Escape to the Clouds

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

I posted this quote on my Facebook page, just hours before climbing into the passenger seat of a rental car and heading toward the mountains with my partner Donny at the wheel. Our mission; to decompress a little, away from deadlines and expectations, projects and frustrations.

Our destination; Cloudcroft, a mere 90 miles east of Las Cruces, but a world of change away.

Our goal was not to visit a place we had never been before, but to simply get out of town for a few days.

Or, as Mr. Stevenson put it, “to go.” Preferably someplace cool. So, go we did.

To begin with, Cloudcroft sits at 9,000 feet above sea level, whereas Las Cruces is around 3,900 feet. That’s a big difference, especially in the summer when temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees in the desert. During the entire 40 or so hours we spent up in cloud country, the temperature never went above 75. That, my friends, is a little slice of heaven.

Stark beauty of White SandsOne of the true joys of living in New Mexico is the drastic geographic changes that make quick getaways possible. To be able to drive from desert to mountain within an hour and a half is an experience that just can’t be beat. Even better, the drive takes one up over the jagged peaks of the Organs, down into the stark mystery of the White Sands Missile Range, past the enduring and expansive wonder of White Sands National Monument, through the atomic town of Alamogordo and up through small mountain villages with names like High Rolls, Mountain Park and Pine Valley.

The changes along the way are dramatic, not just geographically, but attitudinally. After weeks spent in the post-production hell of a short film and helping to organize a series of events surrounding Gay Pride weekend, while also hitting regular deadlines at the Las Cruces Bulletin, I was ready for a little R&R. Living where we do, as I’ve said before, we always have choices. Cloudcroft has always been a favored stress reliever in my travel journal, though we’ve never made it an overnight destination.

Walking pathFor accommodations, we opted for a cabin up amongst the sighing pines, where signs exhorting us not to feed the bears were plentiful and the canopy of stars was brilliant during those moments when rainclouds parted like swollen curtains in the night skies. Finding it was easy. After brief internet research and a couple of phone calls, the Cabins at Cloudcroft had been booked a week earlier and, once secured, served our purpose beautifully.

Far enough away from the main road to be somewhat isolated, but only minutes away from the downtown area, either by car or along a lovely foot path that wound through forested glens filled with birdsong, past cabins, vacation homes and the seasonally deserted ice skating rink, the Cabins at Cloudcroft were an ideal spot to stage a decompression.

Inside, the cabins were rustic and country charming, with a full, well-stocked kitchen, a small living room complete with fireplace, barca lounger and filled firewood box, a cozy bedroom with a king-sized bed and a full bath with shower. Our first evening, after a brief walk into town to get our bearings and scout the area, was spent knoshing on fresh baked bread, cheese and olives, next to a roaring fire while rain danced across the tin roof of the cabin. For dessert we had dark chocolate covered almonds and red wine. Very romantic.

Steaming cuppaThe next morning, we were up early and – after I whipped up a country breakfast of bacon, eggs and potatoes with fresh coffee – out the door. First stop, the High Rolls Cherry Festival, which has been a tradition in those parts for 44 years. As a child, I remember making the annual pilgrimage with my family, up into the mountains where we would be handed baskets and pointed in the direction of trees overladen with fruit. We would pick for hours, surreptitiously popping the plump, juicy drupes into our mouths as we picked, then weigh and pay for our booty and drive home, visions of cherry pies, cobblers and cakes dancing through our little heads. Often, we had stomach aches to remind us of our gluttony.

The Cherry Festival has changed since those halcyon days. For one thing, a series of severe summer droughts, followed by deep winter freezes, have all but decimated the cherry orchards in the area. These days, the cherries have to be shipped in from California, but that doesn’t stop the estimated 10,000 people who attend the festival from making the trek like clockwork lemmings with groupthink expectations. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Some people don’t like letting go of the past, even when there is little left to recommend it after decades of change.

One sad little cherryCount me among the rodents. We were in the area and Donny is naturally curious, so how could we resist the lure of a near forgotten childhood? At the worst there would be large crowds and at the best there would be cherries. I love cherries. Even if they do have to migrate from another state. Within 20 minutes of leaving the cabin (there was a line of cars waiting to get in to the small field conscripted for horseless carriage stable duty), we were parked and ready to ramble.

Around 60 vendors still lined the forested paths of the Cloudcroft Community Center and the festive atmosphere was not unlike the mountain festivals I remember from my youth. Of course, then I was much less likely to find knitted iPhone covers and beaded iPod earphones, but favorites like wind chimes made from kitchen implements, wine racks made out of coffee cans and colorful birdhouses shaped like outhouses are still the norm. Unfortunately, finding anything even remotely cherry-themed proved problematic.

Oh, we looked. We hunted. We asked. It wasn’t until we found the makeshift lunch area that we found cherries. In a back room, manned by Future Farmers of America and their current farmer parents, were cherry pies for sale, whole or by the slice, and gallon jugs of cherry cider. One could also buy “fresh” cherries for $6 a pound. No cherry aprons, no cherry hats, no cherry décor of any kind. After a three dollar slice of gummy cherry pie, we were done with the Cherry Festival. Memories, no matter how tattered, may have to carry me through my dotage. It isn’t a terribly happy thought.

Mexican Canyon TrestleBecause the day was still very young when we left the festival grounds, and the temperature was in the cool upper 60s, what better way to pass some time than going for a hike? And there in the Sacramento Mountains, there are plenty of places to do it. In fact, one of the more picturesque views in the area is the Mexican Canyon Trestle, which can be seen off State Highway 82, just west of Cloudcroft, and now has a state-built pull-off area to mark its position. We’ve seen it dozens of times from the road, but never up close. Having heard of a trail that takes hikers down into the canyon and right up to the trestle, we decided to give it a go.

The trestle itself is a vital part of the history of the area. Constructed in 1899, by the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, it was used to transport lumber from the Sacramento Mountains down to the wood mills of Alamogordo, many of which were still in use when I was a child. Closed in 1947, the railroad line was eventually stripped of all usable materials and the rest was left to slowly disintegrate. Today, a replica of the original train depot stands at the trailhead of the Mexican Canyon Trestle Trail. From there, the adventure begins.

The Trestle trailThe 1 ¼ mile trail is an easy one to navigate, winding through the forest at gentle slopes, which occasionally give way to wood hewn staircases, descending into the valley. Along the path, there are plenty of benches, some with spectacular views down into the Tularosa Basin, some nestled in nooks along tree-lined avenues. For the most part, the ground is soft and loamy, with only occasional rocky areas that make footing difficult, but not perilous.

What's left of the "S" TrestleOne of the happier discoveries along our walk was the dilapidated “S” Trestle, which at one time was the roller coaster equivalent of an amusement park ride, snaking gracefully through the mountains some 60 feet above the canyon floor. Today, all that remains of the cloud busting railway are a few support beams and struts towering above rotted timbers and pilings scattered across the forest floor; a lonely reminder of days gone by slowly being overtaken by nature.

Another three quarters of a mile, or so, the Mexican Canyon Trestle awaited, marked by an overlook that takes in the vast remaining expanse of the structure as it emerges from the forest and curves out 323 feet into the canyon, ending just below State Highway 82. A plaque details the historical aspects of the trestle, the last remaining of 58 scattered throughout the Lincoln National Forest, with an account of the ride from author Dorothy Jensen Neal’s 1966 book “The Cloud-Climbing Railroad,” which reads:

The Mexican Canyon Trestle from the other side“…from the middle of the swaying trestle, looking to the top of a towering escarpment or glancing at the floor of the canyon below, no doubt, a few passengers wondered if they would ever live to tell of the spectacle and, if so, why.”

We had plenty of food for thought and discussion on the mile and a quarter climb back to the car. The view had changed a bit, too, owing to building cumulus clouds boiling up and towering above the mountains as they swept in from the east. By the time we reached our car and made the short drive back to the cabin, the clouds had all but consumed the blue skies and thunder rumbled in the distance, threatening rain.

PastoralTired, but still not completely satisfied, we set out once again, this time opting for a drive through the mountains and a peek at the small towns and villages east of Cloudcroft. We hit rain several times along the drive, but nothing hazardous and made it as far a Pinon before turning around. On the drive back, we stopped for a few quick pics in the town of Weed, then passed the Bad Ass Mountain Music Festival underway on a hilltop, with its colorful tents and proliferation of VW Vans, jeeps and range rovers. The only thing that kept us from checking it out more fully was the $25 a person ticket price. A bit steep for a hit or miss all-day concert featuring bands we’d never heard of. Especially when the day was dwindling into evening and rain was threatening, yet again.

IMG_8000That night, we broke out our boho provisions one more time, adding seared spinach sausage and hummus, to our bread, cheese and olive spread. Once again, we followed it with dark chocolate covered almonds and red wine. Rain tapped briefly along the roof before giving up for the evening, so we wiped down a couple of lounge chairs, graciously provided by the owners of the cabin, and sat out under the stars, enjoying the clean mountain air. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.

The next morning we would be up early again and on the road. A midday meeting was calling us back, but a subtle shift in our respective attitudes had prepared us for meetings, laundry, a short film that is frustratingly close to being finalized and another round of deadlines to take us through the week.

We went, we experienced, we gave the “great affair” its due.

Mission accomplished. For now…

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