I felt a bit melancholy as we sat in a diner on Route 66 in Flagstaff this morning eating another greasy breakfast and watching the freight trains rumble slowly past. When we were heading out on the first day of this trip, crossing the Arizona border made me feel so far from home–the first step on a grand adventure. This morning, Arizona didn’t feel exotic at all, but instead like the beginning of a slippery slope leading to California. I wanted to back up and keep traveling. I had more national monuments to see! Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon were only miles from the motel!
Sometimes I’m homesick on these trips and ready to return, but not this time. I think it is because a friend of ours graciously offered to stay at our place, so I haven’t been plagued by worries about the cat, the yard and all that.
As we approached Nevada, we seemed to be driving straight into a thunderstorm. I was nervous about this thanks to our last southwest trip when I learned a German tourist was killed by lightning on the rim of Bryce Canyon. Fortunately, either the road skirted left or the storm moved right, so all we got was enough rain to wash the windshield free of smashed bugs.
We stopped at the new Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge near Lake Mead. That’s a mouthful! Unfortunately we were *on* the bridge so we couldn’t see the bridge, but I gotta say, this is the most substantial shadow ever!
The middle of somewhere…that is what I learned this trip. At first this made me a little sad. I like the idea of “the middle of nowhere.” On our last southwest road trip I was completely out of my element, the way burning man used to make me feel. I liked this.
This time I had enough dots to connect to make a picture. The towns weren’t isolated. Every lonely road was one that numerous people used to get to work every day. For instance, we took the road that goes northeast from 70 (below, right of center). That looks like a whole lot of nowhere, doesn’t it? Especially when you do a side by side comparison with a map of the Bay Area.
Yeah, we had very spotty cell coverage and drove through some amazing, seemingly untouched scenery, but this was not The Middle of Nowhere. We rounded a bend and there was a huge power plant.
I’m a romantic, but also a realist. Am I willing to trade my dream of a rugged, uninhabited southwest for one of small towns populated by people like me, sitting on the couch on a Thursday night watching Tivo and arguing over which designer should be cut from Project Runway? Reluctantly, yes. : ) Those people could be my neighbors.
I’m eager to hit the road, but as soon as we do, I realize the magic spell is broken. We aren’t meandering, we are headed to Flagstaff–the first step towards home. What makes this feeling worse is me knowing it is all my own state of mind. I wish I had to power to compartmentalize this day and make it as special as any day on the trip out here. I try my best.
This route is along a very busy train corridor, and the skies, as usual, go on forever. I’m almost glad not to live here so I can’t get used to it.
A particularly large, red rock formation rising straight out of the valley floor is too much to resist, so we pull off and hike around Church Rock, New Mexico for a bit.
As we get closer to Flagstaff, the scenery changes to pine trees and flowers.
We get into Flagstaff and after driving for hours I’m not up for doing an archeological dig into the conflicting Yelp reviews of the two old-time hotels in town. Awesome! Sucks! Loved it! Hated it! Great room! Noisy!
Guiltily, we check into a down-at-the-heels Hampton Inn. We luck out with a quiet ground floor room with a nice view. We go to dinner at a brew pub and get an “our kinda town” feel from the waitstaff and clientele. Must be the nearby university. I imagine an alternative universe where I went to school here and had a good time.
Everyone spent the day preparing for my parent’s anniversary party that evening. You can skip the rest of this post if you aren’t interested in rants about bad customer service. You should skip it! This is old news to all of us…the familiar problem of trying desperately to give a company money and they just won’t take it!
I’ve been trying for over two weeks to get a cake ordered from “the best bakery” in Santa Fe, according to Yelp. I went to the bakery website, found a cake I liked, and called the bakery.
“I’d like to order a cake.”
“Oh, lemme transfer you.”
I am put on hold for a long time. Minutes.
“Hi. I’d like to order a cake.”
“Do you know what kind you want?”
I do, and I rattle off all the specs from the online menu they have…but this is where I ruin everything…”I’d like custom decoration. I’m looking at your website and I’d like it to look just like the one on your gallery page, second row, last cake.”
“Can you describe it?”
“Well, I’d rather have you look at it. Do you have a computer?”
No, the person on the phone did not have a computer and I’d have to call back and talk to the cake decorating lady who was not in right now. I ask if I can send an email with a picture of what I want. They say yes and I ask if the email address on the webpage I am looking at is correct. No – instead of emailing the bakery I have to email a gmail address.
Needless to say no one emails me back. I call a few days later to check in and the cake decorating lady is not in. A day or so later I get a voicemail message from her acknowledging my order and asking me to call to confirm and give my credit card number. I call back, she is not in.
Now we are on the road and it is hard for me to make calls during business hours. Cell service is really spotty. When I do manage to call, she is not in.
Screw it! When we arrive in Santa Fe I go to a nearby Whole Foods. The people at the bakery are super nice. The woman who does cake decorating is there and she comes out from behind the counter and looks at my computer and does a sketch based on my photo. She doesn’t want a down payment, and the price of the cake is (bizarrely) about half what the other bakery was going to charge me.
Today we pick up the cake and it is absolutely perfect. Just like the photo. (Sorry about the crummy photo *I* took. The restaurant was dark and a flash ruins everything.)
I want to patronize small businesses and time after time I hit a brick wall when I try to do so. Anyone at “the best bakery” could have helped me if they were willing to go beyond their job description but no one was.
Ironically, when I try to send a thank you letter to the manager of the Santa Fe Whole Foods, I discover the store has no email address online. : )
Why have I never heard of this place? In fact, why is nearly every national monument I see on the map a complete mystery to me? I’m embarrassed to be so ignorant of the facts of our county, but on the other hand, I have a problem with getting overly excited about places and things I read about, so on this trip I’ve been trying to figure out what will be interesting without learning too much.
I’m predisposed to like Bandelier National Monument, if only because I really want to get out of Santa Fe. For nearly a week we’ve explored wide open spaces with skies that went on forever, and I’m feeling a little claustrophobic in the suburban sprawl. I can’t get my bearings. I’m eager to spend one whole day outdoors and on my feet. The scenery on the way there is fascinating. I’m ready to jump out of the car right now and explore!
We arrive in Los Alamos, where we have to take a shuttle the last 20 minutes to the park. There was a flood a while back and…well as far as I can tell the shuttle was probably needed for a few months but now no one wants to fire the drivers, because I can see no reason we couldn’t have driven right in. Everything is fine.
Anyway, the park is way better than I expected. A pretty, 2-mile round trip totally level walk along a river canyon, with native American stone houses and cave dwellings.
This rock, if I remember correctly, is actually compressed ash from a volcano, and this lends itself to all the cool, naturally occurring caves and holes! You can see, on the photo I took when we were driving in, these holes are everywhere in this area. This seems like a good place to live in olden days. I like that you can still see evidence of wallpaper, aka plaster with decorations. The round holes are where the logs for the roofs were secured.
The best part is that, at the end of the trail, you can climb up a sheer cliff face on wooden ladders to get to a really big cave. I’m amazed this is legal in the U.S.! Wow! I hate to even write about this because I don’t want to bring this to the attention of the wrong person–who will start a campaign to get the ladders removed. None of my pictures can do this justice so I won’t bother posting them. Instead here is another neat scene. You can get an idea of the scale from the tall pine (?) tree up on top.
That night after dinner we met our friend Aneel–coincidentally also on a southwest road trip–at a nearby dive bar. I felt very out of place when we walked in. Everyone but us was dressed up in southwest style garb, well over 60, completely drunk, and dancing to an extremely loud cover band.
There was one thing I could do to fit in, and it wasn’t dance. After a few drinks I began to relax it all made more sense. These retirees were Getting Down! I haven’t seen such enthusiastic dancing in a long time. They spun, they waved their hands in the air, they ground pelvises. After each song ended, the dance floor emptied as everyone collapsed into chairs for a breather, but once the band started they jumped up like jack in the boxes. They were having a blast!
It was an inspiration. I saw my future and I wasn’t sitting in my front room yelling at the hovering drones the pesky teenage kids were using to spy on me. I was in Santa Fe in a dive bar swing dancing with a cowboy. Yee haw!
Today I follow the family around old town, Santa Fe. Near as I can tell, this is the equivalent of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, so I’m having are hard time taking it seriously.
Santa Fe seems to be a mecca for 50+ year old women getting together for a wild weekend. They all dress alike: cropped loose linen pants, flowing tops, and large “artistic” pieces of jewelry.
Every time I turn a corner I’m startled to find my mom standing there, but it isn’t her, just someone with the exact same style. But hey, this uniform works.
In San Francisco I live in a neighborhood that is overrun with 20-something hipsters and nearly devoid of anyone over 60, so, honestly, I’m relieved to see older people out in force.
The highlight of the day is a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. They have a few famous pieces, but also some watercolors and sketches you will never see in a major exhibit. I am usually too impatient to sit through the informational movie but I’m glad I did this time. I didn’t realize that Alfred Stieglitz’s nude photos of her (taken *after* she’d already had a show at his New York gallery) got her labelled a “sensualist” and other sex-centric terms, and made it hard for her to be taken seriously as an artist. Basically, she was that naked chick that Alfred Stieglitz was sleeping with, and her paintings were interpreted as being all about sex. It is pretty sad that when a man paints a flower, it is a flower, and when a woman does, it is a vagina. Sigh.
The drive to Santa Fe could have taken less than four hours, but we stretched it to eight thanks to site-seeing and eating.
First stop: Rubio’s in Aztec, New Mexico for lunch. This is the first of what will to turn out to be days and days of a relentless barrage of “southwest” cuisine…aka Mexican food. How can this happen? Spoiler alert (I am writing this in the future so I know things). We are meeting my family in Santa Fe and when groupthink takes over…we stagger like a herd of zombies to recommended restaurants–which inevitably turn out to serve tacos, enchiladas, etc. with what to me is maliciously spicy sauce.
Rubio’s, like many of the places we eat, is fine. Not great, just fine.
Next stop, Aztec Ruins National Monument. Before this trip, I never paid much attention to national monuments. I headed straight for big, flashy, national parks. However, we’ve been to many of those already (not that we’ve fully explored them by any means) and so I turn my attention to the smaller dots on the map.
This is a small but nice area of Native American ruins. The supporting beams (logs) used in the roofs of these 900-year old structures were in such good shape the guy who first uncovered this place in the 1930’s used some of them to build the roof of his own house. Cool that the logs held up, but he was a kind of crappy archeologist, yeah?
From Aztec, we meander towards Navajo Lake State Park, then continue on 64 through what we suspect is a huge area of natural gas mines. Not sure what else the contraptions could be. Every 1/4 mile or so there are 20-foot square installations of pipes and monitoring stations, and every car we pass on the road is a white pickup truck with an energy company logo.
We enter the town of Chama and I am extremely surprised to discover that Chama, like Durango, has a narrow gauge railway! I thought the Durango Silverton line was rare, but apparently these things are all over the place! I suspect the scenery isn’t as pretty on this line, but it feels more down-home and authentic here compared to the overpriced tourist infrastructure of Durango.
The best part of Chama is the Subway Surprise. There is a full-on FM radio station broadcasting from the Subway Sandwich restaurant where we go to get an iced tea. Complete with DJ! He is live on the air. We tune in when we get back in the car and find out it is country/mexican country, but we listen for awhile anyway.
The whole reason we went this route was so that I could see Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, both places Georgia O’Keefe lived, but now thanks to all my dilly dallying, the sun is close to setting and we aren’t in Abiquiu and we are running late to a dinner date with my parents.
When we finally get to Georgia O’Keefe country, I only have time to jump out of the car and take a few photos. Very very frustrating. I wanted to hang out in the old cemetery and soak up the vibe. Well, it is my own damn fault, but this reminds me of the sheer awesomeness of the last week, of the amazing freedom of an unstructured road trip where you can literally take any road just to see where it leads.
After the low-budget motel in Montrose, we decided to splurge on a nice hotel in Durango. The Strater is the best of both worlds–a fancy, non-chain hotel with all the amenities. I don’t generally go for “old-timey” but the Strater blew me away. Built in the late 1800’s and impeccably restored, I didn’t feel like I was in Disneyland but rather that I’d been sent back in time.
Last night I had a strange moment. After dinner we came back to the hotel bar, “The Diamond Belle,” and listened to ragtime tunes played by 85-year old Johnny Maddox on an upright piano. We did a quick iphone search and found out he was quite famous in the 1950’s. To quote from the link above:
Johnny Maddox is one of the leading ragtime piano players of all time. He was already America’s number one jukebox artist when in 1954 he recorded “The Crazy Otto Medley.” It spent 14 weeks at the top of the charts, and became the first all-piano record in history to sell over 1,000,000 copies, eventually selling over 2,000,000.
He played tunes from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (by heart, no sheet music) and took breaks between each one to relate an anecdote related to the song or the artist. He also took requests…no, he didn’t take requests, he required them!
The bar, like the hotel, is lovingly restored with high-quality furnishings.
After a few old-fashioneds (yes, I was staying on theme) and a few hours listening to Johnny, I was already in quite a mood when we made our way back up to our room. An old hotel has the vibe of an oversized house…the feeling that we are all staying together in one place. None of the isolation of driving your car right up to your room and going inside and locking the door. Socializing is inevitable in a place like the Strater. The central stair case winds around a floor to ceiling open atrium and the rooms ring the stairs. Open your door and you’d see straight into five or six other rooms, should their occupants also be peering around.
I padded out of the room barefoot, looking for the ice machine. We were on the third floor, and I leaned over the (alarmingly low) railing to see all the way down to the lobby. From my vantage point, I could see only legs and feet passing by the bottom of the grand staircase. Johnny was still playing and I could hear cheerful melodies and laughter and conversation drifting up from the bar. Looking around, I realized with a start that except for the electric lights, everything I was was experiencing could have been exactly what a guest would experience who was staying here when the hotel was newly opened. The wallpaper, the carpets, the fixtures, the sounds…I actually got a chill. Soul-shaking experiences happen only rarely and I certainly didn’t expect one when I was searching for ice.
As I was assimilating this, a couple from the lobby began to ascend the stairs. They were in their mid-50’s and wearing matching square dancing outfits. Each carried a small, old-fashioned suitcase. They didn’t speak, just walked to the second floor and disappeared.
Now I was seriously weirded out. I wasn’t in the 1890’s, I was in Hotel California! What the heck was going on?
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! “
I found the ice machine and hurried back to the room where R. was playing around on the computer. If I was in a time warp, I was relieved to see we still had the internet.
Anyhoo, the next day we had tickets on the Durango Silverton narrow gauge railway (pulled by a steam engine). I shouldn’t have bothered setting the alarm; the trains blow their whistles constantly starting at around 8:00am.
We paid a premium for seats in a nice car, which wasn’t really worth it and in fact had some severe downsides. Instead of sitting together on a bench seat, R. and I were across from each other and sharing a table with a talkative couple from Cleveland. Being even minimally polite meant looking at them a fair bit of the time and missing the scenery outside the train. Which, it turned out, wasn’t really that big of a deal because the scenery was of three types during the entire long, slow trip.
1) Town, where we crawl through the outskirts of Durango (I didn’t take any photos).
2) Ravine, the best scenery, (which didn’t last nearly long enough) where the train hugs the side of a mountain and you can look over the edge and worry.
3) Trees with glimpses of river.
Our car attendant has worked for the company for 30-something years and was full of information about everything we were seeing which was both awesome and annoying.
Thankfully we arrived in historic Silverton for lunch. Silverton is a small town that quadruples in population during the summer–all those seasonal employees there to serve us tourists french fries and sodas and sell us train memorabilia. Ahhh.
Right off the train though I discovered something awesome–an old electric car! I want this!
The place we picked for lunch had the most taxidermy I’d ever seen. I couldn’t even identify some of the animals hanging from the ceiling. We saw evidence of beavers on the way up, now I know what one looks like–and he is holding an American flag.
By now we are used to mediocre food and so declared this place “pretty good.” We explored town a bit then hurried back to get a photo of the train before it departed.
The train ride was fun one way. You can take a bus back, which I’d highly recommend since it cuts the return time in half and you get to go on part of the million dollar highway, which has great scenery.
We were stuck on the train and I groggily stared out the window, wishing we’d booked a sleeping car.