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Chama’s 20th SnoBall Rally is a winter adventure of a different kind

More than two years ago, when the New Mexico Tourism Department decided to ax four visitor centers around the state, Chama took a page from Nancy Reagan’s playbook and just said no.

The village’s Chamber of Commerce took over the local visitor center’s operation and provides financing through a variety of fundraising events.

One of those events is coming up, as officials have taken the “poker run” concept, popular as a fundraiser for motorcycle groups, and turned it into something uniquely Chama-like.

Instead of motorcycles, participants in the Feb. 23 event will use snowmobiles and roar out into the winter wilderness to pick up their cards, said Katherine Pettingill, a volunteer who is helping organize the benefit for the Northern New Mexico Welcome Center.

“When the state shut the others down, Chama fought to keep their center,” she said. “It’s the only one of the four that has reopened.”

Riders “go to different locations on the top of the mountain and pick up a card,” she said. “It gives people a reason to get out.”

Rentals are available, as well as guides to the card destinations and folks who can explain how to use the snowmobiles, she said.

Riders cruise stunning scenery through the Kit Carson and Rio Grande national forests before hitting private land to pick up their cards.

“It’s about 13 to 15 miles all the way back in,” Pettingill said. “It’s a loop. If you’re riding hard, it should take about 30 minutes. In all, it should take about an hour to an hour and a half.”

Although hands are sold to those unwilling to make the adventurous journey into the outback, they miss out on the fun, she said.

The Poker Run coincides with Chama’s annual SnoBall Rally ( on Feb. 23-24, a ballooning event entering its 20th year, organizer Murray Conrad said.

Although Albuquerque-area residents are used to skies filled with dozens of hot-air balloons on just about any crisp fall morning, peaking, of course, with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the SnoBall can seem somewhat sedate.

“Stop and think about it,” Conrad said. “The Albuquerque area has about 750,000 people. Chama, well, doesn’t. So when we go up there with 10 or 12 balloons, that fills their sky. So the theory is the same.”

For the local residents, it’s a treat, Pettingill said.

“The balloon rally, of course, it’s gorgeous,” she said. “For the local people, they love it. It’s a whole lot easier access than going to Albuquerque. And it’s so pretty. When they go up and fly, it’s absolutely amazing.”

Although the numbers are significantly lower, the challenge of flying in Chama is interesting, Conrad said.

“It’s absolutely beautiful to fly up there,” he said. “What we do when we meet in the morning, we send off a helium balloon. The winds will be fast heading to the south, then when they start to slow down and we see the helium balloons start to come back to north, we scramble to find a place to launch and go. We’ve had days where I flew until I had to land. And last year, the weather was so bad we didn’t get to fly at all.”

When they do get off the ground, however, it’s always an adventure.

“It is amazing,” Conrad said. “I’ve had years where when I’m flying you see elk, deer, turkeys. There are turkeys everywhere. You never stop and think about it, but you can’t see them because they’re up in the trees. When you fly past the trees, they’ll scare you when they fly out.”

With plentiful snow this year, and piggybacking off the poker run theme, the Cumbres Adventure Tours ( can put together snowmobile excursions for those want to spend even more time exploring the forests and wide-open spaces.

“We try to provide adventures that we would want to go on,” said Loren Cheatam, part of the family that owns the company. “A lot of places cater to making money while we want to cater to making memories. We try to personalize each tour. We keep it to a small group, so you can go out and control what you do.”

Cheatam said she really enjoys taking out groups that want to do some serious exploring.

“I really love it when we get out there and get away from everything and it’s quiet,” she said. “You’re far enough out that the locals don’t want to go that far. You can find fresh fields of untouched snow. That’s my favorite way to get out there and really ride – where you have creation all around you and it’s super cool. You can reflect back on your inner thought and everything around. That is my favorite time.”