A Travellerspoint blog

USA

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Navajo Nation


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

large_ac4ac770-4c96-11ec-af3d-1b4551fb45db.png

The most surprising thing about arriving on the Navajo Reservation was that we were even there at all. All my research about Navajo Nation before the trip advised me that it was "closed" due to COVID, but after that the situation became very murky. The Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley parks were closed, but did that mean it was impossible to see any of the famous stone formations? Were the roads blocked, like the one to Taos Pueblo? No one seemed to know for sure. In the end I decided the best solution would be to leave those two days open just in case the Nation opened during the first half of our trip, and hope that an alternate path to Moab through Colorado would still have accommodation available at the last minute. Not long before we left I spoke to an old friend who had stayed in a traditional hogan near Monument Valley in the summer of 2020, when the epidemic was at its worst in Navajo country. He said he hadn't had any problem at all and that it had been a great experience. I looked up the hogan on Airbnb and it was available, so that took care of the second night. That left Canyon de Chelley where there were no Airbnb's. I checked the Navajo Nation website regularly but there was no hint of reopening. Eventually with two days to go I called the reception desk of the hotel by the canyon that my guidebook recommended. They advised me that the hotel was open and although the park itself was closed, it was still possible to see the canyon and the most famous formation, Spider Rock, from overlooks along the road. That was enough for me to commit to a night there, which is why we found ourselves driving into Chinle on a Tuesday afternoon.

Chinle was a quiet, dusty town that didn't bear much resemblance to Zuni, the other reservation town we had stayed at. The two highways that passed through the town became long, bland commercial stretches that intersected at a T. Side streets led to clusters of prefab housing without any of the interesting touches of Zuni, such as the outdoor bread ovens. There was clearly nothing to do here except visit the canyon. The only game in town for Native American food was the Junction Restaurant at the Best Western. I learned that lamb is a Navajo specialty and the roast lamb sandwich at Junction was one of the most satisfying things I'd eaten in a while. We also had our introduction to fry bread, a sweet deep-fried staple of the local diet that doesn't do the human metabolism any favors.
large_IMG_6590.jpg

It was still light outside and way to early to retire to our boring motel. We'd already visited the only crafts store in town and found it to have overpriced, inauthentic merchandise geared mainly towards casual tourists. That just left the canyon, which we had expected to see the following morning. Canyon de Chelly is the ancestral home of the Navajo since the early 18th century and was the origin of the ill-conceived and tragic Long Walk that exiled the tribe to New Mexico. Chelly is pronounced "shay" and is the Spanish version of the Navajo word Tséyi' which means "rock canyon". Right outside our motel the road out of Chinle split in two, with Route 7 passing along the south rim of the canyon and Route 64 hugging the north rim. We had actually been driving along the edge of the canyon when we drove into Chinle on Route 64 without realizing it. We chose to explore the south rim in order to see Spider Rock, a 750 foot sandstone spire that arises from the canyon floor in magnificent solitude. According to legend an important deity named Spider Woman lives at the top of the rock making it one of the most important sites in Navajo theology. The Spider Rock overlook is the final one along the south rim, a twenty minute drive from Chinle. When we arrived we encountered the coldest air we experienced for the entire trip, thanks to the overcast sky and a brisk wind coming over the canyon. The kids only had light jackets but they hardly complained as we walked along the trail at the rim. It was our first look at the canyon and it was absolutely magnificent. The pattern of erosion made the richly textured walls of sedimentary rock look as though they were melting into the bottom of the canyon, a pristine and tantalizing wonderland of greenery in a dry riverbed. I felt a pang of longing knowing that on this visit at least we would be denied the experience of standing on the floor of that beautiful canyon.
large_IMG_6579.jpglarge_IMG_6584.jpg

Towards the end of the path we finally got our look at Spider Rock. It was a dominant feature of the canyon even from the rim and we could only imagine how imposing it must look from the base. The double tower of fissured sandstone looked like the incisors of a gargantuan beast that lay buried underground. I could have happily contemplated the canyon for an hour but the icy wind was making short work of our light clothing and forced us to return to the car.
large_IMG_6583.jpglarge_IMG.jpg

On the drive back to the motel we stopped at Tsegi Overlook for a different perspective and immediately became aware of a majestic double rainbow over the canyon, the first that I had ever seen. Not only were the individual bands of the primary rainbow as bright and clear as any I could remember, but we could follow it all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. It was like a CGI scene from a movie with the only thing missing being the pot of gold. We admired it for a while and as we were driving off we encountered a group of grazing horses by the roadside. Mei Ling began filming them from the car and then turned the camera around to catch the rainbow as we drove away from it, and ended up with one of the most spectacular travel videos that either of us has ever created.
large_IMG_6585.jpglarge_PYFZ5007.JPG

In the morning we went back to Junction for breakfast and to my delight the lamb sandwich was already on the menu. I could probably have eaten a couple of those every day for the rest of the trip. There was plenty of time to kill so we drove back along the south rim almost as far as Spider Rock to visit a Native American gallery which had been closed the previous evening. We didn't see anything we wanted to buy but it was cool to see the inside of a hogan and we had an interesting conversation with the owner, who had also done most of the weaving and knitting that was on display.
large_IMG_6591.jpg

From the north rim the canyon was less dramatic but just as beautiful. Fingers of sandstone extended from the walls towards the center where there was a thin, muddy river that might or might not have been flowing. We could see some small buildings at the bottom as well. Piles of rock had accumulated at the base of the walls in some areas where the friable rock had crumbled under the onslaught of the elements.
large_IMG_6595.jpglarge_IMG_6593.jpg

Except for the canyon the terrain around Chinle was as dry and monotonous as any we had seen. That all began to change as we made our way down the one lane highways through Navajo nation to Kayenta. Majestic and colorful formations of both volcanic and sedimentary rock began to appear on either side of the road. Anywhere in the eastern half of the United States these would have been famous attractions but here they were probably only familiar to the locals. These occasional behemoths made our drive pass by very quickly as we admired the landscape.
large_IMG_6597.jpglarge_IMG_6601.jpglarge_IMG_6678.jpg

The was one formation near Kayenta significant enough to rate individual mention in my research. Agathla Peak is a volcanic plug, formed by solidification of magma within the vent of a volcano millions of years ago. It is a geologic cousin of Shiprock, a diatreme formed by solidification of the central column of the volcano. The approach from the south along Highway 163 was remarkable in that there was an amazing sandstone formation diametrically opposite from Agathla that I was certain had to be a sculpture until we were close enough to see that it only resembled a woman's figure from that one perspective. Agathla was smaller than Shiprock but similarly imposing and mysterious, and there were no obstacles to a close approach and inspection of the formation. We still felt like interlopers as we gingerly traversed the dirt road that led from the highway to the rock, and when a pick-up came towards us from the opposite direction we half expected to be harshly directed back from whence we came.
large_IMG_20210630_134026.jpglarge_IMG_20210630_140509.jpglarge_DIVX1888.JPG

It was still early afternoon when we arrived at the hogan. This was going to be our most unusual accommodation of the trip and a calculated risk, since the small hut had no air conditioning and no bathroom. An old friend of mine had stayed there with his kids one year earlier and told me in was one of his family's best travel experiences. One of my goals for the trip was to introduce our kids to Native American history and culture so I had decided the experience would be worth whatever temporary discomforts presented themselves. I was grateful for the relatively cool and dry weather as the environment was my most pressing concern. We turned off the highway where we had been directed and drove uphill through a confusing labyrinth of dirt roads until we arrived at a small complex of buildings and spotted the sign for the hogan. Even though I knew what to expect from pictures, I was still somewhat shocked by the mound of brown earth that would be our shelter for the night. There were some swarms of brown ants on the outside and it wasn't hard to imagine at they had been the ones that had built this little hill. When we opened the door we were surprised by how spacious and attractive the interior was. Beautiful Navajo rugs were spread on the chairs and beds and the log roof was a miracle of craftsmanship. We had a large container of water over a sink to wash up with and a decent-sized fan to keep the air circulating. It seemed the major downsides would be the absence of a shower and having to use a Porta Potty, an appliance for which I have a deep and abiding distaste.
large_IMG_6615.jpglarge_IMG_6620.jpg

From the hillside we had a fantastic view of the some of the most famous monoliths of Monument Valley such as the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Behind us another enormous sandstone butte arose from the ground and towered over the little homestead. There was no one there to meet us on our arrival but we didn't mind the opportunity to explore the locale on our own. When our host Rosalyn eventually returned from a shopping trip she found us completely stupefied by the majesty of our surroundings. She told us that everyone says the same thing when they arrive, but she couldn't see it herself since it's just been home to her ever since she was born.
large_IMG_6616.jpglarge_IMG_9522.JPG

If the loop road in Monument Valley had been open this would have been a perfect time to drive it but as it were we just hung around the outdoor common area and watched our kids play with Rosalyn's grandkids until it was time to eat. There was a mischievous band of sheep that seemed to have free rein of the property during the day and they wandered in circles around us foraging for any dropped food and occasionally nudging the kids.
large_IMG_20210630_181542.jpglarge_IMG_6645.jpg

We had chosen the option to have a home-cooked meal at the hogan in the hope that Mei Ling would be able to pick up some Navajo cooking techniques but unfortunately the only thing on the menu that evening was frybread and chopped salad, also known as Navajo tacos. Mei Ling did get to have some fun hand-kneading and frying the dough but since she doesn't eat starch there wasn't much for her to eat there except sliced tomatoes and beans.
large_IMG_6624.jpglarge_IMG_6622.jpg

I'd already had enough frybread for one day that morning in Chinle and the kids had already decided they didn't care much for it so it was clear we would need to find another dinner nearby. We made the excuse that we wanted to get an early spot at the overlook near Forrest Gump Point for sunset over the valley and then sped off to find some meat. Some quick research brought us to Goulding's Lodge, a hundred year old accommodation with restaurant that was located at the foot of another monstrous block of weathered sandstone.
large_IMG_6627.jpglarge_WPHI4258.JPG

Despite the awe-inspiring setting the food was quite pedestrian and took so long to arrive that sunset was halfway over by the time we had finally managed to pay our bill. We got back onto Highway 164 and raced north to the overlook as the sun rapidly descended. We crossed the border into Utah and soon approached the base of a steep hill where we saw several people standing in the middle of the highway taking photographs of each other. Some were even lying prone in the road shooting pictures from ground level. These were the folks determined to recreate the famous scene from Forrest Gump when he abruptly ends his marathon run with Monument Valley as a backdrop. They didn't seem eager to get out of the way of our approaching car either, only leaving the middle of the road when we were a couple of hundred feet away. At the top of the hill we reached the turnoff for the overlook which did provide an awesome perspective for a picture with Monument Valley's finest specimens.
large_GXOU3458.JPG

Although the outside temperatures were only in the seventies,. it felt somewhat stuffy inside the hogan. We elected to keep the door closed for fear of a coyote or some other desert beast entering our abode while we were sleeping, and put the fan on at full blast. We fell asleep fairly quickly after another exhausting and complicated day but I awoke just a few hours later feeling like I was trapped under a blanket of warm air. I threw caution to the winds and opened the door which did alleviate the mugginess somewhat but I only slept another hour or so. This time when I awakened I knew there would be no returning to sleep, even though the sky was still pitch black. I was conscious of every little sound that penetrated the stillness on the hill. Fortunately there was a little plastic chair outside the hogan and just enough light from a small spotlight to read by. As the first light started to break over the horizon Mei Ling joined me outside and together we watched the sun slowly turn Monument Valley from a jagged silhouette into the beautiful and stately natural sculptures that we had already become familiar with. Once we were in full daylight we roamed the grounds one more time, infuriating the corralled sheep by ignoring their pleas to be fed.
large_IMG_6636.jpglarge_IMG_6640.jpg

We returned to Goulding's for a basic breakfast and hurriedly got back on the highway north into Utah. Before we reached the Forrest Gump outlook we encountered another turn-off that led to a small clear area with an even better perspective than we'd had the previous evening. Sunset behind the monuments may be amazing but my preference was for the deep palette of colors formed by the sky, the monuments, and the dusty terrain. We paused for ten minutes or so to absorb this majestic spectacle one final time before pressing forward into the fourth and final state of our road trip.
large_IMG_20210701_103400.jpg

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:35 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip navajo family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayenta chinle Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bisti Wilderness and Shiprock


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

large_b2304520-48ae-11ec-ae67-ebd7e5ad7c31.png

Our first stop on the long drive to the Bisti Badlands was the Monday farmers market in Española. We only knew about it because of a sign we'd seen while driving the Low Road, and it turned out to be a pretty small operation. We bought some snacks and looked around for a few minutes but there wasn't much to see. The driving was pretty routine until we turned off the main highway to state road 96 after Abiquiu. Almost immediately we drove by a huge lake that was so pretty we had to turn around and visit the overlook. This was Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir formed by the damming of the Rio Chama. The still, chalky lake was surrounded by juniper-covered hills with stately mesas in the background. For the next hour or so the one lane road snaked gently through the mesas of the Santa Fe National Forest, passing by towns on the map like Coyote and Gallina that were barely more than clusters of buildings.
large_AQJB0625.JPGlarge_IMG_20210628_130347a.JPG

As we drew closer to the New Mexico badlands the ground flattened completely and the vegetation largely disappeared. The last hour and a half of driving was as dry and boring as anything we'd experienced on the trip. It was tempting to cut across the badlands on one of the ramshackle county roads but I knew we had enough time to make our rendezvous if we took the longer, more conservative route so that's what we did. We arrived at the meeting point which was just a sign at the intersection of two roads and waited about fifteen minutes until our guide arrived. I'm pretty sure Navajo Tours USA is the only outfit that conducts tours of the Bisti Badlands. Our guide Kialo founded the company and he leads almost all of the hikes himself. I was glad to be a part of supporting a local small business with a mission of introducing travelers to this largely unknown natural wonder.
large_IMG_20210628_162046.jpg

One of the things that drew me to Bisti was that I had never heard of the area before beginning my research for the trip, yet as soon as I saw the pictures I realized that it would be an unforgettable experience. I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance. I haven't spoken to a single person outside the immediate area who has ever heard of it either. Bisti Badlands is the western section of the larger Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness. Both Bisti and De Na Zin are derived from the Dine language of the Navajo, with the former meaning "shale hills" and the latter meaning "cranes". The area is protected and administered by the Bureau of Land Management but does not enjoy any special federal status.

The hike was scheduled to be five hours, but I prevailed on Kialo to shorten it a little for the sake of the kids. I've never known them to walk more than three hours at a time, and that was in cities with frequent breaks. I soon realized that part of the reason for the long duration of the trek is that we had to walk almost an hour from the parking lot across a relatively featureless expanse of dense, cracked ash. Kialo kept the kids entertained by teaching them about the geology of the badlands. The land where we now walked was once at the edge of a huge inland sea that left behind coal, fossils, and petrified wood. The kids had some fun playing with the red "clinkers", clay chips that had been hardened by a cataclysmic fire thousands of years previously.
large_IMG_6526.jpglarge_IMG_20210628_163627.jpg

Eventually we reached some taller hills of hardened ash and clay in shades of beige, black, and ochre. As we crossed through them we began to see clusters of hoodoo rocks, mushroom-shaped structures formed through millennia of gradual erosion by water and wind. Some of them looked fragile enough to be toppled over with a gentle push and probably were, although they may stand for centuries longer if undisturbed by human touch. Eventually all the ones we saw will crumble to be replaced by others which hopefully will be marveled at by future generations for centuries to come.
large_IMG_6531.jpglarge_IMG_20210628_170002.jpglarge_IMG_20210628_171448.jpg

The heart of the Bisti Badlands was a breathtaking, barren tableau of grey-striped ash hills, flat clearings criss-crossed by the dry beds of ancient streams, and innumerable clusters of hoodoo rocks. I could easily have believed that we had been deposited on the surface of some unknown planet as this was the most alien landscape I had ever experienced. I was grateful to have an experienced guide as the area seemed designed to disorient neophyte hikers.
large_IMG_20210628_175148a.JPGlarge_IMG_20210628_174152a.JPGlarge_IMG_6540.jpg

.
I could have spent hours exploring the badlands and marveling at every new vista and formation but it was clear the kids were getting exhausted. We still had an hour walk back to the parking lot which proved very brutal for them. We were lucky that it wasn't hot but the distance was really overwhelming after we had already been walking for three hours. Even after we passed the last hill and could see the parking lot in the distance it was still forty more minutes of walking. Eventually both Spenser and Cleo flagged out and needed to ride piggy back part of the rest of the way which was no small burden. It hadn't come easy, but seeing this incredible and unique place had been completely worth the effort.

By the time we reached Farmington it was dark and a steady cold rain was falling. We ducked into a Thai restaurant downtown for a quick meal before locating our Airbnb on a quiet little cul de sac in a nondescript part of town. It was one of those evenings where our only goal was to get our belongings indoors and get to bed as efficiently as possible.
large_IMG_6563.jpg

Farmington was a convenient place to crash for the night after an exhausting day of traveling and hiking, but it felt very generic from a cultural perspective. Main Street was a bland selection of fast food joints and Americanized ethnic restaurants along with the usual assortment of brew pubs, thrift stores, and tattoo shops. Armed with my research we did spend time at a couple of interesting businesses at the center of town. Artifacts Gallery is a collection of artist's studios with a small cafe that also sells chile-based foods and cookbooks, all housed within an atmospheric old lumber warehouse. Not many artists were there on a Tuesday morning but it was fun to browse through the displays. A few blocks away, Fifth Generation Trading had the best selection of Native American artwork and crafts that we had seen since Albuquerque, but the prices were significantly higher for very similar items. I was hoping to find a turquoise necklace for Cleo and concluded I could probably do better on the Navajo Reservation, where we would be spending the next two nights.
large_IMG_6565.jpglarge_IMG_6566.jpg

There didn't seem to be much worth seeing on the drive from Farmington to Chinle on the Navajo Reservation with one possible exception. Shiprock was another Southwestern landmark I had never heard of, the solidified core of a volcano whose softer exterior eroded away millions of years ago. The rock is remarkable for its dramatic height of 1600 feet in an area that is mostly flat and nondescript. We probably wouldn't have gone far out of our way for it, but it seemed to be smack in the middle of our route. The drive west down Interstate 64 was quite boring until I noticed an oddly shaped blob on the horizon between the distant mesas. We were still twenty miles from our destination so I didn't think it could be Shiprock but as we drew closer the jagged outline became clearly defined and it was apparent that this isolated monadnock would be a more impressive sight than we had expected.
large_IMG_20210629_123141.jpg

.
Since I hadn't researched Shiprock very much I had failed to realize that I had set a course for the town of Shiprock rather than the rock formation. Once we reached the town it was clear we were still some distance from our goal, and some quick browsing indicated that we needed to make a southward turn down Route 491. Google Maps started to get a little squirrelly after this, frequently switching routes as we were driving. The turn off from 491 quickly became a dirt road, but we were heartened by the fact that we seemed to be moving closer and closer to the rock, although not in a straight line. At this point we were south of the rock and close to an amazing formation which had previously been hidden to us. This was a dyke of lamphrphyre, the same variety of igneous rock that formed the monadnock. Lava escaping from Shiprock's volcanic ancestor had filled a trench in the earth and solidified, and then had emerged as a jagged ridge as erosion tore away the softer layers around it.
large_IMG_20210629_140250.jpg

We noticed that the closer we got, the rougher the road became until we were eventually slowed to a crawl by ridges and deep trenches that appeared in front of us. Mei Ling and I probably would have continued if we had been on our own, but the thought of breaking an axle in this very deserted spot with the three kids in the back was too unpalatable. We reversed course and sought another route on the Google Maps GPS. For the next hour or so we coursed around the dirt roads nudging the GPS which didn't seem very eager to cooperate. One displayed route would dead end and we would touch activate another that the GPS had ignored. We would change direction, get a little further, and then dead end again. If we wanted to get closer to Shiprock, we would have had to go off road entirely. It seems strange now that we were trying so hard to reach the base of this rock formation that we could already see perfectly well, but both Mei Ling and I were feeling a strong pull to the site. I won't go so far as to claim it was something spiritual since we're not mystical types, but it was interesting because we hadn't felt anything similar in Sedona which is supposed to be filled with energy vortexes. Of course Sedona was beautiful and captivating, but we don't believe that places have any intrinsic energy except for the obvious kinds created by geothermal forces. I do think that we all have deep longings and emotions inside us and sometimes these can be triggered by objects and landscapes, and that effect was certainly apparent to us at Shiprock. Nevertheless, we eventually had to concede that there was no safe way to get close to the rock in our vehicle and we contented ourselves with recording the memory digitally as best we could.
large_GXNS8263.JPGlarge_IMG_6573.jpg

Perhaps another reason that we gave up on our quest to reach Shiprock is that when I was researching for a route online I learned for the first time that many Native Americans consider the rock sacred and disapprove of tourists off-roading all the way to the base. I did read some accounts of travelers being chased and harassed by locals but I didn't give them much credit at the time and I believe them even less now after spending time on the Navajo reservation. The modern Navajo tend to react to offenses committed intentionally and unintentionally by visitors with stoic resignation, rather than open hostility. Nevertheless, I'm glad in retrospect that we knew when to call it a day at Shiprock. It was still a highly fulfilling and rewarding experience, even if we were never able to touch the rock.

Feeling subdued by our encounter with the majestic monolith, we continued onward to Navajo Nation. The route across the border into Arizona through the Chuska Mountains turned to be quite fascinating. From the road we could see small communities and occasional monoliths with the colorful mountains in the backdrop. Occasionally we would leave the road for a closer look at a particularly interesting rock but all roads eventually ended in someone's backyard well short of our destination.
large_GQOY9747.JPGlarge_IMG_20210629_142020a.JPG

The section of the highway that passed through the mountains was called Buffalo Pass. This was the most spectacular stretch of road that we had been on so far, with rapid changes in elevation and serpentine curves through stately evergreens and rounded cliffs of putty-like sandstone. Mei Ling had fallen asleep by this point which was ironic because she loves to take pictures of scenery and she was missing the best that the day's drive had to offer. There was nowhere to pull over but I had to slow the car down to a crawl at a couple of points because the road was too beautiful not to photograph.
large_IMG_6574.jpg

Close to the end of Buffalo Pass we stopped briefly at the Totsoh Trading Post. Many of the trading posts in Navajo Nation date back to the nineteenth century while others are modern convenience stores that have adopted the trading post aesthetic. I'm not sure which category Totsoh fell into, but they had an interesting selection of Native American crafts and goods along with the snacks and sundries for daily living. Upon our inquiry they took us upstairs to show us their collection of hand-woven blankets, each of which cost thousands of dollars.
large_IMG_6576.jpg

We were now in the heart of Navajo country. We knew that over the next two days we would be visiting some of the tribe's most sacred and historic sites and learning even more about Native American culture than we had in Zuni. With a growing sense of excitement we drove the last half hour into Chinle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:32 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arizona new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Low Road to Taos


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

large_a31a3d40-4424-11ec-9b4e-837eb6f64835.png

The highway north out of Santa Fe is a pleasant drive through dusty, brown hills studded with juniper bushes that passes by the traditional pueblos of Tesuque and Pojoaque. At Pojoaque the so-called High Road takes off into the mountains but we held our course on the Low Road until we arrived at Vivác Winery, located right next to the highway. We had never known there were wineries in New Mexico, but apparently the Spaniards began planting vineyards soon after they colonized the region in the early seventeenth century. The modern era of winemaking in New Mexico began with the discovery that hybrids of French and American cultivars grew well in the dry, high altitude environment. Despite the proximity to the cars racing by it was a very idyllic place with rows of orderly grapevines and heavy bunches of unripe grapes hanging from a wooden trellis. They grew a surprising variety of red wine grapes, many of which were totally unfamiliar to us, and we shared a flight of single varietal wines and sampled the tantalizingly beautiful chocolates that were made on site.
large_IMG_6463.jpglarge_IMG_6462.jpglarge_IMG_9058.JPG

We took a short detour from the Low Road down Highway 75 to the tiny town of Dixon which was reputed to have a thriving artist scene. We found what seemed to be a completely deserted ghost town with a couple of closed galleries and a row of beautiful adobe buildings. We strolled around the dry, gravelly streets for a while and saw no signs of human life whatsoever.
large_ENWU0878.JPGlarge_IMG_6466.jpg

At this point it was just another half hour dive to Taos so we decided to go for it. I had scheduled a night in Taos on our original itinerary but ultimately decided that there wasn't enough of interest to merit the additional eastern detour. Now here we were going there anyway on a day trip. Although the name is legendary among ski resorts the only place of particular interest to us in the summer was Taos Pueblo, which we knew to be closed for COVID. We decided to see if we could drive by the pueblo anyway and at least see it from the outside. Taos proved to be a disappointment, seemingly an average colorless midwestern town albeit with more art galleries than one would expect. We drove around for a while hoping to find some area that was quaint or alluring but ultimately found it far less interesting than Steamboat Springs, where we had spent our only ski vacation. The access road to Taos Pueblo was closed denying us any opportunity to even get close.
large_IMG_9084.JPG

I hadn't done much research on the Taos area since I'd stricken it from our itinerary, so I scrambled to find an alternative to justify the journey as there wasn't anything in Taos that seemed worth getting out of our car for. Fortunately I stumbled on mentions of the Rio Grande Gorge and the Earthships Community, which proved to be very worthwhile destinations. The Rio Grande Gorge is a deep canyon through which the great Rio Grande flows for about fifty miles through northern New Mexico en route to Texas. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is a steel arch bridge that is one of the highest in the US highway system, six hundred and fifty feet above the river at one of the deepest parts of the gorge. There are parking lots on either side of the bridge and it's a short walk to the midpoint with great outlooks over the narrow chasm. Just as with the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it is hard to comprehend how such a slender ribbon of shallow water was able to carve such a ferocious trench in the earth. It provides some humbling perspective on the tiny flash of our existence on this earth when compared to the millions of years nature needs to effect real change on the landscape.
large_IMG_6472.jpglarge_IMG_6471.jpg

Just a couple miles past the bridge on Highway 64 is Earthship Biotecture, the original community of sustainable buildings that were christened Earthships by the visionary architect and founder Michael Reynolds. From the highway it appeared as though we were approaching a colony established on a distant planet, as the buildings looked like nothing else I had seen in our own world. The only thing I could compare the architecture to is the Gaudi creations of Park Güell in Barcelona, although I think the resemblance is purely accidental. The ingenious design of the buildings becomes more apparent as we approached closer on foot. The main principle of Earthship construction is that the homes should be as environmentally sustainable as possible. Towards that end they rely largely on solar and wind energy for climate control and power and on recycling of waste for building. The basic units of construction are discarded tires filled with compacted earth and walls or bricks made of recycled bottles and cans, with the gaps filled with concrete or adobe. The final result is extremely different from traditional architectural aesthetics but also very beautiful in its own way. Water conservation and sustainable organic food production are other important elements of Earthship life. While the community of sixty buildings we were now visiting was the original assemblage of structures created and inspired by Michael Reynolds, the concept has spread around the world and there are now Earthships on five continents. We had arrived too late to see the interior of the building that is open for self-tours, but we greatly enjoyed studying the whimsical and colorful exteriors. If we ever return to Taos, we'll strongly consider staying in one of the Earthships that is open for short-term rentals.
large_IMG_6478.jpglarge_IMG_9123.JPGlarge_IMG_6483.jpglarge_IMG_6476.jpg

I had planned on taking the High Road from Taos back to Chimayo but somewhere along the way Google Maps switched me back to the Low Road and by the time I realized we were off course it was too late. Instead we retraced our course on the Low Road all the way back to Española and then headed east on Highway 76. It was an interesting drive through wooded working class residential areas interspersed with the occasional art gallery. Our destination was Rancho de Chimayó, a legendary outpost of New Mexican cuisine. We already had a dinner reservation in Santa Fe but we hadn't had a real meal since the farmers market and we were starving. The restaurant occupies most of a sprawling, colorfully decorated hacienda on the outskirts of the small town. The large parking area was already filling up but we were fortunate to be early arrivals and we were shown to an outdoor table on an upper level. Mei Ling suggested I cancel our reservation in Santa Fe but I had been highly anticipating that dinner at one of the city's most recommended restaurants. Instead we restrained ourselves and ordered just enough food to assuage our hunger. We ordered modest portions of salsa and sopapillas and followed them with salad and trout. We then had to rush back to the highway to make our dinner reservation and missed our chance to see the town's other landmark, the Santuario de Chimayo church. And of course, Mei Ling was right as usual. The highly recommended tapas restaurant near the plaza proved to be barely average.
large_IMG_6486.jpglarge_IMG_6484.jpg

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:47 Archived in USA Tagged taos chimayo family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog earthships Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Santa Fe


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Santa Fe was a pretty important milestone for our road trip. Aside from being a highly anticipated destination of itself, it meant we had reached the eastward vertex of the triangular itinerary that began in Las Vegas. By the time we left, we would be halfway through the trip and aside from Salt Lake City we would be finished with major cities. We were eager to explore this iconic American city and compare it with Albuquerque, the surprisingly beautiful and enjoyable city we had just departed.
large_76011080-34bc-11ec-a424-f1182e7b4597.png

Our visit to Santa Fe got off to a great start with our Airbnb, a perfect adobe cottage in a beautiful enclave of similar homes tucked away on a tiny alley. The entrance to the alley off the main road was so unobtrusive that we passed it twice before figuring out where to turn. The interior was comfortable and inviting, compact but spacious enough to suit our needs.
large_IMG_6520.jpglarge_BQRB7997.JPG

We had some time to kill before dinner so we headed to Santa Fe Plaza, the center of the old town that dates back to the time when the city was just a Spanish fort on the colonial frontier. Some of the famous buildings in the area of the plaza are the Palace of the Governors and The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Across from the cathedral is the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts whose colorful pillars have become a city landmark since they were painted in 2015. The galleries and sidewalk craft vendors that lined the plaza were somewhat of a disappointment after Albuquerque's Old Town. We didn't see much authentic, high quality work at reasonable prices. It seemed mostly to be either knick-knacks or overpriced jewelry designed to appeal to tourists.
large_IMG_6427.jpglarge_IMG_8991.JPGlarge_IMG_6429.jpg

Our first dinner in Santa Fe was the strangest meal of the trip, and possibly one of the weirdest we've ever experienced. I chose Liu Liu Liu because it was clearly a unique restaurant in a city which didn't seem particular adventurous from a culinary perspective. Our GPS took us far from the center to an unappealing strip mall dominated by the parking lot of a Food King supermarket. The restaurant was nowhere to be seen. There were no address numbers on the storefront and the GPS seemed to be pointing to either a barber shop or a driver's education school. It seemed that Google Maps had led us astray but I double checked the address on our reservation confirmation three times. I was about to try calling the restaurant when I saw there was another door between the barber and the school that didn't appear to belong to either of those business. Sure enough the door had the name of the restaurant in small lettering. Inside was a tiny, dark restaurant with just six tables and a bar. A few more tables were in a fenced-off patio just outside. There was only one other table occupied so we had almost the full attention of the server and the maître d', who was clearly also one of the owners. I felt a little awkward at first in such a rarefied environment with the three kids but they were behaving well and the owner was very laid back. I immediately noticed that the first page of the menu was devoted entirely to different kinds of water and asked the maître d' about it. He told me he had been a "water sommelier" at a restaurant in Los Angeles and began an extensive description of the different kinds of water with respect to qualities such as mineral content. Ironically I belong to a tiny minority of people who dislike water intensely. When I'm at home I only drink carbonated water mixed with lime juice and when I travel I drink mostly beer or unsweetened tea if I can't find the lime juice. I couldn't tell how serious the water thing was meant to be and I wasn't sure how long I should let him expound on it when I had absolutely zero interest in water. It was quite distracting searching for the entrees after the long list of waters and boutique soft drinks, and the eventual selection proved to be quite small. We ended up choosing most of the dishes which were generally Taiwanese-inspired but executed in a very avant-garde manner. I wish I could say that the food was outstanding but honestly most of it wasn't to our taste. Regardless it had been a very interesting and memorable experience and I probably would have done it the same way again, especially considering the lack of other distinctive restaurants in Santa Fe. I'm always happy to see new restaurants taking chances and breaking with a conservative dining scene.

I had timed our stop in Santa Fe so that we would be able to visit the Santa Fe Farmers Market, also known as the Railyard Market, on Saturday morning. The Railyard is a formerly-blighted area around the city's train depot that has been redeveloped over the last fifteen years and is now a hub for art galleries, cultural centers, brewpubs, and all the usual hipster hangouts. The centerpiece of the area is the large Saturday farmers market that sprawls alongside the old railroad tracks. It was a fun and energetic market with plenty of fresh produce and some oddities like a guy selling red composting worms.
large_IMG_6436a.JPGlarge_IMG_6439a.JPGlarge_EFVM5185.JPG

Besides the outdoor tents there was a large covered mercado with more fresh produce, prepared foods, and some crafts. At the far end of the market there was an artisans market with more craftspeople and artists that worked in different media. So far we had done very well with farmers markets for two weekends in a row after finding very little of interest in Las Vegas.
large_HDZI6080.JPGlarge_IMG_6440.jpg

We made a brief stop at Liquid Light Glass to see if we could watch any glassblowing. Their classes were already booked even if he had wanted to participate but we were content to watch from outside the studio for a while. The showroom inside had some beautiful glass sculptures but there are few things more stressful than trying to watch three kids simultaneously in a room full of fragile and valuable glass. Cleo is pretty responsible at this point but Ian is a risk for bumping into shelves and Spenser is a total wild card.
large_IMG_6445.jpg

If there's one thing Santa Fe is famous for besides adobe buildings it is art galleries. Of course Canyon Road has the highest concentration but there are other areas such as the Railyard that are full of galleries as well. The queen of all Santa Fe's galleries is Nedra Matteuci Galleries, a sprawling two acre estate filled with art that hides an amazing sculpture garden within its walls. The focus here was on more traditional 19th and 20th century Southwestern art than the exuberant abstracts of the Railyard and Canyon Road. We dutifully trudged through the labyrinth of rooms but our real interest was the garden. We finally found the entrance to the garden in one of the back rooms and found ourselves in an urban oasis full of greenery and whimsical bronze sculptures. Somehow we were the only people in the garden despite it being Saturday morning at the height of tourist season. This amazing and unique place may not be available to visit for much longer as the property has apparently been listed for sale after more than thirty years of being the Matteuci gallery.
large_IMG_6448.jpglarge_IMG_6450.jpglarge_IMG_6449.jpglarge_IMG_6456.jpg

We were now just a block away from the beginning of Canyon Road and the logical next step would have been to walk down the iconic road hopping from gallery to gallery, but we realized we couldn't face it. We'd been soaking up art in New Mexico ever since Zuni and by this point we'd simply had enough. It didn't seem fair to the kids either since they'd put up with so many galleries in Albuquerque, Madrid, and Santa Fe over the last few days. I impulsively decided that we would embark on the itinerary we had originally planned for Sunday and drive towards Taos along the route known as the Low Road, a day trip that I've written about separately here.

On our last day in Santa Fe I was at something of a loss. We had pretty much blown through our whole itinerary the first day and until the evening I only had our back-up destinations to keep us occupied. Oddly enough it was chilly and rainy in the morning, a sharp contrast to the oppressively hot weather we had endured for most of the trip thus far. After breakfast we returned to the Railyard to visit the weekly Artisan's Market. The market had some interesting crafts but a lot of the stalls were devoted to clothes and antiques which weren't really our thing.
large_IMG_6489.jpg

The Santa Fe Botanical Garden and many of the city's museums are clustered together in a small area called Museum Hill, in the southeastern part of town. I've always liked to visit botanical gardens when we travel since they're usually beautiful places and keep the kids occupied in the outdoors. This one had some interesting sculptures but it was quite small and dare I say it, somewhat ratty. We went through it in about an hour.
large_IMG_9151.JPGlarge_IMG_6491.jpglarge_IMG_6490.jpg

We're not big on museums but since we were already in the museum zone and I had hardly any ideas left for the afternoon we dropped into the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. The fellow at the front desk let us know that much of the museum was closed that day so we decided not to go for the half price offer and just visited the gift shop instead. On the other side of the plaza was the Museum of International Folk Art which had a little more to see but was mainly a way for us to kill time. This was the first time on the trip that we'd found ourselves without enough to do. When we couldn't stand to look at any more dolls and masks I started hunting around for an early dinner. I found a Japanese restaurant that didn't really work for us but the spa hotel that it was associated with looked so interesting that we decided to drive all the way to the northeastern outskirts of town to take a look for ourselves. Ten Thousand Waves is a Japanese-style bath house built on a steep hill just off the highway to the local ski resort. Seeing such typical Japanese buildings in rural New Mexico felt quite incongruous. It was the most interesting thing we'd seen the whole day.
large_IMG_20210627_160112.jpg

We drove back to the middle of town to eat at Chomp, Santa Fe's lone food hall. From the looks of things Santa Fe might be headed back to zero food halls in the near future. Despite being only six months old the space seemed dilapidated and somewhat depressing, with only a few customers. There were only five or six restaurants and just a couple seemed to be open. We were able to put together a meal of pizza and Cambodian food but the dreary atmosphere was a far cry from the Sawmill Market in Albuquerque.
large_IMG_6497.jpg

There was no question that this had been the weakest day of our journey so far, but it was only a small damper on a spectacular first half of the road trip. Santa Fe had proved to be a major anticlimax after Albuquerque. We could certainly see the attraction of the beautiful adobe art galleries but there was much less of an authentic urban vibe. Most of the allure of Santa Fe seemed designed for the pleasure of the tourists and the privileged, and the city faded quickly outside of the center. Perhaps we missed some facets of the city during our short stay but we found very little to occupy us in Santa Fe even though we made sure our visit coincided with the weekend. If it hadn't been for the amazing day trip on the Low Road to Taos my decision to spend three nights in Santa Fe would have been a major error. We still weren't quite done with the city, though. I had booked an evening slot at House of Eternal Return, Meow Wolf's original immersive art experience that preceded Omega Mart in Las Vegas. It was another interesting quirk of our itinerary that it had taken us to both of Meow Wolf's installations, and we were optimistic that the second would be as good as the first if not better.

Outside of the warehouse that housed the Meow Wolf experience were several enormous sculptures similar to those outside Area 15 in Las Vegas. There was a colossal robot, a giant dog constructed from blue metal panels, and an ominous spider that reminded me of the one outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. On the inside, House of Eternal Return was fronted by a creepy house that appeared to have been abandoned by a distressed family. It quickly became clear that the central mystery was far too complex and metaphysical for us to tackle, but at least there were some individual puzzles here that could be solved. And of course the house had all the colorful art, cool audiovisual installations, and secret tunnels the kids had loved at Omega Mart. It was a good way to end what had been a disappointing day up to that point.
large_IMG_6498.jpglarge_IMG_20210627_163711.jpglarge_IMG_6502.jpglarge_IMG_6504.jpg

Our departure from Santa Fe didn't just mark the midpoint of our journey in time. Up to this point we had been visiting major cities at regular intervals and enjoying the relative comforts of urban tourism. From here on we had a much more strenuous and unfamiliar path through Native American lands, small towns, and national parks with few stops more than a single night. What we were really doing was cramming two separate road trips into one long itinerary, and we were about to embark on the second adventure. We celebrated the moment with one of our best breakfasts of the trip at Dolina, a Slovakian cafe that we had almost overlooked even though it was just steps away from our Airbnb. The savory goulash and other Eastern European specialties were a welcome change from the Southwestern breakfasts we had been growing accustomed to. Pleasantly fortified, we set off for our first major challenge of the second act, the Bisti Wilderness.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:46 Archived in USA Tagged taos family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog earthships Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Albuquerque's Outer Limits


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

large_a9e9b640-2ac6-11ec-93dc-a92c4b1fbb81.png

There was a lot to keep us occupied in Old Town, Central Avenue, and other parts of central Albuquerque but we also found some interesting places to explore in the outskirts of the city. One of the most unique activities in Albuquerque is the cable car to the top of Sandia Peak at the northeastern corner of the city. I had come across numerous horror stories about long lines and closures due to high winds so I was careful to check the weather forecast and reserve an early time slot online. The weather was very calm and we only had to wait about twenty minutes before we were on the tram. The ride to the top provided awesome views of the cracked and weathered limestone cliffs that jutted from the face of the mountain. In some places the ebb and flow of glaciers had stacked enormous boulders into natural cairns.
large_IMG_8702.JPGlarge_IMG_6388.jpglarge_IMG_8757.JPG

One element that had eluded me in my research was the altitude we would be dealing with when we exited from the cable car at the top. Albuquerque already sits at a lofty five thousand foot elevation, and the tram ascends for another five thousand to the peak. Ten thousand feet is a little much for folks like us who normally exist at sea level. The only other time we'd experienced altitude was driving between Denver and Steamboat in Colorado and all three of the kids had felt some symptoms at one point or another. I decided our best bet was to get a look around and then try and get back on the tramway within an hour rather than mess around on any of the trails. We had too much on our list to get done to be dealing with any sick kids. There were some good viewing platforms close to the station from which we could look back down at the mountainside and the flat expanse that Albuquerque occupied. On the other side of the ridge were the chairlifts for the ski area and beyond them the Cibola National Forest. Mei Ling was the only one who experienced any effect from the altitude for the hour we were up there. She was dizzy from the moment we got off the tram until we were safely back on ground level.
large_IMG_6386.jpglarge_IMG_8730.JPGlarge_FXPZE4496.JPG

The morning of our last day in Albuquerque we returned to Central Avenue, this time to a separate stretch of funky businesses across from the University of New Mexico campus. The Frontier Restaurant has been an Albuquerque institution for fifty years, especially renowned for their sweet rolls and green chile. It was a huge restaurant spread over several rooms filled with art and atmospheric Southwestern decor. The food was spicy and delicious and the portions were huge, the perfect way to fuel up for another busy day of travel.
large_IMG_8889.JPGlarge_IMG_8890.JPG

We had seen plenty of beautiful adobe houses since arriving in Albuquerque but they were mostly on the smaller end, like our Airbnb. We were curious to see if there were any breathtaking adobe mansions to marvel at so we broke out Zillow and entered an exorbitant sum as a minimum. There weren't many hits and most of them were in a neighborhood in the far northeast of the city, not far from the Sandia Tramway. It was a long detour from our planned route but once we'd had the idea we wanted to follow through on it. The neighborhood was very different from the central parts of the city we'd spent most of our time in. The ranch houses were widely separated from each other on large plots, there was little vegetation, and hardly any businesses. There were a fair number of large, beautifully-designed adobe houses but the barrenness was a sharp contrast to the lush landscaping we're used to in the prosperous areas of Miami. I wasn't sure if the desert atmosphere was considered a desirable aspect of the Southwestern aesthetic or if it was just an unavoidable consequence of outward expansion to accommodate neighborhoods with larger homes.
large_IMG_8922.JPGlarge_IMG_8923.JPG

We aren't that big on museums but I thought The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History would be unique enough to be a worthwhile stop on our way out of Albuquerque. They had some interesting displays about the development of the first atomic bomb and the Cold War which provided a good opportunity to give the kids a couple of interactive lessons about science and history.
large_IMG_6408.jpglarge_IMG_8899.JPGlarge_IMG_8907.JPG

.
Instead of the straight shot up I25 to Santa Fe, we took State Road 14 which is also known as the Turquoise Trail. There are several old mining towns on this road but the one with most to offer visitors is called Madrid, about halfway to Santa Fe. As we left Albuquerque we were greeted with the sight of the juniper-covered foothills of the Sandias.
large_IMG_6413.jpg

Madrid is the kind of town most people would either love or have no interest in whatsoever. Aside from the businesses catering to tourists along the state road, there's just a couple of dirt roads lined with ramshackle houses. It's a ghost town that's been taken over by art galleries but the town itself never grew back which gives the place an aura of artificiality. The bright paint jobs on everything from storefronts to mailboxes seem designed to draw daytrippers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
large_IMG_6422.jpglarge_96e1bfa0-2b5e-11ec-a978-cd0e65576224.jpglarge_IMG_6418.jpg

I haven't painted a very positive picture of Madrid but the truth is that the galleries are quite enjoyable, filled with innovative art and creative oddities. One boutique was largely devoted to steampunk, which Mei Ling had never heard of before and instantly fell in love with. My favorite were the sculptures welded from discarded hardware and pieces of machinery.
large_IMG_8930.JPGlarge_IMG_8940.JPGlarge_IMG_8931.JPG

The Madrid restaurant we'd hoped to eat at was Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen, renowned for eclectic Southwestern cuisine, but after searching for it fruitlessly we learned it had been closed for years. The most viable alternative seemed to be The Hollar, a barbecue restaurant with a spacious patio. After a reasonably satisfying lunch we got back on the road to the second vertex of our triangular itinerary, Santa Fe.
large_IMG_8957.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:20 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog sandia_tramway madrid_new_mexico Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 42) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 » Next