Hi, I’m Mark, and welcome to New Mexico & Beyond, also known as Mark's Travel Blog.   

 

Why call this site New Mexico & Beyond?   That's because my primary goal is to highlight all the beauty, culture, and quirkiness of my beloved home state for the past 22 years - New Mexico.  As for the "and beyond" part of the title, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to visit over 100 countries and all 50 States, so I also share some off-the-beaten-path travel stories beyond the Land of Enchantment.

 

If there's a particular place, event, or person in New Mexico that you think I should feature in an article, drop me a note!  I can be reached at [email protected]

 

Happy travels!

Mark

 

 

Happy COVID Christmas Greetings from New Mexico!

December 25, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

 

 

Happy Holidays from New Mexico!   

 

2020 will no doubt be the year that everyone will remember as the time when my son Erik became taller than me.  Oh, and there was that COVID thing too.  I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to avoid Coronavirus so far, probably due to the fact that I’ve been aggressively pursuing a “social distancing” policy for 20+ years.  My parents and son are unscathed so far too and they are doing well.  My niece and nephew, on the other hand, both got COVID at the same time, while attending college in different states.  Thankfully, they recovered quickly, other than some lingering impact to their sense of smell and taste … but the impact was not enough to get them to try my infamous green vegetable smoothies during their visit for Thanksgiving.

 

Like many of you, I entered 2020 with big plans, including two international trips.  Instead, my most exciting trip of 2020 was a 35-minute drive to Southwest Gastroenterology Associates to experience my first colonoscopy.  They declined my request for a virtual visit.  The procedure itself was nothing compared to the “preparation” that started 18 hours earlier.  My intestines have seen some serious combat over the years with my travels to many far-flung places, but it’s not a fair fight when I’m asked to drink a “preparation formula” that I’ve heard accurately described as a collaboration between Ex-Lax and Taco Bell.  Let’s just say that by the time I arrived at the clinic for my procedure, I no longer cared what they planned to do to my body.  I was more concerned about what might happen to them, as I could tell from the unsettling gurgling in my intestines that there was more work to do, and I had front row seats for the past 18 hours to know what my body was capable of.  Fortunately, I opted for the “I don’t want to remember anything that happens during the procedure” option.  Not exactly “reason for the season” material to include in a Christmas card but, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  And when 2020 gives you a colonoscopy … well, there you have it. 

 

So, what did I do with my treasured “use it or lose it” vacation time that I accumulated in 2020?  I partied Marie Kondo-style by immersing myself in the art of tidying.  Rather than explore the mountains and lakes of Patagonia, I dumped everything I owned into one room and spent over 10 hours each day for a week holding up every possession I own, one at a time, and asking myself “Does this spark joy?”  Instead of soaking in hot springs in Iceland, I was holding up old souvenirs and mementos and asking myself “Does this reflect who I am becoming, not who was in the past?”  On the day I should’ve been enjoying the festive atmosphere of the Euros (soccer) in Copenhagen, I was re-folding my clothes and stacking them vertically in drawers (which I now really like!).  In the end, I thanked about half of my possessions for serving their purpose (including over 600 books!) and put them to work in the circular economy, wherever that might take them.

 

Let’s see, what other boring stories can I share.  Oh yes, I dug a big hole in my backyard!  Pretty exciting, I know.  I spent many hours with a pickaxe and shovel to install a pond to support the local wildlife who frequently stop by for a drink.  I’ve even made friends with a large number of deer that regularly pass through my yard, to the point where I can now sit outside near them, as close as 10 feet away, while they take advantage of the water and corn that I provide. 

 

As for my job (Program/Project Manager at Optum Healthcare … part of United HealthGroup), everything is going well.  I’m very fortunate to be in a role that was not impacted with COVID.  I was already working 100% from home prior to COVID, so nothing really changed for me … and I still love working from home.  The only significant change from a work perspective is that I gave up my side gig as a personal trainer and substitute yoga instructor.  While I miss the people that I worked with at the gym, I do enjoy the extra free time.  

 

The only other exciting news to report is that I’m now a COVID puppy statistic.  Yes, I joined the many people out there who decided to get a dog.  On December 5th, my son and I drove to SW Missouri to pick up the new addition to our family – a 4-month-old Irish Wolfhound named Rohan.  We pronounce it “Rowan” as it’s easier to say quickly when he’s chewing things that he shouldn’t be chewing, which is often.  I’m hoping to train him to become a therapy dog and take him to hospitals, hospice, and/or retirement communities, but the jury is out on that one.  We have a long way to go before he will be ready for something like that.  I have a sneaking suspicion that hospital patients will not be eager to have an animal the size of a small pony galloping around their room, gnawing on their arms, legs, and furniture, or tearing their clothes to shreds.  Rohan blissfully ignores all commands except for “sit” or “come”.  “Come” is particularly easy as Rohan is my shadow.  I don’t have to say anything.  I can’t go anywhere in my house without him following close behind.

 

As you can probably see from Rowan’s clown feet in the card photos, he’s on track to become a very large dog.  His father is around 220-230 lbs., so chances are high that he will become a gentle giant.  Apparently, Rohan didn’t get the memo about the “gentle” part yet.  However, he’s certainly on track for “giant” status – at 17 weeks of age, he is already 60 lbs., and growing fast.  Rohan will likely be taller than both Erik and me by the time he is fully grown, although Erik might give him a run for his money.  I’m 5 ft 9 and a half, which I liberally round up to 5 foot 10 whenever asked, and it looks like Erik is at risk of breaking the 6 ft barrier at some point in the not-too-distant future.

 

Speaking of Erik, he is doing well.  He is 15 years old and is just about done with his driving permit requirements … less than 7 weeks and he will be 16.  Gulp.  Erik is still into skateboarding, doing flips and other tricks on the trampoline, and pretending like he is paying attention during his Zoom classes for school (all of his classes have been via Zoom this year).  But whatever he’s doing, it’s working.  He is doing well at school this year.  He is also really into working out … he goes to the gym nearly every day, but he knows his stuff and avoids working out the same muscle groups on consecutive days.  In short, Erik will soon be taller than me, stronger than me, and he’ll be able to kick my butt.  I’ve penciled in a New Year’s resolution to be extra nice to him moving forward.  Luckily, that will be easy to do as he is a great kid.   

 

One of the positives of being stuck at home most of the time this year is that it gave me some additional free time to keep myself fit, get back into birding (from my backyard), and I’ve finally made some progress on guitar … I’m slowly pushing past the level I’ve been stuck at for the past 20 years. 

 

That’s all the news I have for this year!

 

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all the best in the New Year.

 

Happy Trails!
Mark

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a freelance writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

   

 


Rohan the Irish Wolfhound - The Adventure Begins (Picking Up Our New Puppy)

December 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

 

It's hard to believe, but I'm now the owner of an Irish Wolfhound puppy.  The sale and adoption of dogs has spiked along with COVID, so I suppose that makes me a COVID puppy statistic.  In truth, my decision to get a dog pre-dates COVID.  After my last Irish Wolfhound (Séamus) passed away a few years ago, I told my son that I wouldn't consider getting another large dog until I had a job that enabled me to work full-time from home.  Now that I've been working full-time from home for nearly 18 months, and I'm not exactly doing much in the way of travel these days, I was out of excuses.  My son and I agreed that the timing was right to take the plunge.   

 

After reaching out to several breeders in early November, I purchased a dog from a breeder in Missouri.  I liked the look of the dog from the photos, liked what I heard from the breeder during our telephone conversation regarding the dog's health, temperament, and parents.  The breeder said the dog looks "moosy" and will likely be very large.  Fortunately, I have plenty of indoor and outdoor space and I'm comfortable with the idea of having an animal the size of a pony running around the house. 

 

Since I had family staying at my house for Thanksgiving, the breeder agreed that it would be ok for me to pick up the puppy when he was 15.5 weeks of age (his birthday is 8/18/20) as long as I paid in full in advance.  I agreed, wired the money to the breeder's account and it was a done deal.  I was to pick up the new member of the family on the morning of Saturday, December 5th, 2020.

 

Here is a photo of the dog that we were to pick up, when the puppy was 13 weeks old. 

Our puppy at 13 weeks of age - the earliest photo I have

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 1 (December 3rd, 2020)

As soon as my son finished school on Thursday, December 3rd, we had a quick dinner, packed up the car, and hit the road from my home in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Our destination for the night was a hotel in Shamrock, Texas.  Why Shamrock?  My original plan was to spend our first night in Amarillo, TX, but I read that the COVID was spiking in Amarillo.  As a result, I thought it was worth the extra 90 minute drive to get to the Holiday Inn Express in the small town of Shamrock, which has a population just under 2,000 people.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us.  Whenever my son and I go on road trips, we behave badly when it comes to food, and this was no exception.  Our first rest stop was a Dairy Queen in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  The drive went by relatively quickly, and we spent about two of the hours listening to an audiobook about Irish Wolfhounds to prepare us for what lies ahead.  We made it to our hotel a little past 11:00pm, checked into our room, and finally went to sleep around midnight.

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 2 (December 3rd, 2020)

The next morning we got up around 8:30am, got cleaned up and by the time we made it downstairs, we had just missed the 9:30am window for the complementary breakfast.  We decided to hit the road and see what we can find.  A short time later, we crossed the border into Oklahoma.  My son noticed a sign for a BBQ restaurant in Elk City, Oklahoma (he is a big fan of ribs... me, not so much). But I agreed, why not.  So we soon found ourselves at Billy Sims BBQ in Elk City.  The first thing that we noticed in climbing out of our car is that masks seemed to be optional.  This was quite a change from the vibe in New Mexico, where masks are mandatory these days.  We wore our masks into the restaurant, just in case, but it turned out that we were the only people in the restaurant since it was still early for lunch.  The woman at the front counter was super friendly... which seemed to be a trend in Oklahoma.  Everyone we met in Oklahoma seemed very friendly based on our limited experiences.  My son was impressed and thought that it was a big difference from New Mexico.  For me, I think people in New Mexico are very friendly compared to a lot of other places, but I had to agree that our experiences in Oklahoma were impressive. 

 

We ate the food in our car.  My son ordered a full slab of ribs... a bit overambitious, but he managed to eat about 2/3 of it.  I had some brisket, sausage, and beans... a far cry from my normal breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and a large vegetable smoothie.  The food turned out to be good, but not great.  Overall, we gave it a 6 out of 10.

 

An hour or two later, we decided to give Braum's Ice Cream a try... it appeared to be a very popular chain.  It was a hit.  My son really liked it - he said it is now his favorite ice cream, and the prices were very cheap.  It's safe to safe that this will not be our last Braum's stop on this trip.

 

Braum's ice Cream in Oklahoma was a hit
 

 

After a few more hours on the road, we arrived at our next destination - the Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri.  The Holiday Inn was quite a bit nicer than where we stayed the previous night, and we were very excited to learn that they had a fitness center... and it was actually open!  We checked into our room, and immediately went downstairs to workout... it was a nice facility and we were the only ones there.  The workout felt great after spending the day in the car.  

A much-needed workout at the hotel gym
 

 

After a good workout and a refreshing shower, we decided to get a takeout pizza from Old Chicago, which was right down the street.  I'm typically a healthy eater but, like I said earlier, it's anything goes during our road trips.  For some reason I thought Old Chicago was deep dish, which Erik had never tried before, but it ended up being like a "regular pizza".  Another 6 out of 10 meal in our book.

 

We watched the end of the movie Groundhog Day (a classic!) and then the Han Solo movie came up next.  Darn.  So much for an early bedtime.  We both enjoy Star Wars movies, so we stayed up until 11pm, despite an early wake up tomorrow, and realizing that this would likely be my last night of uninterrupted sleep for a very long time.  

 

The Big Day - December 5th, 2020

I told the breeder that we would arrive around 7:30am so we had an early morning.  I stumbled out of bed around 5:45am to get a shower.  We packed, went to the Waffle House down the street to get two waffles to go, and we were back on the road.  Our destination was the small town of Granby, Missouri (population is just over 2,000 people).  We found the breeder's farm relatively easily, thanks to Waze. 

 

This was the big moment.  It was time to meet our dog.

 

We were immediately greeted by four large Irish Wolfhounds.  One of the dogs was particularly huge.  That turned out to be the father of our dog.  The breeder called him "Fire" (he has bright orange eyes, but you can't tell from the photo) and the breeder said that he weighs about 220 - 230lbs.  I was surprised at the size - definitely that biggest Irish Wolfhound that I have ever met.  I thought my last Irish Wolfhound was large, and he weighed about 150lbs.  Here is a photo of the parents (below).  The picture doesn't do justice to the size of Fire.  The mother was smaller, but still substantial.  They were both a bit scruffy after playing outside in the mud.

Meeting the parents

 

 

We had fun talking with the breeder and meeting the adult dogs.  Then it was the moment of truth.  We saw our dog tied on a leash about 100 feet away, and we walked down to say hello.  He was a bit skittish, but that is understandable given the circumstances.  We said hello and hooked him up to our leash, but he had no interest in moving.  In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him to the car.  I put him down for a minute next to the car so that I could open the back, and he immediately took a big dump ... really big.  Needless to say, I was very grateful for that!  I picked him up again and put him in the large crate that I had set up in the back of my car.

 

Did you say 11-hour drive!?  First time in a car.

 

 

We signed some paperwork, shook hands, and we were off!  About 30 minutes down the road, we found a good spot to pull over to let our new dog out to give him a short walk and some water and to start to process of bonding.  He was definitely skittish and was not a fan of me picking him up to get him in and out of the car.  We ended up stopping frequently - every 1-2 hours (at least) to let the dog out.  And I'll confess that there were two more Braum's stops along the way home.  All in all, he was a great traveler, with no accidents in the car!  

 

 

The moments we cherished during our long drive home
 

 

Talking Rohan for a sunset walk somewhere in Texas
 


 

During our drive home, we settled on the name Rohan as it is a Celtic name meaning "little red one" (he has some red color in him) and "keeper of wolves."  Of course it is also a Lord of the Rings movie reference ("land of the horse lords") and Lord of the Rings happens to be one of my favorite movies.  So it was official.  Our dog's name is Rohan, but we pronounce it "Rowan" since it rolls off the tongue a bit easier that way. 

 

The first week at home was a busy one, but I'll save that for my next post.  Let's just say that Rohan has been my shadow ever since.  Here are three photos of Rohan on his first full day at his new home.

Screenshot

Exploring the upper deck for the first time
 

 

Rohan generally stayed about this close to me for the first few days

 

 


First night on his new bed
 

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 


Thank you to Perceptive Travel Online Magazine!

December 02, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I am writing this post as a thank you to Perceptive Travel online magazine for featuring my article "Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave" in this month's edition (December 2019) of "Perceptive Travel: The best travel stories from authors on the move".

 

Here is a link to the Perceptive Travel article: https://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/1219/kenya.html and here is the article that was published:

 

Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave
Story and photos by Mark Aspelin


 

Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.

 

Kenya travel story

"Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?" - Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

 

While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late '90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great—let's go!"

 

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

 

Kenya park guards

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.

 

The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.

 

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.

 

After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.

 

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery...and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

 

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.

 

 

First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Elgon National Park

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

 

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.

 

Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.

 

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.

 

Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

author w flashlight

 

Hey, at least I had a flashlight.

 

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.

 

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.

 

 

The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. "Sounds interesting, what book is that?"

Kenya Kitum Cave

That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.

 

"What?!" I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.

 

I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before the trip?" I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.

 

Then things started to get even more interesting.

 

 

The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't put my mind at ease.

 

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That's it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.

 

He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

 

Kenya-Uganda border

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn't.

 

I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

 

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents' house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.

 

Thankfully, I'm happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer, author of two books (Profitable Conservation and How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation) and the blog New Mexico and Beyond. He has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

 


What is the best short hike in Albuquerque? Tree Spring Trail

June 24, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

As an avid hiker who has lived in the Albuquerque metro area for the past 15+ years, visitors frequently ask me the question, "what is the best hike in Albuquerque?"  My answer: If you're looking for a longer, strenuous hike, then La Luz is the best trail in Albuquerque; if you're looking for a shorter hike with nice views, then my personal favorite is Tree Spring Trail. 

 

The "La Luz" answer doesn't come as a surprise to most people.  It's a classic, well known 7.5 mile trail (one-way), that climbs 3,200 feet from the trailhead to the upper terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram.  You can learn more about La Luz at the following link: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cibola/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=64582&actid=50.  

 

There's even an annual La Luz Trail Run.  I've done the race several times and I highly recommend it if you don't mind some pain and suffering as you climb more than 4,000 feet over a nine mile course to the top of Sandia Peak.  It's longer than the normal hike as the race starts lower down on a road to help spread people out before they hit the actual trail.  If racing to the top of Sandia Peak sounds appealing to you, you're not alone.  The race sells out every year and you'll need to enter a lottery to get one of the coveted 400 slots that are permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. 

 

But let's get back to the topic of this post: Tree Spring Trail.  Tree Spring Trail is located in the "East Mountains of Albuquerque."  In other words, if you're in the city of Albuquerque, then you'll need to take I-40 East and drive to the other side of Sandia Peak.  It's about a 30-minute drive to the Tree Spring trailhead from downtown Albuquerque, but it's well worth it.     

 

Here are directions to the Tree Spring Trailhead:

  • Take I-40 East from Albuquerque and get off on Exit 175 toward Cedar Crest / N-14.
  • Take NM-14 North for about 6.5 miles to NM 536 (aka the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway).  You'll also see a Shell gas station on your right as you approach NM 536, as well as the Lazy Lizard Grill ... a good place to stop after your hike for pizza, beer, and other food (and Live Music if you time it right) to help ensure that you'll end up gaining weight despite going on a hike. 
  • I should also note that if you need to use your phone for any reason, do it here.  Phone service is very spotty once you get to the trailhead.
  • Take a left on NM 536 and follow it for 5.5 miles until you see the Tree Spring parking lot on your left side. 

 

Your view as you approach the parking area will look something like this:

You'll either need to pay $3 per vehicle or $10 for a high capacity vehicle (15 or more passengers).  Bring exact change as you'll be putting the money in an envelope and dropping it in a narrow slot.  Too many coins will make the envelope too thick to fit in the slot, so try to remember to bring some dollar bills.  It's a self-service pay station so there's nobody there to give you change or charge your credit card.


 

 

For the detail-oriented readers out there, you may notice that the trailhead sign calls the trail "Tree Springs Trail", while the USDA Forest Service website calls it "Tree Spring Trail".  Feel free to use whatever option sounds better to you.  I usually hear it referred to as Tree Spring Trail, without the "s".  
 

 

You can also use an annual pass if you happen to have one of the following approved passes:


 

...and you'll also find some picnic tables and a toilet near the parking area.



 

Now it's time to hit the trail.

 

As you can see from the signs below, Tree Spring is a multi-use trail and dogs are welcome if they're on a leash. Keep in mind that your dog will likely encounter quite a few other dogs during your hike so be prepared.  In addition to dogs, I've seen quite a few mountain bikers, two crazy unicyclists, horses, and several alpacas in the 25+ times that I've hiked Tree Spring.  In the winter, you may find some people snowshoeing. Yes, snow is common in the colder months since the trailhead is at 8,470 feet and the top of the trail is at 9,440 feet.  This side of Sandia Peak has much more shade and it's about 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the west side of the mountain, which feels nice in the summer.  

 


 


 

The shade and moisture means that you'll also find different flora and fauna on the east side of the mountain, such as ponderosa pine (pictured below).


 

The trail is well-marked and easy to follow in the summer, as you can see below.

 

However, if you're hiking in the winter or spring, you may find quite a few downed trees that are blocking the trail.  You should be able to walk around or over the tree and pick up the trail again without much of a problem. Here is an example of a downed tree (a relatively small one) that is blocking the trail.

 


If you're hiking in the winter, snow may be completely covering the trail and you can quickly get off the trail without realizing it.  To help keep you on track, many of the trees are tagged with a blue spot, but it can still get confusing at times, particularly after a fresh snowfall that covers up previous tracks.

 

As you climb up the trail, you'll be rewarded with nice views to the east, such as the picture below.

 

You'll also come across two signs indicating trails that run perpendicular to Tree Spring.  In both cases, just keep going straight.  The first sign that you'll see is for the Oso Corridor Trail (pictured below).  You'll keep going straight over the rocky section of the trail in the photo below.

 

The second sign that you'll see is towards the very top of the trail - for 10K Trail.  Just keep going straight through the opening between the two fence posts ... otherwise you'll miss the best part!


 

The trail is narrower now and it can be muddy due to melting snow.


 

Finally, just 2.0 miles from the trailhead, you'll suddenly find yourself on top of a saddle of Sandia Peak, with fantastic views of Albuquerque to the west.  It's often very windy at the overlook, so you'll literally want to hold on to your hat!  

 

Here are the views from the top - a great place to snap some family photos such as the one below from a recent "Father's Day hike" with my father, brother, son, niece, and nephew (a crew ranging from 14 - 77 years old).  

 

 

After you've had a chance to enjoy the view, then you'll simply descend 2.0 miles back down the same way you came up.  It usually takes people around 45 - 90 minutes to climb up and 30 - 60 minutes to descend, depending on your fitness level and how many breaks you take.  So you can expect to finish the hike in 1.5 - 2.5 hours round trip, including some time to enjoy the views at the top.  If you're really going for it, you can do the hike much faster.  My fastest time (back in my trail running days) was 31:42 up and 20:34 down for a total round trip of 52:16, and many people can do it much faster than that.  But I recommend taking your time to enjoy the trail - it's a great hike ... my favorite short hike in Albuquerque!

 

Thanks for reading and happy trails!
 

Mark

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 


Adventures in Kenya (Part 6 of 6): Racism, Africa Style

June 10, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

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“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
-- Rosa Parks



One thing that continued to surprise me during my time in Africa was how these wonderful people could be so brutally racist towards each other.  There was certainly an element of racism from whites towards blacks, and blacks towards whites, but the most hostile displays of racism that I perceived were blacks towards blacks.  It was all about tribe.


Tribal racism can take a relatively benign but annoying form, such as the time I saw a man casually walk to the front of a long line at the bank because, I was later told, he was from a particular tribe and therefore felt entitled to do so.  Then we have the horrible extreme of racism in the form of tribal genocide, like the infamous slaughter in Rwanda that was due to a tribal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.


One of the first questions that I was frequently asked in rural Kenya was, “What tribe are you in?” Apparently, the answer to this question would determine how that person intended to respond and interact with me. I would answer, “I’m from America,” and that usually put an end to it, although some would persist.  Surely, I must be in one of the tribes. Which one?


In Africa, tribes cross artificial boundaries, which were established during the time of colonial rule.  Many of the country borders were drawn on the basis of a geographic feature, such as a river, rather than tribal boundaries.  Many of the people whom I met considered tribe to be more important than country.  This was particularly true of nomadic tribe members, who wander across large areas of land without much thought or concern about country borders.  They simply go where they need to go to trade goods and find food and water for themselves and their livestock.


In the big cities like Nairobi, people are much more likely to identify with their country in addition to their tribe.  City dwellers whom I met were simultaneously proud to be Kenyan, proud of their home town, and proud of their tribe.  But, in the boonies, national identity takes a backseat to tribe.  In my day-to-day interactions, people were much more interested in knowing if I were Kikuyu, Kisii, Massai, Turkana, Luo, Samburu, or one of the other 42 tribes in Kenya.  In my situation, the answer probably didn’t matter much.  But, for others, it could be a very big deal.


During times of conflict, if you’re in the wrong tribe at the wrong place and the wrong time, you may be brutally killed.  Elections in Africa can be a very dangerous time as they create an opportunity for simmering tribal conflicts to explode.  It’s assumed that the elected leader’s hometown will prosper from a disproportionate share of money and resources for schools, airports, hospitals, and so on. Throughout most of Africa, political corruption and tribal racism are alive and well.

 

Decrease prejudice by increasing discrimination


To make sense of our world, we may tend to place people and things into categories, and then assign a series of traits, behaviors, and expectations to everyone or everything in that category. When we hear words like “old,” “young,” “religious,” “cancer,” “Russian,” “Japanese,” “American,” “handicapped,” and “vegan,” we may consciously (or unconsciously) associate characteristics with those labels and hold them in our mind until proven otherwise.  While this may help simplify our world, this categorization can also limit or skew our thinking and cause us to make inaccurate assumptions.


One strategy to overcome this limited thinking is to adopt the perspective that categories create a false perception of separateness, and that perception of separateness is an illusion. I’ve heard it said that, when we transcend the mind, diversity fades into unity.  We are all connected.  But, for those of us who have not yet transcended our mind to bask in the ethereal glow of unity each day, there’s another, simpler approach to consider.


An interesting alternative is to strive for more discrimination in the world.  I first heard this concept from social psychologist and Harvard University professor, Ellen Langer.  Ellen’s research suggests that the labels we attach to specific categories can dramatically influence our perceptions and actions.


Ellen cites an experiment where an ordinary man, seated in an armchair, faced another man seated in an armchair, and they talked about work.  Ellen videotaped the discussion, and then showed the videotape to two groups of psychotherapists.  For half of the psychotherapists, the man being interviewed was called a “job applicant”; for the second group, the man was referred to as a “patient.”  Each group of psychotherapists considered the job applicant to be well adjusted; when he was labeled a patient, many of the psychotherapists considered the man to have some serious psychological problems.  Same man.  Same videotape.  Very different outcome.


We all carry preconceived notions that bias our perceptions of other people based on appearance, race, sex, and so forth.  It is helpful to be aware that the labels we use impact how we perceive the world.  

 

Despite the platitudes that we sometimes hear, none of us is truly “colorblind.”  If we are looking for a terrific soul food restaurant, our gut instinct is to ask someone of African American descent rather than someone who is from Japan; if we're looking for sushi, then the reverse will probably be true.  Now that’s not very colorblind, is it?  The world is a colorful, amazing place, so let’s not pretend to be blind to it all.  However, it is useful to shed many of the biases and stereotypes that we may carry.


One of the best ways to overcome our inherent biases is to increase our discrimination.  Ellen Langer uses the following exercise to illustrate the point.  Ellen takes a group of 20 kids and divides them based on different characteristics: Males stand on one side, females stand on the other side; dark hair stands over here, light hair stands over there.  Ellen continues to split up the group based on the color of clothing and other characteristics.  This continues until every child is standing alone.  Then the children suddenly understand the lesson that everyone is unique.  When we mindlessly categorize people, we may fail to look for and recognize the individual talents and behaviors that each possesses.


Another tactic Ellen suggests is to imagine that our thoughts are totally transparent.  This tends to cleanse our mind of the not-so-nice things that we sometimes think about other people, and it can help us become more compassionate and empathetic towards others.


When we move past the categories that we've created in our mind, we may tend to like people better, develop better relationships, and appreciate why people behave the way they do.  We may make a greater effort to understand other perspectives and become more open to different ways of thinking.  Each of us behaves a certain way, at a certain time, and for a certain reason that makes sense to us at the time.  When we look at people as individuals who are going through different life events that are specific to each of them—instead of seeing a larger, stereotypical group—we may feel more connected, compassionate, and empathetic towards others.

 

Perhaps the next time I go to Africa and am asked the question, “What tribe are you in?” I will answer, “Mark Aspelin,” and see what kind of reaction I get.



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

   

 

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