3 Albuquerque highlights: UNM football, Old Town, Sandia Peak

My first trip through New Mexico came 20 years ago when some friends and I drove straight through the Land of Enchantment to Las Vegas for a buddy’s wedding. All I remember is that driving in New Mexico at night must be what it’s like to drive on Mars.

Nothing there. Radio legend Art Bell kept us company, which made it all the more eerie driving across the Southwestern landscape.

Driving through New Mexico two decades older and wiser, not to mention doing so during daylight hours, presents a different view — a view of a state filled with natural beauty, blue skies, clean air and local flavor anywhere you go.

And green chile anything-you-want.

I love New Mexico, and I especially love Albuquerque. It’s for-sure in my Top 10 cities along with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston and St. Louis. Albuquerque has a terrific sense of culture and local art, a respect for its indigenous heritage, wonderful food and a great li’l sports bar called Altitude Sports Grill.

That was our first stop upon arriving in Albuquerque. We rushed in to watch the second half of Oklahoma-UTEP, a season-opening romp for my beloved Sooners, 56-7. Grabbed a cold beer, a big plate of vegetarian nachos and made conversation with our bartender, Rachel, and a colleague of hers whose name I can’t remember. They regaled us with tales about programming on a TV channel called Viceland, especially shows that delved deeply into weed culture.

Sorry, but that’s not my bag. Not at all. They might as well have been talking to a narc.

However, this was a terrific li’l bar, mostly empty, and Rachel was awesome. There were aspects of the programming on Viceland that sounded interesting, especially anything they mentioned that involved investigative reporting. Frankly, the banter alone between the two women was interesting enough for background entertainment.

And then it was off to a college football game of our own, the University of New Mexico Lobos hosting Abilene Christian. As much as I’ve enjoyed my vacations to see baseball stadiums across the country, I wanted to start visiting random college stadiums, and Dreamstyle Stadium was definitely random given both the locale and the team.

I’m not a Lobos fan and have zero tie to New Mexico. I wanted a stranger-in-a-strange-land experience. I wanted to feel what it was like to be an Albuquerque local and root for a team that virtually nobody else in the country knows anything about. I wanted to buy the t-shirt so folks back in Oklahoma could ask me, “You a Lobos fan?”

“I was if only for a day,” might be my reply.

The stadium itself is 57 years old with a number of expansions over the past 15 or so years. The New Mexico Bowl is hosted there each year, and best I can tell, the University of New Mexico is a regular participant. I can’t speak to the food at Dreamstyle, but the beer is cold and the amenities are clean. The stadium locals are not unfriendly although nobody in particular went out of their way to engage us. Let’s put it this way: they weren’t nearly as friendly as the crew at Altitude although, again, nobody was unfriendly.

New Mexico had some trouble with ACU to start but then pulled away for a 38-14 win late, and I got to bring the local boys some luck.

And I got to walk by The Pit. Any college basketball fan of a certain age knows about The Pit and what happened there in 1983.

Lorenzo Charles.

The sports geek in me was in awe. It was also admiring of the stadium used by the Albuquerque Isotopes, the city’s Minor League Baseball team. It might be worth a side trip unto itself. It was a good night.

The next day was filled with a trip to Albuquerque Old Town for some shopping of local wares, a stop at the wonderful Frontier Restaurant for green chile stew and a cinnamon roll and a trip up the Sandia Peak. Our first stop was Old Town.

albuquerque-old-town

The district was filled with shops stocked with beads and jewelry and candles, soap and various knick-knacks. We saw a funny t-shirt with the caption “Homeland Security, 1492” and learned that the word “fetish” doesn’t only mean what I think. For what it’s worth, a fetish is a small carving that depicts animals, a form of Native American art.

albuquerque-homeland-security

We stopped at a store that specialized in marble light fixtures. They were gorgeous.

albuquerque-marble-lamps

There was lots of memorabilia from the hit TV show, “Breaking Bad,” too.

An old lady walking the area needed to sell her last newspaper, a copy of the Sunday Albuquerque Journal, and she didn’t realize she was pitching her ideal customer, me. Two dollars later, I had my Sunday reading for the day. We were off to Frontier Restaurant.

I’ve been to Frontier before, as part of a trip I had taken the year before, on the way to spring training Cactus League baseball in Arizona. My former boss had told me about the place, and she knows everything cool about her home state (she’s from Logan, New Mexico), especially where to get great green chile stew.

Green chile stew is a thing in New Mexico; be prepared to eat it or be willing to go hungry. Trust me: you’ll love it. I could live off it.

What newbies to the city might not know about Frontier, which is located right across from the University of New Mexico campus, is that they’re mostly known for their sweet rolls. These pastry delights are slathered in sweet butter and sugar, and you might not ever put anything more awesome in your mouth. It’s easily the best sweet roll I’d ever had.

If you go to Albuquerque, you have to, have to, have to eat at Frontier.

Now that we were filled with eats, it was time to take a tram to the top of the Sandia Mountains along the Sandia Peak Tramway. At a height of 10,378 feet, it was as high as I was going to get in New Mexico (obligatory weed joke given the previous story), and it was as high as I’ve been since a stay in Deer Valley, Utah, a couple years before.

albuquerque-sandia-peak-drive-2

My first experience with high altitude was a weird one. My heart palpitated in a very odd fashion, as it was sloshing through molasses or mud. I did not have that experience on this day.

While the view at the top of the mountain was terrific, the blue skies to which I had admiringly referred earlier in this post weren’t a thing this late Sunday afternoon. It was very hazy. The highlight of the Sandia experience was the trip up and down the mountain itself via the tram. We even made friends with an older fellow from Chicago who was in town for something or other. It was weird: he was a University of Michigan man wearing an Indiana Hoosiers cap.

Maybe he just liked the hat. Or lost a bet. Little things like that make me want to ask strangers questions.

Speaking of sports, it was back to Altitude Sports Grill to watch the UCLA season opener versus Texas A&M. Kristi and her family spent a lot of time in California, and many of them are fans of all-things-Los Angeles, including UCLA. I’ve become something of a UCLA watcher as well.

We got to the bar, ordered some drinks and watched Texas A&M jump out to a huge lead. Huge. Think President Donald Trump saying, “Eeeeeeuge!”

Rachel was our bartender again (yay!) and we befriended a dude named Aaron and his wife, Felice. Because the Bruins were getting drilled, we started to notice our surroundings, specifically that Aaron and Felice were playing NTN trivia.

Couldn’t resist. We played. We watched UCLA get drilled. It was 38-7, I think, at one point, and then 44-10. And then we got to chatting with our barroom neighbors He’s from the Texas Panhandle. We talked Texas high school football, digital marketing, beer, trivia, you name it. We served as ambassadors for Oklahoma City, as we do wherever we go — and we hit it off so well that I sent him a Facebook friend request right afterward, telling him that it’d be a cool thing to have a friend or two from the great city of Albuquerque.

The fans at the UNM football game might not have been too outgoing, but everybody at this little bar was. I kind of loved the place. To be perfectly fair, it was also 91 degrees outside the night of the football game.

We chilled, literally, and then we got hungry.

As a thunderstorm approached the city, we ventured over to Sauce Pizza and Wine for some dinner. If I remember correctly (and I do have photographic evidence somewhere), I had a prosciutto and fig pizza with arugula, and hold the prosciutto (veggie-style). The restaurant had a cool vibe, and the incoming storm (moving from east to west on radar, very odd) was a welcome relief to the 90-degree temperatures we’d had all day.

The pizza was delicious, too, and our day had come to an end. Almost.

After a stop at Walgreen’s and an attempt to give a homeless guy some food (the idea of my saintly girlfriend, not me, although I was certainly cool with it), we ventured back to the hotel and turned on the last bit of the UCLA-Texas A&M game.

UCLA came back to win 45-44, and I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll be damned.” Maybe this team is special.

They’re not. (Lol.)

The drive from Albuquerque back to Oklahoma City is the better part of eight hours, but it’s an easy trek. Two tanks of gas. Listened to an NPR station out of Las Cruces, home of the Fightin’ Aggies of New Mexico State, and we also listened to a weekend soul music show on a radio station at Amarillo College. Great little station. Highly entertaining local radio.

If you were considering, I’d suspect the best time to visit Albuquerque is during the spring, at least weather-wise. Here’s to hoping I get to make many more trips to the Land of Enchantment, especially ABQ.

*** *** *** *** ***

I’d love it if you’d venture on over to my YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/soonerryan2000, and subscribe. Besides being a blogging raconteur, I’m a musician who dabbles in all-things-smooth. Yacht Rock. Smooth Jazz. If that world is your jam (Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, Toto, etc.), come on by.

I’m also trying to grow my Instagram channel @ryanwelton2013. Would love it if you’d give me a follow there as well.

Hell, stop by Twitter, too. I’m in the social growth business, folks.

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