Travels : Four Corners Area Pt I

You know GFT loves New Mexico - as many Texans do - and tries to get there every other year or so. The desert in the Four Corners area is somehow more beautiful than the very same desert as it appears in Texas, and the shopping and food are much better. The elevation from sea level starts to climb as you drive through the panhandle area of Texas, and you can feel the air getting clearer and the clime becoming cooler. On this particular trip, a strange personal "Trip to Bountiful" sort of road trip - the sole purpose of which was to scatter my father's ashes along the way, accompanied by my mother who despised him (they divorced long ago) but was so senile that she had completely forgotten this fact - mom and I engaged in both  revisits to sentimental places from my childhood, and retail shopping therapy. Along the way, we ate some fantastic meals.

The Pantry, in Santa Fe
There are hundreds of wonderful restaurants in Santa Fe; it is truly one of those destination towns, like New Orleans or San Francisco, where you can go to simply to eat - and dining alone will provide all the entertainment you need. Roll outta one meal, walk it off, window shop, look at art galleries, see some sites, roll in to the next one. Everyone has their favorite spots in this town, and over the years I have tried many of them. This year, was wanting to get out of my rut, a bit , so approached my visit with open eyes and ears. Struck up a conversation at the Hagen -Das ice cream shop on the square (it is a long standing family joke, that every single day at 3 pm, no matter where she is or what she is doing, my mother says, "Now seems a pretty good time for some ice cream!" Imagine a little old lady, deep East Texas drawl.) with a woman who owns an upscale jewelry store on Canyon Road - she gave us two tickets for free comps at a tapas bar, La Boca, that was new in town. How fun ! Adventures happen everywhere, if you open your eyes.
In spite of my mother's complaint that we were eating "too much Mexican food", however (that's like saying, "too much Cajun/Creole food" in New Orleans ! Sacrilege ! Tired of what you are eating ? Then select a different dish! So many choices, so little time......), I seldom veer too far off the beaten path of southwestern cuisine in NM. Have eaten at the Indian restaurant in SF and it was mighty fine, but when I'm there, I'm rarely in the mood. Can get Indian at home !
Just to liven things up a bit, this year I decided to head the organic route, wherever possible. Started off our visit at the Farmers Market in Santa Fe, where I have often found not only wonderful produce but great arts and crafts, as well. Sampled local offerings there, bought ristras, gourds, baskets (still a few weeks too early to buy the famous Hatch green chiles, which arrive in late summer/early fall)......Picked up several local publications, and perused them for restaurant reviews. One thing led to another and.....
One of the new places I tried this year, as a result of reading a review in the local organic newspaper, was The Pantry on Cerillos. This mom-and-pop diner has been around forever, yet somehow I'd never eaten there. I tried blue corn chicken enchiladas, one of my all time fave dishes, and it was fabulous. Melt-in-your-mouth tasty; I'll definitely go back. Mom had tacos and liked them, too. This place turns up with positive reviews on a lot of web sites. Don't miss it - another great little inexpensive spot with fresh wonderful food, I'm adding it to my list of places to hit each time I'm in town. They serve local wines with dinner, which we sampled - much needed after a hard day of shopping . A plus ! Kid and family friendly, I hear they are good for breakfast, too .

The Plaza Cafe in Santa Fe
A completely unexpected surprise for me was eating breakfast at the Plaza Cafe on the square. I must have passed this spot 100's of times, and never paid it any attention at all (assuming anything on the square had to be too touristy and therefore, bad). The exterior is unassuming; I almost missed it. Inside, it's sort of retro 50's diner-ish. Mom and I bellied up to the counter and ordered pancakes, thinking they would be little doily sized things, al la IHOP, but no! Mine were blueberry, hers were apple. When they arrived, they were the size of platters and simply to die for ! Possibly the world's best pancakes.... I'm still dreaming about how to replicate in my own kitchen. Will definitely add this spot to my list of place to hit each time I'm in town.

Often, when I travel with hubster, we sample the local brewpubs - beer is his chief hobby (sampling, collecting and consuming, mostly, although he does make home brew, once in a while). It just so happened at one meal this trip where my mom and I were pooped and ready to rest up and eat, I looked around , and there was Second Street Brew Pub right in front of us. We popped in and enjoyed the shade in the pleasant shady dining patio, and fortified ourselves with huge club sandwiches that were pretty tasty. Oh, yes, the beer wasn't bad, either .

Demo chef at Santa Fe School of Cooking
One of the most fun things to do in Santa Fe is attend a cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Part gourmet food/kitchen shop, part restaurant, part entertainment, if you are a casual or serious cook, you will get to see demonstrations, learn and practice many techniques for cooking southwestern food. A gf and I took a class here almost 20 years ago - that year I learned how to make enchiladas - from scratch. It included making and rolling my own tortillas.....it was a blast. This time, I enrolled my mom and me in a tacos class, but it covered such diverse things as: making red and green sauce, how to roast your own chiles, and several great recipes (including one for shrimp tacos which was to die for). We had a blast and I highly recommend it to anyone. Had thought about taking my surly teenage kids along for that one but chickened out at the last minute....should not have worried, there were several teens in the class, as well as a diverse assmt of geezers, gourmets, moms, and the usual hungry people this year.
Hotel options in Santa Fe are plentiful, offering everything from spas and the truly luxurious to cheap cheezy motels, and everything in-between. A long-time vacation spot for the wealthy and those who love the art scene or skiing, there is something for everyone. I tend to favor brands in the Hilton family, only b/c I collect points there, but there is probably a branch here of every chain in America.

View from Far View Lodge Cafe, Mesa Verde
By far the most unusual dining and hotel experience we had this year was when we spent the night at Mesa Verde National Park. I've been visiting this place since I was a kid - never stayed in the park itself (always worried that it was too difficult to get a reservation, I guess, maybe with a waiting list years long). Growing up, we always stayed in Durango or Cortez. This year, perhaps due to the economy, I found plenty of rooms inside the park readily available on expedia or travelocity websites, at a discount. The only difficult thing about it was the fact that we arrived late at night - SOMETHING I ADVISE YOU NEVER TO DO, AT ALL COSTS. The front gate was open but no one was there, and we just rolled in (no one to sell us an entrance ticket). I then had to drive 15 miles deep into the park on twisty, turning mountain roads with no lights, no signs, no guard rails, only praying and hoping this adventure wasn't going to end like "The Shining" , "Thelma and Louis" or a slasher movie. After what seemed like an eternity and probably was - I am terrified of heights and was driving about 1 mph, as the roads were all torn up and "under construction"- we finally found Far View Lodge. In the dark, it seemed like nothing special. Checked in, went to our room, collapsed. But oh, how the light of day changes things ......... we woke up just as the sun was rising the next day. This hotel, turns out (couldn't tell night before, in the dark) is perched on a mountaintop in the park, with a view that spans the horizon. You can see canyons and ruins and into distant states. It is incredibly breathtaking; words alone don't do it justice. I was worried about getting some coffee as fast as possible (always my chief concern upon awakening), and discovered that inside the gift shops/ park buildings there are several restaurant choices, (some casual, some upscale) open to hotel residents hours before the park opens to the general public. Mom and I wandered over to the place that had a breakfast buffet and ate with scant few others, in front of giant windows that took in all the majesty of the sun coming up over the canyons. It was magnificent, a moment I will never forget.

Travels : Four Corners Area Pt II

La Placita, Old Town Albuquerque
Half the fun of any road trip is sampling a wide variety of cuisines and restaurants. I confess to being a strange mixture of both high-brow and low-brow tastes, in most aspects (cinema, literature, fashion, hobbies, husbands, and food !) and will happily dine at a 5 star restaurant or a roadside diner, enjoying each equally the same. Either end of the spectrum offers something unique and valuable that I want to experience. A trip to the Colorado - New Mexico region allows me to visit some old faves, and try some exciting new experiences as well. Sure, now and then one has to eat at a Denny's or a Waffle House, simply because nothing else is available. (It must be noted that I consider breakfast to be the only "safe" meal to eat at Denny's any or time any where, and as there are no Denny's at all along I-40 running through the entire state of Tennessee, and as hubster and I make that trek every summer, we endure what we know will be a long day of arguing as we cannot agree on where to eat, otherwise. Denny's is a "safe" choice in oh-so-many ways for us!) But it is a shame to waste a perfectly good road trip, with all the exciting food options that exist out there, on the familiar blandness of a chain restaurant.
Hubster's family has long argued over which restaurant in old town Albuquerque is THE restaurant where they always dine. (One of the many things we share in common is childhoods spent out here, and a love of the cuisine.) Each time we go there, no one can never quite remember where it was that we ate last time we were there. Hubster's mom refers to a place she calls "El Ranchero", which she claims make the best chiles rellenos in all the world, yet there is actually no restaurant that has ever existed by that name (or similar) in that location. I know, I know, most in-the-know locals and well read tourists shun the Old Town area as tres passe, but I was traveling w my mom this summer, and she needed to hit some of the "old lady" spots she likes, too, so I indulged her. We found ourselves in Old Town, strolling around "power shopping" (you really have to see how fast and furious my mother does this, to believe it) one fine Saturday evening, and decided to stroll in to La Placita for dinner. This place hit the spot perfectly, serving us large sampler plates of the New Mexico cuisine we love so much, reasonably priced and perfectly rendered. My plate included chile rellenos as one of the items, and while this is not my fave dish, it was cooked and tasted just as it should be. I was pleased to note several Hispanic families with kids, and a young couple next to us who smooched the entire meal, who appeared to be locals, so I figured it couldn't be all that bad. It was a delightful meal, and about halfway through it, my mom sort of straightened up and said, "I have been here before ! A long time ago, when you girls were babies ! I remember it now!"
Another family fave in Albuquerque is the Frontier Cafe, across from the University of New Mexico. Hubster reminisces fondly about eating green chile stew and I, the burritos, from that wonderful hole-in-the-wall cafe. A special note of interest : the tables, chairs, signs, menus, dishes, and all accouterments are EXACTLY the same as my long time Houston fave diner dive, House of Pies. It's as though each diner bought their initial set-up from the same restaurant supply store, the same year. Truly amazing.
Plenty of hotel choices in ABQ, take your pick.

The Alley Cafe, Taos
It has long been a personal tradition of mine to hit Taos in time for lunch, or at least, cocktails, so I could sit on the balcony patio at Olgelvies Bar and Grill, on the plaza, and sip a margarita while enjoying the scenery (foreground: tourists, mid-ground: plaza, background: mountains). Never fazed me that the food was only so-so; the ambiance was worth it. I've been enjoying that place since the late 1970's. Sadly, it was closed this summer, so I had to find a new spot to dine in Taos. Conversation with a local shop-keeper (more power shopping w mom!) revealed that the economic downturn has hit Olgelvie's badly, they are trying to remodel, refinance, and keep it going, but it's all very up in the air at the moment. We manged to find a charming little spot called The Alley Cafe, literally in the alley behind the plaza, and ducked in out of a rain storm for green chile cheese burgers and margaritas, which were tres magnifique ! Fires burning in the fireplace were the prefect touch, as it was about 40 degrees and threatening sleet that day.
One of the many fun things to do in the Taos area is to visit the wineries just outside of town, which are located along a back road, aka "the road to Dixon". Beautiful mountain scenery and charming little boutique wineries dot this highway. Family fave is La Chiripada, but I've been told others are wonderful, too. While my mom and I often order cases from off the LC website, it is a lot more fun and educational to attend a tasting session, and sample a wide variety of their many award-winning vintages. We did so this trip, and had a lot of fun - and came away with another case of wine ! The vintner recommended a lunch spot for us, named like Razzy's or something like that, (so new it does not have a website yet for me to check spelling) but it was closed the day we were there, so we had to press on.
When staying in Toas looking for a romantic weekend, I've stayed at both of the very charming, historic, and luxurious old hotels : La Fonda, and Doc Martin's Historic Taos Inn. (I've been told there are great ski lodges in the area, which I'm sure have some mighty fine restaurants, but I tend to prefer to be in town, as I don't ski, and would rather shop, look at art, drink, eat, stroll about, etc. Bad knees......) The restaurants in each of these sentimental faves are lovely; never had a bad meal. It is a particularly pleasant thing to do in the fall or winter, and curl up by the fire.....
original photo of Bake's Lotta Burger....the current ones look about the same
While wending our way from Durango to Gallup (where the real shopping takes place; it must be noted that everything else is just a feeble warm up!), we often pass through Shiprock. Now, the road from Durango to Gallup, through Shiprock, is long, straight, flat, isolated and runs through the Navajo reservation for several hours/hundreds of miles (depending on how fast you drive !). I find the land beautiful, but many, not used to the serenity and undeveloped quality of the dessert southwest, might find it stark and lonely. It used to be that there was nothing, literally and figuratively NOTHING at all save sheep and hogans, the entire distance from Shiprock to Gallup. I did notice this year that someone has brightly built a gas station about halfway down this highway, around Teec Nos Pas. How many tourists, I wonder, ran out of gas on that road, over the years? Or get lost looking for the road to Chaco Canyon? Those in the know will fill up on food and gas, in Shiprock. Our family knows the area well, from the days when my brother-in-law worked at the hospital in Shiprock, and we visited him several times. Shiprock is not known for upscale cuisine, mostly just fast food choices, so this is when I eat at Blake's Lotta Burger, one of the few local fast food chains still extant. Yes, there are McD's and the other mainstays available, but why eat there when this one is so much better ? Cheese burgers are the thing to eat here, with green chile, and also pretty good shakes. (About halfway through this trip, my mom said to me, "Why is it that everything we are eating is Mexican food ?" When in Rome, ma, when in Rome.........)

As I mentioned earlier, part of the goal of this trip was to engage in retail shopping therapy, as we morned the passing of my father, who especially loved the American Southwest, used to paint there frequently when I was a child, and instilled a love of the area and culture in me at an early age.

If you enjoy shopping for Southwesetern items, whether it be rugs, pottery, jewelry, or other bric a brac, know this : prices in Sante Fe are twice that of prices in Albuquerque, and prices in Albuquerque are twice that of Gallup. Yes, Gallup is 2 hours west of Albuquerque - but worth the drive if you are a serious shopper.

Garcia's in Gallup
Gallup is a town that is strangely frozen in time : so much of its growth era was dominated by the magical "Route 66" that guided folk from Chicago to Los Angeles back in the earlier part of the 20th century. If you are searching for a modern upscale hotel or restaurant here, forget it. El Rancho claims to be "where the movie stars slept" back in the day, but I've been in there and it reminds me of Norma Desmond's nightmarish house in the movie "Sunset Boulevard." Too many dusty old stuffed animals leering at you, their glassy eyes, their yawning jaws.....you know they all come awake at night, when you are not looking, don't you ? Your best bet is one of the clean new mid-range chains near the highway; the main street through town, which is the actual "Route 66", is filled with quirky looking motel-courts from the 1920's through 1950's, which while nostalgic and cute, promise you lumpy beds, damp shag carpeting and funky smelling rooms with not enough scratchy small towels. There are 1000's of small diners in this town, each serving pretty much the same local fare. For such a seemingly small town in the middle of nowhere, the entire town can book up quickly (it is a regional hub, home to several major rodeos and Indian inter tribal conventions) so plan and book ahead if you go there. August is the busiest month - I'd skip August, unless compelling personal business took me there - although, August is known for great sales, when everything is half off.
I always say to people that Gallup is where I go to shop, seriously shop, and they seem unaware that it exists. Gallup is off the tourist beaten path, close to several reservations, and the prices for anything (I'm talking native American handicrafts here, of an upscale variety : jewelry, baskets, rugs, etc) worth having are roughly 1/3 that of prices for the same item in Santa Fe. If you collect items of this nature, you know what I'm talking about, and it is not "tourist grade" inexpensive (made in China) crap sold in some mega store on the highway next to a gas station. The quality and the prices make Gallup, only 2 hours west from ABQ, well worth the trip. There are also many places that sell what local hand-crafters use to make jewelry, so if you are "into" beading, it's like being a kid in a candy shop. I have more than once seen an individual stroll into a store, ask for the manger, and bring out a crumpled paper lunch sack full of incredible jewelry this individual person just made, themselves, to sell to the store, to sell to people like me.
There aren't any especially wonderful places to eat in Gallup, but this year, just by chance, we wandered in to a 1950's looking diner along the far west side of "the strip" named Garcia's, looking for breakfast, and it was wonderful. Car had been making an ominous sound the previous day, which was stressful, but that morning a helpful young man in a parking lot rolled under and looked at it (a loose plastic flap, that is all - had it checked at a dealership in Santa Fe, later, which confirmed and fixed it ) . We then ate at the spot nearby, and all my tension were quickly soothed by an incredible green chile omelet, great coffee, fresh squeezed o.j., home-made tortillas and fry bread. My mouth waters even now, thinking of it. All presided over by a charming and ebullient proprietor, Garcia himself, who visited with us and talked about how his food was actually good for you b/c it was all home-made, from scratch, no preservatives, no additives, no trans fats, etc. I was sold; he had me at the first bite, anyways!

Summer Reads

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. By now it seems that everyone in America has read this novel. It's been on the New York Times best-seller chart for untold weeks and received a lot of media buzz; book clubs all across the country have championed it. IMDB informs me that a movie version is in production.
The story of a generation of women living in Jackson, Mississippi during the nascent years of the Civil Rights movement, The Help employs a frame story structure that follows the adventures of an east coast educated, wealthy young white woman, Skeeter, who returns home from college adrift and purposeless in the early 1960's. Too smart to marry any of the local hicks, Skeeter is a member of the Junior League but feels out of place and disconnected with her southern (read "brainless, racist, superficial") society sisters. She attempts to find purpose in her life by secretly interviewing and writing down the stories of all the maids who work for her family and friends around town, focusing primarily on the tales of two main characters, Minnie and Aibeleen.
Along the way, Skeeter and the maids find themselves, each other, and purpose in their lives. They believe that the simple act of telling their stories will somehow change the racist world they live in, and perhaps they are right. Most people I have spoken to about this book have uniformly praised it......but I have to admit it drives me crazy. It is a noble enterprise to recount the experiences of the maids, to let their voices be heard, and to decry the hypocritical society women who employ the maids to raise their children without a care in the world yet simultaneously worry if that same maid could be trusted to use their toilets or while polishing the family silver. This criticism of southern society - both then and now- is valid. My problem with this book is the attitude that seeps through every page; a self-congratulatory vibe that fairly shouts, "Aren't I a good person for taking the opposing point of view and telling you what these women's lives were really like ? Look at me ! I'm a southerner who is not racist ! I understand the plight of these people ! " And that, in and of itself, is just as damning as being racist. It is a view of people and situations that reduces individuals to stereotypes and fosters a post-colonial imperialist missionary attitude. These poor people can't help themselves, they still need us white folk to do it for them! This book is patronizing and the characters remain stereotypes (the noble white woman, the funny irascible maid, the all-caring lovable mammy who suffers silently, the white trash tramp with the heart of gold). While an entertaining read and probably an eye-opener to the many southerners who will ponder it with some discomfort, The Help will never be a great literary work. The entire time I was reading this story, I couldn't help but think of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, a timeless classic that manages to explore similar themes (African Americans are people, too !) while creating characters that are sympathetic, archetypal and deeply drawn (Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Dill Harris, Scout, Jem, Calupurnia), not stereotypical.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Of all the books I read this summer, this is the one I have recommended most to others. This story blends fantasy, noir style mystery, mythology and classic road trip motifs into a captivating tale of a modern day quest for the self. Shadow is released from prison, takes up with a strange fellow who may be the god Loki in disguise, and the two travel across the continent rounding up other displaced former old world deities (often depicted in humorous ways : Egyptian gods turn up as morticians) all the while preparing for some grand epic clash of the Titans sort of battle that is going to take place at the "Rock House" of east coast fame (from barn roof signs all over the mid-Atlantic area: " See Rock House ! Only 45 miles ! ) The enemy ? "New Gods" that have supplanted the old ones: gods of credit cards, money, tv, movies, and the internet (personified as an obnoxious rapper kid in a limo). Highly entertaining while offering valid social criticism, I could not put this book down, and neither will you. Great for lovers of fantasy, mythology, the American scene. Will make you think of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - in a good way.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.The title of this book captivated me, and Elna Baker is a humorous raconteur - her yarn about working at FAO Schwartz one Christmas season, selling a baby doll a named "Nubbins" causes me to break out in laughter even just thinking about it. I am surrounded by many Mormons where I live, and confess I know little about their faith (other than a quick tour through wikipedia) or what they think about the world and themselves. This coming of age story, which recounts a wholesome young woman's attempts to make it in the Big Apple, finding love and herself along the way while maintaining her personal values, provides a sympathetic eye-opening view to Mormonism at its most mainstream interpretation. (Granted, this is a a liberal version of this faith, or the author would not find herself living in New York doing the things she does.) Read it for humor, or for understanding this often unknown faith/culture just a wee bit better. Now that I think about it, each of the books I read this summer explore the concept of moving past prejudice and into getting to know individuals in a more open manner. Social criticism in a variety of highly entertaining formats.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. The title perhaps riffs on one of Groucho Marx's old jokes: Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. So we have a book about man's best friend that is, in itself, man's best friend (a book about man's best friend.) In this work, the author applies the same observational anthropological skills that many have used to study primates and other species, and applied them to the study of that animal that is constantly by our side and yet rarely completely understood. A fascinating read for any dog lover, Horowitz explains how dogs "see" in "smell-o-vision", why it is important to take a moment to greet your dog when you return home at the end of the day, the importance of play, or marking, of barking, and many other interesting behaviors. Her style is engaging and not dry - this is a great read.



Hubster and I came of age in the 1970's, and while people often romanticize the cool "muscle cars" of that era, the simple fact is that most of us 1970's teens did not grow up driving them. Only the tough cool guy in school , the one with the long hair and wide flair bell bottoms who probably sold drugs - you know who you are - drove one of those kinds of cars. (Remember, muscle cars were expensive ! Only "Smokey and the Bandit" could afford one.) No, the car most likely to have been driven by any of us aging baby boomers back in the day was mom's station wagon. Large as a tank, it often had the fake wood grain side panels that were supposed to conjure images of (what, exactly? old wooden carriages ? the stage coach that took you out west to the gold mines? ) gentility and luxury. These cars invariably got about 5 miles to the gallon, (back when gas was 35c a gallon) and the seats were covered in cracked vinyl "pleather" that was coated with pet hair and mysterious smudges from the many children who'd wiped their grimy paws on them. Sure, it was embarrassing to drive one or be seen in of these cars, and I have even more painful memories of being chauffeured about by a boyfriend's mother, back when we were too young to drive ourselves. Said friend and I sat, sans seat belts, on the rear bench seat of a yellow station wagon with green interior (known to all as "the banana"), making eye contact but afraid to say anything, lest his mother overhear us. If one's mom didn't have the requisite station wagon, she often had a large sedan of some sort, a Buick, Oldsmobile, or a Chrysler. You knew you were moving on up when the seats were plush velveteen instead of that brittle plastic that scorched your thighs in the summer or froze your tushie in the winter.
It was a huge generational statement for my late baby boomer friends and I (as opposed to the early boomers, who made the VW beetle their emblem of youth) that when we were finally able to buy our own cars, (or our parents allowed us to chose one for ourselves) that we often preferred tiny little fuel-efficient hatchbacks, especially models made in Japan or Germany. In the early days of America's love affair with Toyota and Honda, these little cars were considered to be the epitome of "not my mom's car". Off to college we went in them, cramming those hatch cargo areas full of record albums, cases of beer, clothing, shoes, books, a portable typewriter, bedding, etc. They weren't as comfortably spacious to make out in as mom's station wagon had been, but who cares ? They weren't our moms cars.

Cars have been on my mind considerably, of late, as GFT has reached that point in life where it's time to buy son #1 his first car. Hubster and I just can't juggle three drivers with two cars any more, when each of us needs to be at a different place across town at the same time - not to mention little brother and his transportation needs and busy schedule, too. Many families solve this problem by just hanging on to an old car to pass down to their children, but a few years back I was disgruntled from too many trashy old vehicles littering our driveway, and in a fit of pique sold all of them in one day, just to clean up the yard. (Gone in one fell swoop : an old mazda hatchback, a Chevy pick-up truck, a Ford winstar mini-van.) Granny isn't doing us any favors this time, another time-honored solution to the problem, with offers of a hand-me-down; the recession has made her worry about her finances and she's hanging on to her old vehicle till her stock portfolio recovers or she goes in to the nursing home, whichever comes first.
Irony : A few years back, Hubster and I bought small fuel-efficient cars when gas reached $4.00+ per gallon, (the mommy van was one of the behemoths I sold - I was tired of driving all the kids in the neighborhood home after school and getting 9 mpg doing it) and bought what we thought were "cool, hip, young people's cars." He selected a Scion XB and I chose a Toyota Matrix. Both cars fit the carefree, "green", bohemian images we have of ourselves, and are tricked out with all the important gadgets and gizmos we need. We thought that we'd drive them for a bit (let our sons learn to drive on them), then turn them over to the kids and buy ourselves something else. But a funny thing happened on the way to the dealership .....our kids don't want our cars. Not only that, they are embarrassed to be seen in them. Sure, some of this is the eternal teen embarrassment of being seen with one's parents any time, any where. But offers to give either one of these cars to first born son were turned down, repeatedly, with scorn and derision. So what kind of car does this young lad want to be seen cruising through town in ? We told him we could not afford anything expensive; he had to chose something used, cheap, and reliable. "I just want a regular car, not one of those weird cars like you two drive. You know, something normal, like a sedan."
Ba-da-bing ! Ba-da-boom ! Anything but the car my mother drives! And the "Circle of Life" takes a new turn.


Trip to Bountiful

Taos, NM
I spent the early weeks of this summer participating in meetings and seminars related to the books, lessons, curriculum and teaching strategies of English, and in one of them spent a fair amount of time working up activities related to the idea of seeing one's own life in terms of archetypal characters from literature, or from archetypal movies. Developing writing activities not only for expository writing, such as to prepare students to be successful in taking the AP Lit exam, but also to foster creative writing as well. More than once, the question was posed, "what is the story path of your life?" The idea being that, at various points in our lives, we "see" ourselves as various heroic characters from literature or cinema. Those who know me are familiar with the Scarlett O'Hara or Blanche DuBois aspects of my life. There have been other chapters drawn from other books, as well : Harriet the Spy, Little House on the Prairie, Jane Eyre, A Room With View, "1900", "When Harry Met Sally". (Hubster has long said he felt like Don Quixote......while many only see him as Bluto.)
After my classes were over, I took a vacation to Colorado and New Mexico, something I have done every few years since I was a little girl (often dragging girlfriends or lovers along to share my passion for this region). I couldn't help but think of my trip this year in some of these mythic terms. It was clearly a quest for me this time, from the Dionysian to the Apollonian in my life, like Antigone, determined to do the correct thing and restore order from the chaos. Like the film "A Trip to Bountiful", it was also a journey to find a place and time that does not exist any more, or exists only in memory. For you see, my father passed away rather suddenly back in the winter, and having died without any burial plans- a will, an estate to pay for his expenses- and never having mentioned the subject or his wishes to anyone at all, it was left to me alone to make difficult choices as to what to do with his remains. All this was made more complicated by the fact that my childhood was not idyllic but highly dysfunctional. My father was an undiagnosed "adult onset" schizophrenic until very recently, and over the years as he struggled through the torments of his mental disease, various family members reacted to him with anger, fear, shock, and avoidance, no one fully comprehending what he was going through or why. His own mother and sister disowned him. My parents divorced and my mother refused to see him or speak to him ever again. My sister also disavowed herself from him. I alone, perhaps b/c I had a few good years with him as a child before his madness took its toll, saw and spoke to him - albeit infrequently. It was part of the nature of his disability that he wandered from job to job, apartment to flop to trailer house and girlfriend to girlfriend. Months and years would pass without a word, and I was worried that he'd end up a "John Doe" in a morgue somewhere with a toe tag and no one would ever know what had finally happened to him. So when he died, I alone was the one designated to make all the end of life decisions for him. As he was a charity case and had no assets, I chose to have him cremated. What to do with his "cremains" came to me as an idea, later.
I thought about my childhood, of the happy times. My mom, sis, dad and I long ago agreed the best memories centered on the vacations spent in the Colorado- New Mexico "Four Corners" area. As a family, we returned again and again to our favorite haunts : Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Durango, Gallup. Back in the 1960's we camped at various campgrounds in this part of the desert southwest, hiked, rode horses, fished, picnicked, experiencing the land in ways one cannot from a hotel room. Those happy memories must be seared in my brain, as I cannot go too long without returning to these places. So I decided that this was where dad's final resting place needed to be.

Ship Rock, NM, sacred place for the Navajo
Funerals are for the living- don't kid yourself; the dead don't care. It is through the ceremonies we construct for our dead that we reveal who we are, what they meant to us, and heal from the grieving of their loss. My mother (who is fixated on family genealogy- takes vacations visiting the cemeteries of her ancestors, and tidying up their tombstones) has her final resting spot already purchased, designed, paid for and ready to go. All that remains for her is to put the final date on her headstone. She will join her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a family plot that is as cozy to her as a church picnic family reunion. As I was making my plans for this trip, she kept tossing out random "helpful" suggestions : buy him a burial plot (where? where he was born? where he died? near his other family ? his sister disowned him, as had the rest of his family.....and with what money? no one was offering to help me out in that aspect - I'd already fronted the bill for the cremation, no helpful family member stepping in to shoulder that burden, either), throw his cremains in the trash, leave them here or there. Leaving them in the cardboard box they came in , on the mantel, seemed to be not a viable option. This was all ridiculous. As no one else had any realistic solution, I chose to release his ashes at some of the various spots of our happy childhood memories.

Gallup , NM - the famous "Route 66"
My own mother went shopping on the day of her mother's funeral. I tell this story often, for I believe it reveals quite a bit about my mother. And it is true. God help me, I couldn't make this stuff up. I remember that day : a freezing late winter morning, with icy rain drizzling through our thin raincoats. My husband and I had driven 7 hours, through the night, to the northern east Texas town of Sulphur Springs from Houston, and were exhausted. My mother and sister drove east 2 hours from Dallas. The funeral was small ; my grandmother had outlived most of her friends and peers, even the pastor who had known her. A small canopy at the burial site sheltered us from the rain but not the wind. Mom at least managed to remember that granny loved yellow roses best, and a spray of them covered her casket. It was that small gesture that made my eyes well up and I had to turn away. Everyone deals with grief in their own way, and my mother sat dry-eyed through the entire ceremony. Granny hadn't been lowered into the ground 5 minutes, when mom said to me, "You drove all this way, why don't we swing by the outlet mall ? They have some of those dollar panties I like. Then we can go out to lunch, after."
Perhaps it is a hallmark of our modern era that I searched for something more personal and meaningful, yet in an unconventional way, for my father. Recent news sources guestimate that nearly a third of people are cremated in the USA annually and that figure is rising, each year (nearly 85% worldwide, esp in countries that practice Buddhism or Hinduism) . However, it is theoretically illegal to dump human remains - even in the form of dust - in most public places in this country. What to do, what to do? I ended up leaving a trail of dust, a little bit here here or there, in all of the places my dad loved best and was happiest in . Chose some spots he loved to paint watercolors of, for good measure. None of them public by any means. ;o)

sunrise at Mesa Verde, Co
Then like my mother before me, I went shopping. Took a "Trip to Bountiful" journey through all the beloved places of my childhood - Albuquerque, Sante Fe, Taos, Durango, Shiprock, Gallup. Saw all the sights, ate wonderful food, relived some memories of good times, created some new ones to add to the mix. And shopped. It really does help assuage the pain. Wasn't it right after Katie Scarlett buried her father Gerald in the old peach orchard, that she took the velvet curtains, made herself a new dress, and went to Atlanta?

October 2012 Post Script:
What I didn't know when I originally wrote this post was that this would be the last vacation I was to take my mother on, the last happy memory I would have of her. A week later she had a stroke, wrecked her car, and began a two year spiral down into dementia and death. So it was all the more important that I took this journey with her. Many did not understand why she accompanied me to dispose of my father's ashes, since there was so much acrimony between them when they divorced. All these places that were special to dad, however, were special to my mom as well, and she longed to see them one last time. You just never know how things are going to turn out, and while at times this was a difficult trip - mom was already showing signs of the dementia that eventually killed her - I'm still glad I made the effort.

Know Your Geography Terms - The American Southwest

Our geography classes in school long behind us, many of us have all but forgotten basic geography terminology. Sure, we know what a river, an ocean, a mountain, are......but could you really tell me what an arroyo is, quick! without having to look it up? Read a couple of Tony Hillerman novels and unless you have been to some of these places for yourself, you have no idea what he is talking about.
A mesa is a low hill or mountain, (not as tall as the Rocky Mountains or other mountain ranges one is likely to run into) or series of low hills, that are generally wider than they are tall. Mesas can arise seemingly out of nowhere, or be intertwined with water features (rivers, creeks) that turn them into canyons or arroyos. Mesas are nearly always flat on the top, hence the name, which in Spanish means "table". A series of mesas can combine into a range of mesa mountains, and when one is traversing through them, it is like driving through low mountain ranges ( such as the Appalachians).

A butte is a similar land feature to a mesa, except that it is a hill that taller than it is wide. (Hill is really a misnomer here, as it must be pointed out this particular butte is thousands of feet tall and wide.) Most people think of buttes as flat at the top, but not always. It must be noted that Shiprock, sacred landmark on the Navajo reservation, is technically a butte, although it is pointed at the top, not flat. Many famous buttes are in Monument Valley, which was used frequently by Hollywood as a backdrop for westerns - hopefully this should all seem vaguely familiar to you. Just think of it as a refresher course.
As mentioned above, canyons are carved out of land by water features, typically rivers, over millions of years. Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon, but not many realize there are other famous canyons in N. America, as well. Many canyons in the southwest are intertwined with mesas, but they are just as likely to spring out of nowhere, as well. The one pictured above is the Royal George, part of the Rio Grand River, in northwestern New Mexico. One can be just driving along through flat land, minding one's own business on the road to Durango, when suddenly there is a bridge ahead and as you look down, you realize this river has been at work since the dawn of time, carving out the deep valley, below.
An arroyo is a sort of baby canyon, in that it is carved out of the earth by a creek. Arroyos are often formed only during the rainy season, and can by dry for most of the year. Technically, any dry creek bed is an arroyo, although those can take a variety of forms.