Beauty All Around Us

With it being the 12th time this trip that I pack the car, the process comes easily. Large bags and those we won’t need to get anything out of on the bottom; smaller bags and frequently visited bags on top. The gaps are filled with my water filter and tea kettle along with Riley’s shoes for every occasion and blanket. I admire my Tetris-formation resting motionless in the backseat. I then hop in the driver’s seat, confirming that my field of vision is not obscured by protruding luggage, and rev up the car.

Today we’re going to Santa Barbara. Why Santa Barbara? Because we heard it’s a pretty sweet town. Plus, Los Angeles is too far a drive to make in one day; particularly a day with as many scenic stops as today. The day’s journey commences on not-too-unusual highways. By now we’ve driven on so many boring interstates that the 880’s, 280’s, 10’s, 20’s and 101’s mesh in my mind.

Our first stop is Monterey, home to many of the country’s wealthiest residents and vacationers. A 17 mile road, creatively dubbed 17 Mile Road, takes us on a loop of this affluent area. With pristine weather pressuring us to enjoy the beauty around us, Riley and I cruise along a winding one-lane road. We pass between endlessly tall trees, drive alongside unexpectedly steep cliffs and stare out our window at perfectly struck golf balls.

“How much do you think it costs to play a round on that course?” I ask Riley as we pass a man putting beside a breathtaking 50 foot cliff emptying into the bay.

We look it up. $495.

Seems like a better use of money than getting our car towed for $700.

We open a map of the area, showing 20 points of interest. We pull off at one of them; a scenic beach. A Chinese man, inexplicably excited, climbs atop his van and pumps his fists in the air, yelling manically. His friends snap photos of him. The view of the beach is nice. But not that nice.

We stop at another beach. A large rock rests in the water a few hundred feet from the shore. The rock appears typical – brownish yellow, with some rough edges. Riley and I walk over to a sign describing this point of interest. “Seal Rock,” it reads. We look closer.

“Holy cow,” I shout. “All those brown spots are seals.”

Hundreds of squawking seals and California sea lions sun bathe on this monument protruding from the water. Various species of birds circulate the rock searching for something to nibble on. One bird, tired from its constant flight, rests atop a lazy seal. Agitated that his tanning session has been disrupted the seal jumps, or rather flops, into the water.

We stop at a handful more points of interest. Each displays a unique beauty, which can only be found among this magical West Coast bay. We pass beneath a massive house, built almost entirely of glass, overlooking 10 foot waves splashing against a cliff. Soon after we pass a golf club house. On second glance, the structure is not a clubhouse, but a home. A massive home, costing more than most families make in 10 lifetimes.

The beauty around us blinds us to the needs of our body. It isn’t until 3:30 in the afternoon that we realize we are starved. We have a $10 voucher for any restaurant within the confines of the 17 Mile Drive, so we pull into one of the golf resorts. We spot a restaurant and walk in. Despite our voucher, we still spend thrice the price one should pay for a meal consisting of a handful of under-fried calamari and popcorn shrimp, 4 slimy buffalo wings and 3 potato skins.

Remember what I said above about all the highways meshing in my mind? Well, that all changes the moment we step wheel onto Highway 1. Of all the roads I’ve ever driven on in the contiguous United States, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, this one is by far the most spectacular. This one lane road runs along the Pacific coast. To our right is the ocean and to our left are the Sierras. The water has never appeared this deep a blue. And the mountains have never looked this appealing to climb. We enter Big Sur, a 100 mile drive of purely brilliant nature. We cruise along the tallest cliffs I’ve been atop since hiking Waimea Canyon in Kauai.

The sun descends on this cloudless day, casting a golden glow atop everything in sight. We stop to take a scenic picture. We stop again. And again and again. The panorama seems more and more stunning with each mile driven. The beauty reaches a climax at one particular hill. Riley and I pull of at a shoulder and follow a thin trail running up this mini-mountain. Upon reaching the 100 foot apex, we stand at the edge of a 600 foot drop.

“Wow, what a view,” I exclaim, praying I’m not overcome by vertigo. What seems like miles in front of me rests a field of lazy cows. A step and a half to the right is a straight drop into the merciless ocean; only jagged rocks positioned to soften the blow. To my left is the highway; the very same one we just drove on. And behind us is a picturesque bridge, below which rests a gray and white sand beach.

Riley, a few feet behind me, peers in front me. She quickly squirms back to her comfort zone against the back of my shirt. “We’re not going any farther,” she says.

“Let’s just take a few more steps and take a photo,” I say.

Hesitantly, Riley agrees. Fortunately, a man with the same idea as us reaches the top of the hill and agrees to take our picture. We now have proof of this magical spot.

As we stand, basking in the moment, a strong gust of winds brushes against us. I waver along the 4 foot wide ledge.

“We’re leaving,” Riley squeals.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I agree. We cautiously shimmy back down the trail, mindful of bulging shrubs and loose rocks. We make it down in one piece. Back in the car, we continue our journey.

Just after 5pm, Riley and I pull over again. The sun is an index finger’s length away from sinking into the water. We find a comfortable rock to sit on. Riley cuddles up in her well-traveled blanket as I sit beside her with my arm around her shoulder. We watch the massive ball of fire disappear for the night. It can sleep well tonight knowing it put on a most wonderful show for us today.

The final 50 miles of Big Sur are driven in darkness. With twists and turns making up the entire remaining stretch, and there being no street lights to guide us, this drive is a bit discerning. For the most part we’re alone on the road. Occasionally we encounter a fearful driver slowly trudging along in front of us or a daredevil catching up behind us. Fortunately, there are plenty of shoulders for the sluggish to pull off at. The quick pass allowing the slow to return to their peaceful route.

The road straightens and street lights appear. Big Sur is no more. Back to the old, boring highways. Hungry, yet again, we find a Trader Joe’s, where we stock up on a breakfast-worth of groceries and a few prepared dinners. 2 rolls of sushi and a couple of kale salads later the steering wheel is tightly gripped between my hands as we set off on the final stretch to Santa Barbara.

2 hours later we pull up against a curb in front of a plain, beige apartment building. After reading the parking sign 3 times and concluding we won’t be spending the following morning conversing with the local tow company, Riley and I extract our essentials from the car and head to the waist-high black gate. We enter a courtyard surrounded by 8 apartment doors. One reads “D.” This is where our Couchsurfing host, Gao, lives. We knock. A man, not even a year younger than me, although appearing over a decade younger, opens the door. Specs of gray hair huddle among his straight black mane.

“Hi Misha,” he says in a Chinese accent.

“Hello,” I reply.

Gao steps aside, allowing us to enter his mostly empty apartment. A stand-alone heater, running from the floor to the ceiling is positioned opposite the front door. Uncomfortable hot air blows from it. A few feet to the left of the front door is a twin size mattress and a slightly larger futon. We rest our bags beside our beds and sit to talk to our host. We learn that Gao moved from China to New York to attend Cornell. Upon graduating he got a job with a small engineering company in Santa Barbara, California.

“A great place to live, but not so good place to travel,” he explains when attempting to come up with things for us to do while in town.

Exhaustion sets in for Riley and I and we’re ready for Gao to depart to his room and let us sleep. Either due to cultural differences or our host’s preference to sit silently and stare at us, Gao does not get the hint. For what feels like the next hour, the 3 of us sit in a triangle, looking from one set of eyes to the next, no one uttering a word.

“Alright, I’m going to drink some tea and go to bed,” I say.

“Okay,” Gao replies, still not rising.

Only when I stand up and walk to the kitchen does Gao depart from his seated position.

“Good night,” I say.

“Good night,” the little man responds.

Land of Cheap Gas and Beer

We approach the ancient wooden door. A stone Buddha sits in full lotus to the left of us. A scooter, having seen many better days, leans against the side of the house, motionless. Misha makes a fist with his right hand and knocks three times below the smiling sun carved into the upper center of the door. A fit man appearing in his fifties opens the door. Unkempt grey hair protrudes from beneath his black and white fedora.

“Hello,” the man says.

“Hi. Are you Stephen?” Misha replies.

Still acclimating to this new experience, I stand a few feet behind Misha.

“Yeah, I’m Steve,” the man answers. “And you must be Misha.” He then turns toward me and asks me my name.

“I’m Riley,” I say.

Steve invites us into his cluttered home. Tribal relics and artwork span the unpainted walls. Shelves upon shelves are filled with vintage records and tapes. Another bookcase contains more modern sources of music – CDs. Countless dusty books are stacked atop antique tables. One of the many Buddhas in this home rests peacefully within a wall incision along the staircase leading to the second floor. Steve points out a small tent lying atop aging wooden furniture. “I’m in the process of making that thing waterproof for when I backpack Colombia for 2 months. I leave in a few weeks.”

While studying the disorganization among us and talking with our host, we learn that for a profession Steve imports and sells various items from Indonesia. In addition to the keepsakes and indigenous clothing scattered among the house, Steve has an entire warehouse full of imports he is attempting to liquidate. “Once all this crap is gone, I’m retiring,” he says.

Steve is also working on multiple projects around the house, including renovating his kitchen, painting the walls and setting up a permanent room for Couchsurfers. The more we speak to Steve, the more I realize this is going to be an unforgettable and eye opening 2 days in Santa Fe.

An hour after arriving at our temporary home, Misha and I set out to the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. Unprepared for the 20 degree weather, we only stay long enough to eat dinner and check out a “funky schmunky” (as described by a local couple we came across) bar, named Evangelos. And indeed the bar was funky schmunky. Rugged-looking men with cowboy hats drink in the dim-light room filled with stuffed game and ancient Mexican decorations. We return to Steve’s house exhausted and are soon asleep in his guest bedroom.

With the sun having awoken, Misha and I arise from bed ready to go for a run. Upon stepping outside we are exposed to picturesque terrain. Snuggled between the mountains, Steve’s house is at the end of a development consisting of quaint homes perched among large plots of land. We look into the distance and see snow-capped mountains beyond endless dry fields of golden shrubs and scattered rocks. We run 4 miles along the desolate, snowy street, passing horses, dogs and adobe-style farm houses. Despite the 7,000 foot altitude and the uncomfortable blasts of sub-freezing wind, we make it back to Steve’s house.

Although worn out and cold, I’m determined to experience more of this distinctive city. Our first stop is Madrid. No, not the city in Spain. A 40 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe, Madrid, NM was once a prosperous lead and coal mining town. As with many mining towns, the natural resources in Madrid were exhausted and the economy dwindled, resulting in a ghost town. Some time later Madrid received a face lift and now boasts a renowned artistic community, with a variety of enjoyable shops and galleries lining the main street. As we wander in and out of the aged shops, I can’t believe that I’m in the United States. The culture, terrain, and architecture of Santa Fe is something I’ve never experienced. I soak in each step.

We end the day at the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Unlike the breweries I’ve experienced in the past, in which I receive a collectible glass and six 4oz pours of beer, this brewery sells delicious pints of beer for 3 bucks a pop. This favorable price came as little surprise to us, as gas sells for under 2 bucks a gallon in this town. Misha and I climb the stairs to the second floor where we are surrounded by extravagant Christmas decorations. A Christmas Party will be taking place here later tonight. While sipping our crafts brews we engage in conversation with an older couple from El Paso, TX. We have much to talk about as they are quite the travel buffs. After discussing cross-country motorcycle treks, Couchsurfing, camping, and New Mexican history, Misha and I are ready to conclude our night.

We snag some cheap dinner at a local pizzeria and head back to Steve’s home. We walk into this eccentric home to the sound of Steve listening to calming music and feasting on organic rice, veggies and self-made juice. The stove, positioned half in the kitchen and half in the living room, heats up a pot of organic purple sweet potatoes – Steve’s lunch for the next day. After many questions from Misha, we learn more about our wonderful and caring host, including his passion for preserving our environment and our bodies. We are wildly impressed by his use of composts for the garden, buckets to catch the cold and excess water in the shower, and mason jars to preserve and ferment food. I go to sleep reflecting on my time in Santa Fe; it has been an unusual; yet, amazingly mind-opening experience which I will never forget.

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.