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Archive for January, 2003

I took a different route south from the Gila Cliff Dwellings, turning east onto Rte. 35, then a short jog back west on 152, and finally a very straight shot down 180, where I picked up I-10 again in Deming.

About an hour away from Las Cruces, I headed east with a destination in mind that I had read about recently in Budget Travel. I hadn’t heard of it before, even with the hundreds (probably now thousands) of hours I’ve put into lodging research. So I decided to check it out. I put a call in and found, as I suspected for an off-season week night, plenty of vacancies.

Meson de Mesilla is a “boutique hotel”, a phrase I see more and more frequently and am still trying to completely identify. This particular small hotel has fifteen rooms and a gourmet restaurant, is less than a mile off of I-10 and is surrounded by adobe walls. It has more than a motel feel, yet less than a hotel. I can’t quite place it in any category.

First impressions are truly important and, unfortunately, my solo traveling backfired this time. The well-meaning desk girl assigned me one of what turned out to be just a handful of very small rooms, not recently remodeled, as many of the others are. I understood how this happened. Single person, one night translated to a logical customer to put in a compact room with one double bed. Compact is right, as the bed took up most of the room.

I wasn’t unhappy, but was puzzled. This just didn’t match the description I had read about or the pictures I’d seen on their website. I went to get my overnight bag and paused at the front desk to ask about the variety of rooms they offer. Since the occupancy level for the night was very low, they offered to show me a couple other rooms. Big surprise – they were night and day different from the one I’d been given. One in particular was especially pleasing to me, the Saguaro Suite, more than twice the size of the other, newly remodeled, with a huge bed, sofa and sitting area, beautiful antiques and a back door out to a patio that looked out over the mountains. I asked the difference in the price.

Ten dollars.

I switched immediately and resisted the impulse to ask why, with an almost-empty house, they hadn’t originally shown me that room or at least offered options. I decided this had to be a solo travel fluke and let it go. (Note: Always, always ask if you’re not happy with a room you’re given. You have nothing to lose).

Because I’d eaten very little that day (fruit and muffins at the cabin the night before and a granola bar during my Gila hike), I decided to check out the dining room. There were about five options, all delicious sounding. I splurged and got the filet, which was prepared with a veal stock demi-glaze wild mushroom sauce and served with a medley of fresh vegetables and potatoes. Soup, salad and bread rounded the meal out. It was delicious and served by a waiter from Ojai, a favorite California town of mine. We had fun chatting about our favorite fish tacos there. Eat filet while talking about fish tacos – go figure.

Though dinner was an additional charge, breakfast was included in the lodging. I opted for a green chili cheese omelette that was served with chorizo, orange juice and coffee.

Overall, the service was great. The lodging was fine, once I changed rooms. Looking back and thinking what I would write about this place, I find myself wishing I hadn’t seen the less desireable room first. Or that the small room had ben remodeled along with the others. It’s amazing what old carpet and chipped paint can do to the memory banks. I hope they consider upgrading these rooms in the future.

Thinking about it, the basic premise of the Budget Travel article was to highlight lodging under $100. that offered good value. I guess I have to agree that this fits that bill. Even with a filet mignon dinner added, it’s possible to slide out without crossing that hundred dollar mark. For a sort of inn, sort of hotel, sort of B&B, it wasn’t bad.

I checked out and headed into old Mesilla, which was once the largest town between San Antonio and San Diego. Now a cluster of historic adobe architecture and quaint shops, it provided grounds for exploring. The weather was perfect and the old central plaza and surrounding streets very quiet and peaceful. It wasn’t always this way, as desperados many times frequented these streets. Billy the Kid was captured here, and tried and sentenced to hang in the old courthouse, now predictably the “Billy the Kid Gift Shop”.

I found a very cool little coffee house in an outdoor garden, not far from the 1905 Fountain Theatre. The Bean, as it’s called, served up a delicious vanilla latte and offered free online access on a computer in the back room. It turns out this business is moving out onto the main drag, Avenida de Mesilla, next month, but promises it will retain it’s fun and funky atmosphere.

From there I wandered through a few shops, including El Mariachi Curio, located in the oldest brick building in New Mexico, built in 1863. Another shop (I’m trying to find the name in my notes, ugh…) had very cool wall-hanging figures made from coconut shells and corn husks, then painted with bright colors.

As with most historic old town areas, old Mesilla has a church (San Albino), historic plaques in many corners and alleys and numerous restaurants and art galleries.

I got out of there in the mid-afternoon and took back roads down to El Paso, admiring long archways of pecan trees that branched out over the road. I stopped once along the way at Stahmanns Country Store, where I fell victim to free taste testing of pecans and left with a tin of pralined pecans to keep in the car.

I caught I-10 again at El Paso, escaping most of the crowded border city, and headed east across Texas.

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I climbed the steep ascent on the one mile loop trail, listening for the sounds of men returning from hunting mule deer, women carrying corn, squash and beans home from nearby fields and young children singing or listening to story-telling. I strained to hear the gossip young girls might be telling while plaiting sandals from yucca leaves. I wanted to watch clay pots being formed and jewelry being designed from shells and feathers.

Only in my imagination could I hear these sounds and view these scenes, but seven hundred years ago they would have been very real, all part of the daily lives of the Mogollon people – pronounced Muggy-OWN, per the National Park brochure and helpful guide who offered information about the remarkable Gila Cliff Dwellings.

There are many unanswered questions about the Native American people who built homes in this remote section of what is now the Gila (pronounced HEE-La) National Forest. Archaeologists and historians are not sure why they came to live in these mountains and cliffs, building about 40 rooms out of stone, wood and clay. Nor is it known why they left, remaining only thirty to forty years, likely only one generation. It is thought that perhaps they got the idea to live in the caves from the Anasazi in the north, who were experienced cliff dwellers. They may have left to seek an easier way of life, because crops failed, or because something or someone scared them away. All that is known for sure is that they resided in five of seven natural caverns, approx. 180 feet above the canyon floor, from the 1270’s to the early 1300’s.

The structures within the caves remain remarkably preserved and show walls constructed with stone quarried from nearby sections of the cliff. Walls formed of these stones are plastered with clay and have many original timbers of wood (called vigas – VEE-gas) still in place. Through tree-rings, it is known that these vigas date to the 1270’s and 1280’s, indicating that the rooms were built during the first ten years that the Mogollon people occupied the cliffs.

The varying layout of the rooms indicates different usages, some work areas, others communal gathering places or ceremonial spaces. Yet others were likely used for storage of grains and other supplies. One room still holds corn cobs in a bin, which would have been ground using two stones – one larger and flat, the “metate” (meh-TAH-tay) and one smaller, the “mano” (MAH-no). Black soot from smoke shows where fires were built, both for warmth and to cook in clay pots and flat, heated stones. It is in these areas that feasts of venison and turkey were prepared, served with wild greens, corn, prickly pear and chokeberries.

Not listed in the park brochure or trail guide, but pointed out by the ranger giving a tour and answering questions, are several areas with clearly visible petroglyphs – one a human figure of some type, another actual hand prints. Yet another is described as a snake by the park service, yet appears to be two lizards when I magnify the image in one of my photos. At least this is what I see, but I’m hardly an archaeologist.

Visiting these ancient dwellings is a breathtaking experience, the mystical kind that allows history to seep into modern day consciousness and inhabit the hearts and minds of those who stand within the same spaces as the Mogollon did years ago. I found myself walking from room to room, amazed that visitors are actually allowed to climb stairs and ladders into the caves and individual rooms and experience this from such a close vantage point.

I believe I backtracked three times, walking along the narrow (but not enough to be dangerous or nerve-rattling) ledge, starting over again, taking more pictures and sometimes just standing still and listening to the silence. I had to finally drag myself away, in order to drive back out within daylight hours.

I had been told by numerous people, even some within the state of New Mexico, that the road was unpaved and very slow. Not so, I discovered. Though Rte. 15, which led north from Silver City, is full of twists and turns in some sections, I found it to be both paved and easy to navigate. In addition, the scenery along the way was gorgeous, making the almost two-hour trip of approx. 42 miles well worth the drive itself, even without such a reward at the end.

The park fee is $3.00, paid at a self-service station with envelopes provided, just before a bridge that leads to the beginning of the trail. Printed trail guides are available for a mere 50 cents, which give detailed information about specific locations along the trail and within the caves.

I took advantage of a stop at the Visitor Center before heading up to the cliff dwellings themselves, which I highly recommend. This center provides a wealth of information, offers exhibits of pottery and other artifacts, runs a short, informative film and is manned by an extremely knowledgeable park ranger.

What else can I say? I know vacations for some mean high fees and congested, crowded areas. I carried a granola bar (Luna – Lemon Zest – $1.29, from Whole Foods Market) in my camera case, kept bottled water in the car, and had an amazing adventure for less that $5.00. I’ll leave the theme parks to other people. I wouldn’t have had this day any other way.

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I crossed out of Arizona and into New Mexico, aptly nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment”. It’s no wonder I seem to linger longer than planned whenever I visit this wonderful state. There’s always something new (or even better, something old) waiting to be discovered.

Just three miles past the Arizona-New Mexico border a sign by the side of the road made me swing impulsively off the Interstate. I remembered reading something about Steins, a railroad ghost town, online. So I quickly took the offramp and made a sharp left, passing through a very narrow cement underpass.

A ghost town it was, appearing completely deserted, without a car in sight. I parked and got out to explore. A crumbling foundation stood not far from the railroad tracks, the remnants of what was once a two-story hotel. Clusters of cactus, weathered fences and and old stagecoach stood nearby. I took a look around.

Online searches will reveal various dismally repetitive accounts of 1800’s Steins history, which includes stage coach usage first by the Birch Stage Line and then the Butterfield Overland Stage Company. Southern Pacific came through in the 1880’s and established the town as a work station, remaining there until after World War II. A rock quarry also provided business for the area. Thus the town managed to grow to a population of about 1300, which it maintained fairly steadily between 1905 and 1945.

As with many towns of the Wild West, Steins has a colorful past of Apache attacks and encounters with horse thieves and stagecoach bandits. Those days long gone, it’s now a first-hand chance to see inside the life of those who lived there.

Not far behind the old hotel’s foundation, Steins Mercantile looks at first like just another abandoned building. But with a closer look and a step inside, I met up with Linda Link, who, with her husband Larry, moved from Phoenix, AZ in 1988 and purchased the property, determined to make it into a living history exhibit. As this tiny town was used for decades as a private residence before the Links purchased it, much was left undisturbed and many of the belongings of those who lived there earlier in the century were still there, stored in boxes, rooms and sheds.

For a fee of $2.50, a tour of ten buildings can be taken, all restored with everything from pots and pans and clothing to washing machines, old stoves, dusty bottles and hundreds of other belongings from the past. I jumped at the chance.

Stepping below the low doorways and into these buildings took my breath away. The sounds of the passing cars and trucks on the nearby Interstate faded away and were replaced with a sense of days gone by. This was time travel at its best.

There are sixteen rooms in all, each one telling a story of its own. This combined with Linda’s knowledge of history of the town, much learned from former residents who’ve come by over the years to visit, made this a fascinating tour. I took many pictures and was grateful to Linda for her patience.

Heading back to Steins Mercantile, we visited a little more and I added a signed and dated dollar bill to a collection on the walls and ceiling, a tradition started by a customer years ago.

I’ve read online accounts of visitors who huffed at the $2.50 charge, which helps with Linda and Larry’s efforts to continue to make available this living history. location. Those who have passed up this opportunity to see life in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s up close have missed a rare treasure. This was the best $2.50 I’ve spent on yet on this trip.

Just a sign by the side of the road and a quick swing off the Interstate. This is what I love most about travel.

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The sun was low on the horizon as I turned and drove south on Arizona State Route 80. Twenty-three miles off the interstate, I wasn’t quite sure what prompted me to detour so late in the day. But curiosity and intrigue lured me, in spite of the hour.

I arrived just as the sun was setting, passing Boothill Graveyard and entering the famous mining town. Named “Tombstone” by prospector Ed Shieffelin in 1877, he had been told he would find only his tombstone in this remote area, rather than the silver he was searching for. He proved them wrong, as the town became not only a legendary part of the west, but produced millions of dollars of silver and gold over a seven year period of time.

With only a few turns of the steering wheel, I found myself on Allen Street, the center of the historical district, and pulled over and parked my car. I grabbed my camera and keys and jumped out, determined to latch onto the last of the sunlight.
Instead I simply stood still, an odd sensation suddenly running through me.

And it instantly didn’t matter to me whether I caught the glow of the sun on the O.K. Corral, site of the Earp-Clanton gunfight of Oct. 26, 1881, though it stood directly across the street. I was frozen, standing next to my car, unable to move or place my thoughts. Everything felt very surreal.

Even with a few lingering shopkeepers locking their doors and walking away, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such quiet. Where tourists had most likely crowded together earlier in the day, instead was an empty, silent street.

The wind took me by surprise. I hadn’t remembered any wind back in Tucson, which I had passed just earlier that afternoon. But the gusts that swept past me and through me were strong and heavy, carrying both force and sound within. They whisked unexpectedly by like a train roaring through, then just as quickly faded into complete stillness.
I had the intense feeling that I had traveled much, much farther than I thought I had…not a hundred miles, but perhaps a hundred years, or a little more…

Slowly I walked across the street, looking over my shoulder out of habit for non-existent oncoming cars. A white gazebo to the left of the legendary O.K. Corral was draped in red, white and blue streamers, blowing in the wind. A flag snapped with the intermittent breeze.

I continued slowly down the deserted walkway, passing storefronts and reading historical markers. Inside the shops were abundant tourist goods, but with the locked doors I was left with the old western architecture, signs, fences, walls…and the alternating wind and quiet.

I stopped to take a picture in a window and jumped at a creaking sound. Thinking someone was behind me, I turned quickly, but found only a wooden sign, swinging above on metal hinges.

And then silence. And empty space. It nearly took my breath away.
Down Allen Street I continued, passing a few locals hanging out in front of a saloon, bikes parked in front. Big Nose Kate’s, the sign read, one of a number of saloons along the main street. I passed The Crystal Palace, reputed to be one of the most luxurious saloons in the west. The door was open and I peeked inside. Velvet booths, gold fixtures, dark lighting, dark carved wood…and no one…only silence…

With the sun down, light was fading quickly, but I kept walking, entranced in the past. Signposts marked sites of gun battles. The Bird Cage Theatre, built in 1881, stood quietly on the corner of 6th St. Everywhere was a sense of the past…churches, the old courthouse, houses…

Dark continued to fall, though the clouds still held a soft glow. I rounded back to the car, absorbing the unusual sensation of displacement. Before returning to the road, I stopped at Boothill Graveyard and peered over the fence at the small tombstones, surrounded by cactus and rocks.

One last shopkeeper latched the door to the trading post across the street from the graveyard, glancing at me with some surprise. I’m sure he wondered what a California girl was doing past sundown, on tiptoes, peering over the graveyard fence. Just to catch one last glimpse of the wild, wild west. He must have thought I’d arrived too late in the day, after the bustle of tourists and shopping and gunfight reenactments were long gone.

But I know the truth. I visited at exactly the right time.

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Tucson, AZ

I drove farther than I thought I would the first day, sliding into Tucson after dark. It felt good to cover some mileage, since I know I’ll have other days when I linger over unexpected discoveries. I checked my options for historic hotels and inns (I keep a ring binder in the car with accumulated pages – sort of a “wish list” and road encyclopedia) and decided to head downtown and check out the Hotel Congress. I figured if it was good enough for John Dillinger in the 30’s, it was good enough for me.

It wasn’t difficult to find, even at night. On the corner of 4th Ave. and East Congress, it was exactly where most of these old hotels are – right in the middle of the historic downtown area. Parking was easy, in spite of a long line for the Rialto movie theatre across the street and an active tavern on the ground floor of the hotel. I entered the lobby with the usual sensation of stepping back in time, finding tiled floors, period furnishings, a high ceiling and colorful painted designs on the walls. The front desk was intricate and wooden, with an old switchboard behind it.

I took a look at a room, which was very cool. However, I decided not to stay this time, for a number of reasons, none being any dissatisfaction. The room was great, typically small but very authentic, right down to the hard-wired rotary dial phone line. No way to plug in the laptop. They have a computer in the second floor lobby for Internet access, but it was temporarily down. I probably could have gotten by without checking email until the next night, but it was my first night on the road and I try to pre-plan nights of non-access. In addition, some sort of DJ-run activity was shaping up in the lobby and it promised to be noisy. My last excuse was that, as opposed to winter discounts in most places at this time of year, Tucson considers this prime time to visit, so the room price was higher than it would be if I caught it at another time of year.

So I decided to do the discount motel thing down the road, but I wasn’t leaving yet. I hadn’t yet had dinner and Hotel Congress has a very cool restaurant/cafe, The Cup Cafe, affectionately known as “The Cup”. I grabbed a table and looked over the menu. This was a very good move. Surrounded by fun neon signs and eclectic music, I narrowed my choices down and finally ordered a salad of mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette and samosas, served with cranberry chutney. It was fabulous.

The atmosphere was fun and festive, yet still had the relaxing feel of a dark coffee house. A painted glass vase on the table held fresh flowers. Red tile floors and rich woodwork added to the historical feel. It was funky and classy at the same time.

The menu was wonderful. Some of the choices were Poached Pear and Spinach Salad, Chicken Satay, Salmon Teriyaki and a wide range of steaks. A fun appetizer listed was called “Two Thompson Automatics”, which was described as “shredded chicken in Frank’s Original Red Hot Sauce…in an egg roll with blue cheese dressing and deep fried…served with jicama cole slaw”. “Katmandu” was another, described as “a seasonal mix of vegetables in a rich banana curry sauce served with coconut rice and garnished with tamarind-roasted peanuts”.

This was a great first night, a fun meal and good distance to start off the trip.

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I left Los Angeles around 7AM yesterday morning, with a full tank of gas and that feeling of expectation that road trips bring. Not early enough to miss all of the morning traffic, but before the worst of it.

My car is loaded up with the new laptop, new camera, old camera, third camera, and what seems like every possible electronic accessory known to man – battery chargers, cables, etc. I even took my Palm Pilot, so it wouldn’t feel left out. Minimal clothes, but a box full of AAA guide books. And a heavy jacket and two pair of gloves. Not that I’ve needed them yet.

My first stop was just before Palm Springs, where I decided to take advantage of the off-season, non-tourist morning and visit some old friends. Really old. I remember visiting here as a child. I was five years old and we were headed to New York, where we’d live until I was ten. Maybe this is what put the notion in my head of yearning for cross-country travel…it was always fun to stop and check things out along the way. Anyway, these guys were still waiting to say hello again, forty-five years later.

I’ve stopped here before. It’s an easy swing off I-10. But this was the first time I caught it without any crowds and was able to wander and take pictures easily. I’ve never known the full story on this funny little park area, but it’s very cool. The brontosaurus holds a gift store inside, accessible through stairs inside his tail. This fascinated me as a child and still does today, though it was closed, so I couldn’t go in to explore. It appears there’s a “For Sale” sign toward the side of the lawn area, so perhaps these creatures, and accompanying land and business, are up for grabs. Anyone looking for unusual real estate?

I roamed around and took a gazillion pictures. I fell into a conversation with a man from Oregon, on the way to a truck he was driving, which was parked in the lot behind the park. There’s something that must seem very approachable about me when I’m on the road, because this happens often. I know I seemed very intent upon capturing images of both Bronty and Rex and he couldn’t resist telling me about the amimated dinosaurs in Balboa Park in San Diego. (It was a good suggestion – I’m long overdue for a San Diego visit.)

So we talked for awhile, which reminded me how cool it is to not be on a time schedule. Of course, this is one of the greatest things about being on the road, meeting different people and hearing their stories.

From there I traveled on without stopping until I hit Arizona. Crossing out of California always seems to validate the beginning of these trips for me, makes me know the trip has really started. Almost immediately it seemed the landscape changed (I think I imagine this sometimes, but there are other state borders where this seems to happen – OK/TX on I-40, to mention one). Cactus and rock formations began to appear, then vanished during flat stretches of land. I passed through Quartzsite, which appears from the road to be one vast spread of desert brush, cactus and RVs. I continued straight on (with a stop for gas) into Phoenix, where I encountered enough traffic to remind me why I prefer to explore backroads and small towns. It was slow going for awhile there, in spite of being mid-afternoon.

I had debated heading up to Tortilla Flat, but knew the traffic would eat up the time and I risked losing the light for photos. So I managed to crawl out the other side of Phoenix and headed down to Tucson, where I had a delicious meal that I’ll probably have to write about later, since I’m on Morning Motel Time today.

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