Road Trip, Unleashed—The Land of Enchantment

Editor’s note: After 15 years without a vacation, Phyllis Cohen, along with her husband and two dogs, embarked on a road trip from Pennsylvania to the Grand Canyon and Utah. This is the third of a four-part series. Read the first feature, “Hitting the Road After All These Years,” and the second, “A Ruff Start.”

If you’re lucky, the baggage you bring on a road trip is limited to what you pack. I’d never had a fear of heights or rattlesnakes, but an endless ribbon of road straddled by vast wind farms on either side and no cell service gave me a few twinges of anxiety. Twinges aside, we were finally out West! We had a few key destinations in mind but I desperately wanted to be spontaneous. The best course of action, I figured, was to avoid a rigid itinerary. And so we hit the road again with an open mind.

We crossed into Oklahoma and began the search for Route 66, the Mother Road that Nat King Cole, among others, made famous. We arrived at the Smith & Austin Okie Trading Post in Erick, Okla., and purchased a few colorful Route 66 postcards. The proprietor’s 4-year-old son handed me my change and told me his name was Ruger—yes, named for his parents’ favorite firearm.

Driving along I-40 into Amarillo, Texas, we spied a row of 1960s graffitied cars jutting out of a cornfield and knew we’d stumbled upon the Cadillac Ranch, an installation created by a group of San Francisco hippies calling themselves the Ant Farm. We wove among the gawkers, enjoying the sculptural exhibit until the scorched air and spray paint vapors exhausted the dogs and made us dizzy. It was time to move on.

A forgotten stretch of Route 66 that we discovered in Tucumcari, N.M.—a refuge of pastel-colored inns with names like the Blue Swallow Motel and The Buckaroo, and retro-style, muraled gas stations—smacked of the same bittersweet nostalgia as the New York Catskills I’d visited in my childhood. And if air-conditioning killed the Catskills, newer highways surely left towns like Tucumcari in the dust. Tee Pee Curios, one of the town’s last iconic little shops, offered up inexpensive kitschy shot glasses, magnets and mugs for us to bring home. Conversation with the owners was priceless.

We set out for Santa Fe at 6 a.m.  I’d dreamed of Santa Fe for so long and I braced myself that my expectations might trump the city’s reality. It seemed like the kind of place I could retire to one day; I’d heard rumors of sunsets and rainbows that were unrivaled.

After a good night’s sleep and breakfast at The Flying Tortilla, we drove to the Santa Fe Plaza and its cobblestoned streets. I drank in the burnt umbers and vermillions of Native American blankets for sale on the sidewalk, and zentangle-patterned Navajo pottery and turquoise jewelry that overloaded my senses at every turn. I fell in love with a painting at the R.C. Gorman Gallery and wondered how this Navajo master replicated the exact cerulean of a New Mexico sky or the serene expressions of Native American women so flawlessly. When I stepped inside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, a Romanesque architectural jewel abutting the shopping district, I decided the patron saint of animals would have appreciated our dogs waiting patiently outside his sanctuary.

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  • Mary October 21, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    From your description, it seems we could have crossed paths in and around Santa Fe and Taos (including all the small towns you named), as my husband and I just returned from a trip to New Mexico. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is amazing–though the view gave my husband vertigo, but I managed to take a few photos looking straight down (holding on to my phone with a good grip as the wind was pretty strong). We drove the entire ring of the Enchanted Drive around the Taos mountains and even stayed overnight in a B&B in a small town on the upper part of that drive. Got down to 29 degrees in the morning–as you might expect with 9-10k ft elevations this time of year. Like you, we didn’t meet a great deal of traffic either but we did get to experience some beautiful vistas, fall color changes and friendly locals who told us about some out of the way places to visit. It was a lovely trip–though we flew into ABQ–as we didn’t have time for a cross-country drive. Hope the rest of your trip is just as enchanted.