March 18th 2010
“Fifth Sunday in a row,” the ski instructor in the blue staff jacket said, shaking his head and pointing at the fine powder descending peaceably all around us. “There’s 90 inches of snow at the top of that mountain.”
Our strange winter – dead orange groves in Florida; Washington disabled for a week by two back-to-back monsters – has flummoxed even the hardy folks at 10,440 feet in northern New Mexico. The instructor’s reaction did not increase my confidence. I had downhill-skied all of once in my life, nearly mowing down an unwitting grandmother in the process. And that was in New Jersey.
A friend and I were at Pajarito Mountain, five miles west of Los Alamos. It didn’t feel like the ideal place to be a novice barreling down steep slopes; passing streets called Bikini Atoll on the way up to Pajarito puts you in a morbid frame of mind. But Pajarito is a find; something of a local secret, it has none of the tourist crowds at Ski Santa Fe, and the ski instructors are pleasantly unscruffy middle-aged men.
My group – a young woman from Albuquerque indulging a ski-obsessed boyfriend who had ungallantly left her to cavort at the top of the mountain; a family from South Texas that had never seen snow; and several extremely small children who immediately revealed themselves to be better than everyone else – started on a baby slope that couldn’t match the incline on a treadmill.
“How’s the air for you, New York?” a mustached instructor in Ray-Bans asked me. I have trekked at 14,000 feet in Peru (with food poisoning!), but, for some reason, northern New Mexico had been getting to me. I confessed: A climb up stairs, and I was panting.
“Well, let us know – we don’t want you keeling over,” he said and winked.
Minor humiliations followed, but we graduated to a slope with the grade of a playground slide.
“Don’t fight gravity!” one of the instructors yelled. “If somebody’s punching you in the face, you go with it, you don’t push back!”
How did you turn these damn skis? The mountain loomed implacably behind us. Snow was misting so heavily that visibility was negligible.
And then something odd happened. I went from toddler to Bode Miller. The skis started to feel like extensions of my legs; graduating to the next incline, I not only took it without falls, but even executed a couple of modest slalom-like turns.
“Not bad, New York!” the mustache shouted. I felt like I had had little to do with it.
It turns out New Jersey is harder to ski than New Mexico. The powder at Pajarito is so fine – you couldn’t make a snowball out of the stuff if you’d tried – that skiing it feels like slicing through water, unlike lower-elevation Northeast snow, which often turns slick and dense. Within an hour, I was stirring up expert walls of snow as I traced S’s down the mountain.
Time for lunch. Thirty miles away – and five thousand feet below – the little town of Española was baking in what felt like an early-summer heat. (New Mexico is one of those rare American places where you can ski in the morning and mountain-bike in the afternoon.) Española seemed as unpromising as Pajarito had seemed daunting: A dusty little town with a couple of streets and an old trading post swimming with dust motes and cigarette smoke.
But we were hungry, so we pulled in at Matilda’s, an old-time family joint. At the counter, we discovered Matilda herself, hale and flinty at 85. She poured our coffee, traced our orders in a neat cursive, and delivered two heavenly plates of enchiladas crusted with a delicate skin of cheddar and smothered in refried beans and “Christmas” chile (red and green, mixed). Matilda also brought a basket of four sopapillas – quick breads to sop up the mess on the plate or eat alone with honey – that looked so airy they appeared to be breathing.
After we’d finished and gurgled our approval, we ambushed Matilda with questions. How long had the restaurant been around? Since 1955. And she had run the place the whole time? That’s right. (What we were really trying to ask was: “What was food this good doing in a place like this?”) We decided to stock up on a little historical perspective: How had the world changed since 1955?
“The rents,” Matilda said, without pausing. “Place like this, you could get for $250 a month.”
Cute, we thought. It seemed like time to go.
“Where you fellows from?” Matilda said as we gathered our things.
I said New York and my friend said Washington.
“Oh, I got a nephew lives in Washington,” Matilda said.
“Oh, yeah?” my friend said indulgently. “What does he do?”
“He’s a Congressman. Was elected to the House in 2008. His folks are having a cup of coffee right over there. Go say hello.”
So much for provincial cuteness. The way out of town took us past several other restaurants. They looked as humble as Matilda’s, and – if local accounts are trustworthy – served food just as good.
That day, nothing had been as it appeared. As we drove back to our motel in Santa Fe, the ochre humps of the Jemez Mountains and the South Truchas Peak looming glamorously in the late-afternoon sun, it was a fine thing to remember that this is exactly why turning your life – and wallet – upside down for a weekend jaunt to a faraway place is always the right thing to do.