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Rail Runner to snowboarding
Photo credit: —John G. Knight

Switzerland on the Rio Grande: Part II

More tales of public transport to Ski Santa Fe

—Ty Belknap

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve skied this winter—more than enough to pay for the senior discount pass. It costs me thirty dollars a day, including travel expenses. I take the Rail Runner to the South Capitol Station, then get on a shuttle bus to Santa Fe Ski Area, and off I go. El Niño does the rest. I’ve been so many times that, on a good day, I am probably one of the best sixty-five-year-old snowboarders on the mountain. Bad ass.

I even braved the Christmas week crowd, with cars parked a half mile down the road, and so many people around the quad lift at the base that my friends had to restrain me from getting right back on the shuttle bus. All tables were filled in the lodge, and you could barely walk through people having lunch on the floor. It looked like I was doomed to spend most of the day waiting in lift lines.

But most of those people at the base of the quad were just milling about, talking, complaining about the cold, or looking for their kids. There was almost no line at the upper lifts, no Texans, and the snow conditions were great.

At the end of the day, skiers were lined up at the bus stop, but when the bus arrived it was every man for himself, and it filled up fast. Luckily, anticipating the crowds, they sent a second bus, but the same thing happened. There was plenty of room on the third bus, but we missed the 5:30 p.m. train home, so we got the driver to drop us at the depot to wait aboard the next train and played cards until it departed at 6:35 p.m.

It kept snowing into the New Year and a couple of times there was a truckful of us who forewent the public transportation. It only takes an hour and ten minutes to drive from Placitas, as opposed to two hours on the train/bus connection.

One day it started snowing in the afternoon, then really coming down when we pulled out of the parking lot. Traffic was backed up for at least a mile on Hyde Park Road, which was a slick downhill to the two traffic lights feeding into Friday rush hour.

We took a U-turn and drove through a residential neighborhood until traffic stopped at the hill that drops down to Alameda. A large SUV was stuck sideways across the road; a Jeep had slid out-of-control into the curbs, and a pedestrian was risking life and limb trying to see what was going on and push the SUV until it was able to move out of the way. It might have been wise to wait another minute, because when we started down the hill, the SUV inexplicably stopped again, and we went into a four-wheel slide on black ice, our driver laying on the horn until the SUV moved, just in the nick of time.

We were on Alameda for twenty minutes traveling one block to the turn onto Paseo de Peralta, where traffic stopped again. We turned up Acequia Madre and crawled past Museum Hill to Old Pecos Highway and out of town.

The shuttle bus would have been stuck in traffic too, and we would have missed the 5:30 p.m. train again, but it might have been a better choice now that I know to bring a deck of cards, a good book, an ipod, or even a flask of some wintry libation, if so inclined. The bus driver claims he can install chains with a push of a button.

All things considered, I find the train and shuttle the best option, especially if I’m traveling alone. I have developed a fist bump relationship with the security guard. Rail runner riders are typically very chatty—some seem to ride just to have somebody to talk to. I often retreat to the designated quiet car.

Conditions remained superb on into February. My son joined us after the last snowstorm dumped eighteen inches of fresh powder. He led us old guys, non-stop, through the black diamond slopes, chutes, and trees. Finally, we followed him out of the ski area boundaries above tree line, past the cell towers, and down an ill-defined route to Big Tesuque trailhead. My wife and a friend volunteered to ski back to the car and pick us up down the road. There was no getting out of it. The terrain was not as steep as what had punished my legs throughout the day, but it was important keep one eye on the immediate slope to avoid trees and gullies, all with the ultimate goal of finding our way to the highway (which my son claimed to know well).

At one point, I got stuck in a flat area, fell over, feet strapped to a snowboard encased in three feet of untracked powder. I struggled for at least twenty minutes to get free, gasping for breath in the thin air, while another storm blew in and the light faded. Finally escaping, I followed the tracks down to where the boys were waiting, just out of earshot, preparing to mount a rescue. I vowed, if there is a next time, that it would be on skis, and that I wouldn’t save Big Tesuque for the last run of the day.

These are just memories now in late February, as El Niño seems to have departed and temperatures have soared way above normal for over the last two weeks. With no relief in sight from the beautiful spring-like conditions, I might just go again anyway, even though the powder is gone. As a retired guy who seems to always be on the train said, “What else are you gonna do, stay home and watch TV?


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