December 18, 2012
We’d let Carl know that we had received about fifteen inches of snow, aware that that amount was about the limit for what was drivable on the unplowed mountain road. Carl said he would come by on the 18th, two days before our planned departure, to “open up the road”.
He arrived at 11 AM with his two teenaged sons and announced that he thought we should leave immediately. Another snowstorm was forecast for the following day and it could bring 4-12 more inches. Better to leave now when we could. He said it had been a bit tricky getting to Vallecitos as it was. Snow drifts had made parts of the road impassable and they had driven through meadows instead.
We had planned to spend the following day packing and cleaning so little was ready for our sudden exit. Chris and I went into high gear, throwing things into the truck and wiping, sweeping and washing best we could. What we thought would take half a day we did in an hour. Admittedly, it was all a little slipshod.
Hoping everything wouldn’t freeze in the two days before the next caretaker arrived, we filled up the wood stove. (He would likely be snowmobiled in.) We said our brief, but heartfelt, goodbyes to Vallecitos, and left. Carl’s 4WD truck had chains and he’d brought an extra pair for our truck. Unfortunately, they didn’t fit.
The way out would be on a different road than we came in. It was longer, eleven miles instead of seven, but at slightly lower elevation. Also, Carl’s ranch was on the way and we’d be stopping there to pick up some turkeys. They had taken all the animals from the ranch into town for the winter, except for the turkeys. To carry them, they hooked up the horse trailer from Vallecitos. The trailer would also help plow the way out for us.
We have 4WD but the possibility for some sliding or getting stuck was significant. Carl had brought shovels, wenches and other equipment in case of trouble. Chris was nervous. I was nervous. Chris is a good skilled driver but has little experience with snow (remember what I said about shoveling?) To drive in snow you must curb normal life-long reactions. For example, in a slide you must resisting braking and, most counter-intuitive of all, turn into the direction of the skid. In a crisis, the old-wired responses take over and that’s what worried me.
The scenery was beautiful but it was hard to notice. Even the elk running through the forest only got a cursory glance. We were focused on the road. Chris kept his eyes on the tracks left by Carl’s truck and trailer, following it precisely. We traveled about 15 miles an hour about 50 feet behind them. In two places we drove across fields instead of the road where snow had become too deep. Occasionally, the truck would slide but each time Chris was able to quickly recover. We briefly got stuck in a drift with the wheels spinning uselessly. But with a little backing up Chris was able to get traction again. As we made slow progress, I gave Chris periodic encouragement, “Your doing good.” “Take it slow.” “Breathe.”
About halfway to the plowed highway, we arrived at Carl’s family ranch. One of his sons was raising heirloom turkeys, Bourbon Reds, to sell for breeding. Cages were brought out of the barn and placed on the horse trailer, then each turkey, two toms and four hens, were carried out manually.
Unlike the breed of turkey usually sold in supermarkets, the Bourbon Reds are self-reproducing and physically functional (mass produced turkeys lose the ability to mate and to stand.) These turkeys look similar to wild turkeys but have reddish feathers with white patches. The toms had impressive multi-color heads and wattles. You may have learned about raising these turkeys in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. You can read an except describing her Bourbon Reds at: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/essay-bourbon-for-dinner-raising-heirloom-turkeys
Volunteering to carry out one of the hens, I was given the hen most used to being held. She was calm and warm as I embraced her against my chest making sure to cover her wings. I talked to her soothingly, letting her know she’d be okay, that she would like her new home and that she wasn’t going to be Christmas dinner.
As we get back on the road, Carl explained that the worst was over, but that there were a few scary parts left, which immediately filled me with dread. In the end, I actually felt the second half was scarier than the first. I do not have any photos of the frightening parts because I was too focused on breathing and praying. Also, I didn’t want to distract Chris in any way by playing with my camera. Even if these roads had been dry and well-maintained I would have disliked traveling certain sections. With ice and snow, they felt treacherous.
For a long stretch the one-lane road, cut into the side of a mountain, climbed. On our right was a long vertical drop to the valley floor. There were few trees to break the fall of a vehicle if it should go over the edge. Several moments of the truck sliding sideways tightened my throat and breath. I tried reassuring myself that I didn’t need to worry about falling off the cliff until it happened. That helped a tiny bit.
Turning onto the clear pavement of Route 64 brought tremendous relief. Chris said if it hadn’t been so stressful, it might have been fun. We head south toward Santa Fe.