Saturday, March 14, 2009

The trip in numbers

Total miles driven: 1,271
Amount spent on "gas": $117
Miles driven on Interstate: 5
Cheapest motel: $50
Most expensive motel: $115
Number of diapers used: 52
Number of paracetamol swallowed: 44
Margaritas drunk: 1
Car punctures: 0
Stroller punctures: 1
Highest altitude: Pagosa Springs, Colorado 7,162 feet
Lowest altitude: Las Vegas, Nevada 2,028 feet
Average altitude: 6,066 feet
States visited: 5
Indian nations visited: 1
Nights Louis spent in crib: 0
Nights Louis spent in Mom and Dad's bed: 15
Books read: 0
Blogs written: 22
Burgers eaten: 1
Bowls of Green Chile eaten: 8
Number of photos taken: 786
Pieces of luggage: 7
Nights on the road: 15
Ski resorts we missed out on: 4
Amount won in Vegas: $0
Amount gambled in Vegas: $1

Friday, March 13, 2009

Back on Route 66

Bedding down on Route 66
Albuquerque's Old Town

For our last night on the road, what could be more fitting than a final fling with Route 66? We were flying out of Albuquerque bright and early so needed to bed down somewhere near the airport. That somewhere turned out to be what felt like an authentic Route 66 motel, in Albuquerque's Nob Hill suburb, just 10 minute from the city's "Sunport" airport. Authentic in that our room was seemingly untouched from the Mother Road's heyday in the Thirties. But hey, that just added to the roadtrip experience, right?

Grim motel rooms aside, I was glad to check out Albuquerque as there's apparently a vague chance my cousin Nat might wind up there somewhere down the line (something about her Venezuelan boyfriend doing a post-Doc in NM). I can report back that as US cities go, it's certainly an interesting one. It has more than its share of history: the Old Town's aptly-named plaza dates back to the early 1800s. And we liked Nob Hill. It's within spitting distance of the university so plenty of fun shops and restaurants line the sides of Route 66, which slices straight through its centre. 

All that motoring history makes the city something of a draw for motorheads: we saw plenty of classic cars and "hogs" roar past while we scoffed a final green chile at the Flying Star cafe. It's a shame we weren't there for Saturday night, which is when everyone with wheels (i.e. everyone in the States) cruises the neon-lit strip in the manner of a Fifties' flick. I somehow doubt that our SUV would have passed muster. Maybe Louis could have pulled it off in his Bugaboo if we'd rigged some lights up to his wheels. Next time perhaps. 

Come to think of it, we might have missed a trick with our entire roadtrip. Has anyone ever cruised the Mother Road in a stroller? Now there's a book in the making. Plus then we'd find out if the Bugaboo was really worth its price tag. If I wind up being made redundant after all maybe that's what Louis and I can do with my payoff.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Turquoise Trail

Cerrillos, NM
And again
More metal sculptures, Madrid, NM
Old advert, Madrid
Easy Riders

How apt that the final drive of our roadtrip should take us down the Turquoise Trail. One of the most scenic US highways, the route links Santa Fe with Albuquerque, our ultimate destination. I say apt because the 52-mile stretch is famous for its mining history, making it the perfect illustration to the book I'm reading - or trying to at least. 

Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is about the West's 19th century colonisation by miners hoping to strike it rich by exploiting what lay underneath the land rather than on top of it. More specifically, it's about the battle they faced trying to tame the Wild West by imposing Eastern standards on vast swathes of nothingness while making peace with their surroundings.

Driving down the Turquoise Trail, so named for the blue stone that has been excavated from the area since 100AD, we stumbled upon Cerrillos, an old mining town largely untouched since the turn of the last century. All but deserted, its unpaved streets, adobe houses and shuttered up old bars and hotels make it the ultimate ghost town. There is even an old opera house. Shut your eyes and you can almost feel the bodies of yesteryear wandering the streets. It is exactly like one of the towns that Susan Ward, the heroine of Angle of Repose, would have lived in back in the 1880s. 

Unlike Cerrillos, the next town we stopped at, Madrid, which all but ceased to exist following WW2, had reinvented itself as a(nother) artists' retreat. Cue yet more metal sculptures. Still, it was keeping the passing bikers happy: the Turquoise Trail is a prime destination for the Easy Rider crowd. I'm not sure how many of them were carrying their copies of Stegner but I guess the themes of discovery at least overlap. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Santa Fe

Chillies, mountains and strollerable sidewalks: holiday heaven
A family Hitchcock moment
Sunset over our Motel
Wind sculptures on Canyon Road

After more than 1,000 miles on the road, Santa Fe was always going to be more than a mere pitstop. In the end, the New Mexico capital will go down in our holiday history as the place where the wheels came off our roadtrip. Quite literally. First there was the puncture: Louis' stroller got a flat. And then there was Daddy J. A combination of Grand Canyon germs and Taos tonsillitis laid him out cold for the three days we'd planned to stay there. 

Luckily we'd stumbled upon a decent place to spend some time: the Santa Fe Motel and Inn, which also got the thumbs up from the New York Times. While DJ recuperated, Louis and I explored the adobe rich town. A magnet for celebrities and artists alike, Santa Fe has been luring visitors for centuries. At 400 years old, it is America's second-oldest state capital and features such gems as the country's oldest church and oldest house. 

It is almost unique among American towns in having stroller-friendly sidewalks, making it another top Mom-and-baby holiday pick. That may also explain its appeal to Julia Roberts, Mom of three, who lives on a ranch somewhere outside town. (Despite keeping our eyes peeled, we didn't mange to spot Julia. Shame, I'd figured that with three kids under 4, including 18-month-old Henry, she might have a few good mothering tips to share: I bet her kids sleep through the night.) 

Santa Fe's beautiful setting, amid the sagebrush-dotted foothills of the Sangre de Christos mountains, also explains its lure for artists and wanna-be-artists alike. All come in the hope that they too might follow in Georgia O'Keeffe's footsteps, the town's most famous former resident. We couldn't help but think how much Louis' Great-Granny B and his Grandpa Derek would love the place. G-G B's pastels would lift the quality of much of the work on Santa Fe's famed Canyon Road, while G'pa Derek's metal sculptures would fit right in. 

As for the family lurgy - we finally managed to shift it thanks to the restorative power of Santa Fe's other claim to fame: its legendary Green Chile. Even Louis got better - I guess the chile must have filtered through the breast milk. I never did need to give him those antibiotics. Darn, we could have put the $137 we spent at the doctors towards our Motel bill. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Is there a doctor in the Taos?

Taos Plaza
Taos chillies
Taos slopes

Day I've-lost-count of Louis' illness and it was time to face facts: the alleged healing waters of Pagosa Springs were nothing but a sham. There was nothing else for it. We'd have to bite the bullet and brave the American healthcare system. That I'd made it this far into Louis' US adventure without taking him to a doctor either spoke realms about my bravery as a Mom - or my carelessness. You choose. If he'd been a proper American baby, and I'd been a proper American Mom, he'd have had countless check ups with his own personal pediatrician by now. Instead, Louis got me and some snuffle rub I'd brought from Boots. 

To be honest, I felt a bit cheated that he'd even got sick. Okay so he'd braved sub-zero dawns and sunsets at the Grand Canyon and in the desert, not to mention bathing outside with snow on the ground, but isn't breast milk  supposed to be stuffed full of special antibodies that make babies invincible? Or do they just tell you that so you don't use formula? 

Despite spending at least half the night coughing, Louis failed to cough even once for the doctor. Or I should say, so-called doctor. She turned out just to be some sort of trumped up nurse, and not a very convincing one at that. All that she did was weigh him (he'd lost weight), measure his oxygen (it was 96, whatever that means) and take his temperature. He had one. I knew that. Even without a thermometer I knew that. 

But to make us feel like we'd got our $100 worth, she prescribed him two lots of medicine and gave me a long internet print out about what do to if your baby has croup. Er, thanks. I thought the last thing most doctors wanted you to do was worry yourself sick by browsing the web for the scariest illness possible? Yet here we were, 100 bucks down, and we'd been handed a list of symptoms for a Victorian illness that Louis most certainly didn't have. It was almost enough to make us miss the NHS. 

Our kinda country - by Daddy J

Crossing into New Mexico had all sorts of good vibes too it. There was that great lunch. The scenery had a new kind of beauty - silver birch and drifts of whitest snow up high, red dust and ashen sagebrush below. And after a couple of days drifting last minute into musty motels we had taken the trouble to book an upscale bed and breakfast (same as a motel but with foody magazines instead of a Coke machine). The omens improved further still when it turned out that the dusty hamlet down the road boasted a homemade ice cream parlor run by exactly the kind of nonchalant bohos that put Taos on the map.

My only worry about staying out of town had been where we might eat - always a tricky question on holiday, now made even more so with a tired baby to factor in. So it seemed too good to be true when our host pointed out a convenient local option and her only warning was to "hurry because its Country night and it'll fill up fast." 

It was more than just any old country night. Local legend Michael Hearne was twanging tunes of love and loss and, most crucially for us, life on the road. Louis loved it and so did his Dad. Local folks were dancing with their best girls and Louis soon joined in as did another little fella about his age and his older brother. His parents later revealed that Hearne had played at their marriage celebration, which is a shame because until that moment I'd thought that we'd had pretty much the perfect wedding.

Of course it was all a bit too good to be true. The video posted above is the last known image of Daddy J looking convincingly upright before being knocked sideways by a fever for the best part of four days. My teeth started chattering on the way out to the car from that gig and I've only just recovered. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Obamanos! - by Daddy J

One of the reasons I'd been keen to see the Southwest is that it was one of the great battlegrounds of the election, but it was always too far away to justify the time it would have taken for a work trip. So it's been interesting to note the political winds buffeting these snowy hills. The route we have taken has traced a great swathe of America from Nevada, through Colorado and New Mexico, that flipped Democrat in November. (Note the Obama sticker on the barn on the right of our photo from Arroyo Secco, NM.)

This seems like a surprising shift at first glance. After all, the West is surely all about the rugged individualism of the Right. George Bush had the whole president-as-cowboy thing and John McCain is from Arizona. This is a part of the world where one radio station we listened to paused at noon to remind listeners that they are living in the "greatest country on earth" before the daily rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Why would anyone around here vote for a lefty Chicago law professor for president?

Some things I've noticed in the last few days that may explain how the West was won for the Democrats. Firstly, the environment. Living in these spectacular natural surroundings, people seem much keener on cycling, recycling and the like here than elsewhere in America and the Republican record on the environment is abysmal. Second, this area is a real melting pot and has been that way for centuries. I've been surprised at how bilingual the place is and until coming here I had no idea how much Native American culture survives and thrives. Bush failed in his efforts to make the Republican Party convincingly multicultural. 

Lastly, I'm guessing Obama's anti-war message played well here. One park ranger in Colorado told us how he had served in "the First War" and how much he had resented the new war in Iraq. A sign in the main square in Taos listed the soldiers recently returned from Iraq and underlined that while the justification for spilling American blood in Iraq seems difficult enough to comprehend in Washington or New York, it seems impossibly obscure in New Mexico. 

The Great Divide

Lunch, pre-wrap, Chama, NM
Rolling stock

Somewhere on the road from Colorado to New Mexico we passed the Continental Divide. In layman's (laymom's?) terms what that actually means is that one minute all the streams gushing past are headed west, to the Atlantic, and then the next they're all headed east to the Atlantic. Unlike Four Corners there was no sign, hence no pic of Louis straddling the Great Divide. 

Of greater personal significance, we also passed the Culinary Divide. Again, what that actually means is that one minute all the food is slightly dodgy (from a vegetarian perspective at least) and then, bam, suddenly it improves. Unlike the Great Divide, I can pinpoint exactly where that happened: the mountainous outpost of Chama, New Mexico. 

Chama is  the sort of place that you could blink and you'd miss but we'd heard about it courtesy of one of those cheesy local TV programmes we'd inadvertently caught that morning. Just as in 1880 it was the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande railway that really put Chama on the map, today the teeny mountain community is popular once more because a tourist train runs from there in the summer months. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway is both the longest (64 miles) and highest (10,015,ft-high Cumbres pass) authentic narrow-gauge steam railroad in the USA apparently. 

But that train spotting gem didn't excite me as much as my lunchtime sandwich. What was particularly good about my grilled veggie wrap (with jalapenos) is that it got Louis eating again for the first time since falling ill in the Grand Canyon. I guess it must have been the first food he'd eaten that actually tasted of something: I'd been trying to shove baby food down his throat for days but to no avail. Give him a bit of melted cheese and avocado and suddenly he was back on form, happily helping to scoff my wrap, which boded well our culinary adventures to come in the rest of New Mexico, the fifth and final state of our roadtrip. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Good medicine?

Splishing and splashing

Four days with a sick Louis and we decided it was time for kill or cure. After skipping Durango, the next stop on the road was Pagosa Springs, a ski town famed for its hot, you guessed it, springs. I'd always been curious about the alleged healing properties of thermal waters and with all three of us now ailing I figured there'd never be a better time to put them to the test. 

At $20 bucks a person, a soak in the thermal pools wouldn't come cheap but if it saved us from an American doctor's bill then it would be worth it. We weren't sure how many of the pools would pass the elbow-in-the-bath test, but apparently if we chose ones less than 101F (whatever that means in celsius) then Louis would survive. So, ignoring the snow on the ground, we stripped down to our swimmers and plunged in. 

All that practice splashing in our DC swimming pool paid off: Louis loved it, despite the rotten egg stench. Come to think of it, given some of his diapers he's probably quite used to the smell of rotten eggs. And the best bit about it? After splashing happily for half an hour, we persuaded him to conk out poolside in his stroller for a snooze while we had a nice quiet soak. 

Good medicine? It was too early to tell but at the very least we set off slightly rejuvenated on the road for New Mexico. 

The new we

Perfect for two
Our anticipated hotel

We'd been looking forward to reaching Durango, Colorado ever since leaving Vegas. Vaunted as the "darling of the region" by our guidebook, the old mining town had promised much. From its status as a foodie magnet to its alter-ego as the state's unofficial microbrewery capital, Durango seemed like our sort of town. 

There it sat, surrounded by snowy mountains offering cheap skiing come winter and mountain biking come summer. Architecturally, it was picture-postcard perfect, its Victorian-era buildings all lovingly restored. Its Main Street was like a scene from an old Hollywood movie. Even its shopping came recommended. To cap it all, the cinema had a 6pm showing of Slumdog Millionaire, which we'd failed twice to see in DC. What could make for a more perfect holiday pitstop?

As it turned out, I'm not sure which "we", we thought were visiting Durango. Certainly not the Mom and Dad and nearly nine-month-old baby that pulled into town last Sunday afternoon. The reality of our new situation slowly sunk in as we meandered around. Bar hopping after a fancy dinner just wasn't going to happen; nor was that 6pm flick. As for skiing: fuggedaboutit. For starters, had I really thought through how on earth I'd cope looking after Louis if I had a bad fall? And did I even have the energy to bomb down the slopes in the first place? "No" and "no", clearly. 

In the end, despite initially planning to stay a couple of nights we stayed around just long enough to sample an ice cream, DJ to buy yet another country album and for me to burn some cash in a baby shop (of course). Somehow hotfooting it straight out of town, even a town we'd loved at first sight, was just less painful than hanging around and feeling like we were missing out on all its joys. 

Plus, that's the beauty - and tyranny - of the roadtrip. You don't feel like staying someplace, you don't have to. (Even if in retrospect it would have been a better plan to stay put. But that's another story.)  

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cowboy Country

Mesa Verde National Park
The cowboy hat shop, with one-horse Mancos reflected in its window
Back on melting form?

After leaving the desert we pulled into the ultimate one-horse town. Or at least its modern-day equivalent. Mancos, Colorado. Mancos' claim to fame is as the "gateway to Mesa Verde", a fabulous national park that hides amazing ancient Puebloan dwellings deep in its heart - we had to switchback around 20 miles of hairpin bends to find them.

But what made Mancos for me was that at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, I managed to stumble into the frontier equivalent of Marylebone High Street. Okay, so I'm referring to but one shop - Beehive. But what a shop! I'm telling you - Beehive could hold its own not only in Marylebone but in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. I know, because it stocked the same brand of high scale, organic baby care - erbaviva - that I found in a shop there. (And which my friend sent me for Louis for Christmas.) Imagine the buzz I got after four or so days in the American wilderness! Amazingly it was one of only three shops in the entire town.

Chic shop (note the lack of plural) aside, the town of Mancos - if it merits that tag with a population of barely 1,000 - is the gateway to Cowboy Country. I know that because cowboy memorabilia were sprinkled everywhere. One of its other two shops was even a cowboy hat maker. I'm not talking the pale faces of Injunland, but the ranchers who followed the miners West to ensure they had something to eat. (This is America, after all.)

Arguably, even Beehive wasn't the best thing about this lovely, crunchy Colorado town. (That's "crunchy" in a granola munching, organic loving kind of a way.) That accolade would have to fall to the wonderful Absolute Bakery, a natural cafe that is a natural magnet for all Mancosians come breakfast time. And the town's entire tourist trade, i.e. us. For a brief moment it seemed that Louis might be back on top melting form after his Indian illness - check out him melting a fellow diner above. But his cheery mood was to prove but a mere respite. 

Another top point about Mancos was its history. You might think I'm joking, given the town was founded in 1894, but actually what I love about American history is its very newness. Medieval England and its endless King Henrys were all very well, but it can be tough to empathise with events that happened so long ago. America, on the other hand, especially gems like Mancos, is far more fathomable. Just think: the entire town is newer than our house back home. I wish someone would do the same restoration job on 55 Reverdy Road that they have done on Mancos' now visitor centre. 

On the road.....again

The classic shot
LJ in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico: simultaneously 
Four Corners Monument

You might think we could have gone anywhere we liked with our fortnight's holiday at the end of our big US adventure, but you'd have been quite wrong. He hasn't admitted it, but I'm convinced DJ planned our trip to take in the maximum number of states in 14 days driving without Louis or me getting on the next flight back to DC. To recap: we're driving from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, passing through Arizona, Utah and Colorado en route. That's five. Doubling Louis' entire state count. (Too bad DC is just a district.) 

So far, so exciting. Hard to top you might think. But you'd be wrong. As we cruised out of the bonus nation we clocked up, we swung past the most thrilling place in the entire US for map nuts. I'm talking the Four Corners: the only place in the entire United States (and remember, it's a big country and there are 50 of them) where four, yes, I said four, states meet at a single point. Luckily for the Navajo, it falls within their reservation, so they get to call it a "Monument" and charge 3 bucks ahead for the privilege of taking the obligatory snapshot. As you can see, we fell for it. Only Louis (despite his illness) managed the tourist trick of managing to get a limb in each state for the photo though. 

After that, it was bye-bye desert and hello mountains - literally within the space of about half an hour. This really is an incredible driving holiday. And that from someone who hates being in the car.  

Frontier post

Paleface and chief

In visiting Monument Valley, Louis may have clocked up another state, but to be honest, staying a night in Navajo Nation, as the vast reservation belonging to America's second-most populous Amerindian tribe is known, felt like visiting another country. It wasn't quite the same as "visiting Canada" as the park ranger in the Grand Canyon had promised - no visa stamp for Louis's little passport for one thing - but staying there sure felt different from the rest of the US. 

That much was hammered home when Louis got sick in the middle of the night and we were seemingly miles from civilisation. (Sorry Navajos, but this is a new Mom speaking.) Okay, so apparently there was a doctors' clinic 20-something miles away in Kayenta, the nearest town, but the fact that "Kayenta" means "boghole" in Navajo might give you a clue as to how little I fancied checking it out. I know it wasn't exactly a safari in Africa, but as new parents I really thought we might have been pushing our luck in staying smack bang in the middle of the desert as I could feel Louis' temperature soaring. 

It was also strange being in America, which everyone feels they know so well, yet being somewhere where people respect entirely different customs. Like the not drinking (in theory at least: check out artist Fritz Scholder's controversial paintings of drunk Indians for a different perspective) and like the no photo rule. Luckily for the Navajo's tourist industry - and for DJ's click-happy finger - their no-photo rule doesn't stretch to the landscape as does that of the Hopi tribe. Even so, we stuck to snapping our little paleface with a statue of a chieftain in our hotel lobby rather than seek out the real thing. (Existential question for today's traveller: if you see something while on holiday but can't immortalise it on film then were you really there? And was there any point in going?)

Mostly, though, driving through the vast nothingness of that Navajo desert felt like stepping back in time. Okay, so we were hardly trundling along in our horse-drawn wagons, but just glimpsing that landscape helped give you a real sense of what frontier country must have felt like to the pioneers of yesteryear. I speak as someone whose interest in history was sparked by a project I did aged seven or eight with Mr Nevin (brother to erstwhile famous footballer, Pat Nevin) about the American West. We all had to take on the persona of a 19th century pioneer: I can still picture the back wall of our classroom, which was turned into a map of the USA onto which was pinned little cut out people and their wagons. I know burning across the landscape in a petrol-guzzling SUV is hardly the same thing but, hey, some poetic license, please.