A Trip Down Low & A Trip Up High
February 14: 1983. Some might say it was a good year. Betsy was one year old, but I, on the other hand, was a high school sophomore who enjoyed a lot of things, but was especially enthralled with the world of basketball. More specifically, college basketball. For those of you who don’t call college basketball your favorite pastime, I can share with you a little history lesson. 1983 was the year of one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. 1983 was the last year that a Final Four, the epitome of college basketball and one of the most well-known sporting events in the world, was held at an arena on a college campus. Yes, in 1983, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four was contested in Albuquerque, NM, at the former University Arena, but more affectionately known as “The Pit”.
As most of you may already be aware, we are currently working in Albuquerque, NM for the winter, so a visit to “The Pit” was definitely on our list of places to visit in the area. As we’ve mentioned before, while we travel the country, we maintain a sports-related bucket list of items we hope to cross off. Most of my bucket list items are related to basketball, while Betsy’s list tilts a little more towards baseball / softball, although we both appreciate sports achievements and venues no matter the sport. This has been evident by our visit to Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY, home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats and a couple of visits to Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX, home of the Houston Astros, to see the Cleveland Indians play. We’ve also been able to cross off the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA and College Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK. In addition, our stops have also included shooting hoops at the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, IN and swinging bats at the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY.
As December turned into January, and then February, we kept an eye on the University of New Mexico Men’s basketball schedule for our chance to visit “The Pit”. With a couple of days off work, a UNM home game and Valentine’s Day all coinciding with each other, the stars were definitely aligned. UNM vs. San Jose St. on February 13th was our target. We started our evening plans with a trip to Brixens, a restaurant in downtown Albuquerque with an extensive gluten free menu, which we had visited in December and were looking for a reason to go back. A restaurant with a gluten free menu is always a good find, but when we find a place like Brixens, with a dedicated gluten free fryer, allowing me to indulge in wings, fries, and the such, we usually go back more than once. For this particular visit I chose their tasty salt and pepper wings, with a side order of shoestring fries. I didn’t say it was a healthy choice, but I don’t get many opportunities for fried gluten free food, so I couldn’t pass it up. Betsy opted for the server’s recommendation of house-made meatloaf, which included crispy onion strings and grilled bread. As we were on our first visit, we were both more than satisfied with our choices and will probably stop in for at least one more trip before leaving the Albuquerque area in April.
With our appetites satisfied we headed a short distance south of the City towards “The Pit”. The now formally named Dreamstyle Arena is located on the University of New Mexico's South Campus, and has a couple of sporting neighbors. Dreamstyle Stadium, home of the UNM football team, is located right next door. And Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Pacific Coast League, the Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, is conveniently located on the other corner of the intersection. Kind of a mini-sports complex, reminding me a little bit of the grouping of sports venues in South Philadelphia. Dreamstyle Arena opened in 1966 as University Arena but gained the nickname "The Pit" due to its innovative subterranean design, with its playing floor 37 feet below street level. The arena has a seating capacity of 15,411 for basketball and up to 13,480 for concerts, with 40 luxury suites and 365 club seats. The Pit is widely recognized as one of the top college basketball venues in the U.S., and one of the loudest. The New Mexico Lobos have enjoyed tremendous success at The Pit, winning over 80% of their games there, and attendance has consistently been among the best in college basketball.
We were able to purchase tickets at the box office when we arrived at the Arena, foregoing the “convenience fee” for purchasing them online prior to our arrival. With nearly three quarters of the arena seating consisting of bench seats, we opted to “splurge” for individual seats with seat backs to enhance our viewing experience. A walk around the concourse before settling into our seats allowed us to learn a little about the history of Lobos basketball and we stopped to take in the display commemorating the 1983 NCAA Final Four, the epitome of Jim Valvano’s career.
We were pleased to find our seats were at mid-court, about 25 rows from the floor. That’s good viewing for you non-sports fans. Even though the arena was only about half full, we both enjoy live sports experiences, so we definitely considered it a good evening. And to top it all off, the Lobos got the win, by a large margin, 92 - 60. Ironically, the two teams played again 13 days later in San Jose and the Lobos lost by the score of 89 - 82. Maybe there is something to this altitude thing in Albuquerque!
With the next day being February 14th, yes, Valentine’s Day, we decided we had to get out and do something. Ok, so neither of us are what would be considered “traditional” Valentine’s Day people. We’re not really into the whole flowers and cards thing on this lover’s holiday. The only thing we knew for sure is that we didn’t have to work and that we would spend the day together. As we headed East from the campground, our first stop was something a little out of the ordinary. Well, actually it wasn’t a “stop”. We headed towards Tijeras, NM on Old Route 66 and maintained our speed at a steady 45 mph. Yes, we were approaching one of only two “musical highways” in the United States. Although there are several around the World, with over 30 in Japan, these melodic roads are not as common in the US. Keeping the car at a steady 45 mph treated us to a rather unusual rendition of America the Beautiful. It was kinda cool, and after seeing how simple it would be to create, is quite surprising there aren’t more of these in existence. The desired affect that the New Mexico DOT was trying to accomplish was to slow drivers down on the stretch of road, and there are certainly many, many places across the country that could use this accomplishment. Click on the image below to play the video.
When the music stopped, we continued on our way to our next destination, the top of the Sandia Mountain Range, better known as Sandia Crest. With its’ peak at a striking 10,678 feet, Sandia Crest sits on the eastern edge of the Albuquerque Basin and provides a stunning backdrop for the City. The Sandia Mountains are a fault block range, on the eastern edge of the Rio Grande Rift Valley. The Sandias were uplifted in the last ten million years as part of the formation of the Rio Grande Rift. There are two easy ways to reach the top of the Sandias. The Sandia Peak Tramway ascends from the west side to a point on the crestline about 1.5 miles south of Sandia Crest, at the top of the Sandia Peak Ski Area, which is located on the east side of the mountains. A road from the east provides access to the bottom of the ski area and also to the Sandia Crest itself, where there is a gift shop, restaurant, scenic overlook, and a large electronic communication site with numerous towers and antennas.
Today, our chosen means to Sandia Crest was the road version. Although before we exit the Albuquerque area, we will certainly take the opportunity to experience the alternate method, the Tramway. Once we turned off State Route 14, and entered the Cibola National Forest, it was a little over 13 miles on a two lane road to the Crest. And not just any road I might add, but a road containing many switchbacks, some which turned a complete 180 degrees. As we ascended the mountain the appearance of snow along the road became more frequent. For the last third of our drive up the mountain, our two lane road shrunk to a 1 1/2 and sometimes 1 lane road but still with two-way traffic. Let me be clear here, the road was still two lanes, but the two to three foot walls of snow on each side definitely encroached on the road and made things a little tight. Fortunately there was not a lot of traffic on Valentine’s Day heading up or down the mountain. There were only a couple of times we had to slow, or stop, to let another vehicle pass in the other direction.
After Betsy enjoyed a couple of amazing vistas on our way to the summit (I kept my eyes on the tiny road!), we finally made it to the top. With only one or two other cars in the parking lot, it appeared to not be a tourist-type of day. We snapped some pictures and then headed towards the cafe and gift shop at the peak. Only to find it was closed! Holding tightly onto the handrails, which was no small feat (feet!), we took in the view towards Albuquerque and the surrounding valley. With the winds whipping, and the temperature dropping as a storm approached, we ran to the warmth of the car and began our descent.
As the road widened again towards the bottom, we were glad to have full lanes to drive in again. We had taken a lot in today, so we decided it was time to stop for . . . COFFEE! A little bit of Betsy research turned up Cabra Coffee, a local coffee shop in Cedar Crest, NM, not far from the base of the mountain. Although there weren’t many cars in the parking lot, the outside of the building was attractive so we headed in for a drink. The inside was neatly decorated and we both indulged in large, hot Lattes, Betsy choosing the pumpkin spice variety and mine a vanilla with almond milk. We sat in some comfy chairs and chatted about our adventures from the day.
The last two days certainly weren’t your typical Valentine’s Day fare, but it was definitely “us”, and we could’t have been happier. Something involving sports, something we had never experienced before and, of course, something with a coffee beverage all shared with each other! Happy Valentine’s Day!