Sandia Peak is a long mountain ridge to the east side of Albuquerque. In the evening it glows red, like a watermelon. Four “high altitude specialties” can be seen on Sandia Crest. Three of them are Rosy-Finches. These are reliably seen at the Crest House Restaurant bird feeder. This may sound like easy birding.... except that Sandia Crest is a vertical mile above the city. The fourth speciality is Clark’s Nutcracker. This was our last chance to find a Clark’s Nutcracker. We were about to leave its range. Cole Wolf, local teenage bird expert, told us, “If you’re lucky, one or two may fly high above. You almost never get good looks at them”.
Cycling up Sandia Peak was my first experience of exercising at altitude. I gulped for air. My thighs screamed “We need more oxygen!” The sign at Crest House said “Elevation 10,678 ft. “I felt like a hero.
Malkolm ran onto the deck of the restaurant. Within minutes he had identified all 3 species of Rosy Finch: Brown-capped, Gray-crowned, and Black. We walked along a path to the Stone House, built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Perched on the edge of a precipice, overlooking Albuquerque, it has a wide open door and unglazed windows. It is built of native limestone, the floor and benches worn smooth and shiny. A flat topped buttress on the lee side of the building made a convenient place to cook.
We set up our tent on the edge of the cliff – until the wind picked up. We decided to take down the tent and sleep under the stars. Ken set up our sleeping bags and weighed them down with our loaded panniers.
We ate our supper, the lights of Albuquerque twinkling on the plain below. The wind gusted. Our sleeping bags flew up into the air, and our heavy panniers rolled down the hill –away from the cliff, luckily.
We decided to move into the Stone House to sleep. The wind increased. I didn’t sleep. I listened to the wind. The wind gusted, then died down. Over and over, all night long. During a lull, I’d lie in suspense wondering when it would start again. Then, it built up slowly and roared in through the windows. It swirled around the Stone House like a giant toilet. It snuck into the space between my neck and my bag. Then it flushed out the door, carrying any of our possessions we hadn’t secured adequately. By morning, I was a wreck. How did Ken and Malkolm sleep through that?
In the morning, Cole came up. He politely declined Malt-O-Meal for breakfast. He told us where we could go to look for Clark’s Nutcrackers. As he spoke, he scanned with his binoculars. Suddenly his voice sped up, ”There’s one right there, on top of that tree!.” The bird that never poses posed for us, in the morning sun.