Somewhere between the haphazard backpacking days of our youth and the meticulously planned vacations our parents favor lies the perfect balance of trip planning. Showing up in a new town without pre-arranged lodging or definite plans and only a vague timeline for departure still seems conceptually exciting but is no longer practical, especially when we travel with two little rugrats in tow. After years of travel we’ve learned to throw together a pretty good trip at the last minute with only minimal research — an approach that is not without drawbacks.
Our recent road trip in Arizona and New Mexico is a case in point. First came the bureaucratic hopscotch of getting the vacation approved, then the destination debate. By the time we settled on the Southwest, we only had a handful of weeks to pull the itinerary together. D purchased tickets and booked a rental car, then spent a couple of hours online looking for interesting sites with plausible drive times. Once he strung together a shell itinerary, S booked accommodations. One night here, two nights there; we only had ten days at our disposal and very little time for trip planning, so our research for this vacation was skin-deep.
One of the factors leading us to choose the Southwest for this trip was our desire for a break from DC’s bleak winter weather. The first handful of days did not disappoint on this front. Nights are cold in the desert, but during the daytime temperatures reached into the seventies, and our first two hikes – in Saguaro NP and the incredibly beautiful Chiricahua Mountains – we enjoyed t-shirt weather.
Then we headed north, and here our lack of research caught up with us. The weather turned after Christmas, the glorious sunshine of the holiday giving way to a nasty cold front for which we were ill prepared. Thick, soupy rainclouds accompanied our departure from Artesia, and the splotchy rainfall gave way to snow as we approached Santa Fe. We had planned to meet a friend who lives in Los Alamos for a short hike and dinner but were forced to scrap those plans. The mountain roads connecting the two cities were so treacherous that our friend would not dare the commute – and rightly so.
The sedan we had rented in sunny Phoenix was far from ideal for the wintry mix that greeted us in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We drove cautiously, congratulating ourselves on the prescience of leaving Artesia at daybreak – before the rapidly falling snow further north had had a chance to accumulate. Shortly after we had safely reached Santa Fe, I-25 – the main highway into the city – was shut down due to several snow-related accidents.
Having twice scrapped our plans – first on account of the government shutdown, and then due to the inclement weather – S turned to the Internet for inspiration and came across a New York Times travelogue feature, 36 Hours in Santa Fe. One of the recommendations in the piece begins with a haiku: Whispering snow melts / Falling on steaming bodies / Am I in Japan? “No, you’re still in Santa Fe,” the Times goes on, “but Ten Thousand Waves, a series of outdoor pools set amid pine trees on a hill outside town, does perfectly impersonate a rural ryokan.”
The Ten Thousand Waves spa is one of one Santa Fe’s undisputed highlights – and was understandably booked solid. S kept calling, however, in the hopes that the inclement weather might lead to a last-minute cancellation, and her persistence was rewarded: we lucked into a couple’s massage on her third phone call. Securing the massage appointment was one challenge; actually reaching the spa was another.
Entering Santa Fe, we followed our GPS along the city’s iced-over streets. The spa is on a hill and the most direct route to it proved impassable, at least for our front-wheel-drive vehicle. The sedan in front of us made it halfway up an inclined street before lurching out of control and entering a slow-motion slide back in our direction. D tried to pass, but after slowing lacked momentum; our car swerved sideways as soon as he touched the gas. Meanwhile the truck behind us kept making steady progress up the hill despite sliding sideways. To avoid the collision that seemed imminent, D reversed and pulled a uey, guiding the car gingerly back down the hill. Fortunately we found an alternative route that was a bit more trafficked and thus less icy.
We had less than 24 hours in Santa Fe, and spent many of them at Ten Thousand Waves, watching the snow blanket the pine trees while we soaked in the hot pools, books in hand, delighting every time enough powder accumulated on the eaves of the roof for gravity to exert its pull and bring the snow sliding down with a soft plop. By the following morning the roads had been cleared enough for our friend to join us for brunch and lead us on a short walk around downtown Santa Fe. Our only regret is that we had booked only one night in Santa Fe. We saw very little of this charming city – just enough, in fact, to want to return as soon as possible.