IGNORING THE HERD

Santa Fe wrapped us up like a native blanket from stern to stem, and it’s a distinct regret we were only there for a day. We started the day at the Pantry, taking in the easy interchange between regulars and employees at the breakfast counter and watching our fellow diners enjoy amazing food we were about to partake of. The food was all comfort. Honest, solid and simple breakfast. Happy, sated and feeling fairly positive about our fellow human, we set out to scope some galleries, a major part of Santa Fe culture and industry. Our first target was closed till 12, so said a handwritten note penned by Douglas. It was about quarter till, so we said, “Cool, D-man, we’ll see you after the hangover stops spinning.”

Santa Fe’s Encaustic Art Institute was on the short list for our afternoon, as soon as the Google gods clued me in as to exactly what encaustic art was (a medium first adopted by ancient Greece, layering heated beeswax and resin). The city is an oasis of fine, folk, and Native art, a bizarre melding of affluence and unfussy sensibilities. I was excited to give J the nickel tour. We arrived at the Institute just after noon. Signage on the door confirmed the 10am opening we had seen online, but the door was locked. A handwritten sign hung below the posted hours.

“We will be open at noon on Tuesday, 10/3.” – Douglas

Though technically on the right side of things, there didn’t seem a point to waiting around to shame Douglas over the same bad behavior we had both been guilty of in the not-so-distant past. We took a walk to explore the district. Santa Fe does a solid job (or a socialist one, depending on your opinion) of preserving its historic beauty by requiring buildings be built in the Pueblo Revival style. We ogled the adorable casitas with their adobe-colored facades and vibrant gardens, and stumbled upon LewAllen Gallery.

We took a short walk into the toney art district and strolled into the conditioned air of the LewAllen Gallery. For the price of a modest house, you too can have some absolutely amazing art desperately gripping your walls. The gallery had a solid exhibition, and it was distinctly empowering to see creatives get paid in actual dollars. I’m more than willing to ignore the whole crass commercialism of blue-chip art if only for the fact that visual art persists as such an earnestly direct mode of expression. All the fancy financial security in the world won’t hide the fact you were struck down with the hex to find and craft beauty wherever you roam. Bully for the artist who can afford everything the dull-eyed paper pusher takes for granted. Exposure don’t buy shit, dickweeds.

Bowl by Charles Miner at LewAllen Gallery in Santa Fe, NM
 Grand Slam by Charles Miner, LewAllen Gallery

Towering sculptures by Bill Barrett flanked the entrance, frozen in a somber dance. Two older gentlemen outfitted in cowboy hats and bolo ties stepped out of the swank gallery, holding the door open for us as they exited. The main room featured abstract painter Ben Aronson, his visible brushwork imparting his still lifes with an almost frenetic energy. It also housed a number of rare works, and we discovered significant pieces tucked into alcoves and crowding the walls of service hallways like inconvenient afterthoughts. We argued over our favorites and allowed ourselves the indulgence of unnecessarily debating which pieces we could live with.

Still life by Ben Aronson at LewAllen Gallery in Santa Fe, NM
Still life by Ben Aronson, LewAllen Gallery

Figuring Douglas had surely collected himself by now, we meandered back toward the Encaustic Art Institute through a rail yard, a farmer’s market, and a public art installation exploiting society’s need for its fifteen minutes. We arrived back at the museum to find the door still locked. I had failed to notice the clipboard and box to the right of the door earlier. A memo asked patrons to list their vehicle’s license plate and place two dollars within for use of the parking lot. Having powered through a staggering number of brunch shifts in precariously inebriated states, my patience with Douglas, now three hours late, had all but evaporated. Resigned, we drove our illegally parked asses out of there.

J In Television Sculpture in Santa Fe, NM
J broadcasting his message of equality, conservation, intelligent discourse, and radical feminism into America’s living rooms. I give it a season.

We set off for Bandelier National Park after a short walk through the Santa Fe gallery district. Douglas never showed, and we alternatively wished him luck and to suck it the fuck up, because seriously Douglas, you had one job, and it started at 10am. The canary-in-the-coalmine is far more dedicated, you pretender, and its day starts way the hell earlier.

The car was pulling a bit, slow to switch gears and dragging as it accelerated. I noticed we had already reached 3000 miles since the rental’s last servicing. Our first car’s demise still a fresh wound, the situation put me on edge. “We should get an oil change in the next couple of days.” I hoped the comment sounded off-handed, not wanting to concern J with my propensity for expecting the worst.

The attendant at Bandelier National Monument’s Visitor’s Center, located in the nearby town of White Rock, divulged that we could skip the shuttle bus and drive right to the monument if we waited for peak visitor’s hours to end, which they would, in about half an hour. Not having to make a shuttle trip back East to pick up the car, then West again to Farmington, was enough to settle the matter. We spotted White Rock Overlook on a map of local attractions and went to kill some time.

Rio Grande Gorge and River From White Rock Overlook, NM
The Rio Grande, White Rock Overlook

The road took us through a park, past playing fields and playgrounds, then abruptly turned in on itself, as the ground beyond dropped steeply. We took the short trail to the lip of a ledge, which jut over Rio Grande Gorge. It opened to panoramic views of the gorge and the river below. Past the valley, the snow-capped peaks of the Pecos Wilderness rose magnificently. We stood at the precipice, alternatingly awed by the scene laid out before us and indulging in (playful) threats of giving the other a much-deserved shove.

Bandelier National Monument is nestled in the canyon between two mesas. The road leading to it, as well as the complex itself, comprise the largest of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ many public works projects. We descended past earth bearing the scars of two sprawling brush fires that had ravaged the land in 1996 and 1997, the hills still barren and scored some two decades later.

View of Tyuonyi ruins from cave dwellings, Bandelier National Monument
Ruins of the village of Tyuonyi, Bandelier National Monument

I was especially excited for Bandelier because since I was a child, Pueblo culture enticed me. I had even made a miniature Pueblo village for a school project. The image of cliffside dwellings always stuck with me, though I never imagined it would be something I would personally behold. The wonders of the world tend to exist in abstraction and supposition, but those wonders are the candy to the kids in the store, once they finally get there. We spent hours roaming the cliffs and trails, each corner turning over a new and exciting reveal of beauty. The humble mastery of a simple life was inspiring. There was nothing but abundance and wisdom, the hunger for conquest and domination almost painfully absent. These people lived, laughed and loved freely under the glow of a generous sun, walking a generous earth. They were far more intelligent than most of us could ever hope to be.

J Inside Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, NM
J exploring the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

The monument consists of a number of Pueblo archaeological sites. The people who inhabited the region 11,000 years back were gatherers and farmers, who built multi-layered structures from bricks carved from the volcanic ash cliffs, as well as within the cliffs themselves. We climbed ladders into these cave dwellings, impressed by their relative comfort. Temperatures inside were significantly cooler than the 96 degree afternoon and Southern exposure allowed for a shocking amount of natural light. Large spokes had been embedded in the walls for hanging hides and looms. Paintings were still visible on the plaster, exterior walls, beating the Italians to frescoes by centuries.

One of a number of ladders used to scale the 140 ft to the Alcove House at Bandelier National Monument.
One of a number of ladders used to scale the 140 ft to the Alcove House at Bandelier National Monument.

The Alcove House was situated 140ft up, in a landing in the cliff above. I don’t know how the height was traversed all that time ago, but the route now consisted of a series of long, steep ladders to be used by visitors moving in both directions. An older gentleman on the landing above us was engaging his party with some jovial repartee about his prowess despite recent hip surgery, clutching a cane as he made his way on the ladders. His agility and spirit halted any trepidations we might have had towards playing this live-action game of Donkey Kong. No small number of carefully placed steps later, we were there.The house looked out over the canyon, and we paused to watch bald vultures circle overhead in the fading afternoon.

The Alcove House, Bandelier National Monument, NM
The Alcove House, Bandelier National Monument

The sun fell behind the facing canyon wall, providing some relief from the heat. We hiked back to the lot. With dusk approaching, it had cleared out but for a few opportunistic ravens searching for scraps. The Pueblo tribes believe their ruins to be holy, housing the souls of the ancestors who once resided there. In the stillness, the valley appeared possessed by a contemplative spirituality.

The Long House at Bandelier National Monument, NM
The Long House, Bandelier National Monument

When we arrived back at the Visitor’s Center, it had closed and the parking lot had emptied. In poor cell service, we managed to pick out a route to Farmington, where we were staying for the evening. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, we were sure, where we lamented our lack of maps. Our generation, at the hinge of forever, should be just a little better at preserving the dying art of confused people pointing at maps. After they take our guns, they might just take our maps.

The sun setting over the scorched forests of the Jemez Mountains.
The sun setting over the scorched forests of the Jemez Mountains.

We ascended from the canyon, veering West. Predictably, there was no cell service. We charted a course to Farmington, the work made simpler by a lack of route options. The road steadily climbed past the burnt forests, winding gently as we scaled Cerro Grande. A coyote loped down the road toward us and I slowed, pausing to scope out our first. We advanced into New Mexico’s mountain wilderness. Mule deer congregated in small herds near the road. A gang of elk regally grazed between the mountainside’s sparsely set trees. Nature seemed to be upping the ante with every bend.

As we drove out of the canyon, our excursion was pleasant enough. The setting sun provided entertainment while I settled on music. We realized that we would be driving through Valles Caldera, a site we had previously dismissed in its literal meaning and poor PR job as just a hole in the ground. As we discussed the golden hum of happenstance that frames some of the prettier moments of our journey, Y spotted a coyote the first either of us had ever seen in the flesh. As Grizzly Bear turned the stereo into a nebula, we witnessed a group of stalwart elk, then a small family of mule deer. New Mexico, thou art truly the land of enchantment. The mule deer were especially striking, as they’re clearly not the same deer that would occasionally terrify me in the early morning twilight on my paper route as a kid.

Valles Caldera, NM
Valles Caldera

The sun on its last dollar, we rolled up and into the Caldera’s edge. 14 miles as the crow flies stood the crest of crater across from us. Seeing it in person is the only way. Having topped out my per diem hiking high score somewhere around 13, I’m well aware that what looks like a walk in the park will likely take the better part of a day and shave a few more off your life, besides. It felt very singular to bear witness to something so massive and spectacular, yet largely untouched by the noise and light of the world of humans. Humans, who are dead set on manufacturing an extinction-level event of their own.

The road curved left and the immense grassland of Valles Caldera strikingly opened to our right. There had been a definite interest in visiting the site of a million year collapsed volcano, but even a nine week road trip doesn’t afford enough time to see everything. Ultimately, insufficient time and a look at its disenchanting website caused us to reconsider. Now we pulled over, powerless against the pull of its majesty (their marketing could use some work). We stepped out into what was fast becoming a crisp evening. The sun was all but set, and paired with the elevation the temperature had dropped 40 degrees. However, we stood agape, trying to memorize the vast beauty we knew would never translate in our grainy photographs.

Valles Caldera, NM
Valles Caldera

The cold spurred us back into the car and on course, chasing the last remnants of sunlight over the hilltops. The road curled into a series of switchbacks, the wide, low-hanging moon flicking from front to back. J asked if I was finding the repetitive of the back and forth tedious, offering to take over, but I was taken with this unspoiled country. “I could do this all day.”

Sun Setting Behind The Jemez Mountains, NM
The sun setting behind the Jemez Mountains.

We were to stay on Rt. 126 until a left turn at the town of Cuba steered us toward the relative civilization of Farmington. A sign let us know we had 26 miles until reaching that crossroads. I barely registered the words “Pavement Ends” on the sign before the road gave way to gravel. Within moments we were engulfed by high, forested banks on each side. The car slid on the dirt road. The headlights and the moon were our only guide in navigating the potholes, large stones, roots, and ditches that could potentially set us careening into either bank. I cautiously crept along. Some quick math exposed that at our current rate of 18mph, we would reach Cuba in an hour and a half.

I replayed our journey in my mind, searching for a possible missed turn. This primitive track couldn’t possibly be the right route. An Adopt-a-Highway sign conspicuously emerged from the wild at our right, confirming we were, in fact, on the correct road. I looked to J, “I’d hate to know what this thing looked like before getting adopted.”

Amid the tenacious crawl through eerie nothingness, the oil pressure light blinked on. My own wheels spun. If the car broke down, we’d be stuck in the middle of the road with no light. If another car came down this road, the lack of light would likely result in us being hit. If a car did not come, we would have a walk through dark woods of an unforetold distance (where again, we would be unprotected from any traffic we encountered). We could wait out the night in the car but the outside temperature was indicated to be 46 degrees. It would be an uncomfortable evening. I was striving to compose alternate plans while retaining some measure of chill when something moved in the blackness ahead.

New Mexico's Route 126 At Night
Route 126, New Mexico’s version of a highway. We’re calling BS on that one.

If the utility of a road is compromised due to the whims of bovine, it should not, in fairness, be called a highway. Consider this my formal complaint with the state of New Mexico. The cow strutting out of the darkness before us was such an absurdity we erupted into astonished laughter. Then there was more movement. A group of shadows fell into focus. The laughing stopped. A whole herd had taken over the road. I inched the car forward, doing my best to part the mass, but one wouldn’t budge. It faced us head-on, impeding movement until the bulk had passed. We received a once over that let us know we didn’t fit in, then it strode off to resume whatever cow matters she had that were more pressing than dicking with us.

Bursting with some cosmic joy, we cruised through the dark forest, eventually happily noting Cuba on a road sign as verification of our final destination. About 1000 feet later, Highway 126 became a dirt road hugging massive trees, cliff walls, and meadows. I could see the phantoms of massive elk prance and dawdle to our left. To our right, the cliff loomed up into the darkness. Down the road, a dog, fat and carefree, ambled into the headlights. Then darkness, again. Then cows. Lots and lots of cows. Keenly aware of a car that needed a little love after the abuse of the last few thousand miles (and more than a little gun-shy after the Death of the Lexus), lizard-brain nerves and dread were keeping me breathless and Y’s foot lighter than usual. Eyes emerged in the black to the sides and in the road and we slowly passed yet more bovine adversaries. 9 miles on a road like that is an eternity, and the lights of Cuba, NM were a beacon of hope and toilets. All that and a bag of Lime-flavored potato chips.

With just as little warning, the road morphed into an actual road again. We came upon a building on the left, marked as a Girl Scout camp. We brightened, rationalizing that people would be unlikely to send little girls anywhere too remote or menacing. Houses intermittently came in to view. The oil pressure light incessant, I made mental notes of the growing distance between us and them, should we need to walk back for help. A sign alerted us we would reach Cuba in 17 miles. I turned to J, stunned. “How the fuck was that only 9 miles?”

Eventually, streetlights became visible in the distance. We reached the intersection at Cuba and turned left towards what looked like a legitimate town. They even had a gas station.

Another hour or so of pick-your-speed driving and we had arrived in Farmington, with an hour before Three Rivers Tap Room closed. We hurried over in the windy chill and hashed out plans once safely inside, deciding that San Diego would be our gate to Cuenca. We squeezed a second round in and ambled off back to the motel.

We pulled into our motel in Farmington, inextricably exhausted and wired. A quick exchange through some bulletproof glass endowed us with keys to our castle and we left to calm what nerves we could before last call. Pittsburgh businesses often give themselves the local moniker Three Rivers in reference to the city’s bounty of waterways. Farmington’s Three Rivers Game & Taproom was fatefully, across the street. One might consider that sort of thing providence, or maybe just a testament to the fact that being located at the divergence of multiple rivers makes for some convenient town-building. We rolled into the divey pool hall and brewery, replete with its share of late night giggly girls and downtrodden white dudes, and took two seats at the bar. The beers were solid, and their chocolate porter was doing a proper job of things with a 9% ABV. We drank, still dazed from our unsettling adventure, until we could talk again. Then had another round for the road.

Y and J, feeling ourselves after successfully scaling the Alcove House ladders at Bandelier National Monument.
Y and J, feeling ourselves after successfully scaling the Alcove House ladders at Bandelier National Monument.

NATIONAL PARKS ARE COUNTING ON US ALL TO THINK RESPONSIBLY

The American National Parks offer inspiring, singular sights and experiences to over 300 million visitors a year. Sweeping vistas, historical relevance, and undisrupted natural beauty have secured these sites as powerful magnets for travelers the world over, and in this age of globalization, it’s easier than ever to inhabit spaces previously only explored from the window of a postcard. The mission of the National Parks is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” However the parks draw an endless stream of tourists, not all of whom visit with the mission of the NPS in mind. In addition, courageous Rangers and park employees are dealing with an onslaught of disasters both political and natural, as well as consistently and precipitously low funding. A proposed fare hike aims to combat the challenges confronting our national parks by increasing fares in seventeen of the most popular parks during peak visitation times, causing many to question if raising the price of admission would prevent lower-income citizens from experiencing our nation’s natural resources. How do we enjoy these parks while preserving the ideal they were built upon? How do we best keep these lands accessible while ensuring the NPS is able to carry out its mission to protect them for future generations?

Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park

Dollars and Sense

Many people are upset about the proposed rate hikes at some of the major parks, and they should be. Part of the gift that Theodore Roosevelt envisioned was that the wealth preserved in our national parks could be shared by all. It can be pretty easy to decry any rate hikes as going against this aim. The sad fact is that the National Parks Service has been criminally underfunded for decades, the victim of political gamesmanship and buzzwords, when in reality, the NPS funding level of around $3 billion doesn’t even come close to filling a maintenance backlog of over 4 times that. In fact, the United States gives more than that $3 billion in military aid to Israel alone, a developed nation in its own right, with its own nuclear arsenal. Without delving too deep into the indefensible politics of the underfunded United States Parks system, and the predilection of old white men for expensive military toys, the rate hikes are a matter of survival and preservation.

The outcry exhibited over fare increases seems legitimate because in some cases, the entry fees would be more than doubled. However, concerns of the parks becoming exclusive playgrounds for the rich are unfounded and shortsighted. Take, for example, Zion National Park, whose $30 per car rate would increase to $70 under the new proposal (80% to benefit that park, and 20% to benefit parks where no entry fee is charged). A $40 increase only seems extravagant before factoring in that admission prices are for seven consecutive days and a car constitutes any recreational vehicle with fifteen or adults or less (children under fifteen years of age are free). Compare that to a family of four visiting Disneyland for just five days. The cheapest tickets would run you $1190, and another $100 for parking.

Archways of Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose, San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Yet even this point is moot, because the NPS offers annual passes to its properties at an absurd discount. If you’re in the Early Bird Special crowd, they basically throw them at you, charging you but once for a lifetime pass and helping you enjoy the golden years while they last. You’ve earned it, somehow, greyhairs, so you do you. For the rest of us, $80 will get you a year’s worth of access to over 2,000 National Parks, Monuments, Forests, Grasslands, Recreation Areas, and Wildlife Refuges, as well as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some state forest programs recognize the America the Beautiful Pass as well. It covers entry and parking for a car of up to fifteen, or four adults on foot or bike, and campsites are often substantially discounted for pass holders. Our pass paid for itself almost immediately.

Wotan's Throne, Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim
Wotan’s Throne, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim

Overcrowding is Damaging These Delicate Places (And is a Serious Killjoy)

The legendary majesty of our national parks and monuments attracts a dizzying number of tourists, and rightfully so. Their natural wonders are breathtaking, and preserved for a reason. With each passing year it becomes easier to find out about their quiet corners and hidden gems. Places that were once only known to rangers, guides, and locals now have their own blog posts and Instagram hashtags. Zion National Park now has 30 miles of routes forged by visitors veering off-trail. Industrial tourism is not just becoming an impediment to enjoying a vacation, but a real danger to these delicate ecosystems.

Elk Grazing, Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim
Elk grazing, Monument Creek Vista, Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim

While we can’t really take credit for the timing of our trip, we’re going to anyway, and advise you to follow our example. Our road trip took place during September and October, and while there were still mobs of people, to be sure, we didn’t have many problems finding a site or a serene moment. Fortunate circumstances, given that our itinerary was pulled out of thin air. Summer vacation is an easy, if not habitual, time to take a trip, but larger parks like the Grand Canyon’s South Rim or Arches are overrun during these times. If the NPS had kid-friendly anthropomorphic crows, coyotes, and rock formations wandering around places like these, it wouldn’t be out of place. There are people arriving by the busload, making these sites feel more like carnivals than parks. It makes for some interesting developments in what is, for the most part, wilderness. The South Rim had a better grocery store than most of the villages dotting the barren lands we drove through to get there. If you’re not chained to your sex fruit (babies, whatever) or have chosen not to have any, take your vacation days and go during off-peak times. The views will not be any less epic, and the experience will be that much more tranquil. If you are saddled with the fruit of your loins, one might suggest that a week on the road may be more instructive than as much time grinding through an increasingly flawed education system. The parks also have a junior ranger program that made us envious for years where we would have been young enough to qualify, and not just for the dope tiny khaki vests.

Paria River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Paria River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

When we lucked out on finding sites or dodging crowds, it was largely due to hitting the parks mid-week. The only thing more vexing than waiting for your travel partners to take the damn picture already is waiting for the endless procession of people to get the hell out of your shot. Going to a major attraction in the middle of the week will help beef up the scrapbook while keeping the heart rate down. Many of the parks have some amazing programming that happens throughout the week. While Bat Flight may be a little crowded on a Friday, on a Tuesday you’ll be able to have plenty of facetime with those heroes in khaki, the Park Rangers. Use peak days for travel or staying the night in tourist towns. Unlearn the rules of the work week. You’re on vacation, so make the calendar work for you. Use Fridays and Saturdays to recharge your batteries, set up a reservation at a restaurant and snag a margarita. The wonders of the world will be there on Monday, and you can share in Mother Earth’s sigh of relief when you hit the comparatively empty sights.

Backcountry Camping Loop, White Sands National Monument
Backcountry Camping Loop, White Sands National Monument

We encountered lucky strokes more than once on our travels, but it’s not a magic trick we’d like to repeat. The planning may seem painful, but it’s worth it. Most of the major national parks have campgrounds that can be reserved through the NPS website. Sleeping on Bureau of Land Management plots or pulled off a dirt road in a national forest is totally do-able, if you’re into roughing it. If you’d like a fire pit, maybe some water, electricity and a toilet, plan ahead and reserve a spot. There’s nothing better than being able to enjoy the day with full knowledge of where you’re going to sleep that night, and evading the ugly and silent war that unconditionally unfurls within the cars that are turned away en masse from full campgrounds.

Queen Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
Queen Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

We Want You To Have Fun, But Please Enjoy Responsibly

Unfortunately, we witnessed a number of transgressions against our parks on our travels. Some were relatively small (though I guess that’s a call for the person who has to pick up the dirty diaper) like littering, leaning on ancient ruins, or bringing your kitten on the trail (to be fair, Reggie was adorable). Some were downright criminal. We watched a man hungry for a souvenir chip away at a rock at Arches. We stopped to confront a family attempting to chop down a Joshua Tree in California, but their axe emboldened them to ignore us. When alluding to hundreds of thousands of acres, it can be tempting to dismiss the people heedlessly tromping past fences, signs, and barriers. However, the impact of the constant flow of this off-trail traffic wreaks havoc on flora and fauna alike. These attacks to the fragile environments utilize scarce funds and the time of an already understaffed team of Rangers to deal with their repercussions, resources that could be better spent in the service of anything else.

Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument
Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, and we can help them. Follow the rules posted on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in proper receptacles. They’re everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected nature. Basically, don’t be terrible.

Historic Entrance, Mammoth Cave National Park
Historic Entrance, Mammoth Cave National Park

Above all else, vote with your wallet. With politicians seemingly unwilling to listen to the consensus of the American people and properly fund the National Park Service, the NPS could use your support. The NPS is amazing at making so much happen with so little support, and is exceptionally thoughtful in designing many park elements to be wheelchair accessible, making them enjoyable for visitors of any ability. One need not be the athletic sort to find something of interest. From camping in White Sands, to exploring the history of the San Antonio Missions, to touring the world’s largest cave system at Mammoth Cave, to yes, climbing el Capitan in the Guadalupe Mountains, there are parks to suit any proclivity. Purchase an annual pass. Having one of these in your wallet makes that great American road trip that much cheaper. Purchase a park passport at any gift shop and start collecting stamps. You will be amazed at the wonders you’ll discover.

McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After seeing a good chunk of the absolutely breathtaking terrain the National Park Service is charged with safekeeping, we’re ride or die for team khaki. Mostly we just want to hang out with Rangers and shower them with hugs and high fives. While the treasures of the Parks system belong to the American people, indeed, the world, there has to be a balance. The planet suffers enough for humanity’s hubris and greed, and once these magical places are gone, it will take a millennium for them to ever approach their current grandeur, and so much has already been lost forever. If you’ve ever been to one of these truly awesome places, you know that there can never be a dollar value affixed to the experience. For those who are angered at the thought of having these gifts placed on a higher economic shelf, that anger can be justly focused on those that make the laws of the land. Just as Roosevelt and all those after him felt a duty to the future, it is up to those on team khaki, whatever country they may hail from, to take up the mantle and do what they can to preserve the majesty left to us by our forebears.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Interested in reading more?

http://theconversation.com/americans-think-national-parks-are-worth-us-92-billion-but-we-dont-fund-them-accordingly-57617

https://skift.com/2017/12/09/record-visitation-prompts-overtourism-fears-at-zion-national-park/

Purchase an annual pass here:
https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm

 

 

Two Traveling Texans

DUNE IT WELL

I watched longingly as we sped past the world’s largest pistachio. The condition of the singular primitive, narrow road ascending Monjeau Point had meant we had to inch the Suburban along, making the fourteen-mile journey take much longer than we had anticipated. We had planned on arriving at White Sands National Monument around midday and securing one of the ten first-come campsites. Now the afternoon had gotten late, and with no backup for where we might spend the night, J was tense and pushing the speed limit. The probability of stopping for pistachio-themed attractions was nil.

Highway 70 sloped steadily downward towards the monument, and we could see the stripe of white cutting across the horizon long before we were anywhere near it. Despite our lateness we stopped for some sandwiches, not wanting to to leave our hunger at the mercy of the monument’s snack stand. A particularly humbling parking attempt at the sandwich shop caused tensions to erupt. However, we found staying angry around sandwiches difficult, and with apologies made, crossed the last few miles to the park.

As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.

Midday Sun Over White Sands National Monument
Dunes for days, White Sands National Monument

We arrived at the visitor’s center in time to nab one of the last two sites. Our situation settled for the evening, we were able to relax. Water bottles were filled and a sled and wax procured. J seemed to charm the woman running the register, and she told us where to find the best dunes for sledding. With dusk quickly approaching, we hurried to make our way to camp.

Midday sun silhouetting San Andres Mountains at White Sands National Monument
An intense midday sun silhouetting the San Andres Mountains, White Sands National Monument

The trailhead was 8 miles in, at the end of Dunes Drive. We watched a bulldozer employed in the perpetual restraint of the drifting dunes from the artery. Halfway through, the paved road gave way to hard-packed gypsum. I had conceded to purchasing my first pair of hiking boots for this trip, and was still annoyed by the considerable sum spent on such homely footwear. I was not going to dole out for a proper pack in addition. Now we began the game of Tetris that was stuffing a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, four water bottles, two jackets, clothes, snacks, our journals, phones, flashlights, a flask, and a sled in the two small backpacks J had received as swag during his tenure as a world-traveling bartender. Both being prideful, we were not about to be bested by inanimate objects.

One part exertion and two parts dogged stubbornness and we had managed the thing. Having only broken a mild sweat, we celebrated our success with the last swigs of our Russell’s Reserve. Attitudes sufficiently recalibrated, we ascended the dunes for the mile hike into the site.

We were able to lock down one of the two remaining campsites for a song thanks to our National Park Pass, and with a plastic sled and wax in hand, we shouldered our packs and started into the dunes. After a little more than a mile, we had arrived at our site, where we pitched a tent for the second time on the journey, in significantly speedier and more relaxed fashion than the first. We had enough time to take a few shots down the dunes on the sled before the sun set, and still grinning like idiot children, we watched it fall behind the mountains. The whole valley became a slowly shifting bowl of fiery watercolors, as darker and darker shades of blue and purple crept over the sky from the East.

The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument
The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument

The afternoon sun seared against the sand, contrasting the dunes in light and shadow. Our dark forms stretched long into the distance, a small caravan. I wondered if I’d still be pouring sand from my boots months from now. We found our site and got down to the business of setting up. The dune mocked us, putting up much more opposition against our stakes then you would expect from a pile of sand. Crisp evening winds began whipping the tent, worsening the situation. With three stakes sufficiently in the ground, we hurled our things in the tent and hoped for the best.

We weren’t anywhere near the fabled sledding dunes we had been recommended, but figuring one dune was as good as the next, decided to break in the sled. We waxed it, marched up the top of a dune, and down J went. He tossed it back up to me. I surveyed the lane he had made, then moved lower on the hill. A few attempts were enough to grasp the embarrassing depth of my chickenshittedness, and I was thankful for the excuse of the sun beginning its dip behind the mountains to call it a day.

The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument
The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument

We watched, the mountains cast in fiery corals and dusty lilacs, the sky a swirl of pigment against the gypsum dunes. Small clusters of hikers stood scattered on crests in every direction, sharing in the spectacle. It was intimate, standing quietly among these pods of strangers, and we marveled at having the opportunity.

Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument
Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

I opted to lay down for a short nap before getting back up to write. Unfortunately, my attempt devolved (or evolved, depending on how optimistic you want to be) into a small coma. I woke up fully around midnight to a brilliantly alabaster moon and a sky full of every star imaginable. I stayed awake for a while, taking a short barefoot walk out onto the now imperial violet dunes, then returned to crash out again. At 4am, I woke to find the moon had retired for the evening, and the sky was vast and luminous. Both of us unable to return to sleep, we talked and rested, excitedly rising well before the alarm went off to get ready for sunrise.

A tent set up atop a dune at sunset, the San Andres Mountains silhouetted in the background, at White Sands National Monument
Our (not quite) campsite was breathtaking, White Sands National Monument

Exhausted from the day’s mental strain, we dozed lazily. However, the moon’s brazen appearance roused me. Startled, I thought a ranger, making rounds, had directed a flashlight at our tent. I stepped outside. The moon was audaciously low in the night sky, its immodest brilliance illuminating the sand in a pure white. I watched the lights of the small city of Alamogordo, piercing against the blackness, and amused myself contorting my figure in twists and bends, torturing my moonshadow into knots.

My stargazing was disrupted by a man stumbling up the dunes. He was loaded down with supplies and winded from the hike. He surveyed the canyon between us then looked over his shoulder, calling out in a language I didn’t recognize. A woman’s voice echoed back through the night. He descended the dune and began setting up camp on the delicate interdunal region below. The moon’s intense glow provided me with a clear sightline into his awkward struggle. Moments later the woman shuffled over the ridge, out of breath and laughing. But her presence gave little support to the endeavor, and I watched in awe, their amateurish ineptitude filling me with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Eventually, they were able to secure their tent. But my bemusement turned to anger as I watched them gather brush from the preserved land to fuel a fire, which was expressly prohibited. I seethed. I wanted to shame them. However, my self-preservative instincts kicked in, rationally reminding me that I was outnumbered, unarmed, and lacking anything more refined than grunts and hand gestures to communicate with. Dejected, I went back into the tent to put the scene out of my mind, but I would definitely be telling a ranger in the morning.

We woke early, the sky still alight with stars. The moon had vacated the heavens, and in its absence, they gleamed brightly through the tent’s mesh ceiling, our whispers the only sound in the pre-dawn silence. Hours passed and I grew ever more impatient with the sun’s reluctance to get started. My excitement finally agitated J from his sleeping bag, and we set to packing.

Daybreak at White Sands National Monument
The sun slept in. White Sands National Monument

We scaled another dune, surprised by the array of tracks left by the desert’s inhabitants during the night. The lights of Alamogordo were now barely visible against the impending sunrise. Rays broke over Benson Ridge, colored fractals once again flooding the valley with a display of the sun’s talents. Almost immediately the temperature began to rise, and we were glad to be able to hike back before its power became violent. While disassembling our gear, J noticed a stake nearby. I looked it over. We had erroneously placed our tent at the wrong marker. I could probably cancel that talk with the ranger.

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument
Sunrise, White Sands National Monument

As we waited impatiently for Helios to get out of traffic and get to work, we realized that while we had certainly shared many sunrises in the past, they were rarely shared with such participation and intentionality. We enjoyed the quiet of the sands, then basked in the almost deafening glow of the sun. Eager to get in some sledding, we broke camp and sought out the good dunes one of the ladies in the gift shop had let us in on. Scanning the candidates to the sides of the road, we pulled off and spotted a perfect, nigh-virgin, East-facing dune. Just past the Alkali Flat trail, as promised. We spent a good chunk of the morning shooting down the dune and laughing, and had our fill just as the skies began to sear with heat.

J at sunrise at White Sands National Monument
J contemplating existence – and breakfast. White Sands National Monument

We drove to the foretold sledding dunes, eager to redeem my pathetic showing from the day before. As it happens, one dune is not as good as the next. These were massive, with sharp, steep banks that ran almost perpendicular to the ground. I was terrified. Again, I made J go first. The hill was sheer, but the sand provided a good deal of traction, and he didn’t seem to go that fast. I rallied, the knowledge that this was literally, child’s play nudging me to the precipice. That ride is faster than it looks.

Y sledding at White Sands National Monument
Graceful as ever, White Sands National Monument

We exhausted our appetites for sledding and took a tour down the interdunal boardwalk. Exhibits along the walk detailed common indigenous animal tracks, educating us to the fact that beetles, lizards, birds, and even a kit fox had all sauntered past us during the night. We learned about the fragile desert crust protecting the ecosystem and the tenacity of the soaptree yucca. The yucca visible atop the dunes were actually embedded in the interdunal floor, their rapid growth enabling them to rise above the ever-changing drifts as they blow by. Eventually, the dune passes completely over, leaving the yucca exposed and unable to support its own weight, its evolved adaptability the cause of its demise.

Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, at White Sands National Monument
Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, White Sands National Monument

We returned our sledding equipment for a modest partial reimbursement before setting off for the Valley of Fires. The fires of the valley had quavered into ash well over 5,000 years prior, but the site still burned with energy. The thematic shift in color and creation of setting was not lost on us, and we marveled at the unrefined and sharp immediacy of the lava field. Even as nature had aggressively colonized the area, even evolved around it, as was the case in White Sands, there was a rawness to the land. It refused to be cowed by root, beast or weather. The paved trail we used to circuit a portion of the field was a redundant reminder that we were mere spectators.

Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Just us, an obsidian desert, and the government missile testing range for miles, Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires occupied a desolate stretch of 380, surrounded by mountains and White Sands Missile Range. On missile test days, the road is closed to traffic, making an inconvenient island of the small town of Carrizozo nearby. Its name conjured conflagrant visions, making it an irresistible stop on our way to Santa Fe, but the sentiment appeared to be an uncommon one. We had the recreation area to ourselves. The solitude compounded the majesty of the gnarled landscape. Created when Little Black Peak erupted, sending its contents 44 miles South into the Tularosa Basin, it is lined in petrified black rock 160 ft thick. The dark, craggy deposits produce a land inverse, yet equally hostile, to the one we had left.

Jagged Lava Crevice at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Exploring jagged crevices off-trail, Valley of Fires

We followed the trail over top of the rugged formations. Cacti, juniper trees, and desert brush had all whittled homes within the jagged configurations, flourishing in a land that looked, at first glance, uninhabitable. The trail’s exhibits were worn and bleached by the sun, giving them a look befitting their placement amongst the nature they were meant to describe. We accepted a marker’s urges to explore off-trail, enthusiastically scouting furrows and caves. J, perhaps feeling inspired by the harsh landscape, lobbed our water bottle back to the path. It burst in a dramatic gush, undoubtedly doubling the yearly rainfall of the splash zone. However, the arid wind was relief enough against the torrid, midday sun, and we stayed a while longer, eyeing Golden Eagles as they circled and dove overhead.

Lava layers at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
A landscape physically inverse, yet equally hostile to the one we had just left, Valley of Fires

The rest of the day was a long slog to Santa Fe, broken up only by instances of the unbroken majesty of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. It truly is absolutely beautiful here, and I can certainly see why some would gladly call it home. As much as humanity tends to despoil most of what it touches, it offers so much that I wouldn’t want to live without. I will always be glad to bask and worship in nature, but a world with many deities is altogether a more entertaining one, and both the cities and wildernesses of this world hold multitudes I constantly yearn to discover.

Y atop a dune at White Sands National Monument
Everything the light touches is Y’s. White Sands National Monument

 

A TRAVELER’S HOME BAR ON A BUDGET – INFUSIONS

Back in Pittsburgh, we maintained an extensive liquor cabinet for our home bar. Any type of classic cocktail could be stirred or shaken to life. As we began to prepare for our adventure, budget became a concern, so we would often substitute a night out with a trip to our home bar. Very little tastes as good as a perfect cocktail from your personal liquor cabinet. You’re garnishing your drinks with thrift – mischief managed, capital concerns allayed. We had never really considered what the liquor stores would look like in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador. I had assumed scads of Pisco and wonderful new world wines. That is not what the liquor stores look like.

Local liquor chain, La Taberna
The soft glow of La Taberna beckoning us forth

Even in the state of Pennsylvania, where the state-run monopoly on liquor stores is demonstrably terrible, the vast stores are a comparative cornucopia of alcoholic delights. If money were no object, then shelling out more than double for some things I could find back in the United States would find our liquor cabinet reasonably well stocked, with the noted exception of Bourbon…and Rye…and Tequila…and Mezcal. However, I used to work with alcohol and make cocktails for money. What the stores do have in great supply is Cristal Aguardiente (translation: Clear Firewater), a spirit made locally from distilled sugar cane juice. Enter the infusion.

Still life of bottles of Cristal, mango, red pepper, ginger, strawberries, and basil
Cristal, Cuenca’s finest local firewater

Infusions Are a Trick of the Trade

If you enjoy having a drink or three at home but find yourself on a budget, there’s likely a local, cheap and clear liquor that’s just begging for an infusion.

Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.

Choosing Ingredients for Your Infusion

Cuenca has some amazing open-air markets, and we frequent the closest one, Feria Libre, every few days. For around 12 dollars we have enough produce for the week. For a few dollars more, we have subjects for infusions and a few bottles of Cristal. Because you’re working with fresh produce, there’s plenty of wiggle room to find the preferred flavor for your cocktail. Here’s a couple of quick and easy infusions that will elevate your home bar and cocktail game on a budget and work with any clear spirit, whether it’s vodka, gin, tequila, rum or sweet, sweet firewater.

Infusion Recipes

Strawberry-Ginger

A dozen strawberries
1″ of peeled ginger
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the tops from the strawberries then slice into quarters. Slice the ginger into thin strips. Place the ginger and strawberries into your jar or water bottle and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. Let sit for at least 24 hours. Strain, place back into the original bottle, and store in the refrigerator.

Even though the strawberries were a little under-ripe, the infusion came out great, leaving the alcohol a light pink color, and giving it a slightly spicy ginger bite. It goes great with two parts soda water or sparkling wine.

Basil

A generous handful of basil leaves
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the stems from the herbs, then gently cut them into large chunks. Place them into the jar, cover with the spirit, then seal and put into the refrigerator. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. The infusion time on herbs is always fairly short, and should never go longer than 12 hours. Letting an infusion go too long will give the alcohol time to break down the bitter components in the herbs, which you don’t want in your drink. Generally, 6 to 8 hours will do the trick.

Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain and pour back into the original bottle and store in the refrigerator. This makes a really clean and refreshing infusion that is a perfect addition to two parts juice or soda.

Bell Pepper and Mango

1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Mango
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Clean the bell pepper by removing the stem, cutting it in half, and removing the pith and seeds from the flesh. Cut into thin strips, then dice. Bell peppers generally have a more mild flavor than a fruit subject, so to keep it in balance, we’re giving the pepper more surface area to work with. Cut the mango into cubes or long strips, removing the skin. Place the pepper and mango into your water bottle or jar and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. After 24 hours, pull your infusion, strain and pour back into the original bottle. Store in the refrigerator.

If you want a more robust flavor profile in your infusion or your cocktail, lightly roasting the pepper will do the trick. This is delicious all on its own over ice, but would be great in any number of cocktails, which we will discuss in an upcoming post.

ROSWELL’S THAT ENDS WELL

I drew open the curtains to the second story room of the Super 8, relatively luxurious compared to the stronghold of despair that had been our San Antonio motel. The Eagle Mountains stood in the near distance. The previous night’s drive from San Antonio had been one of quiet solitude. Our headlights and those of the occasional comrade the only disruption in the intense darkness on this desolate stretch of I-10. Having arrived late into the night, we had all but collapsed the moment we got to the room. Now, with the landscape illuminated, we could see we had crossed into big sky country, just 40 miles Northeast of Mexico.

Van Horn would be our last night in Texas for who knows how long, and that experience is about the sum of the town. The drive across the 2nd largest state was smooth and beautiful, and felt like a major accomplishment. The road cut down a valley, with green mountains nosing into the cloud deck on our left, easing into a floor covered in vegetation. To our right stretched terrain that looked sparse and dry by comparison, more yellows and browns than green, and far off in the distance, we could see the deep blue outline of a range of mountains. The scenery seemed to wall us in, turning the vanishing point of the road into the end of a long hallway. Aside from the car and its stereo, it was quiet, and the tiny space we occupied felt all the more inconsequential. This territory seemed poised to eat us alive. It felt hungry, but like a true opportunist, it had learned to subsist on the scraps civilization had let fall between the cracks. The houses here seemed more like interlopers than places to hang a hat.

An overcast day in a West Texas valley alongside Texas 54
Don’t pick up hitchhikers

We turned onto Texas 54, a road whose sole purpose was to connect the satellite city of Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and New Mexico beyond. No towns or turn-offs lay between Van Horn and the park and within two miles all signs of humanity had been erased. A roadrunner watched us pass from the safety of the shoulder.

Texas’s 85mph speed limit seems a clear indicator that they could not care less if people crash out here, as long as no one is inconvenienced by the possibility of having to rescue survivors. Pushing a full 100mph, we cut through the landscape swiftly, but the expanse of the vista distorted our perception, making the drive feel serene. The road curved around the Beach Mountains on our left, and the temperature dropped. The glorious morning we had enjoyed a few miles back replaced by smoke gray skies. The Baylor Mountains ahead to our right had created a valley between the two ranges which maintained its own weather system. We pulled off the road, watching dark clouds break over the Beach Mountains in waves that came crashing down the side toward the dale below.

We broke from the ranges, but a new one loomed before us, its towering peak obscured by clouds. Vegetation thinned, morphing from lush, sage greens to soft tans as the road followed the rim of a salt flat. Despite the sun’s efforts to break through the cloud cover, a light rain began to fall.

The road climbed the peak, rising above the rain, and we became enveloped by dense mist. We entered the lot of the park’s visitor’s center and were greeted by a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, empty, unwelcoming, and cloaked in heavy fog. Inside we weaved through taxidermied fauna displayed to impart the variety of life inhabiting the mountains. We accepted a trail map from a very bored looking ranger (caretaker?) and followed the walkway around the visitor’s center to the adjacent Pinery Trail.

Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The short trail cut a path through white gypsum that stretched out on either side. Juniper trees, grey and craggy, cut fingers through the thick mist. Markers pointed out soaptree yucca and a Mexican orange bush on the way to the ruins of a Butterfield Stagecoach Station. One had a quote from celebrated Pittsburgh author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, and it felt like providence seeing her words as we began our journey into untamed lands. Red-tailed hawks swooped low overhead, barely visible through opaque fog. Our hair and clothes collected tiny droplets. The worsening weather ensured we were not going to be hiking up any peaks.

“Whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth.” – Rachel Carson
A bare juniper tree in a fog-covered portion of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The fog was substantial, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We traveled to Guadalupe National Park, ascending to the edge of the clouds. The park was wreathed in mist, notching another rare moment we just happened to be right on time for. The grounds were spooky, to put it simply, compounded by the lack of fellow visitors. We took a walk to the ruins of a stagecoach mail depot, the first overland connection on the continent before being replaced by rail. It was surreal to see the hawks silently swoop in and out of the haze overhead and watch the juniper branches tremble under the light drizzle. We drove down to another part of the park and walked the floor of McKittrick Canyon for a mile or so. Here, the fog made the canyon’s ridges look as if we had been transported to the Highlands of Scotland, provided one didn’t look too hard at the flora. We were falling in love with the land, and our walk out of the gorge saw us roughing out a future trip

McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We hoped the McKittrick Canyon trail would drop us below the layer of fog. Birds circled the jutting cliffs above, their screeches echoing off the canyon walls. We descended layered stone steps into a dry creek bed where a jackrabbit was scrounging. The diversity of plant life was striking against the jutting stone backdrop. Affected by the landscape’s particular beauty, we vowed to come back to explore it more fully.

Desperately hungry, we stopped outside Carlsbad for some truly tragic burritos (why would anyone place the fillings on the outside?), and a good dose of tacky administered in the form bar stools that morphed the sitter’s ass into that of a horse’s, then headed to the caves for their nightly Bat Flight program. We made our way down sloping ramps to the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave. A ranger was dutifully employing bat facts to entertain the small crowd that had resiliently assembled in the rain (Their 1200 species make up 20% of the world’s classified mammals!). She finished her presentation, warning everyone to speak in whispers and step softly. Indeed, the amphitheater magnified even the softest sounds. They began exiting the cave in choreographed movements, forming a pod as they circled the mouth, increasing in number. Then they would swoop up in a single mass and fly off into one direction or the next, while another cloud began the process at the mouth below.

A bar stool made to look like the rear of a horse
The Cactus Cafe’s most redeeming attribute

The drive down and out of the fog took us into New Mexico in short order, where we arrived at Carlsbad National Park. We were too late for the cavern, but had already consigned that for the future trip we had just discussed, so we were more than happy to watch our second bat colony emergence of the trip. The bats emerged in seemingly endless waves from the mouth of the cavern into the wet, grey, early dusk, flapping off towards the Pecos River in search of food. It is difficult for me to conceive approaching these things in such an exuberant and curious manner, let alone doing them, were it not for a partner at least as game as I. Rather than counting my pipe dreams for yet another year in Pittsburgh, I am continually fortunate to relay the Kurt Vonnegut adage to Y: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

We watched until the cold and an unattended, stomping child got the better of us, making it to the car just as the sky let loose. The rain became torrential, pummeling the car in waves. A truck came up fast behind us on the unlit road, barely making us out in time to swerve into the next lane. Shaken by the close call, we stopped for provisions. Russell’s Reserve whiskey was insolently on sale and we grabbed a six-pack of white spiced ale from an outfit in Albuquerque. A local behind us in line voiced his approval of our beer selection, then immediately negated it by suggesting we visit the local Buffalo Wild Wings. We headed to the motel, eager to warm up with a little aid from American hero Jim Russell.

The foul weather had scrapped our plans for camping for the night, so we took advantage of the opportunity to tackle some writing rather than be hunched and defeated, cornered in a tent in soggy wilderness. I enjoy camping and the outdoors, but given the option to avoid precipitation, it’s only the more lunatic fringe of the outdoor type that will relish pulling out their rain gear. We happily booked two nights in Roswell and celebrated life just a hair too hard that evening, aided by some whiskey and delicious beer from the Marble Brewery.

I awoke to a confidently smiling Y and the smell of Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers, which effectively kickstarted my hungover ass. We drove into downtown Roswell, the main drag festooned with aliens of every shape and shade; even the streetlights are made to look like the heads of the infamous Greys (or Greens, depending on how deep your rabbit hole goes). The International UFO Museum was the perfect cross-section of conspiracy theories and history, along with a hefty dose of self-aware, grade-A American camp. Worth every penny of the $5 a head. While I don’t wholly ascribe to the vast array of sinister plots and theories that circle Roswell like tired, ancient buzzards, it’s fairly obvious the government covered something up and continues to do so today. If you believe the government of this United States of America hasn’t ever lied to its people, you’re an absolute nincompoop.

Public Art Commemorating Elizabeth Garrett in Roswell, New Mexico
“Okay, it’s to the tune of “Smoke on the Water”, on three…”

Given our similar threshold for consumption, I assumed J wouldn’t be faring well when I woke unable to string a thought together. A persistent throbbing made sleep implausible and I went to procure some food. JBCs working hard to right our wrongs, we were able to get it together enough to head downtown to indulge in some kitsch at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The front windows had been painted to commemorate its 70th Anniversary. One window had been painted with “1947-2017”, the years of its occupancy, the other touted its “25 years of continued success.” I guess the first 45 didn’t go so well.

A diorama of an alien in a stasis chamber at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
Exposing the great tanning bed conspiracy in Roswell, International UFO Museum and Research Center

There were scale models of aliens being experimented on and a flying saucer that lit up and spun. However, there was also surprisingly thorough coverage of sightings throughout history and the events of 1947 Roswell. I’ve never been much of a believer in little green men (though it seems undeniable that somewhere in this vast universe, other life exists), and the museum didn’t wholly convert me. However, the US government initially stated that they were in possession of a crashed alien aircraft. Then they rescinded the statement, and forced the farmer who discovered the site to do the same. Then they insisted they had found debris from a crashed weather balloon that nobody claimed to be missing. As years passed and witness accounts came out suggesting bodies had been present at the crash site, the government changed its story once more, implying they had actually seen dummies used to test paratrooper equipment. Dummies that weren’t even manufactured until two years later in 1949. I’m not definitively saying there are three aliens below ground in the CIA’s high-security facility hidden in the hills outside Roswell, but I might be more convinced there weren’t if the military lied better than a third grader without his homework.

A wood carving replica of the ancient Mayan carving purported to be an ancient astronaut at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
“Oh, no. No. No, I’m a Rocket Man. Rocket Man,” International UFO Museum and Research Center

A little research into the nearby Roswell Space Center didn’t uncover much about the vague attraction other than it cost $2. Online reviews heralded it as having “lots of room to walk around” and was “near a Subway,” (both true). We threw caution to the wind and decided to forfeit the $4. What is Roswell if not a place to embrace the unknown?

We walked up the ramp covered in alien footprints into what was, in truth, a gift shop. The admission price is for entrance to the Spacewalk. It’s a black-light masterpiece, showcasing surprisingly masterful murals and dioramas. Some are of moments in Roswell’s history, some are just general space scenes. Regardless, it was cool and entirely worth $2.

A black light painting depicting a person break dancing in the vast expanse of space
A black light experience cooler than your weird Uncle’s velvet paintings, Roswell Space Center

We walked around downtown for a bit, reveling in the absurdity of the main drag. Streetlamps are designed with black “eyes” to resemble aliens, there are life-size alien statues, storefronts hawking stuffed alien dolls, and others decorated with alien figures playing poker. J pointed out a mural adorning the window of a hairdresser’s shop in which, ironically, the aliens all had terrible hair. The female aliens had been painted a bit heavyset, and I leaned in towards J, “If they can manage interspace travel, I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten adult obesity under control.”

Green and pink aliens painted onto a window with horrible haircuts and diet issues
Diabetic footwear fashion that’s truly out of this world

We crossed the street and headed to the Roswell Space Center, which is everything a black-light laden, $2 tourist trap could ever hope to be. We obviously loved it. Ravenous from traversing the cold black of outer space, we went to Chef Todzilla’s. As usual, Y exhibited her preternatural ability to suss out great food where most would lamely drive to the nearest McDonald’s (although Roswell’s boasts an extensively done-up UFO theme). We stopped at a bar next door to wash down the delicious burgers and to plan out our camping trip to White Sands National Monument before heading back to the hotel for more writing. Roswell is a lovely place to visit, but the town is full of tragically hilarious reminders that on a Saturday night, efforts to impress on first, second or third dates were being made at places like Buffalo Wild Wings or Tia Juana’s, all but promising a steep downward trend.

We stopped for another round of burgers, because having burgers twice in a day is not a reason to pass up a place called Chef Todzilla’s Gourmet Burgers and Mobile Cuisine. It was the recently erected brick and mortar outpost of a popular food truck, and Todzilla had come by the title Chef honestly. We wondered aloud how we were the only ones there on a weekend night. After a couple of drinks, we went to take pictures in front of the famous UFO-shaped McDonald’s. We got there and saw that McDonald’s had completely diluted its interstellar weirdness by marring its spaceship edifice with the addition of a playplace. I took solace in the fact that if the kids of Roswell were going to ruin an ostentatious tourist trap with something so trivial as a playground, at least they would be enjoying it from a vantage point where they would be forced to witness the pitiful meatmarket that was the B-Dubs parking lot on a Saturday night.

We had a quick and unceremonious breakfast at the UFO McDonald’s before heading off for Monjeau Point, topping off a summit over 9000 feet tall. The drive up was more than a little nerve-wracking, being on a narrow dirt road peppered with the sort of bumps and dips that make you appreciate the greedy pull gravity has on your top-heavy behemoth of a vehicle. Lulled into slightly less white-knuckle status by the sounds of Blur and the lamentations of Damon Albarn, we made it to the top, affirming that the view was indeed worth it, and we had yet to scale the tower steps. Climbing another job well done by the CCC, we nearly lost our breath in the gusting wind. The scars of previous forest blazes seemed amplified by the lush blue sky, and we scanned the horizon in all directions until the chill of elevation set in.

The Monjeau Point Fire Lookout Tower in Lincoln National Forest
The Fire Lookout Tower, Monjeau Point

The next morning we embarked on scaling Monjeau Point. Narrow, winding back roads devolved into a mix of dirt and gravel for the last 7 miles to the summit. We looked forward to utilizing the Suburban’s V8 engine, but the car slipped on the rugged road, and gravel sharply pelted its impractically low undercarriage. It seems the Chevy Suburban is neither suited for city driving nor rigorous terrain, and is merely a minivan labeled as an SUV to coddle the egos of suburbanites too insecure to stomach having lost their edge. J carefully advanced, which was made more difficult anytime a car approached on the narrow road, forcing us right to the edge of the cliff as it squeezed by. I tried to remain calm, and not to look down.

We pulled into a lot near the peak and took a moment to gather ourselves. The fire lookout tower sits 9,641ft up, at the tip of the mountain. After a quick pause to stare down a youth who had thrown a plastic bottle on the ground, we began our ascent. We stepped onto the landing, which afforded spectacular views of the Lincoln National Forest below. The sky was the majestic blue of a photo filter, and we stood planted against buffeting winds that seemed capable of pushing us over the ledge, beholding the valley’s beauty amidst the voracity of nature.

A view of Lincoln National Forest from atop Monjeau Pont's Fire Lookout Tower
A truly natural high, Monjeau Point
Two Traveling Texans

REMEMBERING THE ALAMO CITY

I could hear J talking with the man at the door over the sound of the running shower. The man sounded emotional, his voice undeniably urgent, though not angry, my attempts to make out their words through the water’s spray proving futile. After what seemed like a lengthy exchange, J shut the motel room door, and knocked on the one to the bathroom. The bedroom’s air conditioning flooded in as he peered around the door.

“That was one of the managers. The shower is leaking into the room underneath us. They’re moving us next door.”

Fuck. “Alright, well I’m not getting out until I finish rinsing my hair. It’ll be two minutes.”

“Yeah, I told him once you were out and dressed, then we’d move.”

We had arrived in San Antonio after dark the night before. I had wanted to browse some of Austin‘s celebrated vintage stores on our way out of the city, and J had wanted to introduce me to the devilry that is the Whataburger fast food chain. We drove into an industrial area just blocks from the center of downtown. In any other city, hotels in this proximity to the center would be fashionable and elegant. However, here there sat a row of small, dilapidated motels, unloved for what seemed like some time now. These buildings, teal and rust and avocado, had once been someone’s pride. Now they bore the logos of budget brands with name recognition.

“You’re both from Pennsylvania? What are you doing here?” J explained our road trip to the night attendant as she passed back our driver’s licenses. He enthusiastically recounted his previous trips to the city with obvious excitement to be back. “I’ve always liked Austin better than San Antonio,” she said. A glowing recommendation. “I’m from there, Austin. I moved here two years ago, but San Antonio’s alright.” Nice save.

They waded through the now well-tread territory of why and how we were doing what we were. J mentioned we’d be camping once we made it further West. “Camping, really? I mean you look…” she pointed at J. “But you,” then at me, “you do not look like the type who goes camping.” I suppose working as a night desk attendant at run-down motel affords one the opportunity to see a lot. People in hospitality often learn how to read others with astonishing precision. As a waiter, I would regularly compete in a game. When a new table of guests arrived we would all take bets as to what they were going to order before anyone had spoken with them. I was exceptional at it. I confessed her observation had been perceptive, and we shared a laugh over her keen insight.

On our way to our room we walked past some of the motel’s other guests, who were quietly smoking or finding privacy outside on their phones. Once inside the room, I looked at J, “People definitely live here.” I dropped onto the bed.

“Oh fuck yeah they do.”

One of the biggest luxuries on long road trips is staying in a place for multiple nights. You get to sleep in, you can leave out your toiletries. Now the novelty of the shitty motel was wearing thin as I hurriedly scrubbed conditioner out of my hair and packed my things for the haul a door down.

We slept harder than usual, likely because we actually gave ourselves time to do so. When you’re on a free-wheeling cross-country adventure, your boss is your lust for life, which sometimes makes you the idiot, if not a stooge to the raw power of the fun house you live in. While the play for sympathy is surely DOA, I would hope the sentiment hastens a trip to the record collection. While we hadn’t planned on lingering in our hotel room that long, it did set us up for the optimal time to go to The Esquire Tavern, my absolute favorite bar on the planet.

J in front of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
J and his happy place, The Esquire Tavern

I came across Esquire years ago on my first night in San Antonio, there for the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. If you haven’t been to SACC, it’s an incredible time, especially if you’re working behind the scenes to make it happen with a killer platoon of bartenders from around the country. A small group of said bartenders had just met for the first time and we were excited to have a bit of fun before we got to work in the coming days. We were led to the Esquire, where we came upon one of the more bizarre scenes I’ve encountered. Just down the street from the bar in the alcove in front of a hot dog shop that had clearly seen better days, let alone nights, two police officers were arguing over what was obviously a body under a sheet, quibbling like two children:

“No, you touch it.”

“No way, I touched the last one.”

This went on for few minutes or so, and after we had stretched our rubber necks long enough, we went inside to discuss and watch the eventual flash of ambulance lights in the front window. “Welcome to San Antonio” became the joke of the evening over some amazing drinks and burgeoning friendships. Over the next three years, Esquire became the spot I would enthusiastically start and emotionally end my time in San Antonio with, along with plenty of stops in between.

The weather was looking grim, but you couldn’t tell from J’s warm disposition. He spiritedly told stories while we crossed the square, pointing out buildings he had been in while working SACC, vividly recounting an epic party where a number of sloshed attendees stumbling in the street had almost gotten the whole event shut down. He noted the vivid and historic Aztec Theater, a(nother) Whataburger whose practice of being open all night facilitated some inebriated hijinks, and other places of note, all building up to his favorite bar, The Esquire Tavern.

As Y and I walked from the hotel, I gave a gibbering and nonsensical tour of the small corner of the city I would inhabit once a year. I had a refreshed appreciation for the city’s art-deco meets Latin architecture, and excitedly pointed out discoveries old and new to Y. I dribbled anecdotes, noted small changes and the lack of change, until we came upon Esquire from the Riverwalk side. Its corner lot neighbor had been brought down to rubble, and rounding the corner, the hot dog shop was long gone. Esquire itself, however, was of course blissfully intact. We had arrived an hour or so before the happy hour I’m always pleasantly surprised by, and well before any crowd developed. The fried bologna sandwich was also blissfully intact, which had been my aim since I knew San Antonio was on the trip. I was happy to soak the place in- just about every bartender worth their salt in San Antonio has worked at Esquire at one point, and everything about it represents an ideal of what I would try and build someday, were I still in the game, as the kids say.

House cocktail in front of a wall of mezcal at The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
The Esquire Tavern’s stunning wall of mezcal

The Esquire’s bar is the longest in Texas, running from the front door to a back dining room which faces out onto the Riverwalk. It still being early afternoon, we were one of just a few guests there. J had been talking about their deviled eggs (with pickled pink peppercorns!) since the last time he came back from San Antonio, and his infatuation seemed appropriate once I was able to corroborate the evidence. I could pretend I ordered the Jalapeños Rellenitos because I hadn’t had breakfast and needed a base before going to town on the beautiful, mezcal-lined back wall, but truthfully, I am a monster who is powerless against even the cheapest bar’s frozen, store-bought jalapeño poppers. These were, obviously, far superior. We worked our way around a number of exquisite house cocktails. Ready for more substantial fare, I ordered a fried green tomato BLT. It arrived twice the anticipated size on gratuitously buttered Texas toast. I don’t usually suffer from an inability to finish my food. Having four younger siblings, my parents quickly lost their patience for finicky eaters, and clearing my plate is instilled in the very fiber of my being. However, halfway through I needed a breather. I attempted to spur on digestion with one of the aforementioned mezcal’s, but after an hour, I conceded I would have to tap out and begrudgingly gave up my plate. I’m looking forward to a rematch.

The Alamo in San Antonio
“And Pedro is working on an adobe. Can you say that with me?”

The movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure imbued people of my generation with a mythical draw to see the Alamo. J warned me that it was actually quite small, despite the proportions it had occupied in my childhood imagination. I was actually unaware that it was a mission, or that it was right smack in the middle of downtown. It sits peacefully amongst the newer buildings, stoic and handsome like the old stone church it is. We managed to refrain from asking to see the basement.

View of the San Antonio Riverwalk
The Riverwalk

Anyone who visits San Antonio will return home insisting you must see the Riverwalk. Trust that it’s more impressive than they have expressed. Set one story below street level, the stone walkway runs 15 miles along both banks of the San Antonio River. The water creates an oasis from the Texas heat, cooling the channel noticeably from the city mere feet above. The winding walkway is singular in its beauty, with each section incorporating distinct design elements. Colored tiles line stairways and create intricate mosaics. Public art installations abound. Ponds, gardens, and waterfalls give each stretch a secluded, personal feel. Uniquely fashioned alcoves and benches, a gazebo, and a grotto all provided seating, and promoted enjoyment of the scenery along the length we walked.

One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk in San Antonio
One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk

The rain went from undecided to considerable to torrential and we took cover under a bridge. Blue Box, another of J’s beloved spots in the restored Pearl complex, was just a half mile away. We attempted to wait out the worst of it, resisting boarding the uninhabited police boat docked nearby in an uncommon moment of maturity. Eventually we tired of waiting for the weather’s cooperation and went for it.

Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk
Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk

After an exceedingly indulgent meal, we set off down the river, despite the rain, enjoying the solitude and serenity of the Riverwalk. Thoroughly soaked, we eventually arrived at Blue Box, another favorite old haunt and one of the earliest bars in the Pearl, a well-executed redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery’s original footprint. We enjoyed more than a fair share of tequila and beer, doing a shot or two with the bartender. Even after years of drinking in bars and a decade working the stick, living in a small city where knowing the bartender is a dubious comfort and fact of life, there’s nothing quite so expressive and beautiful as a bartender quietly asking if you’d like to share a nip with them. Especially when they’ve never met you before, and definitely after they know they’ll never see you again. Bonus points for not outing us as service (or ex-service, as it were), because that type of shot is easy like the second Death Star destroying a Mon Calamari Cruiser at the Battle of Endor.

The Pearl in San Antonio
The Pearl

The Pearl gorgeously utilizes old buildings into a large shopping and dining compound, with Blue Box at its far end. We entered the bar, hair and clothes dripping, to find it was somehow still happy hour. We noticed the concurrent tequila shot specials and decided to add a few to our beers, just to warm up. Then grabbed another round just as happy hour was ending. Perhaps it was our bad example, perhaps it was the crowd’s behavior, but the bartender seemed inspired to have a shot of his own and asked us if we’d like to join him. Drinking alone is by no means anything to be ashamed of, but there’s something irrefutably celebratory about taking shots. They don’t need to be fussy or end in slamming glassware on the bar (in fact, they shouldn’t), but they’re always improved by company. After years of working in the service industry, the tradition of sharing a little nip to take the edge off is very much ingrained in us, and we were happy to oblige. As the crowd in the cocktail bar started shifting into aggravating bros ordering Lone Star Lights and vodka tonics, we knew it was time to move on. We gladly accepted one more tequila for the road and got an Uber back to the motel.

Sufficiently buzzed and unwilling to deal with the rain for round two, we called an Uber. Our driver informed us of the deep German, Czech and French roots of Texas towns, which explained the multitude of signs we had seen for Kolaches, a wonderful delicacy one expects in Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. He also explained the influence of Polka in Mexican music. Only a few days later, we would hear the very same unmistakable strains of Polka, heavily inflected with a Latin bent. As with many of our experiences in the South and Texas, our eyes were pried that much wider, and our world richer for it.

After some downtime at our hotel, which is a story unto itself, truth be told, we slithered out past the array of weird in the parking lot and down to Last Word for a nightcap. I was sad to not hit Brooklynite and way too many others, but the quiet enjoyment of a stellar bar was more than what we needed to close the night. While our night in San Antonio wasn’t expansive, it was fun and memorable, which is what the city will always be for me.

I woke early the next morning in an attempt to get some laundry done before setting off across the expanse of Texas wilderness, not knowing when we’d find the chance once we were in the country’s less inhabited parts. The cast of characters shuffling about the grounds at 8am was somehow even dodgier than the night crew had been. I returned to the laundry room to find a stocky man and his large dog, blocking the doorway with their imposing frames. “Is that your clothes in the washer, because I moved it,” he blustered. I assumed his ignorance at that being standard laundromat protocol was the result of being recently discharged from whatever relationship, facility, or relative’s house had been previously managing his laundry needs, and took pity on him. Realizing I had no intention of arguing about it, he softened and stepped aside. I moved the clothes to the dryer and walked back across the menagerie of characters to the room to finish packing.

We checked out and took a walk to get breakfast, stopping to admire the observatory of the Maverick-Carter house, a striking sight in the middle of downtown, built for real estate tycoon William H. Maverick’s much younger wife Aline. Inside Pharm Table, a vegan restaurant I had spotted walking around the previous afternoon, the atmosphere was tranquil, contradicting the motel lot in every way. We appreciated a meal that was actually nourishing, and after having our run of every flavor of housemade tea like a dieter requesting samples at an ice cream shop, went to see the San Antonio Missions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio
Mission San Juan Capistrano

Our fuel for the next day was some rad vegan food from Pharm Table. Quinoa pizza is now a thing I now know exists and want more of. Before leaving San Antonio, we hit another National Park, this one devoted to the preservation of a clutch of Spanish Missions. The history behind the region at large and the role the Missions played was interesting and compelling, to say the least. The Spanish Empire’s method of assimilation was extremely effective- convert the desperate with the promise of a future. The enduring impact the buildings had now surrounds the memorialized edifices in the form of one of the largest cities in the country, where the layers of history and culture fuse into an altogether unique pattern.

Archways of Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose

Organized, disorganized, religion does not interest me. The Spaniards built these missions as a way to sell their conquest of the new world, convincing the people of Spain they needed to bring Catholicism to the heathens here, and courting the Coahuiltecan tribes they were intruding upon with the promise of safety. The missions weren’t just churches, they were forts. But it’s hard to deny the craft involved in erecting these buildings, or the beauty of their facades and grounds. The missions are part of the National Parks System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The NPS does an exemplary job of highlighting their importance in historical context. Mission San Jose housed as many as 300 people, with homes lining the inner circumference of the fort wall. People congregated within the walls to build tools, to relax, to socialize. They were industrious, fashioning irrigation channels and a water mill. What is left out of so much of the retelling is that it was actually the Native Americans that built these structures, and while the Spaniards may have been the architects, the Native American influence is evident in the adornment throughout.

Interior Room with fireplace and Native American motif in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Native American design elements in an interior room at Mission San Jose

Even during our strolls through the grounds of the Missions, the mythical drive through West Texas was nipping at our heels. The distance is one thing, but especially for two raised in the Eastern part of the country, it’s as if you’ve suddenly taken a plunge off the continental shelf of civilization, drifting out into the deep and empty wilds. As we left San Antonio, the terrain slowly changed; the rocks multiplied, the greens intermingled with grey and diminished. Then, as darkness fell, the sensation of nothingness pervaded, at least until a bizarre fog settled in. Van Horn, nestled in mist and the quiet, implicit terror of surrounding darkness was our stop for the night, just barely into a new time zone.

Texas is known for its vastness. It’s second only in size to Alaska among the 50 states and larger than every country in Europe. The thing is, its vast size isn’t the trouble. What makes driving across Texas feel ceaseless is traveling for hundreds of miles uninterrupted by a town. You’re on I-10, a legitimate interstate. Google Maps shows towns every forty miles or so. This is where I take issue. Personally, I believe in order to incorporate, a town should be forced to at least have a gas station. I had been napping when J mentioned the low tank. We watched as our GPS alerted us we were passing through “town” after “town” while surrounded by nothing. Finally, we were able to obtain enough cell service to locate a gas station 15 minutes away.

Growing up on the East coast, only teenagers and morons run out of gas. The only other time I have even come close to such a crises was on a road trip down California 101. We had gone through the Avenue of the Giants to view the redwoods, and were hugging the cliffs off the Pacific Ocean as we headed to a wedding in Oakland. We were in a Mazda Miata, a car with a 10 gallon tank. As the needle slowly dropped we watched Google Maps tell us that single-digit smatterings of mobile homes and sewage tanks were towns for about two hours before finally coming upon a general store with an ancient pump outside, which a stranger had been kind enough to instruct me how to operate.

I believe difficult predicaments are meant to equip you for future calamities. I spotted the old pump as J pulled the car into the station and was glad for the preparation. I told J to wait in the car, feeling his long hair might not be well received like some cliched scene in a movie. I entered the convenience store, immediately garnering the attention of the five men sitting around a table in their hunting gear, playing cards and eating sandwiches. After discerning I was no threat (and not in season), they went back to their game and conversation. I gave the clerk my card for the gas and asked to use the restroom. She pointed past the aisles lined with animal busts and camp gear to a surprisingly hospitable bathroom. On the way back to the pump, she stopped me, asking if I needed any help with the old machine. I thanked her, assuring her I had experience with such things. She confided people passing through often didn’t, and made sure I knew my way back to the interstate before letting me leave.

This new phase of the trip promised to be decidedly introspective and a little challenging at times. Hypothetical campsites loomed ahead, plans were looser, and the emergency lifeboat of Cleveland might as well be in another country. It’s barren and lonely and all of the Hollywood tropes ever unspooled about these roads hold true sway. To our eyes, this is still very much a desolately beautiful and terrifying frontier where shit can go wrong real quick. Those natural wonders, however, are not going to see themselves. We aim to do that, and with gusto, especially if the driving does not occur at night. That shit creepy.

Arched doorways in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose
Two Traveling Texans

AUSTIN (PT II) – CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY

Our plan for the next day was simple enough, but even the most optimistic forecast held true. We parked a car over at Barton Springs in the morning, and our host, her not-quite but totally squeeze Max, Y, and I all microdosed on mushrooms and set off for a glorious walk in the woods, with the Springs as our final destination. I haven’t really dabbled in mushrooms in a long while, not since an extremely bad trip. Back then, my team consisted of not so much a team as it was a handful of selfish dinks, and the goal was nil. An action lacking intentionality should be kept in one’s pants until there is firm rationale behind the act. Additionally, there’s a great deal to be said for trust, for friendship, and for knowing when those words are just words. There are people you would do drugs with, and there are people you would not. I’m very fortunate to have left the pretenders to the team well off in the dust of the rearview.

After a brief smudging ceremony and some cleansing bell chimes, we set off for the heart of Austin. Even before we started feeling it, the day was under some sort of enchantment – just the right amount of overcast with plenty of light sprinkling out from the clouds and down below the canopy of leaves. Early on in our journey, Beia introduced us to a local who had constructed a stonework throne and small pond under a bridge, where he sat poring over a large textbook. Austin is indeed weird, but so much of it is a comfort to those deviating from a standard march time signature.

The view of the Shoal Creek from the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
The Shoal Creek Trail

With Beia off the next day, we decided to take some mushrooms, (a recurring amusement between us) and walk the few miles from her house to Barton Springs Pool. We parked a car at the pool to be available for us later, grabbed her friend, Max, and headed back to her place. After a short centering ceremony, we were off. Beia led us on a route she knew well, identifying points of interest along the way. Though we never strayed far from a major road, our path felt secluded and removed from the realities of the city. Beia shouted out toward a bridge and I turned to discover a man sitting in the water beneath it. We found he was a fixture of sorts on this trail. Beia and he had encountered each other previously, and she asked permission to bring us closer. Here, acceptably hidden by the bridges supports and high grasses, he had fashioned himself a throne of river stones. There he sat, cooly reading a university textbook. The encounter seemed less strange than one would expect from a meeting under a bridge and I left awed by his ingenuity, and his ability to keep a very expensive book dry.

A graffiti face under a bridge along the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
Bridge Troll

As we walked the trail, color and sound and smell became bolder and our smiles and laughter became constant. Emerging briefly into the paved parts of the forest, we stopped for lunch at the Death Star of Whole Foods. The movement from a depository for foodstuffs and community lynchpin to a museum of potential edibles and lifestyle choice in supermarkets is one of my least favorite developments of the 21st century. The food, however, was exactly as advertised, and being smug about how one deals with a biological imperative is a wonderful condiment.

We stopped for a picnic at the original Whole Foods Market, enthralled by the urban fowl soliciting there. Aside from the common pigeons scavenging about was a bird which seemed to have learned to play maimed to garner sympathy scraps from patrons whose designs had been greater than their abilities. Everyone in our party being a member of the clean plate club, he went to spin his yarn by those with more anemic appetites.

Y hugging public art that looks like a large, blue mound on the streets of Austin, Texas
Austin is the shit.

We crossed over Ladybird Lake and paused to hit a bowl on the shore, watching the boats slip by, and nearly getting lost down a rabbit hole of conversation. The build-up of sweat we were wearing won out, and we continued on to Barton Springs. We could hear the drum circle before we could see the pool, the rhythm floating down the outflow stream along with the kayaks and floats occupied by happy, sun-drenched Austinites. Finally, we were there – a place I had drooled over in the wee hours of the night, dreaming of a new life. It’s an incredible sight to behold.

Graffiti of Pac-Man being chased by ghosts on bridge over Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas
“Computer games don’t affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music.”- Marcus Brigstocke

Beia graciously took care of our entrance fee, and after a quick trip to the changing areas, we were off to the races. We had been thoroughly warned that it was going to be cold, but that the water had a mysterious rejuvenating quality. The assessment was dead-on. The water was an icy stab from the depths at first, but felt marvelous after a few minutes. Y and I paddled into the shallow end to float and relax. I had felt so safe approaching the pool that I had left my glasses behind with our towels, something I haven’t done in a long while. I had forgotten how rewarding the experience of letting your other senses pick up the slack can be. Not being able to read faces or distinguish them gives one a weird freedom.

Beia and Max had repeatedly warned that despite the Texas sun pummeling down all afternoon, the water temperature would be bracing. I stood at the edge experimenting, dipping a toe in, and confirmed their assessment. Attempting to ease into the frigid water by degrees would require a discipline I do not possess. We jumped.

The cold hit us like a slap, seizing our breath. Winded, we bobbed up, laughing through our pants. After a few minutes of paddling, we began to acclimate. Neither J nor I being the strongest of swimmers, we decided to make our way towards shallower depths.

The sides of the pool have been carved out to create a fairly straight perimeter, the bottom has been left natural. In places the rock is gravelly, in others smooth. Algae cover the uneven limestone floor, making it slick. Dips and channels in the rock make depth unpredictable, and I was able to entertain J when startled by one such valley, I dramatically slipped below the surface with a choked cry.

We all eventually reconvened at our towel spot, the drum circle behind us still pounding away just past the crest of the hill. Everything looked and felt very primal, connected. We were, after all, enjoying the same leisure that had been enjoyed there for centuries.

As the sun crept down, Max and I overheard some bro mansplaining to reveal that ramen was a very new thing in this country. Thank god people like him exist, because if not for his piercing insight into society and all matters gastronomic and whatever else he’s assuredly an expert in, how would we know these things? Certainly not from chefs, professional or otherwise, those of Japanese heritage, Japanophiles or Maruchan Incorporated. In any case, ramen became a new topic of discussion for our little band, and it was decided we go find some of that good good. I managed to set my hair on fire attempting to hit a bong, but we’re leaving that detail out of the larger story arc.

The swim had woken a hunger in us, and after a quick pit stop to switch out of our suits, we headed to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, at Beia and Max’s urging. The line around the outside set some high expectations. J and I ordered the house’s version of a Michelada, made with Sapporo, kimchi, bonito, and a togarashi rim. I struggled with ordering a second, but refrained, determined to leave enough room to finish my ramen. The rare impulse control paying off, as we agreed the rich, unctuous broth was easily the best either of us had ever tried.

Graphic mural outside Ramen Tatsu-Yu in Austin, Texas
Ramen Tatsu-Ya

Ramen Tatsu-Ya was hands down the best ramen I’ve had, and throw in the Kimchi-lada with a togarashi salt rim, I felt like I had been canonized by my taste buds. Happy and full, we headed back to Beia’s house to chat over some beers, eventually succumbing to a content exhaustion around 1am.

While the day isn’t much on paper- breakfast, drugs, a walk, swimming, dinner, literally a very pedestrian sort of affair, it is by far my favorite single day of the trip thus far. I will always treasure it. Everything I love in this life was present in perfect amounts. The next morning saw me a little weed-groggy, which is normal for a square like me, but otherwise happy and blissfully anxiety-free.

Having the perfect weather for a pursuit is a luxury when traveling, so the next morning we headed off to Hamilton Pool Preserve despite the dove gray sky. The preserve includes a waterfall-fed natural pool created when the dome over an underground river collapsed. It is said to get crowded, and I hoped turning up on a Monday with unfavorable skies would allow us to have some space. We drove through gently rolling gray hills, feeling very far from the city we’d left. A “Don’t Mess With Texas” sign educated us as to the reason for the pristine preservation of the surrounding country. It warned of a maximum of $2000 in fines and 180 days in jail for a littering offense. Turns out everything really is bigger in Texas.

We planned on hitting the Hamilton Pool for some more swimming, and our serendipitous double date continued on as we drove out into Hill country. Hill country, if you’ve never been, is as magical and alluring as Kentucky, but the peaks of elevation are generally strikingly bald, aside from patches of brush, cypress, oak, and juniper. The scenic drive, at least for a moment, seemed just that, when due to a change in policy and some pretty elementary poor online-presence management, we weren’t allowed in without a reservation we didn’t know we needed to have. The age we live in.

As we turned into the preserve we were greeted by a park ranger holding a clipboard. She asked for the name on our reservation, a reservation we didn’t have. We attempted to feel out any sympathetic tendencies, but it became clear she was immune to our plight. Having myself found out about the pool through a Google search, I felt unqualified to lament the effects of industrialized tourism for too long. Beia suggested Pedernales Falls State Park a half hour away and we were off.

Beia, J, and Max exploring the limestone steps that make up the Pedernales Falls while the Pedernales River is low
Exploring the falls at Pedernales State Park

Signs at the entrance to the falls disclose their violence. They warn to remain attentive, listening for the sound of rushing water. To not turn one’s back on them. We walked through a thicket of knotty black trees encircled by a ghostly mist, the trail opening onto a vista overlooking the falls below. The river was low, the water collected in serene pools which burbled into the ones below. We went down to explore. A light rain was starting, and though it lasted just moments, it spurred a mass desertion amongst the park’s other patrons. We climbed the ridges solitarily, quietly inspecting the landscape. The slopes of smooth rock betrayed the river’s true nature, worn soft by years of force and pressure. A cast of hawks began circling above, agitated and growing in number. Another storm loomed overhead. As the fat drops began to fall we hastened for the car, retiring back to the house to relax before dinner.

J sitting on a rock watching the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
J watching the falls cascading down the limestone steps at Pedernales Falls State Park.
Potholes in the bedrock of the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
The river was low enough to explore the potholes in the bedrock at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Thankfully, Beia pulled a great backup plan out, and we headed to Pedernales Falls, one of Texas’ many state parks. The falls, much like the Falls of the Ohio, were markedly restrained and peaceful. We walked the smooth stone and examined the potholes, deep undercuts and slowly whirling eddies of the low-lying river, imagining the fierce wall of water it would become during the rainy season. We all made wishes on some river mollusk shells, tossed them back into the Pedernales and walked up the hill and through the deathly still juniper and cypress forest back to the car.

An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.
An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Solid downtime happened before getting ready for dinner at Uchiko. While Y and I had, for the most part, agreed that this was not a journey of gustatory delights, at least not expensive ones, we always planned for exceptions and having both Beia and Max’s seal of approval and enthusiasm for where they worked was more than enough to hook us. We could not have asked for a better meal, nor better people to share it with. The restaurant is doing everything on such an inspiring level, I even felt the tug of my most recent past life.

As someone hailing from a fairly ruined freshwater ecosystem, and an area that is largely landlocked, great sushi is a rare treat I have only experienced a few times. This was one of those times, made even more special by the menu’s unorthodox approach. For example, and without spoiling anything, I’ve never seen gruyere cheese on the menu at an Asian forward concept, let alone cheese that’s been gussied up and thrown through an iSi siphon. The meal was impressive, to say the least, with service on point from amazing aperitivo cocktails down to the rewarding dessert. To be clear, we rarely, if ever, order dessert. Full confession – yes, dessert is a thing we do, but it’s usually a nip of spirits or a round or three at a dive bar for the finishing move. It’s not that we don’t trust the pastry chef (I find them to be the most inspiring chefs in the kitchen, more often than not), it’s that when we dine out, we are focused replenishing our requisite parts, being salt and spirit. We may or may not already be as sweet as our body chemistry allows. In any case, it was to be an evening for the best of all worlds, including dessert, and our next stop was just as stellar as our meal.

The best way to experience a restaurant is with someone who works there. Living in Pittsburgh the last few years hadn’t exactly presented us with an array of sushi options, so when Beia and Max suggested we accompany them to Uchiko, we didn’t hesitate. Both elegant and casual, it’s a place that hits all the marks. The drinks were flawless, the space handsome and comfortable, the service knowledgeable and attentive. Though we heard a guest outside reductively refer to it as a sushi restaurant, it really is so much more than perfect sashimi. We tried a myriad of dishes, both hot and cold, and with each new bite we were filled with a profound respect for the technique apparent, the delicate layering of flavor, the impeccable use of texture. The restaurant deserves every accolade it’s garnered.

As we progressed through our meal, various staff members stopped by our table, each asking if we would be joining the post-work karaoke festivities. The inclusion in the shift afterparty at a restaurant you do not work at is a rarity, and not to be taken lightly. Being welcoming unconditionally for an uninterrupted eight hours is taxing work, and hospitality ends when the door shuts behind the last guest. These outings are a chance for everyone to trade battle stories, to commiserate, to get as drunk as finances will allow. Pleasantries are delightfully absent. I can only credit our host’s wit and charm with granting us with admittance. By the fifth query (and third glass of wine) we were fully committed to accepting their generous invitation.

During dinner, Max and I had briefly discussed the need for and nature of digestivos, and he decided on taking us to La La’s. While I had been told it was a Christmas bar, my soul was not prepared. It is an amazing bar, full stop. If I lived in Austin, I would crave sitting at that bar the same way I do Gooski’s, Kelly’s, and Harris Grill back in Pittsburgh. The fact that The Shining was playing certainly didn’t hurt. Fernet, whiskey, and beer we all kicked back before we took the staff of Uchiko up on their gracious invitation to join them at the local karaoke lounge for their post-service Monday ritual.

Sign saying 96 days until Christmas and replica of leg lamp from the movie A Christmas Story decorations at La La's Little Nugget in Austin, Texas
La La’s Little Nugget

Max suggested La La’s Little Nugget, a Christmas bar, as a place to throw back a few shots while we waited for staff to finish the business of breaking down. La La’s is kitschy, and clever, and absurd in the best way. It’s also incredibly welcoming. We hung at the bar, trading quips and shooting whiskey with the bartender, feeling like regulars. We received word that the Uchiko crew was off the clock and headed over to join the drunken revelry.

Despite the two of us walking in directions that lead away from what kept a roof over our heads for so long, restaurant people will always be our people. The free-wheeling generosity and never-ending pursuit of laughter is a common thread that binds us together. Any invitation to that sort of gathering is both a privilege and a challenge to pay it forward. We stayed long into the concert, truly a Party in the USA, and fell asleep quickly once home, hastened by the alcohol and good cheer still coursing through our veins.

The next morning was a battle against our rebelling bodies. Breakfast, preferably in taco form, being the best ammunition for such fights, Beia advocated for Veracruz, an awesome little taco truck located adjacent to Radio Coffee. J had lovingly decorated an Underberg wrapper with hearts and stars, and after throwing back that magical tonic, I felt well enough to be in public and we went to fulfill our tortilla-wrapped destiny. Once sustenance had been ordered, I went to get us coffee. However, inside I discovered the cafe was further improved by a bar. Put straight by the beer and eggs, the short drive to San Antonio felt once again like the manageable task it was. As is my habit, I picked Beia up in an embrace. It was time to go.

The Underberg bottle that J decorated with hearts and stars
Breakfast of Champions

The next day was a struggle, not only for BAC reasons, but because we were leaving Austin. Beia could not have been a more insightful and accommodating guide, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to add to the list of guests we hope to entertain in Cuenca. The city itself, while suffused with a self-awareness one finds in Portland or the now-precious portions of Brooklyn, still maintains a ruggedly individualistic streak of weird that Hunter S. Thompson would likely approve of, even in this age of coarsening cynicism. I look forward to the happy moments of the future I know will happen in Austin. What a fantastic town. I can’t wait to come home there, someday.

Yvette lifting Beia up in a goodbye embrace
I just can’t help myself.