The Rio Grande caught us by surprise. As we drove across the bridge, which spans 1,280 feet and sits 565 feet above the Rio Grande (making it the seventh highest bridge in the United States), we approached Taos, the fifth stop on our 3,488-mile road trip — let’s say 3,500 for good measure.
The trip took little thought and less planning, hence our surprise. I am not sure when the conversation started, or when the decision was made that we would take this adventure, but in late August, we embarked on a road trip that took us from Kansas City to Vail to Crested Butte to Telluride to Taos and to White Sands, with a stop in Memphis before heading back home to Nashville. As we made it from the flatlands of Kansas to the white sands of New Mexico, we ate tacos and slept in tents along the way. We sat down to what one Yelper called “the best Mexican food in Kansas” at a roadside restaurant in Kanopolis; we ate Colorado peaches as we made our way into the mountains; we got lost on hiking trails; we ate tacos again, this time smothered in spicy chile; we saw white sands stretch as far as our eyes could see; and we had a blast doing it!
The road trip didn’t come with any grand awakenings but it gifted us, two friends, with time together in some of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen.
Somewhere during the stretch of sameness between Kansas City and Vail, we made our first official road trip stop: Orozco’s Portales Cafe in Kanoplis, Kansas, to sample the “best ever homemade authentic Mexican food.” One secret to a good road trip is taking chances on roadside restaurants, and take a chance we did. Fueled by tacos we landed in Vail seven hours later. With only 14 hours in the charming resort town, we had dinner with friends and tried roadside Colorado peaches.
We continued through the Rocky Mountains, toward the town of Crested Butte. “There is such an innocence of small towns,” my road trip companion commented as we passed through the old gold- and silver-mining town of Leadville, and again in Gunnison. A coal mining-turned-ski town, Crested Butte’s charm comes not only from its surrounding mountains but from the storefronts and Victorian architecture in its downtown historic district. After walking the streets, we stopped into T-Bar for avocado toast and tea.
In late spring and early summer, the Crested Butte mountainside is blanketed in wildflowers. Alas, we visited the Wildflower Capital of Colorado and saw nary a wildflower. Still, we enjoyed stretching our legs on Trail 403, despite the lack of foliage. Had we had more time, we would have tackled the trail that leads from Crested Butte to Aspen. Next time.
Onto Telluride. A quick exploration of the banks of the Gunnison River set us behind schedule, so we arrived in Telluride after the sun had set and the campsites at Town Park had been claimed. Never underestimate the friendliness of fellow campers, and never refrain from inquiring if you can cozy up with them. In this case, it worked. Another secret to road tripping is to be flexible — easier said than done. A dinner of grocery store snacks and a dry (although not for long) spot to rest our heads was the perfect welcome to another small mountain town. The campgrounds are located in the town of Telluride, meaning you can roll out of the tent each morning and stroll into town. Most of our strolls into town resulted in a visit to The Butcher & The Baker, plus the occasional trip to Siam and Ghost Town Coffee. Butcher & Baker became a favorite spot for breakfast, afternoon fries on the patio and a post-hike glass of cider.
Telluride is a southwestern Colorado ski town tucked in the San Juan Mountains. It is home to second homes of the elite, Oprah Winfrey among them. But don’t let that deter you. Atmospheric façades fill the main stretch of town, and locals line the streets, lucky to be able to enjoy this heavenly slice of Colorado each and every day.
The hiking trails are plentiful, and we struggled to decide which to attempt. Tales of the tallest free-falling falls in Colorado set us on our merry way to Bridal Veil Falls, which sits roughly 1.8 miles from the base of the trail, and from there we continued another few miles to a second waterfall and then back down towards Blue Lake. Without a map, phones or a sense of direction, we hiked until we could hike no more, then we headed back into town for the aforementioned glass of cider. Barely a sign of snow in sight, we headed up the ski hill to see what all the fuss was about. At 10,540 feet, blue sky stretches for miles, and you can get a better look at the canyon town below. Hikers and bikers headed off on trails that cover the snowless mountain, and I found myself wishing for more snow and a pair of skis.
We discussed staying in Telluride forever, or at least a few months. Then we hit the road to Taos.
I was dumbfounded as the mountains turned to dessert. I’d never seen anything so breathtaking. The natural beauty was captivating. Then, we crossed the Rio Grande, and I wondered if I’d ever be able to enjoy the Tennessee landscape again. I’d been spoiled by the beauty of New Mexico.
We drove directly to Taos Pueblos, home to adobe structures that date back more than 1,000 years. It is “one of the longest continually inhabited communities in the United States.” Within the pueblo walls, native culture and traditions continue, thanks to the 150 tribe members who still reside there full-time. Hungry for more tacos, we left Taos Pueblo for the heart of Taos, only two miles down the road. A run-in with an old college mate at Telluride’s Town Park left us with a recommendation to try La Cueva Cafe when we got to Taos — so we did. Then, without an agenda, we visited the town’s shops and galleries.
We hopped back into the car and headed to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa for a night of luxury, a much-welcomed departure from camping. The resort is well-known for the healing waters and natural spa treatments. We soaked in the outdoor sulfur-free, geothermal mineral pools before sitting fireside with a glass of wine and good books.
Santa Fe willed me to fall in love with its architecture, landscape, food, charm, art and history — and fall I did. Our visit to Sante Fe was brief albeit memorable, the most memorable being the chile at the Shed and a visit to Shiprock. For more than 65 years, the Shed has risen to become a Santa Fe institution. Inside this local eatery, you will find New Mexican fare topped with spicy chile sauce. Believe what the menu tells you: The chiles are spicy. During the lunch hour rush, we found a table at which we enjoyed house guacamole, salsa and queso and enchilada taco plates, served with a combination of red and green chile, plus pinto beans and posole. Of the dozen tacos we ate during the trip, the ones at the Shed were the most momentous.
After lunch, we shopped. There is no shortage of inspiring art, jewelry, pottery and crafts — both new and antique — in Santa Fe, but Shiprock was a favorite stop. A gallery that celebrates the rich artistry, cultures and traditions of the Navajo and Native American tribes of the Southwest, Shiprock houses the most amazing collection of weavings, furniture, art, accessories and jewelry. “The gallery spans place and time, merging historic and contemporary Native American art with modern mid-century furnishings in an eclectic gallery aesthetic,” their website aptly explains. Owner and fifth-generation art dealer Jed Foutz was raised on the Navajo Nation, and the gallery showcases his talent for curating historic and contemporary Navajo rugs and blankets, Native American jewelry, Pueblo pottery, sculpture, basketry, folk art and fine art. We could have spent all day there, but an hour was all we allowed ourselves. We had other stores to visit and galleries to explore.
We saved the best stop for last. With 2,203 miles under our belts, we were standing — in complete silence — with our feet in the white sand. We’d seen the flatlands of Kansas, the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of New Mexico, yet nothing could rival the all-white landscape of White Sands National Monument. In the Tularosa Basin, it is the largest gypsum field in the world, making it a disorienting experience. The sands stretch for 245 square miles. All you can see is white sands and blue skies — and in our case, an approaching rainstorm. We reached White Sands just before sunset and just before the storm rolled in. Although our camping plans were derailed by the rain, we were able to watch the clouds move across the sky and the sun set behind the mountains.
Thanks to Up and Vanished, old-school country tunes and another taco stop, we made it safely back to Nashville. It was a road trip we won’t soon forget!
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