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”

 

 

 

Ohhhhhhklahoma!

Friday, May 10: Elk City, OK > Galena, KS > Carthage, MO

Soundtrack: “Astrovan” Mt. Joy

It’s our 5-year wedding anniversary, and I’m so happy to be spending it on the road together. This road trip was an idea that formed nearly a year ago when I decided that I wanted to do something special for both my 40th birthday and our 5-year anniversary. And here we are now, on Route 66 for a few more days, taking our time along winding roads and stopping whenever we see something worth exploring.

We kick off the day at a Route 66 museum, walking through various rooms dedicated to each decade since the “Mother Road” was built, and read about the people working to preserve its history and legacy. Afterwards, we spend a lot of the day driving on the historic road itself, past vintage gas stations and over wooden bridges.

Kurt is super into all of the road’s history, and keeps enthusiastically pointing out at any street sign that looks vintage or a building that’s been abandoned. At one point I tease him, “You don’t get this excited if you see an old Venture sign in the Chicagoland area.” I counter by putting the Oklahoma! soundtrack and belting out “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, which Kurt ignores as he continues to point at stuff. I share this anecdote in case you’re wondering what 5 years of marriage looks like.

Old 66

In Oklahoma City, we visit the National Memorial that honors the memory of the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It’s a solemn, beautiful monument. Two large black monoliths on either side of a long reflecting pool symbolize the minute before and the minute after the bomb exploded, taking 168 lives. Parts of the walls of the federal building still stand, enclosing the space. 168 stone chairs face the reflecting pool; the smaller chairs represent the children who were killed that day in the building’s daycare center. The other visitors around us move quietly, speaking in reverent whispers. I’m glad we stopped here to see this place; it’s one thing to remember an event but it’s a different experience to walk in the space where it happened and feel the gravity of it in person.

National Memorial

The rest of our day is less somber. Pops 66 is a gas station/diner with a gigantic metal sculpture shaped like a soda bottle out front, calling you with its  sugary siren song. The diner is shelf upon shelf of pops of all kinds, with an entire wall of fridges displaying brands and flavors I’ve never seen before. Also, talk about mixer heaven.

Kurt’s haul

We’re enjoying taking our time so much that the late hour creeps up on us. Our goal is to reach Missouri tonight. It’s nearly 9 p.m. by the time we reach Galena, Kansas (a new state for me!), and thankfully, we find one restaurant still open, a Mexican place right off the main road. By the time we finish eating and drive the remaining 45 minutes to Carthage Missouri, it’s nearly 11 p.m. We check into another historic Route 66 motel, Boots Court. It has been restored to its vintage splendor, and as the owner tells me while she checks us in, Clark Gable stayed here multiple times. She is friendly and chatty, and we talk a bit about Chicago before she tells me of the multiple cities and countries she’s lived in. The night before, we had met a Tucumcari motel owner at the motel in Elk City, and we learn that all of the Route 66 motel owners know each other, all a part of a unique club of sorts. “We’re a linear community,” as she puts it. I can see that Route 66 calls to a certain type of person, an adventurous spirit with incurable wanderlust. I think I want to own a Route 66 themed motel someday.

Our room has wood floors and a bed covered with a white chenille bedspread; it’s so gorgeous that I’m almost taken aback that someone would trust strangers with it. There’s red plush pillows, and a vintage radio on the vanity is turned on, playing music from the 40’s. I truly feel like we stepped back in time and I’m waiting for Captain America to show up for a slow dance.

At this point it’s super late and it’s been a long day, so we fall asleep quickly. Two sleeps ’til home…

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.

 

 

 

Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

After this stretch of city stays, we’re going to be camping again. I shower in the Earthship, taking advantage of running water plus enjoying the experience of bathing next to a flower garden. Once we’re packed up, we get coffee to go and say goodbye to Taos, headed back towards the large national forest that surrounds Santa Fe.

Bandelier National Monument is our first stop. The canyons within the 33,000-acre park are an ancestral home of the Pueblo people. In 1150 to 1550 CE, people carved homes into the soft rock formations created from volcanic tuff, creating cliffside dwellings.

In the parking lot, we pack a daypack with snacks, water bottles, and jackets, then begin our day of hiking. The park trails take us right up to some ancient dwellings where we can climb wood ladders and explore cave-like spaces, their ceilings blackened with soot from campfires.

Once we finish the easy Main Loop Trail, we head deeper into Frijoles Canyon towards Alcove House. Set high in the mountain ridge, Alcove House is a sacred ancestral site where historians believe up to 25 Pueblo people lived at one time. I’ve seen photos of the steep trail leading to Alcove House, so I mentally prepare myself during the 2-mile walk to get there. Along the way, two signs warn us that the final .5 mile of trail is a 140 ft. vertical climb involving ladders, and those with health problems or a fear of heights should not attempt it. Awesome.

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

When we reach the first ladder, I want to give it a shot. I can always turn around if it gets too scary. Kurt goes first, and I catch up to him on the initial rock landing. The trail is incredibly narrow, at points barely wider than one of my boots. At the base of the longest ladder of the trail, we reach a traffic jam as obviously, only one hiker can climb at a time. I stay on the rocky landing as a woman watches her 11-year-old daughter make her way down. The girl had gone all the way to the top, and after she climbs down, I tell her that she did an awesome job and she’s much braver than me. “Thanks!” she says, before adding “You can do it too!”

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

Well now, I HAVE to climb all the way to the top because a kid believes in me. The next wooden ladder is about 30 feet tall, flat against the rock face, and there’s nothing but air to the right of it. I take a deep breath, then go up at a steady pace, focusing on the next rung up and not looking down or over the cliffside. As I near the top, I see Kurt above me taking photos. I grip the last metal handle in relief. There’s some trail, some stairs, and a few more short ladders, and the next thing I know, we’re at the top.

the view from inside Alcove House

The view is spectacular. For a few minutes, Kurt and I are alone in the Alcove House, so we are able to take photos free of any other hikers. An ancient kiva sits within the dwelling, and I try to imagine what it would be like to live all the way up here and look out at this beautiful view of the canyon first thing every morning. Eventually, more people make their way up, so Kurt and I begin our downward descent so that they can take their own photos. I have a feeling the return trip is going to be scarier, because you HAVE to look down as you go.

Focusing on my breath, I take it one step at a time. My heart is pounding, not just from nerves but also from the high altitude, which always affects my dumb sea level-accustomed lungs. Slowly, the forest floor gets closer and closer, and my boots land on earth with a final thud.

Success!

We rest on a bench, eating our snacks and watching hikers move up and down the trail above us. The trail back to the visitors center is an easy stroll through the forest, and I spot a young elk resting beneath a Ponderosa pine. We take photos from a safe distance. When we pass an elderly woman holding binoculars, Kurt tells her about the elk, and she replies “Oh I’m from Idaho, elk are a dime a dozen to me!” I guess us Illinoisans are easily impressed.

As it gets later in the day, the temperature feels cooler. I pull my fleece jacket on over my tank top. We drive towards Santa Fe National Forest. While stopping for gas in Los Alamos, we take a weird exit off the main road and accidentally get into a lane that takes us up to the security gate for some large sprawling building complex, so we do a quick u-turn. Oops, we almost tried to enter the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Awkward.

In the national forest, we use a forestry map to find a stretch of roads designated for dispersed camping. There’s a good spot on the ridge, set in a bit from the dramatic cliff (I’ve had my fill of heights for today). I’m happy to be outside again after 5 straight nights in towns and Airbnbs. The fresh air smells so good. Also, at 8,300 feet, this is the highest elevation we’ve ever camped at. A cold drizzle starts to fall, so Kurt gets out the grill to finish cooking dinner–bratwurst and chopped veggies.

I add more layers as the cold sets in.  The rain turns into snow. This puts me strangely at ease. Camping high on a mountain range is unfamiliar territory to me, but camping in the middle of a random snowfall is just like home.

 

 

Taos

Monday, May 5: Santa Fe to Taos

Soundtrack: “Over the Creek” George Ezra

The drive from Santa Fe to Taos takes us up winding mountain roads and along the Rio Grande. The night before, we had heard someone at the bar say of Taos, “It’s like Santa Fe but more chill.” From what I’ve seen so far, Santa Fe is pretty chill itself, so it’s hard to imagine getting any more laid back than that.

We start our day at Taos Pueblo, a Native American community at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that has been inhabited for over a thousand years. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic landmark. When we arrive, we are directed to a parking area, then pay a visitors fee to enter the community. It’s another sunny, white-puffy-cloud day. The adobe buildings create a beautiful palette in front of the green mountains and blue sky.

Taos Pueblo

The Pueblo Indians today are about 90% Catholic, and both a Spanish-style church and traditional kiva can be found in Taos Pueblo. It’s a cool experience, to walk through this community that has lived in this breathtaking place for a thousand years. I find it so fascinating to think about where we come from and how our heritage shapes us. I’m biracial, but I have never been to the Philippines, my mother’s birthplace. I am shaped by my heritage, but I also find it so interesting to try and define what that really means for me. I say this while wearing a Marvel tank top and Game of Thrones edition Adidas, so let’s be real, my culture is 100% pop culture nerd.

In Taos Pueblo, tradition and culture are on display to us visitors. Many of the adobe homes are open to the public as businesses, selling food, handmade goods, jewelry, and art. Kurt and I go into one of the vendor’s homes and get Indian tacos on fry bread. I try out ‘Christmas,’ a mix of red and green chile. Everything is delicious. We go into a few more shops, and I buy a rosarita stone necklace after chatting with the designer’s mother, who runs the family’s business.

Kurt on the Rio Pueblo de Taos

We walk around the grounds, which are mostly open to the public except where noted by Restricted signs. Most other visitors we see are a couple decades older than us, so it’s notable when we spot our first group of twenty-something-year-old tourists. They wear fancy sunglasses and look like Instagram influencers, but they are being low key and respectful of the community’s rules.  We enter the San Geronimo Chapel, where photography is prohibited, so I buy a postcard to remember it by.

After Taos Pueblo, we drive to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which spans the gap 650 feet above the water. We park and walk to the center of the bridge to take in the view. I can feel the bridge shudder beneath us as cars speed by.

Rio Grande Gorge

After a beer at Taos Mesa Brewing, we check into our Airbnb. One of the things I really wanted to do on this trip is to stay in an Earthship, a sustainable home built out of reclaimed materials. The one we’re staying in is called the Hobbit House, the first Earthship ever built in the Taos area. Once we enter the house, it’s nice and cool and homey inside. We admire all of the little details–the stained glass window, the recycled glass bottles that create patterns in the walls. My favorite part is the bathroom, where you walk along the length of a floral garden to reach the toilet.

The Hobbit House

We have dinner in the Old Town area, then hang out at the Hobbit House to relax. The house is warm and cozy, and I eventually drift off the sleep and have the most vivid dreams.

 

 

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.

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