After I had lived in New Mexico for three years, I was offered the “dream job” back in Colorado. My parents and siblings still lived in Denver, and so did most of my friends. The salary was twice as much as I’d ever made. And there would be easy access to all the ski areas I had grown up on, including the steeps of A-Basin, the frigid freedom of Winter Park, and the well-groomed opulence of Vail.
But when the woman at the airline counter on my return trip asked me where I was going, as soon as I told her “Santa Fe,” I realized I was going to tell the people from the interview, “No thanks.”
On the phone with my wife in the airport right after that epiphany, I said, “I’m coming home.”
Catherine had come down first. With her flashing green eyes and Celtic red hair, I would (and do) follow her anywhere—even to some southern sandlot of cactus, lizards, and snakes, where deep into the winter people still sit by their air conditioners. Or so I thought, until I visited her at the little adobe house (which had briefly housed the original Smokey Bear) just a few blocks from the Plaza and first saw Tesuque Peak in all its April glory, surging like a massive frozen wave above the little brown town.
I hadn’t known the City Different was at 7,000 feet—the highest capital city in the United States—or that the biggest blizzards of the season often hit at Christmas, laying down a blanket as perfect as a studio backdrop for the arrays of white-candled farolitos and the bonfires blazing on Canyon Road.
I figured that come ski season I’d be driving up to Taos every weekend. When the snow did come, I told one of my new neighbors that I was going to take my backcountry touring skis up Tesuque Peak and see if all that snow was skiable. He said, “Or you could just ride the chair.”
“There’s a chair?”
“Man, there’s a whole ski area up there.”
When I was growing up, my father was a volunteer ski patroller at Vail. Every weekend, every winter, we battled our way up I-70 in a battered little blue Volkswagen hatchback. I went to college near Whiteface Mountain, in upstate New York, the site of two Winter Olympics, where the runs fall away as steep and icy as frosted waterfalls. I worked four years as a ski instructor and guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But no place has ever felt as special to me as New Mexico.
There is something friendlier about the skiing here, where no one feels compelled to remind you that they’re a local, or how they just skied the toughest run on the hill. There is something timeless about watching fat ravens dive-bomb off the peaks, riding the rising air currents as if they were skiing, too. Or sitting in the sun on the deck at the Hotel St. Bernard in Taos, or at Totemoff’s at Ski Santa Fe, drinking a beer with your gloves off and complaining about the cold.
Christian Fallard, the dark-haired, smiling bartender at Totemoff’s, will always shake my hand when he sees me, and make me a special red margarita if I ask, which mixes like Christmas with the velvet warmth of the kitchen’s green chile stew. Michael Lindenbaum, the big German who maintains the mountain, will grab his skis for a quick run if I meet him on the patio. When I hike there in the summer, he’ll often stop sawing logs or hauling cables so we can talk about the weather and the world. “It won’t be long until it snows.”
I hadn’t expected to feel so much at home here. I hadn’t expected to find a ski community. But when I did, I embraced it as quickly as I could, diving into its dense, diverse fabric of dark-eyed powder pilots from Pecos and sideways snow-surfing expats from Edinburgh. I got a job that first winter working for Harvey Chalker, tuning skis at Alpine Sports, which he’s been running with his wife, Reserl, for 50 years. They met in Garmisch, Germany, where she was a professional skier and he was stationed for the Army, working on ski patrol. I’ve never worked for better people. SKI Magazine names Alpine Sports one of the best shops in the country almost every year.
Harvey wrote a recommendation for me when I got a job working for the newspaper in Los Alamos, where I began to discover the quirky, big-bumped pleasures of the Pajarito Ski Area. As rustic and real as any mountain I’ve ever skied, it grew from a little hill established to entertain the international scientists converging on the high-desert plateau to build the A-bomb during World War II. That Big Bang Theory celebration of all things scientific still pervades the area, and was evident in the friendly personage of one Stephen Shankland, a local skier who showed me the best lines and joked that you could tell which decade skiers had moved to Los Alamos by the vintage of their parkas.
One sunny ski day Stephen said to me, “I was driving about 10 miles too fast to get here, but then I realized that was nothing compared to the speed of the photons hitting my windshield.”
Stephen was a natural, analytical athlete, and we learned how to telemark-ski together, dropping a knee each time we began to initiate that slow waltz of turns. We drove to Taos, where the ruthless, relentless steeps overwhelmed our thighs, and on the long traverse to the base my feet were cramping from the effort I was making with my toes to try and hold on to the slippery snow.
I met Alejandro (“Hano”) and Adriana Blake, the grandchildren of Mickey Blake, the ski area’s legendary founder. Humble, friendly, and as hardworking as a frontier farm family, they were finishing up a hard day of work and we started talking at happy hour. Adriana didn’t even finish a beer before running off to operate the tow rope for the snow-tubing hill.
North of Taos, I found Red River to be like some high-mountain cowboy Shangri-La, a huddled little town with smoking chimneys and a gentle sweep of mountain that still holds me in its spell. The same with the welcoming woodiness of Sipapu and Angel Fire, where the same families of migratory skiers return year after year, and memories seem to slow down so you can see them hang and glisten in the crisp winter air. To the south, the great fin of the Sandía Crest cradles the Sandia Peak Ski Area, just outside Albuquerque, with skiing as close to a major city as can be found anywhere in America. And south past that are the angel-white peaks of Ski Apache, like a mirage of mountains and winter just a few hours’ drive north from El Paso.
I wouldn’t have believed half of it existed if I hadn’t fallen in love with that red-haired girl, and seen and skied so much of it for myself. I wouldn’t have found that first real dream job with Wintersports Business, a now defunct trade magazine for the ski-and-snowboard industry, with offices just five blocks from my house. Or gotten that gig with Ski Press World, an international ski publication with home offices in Munich and Montreal.
They hired me to ski the world, from France to Italy to Switzerland, and again and again to Sölden, Austria, where the World Cup season opens every year. In Chile, skiing the breathlessly high peaks of La Parva and Portillo, I couldn’t help but compare it to the alpine beauty of New Mexico. And in Greenland, skiing from a dogsled out into the endless white nothing with just a guide and my gear, I yearned for a margarita and some enchilada casserole.
In every place and with everyone I meet, when I tell them I live in New Mexico, they always want to know more. Even if they have never seen the state, and maybe never will, there is some unique kind of magic this place makes them feel. Their eyes widen when I tell them about the mountains and how, at 10,350 feet, Ski Santa Fe has one of the highest base elevations in North America. I say how dry the powder can be, as soft as soap, or soft and wet when the moisture is coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. And I tell them about those days when I ski untracked powder alone for hours, until I start to get lonely and wait for someone to share a chair.
If we talk for a while, I may also tell them how that “dream job” disappeared, and the whole e-commerce company went under six months after my interview. Or how, whether I’m in Zurich in January or Vancouver in February, one of my favorite things to do is call my wife before I board a plane, imagining her like a beacon amidst all the simple, perfect beauty of New Mexico.
“Sweetheart,” I’ll say. “I’m coming home.”
Peter Kray is wrapping up his first novel, The God of Skiing.