Natural Perspectives: Adventures in snowy Albuquerque

Generally, Vic and I try to avoid flying into the midst of a natural disaster. But sometimes it just happens.

If you recall, I was caught in a tornado in April in Tennessee, near Knoxville. Golf ball-sized hail totaled my rental car with hundreds of dents on the hood, fenders and sides, and cracked the windshield. I was terrified, but physically unscathed.

By the time Vic arrived the next day, the weather had cleared. We enjoyed delightful weather on the rest of our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But because Vic missed out on the tornado, Mother Nature prepared yet another weather-related adventure for us.

Did you read the headlines last week about the family who was trapped in a snowdrift in New Mexico for two days? That family wasn't us, but it could have been.

Vic and I flew into Albuquerque in the midst of what their local newscasters called the snowstorm of the decade. We were still there when another major snowstorm hit a few days later.

Our reason for going to Albuquerque had nothing to do with the weather. I had always wanted to see the Christmas lights there because they're something special.

On Christmas Eve, many residents line their sidewalks, stucco walls and flat rooflines with brown paper lunch bags filled with sand. They place a candle in each sack and light the candles at dusk. They call these luminarias.

Each individual bag is a humble sight, but block after city block of them is breathtaking. People come from all over the world to see the display.

Naturally, we didn't know what the weather was going to be when we made our flight reservations weeks in advance of our trip. We just figured that it would be cold, so we packed accordingly. Turned out that we flew into Albuquerque in the midst of a blizzard, with howling winds and significant snow accumulation.

Landing an airplane in such a storm must take a lot of skill and experience. But I figured that the pilot didn't want to die either, and that we would turn back to Phoenix if conditions weren't safe. That's not exactly what happened.

As we approached Albuquerque, our pilot announced that conditions at the airport "don't meet our minimums for landing."

He told us that we would be circling for a while, stacked with all of the other planes that couldn't land. That was a new term for us.

"Not meeting our minimums" apparently meant that if we tried to land, we'd probably crash. How comforting.

I wondered how much fuel was left in the airplane. Turned out not much, because we were the first plane that was cleared to land quite a while later. Given the weather conditions, it was a surprisingly smooth landing.

When we got to the car rental booth, the employees there said that we were their first customers in two hours. The storm had closed down the airport. Vic wisely upgraded us to an all-wheel drive SUV.

For the rest of our week-long stay, I kept close tabs on the weather with my iPad. I monitored the forecast like our lives depended on it. We planned each day's activities according to what the weather was going to be. On good weather days we went birding. However, cloudy days with temperatures in the teens constituted good weather by Albuquerque standards.

The Rio Grande runs north to south through the state, with thick groves of cottonwoods lining its banks most of the way. These groves are called bosques.

One special area along the Rio Grande is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which is a couple hours south of Albuquerque. It is a bird watchers' mecca and is internationally famous for huge concentrations of sandhill cranes. When the weather cleared, we got up at 5 a.m. and drove down there to catch the bosque at dawn.

Prior to our trip, I spent days with my iPad and the Audubon Guide from eBird. That app shows lists for birding hotspots that are updated as often as local birders log in their data. Need a rarity? The app shows you where to find it.

Using this new technology, Vic and I located several unusual bird species, including pyrrhuloxia, chestnut-collared longspur, crissal thrasher, curve-billed thrasher and scaled quail. With the iPad, we knew where to go and what to expect when we got there.

When the weather turned bad with a howling snowstorm, we visited indoor attractions. Bad weather in this case meant that the interstate highways leading out of Albuquerque were closed in all directions because of the blizzard.

We were marooned, but happily, in a beautiful town with plenty of museums, art galleries and good restaurants.

We learned about various aspects of the ancient Puebloans and modern Pueblo Indians at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and Petroglyph National Monument.

At the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Vic learned that gymnosperms (pine trees and such) set seed whether or not the ovary was fertilized, while angiosperms (flowering trees) only set seed if the ovary is fertilized. He informed me that this was fascinating stuff for a biology instructor.

I was more interested in the way that the huge dinosaur skeletons were posed at the museum. It really looked like the T. rex was going to catch the monstrous sauropod.

The museum also used light, sound and interactive displays to good advantage. We walked through the interior of a simulated volcano, experienced the terror of a meteor strike on earth, and took the "Evolater" back in time to learn about New Mexico during past ages.

The grand finale was Christmas Eve. With temperatures dropping into the teens, we walked through Old Town at dusk, past vendors hawking hot cocoa and tamales. At the Catholic church on the plaza, priests blessed a ceramic baby Jesus and put him in his manger while live burros, calves and baby goats looked on. Children dressed as angels and wise men wandered about while luminarias glowed everywhere.

People turned off their car headlights as they drove by to better see the luminarias. A parade of 23 tour buses was led by over a dozen police officers riding motorcycles decked out in Christmas lights. It was quite a spectacle.

We finished our walking tour and joined the long line of cars that meandered through neighborhood after neighborhood of lit luminarias. We even came across seven hot air balloons being filled. Periodically, the gas burner under each balloon hissed and the colorful balloon came alive with a glowing luminescence.

A week in Albuquerque wasn't enough to see it all, but I think we'll wait for better weather before returning.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World