*Not Pictured: 27 gift shops and 284 souvenirs collected.
First, I’d like to thank Presidents Roosevelt and Hoover and the combined talents of Trent Reznor, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus for making this trip possible. The former for having the foresight to save so much our of country’s land as National Parks and the latter for contributing to the hit song Old Town Road, which entertained Henry, literally for hours, while he watched the scenery go by on our trip. He’s also into The Devil Went Down to Georgia which helped break things up.
“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
Below is a sort of/kind of map of the route we took. I would update it based on our actual stops but a membership to Roadtrippers now costs $29.99 and we spent the last of our money on gas, arrowhead necklaces and bags of Sour Patch Kids.
Substitute Albuquerque for Santa Fe, add a stop at White Sands National Monument before Carlsbad Caverns, and squint your eyes a little. That’s pretty dang close.
We picked up Big Betsy on a Saturday and immediately things started to go wrong. It took Wes a full hour to level the RV on our slanted street, we couldn’t get enough power to run the AC from our house, the kids unfolded one of the banquet seats and we couldn’t get it back into the upright position, and the two largest storage drawers wouldn’t latch shut (not a problem when parked; a very annoying problem when rolling down the highway).
We figured, this is good!
We’re getting the “well something has to go wrong” part of the trip out of the way and we hadn’t even left home. So we spent the rest of the afternoon unloading all of the stuff from the RV that qualified it as “fully stocked” (we probably paid extra for all of it) and then loading in our own stuff. In went a week’s worth of groceries, bedding for five, flashlights, bug spray, maps, 18 device chargers, and hopefully enough clothing to last all of us until our first laundry stop which was seven days away.
Sunday morning was Father’s Day. It was also the final day of the US Open. Wes earned some major brownie points as we pulled out of the neighborhood, headed for Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle. Waze said it was 360 miles away so we were figuring on a relaxing 6-7 hour drive. It was time to put the 20 minutes of drive training he received the day before to the test.
The kids were immediately big fans. No seat belts! Go potty whenever you want! Full access to an entire pantry of snacks whenever you want them!
I figured out how to make ham sandwich lunches while the mayo bounced around on the countertop and the plates slid around without warning. Henry found the best spot for a nap was on the floor right behind the driver’s seat and not on one of the three available beds or the cushy couch. The freezer drawer had no latch and flew open every time we took a right turn (“Freezer turn!” became their cue to either brace their feet against it or slam it shut for us), Wes started making friends with other truck drivers on the road, and we eventually pulled into our first stop.
The only things we officially forgot to pack were the boys’ toothbrushes. I’m calling that a success.
Leveling Big Betsy and hooking her up to water and power for the first time went marginally more smoothly than the day before. The views from the Sagebrush Campsite were gorgeous and none of our new neighbors looked too suspect.
We were officially "roughing it.”
Right after entering the park, we made a stop at the visitor’s center and took in a great view of the canyon. It was carved by the Red River and, we’re told, it’s the largest canyon in the States outside of the Grand Canyon.
While Wes dealt with Big Betsy, the kids and I went out to find how we would walk from the campsite to the Pioneer Amphitheater, where we had tickets to see TEXAS the Musical later that night. With time to burn, we decided to check out the Pioneer Nature Trail, too. The map I had promised it was only 1/2-mile long and suitable for beginners. That’s us.
The bugs were plentiful but we saw wildlife tracks, wild watermelon vines and some beautiful wildflowers on the floor of the canyon.
If you run, the bugs can’t get you.
After our “hike,” we walked to the amphitheater where you can buy tickets to a chuck wagon dinner before the show. The online reviews were mixed which probably brought my expectations down a bit, but honestly, it was pretty good.
Michael approved, anyway.
Photography is not allowed during the show itself but I snapped a quick one of the stage as everyone was finding their seats.
The backdrop was impressive! The show, sadly, was not. Maybe it was because we’d had a long day, but by intermission, we weren’t interested in waiting it out another hour+ in order to see the fireworks show at the end. We found our flashlights and started the walk back to Sagebrush. For once, it didn’t take long to get the kids to bed.
We packed up Big Betsy and rolled her about a mile down the road to Old West Stables which thankfully had a large parking lot.
We’re already pretty neat people at home but living all together in such a small space dialed up our collective OCD to a whole new level. Not making our bed or leaving a pair of shoes on the floor was suddenly a major offense. It didn’t take long to whip our morning pick-up/pack-up routine into something quick. There were horses to go see!
Disclaimer: Photos on this post will often be a little out of order so that I could include iPhone shots. :)
For months, I had been working on Henry, talking up our trail ride, showing him photos of the (kind, gentle) horses and how safe everything would be. Eventually his “Heck no!” comments turned around and he was tentatively excited about the chance to ride a horse.
Unfortunately, the when the moment arrived for him to sit on top of the actual horse, he changed his mind and would have nothing to do with Dusty the 22-year old Palomino who literally looked like he couldn’t hurt a fly. Wes took one for the team and gave up his spot to take Henry back to the RV while the big kids and I hit the trail.
Once again, the bugs were fierce! Like, bite-you-through-your-jeans fierce. But the views more than made up for the annoyance. The butte on the right is called Sad Monkey Face Rock which we we all thought was funny.
Leaving Palo Duro State Park, we drove through Amarillo and made a stop at Cadillac Ranch.
It was…interesting. Walking around, it felt like we were visiting something between a junkyard and a toxic waste dump, where you needed to watch your step or risk losing a shoe in the mud or rolling an ankle, slipping on a discarded spray paint can. But the kids loved it. Wes and I were hoarse from constantly “redirecting” the kids while they ran around spraying the cars, and then the dirt, until their cans ran out.
Back on the road, with the environmental disaster behind us, we spent the afternoon driving to Taos, New Mexico.
The trip was young. But y’all…at night, the boys were sleeping in bunk beds that had doors which closed them in. While we were on the road, they would hang out in there, shoes off, and listen to audio books, watch movies or play games.
It was about this point in the trip when I opened one of the doors to let the kids know lunch was ready and I was completely knocked on my butt from the overwhelming boy stench. We tried airing it out. We tried stuffing dryer sheets in every corner. We begged the boys to wear socks with their shoes each day. But it was a struggle we never quite conquered. After a few more days, I was resigned to leave the doors shut and let the boys stew in their own smell. They didn’t seem to mind. Why did I?
The legs of our trip on the way to Taos and through Mesa Verde, Colorado had the most gorgeous scenery. When not glued to a screen, the kids were glued to the windows. Sometimes both at the same time.
One of the great RV mysteries for newbies: How often do you have to dump your gray and black water? Answer, if you’ve got a family of five? Every dang day. And make sure to dump the black water first. And pack disposable gloves. And don’t watch RV, featuring Robin Williams, right before your first trip no matter how many people recommend it to you.
Each of the kiddos found a special connection in Taos. For starters, our RV site was named “Henry,” where we had a lazy morning with pancakes, eggs and berries.
And for our first lunch, our taxi driver sent us to Michael’s Kitchen.
After lunch, we walked downtown to meet Anita with Turquoise Tours for a three-hour driving tour of Taos highlights.
First stop: Taos Pueblo.
The Puebloan people now live in homes on the reservation surrounding this UNESCO site, but it comes alive during the day as the dwellings have been converted into artisan shops which help support the community.
We joined a short guided tour and learned a lot about the sacredness of the location and how the people lived and thrived in this valley for centuries. Our guide was born and raised on this land and was a wonderful storyteller. One story, in particular, stuck with me.
In retaliation against the typically peaceful Puebloan people for their part in the bloody Taos Revolt in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, their church was destroyed by canon fire. At the time, it was filled with their people — who practice both their Ancient faith and Catholicism — seeking sanctuary. Legend says a young girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, carried a statue of Madonna out of the church before succumbing to her injuries. The place where she died is where they built their new church, pictured a few photos above, where the Madonna is currently displayed over the altar.
I brought home a silver cuff made by this man, Art Lujuan, who also goes by the name Beautiful Aspen. He was kind enough to let me take his photo and spent time explaining the significance of all of the symbols on the bracelet.
From the Pueblo, we went to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The kids and I enjoyed our 1/4-mile stroll with sweeping views of the gorge. Wes, who has a slight fear of heights and is likely just smarter than the rest of us, did not.
Our third and final stop was to see the Earthships, which are the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds. Built largely out of recycled materials and fully self-sufficient in terms of energy and providing basic needs like water, it was pretty fascinating to see these homes.
Anita dropped us off at Enterprise for Attempt #2 at picking up a car (they can take a reservation…they just can’t hold a reservation) and we wandered back to the old part of town for dinner at Doc Martin’s at the Taos Inn.
After dinner, we met up with our guide for a ghost tour of the old town. Wes’ face in the photo above pretty much sums up our initial impression of her, long gray duster and all. She was straight out of central casting.
In Taos, if it’s not Open, it’s Shut.
We finished up our (hilarious, campy) ghost tour near the historic Hotel La Fonda and called it a night.
For this leg, we drove both the RV and the rental car to Mesa Verde, Colorado. If I hadn’t been behind the wheel, I would have been hanging out of a window with my camera the entire drive. On the way, I saw signs for Chimney Rock and Wes agreed to make an unscheduled stop. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to tour the site but there is major construction happening around this monument and good things are coming in 2022.
The iPhone photos below were all taken around this time in our trip.
Henry discovered the RV’s (ridiculous) fireplace actually put out a little heat; Ella found her personal connection to Taos; the kids cuddled up together in the back of the rental car and enjoyed killing some time at the Mesa Verde RV park pool. Henry’s super power to make instant friends at any public pool or playground came in handy.
I also got busted by Wes for taking one photo while driving the rental car (everything was so dang pretty!!!) and by the morning of Day Five, we were winding our way up to Balcony House where we were scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. park ranger tour of the famous cliff dwellings.
Also not pictured: a couple of epic movie nights in the rig. We introduced the kids to both Napoleon Dynamite and Titanic on this trip. It’s a toss up to say which was the bigger hit.
By this time, a few more things had broken on Big Betsy. Two of the foot locker drawers no longer latched which led to a lot of ankle bruises; an after-market steering assist stabilizer bar (say that five times fast) came unhinged and had to be unbolted from the front axle; and a small crack was slowly crawling the full length of the front windshield.
On the far left below is Eagle Nest Lake near Cimarron, New Mexico. Mental bookmark, we should come back to this place.
On the winding, climbing road through Mesa Verde National Park we stopped at a few scenic overlooks.
Hearing Ella freak out inside of a park bathroom that had no flushing toilets or running water was worth the cost of admission for the day. This photo was taken before that very traumatic experience.
Following the advice of Wise Internet People, I went to book tickets for a ranger-guided tour of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings the night before our visit. We only had the morning to spend at the park and we were left with one option, despite my pre-planning: Tour Balcony House at 9:30 which requires the most strenuous climb to reach the dwellings.
I decided to buy the tickets and keep the details to myself.
On the way to Balcony House, we stopped to catch a view of Cliff Palace.
This stop was the most highly anticipated by the kids. It was incredible to imagine the Ancient Puebloans who found a way to survive in these cliffs. They farmed on the tops of the mesas, and built their homes inside natural caves caused by seep springs that eat away at the rock.
After living through the most laborious talk on safety and respect we’ve ever heard, we climbed down into the canyon and gathered at the bottom of a 32-foot wooden ladder. Where we got to hear the safety and respect talk reprise. :) Now, I’m not too proud to admit it, after Henry totally backed out on the horse riding adventure, I made a plan to bribe the heck out of our cautious kid to climb this ladder.
$20 to spend at the gift shop and a Roblox account saved the day.
Here’s Ella, just chillin’ in an ancient dwelling built into the side of a sandstone cliff.
The large round structures are kivas, which archeologists say were used for everything from cooking to political meetings to housing the sipapu, which represented their place of emergence from the underworld.
So, pretty multi-functional.
As far as I can tell, the Ancient Puebloans were incredible parents. How did they keep their children from falling off the face of the cliff as soon as they learned to crawl? We struggled and we were only there for 20 minutes max. It might have been longer, and we might have learned a little more about this civilization, but our ranger was a little long-winded on the front end with the Welcome schpeel. Luck of the draw!
From Mesa Verde, we headed Southwest to Williams, Arizona, driving through the Canyons of the Ancients along the way.
…STILL DAY FIVE…
Our original plan was to stop at the Petrified Forest National Park on the way. As it turns out, the Painted Desert is slightly closer to Highway I-40 and we were looking to shave a few minutes off of our route. We did check out some petrified wood in the souvenir shop so we didn’t feel like complete failures.
After buying some wood rocks, we saw Painted Desert Inn which was one of the original highlights along historic Route 66.
And then we got to see the actual Painted Desert which was a lot more colorful in real life than this photo. (Still true even if they all say that.)
The rest of Day Five went a little downhill. I-40 was shut down for about 40 miles around Flagstaff so we added an hour and a half of driving to an already very long day. But we made it. And there was a brewery across the street from the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and RV Park. While the wait was 30 minutes for a table at 8 p.m., they had an indoor pond where the kids could make wishes and a shuffle board table.
Grand Canyon Day! Three of us were happy to smile for a couple of photos before boarding the 100-year old train from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim.
One was not. It was a theme for the day, actually.
On the way to there, we splurged for seats in the domed car where you can see panoramic views of the very exciting pine trees and cattle ranches. They also have singing cowboys. We were such fans of D.B. Rouse we bought his $5 demo CD so we could listen to his original tune, Pug with Opposable Thumbs, whenever we like.
All kidding aside, our first views of the canyon were breathtaking as promised.
Henry still wasn’t interested in having his photo taken, but he came around a little later in the afternoon.
“The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves.”
— John Piper
With three hours to spend before our return train ride, we decided to hike a portion of the Bright Angel Trail.
Of course, what goes down…
…comes back out of the canyon a sweaty, thirsty, elated mess.
And then we headed to the Hopi House which I thoroughly enjoyed.
We planned a lazy day in Williams. Grocery, laundry and just generally laying low. We also ended up dealing with some more RV problems…the hot water heater went competely kaput, along with the master bedroom toilet.
So we called the owners who called around and sent Rex the RV Repairman to see us. He had a big truck full of stuff, but not the relay switch the hot water heater needed.
Good news: He set us up with a temporary solution that would last until we got home.
Bad news: Rex had earned his points and had no interest in fixing the toilet.
More bad news: Rex’s temporary fix lasted long enough for Ella to take a brief hot shower and then water began spewing out the side of Big Betsy.
So we called the owners who called around again. Rex could return in the morning. And Danny the Other RV Repairman came to look at the toilet. Which he couldn’t repair. But he promised to come back the next day to try again and, on his way out, declared there was no way Rex could fix the hot water.
Thanks for the attitude, Danny.
We reworked our schedule and Rex came and (hooray!) fixed the hot water for good. Before he left, he declared there was no way Danny could fix the toilet. These guys were a hoot.
While there was no help for Wes being tied to the RV waiting on repairs, I could see the future and trying to entertain three kids in a parking lot for a full day was not going to work. So I found a taxi driver that could drive me to Flagstaff where I rented another car.
Thirty-five minutes and $132 later, I was delivered to Enterprise where a 24-hour rental cost me less than $60. Whatever, it was worth it.
The kids and I planned a Wildlife Day. First up: Bearizona, where we drove through several large animal exhibits, saw a Birds of Prey show and finished with the petting zoo.
Henry wasn’t feeling like taking a photo on the way into the walk-through zoo part of the park, but he wanted a do-over on the way out.
Genius idea: After the Birds of Prey show, you could line up to feed money to a Raven, who collected donations for the park.
Just one wildlife experience wouldn’t do! So we also stopped by the Grand Canyon Deer Farm eight miles up the road. It was crazy! The kids got to hand feed literally dozens of deer and see lots of other animals along the way.
Ella smooched Gracie the camel!
In the end, Danny never showed and Wes missed the Deer Farm for nothign. We are not fans of Danny.
But Rex assured us there was a fairly good chance the second toilet would hold out for the second half of our trip so the next morning, we crossed our fingers and hit the road to Albuquerque.
Reassuringly, the RV’s generator started to cut out randomly while we were on the road through a portion of country highway with zero cell service. No problem. We could pull over, take the cover off the generator and manually restart it. Problem solved! (Sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour. It added to the travel excitement.)
Some people might wonder…why Albuquerque? We’re not totally sure. But we’re big fans of Breaking Bad and our original plans including taking the tram to the top of Sandia Peak. With our delays in Williams, we didn’t have time for that but we did hop on a trolley tour of the city.
Breaking Bad Pop Quiz Question: Who’s house is this?
Better Call Saul Pop Quiz Question: Who’s house is this?
The motel and the Simms Building pictured below were also popular film locations for Breaking Bad.
The rest of our trolley tour wasn’t much to write home about but we did get to see some more of historic Route 66 and we had the best dinner of our entire trip at High Noon Restaurant and Saloon in Old Town.
It was about this time that we went to leave the RV during a gas stop and the exterior stairs suddenly stopped working. We weren’t surprised. The kids found it entertaining to jump the three feet in and out of the RV all day long and Wes and I just added it to the list of reasons we were grateful we didn’t own Big Betsy.
Detour! On our way to Carlsbad Caverns, we worked in a stop to White Sands National Monument.
Wow. If you made me pick, this was my favorite stop on our trip. The sand is powdered white gypsum, the dunes rising out of seemingly nowhere as you drive down the highway through the Tularosa Basin. Because the gypsum is good at holding what little water falls in this area, the dunes don’t completely blow away and some plant life is able to put down roots.
Walking around here felt like showing up to school still dressed in your pajamas. You were at the beach but something important was wrong…you couldn’t quite put your finger on the missing ocean waves. Were you in a dream?
For a cool $16 a piece you can buy plastic saucers in the gift shop and then slide down the dunes. Bonus, the next time we get a big snow in Texas, we’re all set.
Pro Tip: Going down is super fun. But save some energy for the climb back to the top.
After slip-sliding the afternoon away, we drove to Carlsbad where all of the flies live. We made dinner while the boys played GaGa ball with some new RV park friends. Then we hit the KOA Gettin’ Store for some s’mores supplies and had some post-shower chill time by the fire pit.
Carlsbad Caverns! We left one of the best stops for last. Of course, we underestimated the time it would take to get from the KOA to the park itself — note for next time, 36 winding miles in an RV will take always take a full hour — and we nearly missed getting to join our ranger-guided tour of King’s Palace and a few other caves which aren’t open to the public. Thankfully, Henry helped us charm our way in and the sights were spectacular.
Our ranger guide, Aubrey, was pretty awesome. She told elaborate stories that likened the formations in the caves to historical places and legendary characters, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Native American stories. She really entertained the kids and wove in a bit of local history along the way. Michael’s favorite part was when she turned off all of the lights in the Queen’s Room, leaving us to appreciate the cave in absolute darkness. Henry had a different opinion of that part.
The formation below on the right is called the Bashful Elephant. Do you see it?
Visiting here was truly like being in another world. We won’t forget it.
We also won’t forget the climb back out of the caverns. When our tour ended, we had the choice to hang a right (toward the elevator we took down originally) or take a left. Without much thought, we followed the kids to the left. They thought a little climb sounded better than an elevator ride.
As it turns out, it was a 1.25-mile climb with an elevation change equal to 84 stories. About 1/3rd of the way up, my back started to spasm, like it tends to do at the worst times, and Wes and the kids were pretty far ahead of me. It was during one of my ‘old lady’ rests that I figured out we were heading away from the main attraction — the Big Room — and there was no way I was going to catch up to stop everyone.
So I got to take a more leisurely walk, snapping photos along the way, and we saw the Bat Cave near the natural entrance which I thought we were going to have to miss. Of course, thousands and thousands of bats = thousands and thousands of bat guano droppings but if you hold your nose and keep on walking, it’s really cool.
And now we have a reason to return some day. I’d make a second trip in a heartbeat.
Leaving Carlsbad Caverns, we decided to split up the drive home with a rest stop in Abilene.
Happily on DAY TWELVE, we were home by lunchtime, spent a couple of hours unloading and cleaning out the RV and returned it to it’s owners a day early. Handing over the keys of that maintenance nightmare was a real highlight.
Sitting at dinner at Pappadeaux’s that night, Wes and I toasted each other, giddy that we made it.
Because this post hasn’t included enough photos, here are just a few more that I don’t want to forget, years from now, when I’m re-reading and remembering this incredible trip.
I’m already noodling on the next adventure. It’s going to involve some National Parks up north…Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Crater Lake…Wes needs a little more time to recuperate from all of that driving and get excited with me, but I know it won’t take long.