Off the Grid: Camping the Rio Grande Gorge

 Rio Grande Gorge
Our campsite at Tao River Junction Campground, the Rio Grande Gorge

I stared at myself in the hazy, scratched mirror of the campground bathroom. A Chernobyl-sized beetle scampered past my foot. I didn’t flinch. It appeared I wasn’t quite myself. Was it the aftermath of the Black Death-like virus I’d survived the week prior? No, that wasn’t it. Was it the darn altitude fuzzing my brain again? Nah, I’d huffed my inhaler earlier.

Could it be … the long braid I’d plaited my hair into and my brazen bralessness? Oh. Yeah, that was definitely it.

Less than 24 hours prior we’d arrived in the Orillo Verde area of the Rio Grande Gorge with a dream: to camp in a place not overrun with humming RV motors, families blasting music from speakers, and an atmosphere akin to a suburban backyard. Avoiding these conditions had, until now, proven futile.

We drove past Pilar, a speck of a town, and alongside the river, peering into lackluster campgrounds and driving on after realizing they were full. We’d nearly lost hope, when we saw a small campground in the distance, set upon a bluff above the river, dotted with 4 adobe shelters. It seemed too good to be true. Surely if the middling campsites without views and without shelters were full, the coolest of them all, the one with adobe shelters (!) would be packed.

Rio Grande Gorge
View from my tent flap, Rio Grande Gorge

We timidly approached the grounds, driving over unpaved roads toward a potentially empty site. Heavens to Betsy, it was a miracle! With only 4 campsites, it appeared the Taos Junction Campground had one site free, and it was a beauty. Perched high above the river plateau, the site afforded sweeping views of the gorge’s rust- and pewter-colored rock walls, the gurgling waters below, and the green riverbed in the distance. Bliss.

And our neighbors couldn’t have been better. To our left, we had Rama, a super-chill former river guide, who was going through some transitions and seeking a weekend alone in the woods. How’d he get the name Rama? “My parents lived in Taos in the ’70s. Total hippies. They smoked peyote with Dennis Hopper. But that’s the short version of the story.” Dig.

To our right was a peaced-out couple in their 60s, former United Nations workers who had lived for a spell in Malaysia, but now called a co-housing project in Santa Fe home. When we met the woman, she was collecting litter from around the campground. After we waved and thanked her for the gesture, she announced that recycling containers at our campsite and those nearby were put in place after she campaigned for them to be installed. Badass.

vista verde trail
Hiking the Vista Verde Trail, Rio Grande Gorge

I chuckled to myself as I watched her calmly foraging among 2-inch-long needles in a bed of cacti. A moment later she produced a crumpled beer can which she triumphantly tossed in her makeshift garbage bag.

I was touched that she cared enough to collect garbage for the good of all, and thought it fitting that she wore her long, gray hair in two braids, and had long ago eschewed wearing a bra.

OH MY GOD. I was turning into her! I looked again in the mirror. Sure, my hair wasn’t gray – well, not yet – and I only had plaited one braid, not 2, but…but…there was also the beetle the size of an apple that just ran past my foot and didn’t elicit horror.

Then, the final red flag. I peered down. Oh god, there it was. No. Bra.

Six weeks in the Land of Enchantment (not to mention the Land of all Things Woowoo, New Agey and Spiritual) was really starting to rub off.

Well, when in Rome, right? I flung my braid over my shoulder, tightened the laces on my hiking boots and set off — was that a bounce in my step? — for a hike along the Vista Verde Trail.

vista verde trail
Rio Grande close-up from the Vista Verde Trail

I expected the hike’s views would be spectacular, and wasn’t disappointed. It was the Grand Canyon in miniature, and without the crowds. Without, in fact, anyone at all. We had the trail — and views — to ourselves. A trek in the high desert heat could only be rewarded with one thing: a dip in the chilly waters of the Rio Grande. We drove along the riverside until we found a spot with no other people were in sight, save for a fly fisherman in the distance.

I sat my bottom on the silty river bottom, gasping as the icy water lapped at my belly. The silence was broken only by a dog barking in the distance, and wind rustling grasses and trees.

Sufficiently cooled, we returned to camp, hiked from our campsite perch to the water’s edge with camping chairs, and quietly read in the shade until nightfall, when we returned to our tent, lit a campfire and poured wine into tin mugs.

As dusk slid into darkness, one by one, as if on cue, stars twinkled their way into being. It was shaping up to be a good night.