Into the Underworld

If you’re looking for an exciting 8 hours, the drive from Austin, TX to Carlsbad, NM is not for you. Aside from a handful of small towns, this drive consists solely of dried vegetation and empty road. On average we see less than one car per hour, and see more oil rigs than humans and animals combined. To pass the time, we play crossword puzzles, blast Phish through our car speakers and find excuses to pull over and stretch our legs.

After 4 hours of monotonous driving, my cell phone displays signs of reception. A town must be nearing. Moments later, we enter Mason, Texas, a town of 2,000 inhabitants. Seemingly the only awake resident works at the café we walk into. A fairly priced taco salad and roast beef sandwich later, Riley and I are back on the open road. Despite the topography not changing at all, leading us to wonder whether we’re actually just driving in circles, we arrive in Carlsbad, NM just after 8pm MST.

Tonight we’re camping. Seems like a reasonable thing to do for a young, adventurous couple. Especially since it’s saving us $80. We pull into the only open grocery store in town and load up on ground beef, vegetables, Weenie Beenies, beef jerky, aluminum foil, charcoal and water. Ironically, our campsite is across the street. Not quite the backcountry camping I imagined, but it sure is convenient. Using an old camping trick Riley learned back in her early teens, we season the purchased beef and vegetables, enclose the concoction in aluminum foil, and set it atop the grill. 30 minutes later – pure deliciousness. We light some candles in honor of the first night of Hanukkah, pop open a brew, and feast on our inexpensive, yet delightful, meal.

Once the food settles and the fire dies down, we realize it is freezing. Mid to high 30s didn’t seem so bad when talking to the campsite owner earlier in the day about the impending weather. Riley and I each put on three layers of clothing and bundle up in a single sleeping back and an airplane blanket inside my tent. With Riley and I relying solely on each other for warmth, sleep is hard to come by tonight.

It suddenly becomes uncomfortably warm beneath the blanket wrapped around Riley and my head. I unzip the tent flap and am blinded by the glare of the desert sun. It’s 8:30 in the morning and nature wants us awake. We munch on whatever foods we can find in our car and pack away our belongings. By 11a.m. we’re at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although not quite the longest, deepest or widest, these caves are largely considered the most beautiful in the world. For 4 underground miles we explore Dogtooth Spars, Cave Pearls, Helictites, flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and aragonites. We emerge from this fairy tale land unscathed, ready to treat ourselves to an authentic Mexican lunch; one not named La Salsita.

After a fulfilling meal, Riley asks if she can drive. Over the next 4 hours, we ascend to an altitude of 9,000 feet to Cloudcroft, NM; one of the highest elevations in the U.S. and descend 5,000 feet to Alamogordo, NM. I feel a bit unsettled as Riley slices through the Sacramento Mountains, among rain, snow, oncoming trucks, and pitch darkness. Despite me fearing for my life, Riley drives exceptionally well and we arrive at our Super 8 in one piece.

The only source of food at this hour is a Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. As we order sushi, I can’t help but wonder where the restaurant obtains its fish from when situated in the middle of the desert. We return to our abode for the night and pass out. Having slept less than a handful of hours the night before and hiking for most of the morning and afternoon, we sleep like kings (and queens) tonight.

We wake up in time for the all-too-familiar continental breakfast. We then set out for White Sands National Monument, a not-too-well-known gem consisting of 275 square miles of snow-white sand. We stop by Staples and plead the store employee for an empty cardboard box, so we could use it to slide down the 50 foot sand dunes at White Sands.

Upon entering the park we drive 8 miles deep to the starting point of the longest hiking trail and the area with the largest sand dunes. Despite all our best efforts our pieces of cardboard refuse to slide more than a few inches before becoming immobilized by pounds of white sand. To our delight, the young quartet sitting behind us at breakfast shows up with flying saucer sleds and kindly offer us a ride. Riley and I slide down the steep sand dune at a much more respectable speed. Everyone laughs as I make a last second dive out of my sled to avoid crashing into my terrified girlfriend.

We hike barefoot for over 5 miles of sand dunes, coming across only a handful of people along the way. The sand is so white that it can easily be mistaken for snow. And by 2pm it begins to feel like snow as the sun lowers into the horizon. 3 hours of fresh desert air later, we get back into our vehicle and head to our next destination.

The strenuous hike has led us to a state of hunger. A promising billboard reassures us that a celebrated café is in the nearing town. 15 miles later we arrive at a dilapidated building, seemingly having been closed for the better part of the last century. Looking around, we find that the entire town has a similar appearance. Onto the next town. Unfortunately for our stomachs and bladders, the next town is 50 miles away. We arrive in this sleepy town and pass through its 1 mile diameter, slowly losing hope that we will ever eat again. Pleasantly surprised to have reception, I do a quick Google search and am pleased to find an open restaurant on the cusp of town. Another mediocre Mexican joint. But one that is very much needed in this time of extreme hunger.

Our appetites satisfied and our moods improved, we get back into the car. After 3 hours of high speed driving through darkness, we arrive in Santa Fe, NM. About 15 miles past the downtown exits, we pull off into a small mountain town. Another few miles later we turn onto an unlit road, boasting a sign that we are entering a land grant area. A little apprehensive about the lack of civilization around us, we continue driving until reaching an eerie looking house in the middle of nowhere. We have arrived at the home of our Couchsurfing host.

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Everything is Bigger in Texas

The sun glistens off a shiny metallic star, 10 times the size of me. We’ve officially arrived in Texas, the Lone Star state. With Austin another 4 hours away, and my overwhelming hunger making me sick, I ask Misha to pull over at the next decent restaurant. This task is more challenging than we thought. For 20 miles the only restaurant we pass is a Pizza Hut. No thanks. We see signs for the city of Beaumont. That sounds more promising. Misha reads a few reviews online, and we settle on a reasonably priced Italian restaurant. It’s closed. In fact, the entire town of Beaumont looks like it’s been closed for the past few decades. We try another place – La Salsita; authentic Mexican food. Huge Mistake. After ordering what I think was a chicken burrito, and watching the cashier hit on my boyfriend, we sit down to eat. Misha maintains a stoic face as he attempts to down the mass of food in his hands. Despite my apprehensiveness, I follow suit. Two-thirds through our burritos, we call it quits.

“We needed to eat at a place like that. So we could get it out of our system. Right?” I ask Misha, attempting to find optimism in the episode having just occurred.

“Sure,” Misha says.

With a rumbling stomach, I cautiously drive along seemingly endless, wide roads. The 80mph speed limit is a bit disconcerting for me, as I’ve never seen anything greater than 70. I guess it’s true when they say everything is bigger in Texas. Shortly after 9pm, we arrive at Chelsy and Brett’s house. Chelsy and Misha met in the summer of 2012, while Misha was backpacking Hawai’i for two months. She now lives with her boyfriend, Brett, in Cedar Park, Texas, just north of Austin.

Chelsy greets us with massive rubber boots and a wide simile. She instantly radiates a positive and free spirited vibe. With her dirty blonde hair and athletic physique, she’s not exactly the dark-haired Hawaiian I imagined her being, but I can already tell that I’m going to get along with her. As we enter the seemingly typical home, we are enthralled by the decor of the insides. The walls are filled with artwork made of drift wood and copper. We later learn that Brett, a freelance handy-man by trade, built and welded most of these magnificent items.

After an early morning run through Brushy Creek Park, we head to SoCo, a hip area along South Congress Street, in Austin Texas. The street is filled with diversity and spontaneity, as we pass by a skater, a runner, a pair of traveling hippies, and a man dressed in a full Santa Claus outfit, crossing a bridge atop a galloping horse. Misha and I explore unique shops filled with vintage costumes, collectible books, well-preserved antiques, adorable hand-made souvenirs and other uncommon objects while discussing the carefree vibe in Austin. It’s a place of neither judgment nor a preferred style; a place where you can truly be yourself.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with laughter and Misha’s weirdness. We gradually make our way to HopeOutdoor Gallery, a hill containing wall after wall of graffiti art. A strenuous, short hike leads us atop the structure overlooking the city. We sit and enjoy the sunset.

Our last night in Austin is spent cooking a delicious salmon, red potato and asparagus meal for our lovely hosts and ourselves. We pop open a bottle of red wine and toast to old friends and new friends. A few hours of good conversation later, I make my way to bed while Misha plans the next part of our trip.