The Land of "Enchantment:" Four-ish Days and 21 Hours Driving Around New Mexico
“There was two-thirds of a rodent there to greet me this mornin’ when I stepped off my porch.” The man said with a gruff smile, his straw hat jauntily tilting to one side. “From what I could tell from what was left of it, it was some kind of mouse or something.” He kicked at a log that was standing upright by his feet.
“Would you look at that?” He exclaimed suddenly. I approached cautiously. There were others who were approaching too. “Ain’t that the largest spider you’ve seen in a while?” He laughed and pointed.
It was a black widow. She was scrambling down her log, angry at the intrusion. He unceremoniously dropped the log back onto the grass and stomped on it for good measure. “Back into the dark with you.” He said.
“She probably prefers it that way.” A woman at my elbow chimed in as we all backed away slowly, trying not to step on the cacti littered throughout the meadow.
A couple of months ago my friend Sierra sent me a message asking if I would have any interest in photographing her Mother’s handfasting. “Sure.” I said. “Where and when would it be?”
It would be in New Mexico on Star Wars Day, and I almost agreed instantly except for the fact that it was my anniversary weekend and my muse and I were supposed to go to the Berkshires. “I’ll get back to you.” I told her, and plotted how I would convince Chimæric that a week in the desert was superior to a week in the forest.
Somehow, my plotting worked and our plan commenced. We would fly into Albuquerque, shoot the wedding, and spend a few days driving around in circles looking at stuff.
My friend Rachel dropped us off at the airport Thursday morning 20 minutes before the gate was set to close. It was an early flight and we hadn’t wanted to get up ridiculously early, a choice which left us scrambling to get through security. They were calling our names when we got to the gate, we had 3 minutes to spare. We were flying United Airlines.
The Houston airport was packed with humans, most of them headed to Kentucky for the Derby, enormous hat boxes stuffed under their arms and their handbags undoubtedly filled to the brim with duty free bourbon.
The boarding process for our second flight went off without a hitch, that is until we were all on the plane and the pilot’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker: “We’re having some weather down southwest of here and we’re gonna be rerouted so the flight will now take 40 minutes longer.”
A beat passed.
“Also we won’t be leaving here for another hour at least because when they were loading the bags onto the plane they discovered a maintenance issue that needs to be addressed right away.”
Groans rotated through the cabin.
“Sorry for the inconvenience.”
We finally left an hour and a half after our scheduled departure, and landed more than 2 hours late, which meant that by the time we would get to Santa Fe, everything would be closed. I bit my lip and tried to think happy thoughts.
A quick stop at the Enterprise rental car lot granted us access to a jet black Lincoln Continental, a luxury that was one of Chimæric’s conditions for the trip since he would be doing most of the driving. Once he determined that the “shifter” was actually a series of buttons along the navigation system, he pushed D for Drive and we were off to Santa Fe.
Here's a dashboard cam video of our adventure, set to the dulcet tones of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter:
So That’s What They Call a Family
When I was a little human my older sister introduced a movie to me called Newsies. Directed by Kenny Ortega and released by Disney in 1992, it’s a flawed musical starring Robert Duvall as Joseph Pulitzer, Bill Pullman as Bryan Denton, the newspaper man, and Christian Bale as Jack Kelley, or Cowboy, the leader of the Manhattan Newsboys, or “Newsies,” who incites a working class revolution over the a tiny spike in newspaper distribution costs set to dynamic dance numbers complete with hip thrusts and wild acrobatics.
I’ve been obsessed with it since the moment the opening scene rolled in front of my toddler eyes, the voice of Racetrack (played by Max Casella) looming over a montage of turn of the 20th century images - “In 1899 the streets of New York echoed with the voices of Newsies, peddling the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and other giants of the newspaper world…”
But perhaps one of the most ridiculous, and arguably most well loved, moments of the film occurs after Cowboy spends a day with new recruit Davey, telling him about how he dreams of getting out of the city to live free out West He sings a song called Santa Fe. It’s a ridiculous ballad in which Christian Bale tries to hit high notes and does a choreographed dance number while soundstage New York is transformed to soundstage Santa Fe while he grunts and kicks and sings: “When I dream on my own, I’m alone but I ain’t lonely, for a dreamer night’s the only kinda day.”
Here, see for yourself.
Just about the time that I first started watching Newsies, my family took a long, triangular road trip from Champaign, Illinois, where we drove down to Houston, Texas, zipped across to Santa Fe, and then bounced up to Denver, Colorado before heading home. Some of my earliest memories happened on this trip: swimming in a horse shaped floatie in my parents' friend’s swimming pool in Houston, throwing snowballs at my Dad on top of a mountain in the Rockies, and getting a soda from the five and dime in downtown Santa Fe. The trip still holds a kind of mystical quality to it, nestled like it is in the fuzzy memories of a 3 year old mind, diluted by 25 years of use and recall.
We pulled into Santa Fe’s El Rey Court around 4:45 mountain time. It was off a major thoroughfare and at first we were uncertain about the noise and the location, but our fears were soon alleviated after check-in. We were given a room in a shady part of the complex adjacent to a green courtyard filled with vintage lamp posts, wooden tables, vine covered chairs, and a stone fountain filled with bubbles.
Our room was small but clean and modeled after a mid-century pueblo with tile floors, stucco walls, and carved wooden furniture. One of the most unusual parts of the space was a mirror suspended by a tile table attached to the wall by thick metal chains. It had a severe look to it akin to a medieval drawbridge.
Knowing we didn’t have much time there, we immediately set out in search for food and to explore what we could. Because I’m vegan and Chimæeric is a vegetarian who only eats wheat and dairy products, finding restaurants anywhere we both can be happy is a unique challenge, especially in isolated spaces. In Santa Fe, we found a place called Macalicious which is dedicated entirely to, as you might suspect, mac and cheese. Lucky for me they had a vegan option on the menu.
The restaurant was right downtown, and we had the place to ourselves except for an elderly couple and the owner of the place. The vegan cheese was cashew based and the dish was tasty but not remarkable. Chimæric proclaimed his to be middling at best.
After dinner we meandered down to the Plaza, only to discover that everything was closed or in the process of closing. We considered heading over to George R. R. Martin’s brainchild Meow Wolf, but since it was already pushing 7 and it closed at 8 and the ticket price of $22 was a little steep for the time we would have, we decided to skip it. Instead, we popped into the five and dime on the plaza, for nostalgia’s sake, stopped by two Allsups’s convenience stores in fruitless search for a map, picked up snacks at Whole Foods, and then returned to El Rey Court where we grabbed a drink at the bar.
The place was packed with people when we arrived, keying us into the fact that the bar was actually a hotspot for locals. Overwhelmed by the large numbers of people and exhausted to our core, we left after one drink and returned to our room, where we caught the last 10 minutes of the film Tombstone on AMC. Immediately after it ended, the intro credits started rolling and they were playing the movie again. We watched for 5 minutes, admiring Sam Elliott’s excellent mustache flowing in the breeze, until I remembered that I hate Westerns and we turned it off.
The following morning we woke up before dawn and grabbed breakfast next door at The Pantry. I was able to cobble together a vegan meal from rice, pinto beans, guacamole, and veggie sausage while Chimæric nibbled on a cinnamon roll the size of his face. From there we drove 15 minutes out of town in search of the Haiku garden at Santa Fe Community College, which we didn’t find, and then back to the Plaza to search for a sweater for me, because the temperatures were far colder than I had anticipated.
The Santa Fe Plaza is predominately filled with stores that are nearly identical, hawking turquoise jewelry, cowhide hats and jackets, and all sorts of overpriced paraphernalia. We entered one such store, curious to see if they had anything of note, and a small woman with silvery hair all but chased us to where we stood. “Can I help you find something?” She forced, breathlessly. “We’re just looking.” I responded. “Oh.” She said. “You were walking so quickly it seemed like you knew exactly what you needed but I wanted to make sure.”
“We’re good.” I insisted, hackles raising on the back of my neck. I never realized that walking quickly was something people were threatened by. Mayhaps slow-pokerie and having lots of money go hand in hand in this part of the world.
It was all too obvious that Santa Fe was no longer the place of Cowboy’s dreams, and realizing this, it was time for us to move on.
Friday was the day of the handfasting and we journeyed south to Tijeras via Albuquerque, finally securing a road atlas at Barnes and Noble along the way. The ceremony was to take place that afternoon at Beltane Southwest, and to preserve their privacy, I won’t tell you anything about it, except that the sun was shining and I saw a black widow for the first time in my life and everything was interesting.
Take Me to Your Caverns
From Tijeras we continued on our journey south to Artesia, stopping first in Roswell. Within a few miles of the town we started seeing billboards featuring aliens promoting everything from window shades to Denny’s and we knew we were in for some intergalactic cheesiness. Chimæric’s mother had recommended we stop at a diner called Big D’s Downtown Dive, but a quick glance at the menu proved that it wouldn’t be able to feed the both of us, so we abruptly left and headed a mile down the road to a place we had seen called Farley’s, which was an industrial family dining experience complete with the ubiquitous alien decor and pretty terrible food.
Since everything was already closed for the day, much to my disappointment, we decided to head on our way. We made a wrong turn down a side road which took us quickly out of town and into the farmlands, and to our olfactory horror, the fertilization distribution devices in the fields had been powered up to full throttle, coating the area surrounding Roswell in a methane stench so palatable that no amount of air recycling or breath holding prevented the order from washing over us in waves.
It followed us all the way to the outskirts of Artesia, leaving us feeling nauseated and desperate for a change of scenery, if not of state. As we approached the city, a sizable industrial factory of some sort was sending balls of flame into the sky, replacing the scent of manure with the aromatic flavorings of burning rubber.
Chimæric, spying this monstrosity on the horizon, turned to me. “I need a drink.” He said.
We pulled into an Allsup’s to see what they had to offer, but their fridges were broken. We stopped at a Stripes, but they had nothing but Coors and Bud. It also smelled like someone had left the gas on, so we left quickly. Then, at last we found a Shell which had what we needed. A young dark haired woman with a bored expression sat behind the register. “Y’all in from out of town?” She queried, conversationally. We felt obvious.
“Yes,” Chimæric began. “Also, what’s that factory a few miles up the road” He asked.
“Oh that’s an oil refinery.” She said. “If it goes up in flame we’ll take five states with us.” She laughed.
We laughed too, nervously.
The Heritage Inn is located between the Chisum library, a bank, and Adobe Rose Restaurant in downtown Artesia. Adobe Rose is pretty much the only place in town worth anything, and a Mariachi group was making a racket as we drove up to the hotel and parked. Locked after dark, we pushed a call button to be buzzed into the building, and within seconds we were admitted and walking up a long flight of stairs covered in red carpet with a swirly gold brocade.
A young blonde woman with a cheery expression greeted us as we approached the desk. “Did y’all have a long drive?” She asked. The hotel had called earlier in the day to see when we would be arriving, and then we had had to call them to let them know we were going to be even later. She had probably been waiting for us for several hours. Other than us, the place seemed empty.
We were in room 11, the only room on the bottom floor, and passed a hallway of cowboy themed art and decor to reach the back stairs to where the room was located. It was much bigger than expected, and included a long red couch, a small dining table, and a kitchenette in addition to a king-sized bed. The overhead lights were white and blinding, so we shut them off in favor of the warmer bedside lamps. Although, there was nothing to be done about the unflattering light in the bathroom, nor about the fact that there weren’t any windows.
It was the coolest bachelor pad your little brother could’ve dreamed up, if your little brother loved cowboys and was boring.
We ate breakfast in the hotel the next morning before heading down to Carlsbad Caverns. We had a bit of navigational trouble en route as one of the main roads connecting the city of Carlsbad to the National Park – Standpipe Road – was closed completely, forcing us to go 30 minutes out of our way to locate another route South.
Carlsbad Caverns are nestled on the Eastern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, surrounded by shrub-speckled foothills of a pervasive beige. According to the National Park Service, it's the fifth largest natural limestone cave in North America. The Big Room, what it's known for, has a floor space of 357,469 square feet.
It's pretty big.
From the Caverns visitors center you can choose your own adventure for $12 a person. You can either take the elevator down 750 feet to the Big Room or hike down a gradual incline for slightly more than an hour to get to Big Room, and then take the elevator back up. Because the thought of being deep underground already terrified me enough, I decided that going down in an elevator would just make the experience far worse, because in order for me to do this and not have a full panic attack, I needed to approach the depth and the damp and the dark gradually.
You can see the mouth of the cave from the main walkway, and its sinking maw sent spikes of fear up my arms and into the center of my chest. I felt my breath quicken. Chimæric grabbed my hand and tried to reassure me. “This is the most gentrified cave you’ll ever come across.” He said. “Also, we’ll take it slowly.”
The gaping black hole opened before me as we descended step by step down into the darkness. My knees were wobbly, my palms were clammy, I tucked my glasses into my bag so that I wouldn’t lose them, also so that the world would be fuzzier and therefore less alarming.
It wasn’t long before we left the natural light of the sunshine sky behind us and walked deeper into the cave, the dark stones illuminated by masterful artificial lighting that would rival Retonica’s expertise. Massive stalagmites rose from beneath us, their bulbous, cracked surfaces reaching up towards the cathedral high ceiling. Spike-pointed stalactites hung precariously overhead, their sharp tips threateningly looming as we walked beneath them. I tried not to look up. I tried not to speak lest my echoing voice reverberate through the chamber, knocking the eons old formations from their resting places in the cavern ceiling.
The further down we descended, the more dramatic the formations became, and my heart began to settle into a steady rhythm that allowed me to enjoy what I was seeing rather than be terrified by it. It’s difficult to explain the magnitude of what I took in. Each natural structure seemed to take on an otherworldly nature, as if it were the sleeping figure of an ancient troll or faerie. And I apparently wasn’t the first to attach a mythical nature to what I was experiencing. Names like Devil’s Spring, Fairyland, the Giants, and Mirror Lake were listed on placards to describe the formations. It wasn’t a huge step to consider that geological phenomenon such as these could’ve been the inspiration for countless faerie tales around the world.
It was magical, nothing like anything I had ever seen before.
After about 2 hours down there, however, I hit my emotional limit and we made our way to the elevators and back out into the sunshine. As much as I enjoyed the fruits of my bravery, it was rewarding to be back where I could see the sky.
Before taking off towards our next destination, we stopped at the gift shop where I found a new Javelina friend for Kokopelli.
Introducing Carl “Snake-in-My-Boots” Bad, Carl S. Bad for short.
On the way through Carlsbad we had driven by the Living Desert Museum and were interested enough in what it had to offer that we added it to our itinerary. The selling point was that the website listed that there were Javelinas on the property. It also serves as a rehabilitation center for injured Chihuahuan Desert wildlife, and works to see the propagation of native species in the wild, something I can absolutely get behind.
A $5 admission fee granted us entry into the small park, a 1.5 mile loop that takes you past indigenous New Mexican flora and fauna with a bit of education mixed in. We followed the serpentine path past desert willows and various cacti until we found the first series of exhibits, one of which contained Lena the Javelina, a sweet little lady who obviously just wanted treats and to be cuddled.
During the hour or so we were there, we also saw a number of Elk, pronghorn antelope, tons of rattlesnakes, birds of prey, mountain lions, prairie dogs, and roadrunners. Sadly all the gila monsters were hiding, and so were the rest of the Javelinas in the bigger enclosure. Given that we were there in the hottest part of the day, I wasn’t surprised by the limited animal activity.
Since our disappointment in Roswell the night before, we had decided that after our adventures in Carlsbad we would head back north and try to do the Roswell thing again. We weren’t quite certain what the Roswell thing would be, but we were sure as hell going to do it. It was pushing 3:15 by the time we left the Living Desert Museum, which meant that would have little more than an hour in Roswell by the time we got back there, but we were sure it would be enough.
The International UFO Museum is located right downtown and contains the personal collection of some dude. For $5 you can gain entrance to see the “exhibits” of newspaper clippings and bad art mixed in with intergalactic-themed movie posters, a few decent sculptures, and a gallery of blurry UFO photography. After walking through the exhibits, I couldn’t help but wonder if Roswell’s tourism offerings are so few because the whole Roswell incident farce is actually an embarrassment to the locals, sort of in the way the Witch Trials are an embarrassment to Salem, MA.
But that doesn’t stop Salem from capitalizing off it.
After picking up some of the world’s greatest alien souvenirs (huggable alien, anyone?) we considered ourselves officially Roswell’d and headed on out of town.
We had another long journey ahead of us, across the state to Alamogordo, into more unusual territory.
Remember the Alamogordo
We searched in vain for hours for somewhere to eat between Roswell and Alamogordo, but it was a veritable vegetarian wasteland. Eventually we found a local pizza place in Alamogordo called Pizza Mill and Sub Factory. When we walked through the doors of the joint, a well-loved space with arcade games lining the wall, everybody stared at us like we were circus elephants. One woman smiled at me. I tried to ignore it and went to the counter. The employee didn’t seem interested in the fact that I was there. “Can we sit anywhere?” I asked. “Yep.” He said. We took our seats.
A few minutes passed and realization dawned that we had to order at the counter, even though even that was unclear. So, awkwardly, we approached the counter again and placed our order. When we sat back down, Chimæric gave me an uh-oh face and said that we needed to make special check-in arrangements for where we were staying that night, and that check-in ended at 9.
I stepped outside to call the Crofting Inn, disciplining my voice to sound contrite and eager to please. “Hella?” The confused voice said on the other end.
“Hi, we have a reservation for tonight but totally forgot to make check-in reservations. I’m so sorry. We’ll be there at about 8:30 or 9, will anyone be able to meet us?”
“Who are y’again?” He asked. I told him. “When did’ya make the reservation?” Voices were on the other end of the line and he kept answering them between asking me to repeat myself. “Do ya know which room y’ar in?”
We eventually figured it out when he found me in his book. “When you git here take a right down at the Family Dollar, come on up the hill until ya see the red house. Someone’ll be here ta let you in. K? g’night.” He hung up. I laughed and went back inside.
The pizza was there waiting for me on the table. It was inedible.
The Crofting Inn B&B sits on the hilltop “up the hill from the Family Dollar” in the middle of Lincoln National Forest. It came as a shock to both Chimæric and I to find such a luscious necklace of green in the middle of the New Mexican wasteland, but there it was. It was like Maine had sent off miniature copies of itself to various parts of the country, and one of them had landed smack dab in the land of enchantment.
When we pulled up, a middle aged man in a t-shirt and a baseball cap met us and showed us how to get inside and where to find our room. The space had the feel of a ski lodge, without the skiing, and the decor was cozy and bright, if not overstuffed by cowboy inspired paraphernalia. The cowboy decor extended to our room, room #6 with the King sized bed, but it was cozy enough and full of charm.
The next morning we were greeted by a friendly Tuxedo cat immediately upon leaving our room, and he led us downstairs to where breakfast would be. Since I wouldn’t be able to have of any of the breakfast offered, we made our apologies for leaving early, but the woman making the breakfast insisted we had coffee at least, so we did, sitting on the couch in the front room while we drank down our cups. An old corgi lumbered into the room after us, plopping down at our feet to clean his face and demand pets. Naturally, I obliged.
It was an hour and some change from the Crofting Inn to White Sands National Monument, and we stopped along the way at one of the Lincoln Forest overlooks to take in the magnificent view.
The White Sands show up abruptly. A we approached, the landscape swiftly changed from the typical New Mexican shrub speckled beige to shrub speckled white sandy dunes.
The entrance fee to the national park is $5 per person, and once we paid we navigated to the first trail, a 1 mile nature loop where the trail was nearly impossible to follow, and so we did the best we could. The White Sands are actually the world's largest gypsum dune fields, covering 275 square miles of desert, and the views are mesmerizing.
It looked like a paradise. For days I had been longing for the desert, staring out over the open horizon hoping the grey and brown grassland would crack into the bleak emptiness that I’ve come to deeply love over the past year. And at last, here in the southwestern tip of the state, I finally found what I had been looking for.
We traipsed around the space, running up hills and running down them, doing cartwheels in the sand, avoiding the legion of sledders riding on their bums down the dunes. Eventually the heat and the exertion drove us back to our car, but not until after we had poked our heads in at every possible stop and my shoes were completely filled with sand.
From there we ventured back the way we had come to Ruidoso for lunch at Sacred Grounds Coffee, a live music venue and coffeehouse overlooking a rare stream that runs behind the town. Despite the pleasantness of the space, the food there was unremarkable and we soon left to explore the rest of the main street. We popped in and out of stores, finding a wonderful tea shop, a new age-y store that sold faerie-themed objects, and Chill Out, an allergen-friendly fro-yo shop with a copy of Candyland.
From Riudoso we took our final leg of the journey to Albuquerque, to our last lodgings – the Inn at Paradise, which turned out to be attached to a golf course. Fortunately, our room overlooked a small tea garden which concealed most of the course from view.
But instead of resting for the evening, we had one more stop to make: The Musical Highway, a quarter mile stretch of highway on Historic Route 66 where when you drive over the rumble strips in the road, the vibrations play "America the Beautiful," albeit slightly out of tune. (To listen, watch the driving around New Mexico video I posted near the beginning).
The first time over the melodious rumblestrips was a failure. We had the windows open and didn’t know how to navigate to make the sound work. The second time around, however, was a thrilling success – if you can call the warbling tones that came from the contact between tire and road a success. It was supposed to sound like America the Beautiful, it sounded like someone scraping burnt pasta off the bottom of a pan with a metal spoon. It sounded like something, you could definitely make out the melody, but it definitely needs a tune-up.
On the way home we stopped for dinner at Farina Alto Pizzeria and Wine Bar, which was delicious and reasonably priced, as long as you don't mind sharing a space with paint and sippers while you dine.
We flew home the next morning way too early, and neither of us had been ready to leave. If you asked me to put my finger on what makes New Mexico special, I would have to answer honestly that it actually isn't. It has deserts, but there are deserts elsewhere. It has caverns, but there are caverns elsewhere. It has aliens, but aliens never actually crash landed in Roswell.
New Mexico is Arizona's sad little brother, but it's still charming. Its oddball nature and wide open skies make you feel like being there is like having a good meal with a friend you haven't seen in a while, and for the most part, it's nice...
Until your friend brings up politics and you realize it's time to go home.
© 2018 Joey Phoenix