Road Trip 2013: Arid America

On July 18, I drove from Austin to Amarillo with my fabulous friends, Keri and Kat. We rented a gas-sipping Chevy Cruz, and headed across the flatlands of West Texas for a six day road trip. As a native northwesterner, I’m most familiar with mountains looming in all directions. Austin is considered hilly for Texas, although it has always seemed fairly flat to me. As we traversed West Texas, I suddenly realized why Austin’s landscape must seem virtually Himalayan to some. Not only was the ground totally even, it had almost no trees. This made the sky seem epic and endless. The landscape was also frequently covered with wind turbines, which I’ve heard so much about from my friend Sarah, a wind systems engineer who blogs at For the Love of Chow.

We stopped in Lubbock for dinner at Triple J Chophouse, which had some oily wonton chips to accompany my appetizer dinner of Cactus Queso Blanco. We also took ridiculous photos outside the Buddy Holly Center, which was closed. Lubbock had a surprisingly-small skyline – and by small, I mean “somewhat-nonexistent”.

After a night of intense air-matress sleep at our friend Scott’s Amarillo home, we headed out to the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum. Kat, Keri and Scott aren’t as enthusiastic about equines as I am, but they graciously accompanied me to this lovely homage to a breed of horse I grew up riding. Doc Bar, the sire of a good friend’s two horses, was featured in both a plaque and a book at the museum.

For lunch, we headed to The Big Texan Restaurant on Route 66, famed for its 72 oz. steak, which those with massive appetites must consume within an hour, along with shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a roll with butter. Yikes. If your body is incapable of engaging in this level of gluttony within an hour, you must pay $72. I’m a vegetarian, but enjoyed a lunch of fried mushrooms and a side salad at this carnivore’s mecca. While we waited for our table, we played the role of ridiculous-photo-taking tourists at the restaurant’s museum.

Close to Big Texan, is Cadillac Ranch, also on Route 66. This odd art sits in an open field near the freeway, and has cans of spray paint available for you to further desecrate these classic junkers. Multi-colored cars set against the vast blue vistas of West Texas makes for some strange prettiness. The ranch was teeming with fellow tourists during our visit. It’s free to enter.

In the evening, we went to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the Texas equivalent of The Grand Canyon. It was surprisingly stunning, and the dry, breezy West Texas air made our two-hour hike one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever taken.

Saturday morning we drove the four hours from Amarillo to Albuquerque, the latter of which has become a tourist destination for fans of Breaking Bad. I don’t watch the show, but a friend we met up with in the city pointed out various places where scenes from the show occur. The city even has a trolley tour for the Breaking Bad faithful.

For lunch we ate at Duran’s Station, which is supposed to have some of the most authentically New Mexican food in the city. This means it featured the state’s famous red chile in its fare. From there we walked to Old Town Albuquerque, which is basically an adobe version of Gilmore Girls’ mega-adorable Stars Hollow town square, complete with a quaint gazebo. Sigh. If you’re into turquoise jewelry, Old Town Albuquerque is your happy place! The prices for it seemed quite reasonable, too.

For a mere $20, we then rode Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak Tramway up to 10,378 feet. It is the world’s longest tramway, and was packed standing room only with approximately 30 people. If you’re afraid of heights, this tram might be terrifying, as you’re suspended far above rocky ravines. The view from the tram and the top are well worth overcoming your fear, though.

After checking into our room at the Best Western on Yale Blvd, we drove to dinner at Frontier Restaurant across from the University of New Mexico campus. The food wasn’t fabulous, but the odd ambiance more than made up for it. Portraits of John Wayne abound, and something about the place made me feel I was in an episode of Happy Days.

On Sunday we headed to Santa Fe through the Jemez Mountains, which are splendid. They were much more majestic than the more-famous Santa Fe, and were full of hiking trails and elk meadows. The topography reminded me of the eastern section of my home state, Washington.

In Santa Fe, we lunched at Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, which is famous for its margaritas of which they have 100 options. I’m not much of a drinker, but decided to partake of Maria’s House Special ‘rita, which was … ahem … strong. The meal left a few members of our group not feeling well, however we mustered some energy and headed to the city’s plaza, which was quite the homage to adobe architecture and St. Francis of Assisi. If you have $8k lying around waiting to be spent on ostentatious art, this is a good place to drop it. We trolled through a few galleries and jewelry stores, but the best part was people watching. There was significant diversity in terms of demographics represented in the plaza.

On Monday we headed back to Amarillo through the vast, unpopulated flatlands between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico.

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