Architecture, Alcohol, and Adventures in Voodoo

Besides having some National Park sites in the area, New Orleans has been on my travel wish list for two reasons: I’ve been in the city twice for only a couple of hours (so all I’ve done is Cafe Du Monde) and it’s where my brother’s fiance, Gabby, is from! I’ve wanted my brother and her to show me around town for some time, and finally we put it on the books. They’re some of NOLA’s biggest fans, so I knew they’d be perfect travel companions.

My brother was set on leaving Dallas around 3AM and getting into New Orleans by noon, his so-called perfect travel time, so that’s what we did. I was able to take a bit of a nap after work so I was prepared for the early, early morning start. By the time the sun came up, I took over driving, and was enjoying Louisiana. The beautiful trees always surprise me for some reason.

We got in a bit before noon, and found our Airbnb was just shy of Esplanade Avenue, meaning our first drive to check out the colorful houses was perfect. Along this neighborhood drive, we also spotted Edgar Degas’s house! The famous painter once lived as neighbors to our current Airbnb. I was glad we’d picked such a cool area, especially after checking out our temporary home’s decor. They were clearly emphasizing the New Orleans wild and fun time.

Speaking of, the first item of the itinerary was at a craft rum distillery, Old New Orleans. None of the three of us had been to a craft distillery tour before, so we were excited. They had two cocktails available when we got there as they took us on the tour. It was so tasty and we were worried we wouldn’t get our money’s worth, so we asked for refills (even though no one else did). Luckily, they kept filling us up as we learned more about how rum is made. It was pretty cool! This distillery in particular is also the oldest rum distillery in all of the US.

At the end of the tour, we were surprised to find they had shots of all their rums lined up for us. Uh oh. I don’t know why we didn’t realize they’d have samples of all their flavored rums at the end. We were pretty tipsy already, but we weren’t going to turn down delicious finely crafted rum. I’d say we definitely got our money’s worth! We even grabbed a bottle of their Cajun Spice Rum for our pregame planned for the following night.

Now that we were nice and buzzed, it was time to head off to explore some of New Orleans. We stopped by the famous “Umbrella Girl” on our way to the French Quarter. This graffiti is one from Banksy’s famous New Orleans series, originally twelve all around the city to make a statement on Hurricane Katrina. It was really cool, and preserved with a plastic shield so no one would try and destroy (or “add” to) it. Then we walked through town, to enjoy more architecture.

The French style of all the old historic houses was so awesome. Lots of trellises and working shutters and colors an balconies and columns. It was almost like being in a completely different country at some points. I love when every house is different and unique – and New Orleans is most certainly that! It was after enjoying all the beauty that we found ourselves on the hunt for voodoo. I originally knew I’d want to look for “something voodoo” because it was such a big part of the culture but I had no idea exactly how many voodoo stops we would find.

There were several shops all over! Anything that had voodoo, witch, or occult in the title, we stepped into to explore. I discovered potions, and prick dolls, and satanic idols. Sachets of herbs for good luck or “get out of jail” luck. It was so fun to just inspect all the wild stuff they had in their shops. I’m not sure if they were over the top for tourists or if they were pretty typical for a voodoo shop, but there was a lot of crazy and interesting stuff. Honestly some of it a little scary (haha).

As we were making our way from the French Quarter to the Bourbon Street area, we stopped to watch a street performance in Jackson Square that was pretty entertaining. That particular area reminded me a lot of something similar to New York City. More walking got us to dinner for the night, a fancy place called Pêche. So fancy in fact that when we ordered a few side plates to try things and when we asked for big plates so we could share, we definitely got a look. We were still feeling great from the day’s activities so we didn’t give a fuck; we also stuck to all waters. It was all really good! Recommending this “family style” tip for all broke people going to fancy restaurants if you can stand the judgement from your waiter.

Change of Plans, What to Do in a Small Town

With only two National Park sites left in Arkansas to visit, and those being a battlefield and a fort, we planned to enjoy our drive back home by peppering in some nature. The hikes had been so awesome the day before, it was only fate that rain would balance out our trip and steal the opportunity to visit Devil’s Den State Park. But also because of this rain, we got incredible fog at our first stop of the day.

We got to Pea Ridge National Military Park first thing on the morning of our last day, and it was chilly, quiet, and foggy. I browsed the visitor center to refresh my civil war history, but mostly I just stared out at the big (battle)field, which with the current weather conditions made it easy to imagine how terrible a battle would be and how it must’ve felt to not have any kind of comforts of home nearby. Y’all probably know by now, I’m not much for battle sites, forts, etc., but this one was pretty cool.

It was time to head south down the edge of Arkansas, but Jenna and I both knew the weather wasn’t going to clear up. The closer we got, the more cloudy the sky got. Yet another day of rain on my trips; another day of hiking stolen. So it was time to scramble and I knew Fayetteville wasn’t too far and I also knew one of my friends who was a Razorback would have some last minute suggestions. My friend Megan came in clutch with some helpful tips that led us directly to the downtown square.

We had literally come one day past the last farmer’s market of the year, but not too far was a bookshop called Dickson Street Book Shop. I love small independent bookstores so I was pretty excited before we even parked. After arriving, I realized this was no “small” bookstore – it’s deceptively massive! Most of it was cramped aisles full of books (my favorite). Megan definitely wasn’t lying when she said, “Bring bread crumbs to find your way back out – it’s a never ending labyrinth.”

After some quality book browsing, Jenna and I had a bit of a sweet tooth, so we headed over to Hurt’s Donuts. That place was insane! Unpopular opinion: I hadn’t been that impressed with VooDoo Donuts. But Hurt’s Donuts had so many more unique flavors, amazing colorful decorations – it was hard to not want to leave with more than one! I got a blueberry cake donut (my go-to) and then decided to grab a chocolate peanut butter one for later down the road. The blueberry honestly wasn’t as good as the every day small shop ones – but the “Reese’s” inspired one was phenomenal. It was truly decadent but I needed it after hours on the road with no food stops in sight.

Kissing Fayetteville goodbye (with a promise to be back to explore not only Devil’s Den but more of the town when it’s not a Sunday), we headed on to Fort Smith. Here we were looking for our last Arkansas National Park site. We expected a typical fort, with some battle ruins or history on war, but that wasn’t the case. Fort Smith is classified as a National Historic Site, and their claim to fame is more about their criminal system – jury, judge, and imprisonment. (They still had a clearing where the old fort used to be, but the main attraction was definitely the big courthouse.)

The big visitor center had two different styles of jails to tour and a mock courtroom. It was fun to walk around a true model set up; one where you could actually lie on the prisoner cots or sit in the audience of the jury. Outside, we checked out the gallows, which wasn’t too interesting only because they’re the gallows you’ve seen in almost every Western movie. To my delight, a little theater town was set up right near this, with a saloon and a guy dressed as a cowboy. Not too far from that, a cute trolley was idling. Definitely worth the stop, but in that small town quaint way.

It was getting late in the day and all that was left was to finish out our drive through Arkansas by taking the scenic route through the Ozarks, winding our way around the Boston Mountains. It was so, so beautiful. Gloomy sure, but the trees were colorful enough that it was no bland drive. Even though I’ve checked off those National Park sites, Arkansas will definitely be seeing me again soon!

We wanted one final fun stop on the drive back home, so when we saw our route was taking us through Paris, Texas, we decided to do a quick google for anything good. Believe it or not, they have an Eiffel Tower! Well, with a cowboy stop. I sure do love weird road trip stops.

Road Trip Essentials

Obviously, the most important thing to a road trip is a car – and I just recently got a new one! After having many struggles with my first and only car, a 2006 Kia Sportage with over 200,000 miles, I made the jump to a 2016 Subaru Forester. I rented one when I drove to the Oregon coast and loved it so much,  I had my eye on it when car shopping. Of course, I got green! I picked this size because it’s not overly big but still fits my road trip mattress in the back. I talked about road trips quite awhile ago, mainly focusing on car camping: The Good of Roadtrips, the Bad of Car Camping. But today I’m sharing some things I always try to have on a road trip! Always be prepared.

Instead of blowing money on whatever mediocre snacks I can find at the gas station I stop at, I always try and get snacks a couple of days before a road trip. Not only does this help me save money, it helps when I know I have something I’ll want (that’s also healthy!). I will usually bring protein bars, like Clif, RX, or Lara. I love bringing a bag of apples because that freshness is always welcome when you’ve been in the car for a few hours. And weirdly enough, chips and salsa is one of my favorite road trip snacks! It’s easy enough to dip straight out of the jar and easy to keep mess-free if you’re careful (or not driving). I’ll also pack pb&j ingredients because it’s my favorite hiking food, but after a terrible mishap in California I’ll never make another sandwich while on the road again.

The truth of road trips is you’ll probably have to have fast food now and again if you’re trying to save time and want something warm. Being a vegetarian, it’s not always easy to get something good. I’ve definitely learned where my favorite stops are. The market base salad at Chik-fil-A is great because it’s cheaper without the meat and is full of yummy fruits and nuts. I’ve also become a fan of the simple egg biscuit at McDonald’s. I’ve learned that too much fried food when stuck on a road trip is a bad idea, so I definitely try and stay away from fries and hashbrowns even though they’re so delicious. Of course, it’s not always easy to count on a certain fast food place to be around on the route, so I’ve learned to be flexible with the side items on the menu.

There’s only a couple of comfort items I keep on hand, mainly because I usually have a bed made up in the back. It’s an old futon mattress I cut to make it a single or double sized depending on how many of us are on the trip. We usually make it with one sheet, one pillow, and one blanket so that stuff doesn’t take up too much room. (Especially when we also have our sleeping bags with us.) One of my most important items is a pair of easy slip-on shoes no matter the weather. Getting out for a tank fillup without shoes – or having to put on boots – is so obnoxious that I always throw some sandals in my door side. It’s a no-brainer and I have a few pairs at all times in my car, but sunglasses are obviously essential for any road trip.

One of my favorite thing about road trips is discovering new things you hadn’t even thought to  look for. It’s important to know in your trip itinerary when you have extra time for stops. It’s when I leave this time that I love looking for billboards or shops that look fun or interesting. These random stops are responsible for me checking out the Georgetown caves in Texas, stopping to pet a baby alligator in Louisiana, and  the cute coffee shop find in the middle of nowhere New Mexico.

It’s important to note there’s a few things I bring just in case of emergencies. I always have a lot of stuff for the car: spare tire, automatic air pump, various fuses and tools for easy fixes. I always have lots of water just in case. (Water! Yes! Always water, usually in jugs that I pour into the two different water bottles I have with me.) I always have my taser just in case. (Especially if I’m camping or doing a lot of night driving.) I also always have my mini first aid kit with me because accidents do happen. I got a splinter at a gas station once (gross) so I was glad to have the medical tweezers.

What do you bring on your road trips?

Drive through Nowhere to Hidden Organic Haven

After the awesomeness of El Malpais, we were fine that El Morro was a little disappointing. The El Morro National Monument is most known for its sandstone cliffside. Deciding our drive up to its massive edge was good enough, we got our stamp and continued on.

Here, something crazy happened and my scheduling was off by almost two hours. I know! And after I’d gotten so good at road trip timing. Driving almost the whole west border of New Mexico was quite a feat for one day, but in making the itinerary I’d cut the time it would take by a third. So after our day of fun, it was time for some driving off the grid.

Lola, Jenna, and I were very much out in the middle of nowhere, not even able to map our Airbnb on our faltering GPS. We knew the roads and the vague area though, so we went after it. The sun was setting and it was drizzling, so when we passed the first sign of civilization we decided to stop to try and connect to satellites and our Airbnb host’s directions.

Not sure we’d find another chance, we stopped at a little mart to look at snacks and then decided we might as well grab a full sit down dinner at the cafe next door. Everyone was so friendly – it was a nice little reenergizing stop. We got the directions we needed and got going even though it was so dark and we were following hand written directions (like the old days ha!) to get to our beds for the night.

We arrived and met our hosts, D & D, a cute couple who owned the bed and breakfast that we’d found through Airbnb. Immediately there was so much about the place I was in love with. The couple had spent the day picking the vegetables from their backyard to can the next day. The whole house was fragrance free and full of organic and vegetarian-friendly foods in the kitchen.

After a day of hiking and driving, we were delighted to find out there was a hot tub out back under the stars. A hot soak was just what we needed! Then I took a shower with all natural bath products and nerded out living my best clean hippie life. I definitely tried every item because it was all sulfate-free, vegan, and unscented. And maybe I took a sample of locally made coconut moisturizer.

A great night’s sleep and then I was up with the sunrise. Mostly it was hidden by the cloudy sky, but as the sun brightened the surrounding landscape beauty emerged. Ah, New Mexico sure is gorgeous. I munched on one of the homemade morning glory muffins and brewed local coffee in the pot, realizing why bed and breakfasts are so popular.

It was time to head home. After a leisurely packing and hitting the road, we began our drive. Only an hour or so later and we hit the “beginning” of our road to the day’s stop (and our last New Mexico National Park site!) the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This road winded through curving roads and a bunch of trees. While I had a great time driving and enjoying the scenery, there was some motion sickness from my travel buddies because of the continuous twists and turns.

Finally, though we passed back and forth between Gila National Forest and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, we arrived at our visitor center, a secluded spot in the middle of vast nature. We were excited to get out and stretch our legs. However, well to be honest, the park ranger scared us about time. Looking at our itinerary she said we were misjudging our following drive by two whole hours and we wouldn’t have time to see the cliff dwellings.

We didn’t have GPS to check our route and because of the mishap the day before judging driving times we trusted that if we stayed to hike we wouldn’t have time to get to our next destination before it closed. Bummed, we spent a bit of time checking out the surrounding valley and then headed back through the twists and turns of road. It would turn out the ranger was wrong. We would’ve had time for our hour hike and if you can believe it our next stop (to see the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns) ended up being a total letdown.

Sure, there was still lots of amazing views on our drive home, but missing out on that midday hike made the final leg of our trip feel dreary. So even though I’ve learned to accept surprises when I travel, the lesson here is to appreciate the things you didn’t count on from the original itinerary. Sometimes taking the risk, brings the higher reward. We should’ve stopped to do the hike, risking missing that final stop. As always, I’m learning to take my time on road trips.

When to Judge a Book by its Cover; Hikes Based on Pictures

The three of us (well, four, counting Florence the dog) left our airbnb pretty early so we could get on the road. We stopped at an independent coffee shop in Santa Fe, called Betterday, for a little caffeine kick. Then we were catching the sunrise from the windows of my car. Even better, since we were driving past Albuquerque, we caught a sky full of air balloons from afar.  It was great up close watching them launch the day before, but it was also great seeing them all laid out across the big blue sky.

After an easy drive, we arrived at El Malpais National Monument. Besides seeing that they had caves, and incorrectly assuming their use online of the word “tubes” meant there was tubing – I knew nothing. It would turn out these tubes were more like cavern passageways. The word ‘malpais’ actually comes from a Spanish term for ‘badlands’ because a lot of the park is covered in volcanic rock.

We headed to the visitor center and talked to the ranger there. His help along with the pictures posted on the walls helped us decide on our hikes for the day. Seriously, we looked at the cool pictures and said, “that one!” Side note: I use the National Park website constantly, and if they had all the trails with times, difficulties, and pictures, etc. listed it would be so, so helpful. (Send them an email on my behalf, thanks!)

First stop was the Ventana Arch, which was a little bit out of the way driving wise, but the three of us had such great memories of Arches National Park, that we decided where there’s an arch, there we’ll be. The hike was a super easy flat one, maybe twenty minutes. The arch was awesome. It’s always so incredible to see what nature can do.

From there, we headed in the car down a long stretch of bumpy dirt road to head to our next destination: the Big Skylight Cave. This was one of the most popular images found at the visitor center so we definitely wanted to check this one out. We’d gotten a permit to access these “tubes” (a set of 4, including the Big Skylight). Because of an epidemic of white nose syndrome among the bats of the US, we had to be very careful to clean our shoes on the way in (and out) of our hiking trail.

Our hike was fun, though I’ll be honest the lava rocks were not my favorite to hike on. The whole path was marked with cairns, basically small rock towers, to show us our path, which was fun because it was basically a wide open space of varying sizes of lava rocks and no real path to follow. Then we reached the the top of the cave and we were already impressed. It was like looking into a big, beautiful crater, with an arch to the left and a big tunnel with a skylight to the right.

Warning: we did not have the appropriate gear to attempt this “tubing” adventure. They recommended helmets, gloves, and headlamps. I hadn’t even put on my good hiking boots. But when greeted with this amazing sight, I knew I had to get down in there. Just, very very carefully.

It was a bit of work getting down the cliff, finding the path with little red metal divets, and trying to scale the thing without slipping. Then we were down there, making our way across big boulders to get further into the cave. Every step was cautious, but mostly we were slow going just looking around in the hunt. The skylight was a big hole at the top of the cave, allowing a beautiful stream of light, but also hitting the rocks below enough to create a lush moss growth.

The day had been perfect above, a little crisp but perfect for a lightweight long sleeve shirt, but the deeper into the cavern we went, the colder it got. Without headlamps, we didn’t venture too much further (plus you know, we had a schedule to keep). It was absolutely breathtaking though.

We eventually made our way back up, which actually seemed easier, and hiked back to the car. I was feeling pretty great because of the whole experience, so as we headed to our next destination I was in high spirits. We were out in the middle of nowhere with little reception, but we passed one kitschy little town and the art sculptures made us slow down. Then, lo and behold, a coffee shop was right off the little highway calling our name.

On the side of the colorful building was Inscription Rock Trading coffee, and inside was a miriade of New Mexican delights. Handmade jewelry and bags, a whole herb wall, and in the back a little bar area with all sorts of coffee drinks. The intriguing art outside had stopped us, and it was the cherry on top of our recent adventure!

Taking Our Time Where We Normally Wouldn’t

I’ll be honest, a lot of the National Park sites are very similar. I’ve been all over the Southwest region and seen an assortment of battlefields, ruins, forts, and pictographs left by lots of different Peoples. In most cases, it feels like you seen one, you’ve seen them all. But every now and then, there’s room for surprise.

Still on the first day of our road trip, the three of us headed south from Albuquerque, saying goodbye to hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky. Now that the sun was up, our first National Park site was open: the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Having visited missions in San Antonio earlier this year, I was excited because those religious buildings always have beautiful architecture. However, since we were headed to the Abo Ruins portion of the missions, I was concerned they’d be just more pile of rubble. (Yep, not a fan of ruins, sorry.)

Getting to these Abo ruins was nice; we drove through vast fields on our way to Mountainair, New Mexico, and then right in the middle of nothing – we arrived. They were definitely ruins but so much was left in tact. The adobe structure was fun to explore. Anytime you have ruins with actual doorways and clearly sectioned rooms, I’m a bit more happier to see them. These ruins were right near the visitor center, so after checking them out thoroughly and grabbing our passport stamps, we headed back the way we’d come to the south side of Albuquerque.

I don’t know why because I’d seen petroglyphs before when visiting Mesa Verde, but I was also kind of excited to hike at Petroglyph National Monument. Something about having the name in the title made me think we were going to be seeing a ton of cool pictures on rock formations. We picked the Rinconada Canyon trail because it was a little over two miles and offered more than 300 petroglyphs. Spoiler alert: I think I saw twenty.

The images were kind of hard to spot, and when I thought I saw something I couldn’t always be entirely sure what it even was. Besides the trail being about ten to twenty feet from the rocks, making the petroglyphs hard to spot, there was also some more recent markings – i.e. vandalism. There was even a sign posted saying they weren’t entirely sure if some of the images were originally there or had been added in the early times of the Park opening. Still, some of the birdlike creatures and sun petroglyphs were fascinating to look at.

Overall, this hike was very easy, but the surrounding nature was beautiful. Even though we were so close to the city of Albuquerque, it felt like we were all on our own in a big field, with interesting rocks to one side and lots of different plants and flowers to inspect along the way. After driving through the night and starting our day at sunrise, this walk felt great. Looking for petroglyphs made it fun too, of course!

I left us plenty of time in the schedule this go around because I didn’t want to be stressed for time at the actual Park locations. I’ve learned how to plan time for drives (more importantly, for stops on drives), but it’s taken me awhile to realize you can be flexible on a trip but it’s hard to create more time. Taking our time exploring the sites was so, so nice! It made the day so much more enjoyable that we got to fully experience it – even if ruins and petroglyphs aren’t exactly “exciting” we still had a great time learning that for ourselves!

Third Time’s a Charm, Falling in Love with Albuquerque

I’ll be honest all I really knew about the city of Albuquerque was a Weird Al Yankovich song. What’s funny about falling in love with Albuquerque, New Mexico is that originally the first time we were just passing through. Being a major city, it makes for a great pit stop on a road trip.

The first time, on a northern New Mexico road trip (Timing is Everything), my friend Jenna and I had stopped for dinner and then I looked up an ice cream shop. That ice cream shop led us to Green Jeans Farmery – an outdoor eating area perfect for when we had the dog with us and fine in any weather with its big outdoor fire pit. It helped that the ice cream was amazing!

There’s also an amazingly zesty Caesar salad! So of course, now that we had the perfect food pit stop, the next road trip (on our way to Utah) brought us not only back to Albuquerque for Green Jeans, but also to explore around town a bit more. While buying the infamous Breaking Bad “meth” candy from the little shop The Candy Lady, we stumbled upon Old Town.

Old Town is a small outdoor area with lots of cute shops and a big pavilion area where special events are held. They sell lots of local arts and crafts as well as Mexican-inspired goods, like sugar skulls and Mexican blankets. There were even tea lights along the street and a mariachi band outside of one store. Everything was so charming!

Now that we had our meth candy, it was time to see the Breaking Bad house. The actual house used as the front (and the notorious pizza scene) was located in Albuquerque, so we drove to see it. I’d seen a few seasons and still mean to finish it eventually, but the overall experience was fun even though I’m not a super fan.

Now on my third time to Albuquerque, I was finally here for the National Park site, but I had one more big bucket list item for this awesome city. The International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta! I’d seen the billboard almost ten months before on my second trip, and wrote down the dates to make sure I saw it.

This Fiesta was our first stop for our remaining New Mexico National Park sites. We drove through the night to get to Fiesta Park at sunrise, just in time to see them take off. We got inside as there were about twenty in the skies and more and more taking off. It was so cool! It was definitely amazing to see so many in the sky, but seeing them up close as they inflated and lifted off was also incredible!

The area is set up kind of like a festival, with food and drink booths and stands for merchandise and local crafts. So after grabbing a local coffee and some tiny Tom Thumb donuts (yum), we walked around to enjoy the balloons taking off. It’s definitely a worthwhile experience to see hundreds of hot air balloons, especially with the wide open space and mountains in the distance.

Until next time, Albuquerque!