The last post shared a handful of snapshots of some natural glory from last month’s road trip to the Grand Canyon. Yes, it was a tiny representation of iPhone photos that couldn’t possibly do justice to their subjects. I know, I know — as photos, you could mark most of them as #fail.
Undeterred, however, I’m posting another 10 snapshots from the trip, this time in honor of the crazy shit we humans have constructed to populate the highways and bi-ways of this great land. In planning my trip, I regularly consulted Roadside America for inspiration, and I highly recommend this resource if you’re in search of the odd pitstop from Here to There.
So trust me, there are waaaaaaaaay more than 10 man-made curiosities between Austin and the Grand Canyon, but again, I recognize the need for a “highlight reel.”
May you find them as fascinating as I do. May you pack your bags and hightail it out to Marfa, or to Route 66, or to wherever your heart wants to take you.
Days 1 & 2: Austin, TX to Marfa, TX
Marfa is far out in the middle of just about nothing (Chihuahuan Desert & Chianti Mountains), and it’s got some kind of cosmic pull to it. Artists come and stay. Apparently aliens do as well. The classic James Dean/Rock Hudson/Liz Taylor/Dennis Hopper film Giant was filmed in Marfa, and the town still feels the emotional imprint of that time.
But it’s also a place for nomads passing through, people who need a dose of west Texas desert and air before moving on. That’s me. And it’s why I stayed at El Cosmico. Not even remotely a hotel, but far more than a campground, El Cosmico spreads its array of accommodations (old trailers, yurts, tee-pees, army tents), across a couple of acres of high desert, all with an ample view of the stars. Buy your snacks and wine at the Provision House, cook in a communal outdoor kitchen, rent a bike, sit around the fire pit.
Swear to God, I can live like this. I dream of retiring to a space like this, surrounded by friends with trailers and tiny houses. Sure, if I had friends in Marfa I might’ve stayed with them, but I’d have missed two days with Freida resting, reading, and living in the Kozy Coach. Thanks, friends, but this is the way I needed to start my trip.
I shot plenty of pix in Marfa. The Hotel Paisano where the cast of Giant stayed… the massive art installations dotting the desert… the old cemetery that separates Anglo from Mexican residents… but this shot–this is what helped me transition from city life to life on the road.
Day 3: Marfa, TX to Roswell, NM
I couldn’t wait to drive past Prada Marfa on my way out of town, and it did not disappoint. This bewitching faux storefront may be the most amusing art installation anywhere, ever.
It’s been vandalized over the years, but it’s always restored; vandals must be disappointed to learn that the shoes in the window are all for right feet and the handbags have no bottoms.
Did you ever see the film Contact starring Jodie Foster? A good bit of it takes place at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, about 50 miles from Socorro, NM. This is home to the Very Large Array (VLA), which strikes me as a spectacularly simple name for what it is: 27 huge radio telescopes that can be configured across the landscape to listen to space instead of look at it.
Don’t think of them as 27 unique radio telescopes, though. They’re more like a collective whole with 27 components. When I visited, they were arranged in a “Y” formation and spread so far apart from each other that it was impossible to get a photo of them together. Here’s one up-close, and you can see two others in the background.
This is the point at which it’s probably clear that I have a fascination with All Things Alien. Between the Marfa Lights and Meteor Crater in my last post and the VLA’s search for intelligent life out there, it figures that I’d make Roswell, NM my destination for the night.
I wanted to get there mid-afternoon in time to visit the UFO Museum before it closed at 5:00, but it was the museum or quality time spent at Carlsbad Caverns,and it really didn’t feel like a hard choice to make.
Roswell, as you probably know, is famous for the debris found in a farmer’s fields back in 1947–presumed by many to be the wreckage of a flying saucer, in spite of government assurances to the contrary. (Here’s a quick little video for your viewing pleasure.)
The museum may’ve been closed, but Freida and I walked the sidewalks of Roswell, and I have to say I was disappointed. Everything UFO-related apparently closes at five o’clock on a weekday. Sure, the street lamps have green glowing alien heads on them, but otherwise, it just didn’t feel as though the city still embraces its alien history.
With a long drive ahead the next day, Freida and I grabbed some dinner and tucked in early.
Day 4, 5 & 6: Roswell, NM to Grand Canyon
Three days devoted to long drives and natural wonders. Nothing man-made to see here, folks.
Day 7: Grand Canyon to Gallup, NM
After the glorious grandeur of the Grand Canyon, I planned to flip the trip on its head and take in all the kitsch I could, and kids, that means getting off of the Highway 40 and taking Route 66 as much as I could.
Winslow, AZ may be the most famous town on the route thanks to the Eagles, but I was pretty smitten by the Holbrook, AZ’s Wigwam Village Hotel, still kept in its mid-century glory:
Yep, that’s how it still looks today.
(A little lagniappe, here’s a quick Instagram video shot on Route 66 in Tucumcari:)
I would have happily stayed at the Wigwam Village, but I needed to get us to the El Rancho Hotel & Motel in Gallup, NM for the night. On Route 66, naturally. And can we just acknowledge that any place that calls itself a hotel and a motel is pretty awesome?
That sign doesn’t lie! Especially the part about movie stars! Dozens of 20th century westerns were shot in the area, and the hotel boasts that over 150 Hollywood stars have graced their beds. The signed and framed 8×10 glossies are everywhere.
The El Rancho is old school Hollywood kitsch in a small New Mexico town. By modern standards, the rooms need a face lift I suppose, but I love the joint. The staff was super sweet, it’s clearly dog-friendly, and the place was packed with one of the most curious arrays of hotel guests I think I’ve ever seen, including a large group of bikers from Germany.
Thumbs up, El Rancho, for keeping it old school!
Days 8 & 9: Gallup, NM to Amarillo/Palo Duro Canyon, TX
Let’s start by acknowledging that some of the best roadside attractions are in front of your nose when you’re filling your gas tank:
While the last days of the trip were mostly devoted to the breathtaking Palo Duro Canyon, I had to spend a few hours chasing down some oddities in Amarillo, 20 miles to the north.
We start with a big Cowboy.
He stands guard over an RV park. Please note the words on his yellow shirt: 2nd Amendment Cowboy. Remember we’re in Texas, folks, and most Texans have a deep and abiding love for their guns. I’m just glad Ol’ Tex isn’t sporting one.
The RV park is in close proximity to the real treat, however–Cadillac Ranch. It’s been brilliantly described as “aristocracy of roadside attractions,” and like Prada Marfa, it’s an exquisite and long-standing public art installation incongruously placed in the world: ten Cadillacs, fins up, in an otherwise empty field. Park on the side of the road, bring the dog, and bring all the spray paint you want as well because these cars have been a canvas for passersby since 1974.
It had poured the day before and the ground was still one big mud pile, but that’s the way it is at the ranch. Rain or shine, snow and sleet (yes, that happens in Amarillo), the pilgrims come to paint.
That’s it. Ten days and probably 400 snapshots, distilled down to these ten and these twelve.
Get out your map and your calendar. Plan your trip. Live it just the way you want to. Make your memories. Show your snapshots. Please.