Morning in Arroyo Seco is completely still, save for the gentle chirp of birds politely easing you awake. There’s a magic that ripples through the air here in a way that makes you feel far from civilisation, yet completely at home. The village itself consists of a smattering of buildings along a single winding road, about ten minutes outside the town of Taos. But my friend and I are staying in a tiny casita perched amidst a sweeping wide sage field sporadically dotted with pueblo-style houses in varying terracotta hues. The quiet here is such that even the crunch of dirt road under my feet seems disruptive.
It’s tempting to stay and revel in this unusual peace for the entire day – but there’s exploring to be done. After stopping for a coffee in Taos, we follow a winding road through a thicket of houses clad in greenery. Soon buildings become sparse and eventually we are alone, driving through the wilderness. It turns out that the road we are on is known as the Enchanted Circle, which meanders through the Carson National Forest with an ever-changing tableau of jagged mountains, plains of wild sage, serpentine rivers, dense forest and deep gorges.
Midway into the drive, we encounter a pottery studio settled into a thick cluster of pine trees on the hillside. The owner, though surprised to stumble upon us wandering through her workshop, graciously gives us a tour, interspersing her explanations of the firing process with nuggets of advice on what we should include on the day’s itinerary. About 40 minutes up the road is a town called Eagle Nest, she tells us, and it’s home to a restaurant called Calamity Jane’s that serves a chocolate pie that will change your life. Always ready to plan our travels around food, we note the advice and plan our route accordingly.
Eagle Nest, like many of the tiny communities in the area, proudly claims its heritage as an original part of the Wild West, with locals always at the ready to explain their little piece of history. When we mosey into an old antique store, the owner interrupts our casual browsing to show us the original elements of the saloon that used to occupy the tiny shack of a building (including the sloping wooden floorboards).
Having confirmed that the chocolate pie is suitably life changing, we head back out on the road where the landscape once again morphs into something new. The thin two-lane highway is carved into a valley that traces the banks of the Cimarron River, forming Cimarron Canyon. Midway through, a series of towering cliffs known as the Palisades stand commandingly over the riverscape below. When we stop to stretch our legs and take the requisite scenic photography, a grandmother from Texas waddles over to me in a pair of oversized rubber overalls, fishing rod in hand. During our brief conversation (generously infused with her endearing use of the word ‘yonder’) she tells me she’s here fishing with her whole family, pointing to her grandson nestled amongst the reeds with his rod. Though she warmly offers us the opportunity to throw in a line ourselves, I politely decline (particularly since I didn’t happen to bring any rubber overalls).
Once we’re through the canyon, we arrive in another locale – this one even smaller than Eagle Nest – which is famous for one particular architectural resident on its main street. The St James Hotel in Cimarron, where we’ve stopped for lunch, was notorious during the days of the Wild West, with the likes of Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp all bedding down there at one time or another. The ceiling of the hotel’s bar and restaurant is still riddled with bullets holes from that era, and the rooms upstairs are said to be haunted by the murderous characters who once occupied them. A log book sits in the hotel lobby, bulging with the penned accounts of recent guests who reported ghostly encounters.
Fitting to our ghoulish lunch locale, the sky has taken on an eerie hue as we drive out of Cimarron to get back on the Enchanted Circle. The late-afternoon sun competes with moody storm clouds cast across the horizon, resulting in ethereal streams of white light piercing through the grey. It seems we are in for a mighty storm, so we race our way back amongst the sage fields to our abode in Arroyo Seco in order to beat it.
The clouds, though brewing dangerously, stay intact in time for sunset, which blushes its way across the vast tableland. Dancing on the cusp of day and night, it’s a bewitching point in time, as the creatures of the sun make way for those of the night. As if signalled, coyotes begin longing howls that echo into the mountains, while crickets chirp a rhythmic harmony. A violent clap of thunder rumbles across the sky, and the heavens open.