Carlsbad Caverns National Park

When I plan a trip, I definitely push my limits in order to see and do as much as possible. It’s about finding a balance. Ambitious but achievable. Aggressive but not arduous. I’m not going to skip sleeping entirely, but I will forgo a few hours’ sleep if it means I have the leeway to add something awesome to the docket. Which is how I found myself at four in the morning in freezing cold pitch darkness outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, fumbling around,  trying to figure out how to open the gas tank door on the rental car. There was no release lever on the driver’s side floor. Nothing under or on the dashboard. Not in the glove compartment nor in the center arm console. No mention was made in the owner’s manual. And THAT would be because a fuel door button doesn’t exist on that car, the fuel door just needs to be pressed inward to click open*. Soooo I suppose this means that I’m coming to an age where I start to complain about all this newfangled technology and reminisce about the good old days of foot-powered cars. What I’m saying is, I am deeply interested in buying an Amazon Echo Silver.

We covered a lot of ground before dawn, the sun rising fortuitiously to Westworld’s rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” over what appeared to be a shootout between plywood giants.

Most of the rest of the drive was uneventful: a flat lot of nothing to look at except for a few cows, some ramshackle buildings, oil pumps, an entire town that smelled like a fart that had been bottled up by a lactose intolerant milkshake guzzling giant for a generation, and some kind of oil or gas tower thing that appeared to have a continuous purposeful fireball shooting out of the top. You can buy about a million cliched items boasting that travel is about the journey, but I’d argue in many cases, the destination is far more compelling. You don’t take a ten hour flight and turn around to come home, boasting about what an amazing journey you took that involved one cup of tea, three trips into a bathroom the size of kindergarten cubby, a battle over the shared armrest, and mild turbulence. You aren’t like, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you the riveting tale of the entire town that smelled like a fart and why it made my entire trip worthwhile” unless you are me. No. You set out to do something, whether that’s see something or eat something or lay in a prone position in a location that has better weather than home. This day, I set out not to look at an unchanging landscape for hours on end but to see Carlsbad Caverns.

 Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923 and was upgraded to full national park status in 1930. This gigantic limestone marvel was described by Will Rogers as “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it”, and I’m hard pressed to find a better way to explain its vastness. Whether one hikes from the natural entrance or takes the elevator shortcut (I’m not deriding the latter, as an experienced indoorswoman I also elected to take the elevator), once you reach the Hall of the Giants, you’re nearly a thousand feet underground surrounded on all sides by speleothems of all shapes and sizes. It’s so large, when a noisy group would push past me gaping in awe, I would not be able to hear them any longer after a minute or so even though we were in the same cave chamber. Looking around is disorienting, with all the formations on every side I felt as though I’d stepped into one of those children’s rock crystal growing kits.

It is an astounding place, to be so deep under the surface of the earth, to be surrounded by these formations, to hear nothing but the occasional clink of rings and wristwatches against the guardrails and steady drips of water from overheard.  I took so many photos and even a few videos but the truth of the matter is that I have yet to see a photo by any photographer that could convey the vastness of the caverns and the true beauty of the speleothems. It truly must be seen to be believed.

Here’s a ton of photos anyway.

Nope. Nope nope nope.

You know why I took this photo. You know.

After our walk around the caverns, we were both ravenous, having been up since the wee hours without eating save for some guacachips procured at the aforementioned gas station. We decided to check out the on site restaurant and Jason proclaimed that if there was a cave burger, he was going to eat it. Not only did they have a burger, it was literally called a cave burger, and with the gauntlet thus thrown and the challenge answered, his food decision was made. I selected a “1923 panini” (which, if you were paying attention, is the year Carlsbad was made a national monument) and was also drawn to a drink bottle named, simply, “Cherry beverage” with an orchard listed on the side. I took a bite of my panini and pronounced it “not bad”, and Jason offered me a bite of his cave burger.

…It literally tasted exactly like the school cafeteria burgers of my youth. Exactly. That precooked patty pulled out of a warming bin that tasted like it had been boiled brought back a rush of emotions, none of them good**. I gave him half my sandwich because I couldn’t in good conscience let him go back to that mediocre burger when there were still potentially hours between us and our next meal. He ate the sandwich half and finished the burger anyway: THAT is how hungry we were.

And the cherry beverage? I should’ve looked at the nutritional label instead of being swayed by an orchard’s name on the side, because nary a cherry ever touched it save for the ones printed on the label. It tasted like corn syrup cough syrup, and that’s being generous. That, we did not finish. So even if all of our national parks get stripped of their funding and they need to rely on tourism to survive, I doubt the new motto for Carlsbad Caverns is going to be “Come for the caverns, stay for the food!”. But seriously, come for the caverns, though.

 

*This may in fact mark the first time in the history of the world that a correct answer was found on yahoo answers, and now that I’ve called them out on some accidental correctness, they’ll probably delete it and replace it with an answer about how you can’t get pregnant if it’s a full moon and you rub your genitals with a mr clean magic eraser

**I ate a fuckton of those burgers during junior high/high school though, because I had bad taste and my gut wasn’t going to fill out my JNCOs all on its own.

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One Day in Santa Fe

Well, more like half a day. It was my birthday and I wanted to spend it in Santa Fe, eating delicious food and window shopping. My first stop was at Meow Wolf–I wouldn’t have had time to tackle The House of Eternal Return again, though I’ve heard there have been some changes since my last visit. There’s too much to see and it’s too well done to half-ass it. That, and I think every schoolkid in New Mexico was there that day which made it another hard pass, but I definitely wanted to browse through the gift shop as they have all kinds of neat stuff made by their artists. I ended up picking up a pair of earrings and Jason brought home a smaller plush replica of their space owl and after that, the shrieking reverberating around the lobby grew to be too much and we both beat a retreat back to the parking lot.

Our next stop was the Jackalope Mercado, a most excellent garden center/home decor/little bit of everything place. If we’d road tripped it to Santa Fe, I would have had a difficult time not packing the trunk full of pottery and mirrors and all the other stuff that would never fit in a carry-on/ would never survive being thrown onto and off of a plane. So we mostly browsed around, checking out their wares and their chubby, deeply suspicious prairie dogs. Because, yes, in addition to all that other stuff, they also have a few prairie dogs burrowing around, doing their prairie dog business. I also saw a kind of insect I’d never seen before, the hummingbird moth. They’re really neat and supposedly they summer all around the US, so maybe I’ll get lucky and attract some to my garden when my hummingbird/butterfly attracting flowers start blooming.

Post Jackalope, we checked into our hotel and started wandering around town, window shopping, checking out galleries, and occasionally getting pulled off the street into jewelry shops where we got to practice our best “That ring is only $17,000? What a bargain, I’m considering buying three” faces. Jason is better at it than me, I caught a glimpse at my reflection and what my eyebrows were doing could best be described as “confused and constipated” so I don’t think I fooled anyone. It’s especially hard to feign that kind of casual buying interest when the jewelry in question looks like it was rejected from Baublebar for being too ostentatious.

For dinner, I found myself back at The Shed, because while I COULD have tried something new, I wanted something that I knew would be out of this world delicious. This time, I got to sit out on the patio and enjoy my green and red chile smothered steak and enchiladas out in the sunshine. It was everything I’d been dreaming about the entire dreary winter and by itself made the entire trip worthwhile. Jason was also well pleased with his newborn size christmas-style burrito–all of these dinner photos? He took ’em. I was too busy chowing down.

After dinner, we had hit that 6pm magic hour where all the shops in Santa Fe simultaneously close, so we walked over to the Jean Cocteau Cinema. I’d checked their schedule the week before and had seen a magic show on the docket that looked interesting–I hadn’t wanted to plan the day around it so I didn’t prepurchase tickets, but I kept my fingers crossed that two would be available the day of. When we arrived, they had a few “showing now” posters up, but none were for a magic act. Confused, I inquired of the ticket seller what was playing that evening, and there was indeed a magic show and they did, in fact, have tickets.

Photo by Robin Dawes

The magician in question was Francis Menotti, a veteran performer so skilled at his trade that he is one of the rare few to have fooled Penn & Teller. His show was delightful in every sense of the word–he was funny, and kind, and really engaged the entire audience in a way that would have been vastly more difficult in a larger venue, but I would absolutely go see him again, regardless of the venue. In the rain, on a train, whatever.  I don’t go to see magic shows often, but Francis’ show made me deeply glad that I had. I only wish there had been some more butts crammed in the seats for him–I know it’s easy to be a backseat business owner when I have zero skin in the game, but it still seems like even a couple of bucks’ worth of posters would at least let people passing by the cinema know what’s going on inside.

I wrapped up the day by grabbing a drink at the hotel bar, Secreto, and taking it out to the candlelit patio to read and savor the evening. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday, and there was still plenty of road trip time around New Mexico to come.

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Spotted on the Roadside: One Handsome Rattlesnake

Or, rather, TWO handsome rattlesnakes as they bookend University Boulevard. Although a rattlesnake in Freer, Texas boasts the title of “largest rattlesnake in the world”, I think these two give it a run for its money. Caution: there is NO good place to pull over to get a closer look at these snakes, as there’s a high curb on both sides of the road and very little shoulder to speak of. The people you see wandering around it in the photo stopped their car in the middle of the road, which I wholeheartedly do *not* recommend, no matter how much you might want to ride a giant rattlesnake. And believe me, I wanted to.

Spotted on University Blvd SE in Albuquerque, NM

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You Can’t Stay Madrid in Madrid

Not that I was, uh, mad-rid to begin with. I had a belly full of waffles, it was a gorgeous day, and I was on the road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Sure, I could have taken the highway and gotten there faster, but I was keen on taking the Turquoise Trail and getting a peek at Madrid. Formerly a bustling mining town named Coal Gulch, it was left mostly abandoned in the 1950s when demand for coal died in favor of natural gas. And then in the 70s, the hippies came. These artists and craftspeople revived the town, setting up shops, galleries, and services for locals and passersby, and thus the town of 300 or so people has a funky, arts-y, welcoming vibe. Their shops showcase local turquoise jewelry and pottery, they have their own artist quarterly, and they host events like mailbox painting contests to bring their community together.

I had a grand time in Madrid, shopping around (I bought an ammolite ammonite at a really reasonable price, the ammolite I saw when I last wandered into the Gastown museum in Vancouver cost the Earth), taking silly photos in Connie’s Photo Park, and soaking in that much-needed sunshine. I also was able to grab a few photos from the road of the Turquoise Trail Sculpture Garden & Studio, which was unfortunately closed–but fortunately, it gives me a reason to go back. Aren’t those origami sculptures cool?!?

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Tia B’s La Waffleria: A Syrupy Love Story

“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third.” – Leslie Knope

Waffles are important, and it felt particularly important that I have breakfast at Tia B’s La Waffleria, an Albuquerque breakfast (and waffle-y lunch) house catering to all things waffled, whether one’s tastes run savory or sweet, gluten-free or gluten-full, vegan or omnivorous. I’ve heard that the line can be onerous on weekends, but on a sunny weekday morning, I was able to go almost straight to the ordering counter and claim the sunniest outdoor patio table for myself.

Even though I’d perused the menu beforehand and thought I knew what I was going to order when I walked in, when I got to the counter I started to second-guess myself. Everything looked awesome. Blue corn waffles? Green chile cream sauce? Smoked salmon waffles? My choice of cow or goat caramel? Damn it, Aunt B, you’ve vaporlocked my brain with deliciousness! Luckily, I don’t think you can make a bad choice at La Waffleria–Jason got the fried banana and browned butter bourbon sauce over buttermilk waffles with a honey latte, and I got their buttermilk waffles topped with port-infused cherries, sweetened goat cheese, and lavender whipped cream.

Daaaaamn! The waffles were perfect, able to hold up to the toppings without being too dense or tough. You could taste the lavender without it being overpowering, same with the port in the cherries, and the goat cheese was only slightly sweetened, keeping its creamy tang to keep the whole thing balanced. Jason’s fried bananas and browned butter bourbon sauce were insanely good, as was his latte. Sweet fancy moses, everything was so delicious that I’d fly back to Albuquerque just for waffles. I’m not even kidding. Not when it comes to waffles.

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Spotted on the Roadside: Cruising San Mateo I

Also referred to as “Chevy on a Stick”, Cruising San Mateo was constructed in 1991 by artist Barbara Grygutis. There’s not a lot of other information about it out there–it was erected as part of Albuquerque’s public arts program, but even their website is sparse. What happened to that giant gorilla made of tires, Albuquerque?! I WANT TO KNOW.

Spotted on San Mateo Blvd SE in Albuquerque, NM

Riding in the Sky: The Sandia Peak Tramway

The Sandia Peak Tramway was once the longest tramway in the world. Bumped to third place, it remains the longest in the United States. Construction started in 1964 and was completed two years later, with the second support tower requiring the aid of helicopters to construct. And not a little helicopter aid, either–it took some 5,000 helicopter trips to complete tower two and install the cables, which is probably more helicopters than you’ve ever seen in your life from all sources combined, even if you’re a dedicated fan of Steven Seagal’s oeuvre.  The span of the cables is 7,720 feet, which is long enough that that the cables and even the car itself seems to disappear as it moves away. It’s so long that a trip up or down takes a solid fifteen minutes, so it’s reassuring to know that over the course of their operation, every part of  the tram save for the towers themselves has been replaced at least twice. Less reassuring was our car operator’s description of our current elevation above the ground as a “seven and a half second freefall”, but even that gave me a small assurance: that I’d have enough time to shout “I waaaaaant aaaaa reeeeefuuuuuund” as I hurtled toward the ground. Petty until the very end, that’s me.

Healthier, more ambitious people than myself can choose to hike up or down, and thus tickets are sold at both the top and the bottom station in one way and round trip forms, so I was careful to not lose them in the depths of the abomination I call a travel purse: some forty pounds of anything I might need and no way to recover any of it without five to ten minutes of swirling my arm around in it up to my shoulder. I mean, yes, if I had lost the tickets it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to buy new ones or even hike down (let’s be honest, if you’re going to have to hike one of the directions, down is preferable), BUT then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pepper the tram operator with questions–they have a prepared spiel they give on the ride up, but not on the ride down. The kind of hard-hitting questions I’m known for, like ” Has the tram ever gotten stuck? For how long? If there always has to be an operator on the tram, who rides the first one down in the morning? What does that red handle do?” Answers: Yes. Usually no more than 15 minutes but it has been stopped for longer waiting for a car to stop swinging back and forth so it doesn’t risk collision with a tower. Someone actually has to spend the night up in the peak to ride down in the morning, which our (female) operator has never had to do, and for which she’s grateful (“I’m a women’s libber, but you get a bunch of weirdos showing up in the middle of the night.”). It’s an emergency brake that stops the tram completely, requiring the operator to have to strap into a harness and climb outside the tram to manually reset things–which, of course, spurred an inevitable follow up question of “Have you ever had to do that?”. Thankfully, the answer to that one was no, not outside of training. Just picturing being harnessed to the top of a swinging tram a seven and a half second freefall above the ground made my insides roil around a bit in a way that had nothing to do with the rebel donuts crammed in there. Can’t a helicopter do it instead?

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“Stay out of my territory”: Breaking Bad in Albuquerque

 

For as long as the show remains in pop culture memory*,  the city of Albuquerque will be tied to Breaking Bad. I’m not such a die-hard fan that I wanted to turn my trip into a Breaking Badcation, but if you’re familiar with the show at all, you’ll spot little nods and filming locations all over town. Like, for instance, the Crossroads Motel (or “crystal palace”), which was smack on the corner where we turned to go to our hotel (“Is that…? No, wow, it looked so much worse on the show.”). There was also a little nod to Heisenberg at Rebel Donut, with their “Blue Sky” donut, sprinkled with blue sugar crystals. There’s The Dog House, the hot dog joint where Jesse slings meth and buys a gun, and Garduños, where a waiter awkwardly presses tableside guacamole on the family, not reading the mood of the room. Jason and I got lunch/dinner at Garduños (their portions are, to put it mildly, gargantuan), including the aforementioned tableside guacamole, which Walt is frankly a fool for passing on**. We also found Walter White’s tombstone, which was initially placed in the Sunset Memorial Park cemetery, but was later removed to a strip mall*** after some families complained. I didn’t even consider swinging by the home portrayed as Walter White’s on the show because the real homeowner has had so many issues with people lurking outside her home and throwing pizzas on her roof and frankly, I don’t want to contribute to her stress  or be associated with a bunch of salty asshole fans when I’d seen plenty of Breaking Bad stuff around town anyway. I guess, for her, the sooner the memory of the show fades, the better.

*Not terribly long, if Forks is any indication.

**Like, in a show that’s essentially about a series of bad decisions, this might’ve been his worst one. They make it right at the table, man.

***There was some construction up at the strip mall and I didn’t know if we’d be able to pull into the parking lot, so I parked at nearby Dan’s Boots & Saddles. We wandered into the store afterward and ended up outfitting Jason with a bunch of new work shirts and a pretty bitchin’ cowboy hat. I want to say we were helped by the owner, and he was helpful and knowledgeable and friendly in a way that one doesn’t often see anymore which is why I’m plugging his store in this completely unrelated blog post. So if you’re in the area and in the market for some boots or a hat, definitely stop in!

The Turquoise Trail to Tinkertown

I don’t think I’ve ever been cagey about how badly the winters in Seattle affect me: the days themselves are surpassingly short and spots of sunlight among the nigh-constant cloud cover are fleeting at best. From the moment the holiday lights snap off in January, I feel dragged down emotionally and physically. Light therapy doesn’t help, exercise doesn’t help, a healthy diet doesn’t help, a junk food diet doesn’t help. I don’t want to write, I don’t want to make art, I don’t want to go outside. All I want to do is sleep, like a form of hibernation for the modern useless person. And this winter has been particularly difficult, as it’s been hard to feel hopeful about, well, anything since late January.  So this year for my birthday, instead of throwing a massive party like last year, I wanted to get out of town for a while, feel the sun on my face, experience an emotion other than anxiety and despair. I decided that the timing would be ideal to head back to New Mexico to do all of the things we ran out of time for on the Harpies road trip last summer, plus a plethora of other things across a larger swath of the state that were entirely out of reach previously.

My first stop was Tinkertown, via the “singing road” on eastbound Route 66 outside of Tijeras. I’d read that as you drive over it, you hear the strains of “America the Beautiful”, but only if you’re driving the speed limit of 45mph. Neither Jason nor I believed it would be all that impressive, potentially just a series of rumble strips that you could convince yourself was “America the Beautiful” if you were singing it in your head at the same time, the same way you could click a pen in time to Katy Perry’s “Firework” and hear different tones out of that pen click, that it was all about the power of suggestion. Nope.

This musical rumble strip was funded and put in place by National Geographic in 2014 as part of a show aimed at changing public behavior. Speeding is a factor in a lot of accidents, so this was a way to incentivize people to drive the speed limit, at least for that small stretch of road. It’s one of only a few musical strips of road anywhere in the world–there’s one in Lancaster, California that plays the William Tell Overture, and another in South Korea that plays “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I’m not certain that National Geographic approved of me whipping around so I could drive it twice but they’re going to have to build something else to prevent that particular human behavior. A spike trap, maybe.

Then it was on to Tinkertown, a museum collecting the life’s work of Ross Ward. Ward, an admirer of roadside attractions, set out to construct his own: collecting, carving, and painting everything during the time, as he was known to say, “while you were watching TV”. I do watch a lot of TV, Ross. Particularly in the winter. In my defense, it’s pretty good. Or, you know, not good but beats wandering out into the soggy gray wasteland or trying to write about all the nothing I’m doing–it’s not like I’m a TV blogger.

For a mere $3.75 per person, you gain admission through the gates into the circuitous route of rooms packed to the rafters with stuff, surrounded by walls made of over 50,000 glass bottles. I spotted at least one bumper sticker from House on the Rock inside and even if I hadn’t seen it, it would have been clear to me that Ward was inspired by that notable Wisconsin attraction. Although touring through Tinkertown was not nearly as arduous an experience as House on the Rock (owing to the fact that Ward made many of the exhibits, whereas Ross mainly purchased/commissioned them) the feel is remarkably similar. At various locations throughout the exhibit, you can insert a coin or two to bring the dioramas to life. A grandmother bursts through a window to tell some musicians to stop making such a racket. God and the Devil play tug of war over a mortal soul, complete with flashes of lightning. A maquette equipped with a cleaver chases a chicken around and around a wooden box. There’s so much packed into each diorama that one could easily note a new detail every single time they look–and from a quick peek at the guestbook, some people had been back for more than one gander, noting that the displays were currently in better repair than their last visit.

Tinkertown also shares some common themes with House on the Rock–there’s a sizeable sideshow and circus display in both places. Among his many other talents, Ross Ward also used to paint circus and sideshow banners as well as carousel horses, and so at least a portion of the banners on display were painted by Ward’s hand.

Here I’m stepping into the shoes of Louie Moilanen, of Calumet, Michigan, who stood at a whopping 7’9″. His promo photograph and the Tinkertown tag have him listed at 8’4″, which is not terribly surprising as many people in the circus had their stats exaggerated to better sell tickets.

At a time when at least two world leaders are actively jazzed at the idea of using nuclear weapons on a populace, this quote feels particularly apt. 

My trip to Tinkertown happened on a fortuitous day, as local notable figure Anand Naren Oma and his tarot reading goose, Princess Esmeralda, were on site plying their trade.  There was absolutely no way I was not going to have a goose divine my future, because if there’s any creature on this earth who can know the future, it’s birds. How else can you explain how they know exactly when a shiny clean car will pass directly underneath them to use as their personal toilet? You can’t.

So how does goose tarot work? The cards are shuffled, and each of us chose two. Upon flipping a card over, Princess Esmeralda would make various goose sounds (and also bite at Oma and Jason, just because she knows the future doesn’t mean she’s not a goose) and Oma would translate for her, telling us the meaning of the cards we chose and how they might relate to our lives.

 

The cards we chose were Abundance, Existence, Mind, and Healing. Of course, any card based divination can be applied to any situation if you reach hard enough, but considering I came to New Mexico to do some soul searching and mental healing, these felt particularly apropos. I left Tinkertown feeling truly lighthearted for the first time in months.

 

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