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Wheels on Fire

            As ski runs go, Jasper’s trail at New Mexico’s Angel Fire Resort rates intermediate status.  It’s wide enough for sweeping turns and not so precipitous that catching an edge would result in an equipment-spewing yard sale.  Over a powdery base, I’d schuss down it sporting a taco-sized grin.

            But I’m not on skis, and there is nary a snowflake to be found.  It’s mid-summer, and I’m jolting down this rock-rubble run on a mountain bike.  Gripping the brakes, I struggle to keep from plummeting head over handlebars.

            I’ve brought my bike to Angel Fire with three objectives in mind.  I want to escape city heat, I want to pedal some hills, and I want to devour mounds of the Mexican cuisine for which the Land of Enchantment is renowned.

            Located 24 miles east of Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Angel Fire is both a ski resort and a 1,000-resident village.  It sits at 8,400 feet in a high valley surrounded by forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.  Keeping cool will not be a problem.

            Finding Mexican fare may be.  As I drive through town, I see barbecue, pizza, steaks, burgers, Chinese, Italian and American eateries.  None specialize in New Mexican cookery.  Checking into my room at the slopeside resort, I fear I’ve fallen into a fajita famine.

            Angel FireAngel Fire began 40 years ago as a small ski area built on privately-owned land.  The owners realized it would take more than downhill dollars to make their operation successful.  To lure summer visitors, they built a golf course, tennis courts, fishing lake and riding stables, and they opened a lift to carry hikers and sightseers into the high country.  Those chairs now sport bike racks.

            “We look at what’s happening at Whistler Mountain, which is a mecca for mountain biking,” explains general manager Jon Mahanna.  “This is definitely something that could develop a large boost for us in the summertime.”

            To showcase the possibilities, Angel Fire has hosted races, ranging from an annual Chili Challenge series to the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup tour.  Last month, they held a Quest for Fire adventure race.  Still coming this year are the Final Descent, a downhill competition and “gravity festival,” and the National Collegiate Cycling Association championships, which culminate in a college-style, Cancun-on-wheels event called the Naked Crit.

            “They ride around naked on mountain bikes.  It’s quite a scene,” laughs events manager Andy Whitacre.  “We try to tuck them away toward the back of the mountain.”

            Angel FireThe resort boasts miles of competitive trails, including an eight-mile cross-country loop that has riders doing laps with a 1,500-vertical-foot climb.  A 4X (four-cross) course offers big-air jumps over dirt berms, and there’s a world-class downhill trail featuring tight technical drops through the trees.

            For those who think screaming down boulders and over tree roots has as much appeal as tooth extractions, the resort also offers less challenging routes.  Atop the mountain, three of its winter Nordic trails offer loop rides with limited ups and downs.

            Angel FireUnfortunately, it’s possible to get lost in the thick forest up there.  Peddling a topside trail, I pass a hiking family from Houston retracing their steps to the chairlift.  “I think you’re on the wrong trail,” the father warns.

            That should be my clue to retreat, but I blunder ahead anyway.  I want to see what lies around the next bend.  Thirty bends and a pedal-pumping hour later, I’m still pushing onward.  I begin to wonder if I’ll ever see civilization again.  Finally, I spy a picnic table.  Next to it, a sign points back toward the lift.  I’m saved.

            “Ah, mountain biking at its best,” I think as I reemerge from the woods.  “No fear, no fun!”

            After a day of riding, I feel the itch for an enchilada.  I stop at the town’s Visitor Center for a restaurant list.  This is a resort community in New Mexico where chili choice – red or green – is the unofficial state question.  Surely, they must serve bean cuisine somewhere.

            “We have nachos, quesadillas and things like that, but it’s more Tex-Mex,” admits Dixie Cawthorne, Angel Fire’s tourism director.  “We do need some authentic Mexican food here.  We refer a lot of people over to Taos.”

            I decide to head over the next day.  The neighboring village sits 17 buzzard-flying miles away, and I have a choice of routes – path or pavement – to get there.

             “This trail is called the South Boundary.  You ride it all the way to Taos,” Cottam’s Ski and Outdoor Shop employee Mary Finnell shows me, pointing to a dashed squiggle on the map.  “It’s been written up in a lot of magazines as one of the great rides of the Southwest.”

            Angel Fire GolfSouth Boundary is just one of the myriad of mountain biking trails and roads available in the Carson National Forest. I buy the map and drive toward the trailhead.  Heading southbound, I soon pass some of the other activity venues that lure folks to Angel Fire.

            First comes the 18-hole golf course, its links winding through a tree-bounded valley.  A short way beyond lies Monte Verde Lake, the resort’s 28-acre fishing pond.  Because it’s privately owned, no state license is required.

            “A New Mexico fishing license for an out of state person costs over $50,” says manager Matthew Lemma.  “If you come out here, you pay only $15.

            M onte Verde LakeDown the highway, I come to the Ritchie-Slater Winery whose tasting room occupies a century-old barn.  Instead of grape varietals, they make dry table wine from fruit, most of which comes from New Mexico growers.

            “I have a lot of people who have old apricot, plum and chokecherry trees.  They’ll bring them over here to me and I’ll make wine out of them,” says Charlotte Ritchie-Slater.Winery

            While I’m inside, clouds build and thunder begins to rumble outside.  If I’m going to do tamales in Taos, I’m going to have to get there on four wheels, not two.

            The twisty, two-lane highway crosses mountains perfumed with the sweet incense of pine needles.  Forty minutes later, it drops into the Georgia O’Keefe town famed for its adobe-style architecture.  I make my chili choice (green) at a restaurant overlooking the historic town plaza so I can better savor the town’s Hispanic meets Indian ambiance.

            Returning to Angel Fire, I stop at the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial that stands on a hill near town.  Dr. Victor Westphall and his wife built it to honor their son, David, a Marine killed in 1968.  The parents said they hoped it would serve as “an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.”

            Vietnam MemorialA Huey helicopter, itself a Vietnam veteran, rests on stilts near the parking lot, and a life-size sculpture of a soldier writing home stands in a grassy garden nearby.  American flags line the sidewalk that leads to a chapel whose dove-white curves sweep skyward.  Inside, textured walls mottle light entering through a tall, slit-like vertical window.  Two boxes of tissues sit atop descending benches, awaiting teary-eyed visitors.

            More tissue boxes can be found in the memorial’s Visitor Center.  War photographs grace the walls, and a color video tells the story of the conflict in the words of vets who served there.

            Guests wander quietly through the exhibits, speaking in somber whispers.  Most of us, no doubt, have memories of when we, our relatives or friends fought in Indochina.  I, too, reach for a tissue.

            The next morning, it’s time for me to head home.  On my way out of town, I intend to stop at Avalons, a restaurant recommended by village employee Linda Couhig.

            “They do a killer breakfast burrito with red or green salsa,” she told me.  “It’s primo!”

             I pull in and find the parking lot nearly empty.  Two people sit eating near the restaurant window.  As I approach the door, one of them, the owner, comes out to deliver the bad news.

            “Sorry.  It’s Sunday and we’re closed.”

            Dejected, I drive to the Angel Fire Mini-Mart.  Instead of red or green, I have a different decision to make – powdered or frosted?

            I depart the Land of Enchantment, dining on Hostess doughnuts.