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I've been back home since mid-day last Thursday but have been too lazy to blog about my family's visit.

Briefly, everyone (my dad, stepmom, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew) arrived last Monday.  Following some gift giving (for my dad's 70th birthday and sister's 38th — both of which occurred in May but which I was unable to attend) at my apartment, we departed for the "traditional" shopping expedition.  I steered them first to the Knob Hill area (east of the University Of New Mexico) but we were all disappointed that the self-proclaimed "hip" section of 'Burque failed to live up to expectations.

Thus, we next ventured to Old Town — the old square around which the villa was first established in 1706 and the center of quaint, tourist-oriented, shops.  Luckily, there were no anti-war protests during our visit (something which has become quite common since the National Atomic Energy Museum moved there from the air force base following 9/11 — the huge Redstone rocket outside the entrance has become a rallying point for those who oppose our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan).

After an hour of browsing in shops and taking photos of the old San Felipe de Neri church and other interesting sites, we congregated for a nice late lunch/early dinner at one of the few restaurants on the plaza I hadn't yet ate at — High Noon Restaurant & Saloon.  The service was rather poor and slow but the food was tasty and plentiful.

We then drove up to Rio Rancho where we had rented a condo for two nights (the wonderful Green's Condiminiums — a return visit as we stayed there when the family visited for Balloon Fiesta about five or six years ago).

Tuesday morning, the crew separated — Keith and Spencer to play a round of golf at the condo's 18-holer and the rest of us to while away some time in the Sandia Casino.  This place is growing by leaps and bounds — just a few years ago it was housed in a large hanger-type structure west of I-25 but has since relocated to the other side of that highway in a sprawling adobe structure.  My first visit to the new location was just 11 months ago when some friends visited and we attended a couple of concerts (ZZ Top and Yes with Dream Theater) in the beautiful amphitheatre which sits in front of the casino complex.  The building housing the casino at that time was just a ground floor structure; they have since built (it's almost finished judging by some scaffolding still along one end) a five-story hotel on top of that building!  There's also a world-class golf course nearing completion on the grounds.

My sister and I paired up and hit several slot machines.  I only had two one-dollar bills and decided I wouldn't change any money beyond those two.  We stayed mainly on the nickel and quarter machines (until we found the cool Star Wars-themed slots that were a penny a play.  At one point, I was up $6.00 but lost it in the end (I wanted to because I would have been embarrassed to cash in a $6.00 ticket).  My step-mom won more than $80.

Our next stop was the Sandia Peak Tramway (the world's longest single-span tram) where we had a snack while waiting for Keith and Spencer and enjoyed the views over the Rio Grande Valley.  Everyone except for Marilyn rode to the summit (10,378 feet) and we enjoyed the much cooler weather and some of the forest trails on the west side of the ridge.  On the way back down, we were (finally) able to see the wreckage from the TWA airliner that crashed in the mountains back in 1955 (you have to stand along the back wall of the gondola in order to see straight down into the second canyon from the top).

Some more time was spent visiting (and watching Spencer chase rabbits in the yard) before heading out to dinner.  I'd wanted to choose a place in the revitalized downtown and my first choice was Tucanos Brazilian Grill but we ended up choosing Ragin' Shrimp (a Cajun restaurant).  Although the guide book listed it as being downtown, the place is actually in Knob Hill (a block north of Central).  We dined on the patio and the food was very good (although I only had a salad — the increased monsoonal humidity had been playing havoc with my stomach for several days by that point).  It's a funky little place and well worth a second visit.

On the way back to the condo, I rode with Dad and Lyn and steered them through downtown on Central (old Route 66) which was lit up nicely for the evening; they were able to catch climpses of the new Transportation Center (modeled after the historic Alvarado Hotel and Santa Fe RR Station which burned in the early 1970s) and the architecturally-significant Kimo Theatre.

Another highlight of that day was the fact that Marilyn saw her very first roadrunner.  During family trips to New Mexico when we were both very young, our parents or myself would often see a roadrunner outside of the car.  But by the time my sister would look out the window, it would have already disappeared.  It became a subject of family lore and was often joked about at gatherings.  Indeed, I hadn't even seen one in years.  Yet, Marilyn spotted one from the car in Rio Rancho (just north of Cottonwood Mall) and was able to point it out in time for all of us to also see it.  I think it's a sign that Rio Rancho has been growing too fast and the wildlife is confused (in addition to the rabbits we saw all over the condo grounds, Keith had also seen a coyote that morning on his way to the golf course).

We checked out of the condo early Wednesday and began the drive north to our next destination — Taos.  I had wanted to take the high road (scenic route through many old Spanish village) between Santa Fe and Taos but was voted down because of time constraints (ironically, the journey on the low road took longer than the scenic route because of several stops we made, but ultimately I think it was the better choice as we ALL had a good time at those stops).

Our first unscheduled stop was the huge Jackalope store on Cerillos Road in Santa Fe; they sell loads and loads of (mostly outdoor-style) pottery and decorative art, much of it Southwestern but there are also worldwide imports.  (They also have a new store in Bernalillo as well as locations in L.A., and Parker, Colorado; well worth a visit...)  Spencer enjoyed watching the prairie dogs (an enclosed habitat for them is on the store grounds) while we all enjoyed browsing all sorts of things and watching a glass-blowing demonstration (I shot some nice film footage of this).  When I move to my next place (and I'm seriously thinking of buying a condo), I plan to decorate it with stuff from Jackalope.

North of Santa Fe, we made stops at two wineries — Santa Fe Vineyards just north of the turnoff to Nambe and the high road (which I wasn't too impressed with, dusty with cobwebs in the tasting room) and the very nice Black Mesa Winery just south of Velarde.  I tasted several and purchased a 2004 Mesa Merlot (excellent) along with a wine glass imprinted with the winery's logo.

Lunch was just a few miles further down the road at one of my favorite places to stop in rural New Mexico — the historic Embudo Station (a stop on the old El Camino Real wagon trail and the "Chile Line" narrow gauge railroad as well as being New Mexico's first brewpub).  I make a bathroom stop here everytime I'm driving along this route; it sits on the west side of the Rio Grande (so you have to cross a bridge) under a nice stand of cottonwood trees.  There was some concern this past spring that Embudo Station would be flooded during the abnormally high runoff from the snowmelt farther up in the Sango de Cristos.  The hostess told me the river came all the way to the steps on the patio.  Sadly, they no longer brew beer on the premises (under new ownership) and their supplier hadn't delivered any of the other New Mexico beers they sell; we settled on a pilsner brewed in Colorado that was very good.  I had a barbecue brisket that was extremely tasty.

We arrived in Taos around 1 or 2 in the afternoon and spent some time browsing the shops on the plaza and the nicer shops in a newer gallery between the north end of the square and the Governor Bent museum.  I think Dad was much more impressed with Taos during this visit as he has come to realize that there is much more to the tiny town than the actual plaza there.  I took a photo of Dad and Lyn in front of the sign for Moby Dickens Bookshop (I still think they are missing an opportunity by not selling t-shirts with that logo) and then we headed up the mountain to our condo.

This particular condo (Twining) was located at the very end of the road in Taos Ski Valley high above the town of Taos (a nice 15-mile drive; I want to return so I can browse the cool shops in Arroyo Seco, where the movie Easy Rider was filmed in part).  The Rio Hondo burbled along the two-lane highway into the mountains with birch, aspen, and evergreens lining either side of the road.  The condo itself was on three levels (the entrance at ground level opening onto a step staircase leading up to two large bedrooms and a bathroom on level two; a kitchen, another bathroom, a living area with fireplace and a small deck on the next level; and finally a loft above the kitchen with more bedding.  All in a rustic pine.  I immediately fell in love with it (although the immediate view was of an unfinished parking lot you could see across to the ski lodge and chairlifts and beautiful mountains beyond).

We got one of our heavy afternoon thunderstorms which are typical of this time of the year.  Keith and I headed back down the mountain in order to get gas for his SUV; the tank was on fumes and the ONLY gas station was some 12 miles or so away.  We made it (just barely) and scouted out some dinner ideas on the way back to the condo.  This was to by Lyn's birthday dinner and I made a point of paying for it.  We chose the "famous" Tim's Salty Dog Cantina (we had searched for a place called The Bavarian up the forest roads behind the community but succeeded in finding a bunch of washed-out roads and giving his SUV a four-wheel-drive workout) which was very good (had some wonderful beer and the best steak I've had in years); I also managed to give the waiter more than I'd intended to tip him so he got a $40 tip for the $110 dinner.  Keith bought us each t-shirts —they came with an address so we can send photos wearing the shirts in famous locations for them to post around the restaurant.

I wish we could have spent the entire family visit at Taos Ski Valley as the condo was really nice and the scenery was outstanding.  It is the mountains and forests of New Mexico that I love most and which I so rarely get to show my out-of-town guests (as nice as the high-road route between Santa Fe and Taos may be, it's not near as forested as the road to Taos Ski Valley; I've heard the Enchanted Circle route from Taos around to Angel Fire, Red River, etc. is even more scenic but I've never driven that).

All in all, it was a very nice visit — just too short.  We left the condo early Thursday morning — Keith, Marilyn, and Spencer headed east on US 64 (which is very scenic going past Eagle Nest Lake and through the Cimarron State Park) on their way to their next stop in Colorado Springs) and me riding back to Albuquerque with Dad and Lyn.

We made a short stop at the San Francisco de Asis Church in Los Ranchos de Taos.  This is one of the most photographed and painted churches in the entire U.S. (the subject of famous works by artists as diverse as Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams) as well as being the oldest church in the U.S. dedicated to St. Francis Of Asisi.  I expected to take just a few photos (the most "famous" view of the church is of it's rear) but we got a lot more than we bargained for.  There were numerous photo opportunities along the front — not only of the church itself but of the surrounding structures.  I think Lyn and I competed for the most artistic angles.  I took more photos in the 15 or 20 minutes we were there than on the entire family visit.

Arriving back in Albuquerque around lunchtime, I introduced Dad and Lyn to the pleasures of Dion's sandwiches (it had been TOO LONG since my last 10-inch roast beef & provolone with extra Greek dressing which had once been a once-per-week treat).  Before they departed, we took the time at my apartment to transfer the photos from their memory card to a CD-R (and I copied mine as well).

Out of all the previous visits my family have made to New Mexico, this one was by far the nicest.  True, I still wasn't able to get them to certain places I'd like them to see (i.e., the Petroglyph National Monument, the grounds of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, downtown for a meal at a sidewalk cafe, etc.), but together we discovered some new things and that's a lot more fun.

Perhaps the best part of the entire visit was that I got some great advice from everyone about purchasing a home and plan to look into a condo purchase (which would be less expensive than my monthly rent payments, plus I'd have something to show for my money).  IF I choose to stay in Albuquerque, I'm sure I can find a nice place and my first choices would be in the revitalized downtown area (lots of cool-looking places in the shaded region) or Corrales.  I was VERY surprised to find out how affordable the condos in Rio Rancho are; even some of those in the mountainous areas of Taos Ski Valley and Angel Fire would work out to be less in payments than my monthly rent.  So, the new few weeks will see me doing a lot of condo price research in various areas where I'd like to live.  And the fact that everyone (including my nephew) said they would come down to help me move is just icing on the cake.

Yes, a very beneficial visit on so many different levels.