Vanessa in Taos

Vanessa is a senior majoring in biology and anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. During summer 2012, she is studying at SMU-in-Taos.

Mud and more mud

Today was bittersweet. I went on my last field trip with my botany class to Ojo Caliente, or the Hot Springs, even though that’s not the correct translation. The spa was only about an hour from campus, and some other Taos students were able to join us for the trip.

I had shared the trip information with other students earlier this week, and several of them kept telling me that I would have such an amazing time. Although I wasn’t sure what exactly I would be doing, I knew that the highlight  of the trip would be to have a mud bath. One of my friends kept saying how gross I would feel when applying the mud, but how amazing my skin would feel after washing it off. There was only one way to find out.

We arrived at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa around 9 am. Just the physical appearance of the place was spectacular! The adobe building and the plants that shaped the landscape were amazing. There was a dirt path lined with granite stones that led to the entrance of the resort. I already felt myself relaxing. The resort workers were so hospitable right when we entered. They showed us to the locker rooms and gave detailed descriptions about all the activities that were offered. I definitely wanted to try the mud bath!

We first swam in the main pool at the very front of the spa, then went to the arsenic pool in the back. The water was very warm, but it felt amazing as well. My skin was already soft just from that pool alone! Then, it was time for the mud. It felt really weird dipping my hand in a large bowl of mud and just slapping it on myself, but that’s exactly what I did. It didn’t take long for the mud to dry as I laid out on along the rinsing pool in the area. Kimberley and Daniel were having a mud fight, and the other students were trying to push each other in the pool. Then it was my turn to dive in, and I realized that my friend was right … my skin was extra soft.

I think the best part of the resort was the sauna. Nice and toasty. The resort was just amazing all around, but it was not the best feeling in the world having to leave. All of us started thinking about finals and finishing up papers and other projects. I really will miss Taos and Dr. Ubelaker. This has been the best experience yet!

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A day in Santa Fe

The next day was the complete opposite of our hike. I was able to get dressed for a day touring Santa Fe. It was going to be a more relaxed trip with plenty of shopping and sight-seeing. Our first stop was in the town plaza, right in front of the St. Francis of Assisi Church. Just the view from the outside was enough to convince me that we needed to stop here first. Just as I had thought, the view on the inside was gorgeous as well. Gorgeous tapestries, and the main worship area was incredible as well. The security was more strict about pictures that could be taken because they were getting ready for Mass. So, most of my pictures are of the outside.

Afterward, Laura, Kim, and I went around to different shops looking at the items that were for sale. There was one store that sold different types of socks. It was literally called “The Sock Shop.” Then, we went to a pottery shop imported from other areas of New Mexico. All the pieces were created by locals, and they were beautiful. Of course, pictures couldn’t be taken due to store regulations, so it left us a little discouraged.

Later, just outside the small town of Espaniola, we watched a Native American dance of a village that was celebrating their Feast Day. Their costumes were gorgeous, and every member was in unison with each dance move and vocal call. It was so awesome. I love to see cultures still intact even after so many years of warfare and modernization. Today was an awesome day. With a few days left, it’s time for buckling down to finish my assignment, and having one more trip with the class before leaving.

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11,000 feet to Williams Lake

By 8 a.m. the next morning, I was on my way to the Taos Ski Valley for my final hike of the term. My class was going to climb up  part of the entire 13,000-foot mountain area to see the beautiful glacier-made lake! Dr. Ubelaker had been discussing this trip for a while. As is custom before we begin any hike, he urged us to drink plenty of water and to ask for time to rest. I knew that this was going to be our hardest hike yet. But, it was still exciting for us to be able to see the lake!

We started off very slow, taking our time. Dr. Ubelaker identified some plants along the way, like the geranium and a species of wild mustard. Along the hike, I ran into some other hikers who were very friendly and just as excited as I was to see the lake. They greeted me and asked where my classmates and I were from.

The best part about hiking in New Mexico is running into these friendly strangers and seeing the age difference in all of them. I noticed a family of four, with the father holding his young daughter who wasn’t even a year old. I also met a very cute elderly couple moving very quickly past my group to get to the lake. They may have even been going all the way to the top to Wheeler Peak. Seeing all the people just encouraged me to go further, even though I was getting more and more tired.

Halfway toward my destination, Dr. Ubelaker stopped to show us a grey bird in one of the trees above us. He lifted out a pretzel toward the bird to get its attention. It took a little too long, but as we were continuing our hike, the bird flew down to pick up a piece of the snack off the ground.

Not too long afterward, I had reached Williams Lake! It was a deep valley, surrounded by tall fir trees and rocky cliffs all around. An amazing view! I had to take a picture by the sign to make it official because I couldn’t believe I had climbed over 11,000 feet! I felt so accomplished! Dr. Ubelaker then took us to the waterfall a few hundred feet east of the lake, which was even more beautiful. It’s so crazy to see the beautiful things that are hidden in the area.


Williams Lake was probably the best trip my class has taken. With that checked off my list, I was ready for Santa Fe!

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Native plants tour

Even though the week went by faster than I thought it would, it still took a very long time for Friday to come around. The Parasitology students were finishing up their dissections and identification of parasites, while the other Botany students and myself worked diligently on our projects. Dr. Ubelaker also had us clean out the biology lab. From the way it looked, I assumed it hadn’t been cleaned for almost eight years! There were so many old mounts and plant specimens everywhere, not to mention very dated papers from botany classes in the early years at Taos. It was a lot of work, but the lab looks spotless.

After lunch that day, both the Parasitology and Botany students decided to tag along with the Environmental History class on its tour of the native plants on campus. Dr. Ubelaker was the guest speaker and leader of the tour, and he spent two hours discussing every plant or tree that we came into contact with. He told stories to explain the importance of the plant, how it was capable of growing, and even how they were important for the animals that lived nearby. It was really interesting and made me appreciate the Taos campus in a whole new way.

I had to rest up for the remainder of the day because the weekend was filled with hiking and another trip to Santa Fe.

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Retail therapy

Later in the week I decided to go into the Taos Plaza with Laura and Kim to do some shopping. We had been working hard trying to finish up the final touches on our projects, so some retail therapy was much needed. As soon as I got there, I understood why the location was so popular.

There were several shops that both locals and tourists could stop at to purchase anything from scarves to authentic, handmade Native American pottery. Not only that, but there were plenty of street vendors selling noodles and tacos.

We had only planned to stay a short while, but it turned into six hours very quickly.

The highlight of the day was that we were able to get some delicious pizza from the famous Taos Pizza Outback. I only ordered one slice, but it covered the entire plate as if it was a full order. But it was still quite good.   The rest of the day was rather peaceful, and tomorrow we would hear Dr. Ubleaker lecture to the Environmental History class.

Enjoying a break

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The joy of plants

Today was another day of research and preparing my final draft of my booklet on the Mint family. Once work ended, the fun begain in the evening after dinner. My botany class went into the town plaza to hear a lecture being held at the Taos Convention Center. The topic of the lecture was to discuss the top ten plants found in New Mexico, which was definitely fitting for our class since we have been studying plants for the entire June term thus far.

It took a while for my class to find what hall the lecture was being held in, but we eventually found our way after circling around five or six times. Luckily, thanks to the guidance from Dr. Ubelaker, we left early enough to arrive on time, even after all the circling about. There were still about 20 minutes left before the lecture would officially begin, so Laura, Kim and I decided to explore some of the beautiful architecture in certain areas of the plaza. There was a bird statue, a beautiful mural next to the entrance of the hall, and even a colorful map of the entire Convention Center. Even though I have seen plenty of adobe buildings in Taos, it still amazes me how neat and modern they look.

Then, the lecture began. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the discussion, but right away it was very entertaining. The guest lecturer had a habit of laughing uncontrollably in the middle of his statements. It was hysterical! I thought it would be a little uncomfortable for Laura, Kim and I to be the only “young” people in the audience, but age definitely didn’t matter when it came to discussing plants.

Even better was how much wisdom Dr. Ubelaker contributed to the discussion. He would give his insights on the name of plants, how they looked, and what environments they happened to be found in. I would watch the faces of the other members as they would hang onto his every word, and laugh inside at how amazed they would look after Dr. Ubelaker would explain something. Almost every question was directed to him, instead of the guest speaker, although he didn’t mind. Toward the end of the discussion, a kind, elderly woman sitting in front of me remarked on how lucky we were to have him as our professor. My classmates and I thanked her and continued to enjoy the rest of the lecture.

It really was nice to see how invested other people were about learning the importance of plants and where they can be found within New Mexico. I really enjoyed myself that evening and it provided some great bonding time with my classmates. I will be returning later this week to explore more of what the Taos Plaza holds!

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Weekend in Taos

This weekend was longer than usual and filled with plenty of sightseeing and activities. It was also a much needed break from spending hours in the library doing research on my mint plants.

Our first trip was to the New Buffalo Center near the Hondo Valley. I affectionately call it the “hippie house” of the group of gentlemen who came to New Mexico in order to establish the center. After we had arrived around 9 a.m., we split into two groups to help with landscaping and gardening. My team was paired up with Andrew and Michelle, and we were responsible for pulling weeds from the garden. Kim and I were able to use a de-weeding tool that made the process so much more fun and a lot easier. Although, I think we had too much fun.

It was great being able to talk to Andrew and learn why he came to New Buffalo. How anyone who received a degree in bassoon performance and now is in charge of the organic garden at a hippie house is beyond me! All I could gather from working two hours in the field with him is that he had a lot of passion for what he did, and that in itself was very inspiring.

Friday was movie night in Casita Montana. We watched “The Hurricane” and “When Harry Met Sally.” We couldn’t have chosen movies that were any more opposite in plot than those two, but it was great to watch them. “The Hurricane” was much more moving. In summary, it was about Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a young African-American male who had a rough life, and saw himself in and out of prison for years. He became a champion middleweight boxer, but then ended up being framed for a murder he never committed. Carter spent 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, all while trying to get one appeal after the other approved so he could receive his freedom. It was such a moving story and I couldn’t believe it was based on a true story. I stayed up later with the rest of the girls in the casita talking about it and what we each would’ve done if we were in Rubin’s position.

Saturday was our day off, so we decided to go to Taos Pueblo. It is a historic site that still maintains the way of life from its founding. I was unable to take pictures of the area because of the picture fee. But it was still an incredible experience. The St. Jerome Catholic Church was such a site, especially on the inside.

I thought it was also great that most of the people who live in the pueblos sell handmade jewelry, dreamcatchers, and pottery in order to make a living. It was so intricate and really beautiful. I bought a pair of handmade earrings that represent the Sun god that the Taos people respect. I was just so impressed by the culture and traditions that still take place among the Taos Indians, and also how they’ve been able to instill some modern aspects into their lifestyle.

The next day was a trip to the Gorge. It was so awesome! The levels of volcanic rock that still remain intact form this deep ridge area that the Rio Grande still passes through. It is such an amazing site. We went to two different parts of the area to take pictures. Dr. Ubelaker knew so much about the history of the area, and it was nice to hear how it came to be and what it’s used for today. The ride up parts of the mountain was quite bumpy at times, but in the end we all truly enjoyed ourselves. There’s just under two weeks left of my time here, and there’s still so much for me to see! I can’t wait!

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Hard at work

Today I was finally able to start mounting my mint plant samples that we had collected from the field earlier this month. It was great to be able to see how all of my identification work had come together! Aside from the mint species that I had identified, there were so many other plants from past Taos Botany courses that needed to be mounted as well. Each one had to be marked with the scientific name, the date when it was found, the location it was extracted from, and the name of the person who found it. Needless to say, the process became a bit tedious, but I was able to get the job done.

My classmate Jewel had more to identify, since her research is about the different types of trees found in north-central New Mexico. There were so many different mounts laid out in front of her, I thought she would never be finished. But we each kept up our momentum from the encouragement we received from Dr. Ubelaker.

He would pass by every now and then to see how we were progressing and answer any questions we had about how to correctly label the identification card for each plant sample. He was so impressed with how well we were working, that he decided to have us clean out the Botany lab as well. There must have been decades’ worth of old plant presses, mounts, identification labels, newspapers, and manuscripts in there! Just from a quick glance, I could tell that cleaning out the lab would be at least a weeklong project.

After mounting, we spent the rest of the day running errands. We stopped by two thrift stores to donate old televisions and an old typewriter. Then, we stopped by Dr. Ubelaker’s house so he could water his plants. Today was very productive, and with time winding down, I’m sure I will be able to squeeze in a few more things before leaving Taos.

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Trip to Bear Country

This weekend we had another field trip. For this adventure we went to the Taos Ski Valley to take a hike in what Dr. Ubelaker affectionately calls “Bear Country.” I was excited about the trip, but I was desperately praying that I wouldn’t see any bears during the hike. That idea just freaked me out quite a bit.

The drive wasn’t as long as I had expected, so I still had plenty of energy left to explore the Italionalis mountain trail. Once again, the scenery was gorgeous. The fir, alder, and spruce trees were so beautiful and complemented the clear blue sky that morning.

Our hike began at 8 feet above elevation and Dr. Ubelaker led the way. We made several stops along the trail so we could observe bear caves, learn about the history of the area, and, of course, hear about the vegetation in the forest. Ubelaker showed us wild carrot, wild mustard, an extremely poisonous plant that I can’t remember the name of, fir trees, alder trees, and the Alpine Grove, a 30-acre area where bears usually retreat for their habitat.

All the way down the hiking trail is the Hondo River, a beautiful water source that runs to the Hondo Valley, miles from the Ski Valley. But the highlight of the hike was when we had reached our landmark of Alpine Grove and listened to Dr. Ubelaker describe how it was formed and why bears like to make their home in such areas.

Most of the grove is formed from one tree that branches out at many points to grow in various places. He used the example of digging your hand into the ground and then observing how your fingers jut out from the soil at their own distinct locations. To the eye, it appears that your fingers are all separate “trees,” but in reality they are all connected as one tree, with several locations. It was amazing to see these 20-foot-tall structures and learn that it’s all the same tree.

About five minutes up from the grove, we went to a part of the cliff where Ubelaker showed us a tree that is a useful indicator of an avalanche. Apparently the position of the root of the tree is unique in identifying the phenomenon. He also showed us bear claw markings on one of the trees just a few feet from the avalanche tree! The only way for the claw markings to be created was by the bear standing on its hind legs and scatching the tree. According to Dr. Ubelaker, that is how bears mark their territory, so when other bears pass by and reach up to do the same, if they aren’t taller than the bear, they had better leave the area, because the other bear won’t be happy to have their company.

After the hike, we went to a local ice cream shop called Taos Cow, where the ice cream is made with natural ingredients and doesn’t contain rBGH ( recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). I didn’t want any, but all of my classmates seemed to really enjoy it. The surrounding shops in the area were very colorful and beautiful. Taos has such a small-town feel, but there are some hidden treasures within it that only true natives of the area would know about. I will definitely be back to explore the other shops.

Our last stop for the day was at a hippie site. It is tradition for Ubelaker to take his classes to the house and help with out with any chores. In the open field before reaching the house, we saw the most adorable prairie dogs! They scampered off so quickly at the sound of our van coming up the road, so I wasn’t able to get a picture of them. But they were the cutest little things. The rest of the house was gorgeous, and it seemed like a lot of field work was being done to restore it. Dr. Ubelaker stated that in the past, the hippie house ran similar to a business and delivered fresh milk right outside your door at 6am in the morning, and also produced other natural products that people in the surrounding area could use. It wasn’t until the ’60s and later that the stereotypical “hippie” actions came into play, and downgraded the house’s original purpose to meaningless use. But, the owner of the compound, who apparently is a former physician from Los Angeles, has been working to restore the area to its original use. We will be heading back to the house on Thursday to help. I can’t wait to return. This has definitely been a great weekend!

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Weather report: Gorgeous

So, all this week I’ve been stuck in the library finding more information about my mint plant family. There are 20 species alone within the north-central region of New Mexico. Thankfully, since all of them don’t begin to flower during June, it narrows down how much I have to include in my report.

Jewel, Laura and I are extremely driven to completing this assignment the best way we know how, although there hasn’t been a lot of clarity as to what the format should be or how much to include. But, at least we have a topic, so we can just take baby steps from there.

Even still, we find ourselves getting distracted on occassion. The view of the campus from Fort Burgwin is just gorgeous. The weather hasn’t made it any easier to not want to just bask in the sun all day, while enjoying an occassional breeze.

Yesterday, Kim, one of the parasitology students, studied with us in the late morning, but around 11 a.m., we decided to go take pictures along the Nature Trail. We got a bit carried away, but it was definitely worth it! We walked and talk for a good 30 minutes. Kim even tried to jump on top of the entrance sign to campus, but I advised her not to because of the bird excrement on the surface. Gotta love Mother Nature, right?

This week also marked the beginning of the SMU-in-Taos Sand Volleyball Tournament. It was very exciting to get a chance to use some of my athleticism for this game. The Botany class was teamed up with the Parasitology class, and we formed Team Ubelaker. Our opponent was the other science class, Team Phillips. We completely dominated them! It was a really great game and it was nice to engage with other students on campus who I don’t usually get to see. Our team is headed to the semifinals!

Oh, forgot to mention that I also started working at the library this week. My boss is Carol, and she is so sweet! It’s nice hearing her experiences in Taos as well as her recommendations about what restaurants to try out and places for enjoying the local entertainment.

This weekend should be filled with more research and free time to enjoy the city of Taos. I’ll update you soon!

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