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.”
“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.
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.