Road Trip Part 3: Land of Enchantment

For part one of this series, see Paradise on The Platte.

For part two, see Captured By Kansas.

photo 3(14)

Past Elkhart, the road roughened crossing into Oklahoma; glass insulators gleamed on power poles stretching to the distance. The route through the Panhandle at this point is 71 miles of loneliness, punctuated by Boise City, threading just south of Colorado’s border and north of Texas by a hair.

Rabbit Ear Mountain, that sentinel of U.S. 56, loomed as I passed into the Land of Enchantment, and I gained an hour from Mountain Time. Twelve more miles got me to Clayton, where I pulled off to a parking space along the main drag and, realizing I had the tools to avoid the hot beef disaster from earlier in the day, asked my phone where to eat.

I also really, really wanted a cold beer. My butt was killing me from two days of driving, and there were motels visible from the parking lot. I had made it to New Mexico. I could eat and crash. But there was no beer available at The Rabbit Ear Cafe–just the typical line-up of sodas, plus real brewed iced tea–which ended up being the perfect accompaniment to my awesome tamale plate with green chile sauce and homemade beans and rice. I walked out the door somewhat revived and completely satisfied, and with the rest of my tea in a to-go cup, sat down on a bench with my road atlas to decide what to do next.

U.S. 56 ends at Springer and Interstate 25, which heads south toward Las Vegas (no, not that Las Vegas) and then loops up toward Santa Fe, then down again toward Albuquerque and eventually, Los Cruces. My intention was to avoid long stretches of  interstate and heavily populated areas as much as possible (as well as going north when I meant to go south) while making my way across the state and into southeastern Arizona, so I wanted an alternate route. Fortunately, there is this little two-lane (402) running from Clayton to Nara Visa, which sits at the junction of another diagonal highway, U.S. 54. With a fresh infusion of caffeine coursing through my veins and an hour or two of daylight left, why not?

New Mexico is not only gorgeous, has more consistently delicious food than most other states, and is fully deserving of its “Land of Enchantment” moniker, it is really, really big. Despite getting one measly page in my road atlas (while horizontal Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas all get two), New Mexico is the fifth largest state. And, when you consider that its ranking puts it behind only the truly enormous states of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana–well, it’s hard for a New Englander–even one turned prairie gal for over two decades–to fully comprehend. Unless, of course, she drives across it. Twice.

New Mexico 402 is a narrow, lonely two-lane through the Kiowa National Grassland hills blazing in the sunset. There are two towns between Clayton and Nara Visa that (as I discovered is true for many points on the New Mexico map) are virtually abandoned. Or probably there wasn’t much there to begin with. Either way, the service they provide is more about seeing that you are making progress toward your destination than giving you a place to pee or buy a cold drink. You quickly learn to use the bathroom and gas up whenever you get a chance rather than waiting for the next town indicated on the map.

From Nara Visa, it is another 24 miles to Logan which, despite being the same font size on my map as many other towns with no services, has plenty of them due to the presence of Ute State Park just on the edge of town. I pulled into a cute little motel called the Yucca and, after petting the office kitty, got a room for less than forty bucks. It was a little shabby in that old-family-run-motel-near-the-state-park kind of way, but it was perfectly clean, and the decor was old-school kitschy cabin goodness.

photo 1(25)
Antler lamps & handmade doilies
photo 2(22)
Vintage chenille
photo 3(15)
Jigsaw under glass

I ended up staying in the Yucca twice–once on the way out, and once on the way back. My only real disappointment there was failing to eat at the cafe next door, whose chile-laden menu is displayed over four delicious photocopied pages in the hotel rooms’ information book. I missed it on my way into town when all I wanted was bed (and one of the beers in my cooler), and when I left the second time, it was 5:45am and I assumed it wouldn’t be open (it was, but with a major storm rolling in to the north, I was thinking more about miles than a meal).

The gas-and-restroom lesson is one most travelers of rural regions are familiar with, but the other hard lesson of this trip (and one that never quite set in) was taking off in the morning without eating first–especially when there was a promising-looking cafe in the vicinity. I’m not usually an early eater, but by late morning I can get desperate enough to make a bad choice. That happened in Hoxie, Kansas, and it might’ve happened again in eastern New Mexico had there actually been any place to eat on my route (though, as I said before, New Mexico doesn’t seem to have much bad food).

I passed through Tucumcari (TWO-come-carry) and it was still too early to eat; I followed a sliver of I-40 to Santa Rosa and then south again on 54 and west on 60. By the time I got to Willard, I was desperate enough for a bathroom that I begged the postmistress to let me use hers–only then seeing “No Public Restroom” signs on the door she blessedly unlocked for me. But there wasn’t anything else public in Willard–all the old business were boarded up with “For Sale” signs bleached from the sun, and the grassland plains don’t offer much to hide behind along the roadside.

photo 1(25)
No place to pee here…

In Mountainair, I stopped in front of the historical marker and tried to use my phone again to seek out food, but I couldn’t even get a signal. Then, looking off to the side, I saw a sign advertising an old, historic inn nearby with great, fresh food and a welcoming atmosphere. It turned out to be closed as well, so I headed back to the main drag behind an old lime-green painted Chevy pickup with Bernie Sanders “Honk for a Political Revolution” and “Wolves Against Sarah Palin” stickers. Yes, I was truly in New Mexico.

Parked in front of the post office, I practically assaulted a young woman walking down the street (she had ear buds in) in order to find a place to eat. Once she realized I was yelling at her, she smiled broadly, pulled out the buds, and pointed me to Alpine Alley–a funky little coffee house and sandwich place where the regulars are crusty with each other, but kind and generous with visitors. In keeping with my vow to eat green chile at every meal in New Mexico, I had the “Sophia Loren” wrap and grabbed a scone for the road.

photo 2(22)

From Mountainair, I headed on, down into the Rio Grande Valley, and then up through the mountainous western part of the state. For that tale, my friends (which includes the Continental Divide and famous PieTown–see how I managed to keep my green chile pledge!), you’ll need to read the next installment of the road trip series.


Road Trip Part 1: Paradise on the Platte

photo 1(23)
Crossing over…

In early February, I got a call from an old friend in Southeast Arizona whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. She’d heard I was moving (and yeah, also about the divorce and leaving my job), and wondered if, being somewhat untethered by other obligations however briefly, I might want to pay her a visit and see some of the work she was doing for a watershed restoration project down in the Chiracahua Desert.

Now, I’m not much of a desert girl, but after six winters in Minnesota (during which I learned I’m a much happier person if I commit to wearing long underwear every day), getting to a warmer clime for a week or two, seeing things growing and flowering (even on otherwise inhospitable plants), and eating lots of green chile seemed like a really fine idea.

Still, it was a full month (filled with packing and moving, stresses and negotiations and endless hours on the road) before the trip blossomed as a genuine possibility in my mind. The date for leaving was set not quite a week in advance, and all the fine details about animal care and car tune-up and eating all the leftovers came quickly after.

The day before I departed south- and west-ward, I drove the seven-hour round trip north to Minnesota to deliver the dog to my ex, pack my garden tools, and give him a tour of what herbs were popping up in the gardens that he could eat. Then, to stretch my muscles a little more (and because I couldn’t stand the look of the thing), I spent another half hour or so cutting back and cleaning up perennials in the triangle prairie garden I planted last summer.

Needless to say, I didn’t plan on leaving first thing the following morning. But the majority of that calculation didn’t have anything to do with the time I’d spent on the road the day before. It had to do with cranes.

I’m not a big subscriber to the whole “Bucket List” mentality–maybe because there are lots of things I have wanted to do before I die that turned out (so far) not to be a big deal whether I did them or not. But, after explaining that to my kid and describing my own list as “stuff I’ve really wanted to see or do if ever I get the chance,” he turned to me and said, “Mom, I think that’s pretty much a Bucket List.” Damned teenagers.

One thing I’ve really wanted to see for a long time was the migration of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska, and it turned out my timing for this Arizona trip took me right through that area, and at just the right time.


I arrived at the Crane Trust outside Grand Island in the early evening, about an hour before sunset. I’d called a couple days in advance, but there wasn’t any room in the viewing blind for that evening, so I just used their bathroom and asked where to find the public viewing bridge. Maybe you wouldn’t think that a place in the middle of Nebraska would be spectacularly busy on a Monday night, but all the viewing blind slots were packed, and so was the viewing bridge–a long, wooden platform constructed just off the highway about a mile south of the Crane Trust Center.

photo 2(21)


I got there just early enough to secure the last parking space in the little dirt lot, and then the roadside started filling up, too. It was a little scary because trucks were cruising over the Platte River bridge at about 50mph, blaring their horns at the bird-watchers wandering in the road, their eyes to the sky rather than on the fact they were about to be flattened by oncoming traffic. Oy vey.

The other problem with the viewing bridge is that not only are you right by the road, you’re also massed in plain sight, and people are talking and laughing and generally not paying attention to the fact that cranes are shy of people, and all that ruckus makes it extremely unlikely that a single bird is going to come in anywhere near where you’re perched.

This is as good as it gets, folks…

Still, I would not call it a waste of time. Among the many beautiful prairie rivers, the Platte is a real stunner, especially in the spring, at sunset, with a thunderstorm in the distance and the prehistoric cacophony of tens of thousands of cranes coming in to roost (albeit far downriver of where you happen to be standing). Satisfied with the experience, I got back in my car, and headed west just before sunset, intending to put a few more miles under me and toward my ultimate destination. And then…

The road from Grand Island to Kearney (and beyond) is flanked by cornfields between the interstate corridor and the Platte, and it is in those cornfields that Sandhill Cranes forage during their brief March visit. As I pulled onto I-80 and drove into a sunset blazing beneath deep blue storm clouds streaked vivid with lightning, I noticed patches of grey and sparks of red flashing from the fields. Cranes are shy of people, yes, but they’re not shy of traffic blazing by at 75 miles per hour.

As I rocketed along beside semis and passenger cars and pickup trucks, hundreds and hundreds of cranes–in twos and threes and fives and more–were lifting off from the fields alongside the interstate, swooping just a dozen feet or so over the traffic, back-lit by the sunset, heading toward the river.

It. Was. Amazing.

So, here’s me: laughing, crying, singing, hollering random lines of ecstatic poetry, driving 75 miles per hour down the interstate toward Kearney, Nebraska, squinting through a bug-spattered windshield at a prairie sunset and the lines on the road I’m sharing with fully-loaded semis, when the actual thunderstorm hits.

And now, I am blinded simultaneously by a torrent of rain and its refraction through blazing colors and there is this crazy huge THING in the distance looming across the road, and I think maybe there are a few other things on that Bucket List that I might want to get to, so I get the hell off the road.

photo 3(13)
The Great Platte River Road Archway

And that, my friends, is just (most of) the first leg of the road trip adventure.

Next stop: The Great (No, Really!) State of Kansas.