trip report! part two: the drive down

December 1, 2009

After pre-loading on calories at the ever-delicious Nepal Cuisine, we left around 2 pm the Saturday before Thanksgiving for what promised to be at least a 12-to-13-hour drive. Fun. The grand plan, such as it was, was to drive about half of that each day, and stop for the night in the Santa Fe National Forest to camp somewhere on public land, hopefully somewhere that didn’t actively forbid camping (although we knew it was likely to be a spot we weren’t really supposed to be in).

The problem with grand plans, especially on zero-budget trips to unfamiliar places, is that they seldom work out.  Our troubles began before we’d even left Colorado.  It all started with the damned dome light.  I’ve had a non-functional dome light in my car forever, pretty much since I bought it in March 2008.  But, functional dome lights are a big deal on long road trips and camping trips, so I bought the correct bulb and intended to replace it.  I did so at the Colorado City rest area, after wandering around and taking some cool pictures of Pike’s Peak at sunset.

Pikes Peak in the distance, the faithful Miss Piggy in the foreground (still with broken dome light).

So, in the process of changing this dome light, I somehow manage to create a short across the screwdriver I’m using, and the car obliges by sending out some lovely sparks.  Okay…not a big deal, I hope.  I continue, install the light bulb, and lo and behold, it won’t work.  Oh well, I shrug, it hasn’t worked anyway, maybe there’s some larger electrical issue, as this is the third time I have replaced the bulb now since owning the car.

Crank the car, hope to get on the road again…and the radio’s not working.  Won’t.  Turn.  On.  This is a Big Deal, capital letters and all.

Without a radio, this is our entertainment for all 12 hours.

Thus begins a good half hour of fiddling with fuses, finding out that the one that’s broken is somehow not the radio fuse, and not only that, is the only type of fuse that I don’t have a spare for.  Great.

Yet, Google Be Praised!  Thanks to 800-GOOG-411, we were able to locate a Wal-mart Supercenter in Trinidad, Colorado, a mere hour’s drive to the south.  Our usual refusal to shop at the Walton family’s establishments was relaxed in favor of saving us from death by boredom.  That, and a craving for Pop-Tarts, since we already had to stop anyway.  We filled the hour by playing the ABC game, y’know, the one where you have to find all the letters of the alphabet on the road somehow.  We spent 24 miles getting from A to B, and then 4 getting from B to Z.  Oh, southern Colorado, how empty you are, except for small towns like Trinidad that have Dairy Queens and work zones.

[An aside: the partner tells me that Trinidad, Colorado is the sex-change capital of the world.  Actually, it was slightly less respectfully phrased, referring to persons who might seek such a service, but we’ll pretend it wasn’t.  Can anyone confirm/deny?  [An aside aside: a quick google search (Google Be Praised!) informs me that one Dr. Marci Bowers, a renowned expert in gender reassignment surgery, has “transformed the sleepy town of 10,000 into the sex-change capital of the world.”  I’m not sure by what criteria one identifies a town as the ______ capital of the world, but sure, it seems that TLC’s documentary has cemented that status.]]

New fuses and brown-sugar-cinnamon Pop-Tarts in hand, we got back on the road.  Things were fairly uneventful for a good while, seeing as there is Absolutely Nothing in northern New Mexico.  Other than welcome signs, that is.

This is kind of readable, I guess.

Even the rest areas in northern New Mex don’t have anything at them.  No, really.  The highway signs all say “NO FACILITIES,” and they aren’t kidding.  These suckers are just large pull-offs with a few picnic tables.  They’re not even lit.  They’re the perfect site for some bizarre crimes that will result in overly-dramatic spots on “America’s Most Wanted” one day.

Cue the creepiness.  We pull off at one such “rest area” to switch drivers, right after passing this dude on a motorcycle who is doing all kinds of terrifying wobbling all over the highway.  Of course, he follows us.

He waits a moment, while we’re rearranging things in the car thanks to the now-functional dome light (hooray!), then approaches us slowly.  Turns out he doesn’t want to murder us, but is out of gas, and wants to know if we a) have a gas can (I do, actually, but it’s full of diesel, which does nobody any good at all.  It was salvaged from the partner’s now-deceased diesel VW Golf), or b) know how far it is to the next town.  That sucks.  Running out of gas out there is a nightmare.

So, cue some negotiation, and since we filled up fairly recently, and he has a siphon hose and an oil container, we invite him to get enough from the tank to make it to Santa Fe (another 20 or 30 miles at this point, we collectively estimate).

Turns out my gas tank has some weird anti-siphon feature built in, which he tries to defeat for about 20 minutes before giving up and despairing.  We encourage him to take his chances on the highway, since he does have enough gas to make it maybe 5 or 10 miles more, and if he runs out there, at least he’ll have more visibility than at this stupid, pathetic excuse for a rest area.  I have no idea what he actually did, but the very next exit, less than 5 miles away, loudly advertised that it was home to a service station, so hopefully he made it.  It was getting mighty cold out.

After that, it was back on the road, and the beginning of our hunt for camping.  I had spent a little bit of time bonding with google maps before our departure, and written down about five options for accessing national forest land right off the highway.  All of them that we attempted failed.  Failed miserably, even.  The only roads available at all of these exits were private roads, accessing only private land.  Google Be Cursed!  The forest boundaries were quite incorrect on the maps I checked out.

It was getting late, and we were getting mightily sick of the empty road.  We went ahead for a ways, and then, lo and behold, a KOA Kampground appeared!  Actually, we pretty much hate these, but we were seriously low on options by now.  We pull off, pull in, see that the office is closed and there are no registration forms on the board where it says to fill one out, so, whoops, too bad, we pull into a spot anyway.  Slapping down sleeping bags on the ground next to the car, dragging the dog between us and throwing a blanket over her, we attempt to sleep.

The dog doesn’t like it.  She tries twice to climb inside my bag (which is a zero-degree bag, so it would’ve been way too toasty with two of us in there).  She gets up and sniffs around repeatedly.  She curls up to sleep for a bit, then gets sick of it and sniffs again.  Round about 4 am, we get heartily sick of this game, and just hop back in the car.  Thanks KOA!

I sleep in the car for an hour or so, while the partner does the miserable pre-dawn driving duties.  The dog, happy at last, passes out in the back.  I wake up when we stop for gas around 6 am, at a gas station that turns out not to sell gas.  Yes, you read correctly, the gas station did not sell gas that day, despite the ten pumps outside it.  Oh, New Mexico, you truly are a land of enchantment.

Luckily, they sold coffee, and I eagerly got a cup and we got back on the road (we did eventually find a gas-selling gas station).

Mmm, gas station coffee. My enthusiasm is obvious.

It turned out to be a pretty beautiful drive through the New Mex desert at sunrise, though it quickly got boring after the sun was up properly.  That is, until we finally reached the turnoff for our destination, round about exit 63.  Somewhere along the way, we ate a tasty breakfast of old grocery-store bagels and warm cream cheese.

As the partner captioned this elsewhere, dog says, "Mmm, derish."

The next bit was prettier, but fairly dull as well after a while, despite the increased level of attentiveness required to drive on crazy-ass mountain roads.  I find it hard to believe that I once was terrified of mountain driving, after more than a year of living in Colorado.  We quickly got even further from civilization, and went from there being Absolutely Nothing to I-Haven’t-Seen-A-Car-in-Twenty-Miles Nothing.  I might have worried if I hadn’t just spent $1350 in various repairs to the aging Miss Piggy.

The miscreant mutt enjoys mountain roads.

After a bit we came upon a “town” or two, with some amusing signs and sights.  There was also a ton of what we then identified as agave (but now I’m less convinced), much of it with the remnants of flower stalks.  It made for a very Dr.-Seussian landscape, at any rate.

Clean restrooms, candy, and worms. What more do you need? Oh, this place is also an internet cafe.

Dr. Seuss would have been considered a realist if he lived here.

Finally, at long last, we approached the wilderness area, and its very un-wilderness visitor center.  [An aside: we also purchased a topo map at said visitor center.  I purchased a much lamer map in Boulder, at the Boulder Map Gallery, where I was told, “if we don’t have it, it’s because it doesn’t exist.”  Sorry guys.  It exists, and you didn’t have it.  Failure!]  Most importantly, we got out of the car for good.  Hooray!

I am glad to be out of the car. This is an overlook of where we're going. Sort of, at least. There are canyons down in there somewhere that we will later enjoy, and get hypothermia in.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our epic story.  For now, though, I must stop slacking off, and get back to that work thing.

Continue to trip report!  part three: cliff dwellers and pot hunters



  1. This is one of those awesome to read, awful to live stories. So… *I’m* enjoying it anyway! As someone who is applying to schools currently in both Colorado and New Mexico, I think your blogging is going to be highly informative 😉 Also, brown-sugar-cinnamon pop-tarts are the only good ones (so good!), good call.

    • What schools are you applying to, out of curiosity?

      [and also: sometimes I get a craving for the chocolate fudge pop-tarts, but they aren’t as good. alas.]

      • University of New Mexico and Colorado State. They’re actually toward the bottom of my list though (also applying to UNCG, UNCW, UVA, Vanderbilt, UFL, U of Miami, and U of Iowa – mostly warm places!) First deadlines are coming up, ai ai ai.

  2. I know nothing of UNM (not even if that’s their real abbreviation), but Eric started a master’s program this year at CSU. Fort Collins is a pretty awesome town — in some ways it’s cooler than Boulder, even though Boulder has the reputation.

    MFA, I presume?

    Also, you might want to take my griping with a grain of salt regarding the climate here. It’s really awesome and warm when it’s not snowing, even for most of the winter. We get 50-60 degree days in January, even, if we’re lucky. It was nice last week.

    Good luck with your deadlines!

  3. Yup, MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Can’t wait to be a student again! Cold & snow actually sounds kind of nice right now… NC is having a cool & rainy season this year; I am not a fan.

    Good luck on the exam!

  4. […] out of the basement dispatches from physics grad school trip report! part two: the drive down » trip report! part one: the overview November 30, 2009 Today is the first day back […]

  5. I am enjoying your adventure. Yep: Gotta be careful with screwdrivers around electrical fixtures ;o)

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