Four days before Christmas last Betty and I ventured to Socorro, San Antonio and the Bosque del Apache on the Rio Grande River in central New Mexico. We went in search of photography and nature and hot chili.
Dodging uncharacteristic assaults of big blizzards, we spent a day and a half seeking and photographing the great migratory birds; cranes and snow geese. We went in search of the Owl Cafe and green chili cheeseburgers. We sought raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, cottonwood trees, fiery skies, roseate sunrise and sunset. We found all of that.
At dawn the sandhill cranes awoke and began their morning gestures. They skraked, croaked, walked and pranced, flapped their great gray wings and pirouetted against each other like high school kids sparking at an after-football-game dance.
Then the snow geese rose off the water and flew in wide formations towards their corn field feeding grounds. They reminded me of upset old drill instructors yelling at each other over recruits, this all magnified by the thousands. The geese’s great World War II bomber-like formations etched against the dull gray skies that threatened us with foul weather.
The racket bounced off the flat water and hustled up to the sage covered hills. It was cacophony. Music. Conversation.
Bald eagles watched from dead snags in the middle of ponds and pintail ducks with their elegant necks dabbled, quacked and whistled. Ladderback woodpeckers ascended the trunks of cottonwoods, the willows captured solstice light with a color quality of polished Spanish doubloons. Patches of cattails blew puffs of cotton-like pollen that gleamed in the glare of the sun.
Avian mayhem carried the day punctuated by cries of alarm when fancy-coated coyotes sneaked around with their tongues dangling from the sides of their snouts. Javelina gangs rooted in the roads. Roadrunners lifted fancy crowns, then hid them, then lifted them, as if sending us signals.
At the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, where Conrad Hilton cut his teeth, green chili burned our lips, our palates, made our foreheads sweat. Not once, not twice, but three times, we let the savory flare of chili reconnoiter our mouths and conjure our ancient New Mexican memories.
Threats of a big blizzard kept showing up with other rumors: an Aplomado falcon on the south end of the preserve, a herd of elk grazing in one of the corn fields, mule deer bucks locking horns along one of the ditches on the east side, a bobcat darting across the road just below the visitor center. For us, these rumors all remained unfounded.
We went armed with our photography gear, waiting for the gestures, the moments that told us something was afoot not tied to our Anglo-Saxon lexicon. Something in the way a wing gets lifted, or how the sun shines off the white pate of a bufflehead duck. Gestures that communicate something different from what we know. Or that tell us something common to all of us: humans, birds, New Mexican dirt, the aurora borealis, the universe.
Maybe we found it. Maybe we didn’t and imagined that we did. I am not sure there is a difference. The thrill often lies in the quest. Seeking holds much meaning.
The bird song, the crane cries, the goose flight, the rough coats of the javelina illuminate my thoughts.
Leaving Socorro, where we spent the nights, specks of snow dotted our windshield as we went in search of our next adventure.