Saturday, April 7, 2018

On the Road Again: Spring Break In New Mexico, Arizona, and California

Old Town Albuquerque

Caleb's favorite part of the trip: the rattlesnake museum. (Yikes!) Old Town Albuquerque, NM

We’ve been home from vacation for less than 24 hours, and a child has already thrown up.  Right now, he’s nestled on the couch under a comforter.  I’m staring at a carpet saturated with cleaning solution and drenched with water.  The post-vacation honeymoon is over.

The rejuvenating effects of our family vacation have evaporated.  But truthfully, I’m not sure I’d pair the word “rejuvenated” and “family vacation” in the same sentence.  Our family vacations are best summed up with the “E” words: enjoyable, exhausting, and energetic. 

 For the last week, our family trekked around the Southwest.  On a Thursday, we flew into Albuquerque.  For the next eight days, we traveled along the desert byways, along stretches with an endless supply of dust and cacti, to reach Los Angeles. 

Albuquerque was the first leg of our journey.  Old Town Albuquerque transports tourist back to the 1700s when Spanish settlers occupied the city.  The plaza retains its roots with pueblo-style galleries, restaurants and shops lining the streets.  Ristras, string pods of dried red chilies, hang on stucco walls and welcome visitors into each establishment.  San Felipe De Neri, the white-towered Catholic Church with five-feet deep walls, serves as the focal point of the square.  

The plaza is teeming with people, but it is the dusty vagrant with leather skin and salty hair that commands attention.  He is propped on a bench strumming a mandolin.  His open hat lay at his feet begging for spare change.  The musician wails out a throaty chorus.  I’m unfamiliar with the lyrics, but the emotions behind the words require no translation.  His was a mixture of sadness and longing that engulfed the plaza with each song.

Native American items are in high supply in Old Town Albuquerque.  Many items are authentic, but some wares are of the plastic variety perfectly suited for the eager, heavy-pocketed tourists that populate the plaza.  My young sons were among the exuberant consumers (and quite possibly the target market for the plastic doodads).  Each boy had $20 burning a hole in his pockets.

 Cooper, my 11-year-old spendthrift, has never met a bad souvenir.  His happy place is among the personalized key chains, airbrushed t-shirts, and mini shot glasses.  In one store, amid the many finds, Cooper scooped up an Indian whistle flute.  The ceramic instrument fit into the palm of his hand.  He marveled at the Indian markings covering the exterior, and he beamed when the whistle emitted a toot.  For a mere $6, Cooper lauded his find.

Cooper left the plaza smiling and clutching his new flute.   The family piled into the rented Dodge minivan and headed towards the Homewood Suites.  Less than a mile into our ride, we (the family) collectively detested the flute.  Here are a few things you should know about the situation:

1)  The flute plays at a volume that could easily be heard at a monster truck rally.

2)   Cooper has no training in the Indian whistle flute, and his performing skills are a bit shaky.

3)  The minivan traps noise and people.  Should conditions become dicey, there are no fleeing options. 

As an added complicating factor, Cooper’s older brother Connor is a professional at needling his little brother.  The Indian whistle flute provided ample opportunity for Connor to gnaw at his prey.  A pattern has developed in the brothers’ relationship.  Connor serves as the eager spark next to Cooper’s gas can; it’s only a matter of time before the eruption ignites.  

“Can you play a little louder, I don’t think they can hear you in California,” Connor mocked.

“Sure,” Cooper retorted while he blew into the instrument ten times louder.  (And yes, I do believe they heard it in California.)

“Still didn’t hear you.  Maybe you should try louder,” Connor gibed.

The interactions slid down hill from there.

A mere hour into the second day of our trip, Cooper bawled while picking up broken fragments of his Indian flute.  The flute slipped through Cooper’s hand and shattered on the solid tile.  While it appeared to be an accident, I truly can’t rule out foul play.  The list of suspects who harbored bad feeling about the flute reads long.

The Sandia Peak Tramway offered spectacular views of Albuquerque.

Acoma, Sky City

Despite his flute trauma, Cooper mustered up the courage to face the second day of the vacation.  We left Albuquerque and ventured into the barren New Mexico landscape.  An hour outside of Albuquerque sits the Acoma Sky City. Perched on a 350-foot sandstone mesa amid a craggy and desolate valley, this active Native American city traces its roots back to 1100 A.D. 

Our family piled into the Acoma Sky City tour bus, and we prayed as the bus sputtered up the mesa.  I could almost here the bus chanting I think I can.  I think I can as the wheels huffed and hugged the cliff walls. 

Finally at the top, we soaked in the views.  Adobe homes filled the mesa.  San Estevan del Rey, an abode-style Catholic mission church, stretches 35 into the sky.  City dwellers peddled crafts: painted pots, arrowhead spears, and turquoise necklaces.

Our tour guide Marcel* notes that only 15-20 Acomas live in the Sky City.  However, hordes of people line the roads and mill around the mesa.   

“Why are so many people here today?” I asked Marcel.

On tours, I am like the eager student in the first row of a classroom with a hand constantly waving in the air.  Marcel, I’ve discovered, detests questions.  She values brevity; I appreciate clarity.  There lies the rub.

Marcel huffs before engaging in an explanation.  Even then, she doles out information in parcels, making me work for each and every morsel.

“It’s Good Friday,” she mentions while daring me with her eyes to ask more.

I don't take the bait.

“Where do they come from?” I continue.

She fully avoids eye contact, but indulges me with an answer.

“From 15-17 miles away,” she scowls and pulls away from my gaze.

I glance at the people walking up the bluffs.  Few walkers resemble fit, triathletes.  With temperatures creeping into the 80s, the devotees are blanketed in sweat.  Yet, smiles cover their faces and a joy radiates from their souls.  “Happy Easter,” they sing while passing our group. 

In the San Estevan dely Rey church, with dirt-covered floors and seven-foot thick stucco walls, I watch the Acoma people approach the altar.  Dusty and drenched, they reach for the communion with a jubilance and reverence that seers into my mind.

At the back of the church, a table is filled with donuts, juice boxes, and jugs of water.  One Acoma woman is manning the refreshments.  She is radiating with cheer and begs my children to take a donut.

“They couldn’t,” I insisted while reminding my boys the donuts were reserved for those who had traveled many miles to arrive at the church.

She persisted.

The boys walked out of the church holdings donuts.

The Acomas have more to teach us, than us to teach them.  That's what I learned on the tour.

*Not actual name.

First stop in Arizona: Petrified Forest.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

Slippery Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona.

Two days later, we arrived at Sedona, Arizona.  Red rock buttes and desert landscape provides a feast for the eyes.  One afternoon, we traveled to Slide Rock State Park nicknamed “America’s Playground.”   Within the park, mountain water spills through red rock crevices creating a natural water slide and swimming hole.  Although the water was icy, the boys plunged off the rocks into the rooted basin.

I watched from a nearby rock snapping pictures of the antics.  A little part of me wondered what it felt like to leap off an Arizonian canyon rock.  I imagined it would feel like youth, but the fabric of my being (the wisdom lines and achy joints) kept me firmly anchored to the cliff.  Perhaps I've entered the spectator years.  I have mixed feelings about that fact, but at least I'll be warmer.

Easter boys in Flagstaff, Arizona

On Easter, the next day, I stood by a washing machine at a truck stop laundromat in Flagstaff.  Yesterday clothes, saturated and dirtied from our canyon excursions, required a washing (fumigated would even work better).  The truck stop laundromat doubled as a public shower.  I watched an interesting array of characters travel into the public showers.  (Although I can’t be certain, I’m not sure every visitor to the showers engaged in hygiene-related activities.)

For 90 minutes, I stood next to the washing machine in the truck stop/laundromat/public showers.  I was certain if I veered too far from the machine, a truck stop patron would scope up my soaking garments.

During my wait, I befriended the woman cleaning the showers.  A Mexican transplant, my new friend worked two jobs to support seven kids.  She watched me standing by the machines and flipping through a book.  Reading, she said, was a luxury.  Sadly, that thought never crossed my mind.

An hour later, my family and I belted out hymns at the Redemption Church Easter service in downtown Flagstaff.  The makeshift church was housed in Flagstaff High School.  A wooden crucifix and Easter lilies bordered the stage.  Parishioner sported pastels, florals, and bow ties.  Hair was gelled and pulled into bows.  Faces were wiped clean. 

 The pastor preached about Jesus washing away our sins.  I thought about the people at the public showers walking into the stalls dusty and road-worn.  Minutes later, they emerged glistening, dewy and pink.  Was it the same when I followed Jesus?  Did His blood have the same cleaning power as the showers?  I believe it did.  I walk into His presence layered in grime, only to emerge shiny and new.  Thanks to a truck stop laundromat in Flagstaff, the Easter message came to life.

Joshua Tree, California.

From Flagstaff, we landed outside of Joshua Tree.  five-hour car ride brought out the worst in the boys.  A cramped minivan with four sons can feel a bit like a Survivor episode.  One wonders who will make it to the end?

In Joshua Tree Park, a scuffle arose over a pretzel bag.  Two angry boys tugged at opposite sides of the sack.  As a surprise to no one, the bag exploded, and pretzels blanketed the floor of the minivan.  One son continued to feast on the pretzels on the ground.  I was tempted to stop his snacking, but I lost my energy to parent a few days back.  I gazed at his mindless snacking with equal part envy (a pretzel snack did sound good) and disgust.

The Connor/Cooper tension was at all time high.  No disagreement was off limits.  No argument was too insignificant.  Worse yet, Connor had recruited his youngest brother Collin to join in the fray.  Oldest brother Caleb drowned out the commotion with his headphones.  I envied his ability to detach from the commotion. 

The three younger boys engaged in a game entitled “call it.”   Here’s how it works:  one boy sees a fabulous car on the road (a Ferrari and such) and then screams “call it.”  Evidently, the mere yelling of “call it” is the equivalent of calling “dibs” on that vehicle. 

The problem with the “call it” game is that there are no winners and no referees.  Frequent disagreements centered on which boy called a car first, even though everyone is fully aware they will not walk away with an actual car.  I will never recover the minutes of my life spent sorting out “call it” spats. 

While the boys weren’t arguing over fictional car purchases or eating pretzels off the floor, my husband and I soaked in the scenery of Joshua Tree National Park.  The park, located at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Desert, is dotted with boulders, buttresses, and rugged mountains.  The Joshua tree, a hybrid tree-cactus, is the park’s most famous and plentiful resident.

Joshua Tree National Park turned out to be my boys’ paradise.  The endless supply of boulders provided boundless fun and adventure.  At first, I felt the need to be the safety monitor (or stealer of joy, as referred to by the boys).  I warned the boys of every potential unstable step or shaky surface.  I was certain venomous reptiles and deadly scorpions lurked at every corner.

After my 29th warning, Cooper replied, “Mom, don’t worry.  If we get lost, we’ll just eat the least useful part of our bodies.”

I questioned, “What’s the least useful part of our bodies?

“The pinkie, of course,” he shouted over a boulder while walking a little close to the edge.

At least if he tumbled over a cliff, he had a plan.

Laguna Beach, California

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, CA

Universal Studios, Hollywood, CA

(Yes, the last picture is Butter Beer:))

 Five days into our trip, we arrived in Los Angeles.  After days of barren landscape, we reached a bustling metropolis.  The volume of cars and mass of people shocked our systems.  The first two days, we engaged in many touristy things, being mindful of the fact traffic constraints hindered us from covering every inch of the city.

For the last day of our trip, we promised the boys a trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Nixon Presidential Library. 

“You need culture and a bit of education,” I asserted to the boys.

“The jelly bean exhibit will be fascinating,” my husband gushed.

Thirteen-year-old Connor was practically in tears.  In his world, a spring break trip to presidential libraries was akin to placing dental floss in a Christmas stocking.

We piled the boys into the car.  Whimpers and whines resonated from the back seats.  Ninety minutes later, we arrived at Universal Studios.  The presidential library trip was a ruse.  The boys burst into happy tears; my husband and I beamed at our successful stunt.

I told my husband we should enjoy the one day in our lives when all four sons were happy with us.  Theme parks make parents into heroes.  I wanted one day to proudly wear my cape.

From Universal, we drove to LAX airport.  We checked our bags and skated through security.  At 11 p.m. California time, we took the red-eye flight back to Indianapolis.  Airplane seats don’t mimic beds.  Little sleep was to be had that evening.

We arrived in Indianapolis at 6 a.m.  The weather hovered around freezing.  Snowflakes drifted around our yard later in the day. The refrigerator was bare.  Laundry piles stacked in front of the washer.  The next morning a child was sick.  Exhaustion floated through the family.  I flipped through the pictures on my phone, and I stopped to soak in the images.  A smile crept over my face as I remembered the enjoyment of the last few days.


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