Thin Air And A Pretzel-Eating Chipmunk

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TAOS SKI VALLEY, N.M. — It was 41 degrees when we awoke on a recent morning in the second-story condo we had rented. The balcony door was open, as were the kitchen windows. When one lives in Texas, it is a luxury to sleep in summer under a blanket, windows open, no air-conditioning whirring. Actually, AC was not an option but at 9,400 feet altitude it was blessedly unnecessary. I had installed an altimeter app on my phone to satisfy my inner-nerd self, and regularly announced the altitude as we traveled through the west.

The Arroyo Hondo River runs behind the property where we stayed from its source in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, down 20 miles into the Rio Grande in northern Taos County. It made for a wonderful audio backdrop, as my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I sipped coffee on the balcony, wrapped in blankets, watching the sunrise light up the tops of the aspens along the river. Eventually we abandoned the balcony and prepared for the day’s adventure — a four-mile hike from Taos Ski Valley lodge to Williams Lake.

Just four miles? We walk at least that much daily back in East Texas in 100-percent humidity. How hard can this be? The ski lodge website described it as of “moderate difficulty.” That sounded doable. We loaded up with water bottles and trail mix and set out for the trailhead, which began behind the lodge. The trail was rocky but well-marked, shadowed on either side by aspens and ponderosa pines. A logging crew was thinning the forest near the lodge to lower the danger of wildfires endangering the structures.

It only took a few hundred yards for the thinning air to affect us. We live most the time at an altitude of 337 feet (I checked when we returned home), where the air in summer is thick enough to drink. That meant trying to get a deep breath, as we headed more than two miles high, proved a challenge for both of us. The higher we trod, the fewer oxygen molecules were available. We stopped often, taking in the majestic scenery and greeting hikers headed downhill, who offered encouragement. “You’re halfway there!” one said, noting my Austin T-shirt and burnt-orange backpack. He was from Fort Worth. Halfway? That’s all? We trudged forward futilely trying to draw deep breaths.

Nearly everyone we encountered was from Texas, all here for the same reason — to escape the heat for a while. We met folks from Austin, a couple of guys who said “Hook ‘Em” after taking note of my burnt-orange backpack, even a Red Sox fan who noticed my ballcap. A woman stopped us, asking frantically if we had seen her dog, a border collie named Rowdy. She had headed up the trail with him off-leash, and Rowdy took off after a chipmunk or something else attractive. We promised to look for him, my plan being to use my belt as a leash. Others headed down asked us as well, as word spread of someone’s beloved pet gone missing in action.

Two-thirds of the way up, we encountered patches of snow under the forest canopy, purple flowers sprouting out of the snow, a few feet high, seeking sunlight. I stopped to take some photos and let my BMC catch up. She had urged me to go ahead of her, preferring her own pace and giving me time to take photos without slowing her down. A curious chipmunk approached as I plopped down on a boulder and pulled out the trail mix. The little fellow — about a third the size of an East Texas squirrel and a lot cuter — was clearly used to humans. He appeared eager for a snack, so I gave him a little trail mix pretzel square. He scampered over to the next boulder and munched it, holding it in his paws (or hers — I have no idea). I took his photograph just as my BMC arrived. She loves all critters, so we loitered there a while, feeding a couple of chipmunks.

As we approached a huge pile of rocks that at some point fell down the mountain, we encountered the Fort Worth couple coming down. “It’s just around the next pile of rocks,” one said. “You’re almost there.” Sure enough, 10 minutes or so later we were at Williams Lake, a snowmelt-fed lake. A woman paddled a inflatable kayak across. My altimeter app announced we were now at 11,108 feet. A mother sat in a chair, waiting for her teenage son, who had decided to climb nearby Wheeler Peak. At 13,161 that’s the tallest mountain in New Mexico. We had no intention of climbing another 2,000 feet in altitude.

The teen proudly returned with Rowdy, the missing dog. It turns out Rowdy decided it was time to scale New Mexico’s highest peak on his own. Another mother with a leash and a better-trained border collie volunteered to take Rowdy down to the lodge and call the phone number on the tag. There was no cell service at Williams Lake.

We descended slowly. It was easier to breathe, but one had to pick carefully through the rocks. Descending a mountain trail is often more difficult than ascending. When we got to the parking lot at the trailhead, we discovered Rowdy and her owner had been reunited. She had refused to leave without her dog. She also vowed to never let him off a leash while hiking again.

A happy ending indeed. And finally, we could draw a deep breath.

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