Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Back in the U.S. of A.

After our decision in Tolantongo, we backtracked to the highway and then headed north. Just before dark we pulled in to San José Iturbide, a little town a few kilometres off the carretera. The kids chased each other around the zócalo as Wil and I got a hotel room and found a place for dinner. We ended up at a table in the corner of a café gleefully watching Mexico kick Bosnia's butt. We got the kids up early to hit the road before the rest of Mexico woke up. Along the side of the highway was a stand every few hundred feet selling strawberries and cream. So very tempting but we couldn't afford any unnecessary stops. Later the stands were fruit ice cream. After half an hour on the road a new worrying noise developed — the unpleasant shriek and clank of metal on metal, this time from the front of the car. What now?!!! We pulled over to have a look and found that the spring on the front passenger wheel had broken. We joked that at least the new noise masked the wooga-wooga of the back wheel and the gnashing of the gears. We drove until dark, past what looked like a hay day — hundreds of trucks hauling small to huge loads of green hay to one little town where they were all congregating; the kind of event that we'd normally feel compelled to check out, because wherever crowds gather there is bound to be great food. This time we had to pass. We came out of the beautiful, high mountain plateau into Monterrey, dropping from almost ten thousand feet to fifteen hundred. Both the climbs and the descents were nerve-wracking as the moody gears worked for a time and then, mysteriously, didn't. Wil adjusted his driving style to accommodate either no second and fourth gear or no third and fifth, depending on the slope. In the late afternoon we arrived in Monterrey to a lot of hand-wringing as we struggled to find a hotel on the highway in order to spend as little time in traffic (changing gears) as possible. Being off the road for the night was a huge relief, especially knowing that a couple of hours of driving in the morning would put us within towing distance of Austin.

Our last night in Mexico was depressing. The airport hotel was miles away from any food of interest, the signs were all in English, the restaurant was full of Americans and Japanese undoubtedly flying in and out to check on maquilladoras. Wil and I discussed what to do next. With the house rented out going home early just wasn't an option and no matter what, we'll need to stick around while the van is being fixed. We decided to rent a car once we were north of the border and use the time to check out the southwest. All we had to do was mention Vegas for the kids to jump on board.

The border crossing in the morning was a breeze. We took the extra time to head further west to cross at the Colombia Bridge. We drove for miles along the border, between the two biggest (and purportedly most dangerous) crossings in Texas. Perspective is such a funny thing. This same area was such a minefield for us on the way down. We couldn't get out of it fast enough. Now our only worry was whether the van would make it and, if it didn't, how to get a tow truck in this no-man's land. The traffic was nil, the border staff was positively gracious (for the first time ever) and we were across after the most cursory look inside the van.

We were in Austin before four. We couldn't quite believe we'd made it as we pulled into the garage. I can't face the idea of writing about the effin' mechanical issues. Suffice it to say that the hallelujah moment of getting there was quickly swept away by the realization that the van was, in all likelihood, going to be in the US longer than us. In an exhausted daze, Wil went over to Enterprise Rent-a-car to bring back a Chrysler Town & Country while I shopped for a used five-speed transmission online. When Wil turned up we loaded up some stuff and headed in to South Austin. Our favourite motel was all booked up but we got a place in the creepy, white-trash Embassy Suites and headed to South Congress for some dinner. I had my heart set on a nice bottle of white and some seafood at Perla's. We all settled in at the concrete bar. The kids watched some spectacular footage of fish in the sea as we devoured their friends with a nice bottle of Muscadet.

We decided to head west from Austin and head for Carlsbad Cavern just over the New Mexico border. It took us all day to get out of endless Texas. I realize that winter can be dry and colourless but West Texas is just too desolate — mile upon mile upon boring mile of nothingness. Miles are so bloody long!! I know a naturalist would object but the occasional halfhearted mesa is the only thing breaking the monotony of this blah, washed-out, flat scrub. When dusk came, the desert looked like the sea — the horizon as straight as if it'd been drawn with a ruler, everything below it turned black and above it a pale orange band washing into the pale blue of the vast, endless sky. The shimmering lights from distant oil wells looked like shrimp boats bobbing on the night sea. The Big Dipper's handle plunged straight into the desert. Occasionally a mobile home with a pickup truck outside would appear. Who the hell lives out here?

We drove on roads with no curves until well after dark, opting to make it to Carlsbad before calling it quits. We couldn't resist the description of one restaurant touted as the "Best Chinese in West Texas" (I don't know how stiff the competition is). It didn't take long to track down Bamboo Garden. All we had to do was find the most parked cars on this Saturday night in small town West Texas. Walking into the restaurant was like entering another world. Red lacquer walls, gold-framed mirrors everywhere, jade tiger sculptures in glassed-in alcoves on the walls, dark thick-pile carpet. Like a scene out of vintage James Bond. The place was packed with all sorts of large families (in both senses of the word). The waitress, clad in a Chinese silk blouse, asked "Y'all gunna have the buffet or dja need to see a menu?" She led us past the long display of food to tantalize us. We were starving. "Yes, please." The food was surprisingly good. There were free refills for the half-litre plastic cups of pop in front of every one in the place except us and the one other table of tourists, a Japanese family of four. After the kids had had their fill of the buffet and the seven varieties of jello, Wil went up to the cash to pay. He waited beside a woman who tried one credit card, then a second and finally ran out to the car to get a third to charge her $51 dinner. Our meal for five was a whopping $29.

After a great night's sleep in a motel we hit the free, hot breakfast buffet which, in a place like Carlsbad, New Mexico, can really get you down. Everyone looks so positively unhealthy, downing the bottomless coffee cups and plates piled ridiculously high with eggs, biscuits and gravy. I was happy to be lining ourselves up for some natural beauty.

Once we were off the highway, we had a lovely drive through the pale rolling hills, north faces dusted with snow. By midmorning we were at the Carlsbad Cavern visitor centre, which is perched on the threshold between hills and plain — the jagged Guadalupe Mountains in the distance. After paying our entry fee, we walked along a switchback trail, past the viewing area for watching the nightly exodus of the summer resident bats, into the gaping cavern mouth. The little light that reaches the cavern from outside soon fades and, along the concrete walkway, discreet little lights appear to illuminate some of the cavern's more dramatic rock formations. And there are so many! Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, popcorn, draperies — crazy, mesmerizing organic shapes on the ceilings, floors and walls. Days later, I still can't quite get over the sheer vastness of the place. It took us 2-1/2 hours to follow just part of the path. In some places, the ceiling is more than a hundred feet above you. The main "room" of the cavern is an incredible 14 football fields and at one end lies the "Bottomless Pit", so named because the first explorers' lights weren't powerful enough to plumb the depths. The gigantic Iceberg Rock, which takes half an hour just to walk around, fell from the roof ages ago — its outline perfectly matching the contour of the ceiling above. We asked a park ranger about whether anyone had ever tried to hide here for the night. She told us that, according to park lore, long ago someone had, not realizing that the lights would be turned off for the 15-hour night. The rangers did the last rounds, switching off the lights as they went, when a panicked voice rang out from the dark. Another ranger told us about 16-year-old Jim White who first explored this place in the 20s. I can't think of a lot of 16-year-olds today daring enough to brave the profound darkness and quiet of this place. The park rangers are universally smiley, helpful and informative. They all seem so damned happy with their career choices and I can't blame them. Pointing out an alcove in the cavern wall, one ranger explained that where we stood we were only 80 feet from the outside and that, in the 1930's, a project was afoot to blast a tunnel in this side of the mountain to allow drivers to tour the cavern in their cars! When we were done the one-stop elevator took over a minute, at 9 mph, to take us back to the surface.

We drove on, through more rolling hills of brush, pale sand and rock, through the mountains and picturesque Lincoln Forest and back down into Alamogordo, a town full of military folk and nuclear testing facilities. Apparently a public burning of Harry Potter books took place here in 2002! When I tell Henri he is horrified. I consider hiding our Harry Potter DVD collection in case we get pulled over for speeding. The views of nature are breathtaking. The manmade stuff is a lot less inspiring — fenced-in front lawns littered with ancient vehicles (endless weekends of tinkering for some happy vintage car collector); the "Amber Skies Adult Community — the ultimate in manufactured home living", a compound of mobile homes circled by high stone walls and then the sprawling air force base, hundreds of identical ranch houses, also gated, followed closely by the nuclear facility. Hopefully Sunday isn't one of the two days a week this highway is closed down for missile testing.

Not long after, we arrived at White Sands National Monument, paid our entry fee and got on a road that snakes its way through the gypsum sand hills. At first, the vegetation and sand compete for pride of place but soon enough the sand takes over, creating phenomenal, crisp white dunes that carry your eyes all the way to the beautiful, craggy San Andres Mountains on one side, the Guadalupe chain looming on the other. The kids had a blast rolling and jumping down the dunes, playing house in the shady valleys. Some of the gypsum concealed a thick layer of snow from a recent storm. Wil and I basked in the 80 degree sun on the surprisingly cold "sand" as the kids ran off into the distance. Wil suggested that this place must have been the setting for some Native coming-of-age rituals — à la "take some peyote and get lost in the endless dunes."

We had a quick check-in with the border patrol (again, very pleasant) just north of infamous Juarez before heading north out of Las Cruces toward Truth or Consequences, the town with the unlikeliest name in the country. In an unbelievable bid at fame, the town volunteered to change its name to win the honour of hosting the game show's tenth anniversary program. Formerly known as Hot Springs (for its ample source of hot water bubbling out of the ground) , the town is a collection of one-story buildings on streets settled in to the bends of the Rio Grande. Wild West meets native meets Mexico, a kitschy string of neon signs advertising everything from restaurants to hotels to "Celestial Creations". We had dinner at Los Arcos, a restaurant with décor reminiscent of A Family Affair (I'm dating myself). When we mention this to the waiter and bemoan how little we remember from the show, aside from Jody and his sister and Mr. French, the butler, he lists all the show's characters and comes back later with a print-out of all the pertinent details. When we ask our waitress about the name of the town and whether it is resented by the populace she says that people seem pretty happy with the name and tells us about how, as a newcomer, she continues to be surprised that the town doesn't use the natural resource to heat the town's houses or hot water. The spring water comes out of the ground at a piping hot 112 degrees. We find a room at La Poloma spa, a 1920's motel with little wooden cabins set in a horseshoe shape around a gravel courtyard. On one end of the string of buildings is the bathhouse — a half-dozen rooms about fifteen by 6 with two massage type beds on either side and, at the far end, a set of concrete steps leading down into a 6 by 6 foot rock-bottom hot tub. Above the pool hangs a knotted rope which you use to hang on to experience weightlessness in the water. The water is sublime. What a way to end the day. What a way to start the day.

We head toward Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest villages in North America, inhabited since the 12th century. Past the Casino and Dialysis centre, past a high school class of very fat kids doing laps around the high school track field. We drop down into the valley and stop at the visitor centre to get on the tour bus and pay our camera fee for taking pictures. We are met by Milford who tells us that sadly, due to the recession, tours of Sky City are only taking place on the weekend. We talk to him about just how determined the conquistadores must have been set on destruction to come find this peaceful community in the middle of nowhere. He tells us about the Spanish belief in the mythical seven cities of gold and that the golden sun setting on Ácoma Pueblo convinced the Spanish that this was one of them. We asked if he lived in the Pueblo. No, he said. I live up the road but my youngest sister has a house on the mesa (houses are handed down from mother to youngest daughter) and that only seven families live in the village. Elected by other members of the community (all from the ruling Antelope clan), men serve a year in the village with no electricity or running water with their families, keeping their ancestors' traditions alive. The valley was quiet, massive orange stone formations reaching into the sky.

Santa Fe feels like a theme park. All the new construction is required to look like ancient adobe structures which, rather than enhancing the integrity of the town's architecture, puts the ancient buildings in the same pile as the "adobe" WalMart and drive-ins. Henri asks why all the buildings are the colour of poo. I don't have a good answer. Although I applaud the effort to keep mobile homes and the school of diagonal-siding-design out of town, if ever there were a community where modernism could effectively be integrated it seems to me this would be the place. Not being in the market for a masseuse or turquoise jewellery, we opted to move on to Taos, hoping for a more authentic experience.

Favourite roadsigns of the day : Damaged Guardrail Ahead (oh shoot, i guess i better have my accident later!), Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers - Detention Facility In Area, and the depressing Route 66 Casino Hotel - More Freedom! Hourly Child Care.


Daphne said...

Sarah, I stayed up very late last night reading your epic, blog. I was literally on the edge of my seat most of the time. What a journey. The glass is (almost!) always half full with you guys. inspires. take care, keep writing. dh

Cathy Marie Buchanan said...

I remeber the carsbad caverns. Very cool. Will you get to the Grand Canyon. A highlight of my childhhod and adulthood. xxo