Take a Trip with Me

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I’m off on a new rabbit trail. Again.

I just returned from a road trip to the Twin Cities to visit my sister and brother-in-law and sister-in-law and brother-in-law-in-law. You know me: I couldn’t just do it the normal way. That’d be too easy. So I hit the Great River Road. (If you haven’t heard of it, Google away; it’s well worth a look.) And it got me to thinking…

I’ve told you again and again that I’m not satisfied with my job or the place I live. I’ve insisted that I need something to do that gives me a feeling of fulfillment. And then I’ve sat upon my thumbs.

No more. I’ve chucked the box, and I’m thinking as if it had never existed.

I love travel, so I’m doing something about it. What exactly, I’m not sure yet. But a first step is a new beginning. A new “blog-ginning,” if you will. I’m jumping in the Dustmobile and I’m going public. And I’d love for you to join me.

What will come of this, I don’t know. But it’ll be fun, at the very least. It’s very much a work in progress, so don’t expect greatness just yet. But maybe you’ll find something there that piques your interest or takes your fancy…

…and that’s what it’s all about.

Toad Tested, Toad Approved

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been everywhere, man.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Crossed the deserts bare, man.
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere.

– Johnny Cash

An essential part of the Toad’s great adventure is an insatiable desire to wander, to see, to experience as much as possible in the short time any of us has on this earth. And there’s a lot of Earth to see.

I want to share my travels with you, in the hopes that you might find as much enjoyment in them as I have. So, I’m databasing (which is healthier than free basing, and safer than base-jumping). If you’re interested in food, culture, and the best back roads around, check out my new page, “Toad Tested, Toad Approved,” for some ideas and ideal destinations, Toad-style. I will be updating it as the journey continues, so take a look from time to time, and see what’s new.

Life is short. Live it well!

The Dustmobile Diaries: Day Two

Sometimes the meaning of a journey is unknown to the traveller.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

October 10, 2013

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A bit of peace and quiet, showing that setbacks, if ignored, often prove to be opportunities in disguise…

1:11 PM, Mountain TIme. Another roadside picnic area, this time just shy of Sitting Bull Falls. Tourist season is over for the year, and the recreation area is closed for refurbishment, which means this is as close as I’m going to get. At first, the little orange sign announcing this unexpected fact got under my skin: I seem to have a knack for showing up at just such inopportune moments. However, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me (it’s always the way to go, trust me) and took off down the road anyway, just to see what I might see. As it turns out, my timing was quite opportune.

Silence–a precious commodity in this 21st-century world we live in. You know the question, right: “Can you hear me now?” I always want to yell at the television when I hear this: “Yes, dammit! Now please go away and leave me alone!”

I have been sitting at this picnic table for almost an hour and a half, and have neither seen nor heard a single sign of human life, save the beating of my tell-tale heart. (Sorry, Eddie…) I have not experienced silence like this, I think, in my life. Complete and utter solitude. I’ve come close, wandering the dunes of Lindisfarne in the northeast of England, but even then, I could see the homes and shops of Holy Island in the distance. Other than the table I’m sitting at, and the shelter overhead, there isn’t another man-made structure in sight; I’m seven miles from the entrance to this road, off of yet another back road, so there aren’t even any traffic noises to disturb my reverie. It’s just me, the breeze, and the beauty of a desert mountain-scape.

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Be here now? Closest I’ve ever come…

That pesky little park closure turned out to be the best setback ever, the purest, most genuine moment of my day. As I always say, when one door closes, break a window…

* * * * *

Rewind.

The Carlsbad Inn sits on Canal Street. It’s not a bad little place for the price, which is going to be slightly elevated due to the fairly impressive hole in the ground a few miles down the road. Not a bad little place at all. Except for the AC unit. Carlsbad’s in the Chihuahan Desert, making the days very warm and the nights pretty cold, and thermostats ridiculously hard to regulate. The room was nice and close when I first entered, so I switched on the air. Which proceeded to turn itself off and on at ten minute intervals throughout the night. Like a bike chain slipping, accompanied by a shotgun blast. With a jolt. A jolt so pronounced that it shook the whole room, each minor earthquake threatening to dislodge me from the bed and deposit me on the floor. I woke up. A lot. What is more, since I was in the desert, the temperature outside dropped like a rock as soon as the sun went down, so I woke up this morning with Jack Frost nipping at my pretty-much-everything, not to mention what may very well over the next few days turn into a beauty of a head cold. We shall see…

They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am a coffee addict. No, that’s not my problem. I didn’t have any. That was my problem. Having admitted as much, I decided to hit the bricks and see if I could track some down. A Chevron sign in the distance, peeking over the roof of the motel next door, seemed a promising target, so I headed off to find it.

Canal Street is a busy place at 7:30 on a Thursday morning: people off to work, kids off to school. The pedestrian proceeds at his own risk, dodging schoolbuses and tardy employees at every street corner.

Sign-reading is a favorite pastime of mine. You never know what pearls of wisdom you’ll discover. Like my favorite of all time, outside a fast food joint in Marietta, Oklahoma: “It’s time to eat y’all!” Demonstrating the importance of punctuation. Canal Street did not disappoint. A couple of doors down to the south, a Chinese buffet heaps upon its fare the highest praise it can muster: “Costs less than a trip to China.” The Best Western, two blocks north: “Welcome Lt. Governor John A. Sanchez, DJ tonight.” One wonders if they’ve told the LT exactly what’s expected of him. And the No Whiner Diner, outside the Stagecoach Inn, warns the ladies to watch their hair, because “it’s fly fan season again.”

I finally reached the Chevron station, which was strewn with fake cobwebs and laminated Jack-o-Lanterns in honor of approaching Halloween. As I stood at the counter waiting to pay for my cup of slightly watered-down lifeblood, I noticed a box of Peeps (if you don’t know what these are, you have my sympathies…and probably a lower cholesterol count than me) shaped like ghosts. It occurred to me that it’s possible to find these things in almost any shape these days. They ain’t just baby chickens anymore. And then the lightbulb really went off: custom-made Peeps, little family portraits in sugary marshmallow fluff. What greater gift could one give? “Here you go, Grandma–eat yourself for Christmas!” “Happy anniversary, dear–at least it’s not another power tool…”

* * * * *

On my way out of Carlsbad, I made a stop at the Living Desert State Park. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s really something of a glorified zoo. Although “glorified” may not be the right word. Or “wildlife,” for that matter. What they’ve got, to my mind, barely qualifies as “life.” I’ve had the great privilege of seeing some of these creatures–elk, black bear, bison–in the actual wild, in their natural habitats, and after that sort of experience, the caged versions only leave a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t even bring myself to approach the bison enclosure. The phrase itself–“bison enclosure”–feels oxymoronic somehow. There are few more majestic sights than a herd of buffalo roaming free across the prairie (or staring down a Winnebago in a national park; that was an interesting half hour); conversely, there are few more depressing sights than that same herd trapped behind chain-link, forced to walk the same circular path, day in and day out, around a tiny, dusty corral…

I did, however, capture a couple of little guys who deserve a place in this post:

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“Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m busy…?

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FROGGIE!!!

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The Bolson tortoise, the largest native to North America, and on the Endangered Species list.

Before long, I’m overtaken by a family of four–mom, dad, and two teenage daughters–who took the idea of “outdoor voices” a tad too literally. These blabbermouths epitomize my dislike of people in nature. Why is it that we are incapable of quiet? Why is our interaction with the natural world around us so rarely reverent and so often downright raucous? Is it that we feel the need to prove the right of ownership? Is it that being reminded of our own insignificance vis-à-vis our ecosystem scares us a little bit? Do we realize in these situations just how unnecessary we as a species really are to the functioning of this planet? Up ahead, at the bear pit, the mother bellows, “I sure wish we could see him!” That’s odd. I wonder why he’s hiding…

The Living Desert’s less than impressive attempts with fauna were more than made up for by its spectacular array of flora. There is something about desert plant-life that speaks to the wonders of evolution: a more bizarre assortment of organisms would be difficult for the most prolific of artists to imagine, poking their spiny extremities hither and yon, self-designed pictures of perfection. Some seem simply to have erupted from the sandy soil with no particular thought beyond survival, and aesthetics be damned. And it is precisely this disregard for symmetry that makes them such beautiful specimens of natural selection. So, you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to indulge in what I like to call “Cactus-Fest 2013.”

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Later, as I entered the gift shop in search of the mandatory refrigerator magnet, I asked the woman behind the counter how her day was going. She looked at me for a moment, and responded, “Are you sure you want to know?” Hmmm. “Well,” I replied, “I asked.” As it turned out, her mother had just undergone knee surgery in Lubbock, Texas, and was at that point waiting to be discharged and sent home, a long, cramped trip for someone whose leg had just been cut open. Sometimes, that one little question–“How are you today?”–sincerely asked, is all it takes to create a sense of camaraderie, of fellow feeling, between two people. And it is too rarely sincerely asked. By the time I left the shop ten minutes later, I knew where she was from (Alaska) and why she came to New Mexico (her parents retired); she knew where I was from and why I’m on this little trip of mine. It was a short-lived connection, but a real one. This is the goal, my friends: coming together, however momentarily, as real people. Stranger danger, indeed!

* * * * *

About ten miles outside of Carlsbad, I veered off the highway to the west and struck off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway (otherwise known as NM-137). “Veered,” indeed–the intersection snuck up on me, and my left turn maneuver would have made the Andrettis themselves green with envy. Mind you, I did not know I was striking off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway; I didn’t know there was such a thing until I was ten miles into it. Here’s what really happened (and I offer you here a window into my approach to life): when I got up this morning, I opened my atlas–the paper kind, you know, the Google-free kind–and picked a random line on the map, one that looked good and promising, which in my case means good and nowhere. And that, my friends, is what led both to the byway and to the moment of true solitude I described above. Try it sometime; you’ll be glad you did.

The GBCB is a beautiful stretch of glorious two-lane highway, some thirty miles of it. The only thing that detracts from the experience is the fact that, not unlike US-67 yesterday, it’s lined with pumpjacks and processing plants. I even passed a sign warning of the potential for poisonous gases “when flashing.” Abandon all breath, ye who enter here. Ah, nature…

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The view from the Guadalupe Back Country Byway.

At one point, a tarantula (a big one, big enough that I could make it out from inside a car moving at 55 miles an hour) ran across the road in front of me, and I swerved to miss it. And thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that make an entertaining bumper sticker…”

* * * * *

6:30 PM, Cloudcroft, NM. I left my picnic table paradise only five hours ago, but they have been an interesting five hours. I headed north to Artesia to catch US-82 west to Alamogordo. Like yesterday, I had a vague notion of spending the night in Alamogordo, and like yesterday, it was not to be.

As I sat at the intersection of 285 and 82, waiting for the light to turn, a sixteen-wheeler hauling a monster generator (a big generator, that is to say, not a machine that generates monsters) discovered, a little too late, that his cargo was too tall for the stoplight. Sounds of twisting metal against stubborn payload filled the air as the hapless driver fought to salvage the situation, to no avail. He was well and truly snagged. But he could not back up, so he gritted his teeth and struggled forward, dragging the mangled utility pole with him as he went. At last, he broke free, leaving the city of Artesia a little out of pocket and the poor traffic signal hanging lifeless and limp, dangling from a few slowly swinging wires, the rope to its gallows. Alas! he was too young to die.

Heading west, a strange feeling overtook me, filling me with a sense of dislocation, of timelessness, of total emptiness. In the distance, the shadowy outline of the Sacramento Mountains loomed, ghost-like, through a gathering mist, a token of impending rain. A heavy crosswind buffeted the car as I drove, catching up and casting prairie grass plumes across the asphalt, covering it in a silken carpet of forest green. The whole of nature, bent double before the rising wind, seemed to be running for its life, whipping violently this way and that, desperately seeking shelter against the coming storm.

The ethereal scene unfolding around me put me in a pensive mood, and I lost myself in thought as I advanced. Suddenly, the unexpected happened: a great feeling of homesickness washed over me in waves, the mirror image of the morning’s solitude. I realized I was lonely. And I very nearly turned the car around to head for home. In fact, I had to force myself to drive on. In that moment, a paradigm shifted; I learned something about myself that sent me reeling, a revelation that landed like a thunderbolt and blew my self-image to smithereens.

I missed my wife. Don’t get me wrong; I always miss my wife when I’m away from home. But this was different: I didn’t just miss her, I felt her absence like a shortness of breath. I missed my home, not because of the comfy bed or the easy access to food and entertainment, but simply because it was home. You might think it odd that this surprised me so much, but it did. See, my whole life I have been an inveterate loner. I have prided myself on my independence since I was in high school. I had friends, but I only needed Me. When everyone else congregated, I was the guy off by himself somewhere, thinking, reading, reflecting. And there I was on that New Mexico highway, alone in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before.

The walkabout just got real, folks. I’m beginning to see through the pretensions of my life to the reality underneath. In the back of my mind, I’ve always embraced the romance of disappearing, of fading away into the hills and never being seen again, an unsolved mystery for the ages. A day and a half into this thing, and I realize this particular fantasy has lost its appeal. I’m not meant to be alone. Behind me, my other half waits, and that’s not just a metaphor anymore. Out there, somewhere, you beckon, friends, family, the promise of connection the fruition of which is no one’s responsibility but my own. Life is calling; I cannot but answer.

But I can’t turn back. Like the trucker back in Artesia, I’ve snagged on life but cannot stop. The only way out is forward, even if that means dragging all my signposts down with me. So, amidst sounds of twisting mettle, I drive on. I’ve met myself. Now for that long talk…

* * * * *

Fifty miles shy of Alamogordo, and still no rain. I am at a dead stop: one-lane road ahead, and we await the arrival of the lead vehicle guiding oncoming traffic along ten miles of unpaved mountain highway. My windows are down again, allowing the crisp fall air to flow in gusts through the inside of the car. On any other day, I’d be climbing the walls about now; I am not a patient man, and I have places to be. But that’s the beauty of this journey–I have no place to be but right where I am. In any case, it could be worse; I could be the guy standing for hours on a mountainside holding a stop sign up to people who aren’t generally thrilled to see him. So I shut off the engine and sit, enjoying the scenery and embracing the moment.

Finally the lead car arrived and we took off after it, moving at around fifteen miles an hour (do the math–ten miles at fifteen miles an hour). We snaked our gravel-laden way through mountain passes encompassed by steep ravines, a 21st-century wagon train blazing a trail through semi-civilization. What probably should have been an onerous bit of work felt more like an adventure of pioneer proportions. A coon-skin cap, and I could have channeled Daniel Boone.

After some forty-five minutes of sinuous progress, we cleared the road work and I realized just how hungry I was. So, a quick stop at a cute little roadside cafe in a one-horse town called Mayhill, for the requisite green chile cheeseburger (I think it’s against the law to visit New Mexico without eating one of these). I realized two things after my meal: 1) It was getting on toward evening, and I was still a good forty miles outside Alamogordo, and 2) that rain I’d been anticipating for the past three hours was just ahead. Downpour driving is not my thing, especially on a mountain road I’m not familiar with, in the dark.

So, when I wove my way into Cloudcroft (how cool is that name, by the way?) and saw this place, I tossed my former plans out the window, slammed on the brakes, and ordered up a room.

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The Aspen Motel, Cloudcroft, NM. That’s my room, last door on the far right. Also recommended.

As I write these words, it’s 33 degrees outside and a steady drizzle is falling. I’ve wandered into winterland. The crazed October heat of Central Texas seems a world away, and forgotten. And now, to sleep once more…

* * * * *

Final thought for the day:

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The essence of my life, in pictures…

I live for the bend in the road, under the assumption that the greatest of treasures lies just around the corner, and if I turn back too soon, I’ll miss it. I must press on; I must see what comes next; I cannot stop, because life is motion, and the meaning of life is always out there, somewhere, ahead. He who stops short, he who assumes he has found what he is looking for and need not continue, will never truly understand, never truly know himself. Never truly live.

I am a seeker. Finding is beside the point…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Curves

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The red sandstone arches of the 11th-century abbey on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island). If you seek peace, this is the place to go. Some even claim that the spirits of long-dead saints still walk the ruined passages and pray in unison with the present-day pilgrim…

Road Trip 2013 – Any Thoughts?

It’s the Woods 11th anniversary this year, in honor of which we’re off to New York, the 11th state to be admitted to the Union, in 1788. (Our little twist on the whole “anniversary gift” scheme–we love to travel, and steel seems a little less than romantic.)

Anyway, thought I would throw out the question and see if anyone has any recommendations–sight-seeing, food (especially food), etc.–in the Lake Placid area. If so, please dish!

I await your travellers’ experience…

New Mexico Road, Day 1

There is nothing that suits me more than a full tank of gas on an open road. December 21, 2012, was our tenth wedding anniversary, and to celebrate, we ditched family (no offense) and headed for New Mexico and a Christmas on the lam. This is the third time we’ve done this since we got married (our honeymoon in the Southeast, of course, and my “research trip” to the UK), and these getaways never fail to deliver. We even got to reprise our honeymoon Christmas breakfast at the Waffle House (romance is, after all, as romance does…).

Now, beginning at the beginning, people who say West Texas is a waste of space must be looking in the wrong direction. I have been convinced for some time now that beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder, but instead is to be found in the essence of a place…and it’s always there if you know how to see it. To borrow a term from a colleague at the library, beauty lies in the “aboutness” of a place. So, the three or so hours we spent crawling our way through blinding clouds of flying dust were not a hindrance. Rather, they are part and parcel of the place, and as such are to be appreciated and respectfully admired. (Not to mention that they serve as a reminder that the Dust Bowl taught us little or nothing.)

Before leaving West Texas behind, one recommendation, perhaps out of left field: Someday, drive west down I-20 from Abilene and take a north at US-84. For maximum effect, do it at night. You will find yourself in the midst of acres of wind farm, surrounded by countless turbines pumping steadily away into the distance. In daylight, this view is impressive enough. At night (especially for the first-timer), it is truly beautifully bizarre. All that is visible in the darkness are the blinking red lights on the machines, scores and scores of them, and for a brief moment one feels as if Close Encounters has kicked in and Richard Dreyfuss is waiting somewhere in the dark, model in hand and tune in head…

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View from La Bajada, south of Santa Fe.

The moment when mountain springs from nowhere and looms majestically over the lowland is one of pure magic. Driving west through New Mexico, it is a moment anticipated anxiously by all but the most indifferent commuter types. As proven by the photo, it really doesn’t seem to matter what an image shows in the foreground, as long as there are mountains in the background. Four-lane highway or municipal landfill, the rearing rockiness always seems to shed a whole new light on things…

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Don Quixote’s ass (I presume…)

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Native American street vendors on the Plaza, a.k.a., the Look But Don’t Even Think About It Marketplace. One decent-sized turquoise item here, and the vacation’s pretty much over (including the part where you had gas money for the trip home…).

We spent the bulk of Christmas Eve wandering the streets of Santa Fe. First meal of the trip (and this is, if I’m honest, the real reason I travel anywhere) at Tia Sophia’s. First instance of the state question: Red or green? With the added option, Christmas, in honor of the season. (For those who can’t guess, “Christmas” is a mixture of red AND green chile.) It behooves anyone who visits New Mexico to make a decision in this regard–Are you red or green?–at some point during their trip, just to save time. I am most definitely a red. Caveat: Telling people you are a “green” in some parts of the state (namely, Roswell) may have unforeseen consequences…

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The magical mystery staircase at the Loretto Chapel, reputedly built in 1878 by St. Joseph himself. It includes two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support (at least until they bolted it to the wall in the 20th century to prevent slippage–which kind of takes away from the whole “miracle” thing). Good story, though…

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Welcome to New Mexico, the Land of Random Sculpture…

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San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in New Mexico.

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Presumably, the oldest raven in New Mexico…

Around dusk, along with everyone else, we headed for Canyon Road and the Luminarias walk. (This is, by the way, totally free, so feel free to skip the Farolitos Tour in Albuquerque.) After a brief stop for beer and tamales (with red chile, of course), we spent the evening hours strolling through art galleries and mingling with an amorphous mass of humanity and dog-ity in a space far narrower than any self-respecting Risk Management department would approve. And it was enormous fun, bumping and jostling complete strangers with no other consequence than a quick smile and hurried season’s greeting as we all made for the next warm wall of watercolors.

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The early stages of the walk…

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Dr. Jekyll…

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…and Mr. Hyde.

Suddenly, snow began to fall. Heavily. A thick coat of white fluff quickly formed on the exterior of my overcoat; soon it was coming so thick and fast that it was difficult to see where we were going. But that didn’t matter at all. It was, quite simply, stunning. People around us straightened their collars, bent their heads, and kept right on going, on to more Christmas Eve celebration. If I could choose any setting, under any part of the great Earth sky, I do not think I could have dreamt up a more perfect experience. And I’m fairly confident that I’ll never see anything like it again.

And so, Day 1 draws to a close, as Tammy and I stumble blindly through the door of a small Italian bistro called Mangiamo Pronto! (could there BE a better name than that?), looking like a pair of abominable snowmen who took a wrong turn at the Pole, and calling for a well-deserved cup of espresso. And, you know what? No one yelled at us as we dripped melting snow all over the table, floor, and proximate patrons. Not even close. An elderly gentlemen glanced up warmly and remarked, “Looks like snow.” And before we knew it, we were deep in conversation, having discovered that he and my grandparents hailed from the same Central Texas town…

Arrivederci, my friends!