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It is four in the morning or, according to poet Wislawa Szymborska, “the hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.” As I lay awake, enveloped by the complete darkness of night, my left foot glides along the mattress searching for Jim. Proximity to my human furnace is the best chance I have of staying warm. The mid-1800s adobe structure over our heads, with its three-foot wide walls, provides outstanding natural insulation, but its windows and doors are no match for the biting wind (or extinguished stars) on this January night in the mountains of northern New Mexico, when the mercury has dipped well below freezing.
We are in the “Cuarto Epifania” at the home of a Vi Garcia on Rancho San Pablo de Garcia. Over a century and a half ago, Vi’s great-great-grandparents settled in the “Casa Vieja” [Old House] in which we now sleep, five miles south of Cuba, NM (population 748).
Despite a hard-working space heater, a faux fireplace, and an extra blanket, I am cold. Anywhere else, this might bother me. Here though, it impossible to be anything but charmed by my rustic surroundings.
Jim travels to New Mexico regularly for work, but this is my first visit to the Land of Enchantment. Wanting to showcase the beauty of northern New Mexico, he has planned an elaborate road trip that, on this day, drew to a close at the end of a long dirt road that stretched out for miles like a brown ribbon of frozen earth. We reached the turnoff just before dusk, only to find our path blocked by grazing cattle and soon thereafter by a “gang” of elk (not quite as good as a “murder” of crows, but still a great name!), and darting rabbits. Wait, did I just see a coyote? I can’t be sure. The fading sunlight may be playing tricks on me.
We have come conceptually as far from the strip of interchangeable hotels outside the Albuquerque airport as is possible. We have stumbled upon a place that proudly displays its history and wears its authenticity like a badge of honor.
Our hostess, Vi, is simultaneously warm and no-nonsense. She is, after all, both an innkeeper and a rancher. She delights in sharing the history of her family and of this property, which was their original homestead and also later served as the San Pablo Military Fort. When we arrive, we see no other guests, though some hunters will later appear, only to be gone again at dawn. Visitors to Chaco Canyon will often use this as a base, as well. But in the depths of winter, during a government shutdown, no one is traveling to the area’s standout attraction: Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“Panza llena, corazon contenta” (Full belly, happy heart)
What would great hospitality be without delicious food? Here Vi does not disappoint. She sends us off to El Bruno Restaurante y Cantina in Cuba for dinner. It is clearly THE place to go, as evidenced by the crowds waiting patiently for a table and the opportunity to partake of the fantastic house chips and salsa. Before placing our dinner order, we are prepared to answer the official state question, “red or green?” (chile, that is). A margarita and plateful of enchiladas later, I am introduced to sopapillas (picture a square, airy beignet into which you inject fresh honey) and wonder why this dessert has not come into my life sooner.
Back on the ranch, we regret the heavy cloud cover. There is not one bit of artificial lighting in sight, and the stargazing here would no doubt be extraordinary.
In the morning, we are treated to Vi’s delicious breakfast burritos. Before hitting the road again, we explore “La Capilla” (the family chapel and onetime ammo room) just behind the “Casa Vieja.”
In the end, our trip will take us to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, the Jemez Mountains, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Navajo land, Farmington, and Gallup. It is this ranch, however, that will make us feel that we have seen the “real” New Mexico.
How to get there: Cuba, NM is about 80 miles northwest of Albuquerque along Highway 550. Detailed directions and booking information are available at: http://www.suenosencantados.com/
What are your favorite spots in New Mexico? Let us know in the comments!