Category Archives: road trips

Dancers at the Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende

Road trip: San Miguel de Allende

gto mapThe bus trip from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende only takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, but the two cities feel like different worlds in some ways.

I’m bringing it up because I spent a few days last week in San Miguel, which is the only place in Guanajuato (the state) that most Americans have ever heard of. That’s because in this part of Mexico, San Miguel is Gringo Heaven.

I like San Miguel, it’s a charming colonial town with a beautiful cathedral, old-fashioned anklebreaker cobbled streets and a thriving artists’ scene. Over the years, I’ve run with the bulls downtown (back when they still did that), partied until the wee hours in the local nightclubs (back when I still did that) and enjoyed restaurants and coffee shops that always seemed a notch above the offerings in Guanajuato (which feels a lot more urban than San Miguel).

But I’ve always gravitated to Guanajuato. It was my first love south of the Rio Grande, the first Mexican city I’d lived in, the place where I learned to speak the language and love the culture. I picked it over San Miguel, which had plenty of language schools of its own, because of the gringo factor. My friend Ramon (a Mexican journalist and Zorba-like lover of life and explorer of the world) had warned me: “In San Miguel, everyone will speak English to you,” he said. “Guanajuato, you’ll be forced to speak Spanish.”

He was right. And it’s still that way. San Miguel is the third-most popular destination for American ex-pats, behind Tijuana and Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, according to the 2010 Mexican census. Guanajuato (the city) didn’t make the top 20.

In San Miguel, a good portion of the locals who work in the restaurants and bars and gift shops switch to English when they see norteamericanos coming. The town is dotted with little gated communities filled with north-of-the-border retirees and part-time expats – it also has a lot of artists and fixed-income retirees who rent places among the locals.

In Guanajuato, the restaurants and bars and tour buses are packed with Spanish speakers – the tourists here are overwhelmingly Mexicans from other parts of the country. In the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve run into two people in the service industry who have a good command of English. There’s no “American section” that I know of. It’s a challenging place to navigate if you don’t speak the language.

It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. It’s just what kind of experience you’re looking for as an outsider. I like coming to Mexico and having to adapt to life here rather than being where a lot of the locals have adapted to us.

Some Americans like to argue about whether the gringos have ruined San Miguel (or more likely, older expats complaining that the newcomers are ruining their Mexican nirvana). I don’t live there. I don’t know. But San Miguel doesn’t feel like an Americanized parody of Mexico to me – it’s still a very Mexican town — and I always leave San Miguel feeling pretty good about the whole Mexican-gringo relationship.

For all the hand-wringing about the American (and Canadian and European) presence in San Miguel de Allende, it strikes me as a place where foreigners can be as insulated or as integrated as they want to be.

I have a different perspective on the place now that I have family-by-marriage in San Miguel. My cousin Doug married a local about five years ago, and this month his wife Bety came back to San Miguel from Austin with their daughter for a long visit with her family, so I hopped a bus to see them.

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Bety’s father’s handiwork

Bety played the tour guide, taking me to a couple of local restaurants and bars, visiting the Catholic temple that still had the heavy wooden pews her carpenter father had built three decades ago, strolling through the parks and the outdoor art fairs and the main plaza where a folkloric dance troupe had drawn a big crowd of locals, tourists and expats.

I first met her family when Doug and I – and my brother and sister-in-law – flew down for Doug’s first meeting with his future in-laws years ago. I was the official translator (No pressure). Bety’s family made me feel like a member of the family the moment I stepped through the door. It was the kind of hospitality I’ve encountered all across Mexico over the years.

Bety and her dad
Bety and her dad

A little snapshot of the cross-cultural stew in San Miguel: A couple of years ago her dad (now a widower) began renting out the extra space in his mostly empty nest — two self-contained apartments on the second floor — to a retiree from Dallas and a couple from Canada.

Bety and I sat on the new rooftop terrace with the woman from Dallas and drank wine and talked. She loves Mexico. Wants to live out her days there. Likes the people, the low cost of living, has both American and Mexican friends. Her Spanish is pretty rudimentary, but she makes an effort (and she gets a kick out of the irony of Americans complaining about Mexicans not learning English when so many Americans move to Mexico and don’t try to learn Spanish.). She has meals with Bety’s family sometimes. She and Bety’s dad (who speaks about as much English as she speaks Spanish) sit together and somehow cobble together conversations.

He gets extra income from his tenants. They get a nice, cheap place to live — with rooftop views of the city to boot. And there’s a lot of mutual respect. It works.

I hear Bety and her family talk about how much the town has changed over the years with all the foreigners moving in – the tourist/expat money pouring into the city is a big plus, the rising prices for property and other things is a minus. I know some longtime expats worry about San Miguel losing the small-town colonial charm they fell in love with.

But they’re all sharing the city in apparent harmony, and the place hasn’t lost its soul as far as I can tell.

It works.

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Barefoot Christmas Wedding in Paradise (with Ukuleles)

Those of you who follow me on Facebook probably saw that I spent Christmas week in the Cook Islands. Where? Yeah, that’s what I said when my friend Eric (the same Eric who let me stay at his cabin last summer) said he and his fiancée were planning a beach wedding during the holidays. I had to google it. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere you’ve heard of. You know New Zeland? Kind of in that neighborhood… but not really. You fly Air New Zeland to get there, and the locals, who are Polynesian, speak English with that charming Kiwi accent and use New Zeland money (except for their odd little triangular coins, which are guaranteed not to roll under the couch when you drop them).

But as you’re flying to Rarotonga, the big island in the Cooks, you realize you are in the middle of f-ing nowhere. It’s a good 2,000 miles from New Zeland, or roughly the distance from New York to Albuquerque. The whole island is 20 miles around – you can bike it in about 2 ½ hours, including a beer break – and spiked with soaring, jungle-shrouded mountains, a la Jurassic Park. You half expect velociraptors to greet you at the airport. Instead, you get a sweet old man in a straw hat who plays the ukulele and sings for every arriving flight.

P1040859It’s that kind of place. It’s basically a small town (15,000 population) surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. Which would drive me to anti-psychotics in about a month. But the first thing I noticed on Rarotonga is that these were the happiest, most chill collection of people I think I’ve ever met.

I can say that because I went Christmas shopping there. I live in a pretty chill town, but even Austinites get a typical American case of the crazies during the Christmas shopping season. They’re still polite in the mosh pits at the stores, but you can see the glint in people’s eyes, that cornered animal look that comes when they feel that someone’s gonna beat them to the last Ice Skating Elsa Doll west of the Mississippi.

Not on Rarotonga. After the wedding party got settled into our sweet beachfront resort and we all ate and drank ourselves catatonic for a few days, I decided it would be a good idea to get my Christmas shopping done. On Christmas Eve. So I hopped the local bus (they have two routes, “clockwise” and “counterclockwise.” Impossible to get lost there) to town and dove into the whirling Polynesian shopping throng.

The shops on Rarotonga were hopping on Christmas Eve. Jammed parking lots, lines at the counters, shoppers squeezing past each other to fondle hand-painted sarongs and black pearl earrings – the whole holiday scene, island-style. They even had decorations with Santa and the sleigh and reindeer — in a place that saw its last snow during the last ice age. It was cheery in a contextually jarring sort of way.

The thing is, nothing felt rushed or chaotic or stressful. The islanders were all smiling, relaxed… busy as hell, but completely unflustered by any of it. A woman at the cash register offered to help me pick out sarongs (and leave her post when people were lining up). “Aren’t you slammed?” I asked. “Nah, it’s fine, it’ll all get done,” she said. Nobody glared or rolled their eyes or anything. This is a special place.

It’s worth noting that this was my first Christmas away from my family. In my life. That was strange by itself, but even stranger was spending the holiday in the muggy, drizzly near-silence of a small tropical island that had shut down for the day. Peaceful, but disorienting. I was thinking about my family back in Texas: dad feeding logs into the fire, my niece and nephew tearing into what was surely an obscenely large stack of gifts. I felt very, very far away all of a sudden (which it was: 5,500 miles to be precise).

I went for a short bike ride. Ate at the resort restaurant for the 14th time. Read my book (aptly, it was Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself). Waited for the hours to pass until the wedding the following day.

The wedding was storybook pretty and surf casual. I’ve never walked barefoot through sand at a wedding, but I consider it my karmic payback for all those toe-pinching tux shoes I wore in I don’t know how many weddings. Eric and Sarah got married on a little island just across the lagoon from the resort. We all packed into a glass-bottomed boat for the 3 ½ minute voyage through three-foot-deep water, hopped out, waited for the bride’s flotilla to arrive (bearing Sarah and her sarong-wrapped bridesmaids). The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes, then the ukulele serenade began, we all piled back into the boats and proceeded to eat and drink ourselves buggy again while Paul, our local friend/ambassador, tried to teach a group of drunken Americans how to dance like a Cook Islander.

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And that’s how the week ended, with a lot of knees and elbows and feet twisting and thrusting in unfamiliar positions while a deejay played typical American wedding fare (yes, including “You better shape up” from the Grease soundtrack) and we downed Matutu lagers and the sun set over the lagoon way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I think I was hung over all the way to Los Angeles.

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Autumn in Michigan

Pentwater in autumn
Pentwater in autumn

There’s a fire roaring in my uncle’s enormous fireplace, the red wine and cheese and crackers are disappearing fast, and Pentwater’s literature lovers are dissecting 30 pages of my novel. It’s my aunt Mary and her book club friends Bev and Ellen. They’re smart, well-read women, and I’ve given them several chapters about my main female character so they can spot any flaws or holes. They talk about those 30 pages for two hours.

This is good timing. I’m working on my characters now, trying to deepen them, give them more dimensions. I’m writing long bios on all of them, even the minor characters. I’m picturing them in my mind in different settings, listening to them talk like an eavesdropper. You can’t eavesdrop on your own imagination, can you?

I just returned from a quick visit to Michigan. I come up regularly, typically in July or August to escape Austin’s heat and get my fix of Michigan’s summer charms: swimming in Lake Michigan, walking on white sand beaches under a sun that doesn’t punish, eating my weight in lake perch and sweet corn and cherries. I stay in Pentwater with my aunt Mary and uncle Bert, who have spent most of their lives here and now live in a big home they built back in the woods, a short walk from the big lake. Every time I come they take me in like a lost son.

Pentwater seems eternally unchanged, swelling and shrinking with the seasons. It swells in the summer with tourists and beachcombers and pleasure boaters from Chicago and Wisconsin, then empties out after Labor Day weekend and sleeps all winter. I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a cottage here, on Bass Lake, and my family made the drive from Kalamazoo (where I was born) on summer weekends so my brother and my cousins and I could spend our days playing in the lake and catching frogs in the drainage ditches and running off our energy outside while the grownups sipped manhattans and talked about whatever grownups talked about.

We left Michigan for Texas when I was 12, and it took me years to shake the pang of nostalgia that would strike every September when Texas was still mired in summer heat and I knew the leaves were changing and the air was turning cold and bright back in Michigan. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve experienced Michigan in autumn, and now that I don’t have to ration my vacation days, I wanted a big dose of it.

It was pretty much a perfect fall week: crisp air, pumpkins on porches, leaves painted red and orange and yellow, doused in slanting fall sunlight that makes it feel like the golden hour all day. Bert and Mary took me on our annual pilgrimage to Scotty’s in Ludington for perch, we’ve made homemade Italian sausage and pasta, I drove down to Grand Haven to catch up with my cousin Courtney (another literary soul who’s supported me throughout the writing process) and to South Bend to catch up with my cousin Megan (who’s about to move to Chicago to take a great new job running admissions at the University of Chicago’s business school).

A few years ago I came here for two weeks while I was writing the draft of my novel and wrote each day on their sun porch, then walked on the beach in the evenings. So it was nice to come back with a finished draft and let Mary and her friends have a look. They like the character, they think she’s believable, and more importantly, they care about what happens to her. Bev said she was disappointed when she finished – she wanted to read more. Also good. They gave me some suggestions, asked good questions, and had me jotting notes to myself about changes I need to make. Then we had homemade fettuccine and Italian sausage. A good night all around.

And a good visit. It was a nice break. Now, back to work.

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Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.

Road trip: Fort Collins

hibachi group
Bonding at my birthday dinner in Fort Collins

Last month, I was on the phone with Eric (who owns the cabin I’m staying in), talking about driving up to Fort Collins to visit him and his fiancée Sarah. When I told him my birthday was Aug. 10, he said “Hell yeah, you gotta come up here for your birthday. We’ll take care of you.”

I did, and they did.

For all the time I’ve spent in Colorado, I haven’t seen much of the state outside of the Pagosa Springs-Durango corner. So last Thursday I packed the car and headed north to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, it turns out.

The drive across Colorado was its own reward. I spent hours winding along highway 285, a two-lane strip of pavement that threads through the Rockies, past soaring rock cliffs and rock-strewn mountain streams and vast valleys lush from summer rains. Every twist in the road brings a new wonder. It’s the kind of drive where you stay below the speed limit to stretch out the scenery just a little longer.

My first stop was Longmont, just north of Denver, to pay a visit to Eric’s parents (who own the condo I’ve used for occasional showers and to ride out bad thunderstorms). They took me to eat at Oskar Blues, the craft brewery based in Longmont that also features a restaurant (the food is as good as the beer). Larry and Sandy are wonderful people, they’ve basically adopted me – in the same way my parents adopted Eric when he was going to college with my brother Chris at Texas A&M-Galveston in the early ’90s. I couldn’t pass by Longmont without stopping in. And of course, they fed me.

Forty-five minutes later I was pulling into the driveway of Eric and Sarah’s new house on the edge of Fort Collins. I couldn’t believe this place, it’s three times the size of my house in Austin. On a lake. With mountain views. Eric’s doing quite well, it seems. They gave me the tour of this beautiful house – the rooms never seemed to end – then we settled on the big back balcony to have a drink and gaze at the lake.

It was just a bit surreal – and not just for me. Eric’s had a breakthrough year. He sold his company to a major corporation and got engaged to Sarah, who he’s known for 20 years (and they’re a great match. She’s a keeper). He said they still walk around this big house thinking someone’s going to knock on the big oak door and kick them out. You’ve had your fun, now back where you belong.

I’ve known Eric since he was a 19-year-old with floppy blonde surfer hair (which drew plenty of attention when he and Chris spent a weekend with me in McAllen and I gave them their first taste of a Mexican border town). Eric’s always been the struggling mad scientist. He’s an engineer, works with carbon fiber. He invents stuff, most of which goes way over my head. He’s spent the past 20 years overworking himself with this frantic, relentless energy that would put me in a coma in about a week. He’s the kind of guy you see on YouTube with a jet pack strapped to his back, hovering over the surface of a lake, then plunging into the water like a flying dolphin. Work hard, play hard. That’s Eric.

After all those tough years of sleeping in his shop and teetering on the edge of financial collapse, he’s gotten his reward. Nobody I know has worked harder for it.

And of course, he and Sarah were going to share their bounty while I was in town. They gave me the king’s treatment: a big dinner at Fort Collins’ best seafood restaurant, long rides on his new speedboat (“a floating Ferrari” is how he describes it. After a few runs behind it on a tube, I can vouch for that. Picture a dead fish being dragged behind a cigarette boat). And a private tour of the New Belgium brewery.

Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.
Beer heaven: New Belgium’s cask room.

Eric is friends with Matt Furlong, New Belgium’s sales project manager, who met us on his afternoon off and graciously showed me around the place that brews some of my favorite beers (thanks Matt, you’re a hell of an ambassador).

I also got to wander around downtown Fort Collins for an afternoon. Loved the town. It’s like a miniature Portland: neat-as-a-pin, tree-lined downtown streets lined with historic buildings that house all sorts of little shops and restaurants and brewpubs. Oh, and a thriving little independent bookstore, where I picked up a few books as a birthday present to myself (Hemingway, Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle). It has the energy of a college town (Colorado State) and the relaxed vibe of a small town. I was thoroughly impressed. I could live there.

The climax of the weekend was Sunday. Eric and Sarah took me and their friend Aaron to one of those Benihana-type places where a knife-twirling chef cooks your meal in front of you. Eric proceeded to order rounds of drinks and shots (three of them were sake bombs, which involves plopping a sake shot into a beer and downing it in one gulp), and we proceeded to start mixing it up with party of six seated with us around the big cooktop. It was a local family celebrating their daughter’s 17th birthday. She had a couple of high school friends along. The mom was a bit of a smartass, we liked her immediately.

Long story short, over the next four hours we drank too much, ate too much, became best friends with the party of six and most of the restaurant staff (Eric bought them shots too), took a big group photo to commemorate the evening, then staggered into a taxi and fell asleep by 10. I drove 350 miles back to Pagosa on Monday nursing a birthday hangover.

And it was worth every mile.

The Road, Part II: Redrock and pine

redrocks

Highway 84 rewards those who stick with it. The payoff for grinding through the Panhandle’s aching flatness and its smelly feed lots and eastern New Mexico’s desert scrub is the slow climb into some of the most beautiful country in the southwest.

After covering nearly 600 miles Friday, I stopped for the night in Santa Rosa, N.M., a little high desert town on I-40 with more motel rooms than people. Santa Rosa’s not much to look at, but after hundreds of miles of empty scrubland, a truck stop looks like an oasis. All I wanted was a clean room and a good bed (the Best Western took care of that). In the morning, after a quick stop at tEdselhe Route 66 auto museum (I couldn’t resist after seeing what
they did to this Edsel), I jumped in the car for the final leg of the trip.

Mercifully, things start to get interesting near Santa Fe. You can see the mountains in the distance and feel the air cool as you climb. The transition is jarring: one minute you’re in the desert, the next you’re driving past Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and rows of perfectly stuccoed and earth-tone-painted homes. Even the highway overpasses are decorated with artsy interpretations of Native American pictographs. Santa Fe is adobe Disneyland.

But my favorite part comes north of Santa Fe. Once you cross the Rio Grande in Española – it’s wide and fast and stained the same reddish-brown as the dirt – you start climbing and twisting through stunning red rock cliffs and canyons. Further north on 84 the cliffs turn a pale yellow and rise in long, graceful ridges topped with sage and juniper. This is where I start looking for familiar landmarks: the Ghost Ranch, the Echo Amphitheater (a natural half-dome cavern that does just what its name suggests when you shout into its mouth), the Trujillos general store, squatting in stubborn isolation amid the empty canyonlands like an Old West relic.

The road rises, then descends into the wide grasslands of the Chama Valley, 7,800 feet above sea level. The Continental Divide rises ahead, painted a misty blue. After more twists and climbs, the first pines start emerging amid the sagebrush. And then everything changes. The highway tops another ridge, and suddenly you’re in thick stands of pine and spruce – the wet side of the mountains. It never fails to make my blood pump a little faster. Thirty more miles to Pagosa Springs.

It’s raining when I hit town, and the rain perfumes the air with pine. It’s 68 degrees in mid-July. Heaven.

I drive through the old downtown, rows of restored frontier buildings that hug the curves of the Piedras River, all of it surrounded by soaring green mountains. If Norman Rockwell had lived in the mountains, he would’ve painted this place.

The rain stops, so I pull into the public parking lot on a ridge overlooking the river and take it all in: teenagers splashing amid the rocks, kids and grownups gliding on tubes, people walking the riverside hike-and-bike trail. Across the river is the hot springs, a sprawling collection of oversized hot tubs fed by the natural springs that drew the Utes and Navajos here centuries ago. That sulfur tang in the air. I can feel every muscle in my body relax. Pagosa has become sort of an adopted second home for me over the years.

I still have a 20-minute drive over a narrowing series of unpaved roads to reach the cabin. Then it’s time to get to work.

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The Road, Part I: Barreling down Stink Highway

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Downtown Muleshoe

This launch into this new life began in earnest at 8:15 this morning when I slid behind the wheel of the Hedgehog (my 2010 Kia Soul. Please hold the gerbil jokes. Thank you.) and rolled onto U.S. 183 in the steamy July air.

Seven hours later, I could tell I was close to Muleshoe. It was seeping through every crack in the Kia.

I’m on my way to Colorado, where there’s a little log cabin waiting for me in the San Juan Mountains outside of Pagosa Springs – that’s where I need to whip my novel into shape this summer so it’s ready to ship off to a pair of agents who said they want to see it (more on that in a later post). It’s an 850-mile drive, much of it through some of the most mind-numbing countryside ever to be coated with blacktop.

I’ve made this drive many times. The Texas leg never gets better. I take 183 northwest through Lampasas and Zephyr and Brownwood, then hop on Texas 84 into Flatlander country. Curl around Abilene, zip through Sweetwater and the aptly-named Wastella, weave through what passes for traffic in Lubbock, then brace yourself for a solid hour on Stink Highway.

This is treeless, dry country, where every farm has a little swirly pack of pet dust devils. I would call it hopelessly featureless, except for its one defining, nose-curling feature: The delicate perfume of a half million flatulent cattle crammed into vast feedlots.

cowbutts
The business end of the cattle business

It’s a singular stink, and even in a flat, windy countryside, it lingers and sticks to everything it touches. It’s an airborne cocktail of ammonia and cow bowel that hits you like a wet slap. Roll down the car windows, even for a few seconds, and you can feel your nose hair melting.

East of Houston where all the oil refineries sprouted, the locals call the skin-peeling chemical air “the smell of money.” In this part of Texas, this olfactory gift from cows’ netherparts is the smell of money throughout the greater Muleshoe-Bovina-Lariat area. Keep your windows rolled up.

Which brings me back to Muleshoe. I needed gas and a good stretch after 450 miles, so I stopped in Muleshoe. Somehow, I always stop in Muleshoe (town motto: our flies will swallow your flies whole). So this time I decided to get the T-shirt.

I passed the hollowed-out downtown strip with its boarded-up theater and pulled into the Dollar General. No luck. They sent me to the Lowe’s grocery, which had a lovely selections of “What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield” shirts, but no Muleshoe Mules merchandise (of course they’re the Mules).

I asked a couple of employees: what does happen in the cornfield? Blank looks.

They sent me down the street to the much fancier United grocery, where the parking lot was packed with F-150s and Tundras and Suburbans. The United is shiny and cool and has Sunny D on sale for 97 cents this week (it’s on the endcap between aisles 6 and 7. And they have red. You’re welcome).

I find the shirt rack and grab my black Mules T-shirt. I’m walking to the cash registers, Mr. Austin in my Austin City Limits festival T-shirt and I-just-got-off-the-hike-and-bike-trail sandals, the guy from Hipster City stopping for kicks in their dripwater town.

I get in line. Ahead of me, a woman with a cloud of gray hair and a lavender pantsuit is writing out a check with agonizing slowness. The cashier smiles at her, patient. When the woman scans the check with a bony finger, checking her work, the cashier keeps smiling. Then she calls for a carry-out and within seconds another employee is pushing the woman’s basket to her car. Because they take care of their seniors in Muleshoe.

When I pay, the cashier tells me to have a great day. And I can tell she means it. Outside in the parking lot, gray-headed men in suspenders and feed lot caps are hanging out next to a battered pickup, talking in that musical Panhandle twang, in no hurry to do anything except catch up with an old friend. On the radio, the deejay for Q101.5 is asking everyone to go to the flapjack fundraiser this Saturday at Applebee’s to help a local man who’s fighting cancer.

I get back in the Hedgehog and realize that during my jaunt through Muleshoe, I stopped noticing the smell of the feedlots.

Go Mules.

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$12.99 at the United. Worth every penny.