June 8, 2006 was the first full day of our drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the mountains of colorful Colorado, the summer vacation we had been planning for months. We had just about gotten over the three-hour jet lag that had followed us from Maine, and we liked to think we were acclimated to the dry climate and high altitude of the southwestern desert. My two middle-school aged daughters were excited to be in a climate that was not humid and had few insects to speak of, compared with the infestation we had each summer in New England.
We all piled into my mother’s Hyundai Tuscon at 7:30 that morning and headed north. We drove through Santa Fe and then got on highway 84 that heads to Taos. Our first stop was fairly soon, as my mom wanted to visit a friend whose horse had a brand new foal just days before. My girls were thrilled to see the frisky colt loping around his paddock, hiding behind his mother and peeking out at us. We only stayed about a half hour and then decided to pick up breakfast in Espanola. We found a McDonalds and figured it would be quick and easy. But it came as quite a surprise to us. My daughters are used to ordering the same thing whenever we have breakfast at McDonalds, which is about twice a month, back in Maine. Without looking at the menu, they ordered a number two meal, but when we all looked, it turned out to be something different that what they usually order. But that was the least of the surprises. My mother and I each ordered a breakfast burrito, something I order every single time I have breakfast at McDonalds. Imagine our surprise when we bit into the burritos and rather than finding green peppers, we tasted jalepenos. Breakfast certainly woke us up, turned our faces a bright shade of red, and sent us hurrying on our way toward Colorado.
After Espanola, we toyed with the idea of driving through Taos, as it is an incredibly beautiful and historic town with a breath-taking mountain scenery, as well as a heart-stopping drive across the Rio Grande gorge; but we decided that if we were going to see the Sand Dunes and still make it to Salida that night, we had better keep driving in a more direct route. So rather than turning off at Route 68, we stayed on 84 north and then veered off on 285 north, heading for the Colorado border.
Route 285 took us to places that looked like the setting for an old western movie, complete with cowboys and Indians. We drove for miles without seeing another car, nor a house or any other sign of civilization, other than the paved road on which we were driving. Finally we came upon an intersection called Taos Junction where we found a gas station with old fashioned pumps, meaning they were not the kind where you swipe your credit card and opt not to interact with another human being. This was the old pump where the black and white numbers flip over like some sort of ancient slot machine. We paid for the gas and set out again into no-man’s land.
As we approached the Colorado border, the trees grew smaller and thinner, although we had not climbed much in altitude. We had come upon some sort of high desert/prairie and we could see forever. The few trees were thin and gnarled, and the ground covering consisted of yuccas, prairie grasses, and a few broken down wooded fences. As we drove along the arrow-straight highway, looking for any sign of life, we began seeing a few scattered homes and farms, as well as many wild pronghorn antelope. And then out of nowhere we came upon a giant sign that read, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” We had to laugh as there was very little color and it was quite unclear that we were anywhere at all, other than the lone sign. We took photos next to the sign, commented about the lack of color and then drove cheerfully on. In the distance we could see something that resembled civilization. It must be Alamosa, Colorado – we’d made it.