Michael and Dan Drive the Rio Grande Valley


Daniel Emberley, May 2010



A few years back we dipped our toes into the magic that is Santa Fe, and knew we had to return to northern New Mexico.  We’ve also had West Texas on our radar for a while.  We decided to start in El Paso, see a bit of the Big Bend country, then drive north through New Mexico.  Fun trip, report  follows, or feel free to delete now and save your bifocals for something more important <smile>.  Dan


Friday, May 14


We were supposed to fly out on American Airlines from National at 5PM, but due to hailstorms in the lower Plains, our flight was cancelled.  You’d think an airline with a major hub in Dallas might have figured out how to work around this seasonal event, but they haven’t.  Got into National, through security, sat two hours, Metro’ed home. 


Saturday, May 15


American had us back out, this time early evening.  Uneventful flight to Texas, this time routed through Chicago.  We arrived in El Paso 10PM Mountain, which was midnight our time.  Walked across the parking lot to a Microtel and slept.


Sunday, May 16


We lost a day and a half of our vacation.  We’d hoped to see some of El Paso, but had a 10AM reservation at Chinati, so instead rented a car and headed southeast.  Did you know that El Paso is on Mountain Time, but the rest of Texas on Central?  We didn’t figure it out until the GPS gave us an arrival time in Marfa well past our reservation.  Oi.  Fortunately, this was the last glitch in our trip.  After a sulky hour on Interstate 10 we picked ourselves up and started enjoying ourselves.  To be honest, of all we had planned, El Paso was the least important piece.   


The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen.  It helped that the desert had exploded in bloom after heavy winter snows.  We’d expected this to be similar to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, but it’s a totally different set of plants and animals.  No tall saguaros cactus, but lots of lower bushier ones, more leggy and plate-like, with yellow flowers everywhere.  An amazing yellow poppy in the medians that we never did identify.


The Border Patrol was stopping all vehicles going east on I-10, so we joined the queue and snaked forward.  While their dog sniffed the car, the nice (really) Homeland Security guy poked his head in the window and asked if we were American citizens.  In our most condescending D.C. voices we snapped “Yes”, and he waved us through.  It’s an odd experience.  The employees all seem to be Hispanic-American, looking for other Hispanic hope-to-be-Americans.  The population out here looks one third Hispanic, another third Native, and the remainder Anglo, with plenty of intermarriage over the years.  Having seen the desert, I have only respect for anyone who can cross it, legally or otherwise.   We were glad to be on our way.


By the time we got to Marfa it was after 11.  Way too late for the morning tour.  Instead we drove around the courthouse square and checked out the Hotel Paisano (where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean stayed during the filming of “Giant”).  Lunch at Mando, the first of many places for excellent and cheap enchiladas.  There’s a brilliant bookstore, with the best selection of art, design, and philosophy books we’ve seen west of D.C.  We found our hotel, the El Cosmico, and drove down the road to Chinati.


Okay, what’s this Chinati Foundation, and what were we doing in Marfa, Texas, anyway?  In the 1960’s and 70’s, many New York artists grew jaded with the art world, and went West to create something called Land Art.  James Turrell began hollowing out Rodin Crater, Walter de Maria installed a grid of aluminum rods to create The Lightning Field.  Donald Judd, who made his name with metal boxes mounted to gallery walls, bought a surplus army base in Marfa with the help of the Dia Foundation and began installing his work there.  In the succeeding thirty years he invited his friends and other artists he respected to make permanent installations on the grounds and in the barracks.  It’s become a site of pilgrimage for art tourists, like MassMoca or Cadillac Ranch.  Along the way, it’s made the town itself an odd bit of coastal sophistication in the middle of the West Texas panhandle. 


We weren’t sure what to expect.  You meet in a visitors center at the end of a dirt road, and are given a brief history of the site.  The base was originally built to protect Anglo ranchers from the never-materialized threat of Pancho Villa during the 1910 Mexican Revolution.  It housed German POW’s during WWII, and was surplused by the Army in the 1960’s, just in time for Judd’s investment.  The site is dusty, high desert, with rows of barracks and little sense of a campus.  In each building, however, is the work of one artist, often created especially for that space.  None of this art would be worth making a detour for in Manhattan, but heck, you’re in Texas.  The most complete install is by Dan Flavin, the neon artist, who altered six identical barracks with twelve pieces.  The light is pretty brilliant, but you wonder if the same effect couldn’t have been created with light boxes instead of entire buildings.  Judd has a set of concrete boxes on the lawn, and another of 100 desk-size aluminum boxes in two matching hangers.  These explore the different ways of dividing/creating/manipulating space in a regular void.  If you’ve seen the wooden set at Dia Beacon, in New York, you’ve seen it.  The boxes that opened up in back, creating slits of illumination with the desert light, are pretty masterful. 


We’d worried that we missed something major in the morning session, but the people in our group, a surprisingly diverse lot, ensured us we had not.  In a recurring theme of the trip, the space/light itself was better than anything “programmed” that we were viewing.  We saw short horned antelopes and rabbits running wild, foregrounding the purple Davis Mountains, in the flowered green desert, in a clear high desert light.  Pictures don’t capture it.


Is this the Dan who won’t go anywhere without a subway waxing lyrical about nature?  Shows how beautiful it is.  We returned to El Cosmico.  I’d called this a hotel, but it’s actually a collection of tents and restored trailers.  Michael had planned to sleep in a yurt, but after inspecting the facilities he agreed to my booking of a Kozy Koach.  I swear this was the same trailer our neighbors in New Hampshire had in the 1960’s: all varnished wood, compact kitchen and bath, outside shower. A blast.  We had fantasies of renting one and driving cross country in our dotage, but decided our usual Holiday Inn Express method of road trip is more practical.


Dinner at the oh-so-brilliant Marfa’s Table.  Guacamole, turkey mole on jasmine rice with cabbage slaw, cauliflower cheese, spicy garlic and olives. All fresh and organic, mostly vegetarian.  The proprietor said when we complimented her that it’s easy to impress when people expect so little, but her food would stand up well in Dupont Circle.  It’s BYOB, and arriving on a Sunday we had not been able to stock up, but make a note.  We got their Italian Cream Cake to go, a dense nut/fruit cake frosted with whipped cream that we enjoyed back at the trailer, listening to the Southern Pacific railroad whistles and looking up at the Texas stars. 


The big non-art deal here is an atmospheric phenomenon called the Marfa Lights, a peripatetic and low-wattage version of the Aurora Borealis.  We could have driven out of town to the viewing center where they’re occasionally seen, but camped out with Colin Firth’s “Pride and Prejudice” on DVD instead.


If you go to Marfa, do more homework than we did.  In addition to the Chinati Foundation, Donald Judd created a separate Judd Foundation that gives tours of his home/studio there.  Both Foundations need reservations made in advance.  I’d say the town is worth two days, minimum, to enjoy to the max, and that’s without hiking or back country adventures.


Monday, May 17


North from Marfa is the town of Fort Davis.  This was a cavalry fort to protect pioneers during the westward expansion, blah blah.  We skipped right over the restored/re-enacted fort and headed for the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  We kept being wowed by the landscape, and decided we needed to know more about it.  The Institute runs a nature center and botanic gardens.  We took the easy trail through both, up to the greenhouse where they nurture rare versions of cactus. 


The Davis Mountains are impressive, more lush than the Sierra Blancas to the west, but with similar “teeth” of stone that crash down over time.  Our detour was to Balmorhea State Park.  My in-laws in Houston live on Balmorhea Lane in a housing development called Park Pointe, where all the streets are named after Texas state parks.  We had to pay tribute.  In Houston it’s pronounced “bal-MOR-ee-ah”, but on site it’s “BAL-moh-ray”.  The park itself is small, a motel court being renovated, tent sites, and a ginormous pool.  San Solomon Springs once bubbled up here as a natural oasis.  The CCC turned it into a more manicured swimming pool in the 1930’s.  Today you walk around a pseudo-Los Angeles pool with columned arcade and look into the water to see the natural rock walls beneath.  They’ve saved two species of endangered minnows that live nowhere else. 


In town we got chicken flautas and beef cooked in red chiles, then headed west on I-10 to the start of I-20 (in the middle of nowhere, really).  Pecos is a dead town supposed to be famous for its cantaloupe.  There really were tumbleweeds in the streets: it was like a Wile Coyote cartoon.  North on US 285, crossed the border into New Mexico and drove through the Guadelupe Mountains to White’s City, the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns. 


We were glad to hit the Caverns when we did.  Late afternoon on a Monday, not crowded at all.  We’d missed the guided tours, but took the elevator to the cafeteria on the cave floor and the self-guided Big Room walk.  People come here and spend days exploring the caves, the stalactites, the stalagmites, the myriad ways time and water can play with limestone.  Us, we were awed for ten minutes; then couldn’t wait to be done.  There’re only so many variations you can play on this theme.  To my surprise, there is not a lot of color, mainly gray.  The reflecting pools add variety, but there are no plants or animals to speak of (aside from the bats, who wisely avoid tourist hours).  The stated 1.5 hour walk took us 45 minutes.  See it once.


We aimed for Roswell, but started seeing amazing lightning and thunder storms across the High Plains around Carlsbad.  Some brilliant, full-arc, horizon to horizon rainbows. Just north of Artesia, an oil drilling and ranch support town, we hit a wall of hail storms that forced us to turn back.  Fortunately, Artesia has restaurants and several hotels to choose from.  We got Henry’s BBQ, similar to what we get in Houston, and checked in to a Best Western.


Tuesday, May 18


The Best Western must have been built in the late 1970’s; its “lounge” is now a Chinese restaurant that they force to serve breakfast to guests.  Standard bacon-and-eggs, but good, and fun with the red velvet, dragons and gold Mandarin characters all around.  Artesia has tried to hook tourists with statues of the cowboys and oil field workers installed around town.  It is not a success.  Up 285 to Roswell, the Plains were wicked boring.  We ignored the alien stuff on Main Street, and the nice people in the Visitor’s Center talked us into trying the Billy the Kid Scenic By-way, into the mountain spine that runs north-south through central New Mexico.  We were psyched we did this.  Back to breathtaking vistas and land like we’ve never seen before.  Having learned to drive in flat flat flat Houston, Michael revels in twisting mountain roads.  In the middle of the Capitan Mountains, the town of Lincoln commemorates Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War.  Whatever.  It’s a Wild West version of Williamsburg, about twenty historic homes preserved/restored on the main drag, some with restaurants and shops.  An easy walk, and nice break to the drive. 


We got lunch in Carrizozo; Mexican salads with fried pickles at Ellie’s Burgers.  Surprisingly good, even if the locals did look cross eyed at two tenderfeet ordering salad instead of meat.  We’d unknowingly ascended a mesa, we descended by way of Valley of Fires.  This is an outcropping of the Malpais Lava Flow, a geologic stretch of black lava rocks that runs for miles from now extinct volcanoes.  Then, just as suddenly as it began, the lava stops.  Up a mesa, down a mesa, we went through the northern limits of the White Sands Test Site.  We were nowhere near the gypsum dunes of White Sands, those are hundreds of miles south through the same territory, but we were as close to the Trinity Test Site as we’ll ever get.  For all you U Chicago grads, this is where the first nuclear bomb was exploded, after they’d outgrown nuclear piles under Stagg Field’s bleachers.  We left country roads behind, got onto I-25, and two hours later drove into Santa Fe.


I lied in my title.  While we’d started at the Rio Grande in El Paso, we never got closer than seeing it as a green ribbon between the city and the maquiladoras of Mexico.  Then we headed east away from it, only to return to the valley here in Santa Fe.  From here on, though, we would stick pretty close to the river.  Sue me.


We went to the Museum of International Folk Art on Museum Hill.  We’d loved this the first time we were here, but we disappointed.  The Alexander Girard Collection of Toys was closed for re-installation, and the big show was of textiles from the permanent collection.  Should have worked, but didn’t.  We checked into the Old Santa Fe Inn just south of downtown near the Capitol, and headed up to the Plaza.  Michael shopped at the Native jewelry stands at the Governor’s Palace, I checked out art and craft galleries.  Walking back along the Rio Grande, we were surprised to see it lush and full of water.  Our previous visit was in the autumn; shows what a difference a season can make.


Dinner at La Fonda, one of the oldest hotels in Santa Fe.  Red snapper and mango ceviche, stuffed squash blossoms, chile relleno, a vegetarian stuffed chile with Marcona almonds, broccoli rappi, and corn, sopapillas with honey, all washed down with local Gruet chardonnay and champagne.  The dining room at La Fonda is gorgeous, lined with hand-painted windows in a northern tribute to Mexican style.  We stopped by the Cathedral and a wedding at Loretto Chapel, then the Capitol, on our way back to the hotel to watch “Glee”.


Wednesday, May 19


Bandelier National Monument is as spectacularly located as Utah’s Zion: lush forest amongst desert mountains.  Its raison d’etre is preservation of ancient pueblo ruins, easily accessible via paved trails.  They let you climb ladders into some of the cliff dwellings, so of course we did.  You hike back to your car along Frijoles Creek via a nature trail of cottonwood, ponderosa pine, yucca, and pinon pine.  There’s another hike to two large waterfalls, but we were tired and passed. 


The road up to Bandelier, NM 4, has crazy switchbacks.  Instead of going back that way, we continued on and double backed through Los Alamos.  This is like a little piece of MIT/Kendall Square transplanted to the Southwest.  Signs point you to research areas marked by numbers, not names.  When you get to town there is the same mix of international scientists, all crossing the street as if cars had not been invented yet.  There’s a secured entry to Los Alamos as you climb the mesa; Michael breezed right through it until I pointed out the armed guard waving at us.  We got lunch at China Moon, a surprisingly good buffet.  We had to translate dishes for people who had never seen shu mai or sesame balls. 


We had regretted missing the pueblos on our last trip, so made sure to see some this time.  San Ildefonso Pueblo is famous for its black on black pottery, refined by native artist Maria Martinez in the 1930’s.  Her great grandchildren still run a studio there.  Their work is nowhere as good, but the prices are certainly trading on her name.  Santa Clara pueblo, a few miles further on, specializes in deeply cut pottery in red and black.  Again, the prices were very high.  Overall, we were disappointed.  The pueblos were dusty, unkempt, and hard to decipher.  Hand lettered signs point you to people’s living rooms, where four or five pots sit on the back of a radiator for purchase.  The pueblos send a mixed message, both encouraging tourism, but not serving tourists well when they arrive.  We had a very different experience on the Navajo reservations in Arizona, where there were clearly private places we had no business entering, and public places where people sold things or served fry bread or operated casinos.  Glad we visited, but see no reason to return. 


Then we hit the Black Hole of Espanola.  Espanola is a service town where several state roads come together.  Unfortunately, half are currently under construction, and none well marked.  There are two regular ways to Taos.  The River Road, along the Rio Grande, is relatively flat and easy.  We were trying to get to the High Road, more rugged, through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  After several runs through Espanola, we ended up on the Higher Road. Route 503 starts a little hilly, en route to Chimayo.  Everyone else turned left for Chimayo, but we soldiered on.  And up.  And back.  This was the most challenging road we’ve been on, at least as tortuous as the mountain roads in southern Utah.  At one point the yellow line dividing our lane from ongoing traffic disappeared entirely, and we were left with a single run snaking around the cliffs.  The reward is that when you get a chance to pause, the views are spectacular.  At the end you’re descending at 45 degrees as you twist back onto 76, the regular High Road.  We high-fived our success and proceeded through Truchas and Carson National Forest to Taos.  One of the most spectacular drives in America; do it.


Our first impression of Taos was that it was a little trashy.  It’s definitely more of a real city than Santa Fe, with less money and attitude, and more people working with their hands.  Over the next few days it grew on us, and we think it we prefer it to the capital.  Our attitudes were helped by Lula’s, a sandwich place that roasts its own organic meats and bakes its own bread and pastries.  The décor is totally unassuming, a little divey even.  The food, though, was delicious: hummus platter, pork bbq, turkey-avocado-poblano chile sandwich, dark chocolate truffles and a white chocolate covered strawberry sprinkled with citrus sugar.  All washed down with a Gruet chardonnay and a Montepulciano.  Almost more than we could eat, and all for $47.  A prize.


We drove down to the Plaza and walked around, checking out the shops.  The usual tourist t-shirt, coyote, and cowboy trash, but also some unique pottery studios, artist co-ops, and fiber galleries.  There are tons of Chico’s-lady jewelry and “art to wear” shops, if you’re into that, which we’re not, but without the mobs of Chico’s Ladies that block traffic in Santa Fe.


Thursday, May 20


Taos is three settlements.  The Plaza is the center of Taos proper.  Taos Pueblo is a community of Natives to the northeast.  Rancho de Taos is a Spanish settlement southwest.  We drove down to Rancho de Taos and walked around the Church of St. Francis.  The rear of this church appears in several Georgia O’Keefe paintings.  It anchors a pleasant plaza that appears to be full of tourist shops that were not open this early.  Pretty, serene, and pleasant. 


Up to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  This is touted in a lot of the literature as the second highest suspension bridge in the country.  Dubious, it is clearly a truss, not suspension, bridge, but may hold the height record.  There are stunning vistas from walkways on either side.  Again, flashing back to Navajo Bridge on our Arizona trip, we misread the picnic shelters on one end as Native pottery stands.  There are sales stands at the other end, but of latter-day hippies.  We picked up a trilobite fossil for our friend Linda (“rocks!  All you photographed are rocks!  Where’s the Deco architecture?”).


The bridge is about five miles northwest of Taos.  En route to town is the Millicent Rogers Museum.  Ms Rogers was a Standard Oil heiress, doyenne of the fashion world, and artist in her own right.  Michael thought she looked like drag artist Lypsinka.  She discovered Taos late in life, and fell in love with it.  The museum was moved to the current ranch by her sons after her death, and shows well her Native American textiles, pots, santos, kachinas, jewelry, and other Southwestern arts.  They hold some brilliant indigo ikat blankets, and the world’s best collection of Maria Martinez pottery.  Plus, quirky pieces like children’s books she illustrated for her kids growing up.  A lovely, well-curated collection.  Makes you wish you could have met Ms Rogers personally, not unlike the feeling you get at the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection in Boston. 


Back in town, the Harwood Museum of Art is Taos’ premier collecting institution.  Their Agnes Martin room is an octagonal tribute to the Canadian Minimalist’s canvases, nicely accented by Donald Judd stools/sculptures designed for the space.  The temporary show was of Dwayne Wilcox, a living Native artist who does cartoons on the Native-Anglo, cultural intersection on ledger book pages.  I liked them, Michael thought it a waste of greenbar paper.


Lunch back at Lula’s, worth the replay, BBQ pork, a fancy French dip, Portobello mushroom stew with sun dried tomatoes, brownie.  On to the Taos Art Museum, in the Nicolai Fechin House.  Fechin was a Russian artist who created a unique Russian-pueblo-Arts and Crafts style in the residence he built for his wife and daughter.  The museum has a tolerable collection of local Taos School painting, but the best piece is the house itself, with Fechin’s wood carving and special spaces for his daughter, sun room, art material storage, studio, and entertaining.  The staff kindly let us leave our car there.  It’s an easy walk through Kit Carson Park and the Plaza to the E.L. Blumenschein Home and Museum, back on Ledoux Street near the Harwood.  The Blumenschein is more of a shrine than an art museum, commemorating an artist whose cart broke down here in 1893, causing him to settle in Taos and create it as an art colony.  They got help from heiress and patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who moved in nearby.  Ernest Blumenschein and his wife Mary Greene were both successful illustrators who helped create the mythic image of the cowboy West.  We knew we liked the home, but weren’t sure why until the people in the shop told us that originally the house had been apartments.  The Blumenscheins bought rooms individually, eventually assembling them into their own home and studios.  Sounds like our plan for The Boston House; we sensed kindred spirits.  The museum was showing work that had never been on permanent display; it was discovered during a recent move of the collection to new storage.  Surprisingly interesting, and of good quality.  The best Taos School work is in the museum in Albuquerque, and in D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum, but these works are worth seeing.


We spent the rest of the afternoon gallery hopping around the Plaza.  Artist Inger Jirby was an absolute doll, showing her own work but also giving us references for other galleries we had to see.  She’s the kind of spirit needed to turn individual artists into a community.  Plus her work is cool, bright, and reminiscent of Raoul Dufy, one of my favorites.  Michael invested in a Stephen Kilborn serving platter painted with a fish, and a lamp at the Taos Artists’ Coop made from a candlestick and “crystal ball”.  I hunted down piñata-print fabric and a local weaving studio.


We asked Cara, an employee at the Blumenschein, for a restaurant recommendation.  She sent us to a former church a little out of town called The Love Apple.  A brilliant choice, we feasted on beet-grapefruit-avocado salad, homemade tortillas with three sauces, organic beef tacos, lamb on spinach with grilled asparagus, and Mexican chocolate cake.  We continued to be astounded by the quality of the food we were able to get.  Not expensive, but locally sourced, fresh, and delicious.  There is plenty of inexpensive New Mexican/Mexican drowned in red and green chile sauce, but it’s easy to find better, too.  We found on our recent Long Island trip that too much restaurant food gave me chest tightening, but the food on this trip made that easier to avoid.  Cool. 


Miss Cara was seated a few tables away; we ended our meals about the same time, and discovered she’s originally from Newton, Massachusetts, so our high schools were football rivals.  Another of the Taos residents who wanted to be sure we enjoyed our stay, she suggested we take advantage of the extended daylight and drive up to Arroyo Seco.  This is one of several surrounding hamlets of artists’ workshops and lodgings; this one anchored by a saki bar and yoga studio.  Another worthy drive, accented by a setting sun that turned the mountains lavender.


Friday, May 21


I was jaded after our earlier pueblo experiences, but Michael insisted we should see Taos Pueblo.  He was right; if you only see one, make it Taos.  It is the best organized and most prepared for tourists.  It’s probably the least “real”, as many of the residents actually live in contemporary homes with electricity and running water elsewhere on the reservation, and only use the pueblo home for ceremonial purposes or to house Grandma.  It’s certainly beautiful, with stacked adobe homes circling a plaza on both sides of Red Willow Creek.  We bought baked goods and looked at painting, leather, and pots.  On the reservation was a cigarette stand with the cheapest prices on Winstons we’d ever seen (that’s Michael’s Dad’s brand, trust me, we’ve been looking).  We stocked up and used the nearby post office to send down to Houston. 


It’s a couple hours south to Albuquerque, even by the most direct way, the River Road.  We stopped at the Rio Grande Valley Visitors Center, then for lunch at the Roadrunner Café outside of Santa Fe.  We picked up I-25 and jumped off at the University of New Mexico campus.  Since the state government is in Santa Fe, the University is one of the biggest employers in Albuquerque.  Our first impression was that it was ungainly and hard to decipher, but as we learned it we started to like it.  The UNM Art Museum was entirely taken over by the dreadful Man Ray/Africa show we’d seen at the Phillips.  We laughed and fled, but not before the nice student/guard gave us a map of sculpture installations on campus.  There’s an okay Luis Jimenez, a nice George Rickey mobile, and an odd but useful-as-landmark Bruce Naumann concrete tunnel piece.


The other “site” at UNM is the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.  We had low expectations that were thoroughly unfounded.  This is almost as good as the Peabody Museum at Harvard.  The focus is on Southwest Indians, naturally, especially sites that have been excavated by UNM’s Archaeology Department.  They had a quirky show on leaflet propaganda from the Korean War.  I especially liked the leaflets printed on what looked like the back of Korean money, to encourage potential defectors to pick them up.  It’s a very academic museum, but with a great shop.


Albuquerque is centered on the intersection of Interstates 25 and 40.  We took I-40 to Old Town, the original Spanish settlement.  The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History is home to the State’s art collection, including the Taos School artists mentioned above.  Like the New York State Museum, it covers both art and history.  The history galleries are better than the art, delivering a terrific story of the settlement of New Mexico by natives, Spanish, and Anglos.  That history stops, sadly, at World War II, just as Albuquerque itself gets interesting.  The temporary galleries had up the “Turner to Monet: The Davies Collection” show that was recently at the Corcoran.  Brilliant art, but I’d seen it, and couldn’t drag Michael through Welsh Impressionists.  Instead we walked over to Church of San Felipe in the Plaza.  It has an adobe base but an Anglo-Victorian top.  Tin ceiling, “American Gothic” bell towers, but a New Mexico retablo-style altar.  The shops around the Plaza are no Santa Fe, but they are nicer than in Phoenix.  We got ice cream and watched people.  Decided we could not look at one more horse-hair fired pot or t-shirt with cavorting wolves. 


My brother Tony had recommended a restaurant called Sadie’s.  He said it was like the Chateau in Waltham, only Mexican vs. Italian.  That’s an accurate description.  It started as a burrito stand, and has grown into a multi-room enchilada palace.  Even at 6PM the place was jammed, but we were seated in about thirty minutes.  Friendly service.  I got the hamburger steak smothered in red chile, Michael the chile relleno, both perfect, especially when paired with Gruet chardonnay.


Knowing that Sunday we would have to fly out early, we checked into a La Quinta near the airport.  This was not a bad choice; it put us south of the University, not far from downtown. 


Saturday, May 22


A collective of Pueblo tribes runs the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.  It is a museum/outreach to the tourists who come to the pueblo region through Albuquerque.  We were impressed, they do a good job of introducing each of the different tribes, showing what is unique to each and common to all, with a more coherent story than the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.  A dance troupe from Zuni Pueblo performed in the courtyard, and the café serves a good taco-salad-on-fry-bread, lamb sandwich, and green chile stew.  After several discussions on the topic, we’ve decided the Pueblo Indians were better off under the Americans than they would have been under the Spanish and Mexicans.  On the one side you have casinos, tribal freedom, and creativity (at least to market to tourists), on the other, forced conversion to Catholicism and the rebellion in Chiapas.  Not that either Western culture is blame free, but the Anglo-American path seems to have come to a better resolution for the natives.


If I missed post-War culture at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, I was able to get it in spades walking down Central Avenue in downtown and Knob Hill.  This is one of the historic Route 66’s.  Knob Hill is as close to a gay neighborhood as New Mexico gets.  Lots of home design and music stores, the Pueblo-Deco KiMo Theater, and the tchotchke-encrusted Aztec Motel waiting for an enlightened buyer.  Fun.  We got an excellent éclair and coconut-covered snowball at Flying Star Café.


My brother Tony is the maintenance man for Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  This is nowhere close to Albuquerque.  Getting there involves a three hour hike out of the Canyon, then a 4.5 hour drive east on I-40.  Not fun.  We were thrilled, therefore, when Tony agreed to meet us.  He figured our getting to the adjacent state counted as at least halfway, and besides, who wants to risk driving into Arizona these days <smile>?  We were going to meet at the Sandia Peak Tram, but it closed due to high winds (which Tony had experienced as blinding dust storms coming east).  Michael and I drove past it along the Sandia Mountains; sadly, the new areas of the city are just as boring, sprawling, and doomed as suburban Virginia or Chicago, but in a desert to make everything worse.


Instead we rendezvoused at the Balloon Museum.  Michael had been dubious, but it won him over.  There’s something called the “Albuquerque Box” that allows balloonists to ascend to one level, go one way, then descend to another and go back, so they can ascend and descend at roughly the same place.  That makes the city a major balloon center.  The museum talks about this, the science of lighter than air flight, and the history of ballooning.  Best of all, it tells the story with interactive exhibits that got us three adults playing in the museum.  Michael successfully rode a simulator through the Box, to his delight.


We drove into Old Town, hung around the Plaza together, and got dinner at local Mexican chain Little Anita’s.  Decent, with excellent sopapillas.


Sunday, May 23


We said goodbye to Tony, drove to the airport, returned our rental at Avis and let American fly us home via O’Hare.  An 8:20AM flight got us uneventfully to National by 4:15PM.


What did we learn?


-          The desert in bloom is fantastic, the mountain roads likewise.  All the cultural sites I’d lined up paled next to the beauty of getting from one place to another.

-          The architecture is unimpressive, but that’s not really the point.  It’s cool to see adobe/pueblo/Santa Fe style in a place where it makes sense, rather than the phony attempt you might get in a Bethesda kitchen.

-          The people are friendly and welcoming, without being stupid.  As a gentleman told us at a tribal store, “there are no bad people here”.  Guess he hasn’t met Pete Domenici.

-          There is great food all over, especially in Marfa and Taos: organic, local, and fresh.

-          That said, we were tired of Southwestern food and the lack of vegetables.

-          New Mexico wine is good, but most of what you see is from the Gruet winery/factory on the freeway outside of Albuquerque, and not hard to find here in D.C.

-          The dry heat is comfortable, especially contrasted to the wall of humidity that met us on the jetway at National.


Future Trips


(all New Mexico, except as noted)

El Paso, TX

·         El Paso Museum of Art

·         UT El Paso, Tibetan architecture, Rubin Center for Visual Arts

·         San Jacinto Plaza, sculpture by Luis Jimenez

·         Scenic Drive (Franklin Mountains, bet. Richmond Street & Rim Road)

·         Mission Trail: Carmen, Socorro, San Elizario

·         Chamizal National Memorial

·         El Paso Museum of History

·         National Border Patrol Museum

Sitting Bull Falls

Belen, Through the Flower Foundation (Judy Chicago)

Waterfalls on Rio Nambe

Valles Caldera/Jemez Falls

Turquoise Trail, Madrid, artists/crafts




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