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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bisti Wilderness and Shiprock


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Central Albuquerque


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When I researched New Mexico it quickly became apparent that Santa Fe was getting a lot of love in travel guides. That was fine with me as we were planning on staying there for a good chunk of time. What raised my eyebrows was how much negativity there was about Santa Fe's much larger neighbor Albuquerque. The knock on Albuquerque seemed to be that it was missing the culture and beauty of Santa Fe while suffering from various urban blights. I took this with a grain of salt since we've been tremendously impressed by American cities such as Milwaukee and Houston that labored under similar reputations. Quite often a lack of tourism seems to preserve the authentic culture of a city rather than detract from it. I found quite a number of interesting things to put on my list in Albuquerque so it was an easy decision to spend two nights there.
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Naturally we'd chosen an Airbnb in the traditional adobe architectural style. These houses are emblematic of Santa Fe but we found a strong adherence to this aesthetic in Albuquerque as well. Many of the houses are made of concrete or traditional brick instead of actual adobe and are given the classic appearance with masonry and stucco, so the term Pueblo Revival is more accurate than adobe. Either way I love the texture, color, and rounded edges of adobe houses and I would happily live in one if they didn't stick out like a sore thumb anywhere except the Southwest. The Airbnb was one of the best we'd stayed in on this trip: roomy, stylish, and comfortable. We were within walking distance of the Old Town and the neighbors had their own outdoor book exchange that we quickly took advantage of.
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We had a little time to kill before dinner so we took a drive west to the Monte Vista neighborhood to see the distinctive Bart Prince residence. Prince adapted the classic style of Frank Lloyd Wright to the landscape and traditions of New Mexico. His residence in Albuquerque is famous for the futuristic elevated living quarters that locals call the Spaceship as well as the oblong gallery supported by steel girders above the adjacent adobe house. At the front of the property were impressively large metallic sculptures. I felt a little guilty about gawking for so long in front of someone's home but I imagine they are accustomed to the attention by now.
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One area where Europe and Asia and even Latin America are clearly superior to the United States is in the preservation of antiquity. Of course in the USA there isn't that much antiquity to preserve, but even the three to four hundred year history that we have has largely been plowed under in the service of endless modernization and adaptation to advancing technology. Finding an American city with an authentic preserved core is a rare pleasure and I was surprised not to have heard of Albuquerque's Old Town before I began researching the city. The small neighborhood dates to the founding of the city three hundred years ago and still contains several original buildings from the 19th century. The oldest is the iconic San Felipe de Neri Church which was built in 1793. Most of the buildings have been renovated and remodeled in recent decades as the area has commercialized, but the city has done a good job of maintaining the Spanish colonial atmosphere of the neighborhood.
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We had arrived in the early evening when almost all the businesses had already closed. There were few pedestrians and we largely had the charming neighborhood to ourselves under the overcast evening sky. The only exception was in the central plaza where a band of elderly musicians was putting on a folk dancing performance at the gazebo.
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Sawmill Market was within walking distance of Old Town. We love eating at food halls because they have a great vibe, the food is usually high quality, and it's fun to mix and match diverse cuisines in one meal. Sawmill Market had just been opened a year earlier in a former lumber warehouse and it was one of the best food halls we've visited in the United States. It was beautifully constructed with high wooden ceilings that paid homage to its provenance and the spacious layout accommodated the sizable clientele perfectly. There was a large, vibrant courtyard with live music. The food was good, although not exceptional, but the atmosphere was so awesome that we stayed for a couple of hours to enjoy the music and people-watch. Our first evening in Albuquerque was a strong indication that this city was punching high above its size of a half million people.
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We began our one full day in Albuquerque with breakfast on Central Avenue, which is the name for Route 66 as it passes from one end of the city to the other. There are hip restaurants, intriguing boutiques, and street art along much of the ten miles of Central Avenue as it bisects the city, especially in the central downtown area. We were on a tight schedule but we resolved to return and explore the colorful street on foot.
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After visiting Sandia Peak we drove back towards the center of town to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a complex that is collectively owned and operated by New Mexico's nineteen Indian pueblo tribes. Inside there are conference centers, exhibition halls, and a permanent museum. We were mainly interested in the Native American artists who display and sell their work from booths in the mural-filled courtyard. Many of the artists were from Acoma Pueblo, which we had been prevented from visiting by COVID. There were some similarities to Zuni pottery, but the Acoma creations have a distinctive look due to the particular techniques they use. We were particularly amazed by the intricate patterns one artist created by placing horsehair on his pottery while it is being fired, and we bought a vase and a wedding vessel. The museum was a little dry so we cut that visit short and had a lunch of traditional Pueblo dishes at the Indian Pueblo Kitchen in the main building.
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We returned to Old Town in the hope of finding open galleries and a more energetic scene. The streets were a little more active now and all the businesses were open but it was still a lot quieter than I would have expected. Perhaps the tourism industry was still showing the effects of COVID here more than in other places.
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The galleries in Old Town had some of the most impressive and inexpensive Native American art that we had seen so far. One place had colorful and intricately designed large pieces at prices I couldn't believe, and that was before I realized they were offering an additional 50% off. Since we had just bought the Acoma pottery at the cultural center we weren't in the mood to make purchases but I've since regretted that decision. Several galleries occupied a two-story adobe building that was once a home for unwed mothers. Numerous artists displayed their work here and our favorite was the carved wooden bowls with magnificent grain and turquoise inlay.
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Next we paid a visit to a great second hand bookstore called Downtown Books to stock up on reading material for the rest of the trip. So far we had been doing a pretty good job of keeping the kids off their iPads during the long drives and all the used books were a big help. The vintage store next door was having a sale that spilled out onto the sidewalk, creating a colorful and quirky display.
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The bookstore was just a block from the beginning of Central Avenue. We drove over to 505 Central, Albuquerque's other food hall, but we didn't have much appetite yet so we took a walk down the avenue admiring the quirky architecture and street art. Some of the buildings like the Kimo Theatre date back almost a hundred years while others like The Library Bar and Grill are modern but adopted the whimsical aesthetic of the neighborhood. The overall effect reminded me a lot of the Art Deco neighborhood in my home turf of Miami Beach.
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Enormous, colorful murals adorned many of the concrete walls and building facades on the avenue. They commemorated the history of Route 66, expounded political messages, or displayed abstract themes. Walking down Central Avenue was like touring an open air museum of art and architecture.
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505 Central Food Hall was relatively slow and empty compared to Sawmill Market from the previous night, but the food was actually a little better. The Moonwalk Bar is probably an extremely cool place to hang out on busy nights, and there was interesting abstract art strategically placed throughout the space. We returned home exhausted after a long day of exploration, but we would still have time for another interesting morning in Albuquerque before the short drive to Santa Fe.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:11 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (3)

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