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Painted Desert, Arizona

After a decent breakfast in our lonely motel restaurant, we headed out to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I didn’t have super high expectations; I assumed Mtuseni would be bored. But I’d been here in 1989 on my cross-country drive to California, and I’m really big on closing circles.

What I’m not big on is predicting Mtuseni’s responses. He was totally into it! We spent the entire day here. I didn’t recall the park being so large, and truth be told I zipped through the place 30 years ago. I was doing a drive-away then — and the clock was ticking down for me to deliver the car to its owners. 

It was great to take time to really explore and take photos. We started out in the visitor center, where we found a woman in the lab clearing soil away from a dinosaur fossil, using a giant magnifying glass and tiny brush. I was thrilled and fascinated. I’d always wanted to be an archeologist as a kid. It’s like finding buried treasure for work!

I grilled the woman with questions and she showed us all the recent fossil finds in various states of documentation on the office tables. I could have stayed there for hours. I don’t know why I didn’t get any photos. I thought I had. But the experience will always stay in my mind. 

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cactus

A cactus outside the visitor center. Why didn’t I get photos of the dinosaur fossils in the lab?

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From here we headed out to see the colors of the Painted Desert. The entire time I had the first few lines of the 10,000 Maniacs song running through my head. Here it feels like the space of the Southwest really opens up. The endless sweep of empty land always draws me in, and I want to walk across it to the far-off horizon. Knowing my outdoor and survival skills (which add up to zero), I’d probably die from a rattlesnake or scorpion or dehydration in 20 minutes! But I still feel compelled to explore that forbidding space. 

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Mtu Paint Desert cliff

 

desert shack

I always wonder what kind of life and activity occurred in abandoned buildings long ago. Sadly, this place is about the size of Mtuseni’s family’s shack in South Africa.

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We continued along the park road to the Petrified Forest. Along the way we stopped at an overlook to see Newspaper Rock, covered in petroglyphs by people who lived in the area up to 2,000 years ago. (I thought I took photos, maybe I was delirious from sun stroke.) 

The park road crosses old Route 66. You can see its ghostly outline heading across the barren land, parallel to the highway. I explained to Mtuseni how this was the road people used to traverse the country long ago, and how Route 66 is an American icon. Evidently, some cars didn’t make it!

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Mtu desert car

An old car at the Route 66 marker. It reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde’s car!

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It’s always fascinated me that much of the American West was wet long ago — like ocean wet. To see these huge, ancient fallen trees in a land where now scrubby bushes and grasses barely grow, gives you a window into the passage of time — big time! 

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Pet Forest logs

 

forest sign

 

Pet forest log mtu

 

log trail

Logs of stone strewn across the trail — the shadows of an ancient forest.

 

log rings

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated how you can tell a tree’s age by counting the rings. Here the rings have turned to quartz. Doubly fascinating!

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The park is as empty and desolate as the land: No cafes or snack bars along the route. We lunched on energy bars and water. I couldn’t believe we had to hustle to the exit gate before the park closed; I really thought we’d spin through in about two hours.

It was a simple, mellow experience of just appreciating an ancient, silent landscape. It felt healing and sacred and pure. Again, that mysterious energy of the Southwest. It was a good day. 

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Pet forest log pair

 

After a quick pop into the gift shop, we headed off to Flagstaff for the night — grabbing supper at a Love’s truck stop along the way.  If I’m ever abducted and my captors want to torture me for information, all they’ll have to do is show me a foot-long tuna sub from Subway and I’ll squawk like a bird. If I never eat one of those again, it’ll be too soon. 

Checking into our hotel after dark, Mtuseni went right to sleep as usual. The kid sleeps like a newborn. I walked across the street to a shopping plaza — mainly to take in the crisp, cold night air. After weeks of late summer heat, this was the first feel — and smell — of fall. Once again, I was reminded of time passing.   

 

desert train

A freight train crossing the desert always gets me. Maybe because my grandfather worked the railroad in the 1930s. Or maybe I was a hobo in a past life.

welcome nm

On Day 25 of the road trip we headed out to stay with a dear friend from my San Francisco days. Kelly also happens to be the tourism marketing director for Los Alamos, so we were in good hands!

We started out with a taste test of three breakfast burritos with New Mexico chilies: bacon green, sausage red, and Christmas (red and green). My fave was the Christmas. Mtuseni liked the red… probably because it had sausage; the more meat the better in his eyes! The view from Kelly’s deck was breathtaking; on a clear day you can make out the Rockies in Colorado.

Kelly planned an entire tour day for us, speeding along hairpin turns and cliffs, chatting away, and occasionally looking at the road. Mtuseni and I were freaked out at first. More than once we each yelled, “Watch the road!” But we quickly relaxed under the happy spell of Kell. After all, she’s been there almost 20 years and is still in one piece. 

Out first stop was the Valle Caldera, a 13-mile circular depression created by an ancient volcano. It’s so big; no ground-level photo can capture the scale.

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caldera sign trio

Still alive after a breakfast of blazing New Mexico chilies and Kelly’s daredevil driving!

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caldera

Valle Caldera feels like a vast field of velvet plopped among the mountains and mesas of New Mexico.

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We watched some elk in the distance and grabbed some photos, then headed off to see Taos Pueblo. Being a South African Zulu, we thought Mtuseni would appreciate seeing an original Native American community. But when we arrived, it was closed for some sacred rituals that week. Just like in Montgomery; I have shit timing. Instead, we had lunch at a cafe in Taos. 

taos cafe kell

It’s so great when old friends fall in after many years like no time has passed. And yes, Kelly is a dead ringer for Kyra Sedgwick!

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After lunch we headed to Earthship … a community of people living off the grid and, despite their entrance sign, not super welcoming. We took photos of the quirky buildings but were warned by Kelly to heed the No Trespassing signs: Evidently they don’t take kindly to strangers. That’s the wild west, for ya! (Maybe they should take down their visitor center sign.)

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earthship sign

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earthship wall

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earthship spires

I think these generate power. Or maybe they help the Earthship residents stay in touch with their home planet.

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On our way back from Earthship we stopped at the Rio Grande Gorge for some treats and terror. 

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rio grande sign pair

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I don’t do well with heights, neither does Kelly. They don’t bother Mtuseni, but when he returned from walking on the bridge over the gorge, his face was a bit wan. We asked how it was and he said, “Very high.” 

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On the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. That is a looong way down. (And a short barrier!)

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Feeling ballsy and energized by the magic of the Southwest and the day, I challenged Kelly to see who could walk further to the center of the bridge. Mtuseni provided a great play-by-play video as we gamely headed off. I did okay for a while, but seeing the river waaaay down below quickly turned my knees to jelly and I bailed. Of course Kelly made it to the center. I’m not ashamed of my 15-foot adventure. (Though I wouldn’t say I’m proud either.)

Click here for our Instagram greeting from the Gorge!

After our stunt we headed over to the Partridge Family hippie bus to grab something to drink. Despite the cheery, groovy venue, the woman inside was cold and standoffish — and was really big on “boundaries.” She must go home to one of those wine bottle houses at the Earthship. No worries, we laughed it off because…. well, we’re with Kell. 

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latte bus

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We had a long drive back to Los Alamos surrounded by gorgeous scenery, especially as the hills and mesas began to glow at dusk. 

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mesa trio

Late summer. Early dusk. Somewhere between Taos and Los Alamos.

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Fulfilling her role as community cheerleader and tour guide, Kelly insisted that we take a photo in the tub at Bathtub Row Brewing in Los Alamos. Mtuseni and I were still trying to figure out the selfie stick. 

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bathtub

“Gotta get a photo in the tub,” Kelly said. Little did we know what would come next…

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We got a few shots then leaned back for a high-angle shot — where we quickly discovered that the tub wasn’t secured. Yes, the ten-ton cast iron tub tipped over, spilling us out onto a slate slab. And, yes, people sitting in the brewery saw the whole thing. I wish we had video, the slow-motion shock as we realized what was happening! It was a perfect ending to an adventure with Kell — always much love and laughter.

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bathtub2

The guilty party after righting the tipped tub. I’m wondering how my broken tailbone will handle the next six weeks of driving!

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And when we got back to her place, Kelly made dinner for five of us! It’s easy when you’ve had seven coffees throughout the day. 

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nmtrue glasses

Rockin’ the shades from our Los Alamos swag bags! Thanks, Kell!