Movin’ Right Along Through Missouri and Illinois

Saturday, May 11: Carthage, MO > Sangchris Lake, IL

Soundtrack: “Movin’ Right Along,” The Muppets

Fueled up on caffeine from a local shop called Mother Road Coffee, we hit the road. I cue up the song “Movin’ Right Along” from the Muppet Movie. I’ve been quoting one of my favorite Fozzie lines during our trip, “A bear in his natural habitat: a Studebaker.” We stop at the World’s Largest Fork in Springfield, as well as a Steak ‘n Shake that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Movin’ right along, footloose and fancy free

We then try a classic tourist activity that I’ve never done before: an animal park safari. I have a lot of mixed feelings about private zoos and the sales of exotic animals. The first section of the wildlife park is exactly the kind of thing that bums me out: big mammals in cages. The tigers and lions on display look bored AF. A bobcat paces around its enclosure over and over. We move on to the  much more cheerful goats, which flock to the fence to greet us. After we finish the walking part of the tour, we get into the car to drive through the open range where animals run free, and this is where shit gets real.

With a bag of oat pellet treats between us in the front seat, we drive the van into the safari section of the park. It’s wild to me that places like this still exist, where you are trusted to drive through in your own vehicle and feed animals through your window. The animals in this free range part of the park are all either ungulates  or large birds, so there’s nothing that’s going to maul you, but it all feels a little surreal to me.

Immediately, a very outgoing wildebeest runs right up to my window and sticks his face through my open window, seeking treats. Saliva pours out of his mouth and pools onto my pants. I toss a few pellets out the window, and as soon as the wildebeest go after them, I roll my window up quickly. Kurt drives at a crawl along the road, and the view of the 350-acre park opens up in full display, dozens of llamas, donkeys, sheep, and goats all looking at us. A pack of alpacas crane their necks and walk towards the van in slow motion, and I feel like we’re in a really weird zombie movie. We watch the car in front of us get swarmed by zebras. Five ostriches prance by, fanning their fluffy wings.

I get the hang of keeping the window mostly rolled up until I’m ready to pass out pellets to the next animal, preventing further drool fiascos. It takes us nearly two hours to drive through the whole thing. The grounds are expansive, and the animals are free to approach the road or roam away from visitors into the valleys or wooded areas. I feel a lot better seeing this part of the park where the animals obviously have plenty of room to wander about. I never would have guessed I’d pet a camel during this trip, and yet, here we are.

We have a surprisingly fun and hilarious time on the safari. It makes me wish that parks like this would focus on the free ranging herbivores and not include large exotic animals like big cats and black bears, who will never be happy in caged enclosures. But at the same time, I know that when private zoos close down and their animals get sold off, they can end up in potentially worse circumstances, so I guess I am glad that at least the big cats we saw appeared healthy and looked after.

On to the next stop, which happens to be, uh, Uranus. It’s a tourist stop along Route 66 which seems to exist for the sole reason to run rampant with cheeky puns (see what I did there). There’s a Fudge Factory and a Creamery. The town newspaper is called the Examiner, and they have an escape room called Escape Uranus. The whole thing is basically heaven for 12-year-old boys (though I will add that the photos of Uranus in my Instagram stories got the most laughing emoji reactions from my 40-something-year-old friends).

What is a Route 66 trip without a stop at the World’s Largest Rocking Chair? We jumped off the highway to take a quick photo, and I was charmed by the two feral cats sitting in the grass at the foot of the chair.

The cats tho!

We pass through St. Louis, glimpsing the Arch, and cross the Mississippi River, back into Illinois. I look out my window through a splotch of dried bison saliva crusted onto the glass, and sigh. It’s a bittersweet mix of emotions–grateful to be almost home and reunited with our pets, but sad that our adventure is coming to a close. But first, we get to camp one more night. We reach Sangchris Lake State Park just outside of Springfield, find a campsite, and settle in. Apparently, Illinois has been getting drenched in rain while we were gone, and the ground is that kind of heavy mud that nearly sucks your boots off your feet. We make our last campfire of the trip, and drink the last few New Mexico beers from our cooler.

Sunday, May 12: Sangchris Lake > Chicago, IL

Soundtrack: “Pulaski at Night” Andrew Bird

It rains steadily all night. I love the sound of light rain on the roof of the van. I love sleeping in the van and the smell of campfire clinging to my hair. I’ve loved this trip, bursting with new memories and experiences. We have about 2 and a half hours left of driving to go, but it’s just a flat, uneventful burn through farmland in the misty rain.

Eventually, the Chicago skyline appears ahead. I love this view from the south side of the city, the way that the skyscrapers loom above the overpasses, the pinwheels atop Comiskey Field, the merging of red tail lights across the wide expressway. We’re home.

Over two weeks, we’ve driven a total of 3,871 miles through six states. We started at the low elevation of 594 feet in Chicago, and reached a high of 10,300 feet atop Sandia Peak. The hottest days reached 91 degrees, and the coldest nights plummeted to 35 degrees. I turned 40, and our marriage turned 5. It’s nearly impossible to capture the all of the feelings I have in my heart, so instead, I put on the last song from our road trip playlist, and let Andrew Bird sing it out:

“I paint you a picture
Of Pulaski at night
Come back to Chicago
City of, city of light”

 

 

 

Route 66, Eastward Bound

Thursday, May 9: Santa Fe, NM > Tucumcari, NM > Amarillo, TX > Elk City, OK

Soundtrack: “Route 66” Nat King Cole

We wake up in a foggy, misty, snowy rain. It’s not worth hanging around and making breakfast, so we pack up and drive down to a lower elevation. After fueling up on PB&J English muffins and gas station coffee, we are on our way back East for the return leg of our trip.

Since we booked it out to New Mexico so quickly at the start of our trip, we’re taking our time on our way home and stopping at all of the Route 66 sights and landmarks. Right around lunchtime, we arrive in Tucumcari, a city noted for its devotion to preserving the vintage aesthetic of Route 66. As we drive down the main drag, I recognize iconic kitschy images like the sombrero above the entrance of La Cita Restaurant, the sculpted concrete entrance of Tee Pee Curios, and the neon sign of the Blue Swallow Motel. Every building has some sort of reference to Route 66 painted in eye-catching splashy murals. “Get your kicks!”, the signs tells us.

We  eat sopaipillas swimming in green sauce for lunch and take tons of pictures of all of the 50’s era shops and motels.

The ghost town of Glenrio straddles the border of New Mexico and Texas. It’s considered a casualty of I-40, the interstate that replaced Route 66 as the main American byway, swerving tourism away. It feels eerie and haunting to peek into the ruins of rundown gas stations and motels, long abandoned and semi-reabsorbed into the landscape as weeds run rampant. Having visited sacred ancient places like Chaco Canyon so recently, it’s interesting to view neglected, modern day ruins like Glenrio and think about what chapter they add to the story of American history. Parts of the film The Grape of Wrath were filmed here, and I think about the waves of migration that have moved through these places over centuries–who was running towards something vs. away from something, by force or by choice, for adventure or for survival. And then at one point, we started retracing it all in wood-paneled station wagons, then RVs and conversion vans. What a wild, weird world.

We continue along, jumping on and off the historic route and I-40 alternately, putting New Mexico in our review mirror. Just west of Amarillo, we stop at Cadillac Ranch. The sky is gray, rainclouds swirling threateningly yet holding back. We walk around the art installation that is 10 Cadillacs buried nose first into the dirt. It’s definitely an inventive way to draw people to a place. The bodies of the cars are thick with layers upon layers of spray paint, and several aerosol cans lay in the mud, inviting us to leave our own mark on this roadside attraction.

“I was here”

The sun is starting to get low in the sky right around the time we reach the vintage gas stations of Shamrock, Texas, and do another driver switch. We decide to make Elk City, Oklahoma, our final stop. I call ahead to the Flamingo Inn, one of many motels listed as an historic Route 66 stop, and confirm they have a vacancy. By the time we get checked in, it’s nearly 9 p.m., just a few hours away from our 5-year wedding anniversary. We celebrate properly and order from Pizza Hut. Kurt tried to surprise me with a heart-shaped pizza, but the teenagers on shift didn’t know how to make one, so we get regular pan plus a tray of gooey brownies instead. In our room, we lay on the bed eating pizza and brownies and drinking boxed wine while watching a Steve Carrell movie on cable, and it’s a pretty perfect night.

Volcanic Forest Camping

Wednesday, May 8: Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Mountain Song” Jane’s Addiction

It’s a chilly morning. We pack up camp, making sure to leave no trace, and head to nearby Jemez Springs, a historic town along the Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway. One of the first places we see is a delightful looking cafe with an outdoor pen full of goats and chickens, so we stop there for breakfast. Now that we’re off the high mountaintop, it’s already warmer in the sunshine, and we sit outside on the patio and listen to the goats bleat at each other. I order blue corn blueberry pancakes and coffee, and they are heavenly.

if you are ever in Jemez Springs, go to Stage Stop Cafe

Today is our last full day in New Mexico (*sobs*) and we don’t have any plans other than to leisurely explore the national forest.  On our drive back into the wilderness, we stop at Soda Dam, a spot where water from underground hot springs bubbles up over a mineral deposit rock formation. The Jemez River meanders along the road, and this little nook of land is astoundingly beautiful with the mountains and sky as backdrop. I love exploring it and climbing over the rocks and sticking our heads into little caves; how can we do this every day for the rest of our lives?

Soda Dam, Jemez River

We drive up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The road winds around a large grassy bowl that’s actually the 15-mile-wide crater left behind from a dormant volcano. There’s a small visitors center, so we stop inside and chat a bit with the ranger. We’re planning to do dispersed camping a second night, and he confirms that the spot on the map we’re looking at is a popular site in the summer. He mentions the black bears in the area, and shows us some photos taken by recent hikers. “How can you tell bear scat?” he asks us, then delivers the punchline “It smells peppery and has bells in it.” I love a sassy park ranger.

We do one more short hike, leaving the van at a picnic area to walk the trail to Jemez Falls. A light rain sprinkles down on us, and the strong scent of pine reminds me of being in Yosemite. At the falls, Kurt of course wants to scramble up and down some rocks to get closer. I feel my anxiety kick in, but I tell myself, it’s OK. He will be fine; he’s not dumb. Eventually, I work up the bravery to climb closer also, and get a better vantage point. I guess this is the key to dealing with phobias–trying to think rationally instead of imagining every possible worst case scenario, taking things one slow step at a time, and remembering to breathe.

Jemez Falls

Kurt is a Gryffindor

It’s time to find a place to make camp, so we drive back up the rambling forestry roads, up into the mountains. Among the thick pines, we find a nice large clearing with the remnants of a few fire pits; it’s obviously a party spot in the summer. This early in the season, however, there’s not many other campers out and about, so we park and begin to settle in. We’re just in time; a heavier rain rolls through. We hang out in the van, eating snacks and drinking wine with the van door rolled open so we can enjoy the smell of the rain.

It’s-a me!

After the weather passes through, Kurt starts to work on building a fire. I’m standing next to the van with my pink sparkly “I’m 40, bitches” wine cup. For the first time, a vehicle ambles up our road. Instead of continuing on, the Jeep makes a sharp turn into our clearing and drives all the way up to our campsite, about 100 yards off the road. The driver rolls down his window and calls out a greeting. He and the woman sitting in the passenger seat chat with us a bit; they are locals and they’re camping further down the mountain. It strikes me as a little odd that he drove all the way up to a stranger’s site so aggressively like that. He asks Kurt’s name; he doesn’t ask me for mine. Finally, he and the woman wave and tell us to have a good time, and they drive away.

“That was weird,” I say. Kurt’s guess is that they spotted the van and thought that they might know us, or that maybe we were friends of a friend. I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts, so MY thought is that they were scoping out our van and plan to come back in the middle of the night and axe murder us.

Kurt goes back to working on the fire, and I stroll around the area with my wine cup. In the grass, I notice a bunch of shotgun shells not far from where we’re parked. A little further into the woods, I see a pile of bear poo (no bells in it). Still, I’m convinced that we’re more likely to be killed by a Jeep-driving axe murderer than a black bear.

As the sun sets, it turns into a beautifully starry night. We enjoy the warm fire and the wine, and eventually climb into the cozy van. Nobody gets murdered overnight.

 

 

 

Santa Fe

Saturday, May 5: Albuquerque to Santa Fe

Soundtrack: “Santa Fe” Beirut

In the morning, I am feeling the effects of all those pints and my 40 years of age. We pack up our stuff, check out of the Airbnb, and stop over at a cafe. I order a crepe burrito with bacon, eggs, and green chile that literally gives me life. It’s a quick 45-minute drive and we reach our next stop, Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, a city of just under 84,000 people, is the third largest art market in the country behind New York and Los Angeles, which is pretty astounding to this typically snobby Chicagoan. We start our explorations in the Old Town area, which is similar to Albuquerque in that it’s filled with shops, artisans, and traditional architecture. Santa Fe also seems to draw in a lot of rich people. Kurt and I go into a clothing store filled with leather goods and fur coats with $$$$ price tags. I notice a display of elegant “Conceal and Carry” purses.

After kicking around for a bit and eating ice cream cones in the historic town square, we drive a few minutes over to the Railyard area. We stop by Jean Cocteau Cinema, a local theater and bookshop owned by George R.R. Martin.

mural by John Pugh

We go to a vintage cowboy clothing store for Kurt, and a witch store for me. I  buy a candle and a quartz crystal, because when in New Mexico…

Kurt insists on a break from New Mexican food, so we try out an African restaurant called Jambo Cafe, which has excellent reviews and won the “Souper Bowl” multiple times. Our food is so delicious that I continue eating even past the point that I am so full I’m in physical pain. (And I would do it again!)

Our Airbnb sits up in the hills above a panoramic view of the city. Kurt and I sit outside, enjoying a local beer while watching the sun set.

Sunday, May 5: Meow Wolf

Soundtrack: “Space Oddity” David Bowie

There’s something in Santa Fe that I’ve been dying to see for years, ever since I first heard about it. Meow Wolf is the brainchild of a collective of DIY artists, tired of being shut out of the traditional art scene that dominates Santa Fe. In 2016, thanks to an investment from George R.R. Martin, the collective opened a fully immersive, interactive art installation inside a 75,000 sq. ft. former bowling alley. I highly recommend watching the documentary Origin Story, which does an excellent job of capturing the arduous journey of Meow Wolf’s creation from DIY punk shows to Public Benefit corporation with new locations soon to open in multiple cities. I first heard about Meow Wolf years ago, from a good college friend (Hi R!) whose brother has been involved since the beginning. And finally, Kurt and I get to see it in person!

Outside the building, several metal sculptures–a wolf, a robot, a gigantic spider–loom over the parking lot, setting the mood for what we’ll find inside. When you first enter the exhibit, titled The House of Eternal Return, you encounter a fully recreated Victorian home. There’s a storyline involved, and as you make your way through the installation, you search for clues to uncover what happened to the Selig family, the house’s occupants who mysteriously disappeared. Shortly after we enter the house, I open the kitchen fridge and see a blinding white tunnel that leads to an intergalactic travel agency. Kurt follows me inside, and for the next few hours, we explore the many dimensions of Meow Wolf.

I cannot express in words how trippy and wild this place is, nor do I truly want to–I don’t want to spoil all the surprises. I just want to urge you to go check out the House of Eternal Return, or one of the upcoming Meow Wolf installations in Denver or Las Vegas. To give you a taste of what to expect, I will say that I crawled into a glowing fireplace that led to a pink ice cave full of stalactites, slid down a light-up slide inside a washing machine, and received a fortune from a fortune-telling machine that told me to wear socks with Tevas.

Kurt and I wander around on our own, eventually running to find each other whenever we discover something rad. There are countless interactive elements; we come across a row of red laser beams, and realize that if we “pluck” the beams, they play like harp strings. A recumbent bench is revealed to be from an old school bus sliced in half and pointed upright, and hitting the control buttons creates a psychedelic light show in the windshield. I am blown away by the ingenuity and also the playful sense of humor that permeates the entire exhibit.

Eventually, finally, we must leave, even though I don’t really want to. I want to stay in this weird art fever dream forever.

We spend the rest of the day hanging out around Santa Fe–pints and live mariachi music at Santa Fe Brewing Co., dinner and craft beer flights at Rowley Farmhouse Ales, and end the night at the Airbnb, watching Game of Thrones together on the iPad.

I’m so grateful I finally got to visit Meow Wolf, after years of hearing about it from idea to inception. I feel so renewed with inspiration, and as always, that desire to explore, to hear stories, and to keep telling stories.

A woman crawls into a blue tunnel inside a washing machine.

Albuquerque

Friday, May 3: Hanging out in Albuquerque

Soundtrack: “Albuquerque” Weird Al

We’re now a full week into our trip. I love a 2-week-long vacation. It gives you enough time to unplug from routine then have a lovely amount of time to revel in that feeling before you need to start thinking about the return to real life. Kurt and I are both so lucky that we have the ability to enjoy this amount of time off together. I will never take that for granted.

We grab breakfast at Cecilia’s Cafe, a few blocks from our Airbnb, and I get eggs doused in green chile. Afterwards, we drive to Old Town and walk around, checking out the stores. In the town square, we see an RV functioning as a Breaking Bad tour.

It’s my idea to ride the Sandia Peak Tramway, which is surprising given my terrible fear of heights. The cable cars carry you up to the top of Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest, and I want to see the view from safely behind enclosed glass. Kurt and I buy our tickets and board the cable car, and as soon as we clear the tree line, I realize that being inside a glass box doesn’t make me feel any less anxious. In fact, as I look ahead and see how high the first tower is, I start to panic sweat. I’m not the only nervous person in the tram; I hear a few others whimper as we pass through the first tower, causing the cable car to swing back and forth a bit. I try to talk myself rationally through my fear and look out the window–after all, I paid to get this view. It really is incredible. We watch the city of Albuquerque drift into the background. The forest beneath is lush, verdant, and full of wildlife, so I keep my eyes peeled for black bears or mountain lions.

We finally reach the top at 10,378 feet elevation, which is the highest we have ever been outside of an airplane. The view is worth it.

Albuquerque from the top of Sandia Peak

I tell Kurt, “You aren’t afraid of heights, so coming up here isn’t a big deal for you. And because I AM scared, and did this anyways, I’m actually braver than you are. I’m pretty sure that’s the main lesson of Harry Potter.”

We walk around the chalet for a bit, checking out the nearby trails and the ski lifts in rest mode, then eventually catch a ride back down. Our cable car on the return trip is packed more tightly, so it’s harder for me to see out the window (and therefore, a little less nerve-racking). I overhear a woman say to her husband “I don’t think anyone could really hold on with one hand and pull someone back up with the other” and I want to shout “You watched the Point Break remake too!!” but I do not.

It’s early afternoon and we have nothing but time on our hands, so we start checking out some local breweries, hopping from Bow and Arrow Brewing (they have several saisons, which greatly pleases Kurt), to Dialogue Brewing (as a writer I obviously had to pick up their t-shirt), then Sidetrack Brewing, which is having some sort of big First Friday party called Adobe Disco, with a DJ playing on the outdoor patio. After camping for so long, we totally forgot about weekends.

Kurt

In fact, there’s an art walk going on all evening, which is an recurring monthly event. We keep ordering pints as the music grows louder and the beer garden gets more crowded. I’m having a fantastic time. “I think I love Albuquerque!” I text to like three people. Amidst all the drinking, we forgot to eat dinner, always a winning combo. Thankfully, as we stumble the few blocks home to our Airbnb, we pass a food truck selling frito pie, and place some orders to go.

The Radio Waves of the Galaxy

Wednesday, May 1: Truth or Consequences to Chaco Canyon via Socorro and Pie Town

Soundtrack: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” Lucinda Williams

Before leaving Truth or Consequences, we stop at Black Cat Coffee & Books to caffeinate. Cats, coffee, and books are three of my favorite things. Today is another big driving day as we head north, and we have a few stops along the way.

Our first stop of the day is in Socorro at Very Large Array, one of the world’s premiere radio astronomy observatories.  27 gigantic radio antennae operate together to create a telescope that spans miles. Kurt is a science nerd, and I’m a sci fi nerd, so he is totally geeked out about the function of the array while I’m like “Wait, Contact was filmed here?! Awesome!” We buy tickets to the self-guided tour, and from the moment you reach the visitors center, you are asked to turn off your cell phones (not even airplane mode suffices) because of the incredible sensitivity of the equipment.

Very Large Array

I’m terrible at explaining what exactly happens at this research facility, despite having watched a 20-minute documentary narrated by Jodie Foster as part of the tour, so I will direct you over to the official website. But basically, these 27 antennae are constantly reading the radio waves of the galaxy. A series of railroad tracks criss cross the ground, which is how they move the 82-foot tall dishes into various formations. It’s pretty cool to see the antennae lined up across the desert, against the backdrop of infinite blue sky.

We drive for just under another hour to hit up our next stop along the way. Pie Town, population 186, is situated along the Continental Divide and plays host to the annual Pie Festival. We roll up to a cafe where several hikers sit outside, taking advantage of the first cell service we’ve had in a while. It’s the perfect timing for a lunch stop, so Kurt and I go into the cafe and I order green chili stew. As we eat, another couple who we had seen at our last stop walk in. The waitress asks “So you went to the Very Large Array?”

“Why? Are we glowing?” the woman replied, and we all chuckled as the server pointed out the tour sticker still attached to her shirt.

We order two mini pies to go, and I can’t wait to dig into them. I can’t help but think of Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, proclaiming “This must be where pies go when they die” as he digs into a slice at the Double R Diner.

Back on the road, we see more and more hikers, and then it dawns on me that they’re probably doing the Continental Divide Trail. Our route takes us through El Malpais, which means “the badlands,” and the scenery is dramatic and stunning. We pull over when we spot La Ventana Natural Arch from the road. I can’t get over how beautiful New Mexico is. Why do we live in Illinois again??

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais

It’s hours of driving to our final stop for the day, Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The last 20 miles to Chaco Canyon are notoriously rough, unpaved road. All over the internet, there are warnings about attempting to drive it in a low profile vehicle. We reach the dirt road and slowly begin making our way along; it’s just as bumpy as advertised, miles of uneven grade and cattle guard miles from any town,  without a single bar of cell service.

It takes us close to an hour to go 20 miles. The van feels like it’s shaking apart, and I hear our stuff rattling around in the back, falling off shelves or rolling around in their bins. We’ll have to remember before we crack open any canned beverages. Out my window, I see a jackrabbit sitting on the side of the road, then go hopping away, its large white ears visible above the brush. Fajada Butte emerges into our view.

the road to Chaco Canyon

There’s one campground within the park, Gallo, which is first come, first served. We drive around looking for an open site; the place is packed. We find a find a spot in the middle of the RV area, but after we pay the camping fee, a better spot opens up on the outskirts of the grounds after another vehicle leaves, so we quickly move the van. “It’s like house hunting all over again!” our new neighbor jokes to us.

Our new spot gives us an incredible view of the canyon and the butte in the distance. I relax by the fire with my book and cup of wine. We eat ribs for dinner, which we carried from Chicago in our cooler, and mini pies from Pie Town for dessert. As the sun sets, the temperature drops; it’s our first cold night. I put on my hoodie and my fleece to stay outside a little longer and watch the sky fill with stars.

Sand Dunes and a Spa Day in Southern New Mexico

Tuesday, April 30: Lincoln National Forest to White Sands to Las Cruces to Truth or Consequences

Soundtrack: “Las Cruces Jail” Two Gallants

From our campsite, it’s an hour-long drive to White Sands National Monument. We eat a light breakfast of yogurt and granola and drink piñon coffee, then hit the road.

You can see the gleaming white sand dunes in the distance as you approach the national monument. After we stop in the visitor center and pay our admission fees, we drive the van along the road that skims between waves of sand dunes. The white sand is gypsum, and it feels softer and silkier than regular beach sand. Kurt parks the van in a picnic area, and we get out and explore. White sand dunes sprawl in every direction around us. We take off our shoes and run up and down the dunes. There’s a school bus parked nearby, and a gaggle of kids running and laughing, using sleds to ride down the dunes. We head in another direction, up onto a higher dune far away from other visitors. The sky is clear and blue, and sun beats down at us and bounces off the white sand. On a day like this, you need to apply sunscreen on every inch of your body.

White Sands National Monument

It’s fun to play in the sand. I attempt a cartwheel and flop onto the sand. Kurt and I try running up a steeper dune to see how far we can go, then surf our way back down, running sideways to keep our balance. A strong wind creates rippling patterns in the gypsum that immediately bury footprints; it would be very easy to get lost out here if you wander off too far. I can almost imagine I’m on another planet out here, somewhere Star Wars-y like Tatooine or Jakku.

Surfin’ USA

Back on the road, our route takes us through Las Cruces, so we stop at a restaurant called Chachi’s that our friend recommended. At this point of the trip, I begin in earnest a pattern of eating green chile as part of every meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My green chile burrito and gigantic margarita are incredible. My margarita is also practically the size of a movie theater bucket of soda, so Kurt is stuck driving us the rest of the way to our final stop for the day, Truth or Consequences.

Literally for years, I’ve been wanting to visit Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, if for no other reason than its name is awesome. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard of it, but after doing an initial bit of research, I learned that the city sits on the Rio Grande and is known for its natural hot springs.

The Rio Grande

For our stay in T&C, I booked us a room at Riverbend Hot Springs Resort. After camping for most of our trip up to this point, we both crave showers and a real bed, so the resort is a nice treat. We check into our room, change into swimsuits, then go scope out the pool area. Multiple mineral hot springs pools are built into the ledge hanging over the banks of the Rio Grande. Underneath a large wooden pergola, there’s various lounge chairs, wicker basket seats, and hammocks for relaxing out of the sun. The pool area has a key rule, which is that only whispering is allowed, so it’s very quiet and serene. It’s exactly the New Agey moment I’d wanted.

Kurt tests the waters

Kurt and I soak in the mineral pools for a while. It’s super hot out, so sitting in a naturally heated 106-degree stone tub isn’t exactly refreshing, but the water is supposed to have healing elements and the scenery is gorgeous. I bring out my Kindle and read in the pool for a while. Kurt moves to a hammock for a nap. Once the heat gets to me, I sit on a lounge chair to dry and do a bit of writing in my travel notebook. I love the quiet aspect of the resort, with the only sounds coming from the light breeze, the lapping of the river, and soft windchimes. After so much constant movement and activity this week, we both enjoy being still.

spa day

At dinnertime, we walk to the nearby brewery and sample a few local beers, then get chicken wings from an Asian fusion restaurant. The sun has set, and I am eager to revisit the pools and see what the outdoor garden looks like at night. It does not disappoint. The greenery is dotted with tiny little green and blue lights, and lights are projected onto the trees across the river, giving the entire pool area a fairy-like magical appearance. Kurt returns to his favorite hammock, and I get back into the springs. Now that the air temps have cooled, it feels amazing to sit in the hot water. I lean back against the edge of the stone tub to gaze at the night sky and absorb all the healing.

 

 

 

 

Carlsbad Caverns and Camping

Monday, April 29: Roswell to Carlsbad to Lincoln National Forest

Soundtrack: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie

The shades on the van do a surprisingly good job on keeping out the bright sun. From my time living in Nevada in college, I remember how cool it gets in the desert overnight, and how quickly it heats up when the sun rises. Kurt makes us an amazing breakfast–egg and sausage burritos with green and red peppers, onions, and hot sauce. We eat at the picnic table, soaking in the sunshine now, because we’ll be spending most of this day underground. Back on the road, the landscape gets more and more desert-y. Tumbleweeds! Pronghorn! We see two roadrunners dart across the pavement.

In Carlsbad, we stop at a coffee shop to meet up with a friend (Hi Zane!). It’s nice to chat with a familiar face who is also a local, and she gives us lots of great restaurant recommendations for our trip, as well as shares some of her personal stories of the Caverns. I’ve barely been inside any cave systems besides a smallish one in southeastern Wisconsin, back in high school. I tend to get claustrophobic, but I know that the Carlsbad Caverns are gigantic, nothing like the midwestern cave where I had to crawl on my belly to get through some of the narrow passageways.

The drive to the National Park’s visitor’s center takes us through miles of sprawling desert hillside. It’s now hot outside, about 90 degrees, but we know it will be a cool, clammy 50 inside the caverns, so I bring my fleece jacket to throw on over my Captain America tank top (worn to boost my bravery points). To take the natural cave entrance, we leave the visitor’s center and walk back outside down a trail which eventually descends into a dark, gaping hole in the ground. The trail snakes into switchbacks for a gradual decline. As we reach the mouth of the craggy rock, dozens (hundreds?) of tiny swallows whoosh in and out over our heads. I try to get a good look in case they are bats, even though I know it’s the wrong time of day for them. I love bats; they are like goth mammal-birds. The chirping of the swallows echoes through the mouth of the cave, and we go past the last rays of sunshines that disappear into the caverns, then we are enveloped in cool darkness.

“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”

The entrance chamber is gigantic, and as we descend deeper into the cave, I make a lot of Bane references.  Finally, we reach the point where we can no longer see the opening, and if all of the lights went out, we’d be in complete and total darkness. The park system has strategically placed lights throughout the caverns to highlight interesting rock formations and guide visitors along the trail, but it’s still quite dim and Kurt is just a shadow in front of me. It’s a Monday in late April, so there aren’t many other visitors, and at times it feels like Kurt and I are the only ones in the cave with no other people in sight.

It takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire trail. Many of the features were named by a teenager, Jim White, who first explored the caves in 1898, and they have ominous, descriptive names: the Boneyard, Witch’s Finger, and the Bottomless Pit (seriously, why are so many things Bottomless in New Mexico? I am acrophobic and it freaks me out).

The Queen’s Chamber, Carlsbad Caverns

We weave through the caverns on the trail past limestone formations that look like Cthulhu, and stalagmites twice as tall as we are. 250 million years ago, this area was an inland sea. It is a bit mind-blowing to be in a place like this, somewhere untouched by the progress of humanity while paradoxically created by the passage of centuries. It feels primal and eerie, and I half expect some sort of prehistoric creature to emerge from the cracks and drag me screaming into the bottomless pits. I get nervous and hang onto Kurt’s arm to ground me. The deep crevasses make me think of Superman II when Zod falls to his death.

We eventually reach the Big Room, the largest chamber in the caverns, nearly 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. It’s impossible to capture the immensity, depth, and otherworldliness in a photo. I feel like we could emerge from this place and return to an Earth full of dinosaurs. But then we reach the underground gift shop, because of course there is, so we take a break and eat a snack while sitting on a bench. Imagine being the cashier at this concession stand, taking an elevator 800 feet down into the ground to get to work every day.

underground concession stand

When we finish exploring, we take the elevator back to the visitors center, to 90-degree temperatures and blazing sunlight. It’s time to find a campsite for the night, and we have lots of ground to cover to keep on schedule. We drive for nearly 3 hours to Lincoln National Forest. The terrain changes, and rolling hills morph into tree-covered mountains. Grassy valleys are dotted with white and brown cattle; BLM land alternates with private ranches. We turn off onto a forestry road, using a pdf map on our iPad. After rambling along rough gravel, we find a turn-off into a clearing that makes for a perfect campsite. There’s a previously used fire ring and enough trees to give us some privacy from the road. The air smells like Ponderosa pine and sagebrush.

We settle into our usual routine; Kurt gathers firewood while I get assemble our folding chairs and travel table. At the edge of the clearing, Kurt finds a hunk of animal fur and a few cleaned bones that look like they were once a small deer. I begin thinking about what predators live here, maybe mountain lions or black bears. We make tacos for dinner, and watch the sun set behind the tree line.

Lincoln National Forest

Going Off-Route: Roswell, New Mexico

Sunday, April 28: Amarillo, Texas > Roswell, New Mexico

Soundtrack: “Motorway to Roswell” Pixies

After Amarillo, we break off from Route 66 and veer south. The Texas landscape is expansive, and our van zooms past wind farms and cattle ranches. At one point, we drive through a town called Bovina, where we see stockyards packed with cows. Finally, we reach New Mexico, the state we will travel around for the next 10 or 11 days. We pass through Portales and chuckle at their town sign “Home of 17,000 friendly people (and three or four old grouches).”

Roswell

Our first stop is in Roswell. Everywhere we look, we see aliens. The street lamps have alien eyes painted on them. The McDonald’s has a big flying saucer in front. The Dunkin’ Donuts has a 22-foot-tall alien statue holding its store sign. I immediately love it. We walk around a bit, checking out the visitor center and a few souvenir stores, then buy admission to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, a.k.a. a big collection of rubber alien dummies, news clippings from the alleged crash in 1947, and interview videos with key witnesses. In our relationship, we often joke that I am the Mulder and Kurt is the Scully, so after watching the first few videos, I turn to Kurt and said “Well I’m convinced.” It’s exactly as kitschy as we expected and we take some fun photos and videos. The ‘live show’ with talking aliens, a fog machine, and light-up flying saucer are a highlight.

I want to beliebe

After Roswell, it’s time to find a campsite. We drive to Bottomless Lakes State Park and luck out with a perfect, private spot off the road in a primitive camping area. There’s pit toilets nearby, a metal roof for shade, and a grill–everything we need. After settling in, we take an easy mile-long hike along the trail to Lea Lake, which is not actually a lake but a cenote. At 90 feet deep, it’s the biggest and deepest cenote in the park, and local legend has it that items that get lost in the ‘bottomless’ lake eventually reappear underground in the Carlsbad Caverns. I am mildly obsessed with sea monsters–I have a Loch Ness monster tramp stamp, or as I like to call it, Triassic stamp–so deep bodies of water give me fun haunted-house-type thrills. (Again, I’m the Mulder). We go for a swim in the shallow beach area. The water is shockingly cold, especially given that the air temperature is pushing 90 degrees. Must be that whole bottomless factor.

Kurt in front of Lea Lake

Back at camp, Kurt grills us steaks for dinner. I walk around a bit, exploring the small canyon just beyond our site.

our campsite in Bottomless Lakes State park

Desert camping is totally new to me, so my ears are perked for rattlesnakes. How does one spot a scorpion? Do I need to worry about it? Each time we camp out in a different type of landscape, I need to quell the anxieties that arise with a brand new environment. The sunset helps, though. It’s incredible, a blending of sherbet pink and creamsicle orange that melts into the sandy horizon.

It’s Sunday night, and the start of our trip coincides with the biggest pop culture weekend of the year: the opening of Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell episode. I am usually all for putting away screens while camping, but I NEED to watch Game of Thrones on its airing night. Luckily, we get some cell reception in the state park, so we tether our iPad to our phone’s hotspot, then prop it up in front of the stunning backdrop that is our campsite while I pour us generous Cersei-sized cups of wine. It’s not an ideal way to watch the notoriously dark episode, and yet I love it. It reminds me of the first time I read A Storm of Swords, over eight years ago, while waiting out a summer thunderstorm in our small tent on a sandbar in the Wisconsin River. I huddled with my headlamp over a paperback as rains beat down on our nylon roof while Kurt made us a cheese plate and poured boxed wine, and it was one of my favorite camping moments ever. So to watch one of the last episodes ever while in Bottomless Lakes, with the real-life howl of coyotes and hooting owls contributing to the soundtrack, all feels like coming full circle for me.

FOR THE THRONE

 

Route 66: IL > MO > OK > TX

Friday, April 26, 2019: Illinois > Missouri > Oklahoma

Soundtrack: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” Blue Oyster Cult

On the morning of our departure, Kurt and I wake up earlier than we usually do for work. Most of our stuff is already packed, but it’s a process to load it all into the van. In the months leading up to our trip, Kurt tore out the van’s convertible bench and built a new one from scratch that would allow for more space (as well as leg room while sleeping). We shove our duffel bags beneath the bench, along with bins full of kitchen stuff (plastic dishes, the Jetboil, tinfoil, a frying pan, a pot), a cardboard box full of nonperishables (ramen, mash potato mix, canned chili, boxed wine), and our large cooler that serves as our fridge (eggs, meats, milk, butter).

our route

We are on the road by 7:30 a.m. The first day of a long road trip is always a slow burn, especially when driving south through Illinois. It’s hours upon hours of flatness, cornfields, and manure smells. We burn through miles and Spotify playlists. I chatter about Avengers: Endgame, which we saw the night before.

We cross our first state line–hello Missouri!–and the St. Louis Arch looms against a bright blue sky.  We’re taking Route 66, but really, it’s more the idea of Route 66–we’re actually on 53, or 44, or 40 most of the time. Historic Route 66 only exists in patchwork pieces, which we’ll explore more closely on our return trip. But for now, we want to get to New Mexico as quickly as possible. We drive and drive, stopping occasionally for fast food meals. I’m loaded with iced tea and sodium and getting giddy with excitement as we cross another state line–Oklahoma! It’s my first time setting foot in the state.

Shortly before sunset, we reach a campground and park for the night at Lake Thunderbird, about 45 minutes outside of Oklahoma City. I rummage through the box of kitchen stuff, looking for my travel wine cup. “Oh, hold on,” Kurt says, disappearing into the back of the van. He emerges with a gift–a pink stemless travel goblet that says “I’m 40, bitches!” and I instantly adore it. We build a fire and drink wine and watch the sun go down over the lake as I say goodbye to the final hours of my thirties.

parked at Lake Thunderbird, Norman, OK

Saturday, April 27: Oklahoma > Texas

Soundtrack: “Juice,” Lizzo 

I wake up in the van, and lower the blind on the nearest window. Outside, the morning sunlight dances on the blue lake. It’s beautiful, and I am so happy to be here, surrounded by trees and water and expansive sky, on our new comfy foam van mattress next to my love. It’s my birthday!

We pack up then drive into the town of Norman for breakfast, and then we’re back on the road. Kurt pulls more novelty gifts out of the back of the van: a black and pink sash that says “Fierce, Fabulous, & 40” and a pink tiara. I crack up and put everything on, then blast a Lizzo playlist, dancing in my seat. I’m happy and excited to be 40, so grateful for this life and the people in it, for everything I’ve accomplished so far, and everything I still want to do.

On this stretch of Route 66, we start hitting some of the kitschy landmarks that the road is known for: first, the “Leaning Tower” of Texas, then, the Slug Bug Ranch. A row of graffiti-covered VW Bugs jut into the ground outside of an abandoned building and gas station. Both structures are in ruins, their windowpanes smashed out, every surface covered in spray paint and empty bottles. We walk around, taking pictures and wondering about the story of these places. There’s going to be a lot of ghost towns on this road, many of which we marked with a pin on our Google map.

Slug Bug Ranch on Route 66

Conway, Texas

We cross into Texas, then check into an Airbnb in Amarillo. At a wine bar, I order my first birthday cocktail, something with prosecco and fruit and it is delicious. It is 80 degrees and sunny; back home in Chicago, it’s snowing. For the rest of the day, we celebrate Texas-style, with heaping plates of BBQ then rounds of Lone Stars in a zombie-themed bar. I try to take pictures of a chihuahua which arrived in its owner’s arms wearing pink goggles (doggles!) and a tiny pink helmet. Eventually, we go back to the Airbnb and sit outside on the covered second-floor balcony, watching heat lightning in the distance. The sky is so big out here.

Fierce and Forty