The Land of Summer

Get more amazed than at the amusement park in New Mexico's great outdoors

Public lands. The two words conjure images of desert vistas and windswept mountaintops, forests and badlands.

Also, images courtesy of REI catalogues and Subaru commercials of the fit and the beautiful putting their disposable income to good use paddling rapids or test-driving their all-wheel drive vehicle on a picturesque gravel road.

Despite those images—some of which are based in reality—and contrary to PR crafted by the industries eager to get their grubby mitts on America's resource-rich public lands and watersheds, I think recreation on public lands has more to do with accessibility and affordability than anything else.

Can't afford the amusement park? Go outside.

Want to bond with your kid? Go fishing. There's great birdwatching along the Rio Grande in Española, just off Buckman Road in Santa Fe or on loop trails at the Randall Davey Audubon Center at the end of Upper Canyon Road. Beavers can be spotted just a few minutes from the Plaza at the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. Or go looking for petroglyphs along the mesa in La Cieneguilla, just down the road from the airport. Take the state's hunter safety course and spend a weekend looking for quail, deer or elk.

In New Mexico, we have amazing public lands—managed by federal, state and local agencies. They're all over the place.

Don't want to climb a mountain? Wander the trails that weave around within Cerrillos Hills State Park. Head to the Jemez, find a stream and stand in the middle of it. Meet a friend halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and hike at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Over time, our individual relationships with public lands evolve, too. Or at least mine did.

In my 20s, all I wanted to do was backpack into remote spots with a water filter, dehydrated pea soup and the lightest, flimsiest sleeping pad on the market. With a toddler, I looked for easy hikes without too many goatheads or steep ledges. Today, with a 10-year-old—and a decade of car camping behind us—we're planning our first backpacking trip together.

And it's not just me and my kid out there. For the past year, admission into national parks has been free for fourth graders and their families. In fact, visits to the parks are up—and a recent study showed that "quiet recreation" like camping and hiking brought $173 million to the state in 2014.

Over Easter weekend, Carlsbad Caverns hadn't had an operating elevator in months, and yet the place was packed with families from Mexico, older couples and teenagers trudging up and down the dark, steep trail into the caverns. Yeah, the caverns were neat. But it was the diversity of visitors that made me happiest.

And while I've often relished escape from other humans, lately, I've been enjoying that sense of community.

At a state park campsite earlier this spring, a gentleman walked over to my daughter and me after breakfast. "I've been so happy to see you two," he said (in a totally non-creepy way). "Our family camped together when our kids were little, and I think that's why we've all stayed so close." While he and his wife take a big trip across the country, their daughter is caring for the farm and the house in the Pacific Northwest.

And if ever I needed a nudge to appreciate New Mexico's public lands, a recent quick trip—like, of less than two hours' duration—to Texas provided an excellent reminder. When the campsite at Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site we'd planned on wasn't available (and despite what the park website explained), a friend and I realized we had two options: Rent a crappy motel room on the hazy, haggard outskirts of El Paso or drive back to New Mexico and camp someplace beautiful.

Of course, we drove back to New Mexico. And woke up the next morning at Oliver Lee State Park outside of Alamogordo. The Sacramento Mountains were at our back as we looked across White Sands to the San Andres and San Augustin mountains.

We were home.

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