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Southern New Mexico: How Not to See It

In the fall of 2001, the tiny private school that Jacob and Abbie attended had an all-school, three-day field trip to southern New Mexico.

Let’s get something straight right off the top: I love New Mexico. Seriously love it. There is so much that’s beautiful here, but in-between one beautiful and another beautiful? A whole hell of a lot of nothing. Vast swaths of sagebrush and blue grama cover the majority of the state. Desolate, harsh, wild, and treeless.

We left Albuquerque at 7:00 on a Saturday morning, part of a caravan of three dozen cars, and headed south toward Alamogordo. Truthfully? Alamogordo doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it, but it’s right next door to White Sands National Monument. And White Sands, if you make sure not to go when it’s so hot you’ll blister your butt the instant you emerge from the shade, is the most fun you can have with kids this side of Disneyland.

We got to White Sands at about 11:00 and had so much fun we were all shooting out flames of happiness, though of course we couldn’t SAY that because Carter hadn’t told us yet that shooting out flames of happiness was a thing.

Bonus? The sand is ultra-fine, more like powder than like sand at a beach, and if you play in it for a few hours sans shoes? Your feet will be soft as a newborn baby’s.

When we were all exhausted from playing and laughing, it was time to pile into all those vehicles and head to Carlsbad, NM, home of the unbelievably gorgeous Carlsbad Caverns, three hours away. The caravan took off in a hurry; we were all anxious to get to the hotel for dinner. Brian drove while I passed juice boxes and snacks to the kids and we were off.

An hour later, I saw a sign that said, “Las Cruces 9 miles.”

“Hey,” I said to my beloved, “are we supposed to go through Las Cruces?”

“Dunno,” says he, “check the map.”

“Where’d you put it?” I asked, beginning to rummage through the travel debris on the floor.

“It’s in your bag,” Brian said, using his chin to indicate my purse between our two seats.

“Why did you put it in there?” I asked, groping around in my purse and coming up empty.

I didn’t put it anywhere. You’re the one who brought it.”

Well, shit.

“Should we go back, or just keep going?” says someone. I mean really, does it matter who? We decided to drive into Las Cruces and, since both of us lacked a mental map of anything larger than the inside of our own damn house, we figured we’d go through Las Cruces and arrive at Carlsbad via “the back way.”

What is this back way, you ask? No idea. Clearly both of our brains had come un-glued and were rattling, untethered, in our skulls.

We drove through Las Cruces and out the other side and we did see a few signs for Carlsbad, so we figured we were fine until we saw the sign: Welcome to Texas.

Hello? Texas? We are severely directionally challenged, but we knew we weren’t supposed to leave the damn state.

Into El Paso we went, and pretty thoroughly disgusted with ourselves, too, but also kind of punch-drunk and laughing at the whole situation. We stopped for dinner at a drive through where a young panhandler approached our car. I tried to answer something she asked me in my very limited Spanish; I think I told her, “I am a prostitute but I am not pregnant,” but I’ll never know for sure. She ran off in a big damn hurry.

It was pitch black out, it was bedtime, we were exhausted, and all we could think about was getting to the hotel in Carlsbad so we could sleep. It’s a three hour drive from El Paso to Carlsbad, so we made the kids comfortable in hopes they would sleep in their carseats and we hit the road. Back out into the dark we drove, reassured by the signs for Carlsbad that we started to see regularly when we left El Paso. (BTW, did we stop to buy a map in El Paso? No, we did not. Call me a dumb ass if you will. I pretty much deserve it.)

An hour out of El Paso, it started to rain, but not regular rain. It was a desert storm, with shocking flashes of lightning and rain that came down in sheets. Brian slowed down from 65 to 55, then 45 miles per hour as visibility got shorter. I groaned, “I’m so tired! We’re never going to get there at this rate!”

At which point our minivan said KACHUNK KACHUNK KACHUNK and ground to a not-quite stop.

Of course. DUH! What did we think would happen next?

I can’t make this shit up. Remember the Griswold family in those vacation movies? They are us on a good day.

We pulled over to the side of the road, which was no interstate highway but a two-lane state road surrounded by vast nothingness. Our surroundings didn’t matter much, though, since with all the rain and dark and whatnot, we couldn’t see a damn thing.

There we were on the side of the road, and Brian and I both got out of the car, popped the hood, and stood there in the downpour, staring at the engine.

As much as we are directionally challenged? It’s nothing compared to our mutual ineptitude when it comes to mechanical things. But we have both seen people peer into engines, so we did that.

Turns out, the peering itself? Doesn’t fix cars.

We got back in the minivan, situation entirely unchanged except that now we were soaked to the skin. Brian had a great idea, “Hey, call somebody in Carlsbad and see if they’ll come get us. We’ll get a tow truck out here in the morning.”

Great idea! Raise your hand if you don’t see what’s coming next: no cell service. Of course, because we are in the middle of freaking nowhere, some twenty miles away from the New Mexico border in a part of the US that is so desolate, New Mexico and Texas had an argument over who had to own it. (I’m totally making that up, but it actually happened to Oklahoma. Nobody wanted the panhandle and they called it No Man’s Land because nobody lived there.)

See how I did that? I told you a fascinating and little-known historical fact to distract you and make you forget that I was one of 2 dumb asses who forgot to bring a map on a road trip.

What to do? There were three sleeping children in the backseat and a downpour outside, so walking the final 65 miles to Carlsbad seemed unlikely. The cell phones didn’t work and no one was going to come looking for us because not only were we on the wrong road; we were in the wrong state. Leave it to use to turn a school field trip into a survival situation.

We had about decided to spend the night right there on the road when Brian started to car to see if it would go, and it would. In second gear.

In case you ever need to know this tidbit of information, it takes two hours and 20 minutes to drive 65 miles in second gear, in the pouring rain. Add 20 or so minutes if you have to stop so that some young children can pee in a coffee can.

When we finally arrived in Carlsbad some 7 hours after everyone else, we were too tired to tell the story, but also? Way too embarrassed. We said only that we’d had car trouble and went to bed.

The next day, we drove our second-gear-only vehicle off in search of a repair shop.

Do you know what’s open in Carlsbad, New Mexico (pop. 25,000) on a Sunday? Nothing. Not a damn thing. We panicked a little because we had to be home the next day (I don’t remember why; Brian’s job, probably.), so we decided to hobble home. We drove from Carlsbad to Albuquerque – that’s 280 miles – in 2nd gear.

If you’re driving in 2nd gear, 280 miles takes the whole day. Our kids have still never seen Carlsbad Caverns. God bless those kids, they were mostly awesome the entire time, and Spencer, who had been potty trained all of 10 or so days, didn’t have a single accident.

$2000 in car repairs later, we were far too embarrassed to tell anyone that we went to Texas accidentally. We didn’t tell a soul for several years, by which time we were so well-known as severely directionally challenged, no one was the least bit surprised.

The moral of this story? Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Also? Don’t forget the damn map.

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27 comments to Southern New Mexico: How Not to See It

  • CDG

    Having been to Santa Fe briefly, for 24 hours, in from Boston via Colorado Springs, for a wedding, I’ve never been that far into the Southwest. Thanks for the tips!

    Also, I said it before, but… You’re usual poignancy, grit, and honesty are awesome (and what brought me here to read), but I do love it when you’re just plain funny!

  • That right there is enough to make me NEVER take a road trip with my family. OMG. How did you not lose your shit? I know I would have.

  • I probably would have just killed myself on the side of the road in Texas…

    • Sitting there in the dark and the rain in the broken car? We made many, many jokes about walking out into the wilderness with the kids on our backs and letting nature have its way with us.

  • Pua

    That is something that would totally happen to me…except I would panic. Like, full fledged, sobbing into my hands, snot running out of my nose, so not pretty, panic.

  • Although, I am directionally challenge and often take the “scenic route” in my own town, I really hope this does not happen to me. Not sure I could have remained as calm, but dang someone will probably be retelling that story to your grandchildren. Situations like this always end up being funny at some point.

    • Oh, it gets retold often, and it’s only one of half-a-dozen “Remember when Brian and Adrienne got lost in______________?” stories.

      There should be a test before a couple commits to each other, wherein every couple is required to have one person with a sense of direction. Or, at the very least, the good sense to bring a damn MAP!

      In town though? I’m always fine. The mountain range to the east keeps me oriented. In fact, I’m so dependent on that, I think that’s part of the reason I have such a hard time everywhere else in the world.

  • OMGosh! that is hysterical! and the drive to el paso? sucks! (done that too many times to count) but baby soft feet musta made it kinda worth it?! also, you didn’t kill each other so that’s a good thing…

  • JPW

    holy hell, i just bursted out laughing when i read “I am a prostitute but I am not pregnant”…i’ve had a flat in pouring rain, and then my jack bent, and then my car crashed on the rotor…but there were no kids so it wasn’t as bad. awesome story!

  • This is the kind of saga that happens in MY family! Loved reading it. I can’t read a map to save my life, by the way, and I almost killed my husband for suggesting that I take a map reading course. I SUGGESTED THAT HE TAKE A WRITING COURSE. molly

  • LCW

    Oh my goodness, I burst into laughter when I read “Turns out, the peering itself? Doesn’t fix cars.” because I have seen that so many times on the side of the road. Great story, please keep the funny coming, you write it so well.

    • Thanks! I know, we’re so dumb, all acting like we’re in some movie or something and trying to do what we see other people doing. We popped that hood and could pretty much identify the battery and that’s it.

  • Thank God for GPS, am I right?!

    My husbands grandmother lives in Alamogordo, and we have all kinds of plans to go to White Sands, but we want to go when there’s a full moon (I’ve heard it’s incredible) and of course, as you mentioned, not blistering hot. We’ll probably go sometime in the fall? I can’t wait!

    My favorite part of the whole post- right where I live it says “Texas- home of many Texans.” You crack me up!

    • Oh, you have to make the time to go. It’s SO much fun! I’ve never been there during a full moon, but I’m sure it’s amazing. And yes, fall is best. Spring is too windy and summer is too hot.

  • I am cracking up over here. The Grisswalds have NOTHING on you guys!

    Really? You did not by a map? Too freakin funny!

    • Nope, not till we were leaving Carlsbad to go home. SUCH dumb asses we are! Soon? Stories about the time we took a trip to San Francisco. Honestly, we’re hopeless in that way. We only know where we are if we’re within 10 miles of our house.

  • oh man that’s crazy! plus, I love your map of New Mexico. Awesome!

    so the story goes, my dad was drafted into the army in 1969 and he and my mom drove to Georgia from Californiaso he could report at Fort Benning. they were young and poor and budgeted the entire trip for food and gas and hotels. except they forgot to budget for the entire state of Texas. so I guess they arrived in Georgia on fumes, eating crackers, and having slept in their car for days.

  • Okay, you made me pee my pants a little with:

    “There were three sleeping children in the backseat and a downpour outside, so walking the final 65 miles to Carlsbad seemed unlikely.”

    Because, really, without the three kids and the downpour, a 65-mile walk it totally doable. 😉

    I’m considering a trip to White Sands instead of a pedicure.

  • […] kids and their life together. Because not only does she get no points for style, it seems she has no sense of direction, either.  So, yes it’s Adrienne, by a […]

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