Jaime and I went up a new road (new for me, anyway) yesterday, out into the pi?on-juniper woodlands north of town.
If there is a quintessential landscape of my home, it is the PJ, vast low-slung forests sweeping north from where I live. The trees, gnarly and stunted, have no majesty whatsoever, but a sort of approachable modesty, hardscrabble survivors that I have always adored, since I remember camping among them at Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona as a kid.
Albuquerque, at around 5,000 feet, sits near the lower elevation margin of good PJ habitat. You can find pi?on-juniper woodlands south of us, but not much. As the elevation drops from here, you get creosote bush deserts – beautiful in their own right, but not the classic high desert look that for me defines this landscape. But a drive north and west, into the higher country of the Colorado Plateau, gets you into PJ quick.
And, given the time, a bike will get you there too. We rode up the river, through the cottonwoods, then up onto the west mesa through the ugly suburban sprawl of Rio Rancho (trust me, not as scenic as the name might suggest).
The northern-most town of the Albuquerque metropolitan area is called Bernalillo, a little village straddling the Rio Grande that seems to make its living off of roadside fast food and gas, along with a wallboard plant and what I believe to be the region’s largest Tuff Shed dealership. Beyond Bernalillo to the north is Santa Ana Pueblo. The Santa Anas, who have lived here since the 1500s, have most recently hitched their economic fortunes to a quirk of U.S. law that allows native tribes to establish casinos on their land. On the map at the link above, you can see the golf courses and hotels that have been built as part of the Santa Anas’ gambling resort ambitions.
The happy side benefit, for us, is the nicely paved Tamaya Boulevard, which leads up through rolling hills of pi?on and juniper. When you pass the turnoff to the Twin Warriors Golf Club, the road drops from expansive to two-lane and rough. It leads to Jemez Dam, and pretty much no one goes to Jemez Dam except the bike crazies, so we could just spill out into the roadway, taking as much space as we needed.
To those of you who don’t ride, trust me – “rollers”, as we call undulating terrain, are the best. You can bang on the uphills, catch your breath on the downhills, then bang up again.
Jaime and I took the rollers as far as our predetermined turnaround time would allow, then kept going a little farther to a spot with a view.
To the north, you could see the lip of the great volcanic mesas of the Jemez Caldera. To the south, from where we had come, our city was laid out along the Rio Grand Rift’s gentle valley as far as we could see, flanked to the east by the Sandia’s, still white on their north-facing slopes from last week’s storm.
Around us, in the gullies where the sun wasn’t quite hitting, we could see bits of snow still in the shade. I imagined the pi?on were happy.