I’m not going to beat around the bush. Traveling internationally has become slightly less dependable of late. Sure, you might be able to visit foreign climes if you’re fully vaxxed, but you’re still not assured of getting back into the old U.S. of A. One bad test can set you back another week or more (hello unexpected expenses).
Luckily, the other half and I have a favorite haunt within our borders: New Mexico. Libby loves it because her father lives there. For me, I love the landscape and southwestern cuisine. If you ever visit, you’ll need to be ready to answer the server when they ask, “red or green?” (What flavor sauce do you want?) Her father and his wife are pretty good folks as well, I’ll not deny.
And so it was that we set off for our first flight in over two years, flying from Boston’s Logan Airport to Denver International.
Now, I know the airlines are lobbying for mask requirements on planes to be loosened and I don’t know what the outcome will be when this issue of iIrish sees the light, but this trip was several months ago, and face coverings were required. At the time, anyone wanting to eschew the mask simply needed to purchase a coffee. Apparently, as long as you’re holding one, you can’t catch or spread Covid-19 and your mask can be stowed under your chin. Who knew?
I’ll skip the visit with old college friends in Colorado and move right on to the meat of the column, New Mexico. Libby’s father and his wife live in a Abiquiú, a “census-designated place, about fifty-three miles north of Santa Fe. With only a little over 200 people, I’m guessing it doesn’t have enough of a population to qualify as a town, but what it has is a high percentage of artists (Georgia O’Keefe lived here).
If you’re ever, per chance, passing through, make sure to stop off at Bode’s General Store. As the only shop in the area, it carries an impressive array of goods, from local wine and homemade tamales to cattle and chicken feed to t-shirts and gardening supplies. I just love it.
Libby and I always try to visit interesting places while we’re vacationing (something I’m sure never dawns on anyone else) and on this trip, we decided to explore the Tsankawi Prehistoric Site, a Bandelier National Monument. You’ve surely seen sites like this on documentaries. Cave dwellings dotted throughout steep rock faces.
Starting around 1150 A.D., hunter gatherers formed communities here. They’re now referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi).Centuries ago, there was a combination of cave dwellings and, on the base of the cliffs, masonry structures (open pueblos). The caves remain.
Visitors are allowed into many of the dwellings, but it isn’t the easiest of access, as you can well imagine. The Anasazi created thin walkways, but into the stone and oftentimes barely wide enough to fit your feet into. You really don’t want to lose your balance in some areas.
For those who make the trip, the dwellings are exceptional. There is still soot on the ceilings (apparently used to help seal cracks so rain and sand wouldn’t filter down inside. There are petroglyphs and pictographs to set your mind wandering. It is truly awe-inspiring to contemplate the native population living inside these caves, gazing over the beautiful landscape, growing crops and forming communities for the first time. Consider that people arrived in the area 11,000 years ago.
Walking the trails at Tsankawi will be difficult for some people, but for those who are worried about Covid-19, it provides a unique outdoor experience.
After leaving the prehistoric site, we made our way north to the storied town of Los Alamos. You may have heard of it. Referred to, even in their own transit system, as Atomic City, it was the base for the Manhattan Project, where the first atomic bomb was created.
Having been raised in New England, it was obvious that this town was built. It didn’t come in dribs and drabs as people moved into the area over centuries. Not too ironically, it reminded me of a town where you might find the average nuclear family.
The proprietor of a local art shop noted that the locals can be quite stand-offish to newcomers, but that that was to be expected. For decades, top military scientists have tried to keep the country’s secrets from prying eyes and anyone unknown would likely be considered a possible spy.
But enough of that. We had been instructed to visit the town for the sole purpose of visiting Señor Tortas, a food truck located between two bank parking lots. Food is sometimes the only driving force for us to visit an area. I’ll admit that Los Alamos held a mystical quality in my mind, but a Mexican food truck in New Mexico? I’m not going to need a cattle prod.
I ordered the barbacoa tacos (barbecued meat, and in this case, beef) and a Fanta, served in a glass bottle from a cooler. I can only say that there is a reason Mexican food is so popular. It’s simple, hearty and delicious.
The day before we were to drive back to Denver was a Sunday. Picture, if you will, blowing a tire in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday, with only the donut replacement tire available. Now consider that Denver was six hours away on the highway, with a tire that isn’t supposed to go over forty miles per hour and isn’t intended for great distances.
We were sunk. There were no service stations open within a half hour. The puncture was on the side wall and was big, so we couldn’t plug it. The rental agency could only get us a replacement car the following day, and the office was hours in the wrong direction.
Long story short, a man named Jo-El, at a Wal-Mart in Española, stayed late to help us out and afterward wouldn’t accept a tip. We notified the store of his above and beyond work ethic (and humanity) and I’m sending thanks his way again. Thank you Jo-El.
*Conor Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.