These adventuring single moms show that museums and monuments aren't just for parents as they take two active boys on a road trip through Colorado and New Mexico.
My hair is flying in my eyes, and I can feel the ridiculous grin on my face as I lean precariously over the side of the small red raft, clutching my paddle as if my life depends on it (which, at this moment, it probably does.) What am I doing here in the middle of the Rio Grande River, dripping wet, sunburned and out of breath? Is this any place for a mild- mannered government researcher and part-time suburban soccer mom?
Well, apparently my 7-year-old son, Roni, thinks so: half-hidden by his Red Sox cap and orange life vest, he's obviously having the time of his life. So are our friends Ann and Joshua, who have traveled here from Maryland with us. This is our fifth day in New Mexico, and we've already seen and done so much that we're finding it increasingly hard to remember what the East Coast looks like.
Single Moms Travel Tips
Since both of us are single parents, Ann and I are concerned with keeping costs down and keeping things simple. But we also agree that there is more to life than theme parks, and we've learned that a substantial investment in up-front planning can result in a major payoff in vacation enjoyment — particularly in places not that don't usually come to mind as child-friendly destinations.
It did take quite a bit of planning to get us here to New Mexico:
- Tenacious phone calls to airlines, looking for cheap fares and decent flight times.
- Internet searches and telephone chats with Chambers of Commerce, trying to find inexpensive accommodations that will give us more space and local character than chain motels.
- Late-night hours spent poring over glossy tourist brochures and guidebooks, trying to decide what activities and sights would most appeal to two active 7-year-old boys.
- We've learned to take advantage of discounts such as AAA, and to ask for any promotional rates that may be available.
- We've also been the beneficiaries of a friend's frequent flyer discount hotel coupon (50% off for two consecutive nights at some very nice hotels).
In any case, it has clearly been worth every ounce of effort.
How our Road Trip Came to Be
Shortly after our plane touches down in Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon, we give the boys their first glimpse of Old Town, then tour the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (505/843-7270) to give us a taste of local history and learn what to expect here in the Southwest. The cool and semi-deserted corridors of the Cultural Center are also a good place for the boys to run around after the long plane ride – we've learned that it's very important to build in time for the kids to simply work off some energy.
Later, we find that our hotel features a central patio with an outdoor pool and a hot tub, making the choice of the evening's entertainment a foregone conclusion (by that time, the boys had tired of both jumping on the beds and switching back and forth from the Disney Channel to Nickelodeon.)
Our first assignment the next morning is to find the local K-Mart and pick up a small blue cooler that we would stock with drinks, sandwiches, and snacks and keep in the trunk of our rental car throughout the trip. (Ann and I find that this is not only a good way to minimize the cost of meals, but it means that we avoid the stress of trying to find child-friendly restaurants–and the kids much prefer our lunchtime picnics, since they can run around and make all the noise they want.)
Albuquerque, the Acoma Pueblo and Petroglyph National Monument
From K-Mart, we drive about 60 miles west from Albuquerque to Acoma Pueblo, or "Sky City," a centuries-old Native American village located on top of a high, windy mesa. Mini-buses shuttle small groups of tourists from the modest visitor center up a steep, rocky road to the pueblo, where a guide leads us on an hour-long walking tour. We stop at a church perched right on the edge of the mesa, commanding a spectacular view in every direction.
Along our walking route, native artists sit behind tables displaying pottery, figurines, and jewelry. The kids, Roni and Joshua, decide to make two tiny turquoise and black-painted clay turtles their first souvenirs of this trip. We've given them each a 'budget' for souvenirs, and they're very serious about making thoughtful choices.
From Acoma, we drive the 16 miles back down to the Interstate, marveling at how high up we've gone and how remote this pueblo feels. After a quick visit to nearby Petroglyph National Monument (505/899-0205)–the boys scamper up and down the rocky hill, exclaiming over thousands of ancient drawings etched into rocks–we manage a quick dinner before heading east to take the half-hour tram ride up 11,000-foot Sandia Peak.
The ride itself is breathtaking–said to be the longest tram in the world, it ascends gently at first, then suddenly crosses a wide gorge where the earth drops away, hundreds of feet below–and we spend an hour exploring some of the nature trails at the top of the mountain.
We've succeeded in timing our visit to watch the sunset as the tram descends, all of Albuquerque spread out below us. Small areas of rain showers off in the distance add to the beauty. None of us wants to leave.
North to Santa Fe and Bandelier National Monument
The next morning, it's north to Santa Fe via the scenic route called the "Turquoise Trail." The boys beg to play "Mad Libs" and "Twenty Questions" -we've found that these tried-and-true games from our own childhoods really work to pass the time as we drive. This small road leads us around the back of Sandia Peak, past a ski area on the east face, and up through the mountains to the villages of Madrid and Cerrillios.
After our visit to a "mining museum" in Madrid (mostly broken rusting vehicles and machinery; the "mine shaft", filled with water from a recent rainstorm, is closed, but the boys nonetheless seem to find it fascinating), we stop for an ice cream at an old-fashioned soda fountain. Cerrillios is even smaller, although the kids enjoy its "petting zoo",-a pen with goats and llamas that one can feed through the fence.
Arriving in Santa Fe, we are thrilled to find that our hotel, directly on the Plaza and across the street from the Palace of the Governors, is built in the style of a New Orleans courtyard, with balconies and colorful flowers everywhere. Even the boys, who are generally unmoved by such considerations, are quite impressed, and race around exploring its shady nooks and passageways. After the requisite bed-jumping session, we go in search of dinner and an appropriately scenic setting for our nightly sunset photo session.
Tuesday morning finds us at Bandelier National Monument (505/672-3861), an hour's drive from Santa Fe, climbing the steep paths up the cliffs, then clambering up primitive wooden ladders to explore the caves where ancestors of the Pueblo Indians lived eight hundred years ago. The weather is glorious, and the place is so uncrowded that we can almost pretend we're the first people to have discovered this beautiful place. On the way back to the car, we follow a trail that runs along a stream through a grove of cottonwoods; Roni and Joshua are excited to find lizards, butterflies, and water snakes as we meander through the trees.
After a brief visit to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (505/946-1000) on Wednesday morning (mostly for the moms, but the boys were surprisingly interested in it), we follow the "High Road" to Taos.
Our Favorite Place – Taos, New Mexico
The narrow, winding highway leads us through Chimayo (there's a well-known inn and restaurant here), past impressive mountaintop overlooks in the village of Truchas, to the hamlet of Las Trampas, where we stop to explore an unexpectedly lovely, brightly-decorated church, built in the 1700s. The rugged scenery and the language here (everything is in Spanish) make us feel like we've landed in Central America.
We arrive in Taos by mid-afternoon, and know immediately that this will be our favorite place. The afternoon sun casts stark shadows on the low sand-colored buildings, contrasting with the deep blue of the sky and the majestic blue-gray clouds, which tower above the forested hillsides in the distance.
The boys are delighted with the small apartment that we've rented for three nights–"We're staying in a pueblo!!!," they shout excitedly when they see the adobe walls and the wooden beams. In addition to a real kitchen (which allows us to make breakfasts and prepare the sandwiches and snacks that we take with us for each day), we have a small, sunny patio with a high wooden fence and a hibachi grill, where we plan a cookout for the evening.
Though it's pretty late in the afternoon, we head immediately for Taos Pueblo, which is only about two miles from town. Judging from the number of cars in line behind us, many other tourists share our idea. I am official photographer for our group this time, since Ann took pictures at Acoma (cameras must be registered when visiting most pueblos; at Taos, it costs $5). I am so captivated by the surroundings that, before I know it, I've finished a whole roll of film and am halfway through another. A clear mountain-fed stream runs through the middle of the pueblo, the only source of water for the hundred or so inhabitants, who also live here without electricity.
Each time I turn a corner, I find another turquoise-painted doorway, or a dark-red "ristra" of dried peppers hanging from a wooden beam, or a shadowy alleyway between two sunlit adobe dwellings, that makes me want just one more picture. There's also a major photo-op when Joshua and Roni find several playful puppies guarding the doorstep of one of the houses, and end up in a giggling heap on the dusty ground. I already know what my favorite souvenirs of this trip will be.
Rafting on the Rio Grande
Our whitewater rafting expedition leaves early the next morning from Pilar, about 15 miles south of Taos on the Rio Grande. Our guide Jerry informs us that this part of the river is called the Rio Grande Racecourse, because in spring and fall the water becomes swift and deep, and experienced rafters come here to compete. Right now, the water is low, but that just makes the process more "technical" and the need for teamwork more critical, he says, sending a shiver up my spine.
My mental image of a non-threatening, relaxing float trip where the guides do all the work is abruptly dispelled when I am handed a rather large and ungainly yellow paddle, and we are instructed on how to position ourselves on the edge of the raft while somehow avoiding the large and menacing-looking rocks in our path.
Jerry is patient and reassuring, and shows genuine concern for all of us, particularly the kids. He makes sure that we are able follow his instructions correctly, and doesn't let us proceed downriver with the other rafts until he has explained everything fully and made us demonstrate to his satisfaction that we can follow the orders he calls out.
Once underway, the four of us find it exhilarating — hard but invigorating physical effort, spurts of frenzied activity and anxiety, followed by sudden quiet and calm moments, catching our breath while gradually becoming aware of the beauty of the cliffs around us and the bright sun shimmering on the water.
At one point, we have to steer carefully around a huge boulder that has tumbled down to the edge of the river. Someone has wedged a small stick, about a foot long, upright between the overhanging side of the boulder and the flat rock that it's standing on. Roni giggles delightedly at Jerry's joking admonition, as we pass by: "Whatever you do, don't anyone touch that stick!"
We spend three and a half hours paddling the five miles downriver before meeting the battered yellow school bus that takes us back to our starting point. From the matching ear-to-ear grins on our sunburned faces, it's clear that this excursion will rank among the highlights of our 12-day trip.
Jeep Tour And Panning For Gold
The following morning, we drive about 30 miles northwest of Taos to a modest ski resort called Red River, for a jeep tour in the Rockies. All that remains of the abandoned mining camps is a few rotting timbers, and the shock absorbers in our aging four-wheel drive transport (Jeep is a misnomer–it's really a just an old flatbed truck with seats in the back) don't do much to protect us from the rutted surface of the old stagecoach road, but the breathtaking vistas from the top of the mountain are worth the jolting three-hour drive.
The boys are excited about our brief attempt at panning for gold in the river and about climbing into a cave to see an old Spanish gold mine. In the evening, to celebrate Joshua's 7th birthday, we find a free performance of authentic Native American dances, presented by dancers from Taos Pueblo in a circular outdoor arena made dramatic by a large bonfire in the center. Roni and Joshua are captivated by one young Indian boy about their age, who dances with great energy and enthusiasm. Afterward, they are even inspired to try a few energetic dance steps of their own, in the privacy of the dark parking lot.
See Part II: "Single Moms Tame The West: Colorado With Kids" for more of Judith Teich's adventures.
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