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South West

Mesa Verde is our last national park stop on the trip. This was one of the few places I knew I wanted to visit before we left for our trip. Thousands of years old stone houses tucked into cliff faces, encompassing the history of a whole population that disappeared mysteriously at the peak of their civilization hundreds of years ago – how could I not want to go!

Santa Fe has some truly charming older motels. At one time they must have been a fair distance outside of the city, but over the past few decades the city has encompassed them. We chose the Silver Saddle – by far one of the cutest hotels I have stayed at ever, and even better because it was only $45 a night. Plastered walls, a cotton quilt, and a beautifully tiled bathtub gave it all the charm I needed. Add a balcony and it would have been perfect. Oh, and I almost forgot, there is a margarita haven right around the corner.

At the Silver Saddle - In case you forget to bring your cowgirl boots, just borrow the pair by the front desk!

A couple locals had directed us to Maria’s for dinner. They mentioned that Maria’s had good margaritas if we were interested, but they left out the small fact that they offer 100 different types of margaritas — and I always thought a margarita was a boring, unchanging drink. From the outside the place looks deceptively small, but when you walk in, you’ll be greeted by a meandering collection of never ending rooms. Not to worry, margaritas are on the menu no matter where you end up sitting.

The closed gates. Just try to tell me that this doesn't look like a place with sacred dirt.

In Santa Fe I stopped by to see a work colleague. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, she had convinced us that we had to go see the town of Chimayo about 45 minutes outside of Santa Fe. Apparently there is a famous sanctuary in the Chimayo and to take some of the dirt from the ground of this sanctuary is supposed to have bring good luck and health. Decision made. I figured at this point, I should be taking all the help I could get.

Unfortunately the sanctuary closed at 5pm and we rolled up at 5:20pm. Perhaps seeing the sanctuary wasn’t meant to be, but meeting our new favorite chili vendor was. I just wanted to wander into one of the galleries that still looked open, but the chili vendor stopped us. He persuaded us to take a pistachio, “put it in your left molar”, and then chew it with a pistachio shell full of whatever magnificent chili mix he happened to have ready for us. Each trial was followed by a list of possible dishes that could made with the chili: Red was for baked chicken, spaghetti, guacamole. Green was for fish, salsa, etc, etc.

I might just be evolving into a softy for a driven entrepreneur, but within 10 minutes he had sold us not one but two bags of chili. If we actually had a kitchen still in which to use them, I probably would have bought many more bags. Heading back to car, I had the thought — if you can’t walk away with a bag of holy, healing dirt, two bags of chili might just be the perfect substitute.

Just take a look at the picture showing the entrance to the Carlsbad caverns. Now imagine it without the switchbacks and paved walkway, and imagine how crazy (or brave depending on how you define it) the first person to go in there must have been. Native Americans had known about the cave for centuries, but it took a white settler in the mid 19th century coming across the opening before it was ever fully explored. Once people began to realize the immensity of the caverns, they of course became a tourist stop. People used to enter the cave on wooden staircases and ladders, but today you can either take the elevator or the walkway you see on the right.

If you walk into Carlsbad, instead of taking the elevator directly down into the Big Room, your first view of the caverns is this large, totally intimidating cave. It is a gaping hole in the ground covered with bats and seemingly opening up to nothing but a big black abyss. The day we went was cold and rainy, giving the experience an exceptionally creepy air. There had been a family walking with us to the entrance, but somewhere along the way they must have gotten spooked because when we entered the silence we realized that they were no longer behind us.

Carlsbad ended up being the antithesis of our Zion experience. We had what must have been a mile walk underground before we got the Big Room (“the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere”) and the whole way we only encountered one other human. It was a surreal experience walking, walking, and walking, continually sinking into the ground surrounded the whole time by these smooth limestone walls and columns. There was no sign of an end and no other life. Only the occasional sound of dipping water served as a reminder that we hadn’t left this planet for another.

When we entered the Big Room that surreal feeling remained, but all of a sudden we were surrounded people. We had walked 750 feet underground and suddenly we were on a wheel chair accessible path with families and other tourists. The place took on a homey and comfortable feeling, like you should be taking off your coat and staying a while (although, perhaps that was just because I had been walking downhill under the earth for an hour now and was just happy to be on level ground). I felt embraced by the grandeur of the place. It felt much the same as sitting in one of the back pews at St. Peter’s Basilica, and when I stopped to just listen to the space, the cavern was filled with a music composed of camera shutters, whispers, dripping water, and footsteps.

Amazing, how creepy and foreboding can go to mystical in just 750 feet.

Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of this great place. My La Nortena experience was “to go”, so I didn’t realize what I had come across until I was miles down the road.

Located in the small West Texas town of Pecos, La Nortena was hard to miss with the full side wall of its former building being painted in bright colors and an arrow pointing across the road. Even with this welcome, the place had a surprisingly understated facade. Simple, clean, and open, walking in you felt as if you were entering an industrial version of your grandmother’s kitchen. A few tall tables off to the side were in front of a line of refrigerators and freezers offering bags of tortillas and pints of beans and meat.

Homemade tortillas and tamales are the house specials, but beans, rice, and perfectly seasoned Asado are also available for purchase in bulk or single counts. I suggest a Burrito Asado (the meat is so perfectly seasoned, there’s no need for the guacamole, sour cream, or cheese) and a tamale dinner with rice and beans.