One week, one roadtrip crammed with eccentric offerings such as Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an open house at the Very Large Array, and the state’s nuclear legacy.
A yurt with a hundred-mile view off the Turquoise Trail. An RV on an alpaca farm amid the southern scrub desert. A geodesic earth dome near hippie-flavoured Taos. With a week, a car, and an indispensable but unreliable GPS, I cut a north-to-south swath through New Mexico last October, staying in the quirkiest accommodations I could find on AirBnB (plus, full disclosure, Motel 6 when quirk was costly).
I have vacation moods, and I was in the mood for road-trip solitude inspired introspection. Add the Very Large Array open house and a seat sale to Santa Fe in my target month and a plan came together.
With limited time and unlimited intriguing places, I hadn’t intended to stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s biggest city, thinking I’d make it a quick meal stop on the way to somewhere else. But that was before I learned about the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival and the fortunate coincidence that my trip coincided with its 2017 dates.
I also didn’t expect that, still sunburned from a day amid giant radio telescopes in the scrub desert to the south, I’d be ducking into a home kitchen-based restaurant in Taos Pueblo in the north to escape the snow (snow!) and biting wind with a bowl of chili and fried flat bread.
My direct flight from Vancouver took me to the pint-sized Santa Fe airport where a rental car and their last GPS unit awaited. Before I hit the road I had time to explore some of the capital city, including the open-air opera house (featuring a non-operatic The Shins concert), with its backdrop of the surrounding mesas, plus art collective Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return.
That immersive art installation/interactive multimedia story feels impossible to describe adequately. I was giddy from the moment I hit the parking lot under the shadow of a towering metal daisy-holding robot. Inside the converted bowling alley – owned, incidentally, by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin – just walking down the entrance hallway to the washrooms was a trippy delight, lined as they are with drawings and captions ranging from weird to hilariously weird.
The 20,000 square foot exhibit involves a mystery you can solve or choose to ignore: you enter a seemingly normal-looking house (except that it’s been constructed inside a bowling alley owned by George RR Martin), where a mysterious cataclysmic event has opened up a portal to other dimensions and caused the resident family to disappear. Or something. You can pour over the evidence and solve the mystery or, as I did, simply marvel at the bizarre and wonderful worlds you can enter via secret portals the fireplace, dishwasher, or fridge. With each turn there’s some new combination of a visual, aural and tactile experience. After a few hours of exploration, the novelty hadn’t worn off but my time had. I had to eat and get on the road in order to get to my first quirky accommodation reservation.
Tia Sophia’s was maybe my favourite place to eat in New Mexico. The small Sante Fe diner is unassuming with great food and friendly people who regaled me with what they knew about Canada (Don Cherry is apparently a regular), and I still dream about the carne adovada burrito with a sopaipilla – a food I’d never heard of before, but it turns out it’s a puffy fried dough served with sides of honey and cinnamon and even better than that sounds. But come on, fried dough with honey and cinnamon sounds about like the best thing ever.
Incidentally, the food in New Mexico was unreal. Simple, hearty, delicious. Everywhere you eat you’ll likely be asked “green or red” – as in, green chili or red chili, on pretty much everything. Unless you have more of a preference than I do, “Christmas,” meaning both, is a decision-impaired person’s gift.
The Turquoise Trail to Pie Town
From Santa Fe I went south along Highway 14, The Turquoise Trail, passing through Madrid (they pronounce it MADrid), a former ghost town now succumbed to touristy shops. I stopped for the night at a yurt high somewhere far above civilization, in the Shanti Community a woman named Shelly has created, with a handful of yurts, vans and RVs dotting her 10 acre parcel of land. She wasn’t around but her caretaker and friend Terri showed me around and took me on a long walk around the beautifully desolate landscape.
The impetus for the New Mexico trip was the open house at the Very Large Array (VLA), a biannual event that enticed me as a substitute for a recently cancelled trip to Chile’s Atacama desert that would have included two observatory tours. So my trajectory from Santa Fe was south toward Socorro, and my next resting place was an RV on an alpaca farm.
The owner, David, had been living in Vienna when he fell in love with the peculiar creatures and their sellable wool. He started collecting them from afar until he resettled near San Antonio (not that one, the tiny New Mexico one) to operate his own llama enterprise, teach elementary school, and host visitors like me.
The RV was midway between the VLA and the White Sands Missile Range, whose open house at the Trinity Site, the location of the world’s first atomic bomb test, was held on the same day. I opted at the last minute not to make the detour to the Trinity Site open house — too much driving and rushing for what felt to me little reward — but the state’s nuclear legacy was apparent even without it.
San Antonio has a few places to grab a green chili cheeseburger but I chose The Owl Bar and Café, famous as a place where Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear gang ate while they worked at White Sands on the Manhattan Project. The area’s culinary specialty wasn’t what I expected – it was so much better. Trust me and everyone else who will tell you the green chili cheeseburger is a must-try, whether here or elsewhere.
To drive in New Mexico is to feel like a very small piece of a very large world, with endless views that change only incrementally over large distances. And to visit the Very Large Array is to feel like our world is a very small piece of a very large universe.
The October 2017 VLA open house commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Jodie Foster/Matthew McConaughey movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book and partly filmed on site. Special talks and other events were taking place, but the highlight for me was the guided tour inside the facilities and to some of the very large telescopes, with scientists and engineers enthusiastically explaining the complexities of radio astronomy. No matter how much – or little – of the science I absorbed, it was awe-inspiring to stand under one of those enormous radio telescopes as it moves incrementally, craning its head to the skies, listening not just for signs of intelligent life à la Contact, but for clues into the formation of planets and other secrets of our universe.
On my way back north I had to make a westerly pitstop to nearby Pie Town, which barely registers as a town but has several pie shops dotting the highway after its instagrammable town sign. I went to Pie-O-Neer and the pie was fine – apple with the ubiquitous green chili – but really the highlight was being able to say I visited a place called Pie Town.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Because I was cramming the Albuquerque stopover into an already planned and crammed itinerary, I timed my visit for one of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s morning mass ascensions. All participating balloons in the world’s largest balloon festival rose up in stages over the course of the morning, with hundreds of colourful shapes dotting the sky and me darting along the ground in awe, trying to snap pictures of all the character balloons – Darth Vader and Yoda, aliens and spaceships, penguins and hedgehogs, mariachi and senorita. I wandered the massive, massive field as balloonists set up their balloons, dodging the crowds, unfurling canvases and the baskets ablaze as the balloons inflate and “zebras” – coordinators dressed in referee outfits – guide the participants on when to safely launch. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and though I’d had pangs of not having time to see more events, I left after a few hours satisfied before even all the balloons had made their way into the sky.
Taos to Los Alamos
My last and favourite accommodation was near Taos, the northern ski resort area, for a few nights in a geodesic earth dome in a compound of homes mostly built by women. The original owner called it an “introvert’s paradise”, which the current owner quoted as a way of signaling that privacy was guaranteed (except from the friendly orange cat who greeted me outside the gate on the first night).
Nearby hot springs provided more relaxation time, and Taos Pueblo and its collection of ancient adobe homes – supposedly the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States, dating from 1200s — gave a glimpse at how the indigenous population lived and in some cases still live. Businesses attached to the homes provide some shopping and eating experiences without seeming overly touristy, but my impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was snowing (snowing!) so only a few of us hardy souls were wandering around.
On the way back to Santa Fe and my morning flight, I took a daytrip to Los Alamos, the former top-secret home of the Manhattan Project where the nuclear bomb was developed, perched high above the surrounding landscape on three long mesas. I wish I’d skipped the recommended van tour, with its nonstop, non-story-based commentary that didn’t pause even when some bored captives fell asleep in the van. There are self-guided or volunteer-guided walking tours that will take you to the museums and sites of interest (that’s Oppenheimer’s house in the bottom right of the collage), which would also leave more time to explore the spectacular scenery of the area, including the nearby Bandelier National Monument, which I rushed through as exhaustion set in at the end of my trip.
Before looking into what else I could do besides the VLA open house, New Mexico had never been on my endless list of vacation destinations. Once I started researching, I was left with a long list of places that weren’t practical to cram into a couple of weeks. And in that zen state that a road trip, dramatic scenery and displays of larger-than-life human endeavors can inspire, accompanied by only my thoughts and my horrible singing to the radio, it’s no surprise that I made some major life decisions shortly after this trip.
Great account! I grew up in ABQ, went to the very first ballon fiesta, and the Bandelier area is one of my favorites. Across the road and down a bit is Valle Grande, where the sheriffs ranch was filmed in Longmire…
Must go back someday!