weather, nice shopping, lots of history, and a smooth running vintage Ford --- what more could you want?  Would we do another National Tour event?  Without question.  Participate in one and you too will become an advocate. 


Several possible National Tours are in the works for 2014.  So stay tuned.