Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 10)

This is our second trip to Albuquerque, the first being part of our honeymoon back in late November, 2007. It is probably not the first place people think about visiting when they are coming to the United States. Obviously, the fact that Christine, Ian, Sam and Jessie live here is our main reason for visiting. However Albuquerque is a really beautiful part of the world in its own right. Now that we have been here, even without friends to visit, we would come back again and recommend it to others. While Bugs Bunny might have said 'I knew I shoulda turned left at Albuquerque' we are quite happy to stop for a while.

Albuquerque was founded back in 1706 as a Spanish colonial outpost and named after the Spanish town, Alburquerque (the spelling of the New Mexican version is the Portuguese rather than the Spanish). It is on the Rio Grande between two mountain ranges on a flat plain. During the Civil War it was occupied by the Confederates in February of 1862, which led to the Battle of Albuquerque on April 8, 1862. When the railways came through they went to the east of the old town and consequently modern Albuquerque has both an old and a new town area.

On our last visit we went to the old town which looks just as you might imagine an old Spanish influenced Mexican town should. Pueblo style houses, cacti, sombreros and cowboy boots were all a feature. Old town also features the American International Rattlesnake Museum, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the Explora Science Centre and Children’s Museum of Albuquerque, and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. One of the stones found in the area is turquoise and this was a feature of lots of the jewellery available in the souvenir shops and well as having a museum of its own. Despite Wayne’s excitement, Meg banned him from buying either a cowboy hat or the beautiful snakeskin cowboy boots that he saw.

Just to the north and east of the city are the Sandia Mountains which are part of what makes Albuquerque so attractive. The old native name for the area simply means ‘where water slides down the arroyo (dry river bed)’, whereas ‘Sandia’ is the Spanish for ‘watermelon’. One theory as to why is the colour of the earth (which is very red) with the deep green of the fir trees that line the curved ridges. Another theory is that the Spanish settlers saw the cucumbers grown by the natives and mistook them for watermelons. From the west (which is where Christine and Ian live) the mountains provide a great frame for the modern city.

On Saturday, Ian took Wayne and Samuel up to the top of Sandia Crest which is 10 678 feet (3 255m) above sea level. It is possible to do this using what is the world’s longest tramway which is 2.7 miles (4.3 klm) long and ascends 4 000 feet (1 200m) in about 15 minutes. Instead they took the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway which begins to the west of the city and takes almost 14 miles (22klm) to reach the top. Along the way we passed numerous cyclists who had decided to spend a Saturday morning torturing themselves and at the top it was noticeable how gingerly some of them were walking.

Some of the views from the peak were absolutely stunning as we went for a hike of just over a mile to an old stone cottage on one of the ridges. The forest we walked through was comprised of fir, spruce and aspen and is inhabited by bears, species of deer, various smaller mammals, and mountain lions (although we only saw squirrels). As well as being able to see down into Albuquerque and across to the Manzano Mountains in the south west, there were also views back to the east toward Texas. One of the most amazing sights at the top was the bird feeders at the café/souvenir shop which were surrounded by tiny emerald green hummingbirds. Having never really seen hummingbirds in the wild before, Wayne was stunned by how many there were and how they hovered and drank the sugar mixture through tiny holes.

It is really clear when you are standing on the mountain that Albuquerque is in a valley lying between two mountain ranges with the river running through the centre. From the top we could see the Boca Negra, which is quite close to where the Wightman’s live and which has the Petroglyph National Monument. While Albuquerque is America’s 34th largest city (with about 522 000 people) and Rio Rancho on the north west is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, the greater Metropolitan area is ranked much lower because of the limits imposed by the geography of the mountains surrounding.

One of the impacts of this is that Albuquerque is one of the hot air ballooning capitals of the world. Every year the first week in October sees the International Balloon Festival with people travelling from all over the world. In fact, if you have ever seen television footage of a large number of hot air balloons in the one place, or posters of the same, there is a good chance that it was taken in Albuquerque. Consequently, it is also the site of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum which is where we went with David and the children on Sunday morning.

While we both had some knowledge about how balloons had impacted upon history we were amazed by some of the things that we found out. For example, there was a significant exhibition of how the jet stream was discovered. During World War II the Japanese launched thousands of balloons with bombs attached which were designed to float to the height of the jet stream travel across to the United States and then drop their load. While a large number of these balloons did make the journey and cause both forest fires and deaths there was a conscious decision made not to publicise this so that the Japanese would not be encouraged by their success. That many of the balloons for this were made by schoolchildren was also a revelation.

Other ballooning feats, from the first manned balloon flights a few hundred years ago, to the use of zeppelins in war ad during the 1920’s and 1930’s, to the more recent attempts by people like Steve Fossett to fly around the world in a balloon, all were heavily featured. There were also many interactive displays to enable the visitor to simulate taking off and landing in a hot air balloon, constructing a hot air balloon, basket weaving, and steering balloons in the air, among other things. The museum shop was also full of educational stuff about the impact of weather, balloons, and some of the historical material. Because Wayne collects lapel pins we had a look at some of the hundreds of balloon related pins, and we found one of the festival pins which had an Australian flag as part of the design. We took this to the desk, only to discover that because it was a collectable pin from one of the balloon festivals it was priced at $70. We went home without it.

On our way home from the ballooning museum we noticed that one of the major streets in Albuquerque was named Unser. Ian let us know that, as we had suspected, it was named for the famous racing car driver Al Unser. He was the second of three men who have won the Indianapolis 500 Race four times. Both he and his son Al Unser Junior have been inducted in to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and are from Albuquerque. We took a detour to take in the Unser Racing Museum and drive past where the Unser’s had previously lived, which is down in the Rio Grande section of Albuquerque. Being on the river it is one of the greenest parts of the city and the region, most of which is largely desert.

Because the Wightman’s house is on the outskirts of the city area, there is a region of desert over their back fence. At night there are coyotes, rabbits and all sorts of other animals roaming, particularly at night. This morning we saw a coyote loping down toward the road and this evening an armadillo was walking across a rock in a local front garden. Wayne spotted a prairie dog earlier in the week and there have been all sorts of birds in the sky around us. Some of the land is protected Reservation land, with the Sandia Pueblo in the north and the Isleta Pueblo in the South. It is possible to learn a lot about Native American lifestyles, arts and crafts, and to travel out to historical towns such as Placitas which Wayne, Samuel and Ian went through on the way home from the top of Sandia.

One of the biggest features of New Mexico is some of the pictures that are prominently repeated. The state flag has an impression of a sun, while other images of human figures and animals are used in decoration everywhere. These are the petroglyphs which are cave and rock carvings (as opposed to pictographs which are drawings on to a surface). While many cultures have had them, in North America it is particularly in the states bordering Mexico which seem to have them most abundantly. All sorts of meaning are speculated for them but much of this is guesswork, given that many of these drawings date back thousands of years.

On our last full day in Albuquerque we spent part of it down at the Kirtland Airforce Base in the south of the city, which is where Ian works. The base was opened in 1939 and is home to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Sandia National Laboratories just to name a few. One edge of it is also the Albuquerque International Sunport, Albuquerque’s local airport from which we will be flying out on Tuesday. It was fascinating to see the size of the base, which is as big as many towns; the huge number of different types of aircraft (both airplanes and helicopters); the base housing which provides short term accommodation for members of the military stationed in Albuquerque; and the facilities available on the base, which include everything from gyms, sports fields, childcare centres, schools, shopping centres and a McDonalds. The base was named in honour of one of the American militaries earliest aviation pioneers, Col. Roy C. Kirtland, who obtained pilot certification way back in 1911.

Another reason to come back to Albuquerque is as a base for further exploration into the state of New Mexico and further afield. While almost 50% of the state’s population lives in the Albuquerque region there are other famous towns such as Roswell, Truth and Consequences, Alamogardo, Santa Fe and Carlsbad which are all worth visiting. It is also a central point from which to head down to El Paso in Texas, across into Arizona, north to Colorado, east to Amarillo and other parts of Texas. Being New Mexico, there is also the option to travel south to Chihuahua in Mexico, just across the border.

As you might have ascertained we have loved visiting here. Provided Christine, Ian and the kids are here we will be back. Even if they move there is a very good chance that we would come back again anyway. Indeed, if we had won the lottery drawn on Saturday night, Meg even had a house picked out which she would have bought for next time we visit.

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