Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel Rewind: Southwest Passage (2008)

Travel Rewind: Southwest Passage (2008): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) I wanted it to not rain. I needed it to not rain. My last four excursions (New York, Chicago, Mackinac Island, Newfoundland) were all marred to varying degrees by rain. A fifth would not do. So where do you go when rain is unacceptable? The desert. Duh. The plan was to fly into Phoenix and make a big looping road trip through the heart of New Mexico, stopping in multiple national parks, then circling along the border to Tucson where I'd spend a few nights in a spa then on back to Phoenix to fly home.

Other than snagging a perfect aisle exit row seat, the flight out was completely uneventful. Sadly, when I went to pick up my reserved convertible from the lot, there was not a ragtop in sight. I felt pretty stupid when the pimply teenage attendant at Alamo had to explain to me that the Pontiac G6 is a hardtop convertible. He did everything but say, "I realize they didn't have these back in your day." Critical note: the G6 has a much nicer engine than the Chrysler Sebring that I expected to get, but it is no better constructed. Another note: Modern convertibles have zero luggage space with the top down. In the open air, the only thing I could fit into the trunk was my laptop bag. I keep forgetting this and my bags end up riding shotgun. This is another thing that was different about convertibles back in my day.

The temperature in Phoenix shortly after midday was well into the 90s -- exactly what I was looking for. As I cruised northeasterly out of Phoenix the scenery slowly morphed from standard cityscape to the desolate desert vistas I have become so familiar with from my trips to the West. The sky got broader, landscape opened up before me, rock towers demarked the horizon. As my elevation increased, I unwound and enjoyed inhaling the dry, crisp, thin, cool, perfect air as I motored along.

First stop: Holbrook, AZ. Holbrook is on the border of the Navajo reservation and its population appears to be heavily Native. The commercial base however appears to be dinosaurs. All along the main strip you see replica dinosaurs of some form or other, usually brontosaurus for aesthetic reasons. This is due, I suppose to its proximity Petrified Forest National Park, which was on my schedule for the next day. For me, Holbrook was all about teepees.

In Holbrook there is a rather famous, roadside attraction-style motel called the Wigwam. At the Wigwam, the rooms are all in teepees. Seriously, instead of pulling your car up to your motel room, you pull up to your own personal teepee. OK, it's not a actual teepee -- it's a little building shaped like a teepee that contains a very basic motel room that hasn't been renovated since the '60s, but still. Cheap motel or not, what kind of person would pass up a night in a teepee?

The check-in process is equally quaint. The nice young lady at the desk informed me that she would only be around until about 9:30 that night, so if I had any questions I needed to sort them out before then. And there wouldn't be anyone around in the morning so just leave the key in the room. I spent the last of the sunlight taking some photos of the place -- it's loaded down with old cars in various states of disrepair, just for effect -- then crashed early in my teepee.

My plan was to rise no later than 6:30 Pacific Time (in AZ it's actually mountain time unadjusted for daylight savings) and 7:30 Mountain Time (in NM) to avoid any jet lag on the return trip. So the next day I was up and out of my teepee with the rise of the sun, more or less. I was, I believe, the first one to reach the Petrified Forest that day.

I entered Petrified Forest National Park from the south after an absolutely beautiful ~15 mile early morning drive through the desert. As National Parks go, Petrified Forest is not outstanding. Although there is an enormous quantity of petrified wood spread all about often containing fossils -- it is really more of geological or paleontological interest; there are better parks for sightseeing. There are several short hiking trails; the one I took lead to what appears to be the remains of a cabin made of the petrified wood. It is in fact Agate House, a modern attempt to reconstruct a local-style pueblo. An interesting project but clearly abandoned now, presumably in the interest of historic accuracy. (Note for future reference: I did briefly get lost on this half-mile in the open desert trail. That should not surprise you.)

A single main road winds latitudinally through the park. I entered from the less busy south entrance. As you approach the north entrance you come upon the Painted Desert, which is where the majority of the sightseeing in the park occurs, what with it being right off a big freeway. Painted Desert is very striking giving the same impression as the Badlands of South Dakota give, though on a much, much smaller scale. It was here I discovered that I have become a National Park snob. Years ago I would have thrilled to the landscapes in the Painted Desert, but now I think, "Nice, but I've seen better." I don't know if this is a positive development.

The road from there into New Mexico and Santa Fe goes through Navajo country. Which is to say, there are endless miles of crap shops selling downscale fast food, gas, and "genuine" Indian carvings and dream catchers. And casinos -- can't forget those.

I scheduled a couple of nights in Santa Fe, for no other reason than Conde Nast Traveller magazine keeps rating it in the top 3 or 4 most beautiful cities in the U.S. Judged as a whole, and including the surrounding areas, they may have a point. I bunked down at the Inn of the Governors, an ace establishment if there ever was one. A bling-free little compound tucked just outside the city's main plaza, I of the G is a very hospitable place. Free breakfast: a full buffet, not a tray of stale pastries. There's a nice little pool/courtyard just off the lobby. The lobby itself is homey and quiet with lots of comfortable furniture and has computers out for public use (the wi-fi doesn't extend to the rooms). Two bars/lounges. An indoor/outdoor restaurant. Free tea and sherry in the afternoon. Free parking. Fine service. A really terrific spot, and about a three block easy walk to the historic plaza.

The first thing you notice about Santa Fe is the architecture. It is full-on southwest pueblo style -- enough flat-roofed, squared-off, earth tones to last you a lifetime. I think it's an open question as to whether this style of architecture is beautiful. In the eye of this beholder it is not particularly so. In fact, now is as good a time as any for me to say I was not really thrilled with the whole southwest aesthetic. All that silver and turquoise gaudiness; the "native-influenced" blankets and carvings -- it's all too affected. What's worse is that everyone and their half-witted uncle claims to be an artist. Slap together a set of turquoise earrings on your kitchen table and you are instantly a cohort of Picasso. The other conceit that is given way too much leeway is that the crap they sell in these shops is genuinely Indian. The blankets with geometric patterns, the pottery, the dream catchers -- those little twirly things that are supposed to ward off evil spirits -- often come with a certificate to verify that they were actually made by actual Indians. Of course the Indian who made it is just moonlighting from his career as a mid-level IT executive, but hey, it still counts, right? Sure, and I slept in a "genuine" teepee.

Look, I don't blame these folks for supporting such fantasies. They do it because there is a market for it. And that market consists of people like me from back east who want to show off all the Southwest/Navajo/Anything-but-Eastern-Time-Zone culture they soaked up on their last vacation out West to liven up their dinner parties. It is pretty clear that a majority of the visitors to this area are comfortably well-off middle-aged couples either on the brink of retirement or already there, looking to decorate their empty nests or possibly buy one out here in the high desert air. I don't mean to be cynical of such people -- I may be happy to be one sooner than I think -- but I find the overt commercial reaction to them to be absurdly pretentious.

For their part, the locals seem to carry a similar skepticism, at least if nobody is looking. After settling into my room I snagged a bar stool for dinner (to sit at, not eat) and a bit of Sunday Night Football at the nearby San Francisco Bar and Grill (good fresh food) and chatted up the bartender a bit. I asked her what she thought I should do during my one full day in Santa Fe; she said people do three things in Santa Fe: shop, eat out, and go up into the mountains. I said I'd probably pass on the shopping part, and her reply was, "Are you sure? You can never have too much turquoise." She recommended a tapas restaurant on the other side of the plaza for the food and drink part, and that I head up Artists Dr. (see what I mean about pretentious) to the top of the local mountain as there were hiking paths all along the way in Santa Fe National Forest.
The next morning I started to take her advice and head up Artists Dr., but I needed to find some gas first which required me to head out on the road north, and going east on Artists Dr. was going to have me looking directly into the rising sun which kind of defeated the purpose, so instead I continued north and made my way up the High Road to Taos.

While I may be skeptical of Southwest culture and architecture, there is no denying the striking beauty of the land. The High Road is a winding, soaring ride up into the mountains through a number of little towns in varying economic states -- some are obviously the choice of highly moneyed retirees, others are little more than collections of ramshackle "artist" shacks. Either way, it seems certain that every one of them is up here for the inspirational surroundings. Up here, the earth tones are all swamped by the green of the thick forests, reminiscent of back home in upstate Michigan, except with towering mountains.

Taos proper is like Santa Fe's more stylish little sister. The bistros are more unique, the boutiques more eclectic, and the faux art is more affected. But the central historic plaza is, like Santa Fe's, still a nice place to wander about. Wherever you are in Taos, the scene is dominated by the view of the Taos Mountains to the north. At the foot of those mountains stands the biggest tourist attraction in Taos (at least, when it's not skiing season), the Taos Pueblo.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last occupied Indian pueblo in existence, the Taos Pueblo is a fascinating thing to see. The encampment and the grounds leading up the mountain are sovereign Indian land and used by the local tribe to try to maintain as much of their historic cultural ways as possible. (Despite the proximity to Navajo land, I don't believe this is a Navajo tribe, but a group simply referred to as Pueblo People.) It consists primarily of two large multi-story structures surrounded by many smaller dwellings, all of which are made of mud. The mud is made from the local ground and mixed and layered into the walls as it has been for over a millennium. (Evidence suggests these pueblos may have been standing since about 1000 AD, about the same time the Norse were taking a shot at a colony in eastern Canada.) It is the longest continuously inhabited place in the U.S. The engineering required, using little more than stone tools and buckets of water, is really astounding.

Another interesting fact: 90% of the pueblo residents are Catholic. This is a holdover from Spanish colonial times, though the "Catholicism" has really become a conflagration of traditional Catholicism, aboriginal Indian traditions, and manufactured myth -- Saint Jerome has become San Geronimo, and such. Still, in addition to the native mash-up ceremonies, a traditional mass is still held every Sunday at the church on the pueblo grounds.

Visiting the pueblo is easy, but don't forget your wallet. It is $10 to get in and another $5 camera fee if you want to take any pictures. You can take pictures of anything outside the San Geronimo chapel, but you are strongly advised to ask permission before you take the picture of any tribe members. This is, of course, simply good manners, but I came to suspect, for reasons that will become clear, that it also meant the tribe member being photo'd would expect a tip, so I stuck to shooting the scenery.

There are free guided walking tours every half-hour or so, which I can recommend. Our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. She also reminded us a couple of times that guides work on a volunteer basis and that any remuneration came from tips. The dwellings also double as stores from which the tribe members sell their "arts" -- jewelry carvings, pottery, native flatbreads, etc. This would be the killer spot to buy your "genuine" artifact. When your neighbors show off the turquoise jewelry they got at a roadside stand along with a certificate of authenticity, imagine the look on their faces when you trump them with a clay pot that came from an actual inhabited genuine Indian pueblo, although you'll need to pay the camera fee and tip the tribe member if you want a picture to prove it. But it's worth it for the sick burn.

At this point, I'm going to go on for a few paragraphs about Indian cultures and it may raise some hackles. Feel free to skip ahead.
The Taos Pueblo is an odd dichotomy. It exists as a way for Indians to keep their traditions alive, and it clearly serves that purpose. The architecture, as I mentioned, and the lack of amenities (no running water or electricity), the clay ovens for cooking, the half feral dogs wandering around, the partially-functional attempts at self-sufficiency are all very much in evidence. But then there is a side of it that is blatantly about the money. Everything and everyone has an angle on your wampum. It's like Disney in miniature. At the Mouse House you get to experience child-like magic, and at the Taos Pueblo you get as genuine a Native experience as you can get -- in either case you hope you won't notice the decrease in your net worth.

This is me being cynical again, isn't it? Well, I guess I'm just cynical. Some of the things our guide mentioned struck me as telling. First, she mentioned that the local native language (the Taos language) is never written down. It is passed along generation through practice and osmosis and is, in fact, generally not even spoken in front of outsiders. I can think of nothing that would doom a culture faster than not writing things down. Were it not for people learning to write things down at some point in ancient history, we would all still be living in adobe mud huts or grass shacks. We would be toothless by the time we were 30, provided we lived that long because our life expectancy would probably be less than that. Science and literature would be non-existent. Yet for some reason the Pueblo People feel this is a facet of their culture that merits preservation.

Fair enough. I am of the belief that whenever possible, everyone should be able to live exactly the way they want. But nothing naturally exists in a bubble. And the fact is that if you are going to maintain a tradition that is so thoroughly detrimental to your continued existence your probable outcome is grim. You are going to get hammered by every other culture that has no such limit on their vitality. It may be a violent destruction, or it may not. You may just get completely overwhelmed by the progress of your competition. But whatever the case, you are going down. Whatever injustices were incurred in the treatment of Indians over the years, they are in fact living the best possible outcome for themselves even had those injustices not occured. The best outcome a primitive culture can hope for is to build a make-shift bubble and hold out as long as possible. That is essentially, what the Taos Pueblo is: a fantasy land in a legislated bubble. And it's not even a well-sealed bubble. Of the 1900 residents, only 150 live permanently in the Pueblo. The rest keep homes elsewhere in and around Taos, and all of them spend time outside the compound where there is hot running water, penicillin, power tools, McDonald's, and all the other by-products of a culture with a tradition of writing things down.

All this I write in a reaction to the elevated opinion most multi-cultural mavens have of Indian culture, as evidenced by how important it is that a "genuine" dream catcher have a certificate of authenticity. Indian culture is certainly interesting and worthy of anthropological study, but let's face facts: it is a primitive culture. It is good to have certain relativistic view of cultures, but it's very mistaken to believe primitive and advanced cultures are of equal value for humanity as a whole.

I'm glad that the Pueblo Indians have this little bubble not because there is anything particularly holy or noble about their rituals, but simply because it is what they want to do. I'm sorry that the people living this way have to put on a song and dance for Brahmins from the East Coast seeking to interact with genuine primitives, but the time of primitive cultures is long passed and it's not coming back. Their fantasies will need to be financed, as evidenced by the Taos Mountain Casino just outside the Pueblo. The Casino is what is truly genuine -- genuinely human.

And as negative as that sounds, should you find yourself in Taos, I strongly recommend you visit the Pueblo, tip your guide well, and judge for yourself. Or better yet, try not to judge either way. People should be judged personally not sociologically (even turquoise-flaunting Brahmins, I suppose).

On with the trip.

Exiting Taos, on the way to the low road back to Santa Fe, one crosses the Rio Grande Gorge suspension bridge, the second highest suspension bridge in the U.S. Frankly, it's more than a little scary. There are parking lots on either side and a thin walkway should you want to cross it on foot, although there is no barrier between the walkway and the traffic rushing by (there is a guardrail to help prevent you from falling into the gorge 600 feet below, thankfully). The real freakiness comes when a big semi barrels across. As it rushes past your face you feel the buffeting of the wind, and the bridge beneath your feet wobbles and vibrates; every cell in your body reminds you that it's a long, long way down. You quickly turn back to your car and head off.

The long stretch of highway between the bridge and I-285 back to Santa Fe consists mostly of empty ranch land, although it also seems to be a favorite of eco-sphere dwellers. The north side is pockmarked with alien looking structures all designed for sustainable living of one variety or another. It put me in mind of the landscape from Mad Max -- desert rats eeking out an off-grid existence. Although instead of prepping for battles in the Thunderdome, I'm sure these folks all have PhDs in ecological science and buy their windmills off eBay.

As I've dwelled on before, most southwest "art" is simply craft with pretense, but there is some actual art going on. Just north of Santa Fe, if you turn off I-285 onto Bishop's Lodge Road, you will pass the delightful Shidoni Foundry and Gallery where there is a wonderful sculpture garden and gallery to peruse. There is lots of vitality in the works here, as a quick walk through the garden will attest. This is a very successful example of taking the creation of art (and craft too) and integrating it with a personal experience. You can see bronze pours if you come at the right time. You can picnic in the garden amidst the sculptures. Very cool, and a much better way to spend a couple of hours than, say, hitting all the shops in The Plaza.

Following Bishop's Lodge Road back towards town, I once again came to Artist's Drive, and this time, with the sun well over to west and out of my eyes, I made the climb. It is as advertised -- a remarkably beautiful drive with numerous roadside overlooks and well mapped and described trailheads. I stopped about three-quarters of the way up at a point where you could look out over the desert with Santa Fe laid out before you just as if you were looking at Google Earth. I had second thoughts as to whether I had done the right thing by heading up to Taos as opposed to spending the day here. There is no right answer. Following the road to the peak where there is a ski lodge, I began to see why folks like living in Santa Fe so much and why it is always referred to as being so beautiful. It has nothing to do with the overarching adobe-ness. It's all about the land. I took all day for me to get there, but eventually I was charmed by Santa Fe.

Back in to town with the sun just below the horizon, I made my way to the Tapas restaurant recommended by the bartender from the previous night. It was closed so I settled for a tasty stuffed poblano and a nondescript margarita, indifferently served at a plaza joint called Ore's. It was, to say the least, a full day. The next morning I headed south out of the cool high desert and back down into the scorch, wishing I had one more day to spend in Santa Fe.

The road south out of Santa Fe is an endless, ruler-straight strip of asphalt through the desert. It's easy to see why people would see mirages in such circumstances -- there is simply nothing else to see. Mile markers are your only companions. There is very little traffic and enormous distances between signs of civilization. This is not a place you want to break down. I remember having similar thoughts when driving some of the lonesome roads in Wyoming and South Dakota, but here the danger is compounded by heat and lack of water. Despite this, I find the barren Chihuahuan desert as beautiful as the lush high desert. (Or for that matter as attractive in its own way as the bays of Newfoundland, or the beach in Naples, or the neon of Times Square.) After two or three hours of flat high speed running, a city springs out of the desert fully formed. This is the community of Roswell.

Decades ago Roswell revolved around Walker Air Force base which was decommissioned in 1967. Since then it has lived off of relocating retirees, various small manufacturing concerns, and aliens. Little Green Men loom large in Roswell's legend -- inflatable ones stand outside the shops, the street lights look like alien heads, and smack dab in the middle of Main street, in a repurposed movie theatre, sits the UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum starts off with much interesting info about "The Roswell Incident", which has served as the outline for so much bad sci-fi over the years that there is no way to describe it without cliche. A rancher spots falling debris, discovers a large metal object, calls the military out to investigate. Military holds press conference saying they have no idea what it is -- some kind of flying saucer, maybe. Then, after extensive "investigation" the military declares it to be a weather balloon, and anyone involved in the matter is hushed up.

Believe it or not -- and I didn't until I visited the UFO Museum -- there is a good amount of documented evidence for this, and I say that as a deep skeptic. Looking at the documentation, it does seem to me that something strange landed in the desert outside Roswell, and that it may have been hushed up. I don't think that it was aliens, because I don't believe in aliens. I suspect it was a military experiment, probably innocuous, that was overly secreted because of the Cold War paranoia. But, oh my, what followed on: abductions, ancient astronauts, Bermuda triangles, bending spoons, Close Encounters, X-Files -- every crackpot in the known universe piling on and creating so much noise that even if there was something to uncover, its long since past believability whatever it is.

But should you find yourself in Roswell, I do recommend the UFO Museum. It's cheap ($5), fun, and manned by good-natured believers. There is a movie room that has either documentaries or alien movies going at all times. Plus, a gift shop. Disclosure: I bought a t-shirt. And I'm not ashamed.

The next stop was roughly an hour south at Carlsbad. Just as one enters Carlsbad, on the right there is a sign for the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. Since it was too late to get to the Caverns for the evening, I stopped and was quite glad I did. It's a choice little nature park, and it's exactly what its name suggests. The Welcome Center is loaded down with exhibits and hands-on artifacts. Through the winding trail on the grounds you pass by numerous planted areas with appropriately identified flora, intermixed with animal exhibits including bear, wolf, a reptile exhibit, and more birds than you can say "Hellooo Poly" to. (They recently even got a giraffe. The animals are mostly rescues.) If it lives in the local desert, they have it here. Situated on the peak of a high hillside, it has great views or the surrounding area. Five bucks to get in and it should be more. It's just another one of those little finds that make western road trips so interesting.

Carlsbad is loaded down with chain motels catering to Cavern visitors. I picked a clean-looking Super 8 at random and bedded down. Interestingly, the couple in front of me in line asked if they could see the room before they checked in. It's a Super 8 -- bare walls, no toiletries, no alarm clock, TV from 1973, generally depressing -- not exactly sure what you want to see ahead of time.

If I did believe in aliens, I would strong suspect they were behind the construction of Carlsbad Cavern. Up until this, the most bizarre natural landscape I had ever seen was Bryce Canyon in Utah, which is a pretty freaking strange place, but I would readily sign on to a conspiracy theory that the Roswell incident was the result of aliens coming to work on their Earth headquarters in the cave in Carlsbad. It is nearly inconceivable that this place is natural.

The entrance is a really big hole in the ground with cave swifts darting in and out constantly. A steep, paved path leads down into the darkness. Your eyes adjust to the dim lighting in short order as you look around the impressive first cavern, which is dominated by the smell of bat guano. After a brief walk through the first room you move on along what is called the Natural Entrance route. I cannot overstate what a terrific job the Park Service has done with this place. The path throughout the cave is paved, making it accessible to wheelchairs, the self-guided audio tour is rich in info but most impressively, the lighting is amazing. It probably goes without saying that absent lighting the cave would be pitch black -- completely devoid of any light -- something very few of us will ever experience. What the Park Service has done is added some of the most subtly perfect effects to softly highlight the astonishing rock formations but not interfere with the uncanny natural eeriness of the cave.

The Natural Entrance path is a little over a mile long, ending in a flat-ish area where there is, believe it or not, a snack bar and gift shop. Yes, you can have lunch hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the Earth. From there you follow another trail, this one called the Big Room route which leads, not surprisingly, into The Big Room. The Big Room is over eight acres; you could fit six football fields inside. And I simply cannot come up with the words to describe the awesomeness of the stalactites, stalagmites, rock formations, crystal clear pools, great domes, hidden rooms, terrifying pits -- if you have a bucket list, you need to have Carlsbad Caverns on it. It's that simple.

And that's just the basic self-guided walking tour. As with Santa Fe, I needed more time. During the summer nights, there is a bat flight program. Each day at sunset about 400,000 bats come swarming out of the cave looking like an enormous pillar of smoke. And there are "wild tours", semi-strenuous ranger guided tours into unpaved, natural parts of the cave. I seriously misunderestimated (thanks W!) the indescribable coolness of Carlsbad Cavern or I would have scheduled another day. I had to live with my couple of hours in the Natural Entrance and the Big Room and then hit the road so I could get myself lost hiking again.

My stop for the next night was to be in Las Cruces and the road there passes through the Guadalupe Mountains -- a decent enough National Park that, if it weren't surround by more astonishing ones, would be the center of attention. (Again my National Park snobbery rears its head.) As it stands it's more of what I would think of as a "wilderness area" than a National Park with specific natural attractions. After a quick glance at a map on the wall in the visitor center, I picked out a four-mile hike that I figured I could knock off in a couple of hours and still get me settled in to my hotel in Las Cruces by dinner time.

Let me confess that, despite enjoying the activity, I am almost certainly the most incompetent hiker ever to lace up a pair of trail-runners. The trail to Devil's Hall is mostly standard wilderness stuff, but there is the grasshopper issue. At this time of year they sun themselves on the trail and leap out of the way at your approach, except they seem to have little control over their direction and you can easily find yourself in a hail of grasshoppers, like getting pelted with little rocks, especially if you are walking into the wind. And let me tell you, there are some big-ass grasshoppers out here -- inches long. Subsequent investigation revealed them to be locusts, up to 6 inches long.

Eventually the trail leads to a fairly steep bit of scrambling over a rock field to a dry river bed. At that point the map says to turn left. Being the most incompetent hiker ever, I didn't have a map. I turned right. After about 15-20 minutes of fighting through what became increasingly clear was not a trail, I turned back. No big deal really, but after wasting so much time on the wrong turn, I did lose my shot at finishing the trail before I had to get back on the road.

On the way back I crossed paths with a couple of other hikers who told me to watch my step as I scramble back up the rock field because they had spotted a rattlesnake. Great. So I fashioned myself a make-shift walking stick as a snake-fighter if needed and made my way back to the rock field. Only it turns out that it's harder to find the path over the rocks to trail than it was to go from the trail to the rocks. So here I am, bounding randomly about in a fairly steep rock field looking for the trail, struggling to keep my balance with each leap, all the while with the knowledge that there was a rattlesnake hidden in some little crevice waiting to fang me at my first slip. I should not be allowed in the wilderness. Ever.

Not to spoil the ending, but I did make it back to my car without needing a snake bite kit and got on the road to El Paso. Traveling from Carlsbad to Las Cruces one passes through El Paso in the far western little shelf of Texas. The only thing that was memorable to me about passing through this region was the extended line of auto salvage yards on the outskirts of the city. Just miles and miles of them. Apparently, thanks to NAFTA, folks are buying up used American sedans and exporting them to buyers in Mexico, who prefer the cheap full-sized cars and SUVs to the overpriced subcompacts that are pushed by Mexican new car dealers. Commerce can be as complicated as nature.

Take a slight northern curl out of El Paso and you are back in New Mexico and coming to rest in Las Cruces. Las Cruces seems to be a decent place, but without a truly stand-out trait. It mostly comes off as a nice clean suburb that supports a University, a few festivals, a historic plaza (which wasn't terribly impressive), and a sweet mountainous backdrop. It just seems like a decent sort of place to live, or in my case, bunk down for the night at a Hampton Inn.

The next morning I hit the last of the long string of National Parks on my list, White Sands, which as it turned out required a minor amount of backtracking to the northeast. At the top of the mountain range just outside Las Cruces there is an area to pull off the highway and take in the scenic vista. Probably the coolest thing about this rest area is that it is guarded by a ballistic missile. You can pull off the road and picnic in the shade of it, if you want. This is symbolic of the area because the road to White Sands cuts through a missile test range. There are signs everywhere saying that it is government property and trespassers will be subject to waterboarding, tax audits and other horrors.

Observatory at the missile range
On both sides of Las Cruces, including just before the entrance to White Sands, you will find Border Patrol stops. Everybody gets pulled off, a chap in a uniform takes a quick look inside and behind your car, asks if you are a U.S. citizen (although requires no proof) and then says "Have a nice day." I question how effective this is, but it was inoffensive.

White Sands is a National Monument, not a National Park. I do not know the difference, but White Sands is a pretty cool place -- in fact, the description of it in Google Maps states, "This looks like a pretty cool place." It's like turning off the road and finding yourself on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. White Sands is exactly what the name says -- towering dunes of white sand. The sand itself is gypsum and like all sand, it gets in everything, especially your shoes. I didn't hike through the park -- I just took a drive and hung out for a while to take photos. But I did notice that sledding down the dunes is a popular family activity. Definitely worth an hour or so stop.

And with that, I bid adieu to the land of green mountains, clay pueblos, scorching deserts, spooky aliens, killer missiles, creepy caves, soaring sand dunes, rattlesnakes, poblanos and plazas. New Mexico is one of a kind. To a lifelong Michigander, it is a strange place with eccentric ways. I hope we meet again soon.

The last leg of my journey was a few days at Miraval Resort in Tuscon, AZ, where I have stayed before. It was quite a change from the Super8s and Hampton Inns and teepees. No more 5-hour drives and truck stop hot dogs. Miraval is as luxurious as it gets. Pull up to the door and they already know who I am, what room I will be in, what I liked from my last visit. I popped open the trunk and my bags were whisked off to my room without me even asking. The nice advisor at check-in handed me my key, my complimentary water bottle and tote bag, and my nicely presented itinerary, and made sure I didn't have any questions. I walked through the lovely grounds to my room, getting my bearings as I went. My bags were already delivered and waiting. I opened the safe and put my wallet, laptop, and cell phone inside. I was now officially separated from the world. I'm told there was a presidential campaign or something like that going on. Apparently there were places in the world where people had such concerns, but the bedding I was sleeping on was soft as silk and about four feet thick.

In travel industry parlance Miraval is what is known as a "destination spa". You can think of a destination spa as an all-inclusive resort but with the additional bonus of a broad array of scheduled activities (from mountain biking tours to astronomy sessions to photography classes to rock climbing to...), traditional health, fitness and beauty treatments, coupled with more self-help-ish services, all rolled up into one very luxurious package and topped off with incomparable service. Tucson actually features two such places -- Canyon Ranch and Miraval. I have been to both previously and this time I chose Miraval because a) it was a mite cheaper, and b) Canyon Ranch is dry and I like me a glass of wine with dinner.

Whenever I visit such a place I feel duty bound to try something new. This time it was mountain biking. Miraval has three levels of mountain biking classes. The beginner's class, which I should have been in because I had never mountain biked before, occurred the morning before I arrived. The intermediate one was scheduled for my first full day so I told myself, "How hard can it be? I've road-biked plenty. I'm Joe fitness. I'll just sign up for the intermediate." So come 6 AM the next day I was blowing out my lungs trying to pedal my through 5 inches of soft sand and bounce over rocks while crawling up a steep incline along a tiny trail barely wide enough for my pedals with deadly cactus on each side. As the saying goes, my ego was writing checks my body couldn't cash. Needless to say, the pack dropped me on the first hill.

You see, there are some basic things you need to know to mountain bike. Number one, from what I learned, is that you need to accept that you will be going over obstacles. You cannot avoid everything no matter how hard you try. You have to accept the jarring and take it properly (slightly off the saddle to minimize impact). If you try to dodge everything you will burn yourself out with frustration. This is what I did.

The fact is that once I got over that first hill, I had a blast. I would go trail riding again any day. It's like being a kid again (except when I was a kid we wouldn't have used helmets), barreling around like a madman complete oblivious to danger and damage. Because Miraval is Miraval there are multiple guides with each group to accompany people of different skill levels. Once I got a good feel for mountain biking I was able to out run the guide that had hung back to handhold me up the first hill and, in fact, I was feeling pretty fresh when we finally finished to tour. And despite my early travails, I didn't fall once, so I count that as a moral victory. But the shame of being dropped and nursemaided at the outset like that hung over me. I had to spend some time by the pool working on my tan before I was able to let it go.

In the afternoon, I took a photography class. Nicely done, and small enough that everyone could get their specific issues addressed. Everyone had DSLR (although I'm pretty sure my Nikon D70 was the oldest model) and we mostly wanted to know how to move from being little more than point-and-shoot masters to something more intricate. The teacher not only showed us things in general but also specifically on all our cameras (she seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them, the controls must be similar across manufacturers). We were scheduled to do a hands-on afterward, but rain interfered with it. Yes even out here in the desert, rain managed to take its little dig at me.

At a destination spa, your reward for all this activity is a massage, which I like to schedule for the end of the day. And one of my favorite massages is the Thai massage. In Thai massage you are clothed, preferably in something loose like sweatpants and a t-shirt, and it is less a massage than an extended and very rigorous stretching session. A good therapist will quickly identify your flexibility/muscle tension trouble-spots and push them hard. I highly recommend it over standard-issue relaxation massages if you are one of those types that is uncomfortable with listening to new age music while some stranger oils you up. But I emphasize, it can be very rigorous.

The next day was my last full day of vacation, and it started with another early morning effort, this time for something called Zen Boot Camp. This was a fitness class, just like any of sorts of boot camp classes you see advertised everywhere these days -- basically, gym class from Junior High, but without the dodgeball or wedgies from bullies. It was a decent workout, but I have to admit I didn't see where "Zen" came into play.

Given the non-stop activities of the last week, and because this was really my final shot at doing nothing, I spent the bulk of the day reading by the pool. It was wicked, wicked hot -- pushing triple digits -- but I thrived on it. The pool at Miraval is constantly patrolled by uncountable little dragonflies of a brightly polished blue. They dart and hover over the water and into the surrounding gardens. It a mesmerizing sight -- completely hypnotic. In time you slip deeper and deeper into relaxation. The sun is melting you. You hear the occasional sound of someone slipping in and out of the water. Every now and then a brief breeze comes up, drifts over you, then vanishes as quickly as it came. You lay your book aside and lay still, not quite at the edge of sleep. Ah, yes -- there's that Zen thing after all.
By high afternoon I was fully cooked. I dragged myself into the spa and cleaned up a bit, then went off to write for a while. When sunset came I took a last walk around the grounds, this time to exercise what I had learned in my photography class. The day ended with another massage, this one a more traditional deep tissue variety, and then off to sleep in the thick comfy bed for one last time.

On the last morning, before checking out, I scheduled a body composition analysis which has to happen pretty much just as you roll out of bed. A body comp analysis tells you, in theory, how much muscle and fat you have and where it is distributed. I was anxious to do this because all summer I have been working very hard to lose weight. Since May (5 months ago) I have cut my calories way down and upped the intensity of my exercise. In the course of that time I estimate I lost about 20 pounds, which is no small feat for a man of my age.

The body comp analysis involves standing on a scale-like device and holding some special handles while electricity is pumped through you and resistance measured. You feel nothing during this. Afterwards you are handed a breathing tube and told to sit still and breathe normally for ten minutes while the machine figures out how many calories you expend on a daily basis while at rest. You would be surprised how long ten minutes is when you are doing nothing but sitting still and breathing.

The results of all this were mildly disappointing. I have in fact lost twenty pounds. My weight is within acceptable parameters, although at the high end (I'm a little over 5'9" and I weigh 165). Interestingly, both the fat and muscle content of my body are above target. I'm not entirely sure what that implies and how I can have both more fat and more muscle than average. Maybe my vital organs are undersized? I expend 2000 calories a day just sitting around doing nothing, which is what I expected. The final suggestion was that keep my caloric intake to about 1600 until I lose another ten pounds of fat. Ugh. After all my effort this summer, I basically get a "Thanks, but not good enough." Frankly, I think those machines are off. No way am I ten pounds overweight. Probably for the best, though. If I keep eating light I'll be better off whether I lose more weight or not. I guess I am officially on a diet for the rest of my life.

And that was that. I loaded up my bags for one last dash through the desert with the top down, and before I knew what hit me I was back in Phoenix boarding my flight home. I wanted to go back through New Mexico. I wanted another day at Miraval. Instead I was on a full flight in the last row, aisle seat, where I was privy to the privy activities of most of my fellow passengers. Welcome back to the world, buddy.

Planning the next trip commences immediately.