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Every year on my birthday, I take my family out to public land, to enjoy being blown by gale force winds in the weak February sunshine. This year, as the trusty family car is putting its last putts, we decided not to stray far from home.

Instead, we chugged right across the river to visit the City of Albuquerque's new Open Space Visitor Center, then on to the Albuquerque Volcanos. What a wonderful day! Not only did we enjoy all the things that makes our city so totally amazing, I made some new community connections and solved my own personal carbon emissions problem. I even discovered that even the worst civic projects are not totally evil. Maybe the best birthday ever, so come relive it with me!

The Open Space Visitor Center is as far as I can tell, totally secret. But it's a gorgeous passive solar facility near the Rio Grande Bosque State Park on Albuquerque's west side. People have farmed along the Rio Grande for thousands of years, and the VC has exhibits on the pueblo they found at this site, on Spanish colonial farming, and on modern farms. Behind the building is a large field planted with sorghum and other grains. On my birthday, the field was full of frolicking sandhill cranes and some opportunistic Canada geese. Trails led behind a wall of cottonwood trees to the river, but we had too much to see!

The grounds are filled with fascinating sculptures from local artists, from a cottonwood stump covered with carvings of animals found in Albuquerque open space, to a conceptual plaza with two metal volcanos (perfect for climbing on), a tiled river, xeric "farm" plantings, and rocky "mountains". These represent the major open space areas purchased by the good people of the city (in bond elections) to maintain habitat, undeveloped recreation, and a link to our natural and cultural heritage. Inside the VC were some excellent exhibits and more phenomenal art, all done by some of Albuquerque's finest artists on the subject of our open space. We enjoyed checking out a detonograph by our neighbor Evelyn Rosenberg, and some of the coolest sculptures I've ever seen, of found organic objects. I was very moved by the wide range of subjects, from personal to cosmic, and that so many artists had found such inspiration in the natural world found tucked in pockets of our dusty, crazy city.

After a picnic and obligatory wash, we piled back in the car and climbed painfully up the escarpment that forms Albuquerque's west mesa. Up through the endless rows of ticky tacky subdivisions, we found ourself at Martin Chavez's new road, the Paseo del Norte extension (RIP, Abq Trib) through Petroglyph National Monument. We took a deep breath, apologized to the ancient gods, and accelerated up the hill (kind of). We zipped past some trippy roadside graphics, a set of trompe de l'oeil panels of desert creatures, built into to the embankment, and then we were up, winding past giant for sale signs, patches of bulldozed earth, and the creeping line of subdivisions, to where the volcanoes towered.

We turned in to the volcanos and spent another few happy hours hiking to the calderas, playing in lava caves, ripping our clothes, and getting appropriately buffeted by winds strong enough I felt like I had to keep a firm grip on my skinny little son. From the summit at the caldera, Albuquerque looks like a desert dream, defined more by the space around it, than by the shimmering mirage of flat brown buildings and glittering roads. We weren't the only ones crazy enough to be out there, either. We met families, couples, older people, hipsters, dogs, cyclists, hikers, photographers, and tourists that afternoon. Everyone was having a blast, despite the fact that it's really a wierd and ugly place, and the wind blasted aspect was pretty painful. On the way home, back over the Paseo extension and the Montaño bridge, another Martin Chavez baby that caused a firestorm of vitriol, I looked at the ticky tacky seas of identical buildings with a new eye-- these developments, as horrible as they are, are built around trail systems connecting us all to the great natural areas of our city. The roads, as much as I fought against them and hated them, do help connect people with natural areas without having to drive to hell and back to get outdoors. That's a good thing! Chavez, as much of a hateful bastard as we like to think he is, has moved Albuquerque forward in some very positive ways, not the lest of which is wise management of our large natural areas, including several family farms.

When I got home, I finally got a chance to look through the materials I had picked up at the VC, including a commuter bike map of Albuquerque. I discovered to my delight that there is a 100% car-free route from my house to my son's preschool, which was the only thing standing between us and giving up our family car forever. Hooray! Tomorrow, I am girding my loins to do a little exploration to see if I can really bicycle that far.

And as for community connections, before I left the Visitor Center, I committed my Scout troop to helping build a Heritage Garden this summer. A lot of my girls are just one generation away from being farmers, so this is a nice chance for the abuelas and abuelitos to come participate.   I also dropped a note to the Mayor & the head of the Open Space Division to add bus routes to the open space areas. I would love to ride an air-conditioned bus out there during the summer!

If you live in Albuquerque, then get yer butt out there-- today!! There's open space not far from you, and it won't take long- do it on the way home from work! If you live somewhere else, sorry for you. Send a letter to your elected officials and tell them you want to live in a city where you can walk, bicycle or ride public transportation to wilderness and cultural heritage sites, to go hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, walk your dog, or groove on the view. Tell them you want to live in a city that inspires artists, and a city that values artistic inspiration. Tell them you want wild animals and migratory birds making a noisy ruckus around you. Tell them that you don't mind paying for it with bonds or with a 0.25% quality of life tax (how we pay for the cool art). If they don't believe you, send 'em my way.

Originally posted to BoogieMama on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 08:55 AM PST.

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