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New Mexico & Arizona - Our First Big Road Trip

New Mexico & Arizona - Our First Big Road Trip

Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.
— Ernest Hemingway

One of the first trips we took together crossed the Texas panhandle and wound through New Mexico and Arizona. What started out as a drive to White Sands National Monument turned into a drive to Grand Canyon National Park because it was raining in New Mexico. So we kept moving west, sun rising behind us, throwing long shadows as the landscape changed.  

It was this adventure that cemented traveling as my love language and Darrell as my chosen partner for every adventure going forward. I feel like I’m always at my best when we’re in the car headed somewhere we’ve never been before; it’s fresh and comfortable all at once.

It was also the first time I’d been so far west in the continental United States. The farthest I’d gotten before was Santa Fe, New Mexico for a three day weekend and it had ignited an obsession to go farther and see more and soak up all the desert I could.

I’d started dreaming of the desert, having grown up mostly on the East Coast and right smack dab in the middle of Oklahoma I longed for something completely different. And I was able to convince Darrell that West was the perfect direction for our four day adventure.

Cadillac Ranch was our first stop, pausing at the iconic piece of roadside art long enough to add our names to thousands of others, along with dates and mentions of distant places. This one spot has become a destination for people from all over the world in their trek across the United States. I love that this quirky landmark brings everyone together and encourages graffiti at the same time.

Once we made it to New Mexico we left the interstate behind to follow state highways through the landscape, mostly alone on the roads, storm clouds moving swiftly across the sky. We stopped randomly, making detours for places we hadn’t come across while planning, and pausing for any interesting abandoned building or old cemetery.

In New Mexico we met friendly squirrels at the Blue Hole and hiked through light rain at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. We saw bunnies too! I’m always excited when I see any kind of wildlife and we keep track of what we encounter along the way. I count horses and cows and sheep and goats too because I love them just as much as wild turkeys and glimpses of deer or elk.

We drove to Tombstone, Arizona and spent the very early morning meandering the historic part of town and inspecting Boot Hill. That far south we also encountered the Boarder Patrol for the first but not the last time. That was a whole new experience for me. I’d never been anywhere in the United States where I’d been asked if I was a US Citizen and had to show identification. I didn’t mind it but it was a strange experience.

From there we headed for Saguaro National Park in the middle of Tempe, Arizona. The Sonoran desert is the only place these strange cacti grow. I was amazed to learn how delicate they are. The root systems are extremely shallow and it’s easy for them to fall over (much like Joshua Trees). And there they stand precariously, arms stretching toward the sky and tall as trees, beautiful and completely unique.

The drive from there to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was a long one. At one point, well past sunset and heading for the deeper night, we stopped to stretch. The night was perfectly clear and overhead the Milky Way glimmered and shone. I’d never seen it before and it was everything and more you see in photos. The beauty of it all, stretched across the sky, leaves you breathless.

As we went on our headlights picked out the winding road, the Orion constellation to the right and high in the sky. Several times we passed elk on the verges and once we saw a huge stag as it crossed the road, a giant in the dark. We arrived in Tusayan late, the closest point to the Grand Canyon (South Rim) without staying in the park, and got even earlier to watch the sunrise. I can’t recommend this enough, get up early to beat the crowds and bring your coffee, there isn’t a better to place to watch the sun come up.

More New Mexico was next as we made our way back across the northern part of the state. We drove all through a moonless night to see Ship Rock but got there too late and had to be up way before sunrise and on the road if we wanted to make it home around midnight. So Ship Rock is still on my list of places to see. On the way out of town we stopped at the San Juan Mission Cemetery and spent a few minutes exploring.

From there we headed for Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Did you know you can walk through ancient lava fields in New Mexico? Neither did I. This was such a surprise and another place I’d like to go back and explore more. You can see the remains of the cinder cone and the landscape surrounding it is black with the remains of lava. The contrast between the blue of the sky and the tall green pine trees growing tall out of the black earth was striking.

Another stop we made was Meteor Crater New Mexico. This was an unplanned, spur of the moment, lets go there place thanks to the billboard signs along the highway. It’s a little expensive to see it and the only way to view the area is on a platform overlooking the crater. It’s truly impressive but I wish you were able to walk across it or down into it even though it would take a big chunk of time.

Daylight was running out as we headed toward Petrified Forest National Park. And as if my camera batteries were attached to the sun they died almost as soon as we crossed into the park. The drive through twilight, landmarks picked out in sunset colors, was beautiful. We rolled the windows down and enjoyed the sound of birds settling for the night and the quick glimpses of coyotes crossing the landscape.

We learned a lot on this trip; always bring extra batteries, pack your lunch, stop for gas when you see it because who knows when the next place will be, and most importantly for us was learning that we traveled well together. It brought us closer and cemented what was growing between us. It’s become part of history, the personal mythology of our small family, and continues to be part of our lives.

We saw so much in such a short time; volcanic rubble, petrified trees, craters, canyons, cactus, drove through nights filled with endless stars and elk caught in the reflection of our headlights. That first road trip together was magic. There is no one else I’d rather travel with. This first adventure has set the tone for the rest.

I’m looking forward to packing up the kids and dragging them along too at some point. My childhood was filled with family day trips and vacations. But I spent about ninety percent of my time reading in the car and the rest sleeping. My parents always told me to put the book down, to look around and appreciate where we were. I’d glance around at Rocky Mountains or North Carolina woods and go back to my book. My memories of those vacations are tied to what I was reading at the time. I wonder if my kids will be the same? And my parents will laugh when I tell them about how uninterested they were when we went to this place or that.

My list of places to visit is always growing and includes lots of places I’d like to go back to. Where are your favorite places in the Southwest? What spot would you return to again and again?  

Catch up on the other posts from this adventure -

Mushroom Rock State Park - Kansas

Mushroom Rock State Park - Kansas

Self Portraits in One Hour

Self Portraits in One Hour