Smoke Getting In My Eyes

Day 160, Staying at Home

Saturday, August 29, 2020; Santa Fe, New Mexico

After almost two months of leisurely mornings on the patio, watching the sunrise creep across the arroyo, I’ve retreated indoors. When I open the slider door, a whiff of smoky air greets me. If I stay long, my eyes sting and I smell of campfire.

We first noticed the strong scent of smoke in the air a couple of weeks ago while taking the High Road to Taos through the Nambé Reservation. As we neared Santa Fe we could see thick, gray smoke rising from the Santa Fe National Forest a few miles from the highway. It was our first awareness of the 3,000-acre Medio Fire, which could have threatened the Santa Fe Ski Area had it moved in the wrong direction. Since then fire crews have worked to redirect the fire toward a previously burned area where they hope it will burn out due to lack of fuel.

I say “we” because my sister Eloise has joined me for two weeks. Keeping in the spirit of quarantining, we have explored remote and generally unpopulated areas in this part of New Mexico. Before we head out, we check the wind direction so we can avoid heading into the smoke. And as we leave our neighborhood, we look to the north to see if the forecast is right.

A few days later, we saw new smoke to the southwest. A lightning strike had ignited what has become the Caja Fire, which is much smaller and now more than 50 percent contained. It is a good deal farther than the Medio Fire, which I estimate to be about 10 miles away as the crow flies.

Being somewhat between two fires, I’m not surprised to find smoky air driving me back inside for my morning coffee. I was surprised, though, to read that the smoke and haze we are experiencing isn’t from our local fires, but rather from fires in Colorado and even California. The smoke has blanketed the American Southwest. My neighbor Janet caught the rising son shrouded in red early one morning.

Many people have it so much worse – particularly in California. A friend in the Sonoma area already lost one home and everything in it to fire a few years ago. As new fires threaten her area, she wonders when (and if) her post-traumatic stress disorder will end. Fortunately, these two fires near Santa Fe are relatively remote and not threatening buildings or people.

We’re still in the monsoon season, which seems to mean that rain frequently threatens in the late afternoon and evening. I can see it falling from my patio, but sometimes the air is so dry that it doesn’t reach the ground. Thus far it has been of limited success in dousing the fires.

The beautiful landscape changes, depending on the direction of our explorations. Taos, about an hour and half north, is in the mountains, so we saw more trees and less desert scrub. Museums and the famous Taos Pueblo are closed, so we took the Enchanted Circle 86-mile scenic loop drive that rings Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain at 13,167 feet.

We passed through evidence of old mining towns and ski resorts, and stopped briefly at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

With the visitor center closed, we were the only people there. However, in Red River tourists abounded, many of them foregoing masks as they walked the streets. It’s the first time I’ve seen that in New Mexico, where the governor keeps the state locked down and requires masks whenever outdoors.

Going west-northwest another day, we saw the stunning red rocks made famous by painter Georgia O’Keefe. No surprise, as we were near her New Mexico homes – a house in what now is the sleepy village of Abiquiú and the nearby Ghost Ranch, where she spent her summers painting. We didn’t have a reservation to tour Ghost Ranch, and anyway the conference center is closed to out-of-state residents. I’m carrying a copy of my lease to show that I’ve “moved” to New Mexico, but so far I haven’t tried to see how far it will get me.

Several times we pulled to the shoulder of the highway to admire and photograph the mesas, red and yellow cliffs and deep valleys. I didn’t have time to sketch, but I took plenty of photographs to work from later.

Once we were almost to Colorado, we turned east through the Tusas Mountains, stopping for lunch at the Chili Line Depot in Tres Piedras. The small restaurant is named after the narrow-gauge railroad planned between Denver and Mexico, but which only ran about 125 miles down to Santa Fe. The railroad has long since been abandoned. Eating on the patio, we indulged in one of the restaurant’s specialties — green chili apple pie. A winner!

Our next stop was the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 10th highest in the country at 650 feet. A number of sightseers walked out to the middle of the span to look down; we opted for hiking a short distance away to get a different perspective.

Eloise showed her adventurous nature by heading off on a dirt road that snaked down the steep banks of the canyon. The signs suggested a 4×4 vehicle in the winter, but she just put her MINI Cooper convertible into low gear and headed down. I tried to ignore the unguarded drop-offs to my right.

Once we reached the Rio Grande, we wished we had brought our swimsuits to join the dozens of people floating and frolicking. The last time we were in the Rio Grande we were rafting near Big Bend and eating lunch on the Mexican side.

Before she left, Eloise and I explored the Santa Fe Plaza, where she spent some contemplative minutes walking the labyrinth at the cathedral.

Now she’s gone back home, and I’m down to the final month of my three-month sojourn in Santa Fe. My plans include catching up on my watercolor sketchbook, exploring more of the trails in this area and perhaps finding new shows to binge watch in the evenings. I’m not sure I will top my last series, “The Wire.”

Fortunately, crews are showing success in containing the fires. So I’m returning to the patio for my morning coffee with the hummingbirds, finches, blue jays and other new friends, without smelling like I spent the evening at a campfire.