Photos by James Cassimus

I stopped at the sight of the endless desert, Pink Floyd reverberating through my head. Is there anybody out there? Is there anybo … On the side of the road walked a man. As he neared, I could barely make out his face for his beard and cap. He held a whip, thatwas clear, and the ground swirled around him as if he were wading knee-deep in a mirage-a flock of sheep.His face was lined deeply with cracks like the hardened earth.

At moments, I caught a glimpse of his eyes-hidden under thick, grayed brows. They were blue as the newborn ocean and held a mysterious gaze.It was as if he saw something I didn’t. Urbano Diego, a Spaniard by blood and New Mexican by borders,etched a life out of what most call nothing. We searched down a lonely desert-dark road east of Carizozo:Shannon, Athena, James, and I. The middle of night in the middle of nowhere. Lincoln County, once thebiggest county in the United States, is an easy place to become lost, or to find yourself. “Are we going theright way?” “Don’t know, never been down here before.” “Can’t see any mountains.” “Can’t see anything.”Come morning, daylight congratulated our ramblings. 12,003-foot Sierra Blanca, or “Old Baldy” as it’sknown to locals, rose white against a February horizon-a swollen oasis on the desert floor. The piney air wasa gentle, biteless, springtime temperature despite the month. We were just a couple miles outside of Ruidoso,New Mexico, home of the famous Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, and more importantly to us, Ski Apache-thesouthernmost ski resort in the country. Ski Apache’s name is (aside from the first word) as suitable as any;it’s owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Indians and rests on both National Forest andReservation lands. As best as we could figure, it was a good time to be in New Mexico, the peaks crustedover with snow.

Once at the mountain, we headed straight to Apache Bowl, an almost treeless and naturallygullied, wind-blown place. The snow lived up to the area’s claim to have some of the “best warm-weatherpowder in the world.” Although it wasn’t cold, and the powder was of the packed variety, the snow stayeddry thanks to the desert wind bellowing over the ridge from the west. Looking out from atop the resort, wecould see forever in all directions, through both space and time. It seemed the entire history of the Southwesttook place in this singular expanse. In the foreground, granulized gypsum rearranged itself among WhiteSands National Monument-a constant, low-lying cloud. Beyond there, the site of the first atomic bombexplosion, and to the northwest, Capitan-where the real Smokey the Bear escaped a forest fire. Buteverywhere was Apache land. The north side of the mountain is webbed with fall-line cruisers, all covered ina wind-buffed layer of packed New Mexican powder, ready to set aloft with the lightest touch of an edge.To the south, the peak beckoned out of bounds. Chutes and cliffs lie within easy access of the chairlifts, butto go there-onto the reservation-one has to be with a Mescalero, and we hadn’t met any yet. If the canariescould still sing, they’d whistle the cold histories of a miner chiseling away at frozen winter rock. Mining builtlegacies in Red River, along the banks of the Rio Colorado-its water thick with cold. In 1895, gold was thecommon denominator among the people of the tiny, northern New Mexico town-the state’s polar opposite toSki Apache. But soon after, the landscape dictated otherwise, and the mines rested like quiet sulking scars.By the 1930s, Red River appeared much as it does today. Its peeling pastel facades make it thequintessential Western ski town. It’s the quintessential town, period; the current trend is toward riding-notmining-the mountains.

Our family of riders doubled that day when a couple of old friends and Grover (RedRiver ruler and our gracious guide) met up with us. The resort’s primary contribution to the snowboardworld, aside from rootsy atmosphere, is its healthy ount of banks. The mountain is riddled with treedhalfpipes that, with a foot of Sangre powder, made the perfect venue for cutbacks and shimmering slashes.Boards on edge mined the white hillsides, eclipsing the blue morning sky with crystalline waves as wefollowed Grover, king of the layback. We rode Maverick and Miner’s Alley, lightly feeling a path throughlean base coverage, and sinking in at just the right spot. Hopefully. The winter that was proving all-time nearTexas had been only mediocre closer to Colorado-more like the New Mexico norm. The town’s main-streetcamaraderie carries over to the slopes in Red River-it’s not uncommon to share lunch, or even a run, withone of the resort’s owners. If accustomed to riding anywhere else, lunch is a special experience at NewMexican resorts. For less than a fistful of dollars you can eat like it’s going out of style-and with plenty ofgreen chili. From the restaurant atop Red River, Wheeler Peak (the state’s highest) breaks the horizon intwo, and town appears below like Whoville, content and unassuming-what Aspen and Park City would be ifthey could do it all over again. The first resort homes are only now working their way into the pristinemountainsides on the outskirts of town. Art is not what man does to eat, but what he does to feed himself.This is often confused on the plaza in Santa Fe.

The country’s oldest capital is a twisted contradiction where art is sold, solemnly wrapped in a blanket on the capital-city sidewalk, for five dollars. Made on the reservation. But sixteen slick and windy miles away, the Sangre de Cristos (Christ’s Blood-southernmostrange of the Rockies) preside honestly over the quaintly packaged cultural misconception. There lies SkiSanta Fe. Snow poured through the gray, cold air like the television cable gone out at home, giving arenewed loft to what was becoming slimmer pickin’s. This proved to be the coldest day yet in New Mexico,and it seemed to catch the entire Southwest ski population off guard-Get back out there, boy, I paid 39bucks for that ticket. But jeans and ponchos have their limits. Because most of the untracked had somehowfallen between resort closure ropes, we put ourselves to kicking up a shallow grade. Trunks and branchessheltered us from blowing snow, and the hike forced blood back to all our toes. Only steps away from therun, it seemed we were alone. It always seems like that in the trees.

The storm pulsed, stacking against its only obstruction, and then breaking to afford a momentary glimpse of the distant golden-desert West. On themountain’s opposing face the trail map’s exclamation marks were clearly visible; Ski Santa Fe is littered withbig-mountain terrain features. The boundary-rope bootpack landed us atop a varied glade-here tight, thereopen. Powdery, wind-built crests and rolls called on experience to read the surface snow. In some placesresidual hardpack or rock loomed just below, abruptly changing the outcome of a programmed turn, while inothers, a board could be driven deep with even consistency. We turned down and hiked back up, turnedand hiked, and turned again, hollering in thick pines and barrelling through wide powder. The snow took thecolor of the sky as gray turn plumes cast on clouds and we dropped lower from glades to chutes. The coldcaught up with us there, at the bottom of the run. In the crowded mid-mountain lodge, I thought of our tracksclinging to the slope above, where art remains unframed. Strewn quietly along the mesa, Tech Areas, like thefamed Area 51, flew by as we drove above the rock-walled canyons and verdant valley floors. Basicallytaken over by the government in 1943 to provide a headquarters for the Manhattan Project, LosAlamos-”The Atomic City”-was built on secrets. But the area’s best kept one is right outside of town.Pajarito Mountain seemed suspicious standing alone, 40 miles across the Rio Grande river valley fromSangre de Cristo proper. We hypothesized about what might lie beneath its camouflage, and what wouldemerge if they (the government) ever decided to open the hinged top-but then we resolved to focus on itssurface. Pajarito’s slopes are self-evident-not a lot of funky undulations or golden eggs hidden beneath thelittle bird’s feathers.

The key to unlocking its potential, however, requires some insight, which can dramatically affect the riding. Lifts there only run on certain days, so the first open day after a storm is guaranteed untracked. With powder, Pajarito comes to life, and its shifting personality swings stronglytoward the Jekyll side. The otherwise uncharacteristic runs (aside from a small park and a couple of banks)become a dream filled with uncrowded faceshots. We pulled in just 24 hours after riding Santa Fe, but thestorm that had flocked that resort apparently hadn’t stopped at Pajarito along its way; making for a fun day,but leaving the mountain’s capabilities to our imaginations and the next visit. Weather made up for what littlenew snow there was, and wide runs lended themselves to our pack as we descended Evershine Ridge enmasse toward the valley below. Groomed and still soft, the mountain took perfectly to an edge, except forthe run. A single swath of cultural disregard-part of the mountain is “closed” to snowboarders. But whatcould we expect from a city that itself was closed to all but the government until 1957? Isolation, it seems,has its disadvantages too. At the bottom, Shannon grinned as we were urged to remove our boards from theday-lodge deck. He didn’t have to explain. Somebody had to bring the place up to date, by way of a clearlyentrenched carve on forbidden snow. I stopped again at the Hasta La Vista sign heading north out of state.Mystery remained, everything I didn’t know brought forth by the bleak sand sanctuary-a hot mirage reflectingback to myself. Is there anybody in there? Is there anybo … A couple also pulled off the road at theimaginary border.

They strolled past me in pursuit of a picture, noticed me gazing intently at the horizon, andassumed that I must have been admiring some rare desert feature. The guy finally asked me what I waslooking at, like I knew he would. I breathed in the sunset, smiled, and said “Nothin’. Want me to get apicture for ya?” Servicey Sidebar Whether as a short stop between riding days or a centrally located homebase, the town of Taos in many ways represents New Mexico best. The only nearby riding is in thebackcountry and at a small resort called Sipapu, but within easy reach are Angel Fire (22 miles) and RedRiver (32 miles). We stayed in town at the Touchstone Bed and Breakfast Inn, and found its comfortablyrefined atmosphere well worth the morning drives. We’d sometimes find ourselves rushing “home” after ridingto check out the varied culture and art in town, or to just relax in the hot tub across the river from the TaosPueblo. Call Touchstone at (505) 758-0192. For information on riding in The Land of Enchantment, call SkiNew Mexico-(505) 982-5300-or the resorts themselves. Renting a car (Dollar 1-800-369-4226) isworthwhile as the drives are short and scenic. Angel Fire: 1-800-633-7463 Pajarito, Los Alamos: (505) 662-7669

Red River: (505) 754-2223

Sandia Peak, Albuquerque: (505) 242-9133

Santa Fe: (505) 982-4429

Sipapu, Taos: (505) 587-2240

Ski Apache, Ruidoso: (505) 336-4356

Ski Rio, Costilla: (505) 758-7707uflage, and what wouldemerge if they (the government) ever decided to open the hinged top-but then we resolved to focus on itssurface. Pajarito’s slopes are self-evident-not a lot of funky undulations or golden eggs hidden beneath thelittle bird’s feathers.

The key to unlocking its potential, however, requires some insight, which can dramatically affect the riding. Lifts there only run on certain days, so the first open day after a storm is guaranteed untracked. With powder, Pajarito comes to life, and its shifting personality swings stronglytoward the Jekyll side. The otherwise uncharacteristic runs (aside from a small park and a couple of banks)become a dream filled with uncrowded faceshots. We pulled in just 24 hours after riding Santa Fe, but thestorm that had flocked that resort apparently hadn’t stopped at Pajarito along its way; making for a fun day,but leaving the mountain’s capabilities to our imaginations and the next visit. Weather made up for what littlenew snow there was, and wide runs lended themselves to our pack as we descended Evershine Ridge enmasse toward the valley below. Groomed and still soft, the mountain took perfectly to an edge, except forthe run. A single swath of cultural disregard-part of the mountain is “closed” to snowboarders. But whatcould we expect from a city that itself was closed to all but the government until 1957? Isolation, it seems,has its disadvantages too. At the bottom, Shannon grinned as we were urged to remove our boards from theday-lodge deck. He didn’t have to explain. Somebody had to bring the place up to date, by way of a clearlyentrenched carve on forbidden snow. I stopped again at the Hasta La Vista sign heading north out of state.Mystery remained, everything I didn’t know brought forth by the bleak sand sanctuary-a hot mirage reflectingback to myself. Is there anybody in there? Is there anybo … A couple also pulled off the road at theimaginary border.

They strolled past me in pursuit of a picture, noticed me gazing intently at the horizon, andassumed that I must have been admiring some rare desert feature. The guy finally asked me what I waslooking at, like I knew he would. I breathed in the sunset, smiled, and said “Nothin’. Want me to get apicture for ya?” Servicey Sidebar Whether as a short stop between riding days or a centrally located homebase, the town of Taos in many ways represents New Mexico best. The only nearby riding is in thebackcountry and at a small resort called Sipapu, but within easy reach are Angel Fire (22 miles) and RedRiver (32 miles). We stayed in town at the Touchstone Bed and Breakfast Inn, and found its comfortablyrefined atmosphere well worth the morning drives. We’d sometimes find ourselves rushing “home” after ridingto check out the varied culture and art in town, or to just relax in the hot tub across the river from the TaosPueblo. Call Touchstone at (505) 758-0192. For information on riding in The Land of Enchantment, call SkiNew Mexico-(505) 982-5300-or the resorts themselves. Renting a car (Dollar 1-800-369-4226) isworthwhile as the drives are short and scenic. Angel Fire: 1-800-633-7463 Pajarito, Los Alamos: (505) 662-7669

Red River: (505) 754-2223

Sandia Peak, Albuquerque: (505) 242-9133

Santa Fe: (505) 982-4429

Sipapu, Taos: (505) 587-2240

Ski Apache, Ruidoso: (505) 336-4356

Ski Rio, Costilla: (505) 758-7707