On Mother’s Day, we ate lunch on a cobblestone alley at a cafe in Taos, NM – next to artist shops, a bookstore where Lucy bought a book that came with a dragon tooth (or a dragon tooth that came with a book), and a place that sold rocks (there are a lot of those places that sell rocks out here, the girls bought arrowheads).
While eating lunch, we asked Eleanor and Lucy what they’ve learned on our trip – eight months, 26 states, and more hikes than we can count (definitely learned we like to hike).
I learned math! – Lucy I learned long division! – Eleanor I learned how to read! – Lucy
Ok ok, besides school, what else? Did you learn anything about yourself?
I learned that change can be a good thing, Eleanorsaid.
Oof, right? Brooke and I leaned back in our chairs, filled with parental awe, and said yeah yeah, that’s it, E. Change can be good. I think traveling has taught all of us that.
For as long as Eleanor and Lucy have been around, we’ve built a life around consistency. School, friends, house. And that’s great, and we look forward to having this all again. But when did I learn change is good? Thirty-nine? It certainly wasn’t as a ten-year-old. And if you understand this at 10 and 7, what does that do to you? Where can you go in life if you know change is ok?
Of course, this is unknown; only time will reveal her secrets – if what we did as parents mattered. As our journey comes to a conclusion (Or is it? What are endings?) and we feel more stress than we’ve ever felt thanks to the wildly unexpected and unfortunate housing market, I hold on to hope that the answer is yes – the last eight months have mattered.
And with that, we leave Santa Fe. Can’t wait to see you all soon.
PS: Where are we going to live? We don’t know. We should probably know, right? But alas, we don’t. We’ll be in Forest Park, IL for a bit. And then somewhere after that, I would think.
Posting about California is next, but I want to break up those two magic months into smaller posts. Before I do, how about a musical interlude?
I still have the first CD I ever burned. It was late, we were at this kid Jonas’s house. Love for Radiohead and Weezer started with this disc. 90s alternative still makes me happy. High and Dry. Sweater Song. Faith (covered Limp Bizkit, of course).
Today, we don’t cart CDs around in plastic cases or books the size of ancient texts or, for the special 10, the sleeve above your car’s sun visor. Spotify makes it easy to make playlists (and avoid nasty P2P viruses) for all occasions. Like traveling the country for eight months.
Except for See the World by Brett Dennen, the song that has become our journey’s theme song that we start each new adventure with, everything is in chronological order – from Kent, CT to Santa Fe where I find myself typing out this post. Some relate to the area we were in. Some were new tracks at the time. Others I simply enjoy and, if you give it a listen, I hope you do as well.
The drive from Las Cruces to Oceanside was too great to make in one day, so we camped one night in the stunning Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, AZ.
We initially didn’t get the pronunciation correct. Sa Gar O isn’t right and sounds terrible with my nasally midwestern accent. Suh Waa Row. It’s a nice word, give a try. I bet you like it too.
We camped at Gilbert Ray campground and were in awe at the size and the sheer number of Saguaro cacti. Cactus? Cactuses? Not sure. Not Googling. Just going with it.
Saguaro National Park
Learning our lesson from the long Marfa day, we didn’t spend as much time at Saguaro National Park as we would have liked. However, we were able to get two small hikes in before heading to California – Mica Valley and Signal Hill to see Petroglyphs. If nothing else, drive the loop and see the cacti (I bet that’s it), they’re as otherworldly as the White Sands of NM.
The Story of the Lost Saguaro Cactus
We had fun pretending that the Saguaro Cacti were waving hello to each other. Some where giving high fives. Other’s dancing the robot. We took the humanness and told a story:
Once upon a time, a Saguaro Cactus woke up in an usual land. She didn’t know where she was or how she got there but, towering over a prickly pear, she knew she was lost.
Hello! She said waving her gigantic arm at the small round cactus tucked under a desert bush. Can you tell me where I am?
Big Bend! Southern Texas! said the tiny cactus in a small but enthusiastic voice. I’ve never seen someone like you!
And then we continued the story of the Saguaro’s journey home. She met coyote, birds made hotels in her massive trunk, crossing highways without any feet was a unique challenge, and eventually she made it back to her home.
One of the best parts of this trip is seeing parts of the country that we would never see, like this little corner of NM. While we never fell in love with Las Cruces as a town, we had a blast swimming in the backyard pool and exploring the surrounding area.
White Sands National Park
White Sands, 275 square miles of pure-gypsum dunes, sparkles like an oasis in the middle of the tan, military missile testing, desert.
After waxing down the sleds from our Airbnb, we hiked up the dense sand dune and spent the rest of the day pretending we were on snowy hills – except here sand and not cold snow filled our boots.
We learned the geological history of the area – once an ancient sea, plates shifting, mountains rising, ice melting leaving behind gypsum – and that in modern times White Sands is used by Hollywood as a stand-in for the Sahara desert or a dystopian future – or a place for Puff Daddy. Puff Daddy, he sure was everywhere in the 90’s.
The park is small and approachable. We packed a lunch and the kids had a blast. As any parent knows, kids love a sledding day.
Ninety minutes outside Las Cruces, in the Lincoln National Forest, is the mountain town of Cloudcroft – a pioneer village with a population of less than 700 and an elevation of 9,000 feet. Like many western towns, Cloudcroft has the railroad to thank for bringing it to life.
Strolling down the one downtown street, we picked up good coffee at Black Bear Coffee and ate unexpectedly good pizza at Cloudcroft Brewing.
We planned to hike the area next to the train trestle, but we drove past an outdoor ice rink and pivoted plans. If you’re keeping score, you may have noticed this is how things often go. We make plans but allow for change. As a day goes on, we let what we encounter and how we feel shape what follows.
Driving back to Las Cruces, we stopped at White Sands once more, this time to catch the neopolitan ice cream sunset.
While I don’t think we’ll ever be back to this part of NM, I feel fortunate that we were able to experience what this part of our vast and magnificent country has to offer.
My morning runs were through a desert that has an unusually large population of doves. So many doves. They coo as they scuttle under desert brush.
Brooke and the girls hiked Dripping Springs in Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument.
It’s the shortest days that can feel the longest. I bet there’s a scientific reason for that. Like how during COVID every day has felt like a Tuesday. Science should be able to explain that too.
We left Big Bend on a Sunday. Tucked away loose objects in Phoebe the Trailer and said goodbye to the friendly retiree neighbors – who, just as we were leaving, gave the girls an animal skull they found while e-biking through the ghost town that morning. I don’t know what kind of skull it is but several months later we’re still carting the horned creature around.
Two hours later, we slowly pulled into Marfa where I immediately clogged the trailer toilet (TMI? Maybe. Yes. Bound to happen at some point? Definitely). Boy, that took a minute to figure out. Since then, we’ve learned something is always going to happen. Like when we left St George UT months later and I accidentally triggered the emergency brake on the trailer, drove two miles, and caused the whole thing to smoke and stink like a tire fire.
Life. What a game of whack-a-mole.
Anyway, Marfa. Lovely town. Truly. We ate lunch, wandered through shops, and I almost bought a cowboy hat. Close call, folks. We picked up coffee at a coffee shop / boutique / newspaper printer and watched Ford make an ad for their new electric Mustang (I think, I ain’t no car guy). I started saying “howdy” to people, driving Eleanor and Lucy crazy -“DAAAAD, you’re not from Texas?”
The highway was flat and the highway was windy. Dust piled up in the distance and trailers wobbled. I drove slow and and semis flew by, pulling us close with some kind of scientific force (the same one that distorts time I’m sure). We stopped by this thing in the middle of the desert and now we are #influencers.
It was getting late and we needed food and gas. My knuckles needed to stretch and crack. We had recently watched Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu show Taste the Nation so we picked up curbside at Elemi in El Paso. The tacos were good but with my brain full on fuzz by this point I can’t remember details. We ate as we drove the last leg to Las Cruces, NM.
Our initial plan was to stay in Tucson AZ but with COVID spiking in December we changed to NM. We exited the highway and found ourselves in big box land, like a desert version of Grandville, MI. By now I was used to the unsettled feeling I felt as we pulled into the new Airbnb and silently hoped it would pass just as quickly as other spots.
“I was expecting a lot more big clocks” was the joke that received more mileage than it should have as we hiked (and drove) our way through the vast and quiet Big Bend National Park.
Everyone will tell you to stay in Chisos Basin and everyone is right. But, Chisos Basin was booked until the end of time – probably when the ancient volcanoes come back to life and dragons take the skies. So we camped as close to the park as we could at Roadrunner RV. Since this was our first-time trailer camping, we appreciated having electrical hookups and access to water. The owners were helpful, the lot was level, and our view of Bee Mountain nice.
We arrived on Saturday night, slept in our trailer (slept well!), and woke up early. I made coffee on the camp stove, we laced up our hiking boots, and drove into the park.
Every Kid Outdoors
Thanks to our 4th grader, we got into the park (and all parks) for free! How? In 2015, President Obama created a program to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Parks program that lets 4th Graders, and their families, into all National Parks at no cost. Zilch. They say that 4th grade is when kids are prime for learning history and about the great outdoors. Eleanor beamed when the Ranger asked who was the 4th grader, “me!” she responded excitedly from the back seat – he handed a card through the window, Eleanor signed it. Our free year of visiting the Parks began.
Our first destination was Santa Elena Canyon. We hoped to kayak the Rio Grande but were told it was going too shallow. That’s alright since hiking Santa Elena is an option. We drove the recommended Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (confirmed – very scenic, lives up to its name), and because big Bend is larger than the state of Rhode Island, getting from point A to B can take some time – the drive from the park entrance to Santa Elena Canyon is over an hour. On our way, we stopped at the Castolon Ranger Station for a bio-break, picked up two Junior Ranger books, and chatted with the Ranger:
500 million years ago, this area was under the sea (under da sea dah dah dah dah). 250 million years ago, one continent bumped into another, and it raised the land. Land eroded, the area was partially underwater, dinosaurs roamed (Dinosaurs, you say?). Righ around the same time an asteroid hit Mexico, and the dinosaurs went extinct, liquid magma created violent volcanic activity in the area. A massive slab of limestone dropped 2,000 feet. More volcanoes. More erosion. The Rio Grande cut through. And here we are.
“Oh, and that’s Mexico,” he said, pointing to a Game of Thrones like wall of rock in the distance. “Big Bend shares 118 miles of border with our southern neighbor.”
When Brooke and I were in college, we studied in Vienna, Austria for a summer. Before Vienna, we stayed in Mörbisch, a village that bordered Hungary. One morning, we strolled our twenty-something-selves up to the border, stamped our passports, and walked across. No cars. No planes. Just walked. The world felt a little smaller.
That’s Mexico!? The girls said excitedly as we got closer to the canyon. Can we go to it!? I don’t know…we’ll see. I hoped they could feel the same smallness I felt almost 20 years ago (goodness, so long ago).
Santa Elena Canyon
We parked, put on sunscreen, filled the backpack with water, and started walking. A path led us to steps that switchbacked up and down the cliff, alongside the Rio Grand. The river was slow and lined with Bamboo and a slice of the cloudless blue sky mirrored the river.
The Santa Elena Canyon walls are 1,500 feet in some spots – as tall as the Sears Tower. That big building folks. The one that makes you go “wow” when driving into Chicago. That’s what was pressing us from both sides.
The trail wasn’t long and ended in a sandy area where people had taken off their shoes and waded into the river. A group of college students tossed a frisbee and started walking further into the canyon. There are miles to hike if you want to go further. In the shade, it was chilly, but Mexico was on the other side so we weren’t going to leave without crossing the river. We hiked up their pants, took off our hiking books, stuffed our socks inside, and stepped in.
The water was cold! and the bottom of the river soft. The girls hopped onto our backs when the water got a little deep. When we were close to the opposite side, the girls ran up to the wall and pressed their hands against Mexico. Eleanor and Lucy bounced with excitement. I can’t believe we made it!
We walked a little further down the river that had cut its path into the massive rock – finally turning back to our shoes. We did the stand one leg thing, trying to not fall over while we put our feet into wet socks and thought, “huh, should have brought a towel.”
The walk back was quick. We were hungry and ready to rest. Near the hike’s entrance, there were a handful of picnic tables – just the spot for a PB&J.
Chisos Basis is at the center of the park and on the way we made a couple of stops: 1) to see the Mule’s Ears from a distance and 2) to climb ancient volcanic ash where the girls found rocks that looked like crystals. They were sad when we said they couldn’t take anything from a National Park.
We pulled in next to the Ranger Station, got our National Park stamp, and saw our very first roadrunner! It was the size of a small chicken and had a pigeon’s comfort level around a bunch of humans. It neither meep meeped nor sped away with its feet in a blur.
We walked the short paved Window Trail loop and took the shot that everyone comes for.
After the Basin we climbed the Lost Trail Mine. The trails are well maintained, and while it was steeper than the last path, it was a nice hike with incredible views. But by this point, the day was getting late, and we were hungry, and we knew we had a decent drive ahead of us. We walked back to The Beast and drove back to the campground – picking up firewood for s’mores and a campfire.
Day Two – Dinosaurs, Wild Horses and a Canyon
Day two started much like day one. I woke early, climbed over Brooke to get out of the trailer, and fired up the camp stove to make our fancy coffee. A man with a cowboy hat walked by, I later learned he sailed around the world in a boat he made himself. The rest of the family woke up and we drove back into the park.
One excellent attribute of the National Park System is the Jr. Ranger Program. Kids pick up a small paper book and spend the next day finding as many answers as they can as they travel around the park. This is great because they learn, of course, but it’s also great because it keeps your kid busy as you’re driving around a park – and in Big Bend, there’s a lot of driving.
The girls spent their first day hunting for answers. On the second day we stopped at the Panther Junction ranger station where they turned in their work, raised their right hand, and repeated the ranger motto after the real Ranger: “Explore, Learn, and Protect!”
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Go here! With so much natural beauty and hiking, we weren’t sure if the Dinosaur Exhibit would be a good use of time, but we’re very glad we made the slight detour.
The exhibit is housed in an open-air (good for the age of the ‘rona) modern building that gives you panoramic views of Big Bend. We were the only ones there. I’ll say it again – Big Bend is quiet, and I loved it.
We followed a path inside the building that walked us through how Big Bend was formed and what creatures roamed when. The fossils were remarkable, all were found in Big Bend, and now Lucy is now going to be an Inventor, President, Archeologist when she grows up.
Pulled Out a Big Thorn
On our way to Boquillas Canyon we walked a short hike – Dugout Wells, which was interesting and full of more facts but not worth the time if you’re speeding through the park – and stopped by another Ranger Station to use the bathroom, meet a Ranger, and pull out a GIANT CACTUS THORN from Brooke’s hiking boot. It was an inch long, as thick as a stir-straw, and required the Ranger to use a pair of pliers to pull out.
Wear. Good. Boots. Don’t go running around Big Bend in your tennis shoes. It will hurt.
As we neared the canyon, I took a wrong turn making our first stop the Boquillas Overlook. We walked to the cliff edge where we could see the small Mexican town across the river. In non-COVID days anyone can take a small boat across the river, visit the town, meet some nice people, and eat some good food. In the days of the ‘rona, though, American’s can’t cross – but the Mexicans can.
At the edge of the overlook, there was a collection of goods – walking sticks, koozies, small metal figures and a can for cash. Lucy spotted people across the river and yelled Hola! A Mexican man yelled back Hola! and waved. Several people hopped into a canoe, paddled across the Rio Grande, walked up the cliff, and asked us what we’d like to buy.
After four years of hearing about the damn wall, it was hard to believe that this part of the border was so porous. As we drove away, Brooke commented that their little town was probably hit hard by the lack of tourism. Selling their goods this way was them getting by. There was no threat. It was a delightful interaction.
We left with two walking sticks and a koozie.
People write a lot about Santa Elena Canyon – for good reason – but I would like to say that Boquillas Canyon might be even better and absolutely a part of the park you should visit. A few reasons why:
We were greeted by wild horses from Mexico. (who’s gonna ride them?).
There’s more to explore – tiny rolling green hills, steep dunes to climb, rocks to boulder over. And wild horses.
The water was a deep green blue that absorbed the late afternoon light. Light that shone on wild horses.
It was warmer too. We’re not sure why but it was a lot warmer than the other canyon. Probably because of the wild horses.
We said goodbye to the horses and as we drove out of Big Bend the sun set, casting its pink glow on the mountains behind us.
I’m behind in writing. We’ve been to Big Bend, NM, Tucson, Oceanside and now Cayucos. I have a massive post about Big Bend pending and it slightly stresses me out. I want to post it but if I don’t, this is me saying the timeline is about to get out of order. Or, I never post again. We will see.
Big Bend is remote. Reeeemote (emphasis worthy remote). Six hours from El Paso and seven hours from Austin. We only learned of Big Bend through a Google search that went something like “best things to see in West Texas” – a pretty standard search that has thrown my Google news feed algorithm entirely out of whack as we replace West Texas with wherever we are – although if you want to riff on recycling news from Kent, CT I’m your guy.
We had the option to take the scenic route from Austin to Big Bend, but after driving through the Catskills in complete darkness, we chose the most direct path. This took us through Johnson City (look, a cute coffee shop! And oh look, and a President was from here!), Fredericksburg (An old western town with German roots that we were bummed we didn’t have time to stop for) and miles and miles of vineyards, distilleries, and breweries. We’re learning that every. single. state. has their own Napa Valley like wine trailer.
With Phoebe the trailer in tow (and sucking down the gas mileage), we left hill country and entered level land surrounded by mesas – wide, flat-topped mountains with steep sides. One last gas stop in Fort Stockton and we turned south, drove through Alpine, and wound our way through hills that gave way to the Chisos Mountains, pulling Phoebe and the Beast into the Roadrunner RV campground thirty minutes before sunset – embarking upon our first ever camping adventure.
Mid-December, we left the sun and sand to see family for the holidays, to meet a brand-new baby (Wren!), and, importantly, to get Eleanor’s (gd) braces off. A wire had slipped early in the trip which turned Brooke and me into orthodontists. Dr. Brooke used a pair of tiny pink tweezers to yank and reposition the wire. I used a needle nose pliers and Eleanor’s eyes grew two sizes larger when she saw those coming.
We plan on opening a very niche orthodontia practice, accepting patients starting June.
A week after getting back to the midwest, I got a call from Terry Frazer, an older and larger man (his description) who pre-sold us our trailer in September (all trailers were on back-order because of COVID). I picked up the phone and Terry told me he’s retiring. That he’s closing the books and I’ll need to pick up the trailer by noon on Monday. This was Saturday, and the first I had heard from Terry since putting down a deposit three months earlier. I woke up at 5:00 am on Monday, drove to Iowa, and hauled back our camper, a rolling ‘rona avoiding machine we’ve named Phoebe.
To go west, to get to California, we needed a Phoebe. The distance is too great to do day trips and we want to spend weekends visiting parks along the way.
Just over a week ago, we hooked Phoebe up to The Beast (our absurdly large SUV) and drove Phoebe and the Beast south. Five hours of Illinois farmland, one gigantic cross that looked a little too much like a scene from the Handmaid’s Tale, a few more hours of farmland in Missouri, and we pulled into the Memphis KOA (technically Arkansas). There was a folder with our name on it directing us to lot 24. We leveled the trailer, hooked up the electricity, warmed up some frozen soup, slept pretty good and kind of felt like real campers.
Our first major stop is Austin, TX. We’re driving south to avoid wintery weather in the Rockies. But then it snowed in Texas. Wet, heavy snow. People pulled off to the side of the highway to make snowmen, throw snowballs, and slide down off-ramps. Since they don’t have salt trucks the streets were slushy and slippery and the Texans drove fast. I drove slow, leaning forward slightly as we hauled Phoebe up an on-ramp that was so tall it touched the sky (everything is bigger).
As if 2020 wasn’t good enough, the Texas snow was a reminder to always to expect the unexpected. As well as…
pulling into a dark driveway that was unexpectedly steep getting Phoebe stuck, very very stuck. Find 2X4s and plywood and make a ramp bridging the driveway into the street – stuck. Sammy the neighbor comes out of his house to help me back out – stuck. Brooke, who had been out walking with the girls around the neighborhood walked saw our trailer blocking the street and for a second (or longer) thought about turning around – stuck.
The trailer’s in the street (thank goodness for flexible parking rules!), and we’re nearing the end of our time in Austin. Brooke and I hope to write more on this leg of the journey – thoughts on travel during COVID, more details on things we’ve done, the food we’ve eaten, places we’ve gone. And, if you’re interested in knowing where we’re heading next, we’ve started mapping things out.
Austin -> Big Bend National Park (3 nights) -> Las Cruces, NM (10 days) -> Tucson, AZ (for just a night) -> Oceanside, CA (5 weeks) -> Unknown!
If you have recommendations for things to see, food to eat, driveways to get stuck in, please let us know!
One morning, after Hurricane Eta shifted direction, and the waves settled to their regular ocean wavey-ness, the stingray ray arrived. They’re as plentiful as midwestern squirrels and just as friendly. Stingrays are mostly solitary creatures, but this variety is like toddlers on a soccer field or middle schoolers at lunch. They bunch up and flap their…flaps? fins? bodies? around the sandbar – up and over they go, riding waves like underwater surfers.
The water is clear and when it piles up, before it breaks, it’s mostly transparent, like a thick pane of glass. Clear enough to see two great big stingrays shooting right at us. Being the shortest, Lucy was at eye-level with their unexpected smiling faces. Her eyes widened, her little body turned, and her tiny legs ran. The friendly rays changed direction.
Stingrays jump. A whole lot. They fling themselves out of the water like flipping pancakes. They do this to either A) avoid being eaten by predators, B) Find a mate or C) to have loads of fun. We like to think it’s C and are waiting for two rays to hit flaps in mid-air, a most epic high-five. But, it’s probably A. Not being lunch or dinner is an integral part in a stingray’s life.
We saw a shark at the edge of the sandbar on the same day the stingrays came hurtling at us. The shark was as long as Lucy is tall, and once again, Lucy’s eyes widened, her body turned, and her little legs started pumping towards the beach. Except running in water is hard, and she fell – half running, half swimming until I picked her up. Since this was the first time any of us had ever seen saw a shark outside of an aquarium, it took a decent amount of cajoling and a good amount of Googling before the girls ventured back into the Gulf, boogie boards in tow.
Another day, Eleanor was wearing goggles and swimming underwater when a jellyfish floated by, inches from her face. Calmly (although, this freaked me out way more than the shark), she pointed it out, and we watched it drift, aimlessly it seemed. It was sturdier than I expected but still challenging to see. This time we stayed out of the water for a bit. A jellyfish to the face would be no way to spend a day at the beach.
Crabs scuttle. Pelicans dive, beak first, gaining speed from twenty-feet high. They fly in groups, gliding between the swells, wings brushing the surface like a water skier taking a turn. Dolphins arc their backs in and out of the water. Yesterday they were jumping as high as a Brookfield Zoo dolphin show.
I’m still waiting to see an alligator, but it’s probably best we don’t stumble upon one.