The Mountains Were Calling

It’s almost impossible for me to pass on any opportunity to visit Colorado. I suppose that if I were wealthier I would have a home in that beautiful state and either stay permanently or travel there many times each year. So when we visited Santa Fe, New Mexico on our vacation it made perfect sense to add a few days on to our adventure and head north into the Rocky Mountains. 

I get a thrill each time we drive through Raton Pass. It signals our official arrival into Colorado and my heart literally bursts with joy. We’ve made that journey so many times, and somehow it never gets old. So when we pulled our trailer along the route I fairly danced with joy at the prospect of seeing my beloved mountains at least one more time. 

Just beyond the pass is Trinidad, Colorado, a small town that is home to a state park that where we often camped in a tent when our children were young. It was always just an overnight adventure where we dreamed of the real wonders that lie ahead. I laugh each time we pass through Trinidad because I recall a time from long ago when my brother Pat and his two sons accompanied us on a vacation to Colorado Springs. As usual we stopped at the park in Trinidad after a long day of driving. We found a great spot for pitching our tents and enjoyed Pat’s innovative camping style as he installed an incredibly long extension cord that he used to run a fan inside his tent. He laughingly suggested that he would be willing to make french fries in a Fry Daddy if we were so inclined. Of course he didn’t actually have a Fry Daddy with him, but once we thought about it, we decided it would not have been a bad idea.

On our recent trip we continued past Trinidad and headed toward Colorado Springs. Once we had set up our trailer in the campground we did a bit of exploring. We had visited the Air Force Academy multiple times and I would be the first to suggest a visit there to anyone who has never gone to the campus. The church in particular is a stunning work of architecture that should not be missed. Nonetheless, since our time was limited on this journey we chose to skip the Academy this time around. The same was true for a journey up Pike’s Peak because we were a bit turned off by the the rather expensive price tag of driving there. At fifteen dollars a person it somehow did not fill us with excitement given that we’ve made the trip many many times.

We might have gone to the Garden of the Gods. It is a rather remarkable site of unusual outcroppings of rock that attract climbers who perform the most amazing feats and seem to be suspended magically in the air. Instead we chose to travel to Cripple Creek, an old mining town in the mountains that in recent years has been transformed by casinos. We had not been there for decades, and our memory of the place was that of an almost ghostly town of tattered buildings that had once thrived during the gold rush days. Decades ago we had taken an old 1920s era road that cut through one way tunnels and was so narrow in places that only one car at a time could get by. It was quite an adventure leading that we found to be both beautiful and thrilling. 

Now there is a major modern highway leading to the town that is nonetheless filled with lovely vistas and a kind of preview of the beauty of mountain life. We hardly noticed the time as we drove through canyons dotted with summer wildflowers and marveled at the sites that greeted us along each curve. We did not yet have our mountain legs or lungs so our ears did a great deal of popping and we felt a slight tinge of mountain sickness creeping into our heads. Nonetheless we were delighted at every single turn.

Cripple Creek has been spiffied up with newly painted and renovated buildings along with grand hotels and casinos that were not there when we visited for the first time so long ago, but the ruins of the old mines remain, telling a silent story of a time when folks dreamed of finding gold in the hills and earning a fortune. Now the adventure lies inside the casinos which we had no desire to visit. In fact we laughed that we’d sooner take a pick and shovel and walk among the mine trailings in search of a shiny rock of gold. I suspect that our odds of making it rich would be about the same as gambling with our money in a slot machine. 

An active mining company remains in Cripple Creek and on the day we visited there was a great deal of activity on its premises. A little train takes visitors on tours and looks like it might be fun and informative but the day was late and we were ready to return to our trailer for a night’s rest in anticipation of our journey to Fort Collins where we planned to stay while we toured Rocky Mountain National Park. The mountains were calling us and we knew that we must go.

A Place Unto Its Own

I’ve heard that Tennessee Williams once said that the three most unique cities in the United States are New York City, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everything else, he insisted, is Cleveland. I’ve never been to Cleveland so I’m not totally sure how to judge his comparison, but I do believe that he missed a number of other incredible places in our country that are as delightfully unique as the three that he praised. One of my all time favorite places is Santa Fe, New Mexico, a jewel in the mountainous desert of a land where native people once created incredible cultures and Spanish conquistadores overlaid their own ways of living. Over time and conflict and change Santa Fe has become a mecca for artists and anyone seeking a more relaxed way of life. 

The RV park where we set up home base with our trailer was aptly called Santa Fe Skies. Set on a high elevation it featured sweeping views of the mountains and the valley below. During the day it was baked by the high desert heat, but by early evening cool breezes pulled everyone outside to quietly sit enjoying the leisurely cycle of nature. Rabbits skittered through he campsites unafraid and birds flew overhead announcing the end of another day. Then came sunset, a glorious attraction as the bright orb around which we revolve seemed to fall like a glorious orange ball behind the ridges of the mountains in the distance. 

Santa Fe itself is filled with wonderful attractions, museums, shopping, restaurants. It is like a festival of creative wonder and a celebration of the unique human desire to make beautiful things. I never tire of exploring this remarkable place, but I always have to first visit the gorgeous Basilica of St. Francis that seems to anchor the city. There is something almost otherworldly about the church where legend tells us that miracles have occurred. 

Most of the shops and restaurants center on the plaza, a traditional feature of Spanish towns in the new world. The plaza is an oasis from the heat and a gathering place for musicians and artisans featuring their wares. Along the wide veranda of the Governor’s Palace Native Americans offer their crafts which might include lovely jewelry made from the turquoise and silver that is found in the land. They show pottery that is distinctive and tells stories of how the people once lived. 

Many of the shops that circle the plaza display magnificent fashions, leather goods, jewelry, pottery, art, weavings and other glorious items. I love to look at all of the wondrous things, but never have enough money or desire to purchase anything more than a trinket. Better deals may be found a few streets over in smaller shops and marketplaces that pop up on parking lots. 

We enjoyed a day wandering and observing but then decided to visit the museum in the Governor’s Palace. It was like an historical walk through the history of New Mexico that provided a fascinating and unvarnished glimpse into the story of the various people who struggled to maintain their individual cultures and way of life. Peace and harmony was often difficult to find, and much bloodshed fell on the land as each group vied for dominion. 

On another day in Santa Fe we discovered the International Folklore Museum which houses one of the most massive and delightful collections of artwork from common folk from all over the world. I was utterly entertained as I moved from one lovely exhibit to another, and the best thing was that the admission was free because our visit coincided with the annual International Marketplace that draws vendors and visitors from all over the world. 

We also visited the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and gloried in the sheer beauty of her distinctive art. If ever there was anyone who captured the essence of the vistas and heart of New Mexico it has to have been Ms. O’Keefe who fell in love with the area from the moment that she first visited. 

It seemed as though everywhere we drove we discovered quaint tea rooms, galleries, quirky restaurants, sculptures, and a sense of oneness with the landscape of Santa Fe. It was an alluring atmosphere that seemed to whisper that we should just sit awhile and enjoy the moment, which we did when we paused for a lunch of rainbow trout and grilled vegetables accented with a salsa of tomato, mango, and peppers. That meal seemed to encapsulate the flavors of Santa Fe all in one delightful plate. A dessert of flan with raspberries was a final sweet spot for our visit. 

I love my hometown of Houston and often boast that I would never want to move anywhere else. Each time I visit Santa Fe I find myself silently considering what a wonderful place to live that it might be. It’s definitely one of my favorite locales on this earth. I always feel relaxed and whole there, one with people and nature in ways not replicated anywhere else that I go. I’d have to add Santa Fe to Tennessee Williams’ list of unique cities in America. It is a place unto its own. 

Magic In the Unexpected

My husband and I used to be a couple of rolling stones when it came to traveling. We’d pack our tent in the trunk of our car and go wherever the winds seemed to blow us. We rarely did much preplanning because there always seemed to be an available spot for setting up our roving household. There was only one time when we got caught without a place to stay and that was many decades ago when we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park on a whim. We had a fun day exploring the park but when it came time to retire for the evening there was no room at the inn, not even a small space for our little tent. 

We drove from one place after another attempting to find a spot to rest our weary bodies, but everything was full. We ended up parking by the side of the road and sleeping for a few hours all cramped together in our car. In many ways that was the end of our serendipity when it came to vacations. Still, there is nothing quite as wonderful as an unexpected moment that takes us off of the main road and along a pathway that we have never before thought to take. Thus it was when I received a message from a cousin inviting us to her home in Albuquerque. 

A few years back I joined ancestry.com and began an attempt to fill out more of the branches of my family tree. In an effort to find out more about myself and my family I even took a DNA test. In the beginning I knew very little about my ancestors beyond my grandparents, but I did have the names of my maternal grandmother’s parents. Using that information her story began to quickly unfold. Her father was John William Seth Smith, the son of Austin Boley Smith and Biddy Ann Fitzsimmons. John was the eldest son of a very large family and among his brothers and sisters was a fellow named David. 

Before long I received a message from one of David’s descendants asking me for information on my father, me and my family. Vickye was a cousin, a fact verified by my own chart and the DNA test that I had taken. She kindly sent me a photo of my grandmother Minnie Bell, from a time when she was quite young, something that I had never before seen. She also included a picture of my great grandmother Cristina. It was quite exciting to see these images and to know that I had found a relative who had been previously unknown to me. 

Vickye looked so much like my Aunt Opal, my father’s half sister, that it was uncanny. Her ancestor, David, resembled many of my first cousins from my father’s side of the family. Even though nobody has ever come across a photo of my great grandfather, I have felt as though I may have a fairly good idea of how he may have looked given the resemblance of David to family members that I know. Learning about Vickye and her passion for genealogy was a special treat for me and so we became friends on Facebook and I began to follow her posts and learn more and more about her. 

Vickye plays the piano and one of her favorite hobbies was to play music with her late husband Buzz. Likewise many of my Aunt Opal’s children were quite musically talented. My cousin Lillian used to dazzle us with her skills on the piano and some of her brothers both sang and played their guitars. I decided that there must surely be a music gene that runs in the family even though that skill appears to have passed me over. 

I knew that Vickye lived somewhere in New Mexico, but I had little idea that her abode was in Albuquerque. When she saw that Mike and I were in her town she suggested that we come to her home for a little visit. We quickly accepted her generous offer and drove to her place. It would turn out to be one of the most incredible afternoons of our entire trip, and an touchingly meaningful moment for me.

Much like my grandmother Minnie Bell, Vickye has a green thumb and has turned her backyard into a lovely and peaceful oasis. Even though the temperatures were quite high on the day of our visit, her patio was cool and comfortable. We sat around a table under a fan sipping on iced tea and learning a bit more about each other and about the family from whence I have descended. Vickye was so like my grandmother Minnie Bell in her nature and her hostessing skills. I felt as though I had known her my entire life. She was an important connection for me because I had lost my father when I was only eight, and my grandmother died when I was fifteen. I had been too young then to have much interest in knowing who the people were who had come before me. Vickye filled in so many of the gaps that had baffled and bewildered me. In the process she demonstrated the power of those connections because not only did she remind me so much of various people in my father’s family that I did know, but everyone saw a definite resemblance between me and her. 

I’m a talker and I haven’t gotten out much in the past year and a half so I might have overstayed my welcome just a bit, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from my new found relative. I truly felt comfortable with her in a way that only the bond of our common ancestry and genetics might explain. I will always remember our afternoon together as one of the great highlights of my life, and I am incredibly thankful to Vickye for inviting me to her home and telling me more about the story of who I am. I fell in love with her and with her city on that trip even as I had never imagined that such a thing would occur. There is still much magic in the unexpected. 

Becoming One With the Earth and With Each Other

Even though I have been to and through Albuquerque, New Mexico a few times, I was never there long enough to know much about it. When our daughters were still young we considered camping in our tent in the outskirts of the city. While we were checking the sites I noticed hot pink signs stapled to the trees and hanging on the buildings. When I finally read one of them I decided that we would not be lingering in the campground. The posts indicated that there was an unusually high number of rattlesnakes in the area, and urged anyone camping to be exceedingly cautious. We instead found a motel for the night, and left the city early the next day. They only pleasant thing I remembered from that occasion was the cool morning air and a lone hot air balloon floating across the horizon. 

Many years later I would accompany a group of high school students on what was known as the southwest tour, an annual trip designed to visit universities and locales in west Texas and eastern New Mexico. On that journey I took a tour of the University of New Mexico along with my pupils, but saw little more of Albuquerque as we quickly hustled off to Santa Fe after viewing the campus. 

I suppose that I began to see Albuquerque in a very different light after watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, both programs that more often featured the underbelly of that city rather than the more interesting history and culture of the place. I found myself longing to learn more about the what Albuquerque was really about, and so we arranged to spend two days and nights exploring the sites around town. I wanted to know more than the make believe version that I had seen on television.

We set up our trailer in a delightful RV park that seemed to be conveniently close to everything. In fact, I marveled at how easy it was to get from one side of the city to another. In Houston it can take an hour or more to move from one part of its vast urban sprawl to another. We seemed to be staying right in the heart of things while also having the feel of being in a quiet and remote area. Best of all there were lovely mountain views from the picnic table on our site, and those same cool mornings and evenings that I remembered from the past.

We decided to first visit Old Town Albuquerque set in the center of the city where the first capitol of New Mexico had been The historic buildings reminded me very much of areas of New Orleans which also has a rich connection to Spanish influence. Unique shops and restaurants are the attraction and I worried a bit that my husband Mike might become bored with my excitement about viewing the arts and crafts featured there. Instead he seemed delighted, which surprised me given that it quickly became very hot and he usually has little interest in such things. I suspect that he was mostly intrigued by the architecture and the feeling of being in a different time and place that the area engendered. 

We found a unique piece of stained class that captures the beauty and essence of the landscape around Albuquerque. We learned that it had been created by a local senior craftsman who mostly makes the pieces to help support a group that provides services for older citizens. We also sampled locally produced olive oils and vinegars and decided to bring some of the most unique ones back home. All in all we had a fun morning casually strolling and feeling as though we had somehow landed in a place that had successfully blended the cultures of Spain and Native America.

After enjoying a bite of lunch we went the to Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. I must say that it housed some of the most moving exhibits that I have ever seen. The first area featured the stories of Native American women and their impact on the Pueblo people and ultimately on America. Each story was fascinating and spoke to the influence of females in guiding, teaching and inspiring the young. The featured women represented educators, scientists, business women, lawyers, politicians, doctors and demonstrated how each woman brought her unique Native American experience to the work that she did.

There was also a section of the museum that focused on the history of the Native American tribes that lived in the area. It was an honest and even-handed depiction of their way of life and how misunderstood they had been by the settlers who came to so unthinkingly take their lands and their way of doing things. It was not an angry or accusing recitation of what had happened, but one that attempted to understand the complexities of a time when two cultures clashed. 

It was in this museum that I learned of the legacy of storytelling that is central to the Pueblo people. It is though the spoken word that the language, traditions, history, knowledge and stories have been passed from one generation to the next. Often the storytellers have been the women, who in their own way are the teachers of the children. The little statues of a woman voicing her information with an open mouth and children clinging to her are known as the storytellers. I was totally fascinated by all that I saw and heard. 

There was so much to learn in that museum, so much wisdom to take with me. I snapped photos of beautiful objects, and recipes and philosophies. One of my favorites was entitled Mother Earth. Here is what it said:

Earth

Like mother

She formed us in her belly.

Like mother

she birthed us into the upper world.

Like mother 

she nourishes all living things.

Like mother 

she provides comfort and safety.

Like mother 

she requires love and respect. 

In our way of life, women embody the characteristics of the earth on which we rely. Women nurture life and are creators of bodies and homes. By calling the earth our mother we show great respect not only for the earth but for the women who represent her. 

I felt both humbled and uplifted by what I saw in Albuquerque that day. It is a lovely city with a heritage that has much to teach us all. We would be wise to take heed of our connection with the earth and with each other. In the shadow of the great mountains under the cool skies at the beginning and end of each day it was easy to imagine how important it is for all of us to become more at one with earth and with each other.

Finding America

Amarillo, Texas is five hundred ninety nine miles from Houston. Located in the panhandle of the state, it is the last major stop before leaving the Texas and entering New Mexico. Travelling by car, if all goes well, it can be reached in a little over nine hours, not including the reality that just getting into the outskirts of Houston may sometimes require an additional hour of driving. With stops for gasoline, breaks for food, and so forth it is more likely to take anywhere from ten to to eleven hours of hard driving through one small town after another before reaching Amarillo. 

I’ve gone through Amarillo many times, usually around dinner time after driving all day long. I’ve generally viewed the city as little more than a stopping point on my way to other places. In more recent years I’ve actually breezed through the place to get a few more hours of daylight driving because the conveniences in smaller towns farther along my route have improved greatly over the years. I have known of Amarillo, but I have not really known Amarillo. 

For our recent trip, we decided to actually spend some time in the city just to learn a bit more about the place. We found a great campground, dropped off our trailer, and drove almost immediately to a local attraction that has become legendary. In what was once a field on the outskirts of town, a local artist created a modern work of art by burying several Cadillacs nose down in the ground. The vehicles form a kind of modern day Stonehenge as they silently sit in a perfectly arrange row as though some force greater than mankind had placed them there. It was no small feat to create the exact angles by which they peek from the ground or to make certain that they would forever remain steadily symmetrical.

Over time the attraction became a kind of mecca for graffiti artists and ordinary tourists who try their hands at painting the iconic vehicles with the fluorescent shades usually found on railroad cars or highway overpasses. The city of Amarillo has expanded so much that the art that was once in the middle of nowhere is now ironically in the middle of modern day strip malls and road work designed to bring humans to neighborhoods that are cropping up like flowers after rain on a desert landscape. We almost drove past the scene because we expected it to be in a more isolated part of town. It has become a kind of freak show of sorts, as tourists park by the side of the road and walk to a gate beyond which trucks sell food and drink. The Cadillacs themselves have become defaced over time with layers and layers of multicolored paint. One might say that it continues to be a work in progress.

Our next destination was to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, located just outside of Amarillo in a little town called Canyon. Decades ago we had attempted to camp in the park on a blistering hot August day. At that time the place was still quite primitive, and still mostly unknown. We pitched our tent in an area where we were virtually alone, save for the critters that were in abundance. A visit to the bathroom revealed strange insects of very sort, including huge scorpions roaming freely. When many of wild things began to invade the interior of our tent we gave up and instead found a room at a hotel in Amarillo, never really considering that we might one day be lured back to the spectacular place. 

On our return to Palo Duro Canyon we found a park whose facilities had been expanded to include hookups for recreational vehicles as well as tents. There were multiple camping areas that were filled with people and a very modern visitor center that provided breathtaking views of the canyon as well as historical information. 

We were enchanted by the majesty of the place and drove the length of the road that led deeper and deeper through the dusty red outcroppings and into a kind of reverential escape from the outside world. I would not be exaggerating to say that in many ways the canyon was like a natural cathedral where nature itself gives glory to the majesty of creation. We decided that it was a place to which we would most definitely return one day to spend some time listening to the wind whistling through the glorious setting that seems untouched by humans even as people quietly pitch their camps or hike along the trails. 

It was dusk by the time we returned to our RV park. A cool breeze greeted us as we settled into our trailer for the evening. This was our last outpost in Texas. We had already seen so many wonderful sights that we had never before taken the time to experience. In the morrow we would cross over into New Mexico and make our way to Albuquerque where we had almost as little experience as in the Texas towns that we had most recently visited. 

Ours was a grand adventure designed to find the offbeat, too often unexplored parts of America. We were purposely looking for quirky destinations, and beauty created by nature. So far we had been quite successful in our quest. We were learning that every place is interesting in one way or another. By moving slowing rather than blasting past at seventy five miles an hour we were really seeing the people and the landscape in ways that we had never before done. We were learning the value and importance of parts of our country that had always before been only markings on a map. We were learning about different points of view and different ways of living. Finding America was a glorious experience.