It snowed during the night. It was not a deep storm, but a cold arctic breakout that swept down the east side of the Rockies and spilled into Red River, N.M. Six inches of powder sparkles beneath Red River's summit Copper Chair. This is Mardi Gras week, when skiers from Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma celebrate Ash Wednesday by dressing up as kings, queens, cowboys and court jesters. And yet while Red River's restaurants, lodges and bars are packed, the upper mountain is deserted. Buckling my boots, I wonder, "Where are the skiers?" By now, the fresh powder should have been cut to ribbons on the mountain's expert trails like Cat Skinner, Airplane and Landing Strip. Instead, the snow is untracked. Only the green-rated Gold Rush, facing Red River's base Ski Chalet, is crowded with beginners carefully wedging down the gentle slope.
Wally Dobbs, who heads Red River's Ski School and serves as the resort's traveling ambassador, notes that roughly 75 percent of Red River skiers come from Texas and Oklahoma-Great Plains states better known for tornadoes than snowstorms and for football than skiing. Not surprisingly, many plainspeople have never seen snow. They throw snowballs and construct snowmen with a passion that still takes locals by surprise. Instructor Travis Van Ormer, the son of Mountain Manager Mike Van Ormer, vows that once during a 2-inch-per-hour snowfall, a tourist excitedly asked, "Is this manmade or natural?"
The truth is, 95 percent of people who take lessons and 20 percent of all skiers at Red River have never skied. Ever. Dobbs says that Red River skiers fit into two groups: never-evers and advanced. Here, if you can stop and turn, you're advanced. "Most of the never-evers want to learn to wedge christy," Dobbs says with a smile. "As soon as they've mastered the wedge christy, they go plowing!"
Red River's summit is something of a Never-Never Land to the never-evers who typically leave the steep pitches and fresh snow to the locals. Today there are few skiers plowing the upper reaches of Ute Chute, Lift Line, Mine Shaft, Cat Skinner, Rainbow's End and a half-dozen other black runs.
I meet one of these daring few on the Copper Chair. Thomas Baker, who lives in Plano, Texas, used to visit Red River as a kid, but hasn't skied since 1983. Even so, he plans to risk the upper mountain while his wife takes a second day of lessons. "I had forgotten how intimidating even bunny slopes are!" he admits with a hint of trepidation in his voice.
Then there's local Rob Swan who, after graduating from Oregon State University, arrived in Red River in December 1988, with little more than an old pickup truck, three pairs of skis and $200. Today, Swan owns the Bull o' the Woods Saloon and was recently elected to head the Chamber of Commerce. He leads me to the shadowed Cat Skinner where the snow is shin-deep and blue-smoke light. Framed between old spruce and soft bumps, Cat Skinner's undulating pitch drops to Airplane and Landing Strip before crossing the traverse back to the Red Chair. During the return ride to Cat Skinner, I press Rob about Red River's controversies. He has to think, then gives up. "To tell you the truth, we don't have many controversies...unless you count black bears as controversial. Last summer, I saw three throwing garbage out of one dumpster."
Black bears, it seems, define this small New Mexico resort as clearly as the 1,600-foot ski mountain, weathered wood Riverside Lodge cabins and the T-bones at Texas Reds Steak House. After a long winter's slumber, the famished bruins shake off sleep and follow their twitching noses into town. Every local has a bear story: bears destroying freezers, bears raiding pickups, bears snoozing in front of the bank. But more than mischief, the bears represent the vastness of the northern New Mexico wilderness that stretches away to all compass points.
Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Red River sits just south of the Colorado border, on Highway 38, between Questa and Eagle Nest. It's only five miles as the crow flies from Taos' legendary steeps-about 45 miles by road-but location is about the only thing the two resorts have in common.
A summit elevation of 10,350 feet, 218 inches of snowfall and 87 percent snowmaking coverage allow Red River to consistently open by Thanksgiving. Surprisingly, 70 percent of skiers drive from Texas and Oklahoma, while only 12 percent live in state. Albuquerque skiers are more likely to do their skiing closer to home at Sandia Peak, Pajarito, Angel Fire and Taos. Downtown Red River has a distinctly retro feel. A mile-long Main Street divides a mix of wooden lodges, restaurants, bars and ski shops, with the slopes rising up directly behind them. Red River is part ski resort, part mining town, part summer retreat from the Texas and New Mexico sweltering heat. Its year-round population of 480 values the valley's clean environment and sense of community.
Drew Judycki worked as a ski instructor at Red River while attending New Mexico's Highlands University. Following a stint as ski school director, Judycki was working as mountain manager and director of skiing when the owner decided to sell. Judycki bought Red River in 1984, and while he admits that few areas have two chairlift bases anchored a block off Main Street, Red River's real strength is the small community pulling together for a common goal. "It's a great place to raise a family and a great place for families to come ski," he says.
Mayor Craig Swagerty couldn't agree more. In 1988, Swagerty was working as a teacher and coach in Oklahoma City. Swagerty, who first visited Red River with his parents in 1968, returned for a vacation, took a job as a ski instructor and never left. Today, Swagerty and his wife, Cindy, own and run the Riverside Lodge. Despite his post as mayor, Swagerty confesses, his biggest concerns are when the next storm will hit, how to improve his ski technique and whether the guests in his lodge are comfortable. "I'm not really a politician," he says. "But I am very excited about the future." Not surprisingly the future includes growth for this small cedar, brick and log mining town.
Granted, when you can count your population in the hundreds, growth is a relative term. Recently, Red River completed a major installation of sidewalks, curbs and period lamp posts. The town's sewer and water infrastructure has been rebuilt, and a total of about 100 new homesites have been approved, some of them near the now defunct Powder Puff Ski Area. "Between a combination of summer and winter tourism and a little room to grow, Red River is doing very well," says a proud Swagerty.Catch Red River in a storm-sun cycle, and you'll agree with him. You don't have to be a never-ever, Texas Longhorn or a bear to enjoy the cold snow, lack of crowds or this low-key, Western town.