Happy National Tourism Day!

7 May

I recently finished up a travel writing class here at Medill.  For it, I wrote a piece about the trip my mother and I recently took to Santa Fe, NM.  Since no one could understand why we decided to go there of all places, today in honor of National Tourism Day, I’m going to share the piece on here.  Enjoy!

Mountains, margaritas and mother

Right before take-off, the flight attendants ran through their safety demonstrations, telling passengers that in the event that oxygen masks were needed, make sure to secure your own mask before helping children.  I’d heard this sentence before and can remember vacations to Disney as a kid when I heard it without listening, assuming my mom would take care of me.  This time, however, she turned to me and said, “You’re on your own now kid.”

My mother and I planned our vacation to Santa Fe as a mother/daughter bonding trip before I finished my master’s degree in Chicago and entered the working world.  Not that my mother and I really needed to bond.  My parents were divorced and we didn’t have much family in the area.  For as long as I could remember, it had just been her and I.

Standing in the security line at O’Hare knowing her flight from Connecticut had already arrived, that she was waiting on the other side, made me feel strangely isolated.  Even though I had flown by myself before, after all the family vacations where my mother woke me up and drove us to the airport, it seemed too independent to be doing this alone. We met at the gate and boarded the plane to Albuquerque together.  After about two hours of turbulence and my first look at the sharp topped mountains from the air, we picked up our rental car and drove an easy hour to Santa Fe.  Once there, we were glad to have a car, which made day trips to surrounding towns much easier.

We decided that we wanted to travel together months before our actual trip, but had a difficult time picking a destination.  Many destinations were suggested from a sightseeing whirlwind in London to a week on a beach in the islands, but once we started looking at Santa Fe, we found it had everything we wanted: sightseeing, shopping, spa, food and wine.

We explored the option of Santa Fe because of an e-mail my mother received from the Eldorado Hotel and Spa, since she is a preferred member of their hotel chain.  Upon arriving at 309 W. San Francisco Street, we were greeted by a friendly doorman, checked into our upgraded room and given a welcome bag full of chips, salsa and other treats.  Artwork characteristic of the American southwest decorated the room, which also had a kiva adobe fireplace in the corner.  From our balcony, we could see the outskirts of Santa Fe and mountains looming in the distance.

Our first night, exhausted from the flight, we checked out the restaurant located in our hotel, The Old House.  My mother and I began our meal with a beet salad with goat cheese that included purple, red and orange beets.  I tried it grudgingly—since I had never tried I beet, I was sure I wouldn’t like it—and was pleasantly surprised by their firm texture and sweet taste.  For dinner, I had a filet mignon with lemony asparagus and a pile of onion rings.  I am picky about my steak and believe there is a fine line between chewy overcooked mess and too bloody.  The Old House walked this line.  The restaurant did not rely on just their food to impress.  The walls were decorated with kachinas and Native American drums that my mother wanted to steal off the walls to decorate a newly-refinished room in our home.

The restaurant was not the only aspect of the Eldorado that had a reputation.  The Nidah Spa was reviewed as one of the most luxurious and relaxing in Santa Fe.  For one day of our trip, we did a mother/daughter spa day where we each got a massage, a manicure and a pedicure.  The spa made an effort to incorporate local flavor into the services: my mother’s hot stone massage included chunks of turquoise and the pedicures included juniper lotion, a herb that is common in the Santa Fe area.  While the services were relaxing and well done,—my manicure did not chip for almost a week and a half—the staff really made the day, arranging to have lunch and wine brought to us in the relaxation room.

New Mexico Museum of Art

The staircase in the Loretto Chapel, part of our walking tour.

We spent an entire day of our trip just seeing the sights of the city through a walking tour suggested by the Santa Fe Frommer’s book, which began at the Plaza, about a 10 minute walk from our hotel.  Before beginning the tour, we grabbed breakfast at the Plaza Bakery at 56 E. San Francisco Street.  We each had a fresh-out-of-the-oven muffin, but it was the cakes that made me wish it wasn’t 9 am.  After eating, we walked around the Plaza, filled with jugglers, dance groups or just locals enjoying the sunshine any time of day.  We visited museums and historic houses around the city while the guidebook explained the significance of each, such as a house made of adobe, but painted to look like brick, an expensive commodity when the house was built.  Some highlights of the walking tour were the Georgia O’Keeffe museum and the Loretto Chapel with its spiral staircase that is held up seemingly by magic alone.

Native Americans were setting up their handcrafted jewelry, pottery and art for sale near the Plaza by the Palace of the Governors.  The artists were eager to explain the Native American symbols and what the piece meant, from rain drops and clouds to thunder never striking in the same place twice.  This gave it a much more authentic feel than any of the commercial jewelry shops along San Francisco Street.  Of all the shopping we did in Santa Fe, nothing stood up in quality to what was produced by these Native American artists.

The sampler we had at the Santa Fe Brewery.

Though we hadn’t exhausted the shopping possibilities by any means, our bags were full and wallets were empty so we headed to the Santa Fe Brewing Company at 35 Fire Place.  While the center of Santa Fe is full of adobe buildings, shops and restaurants, at the brewery just 15 minutes outside the city, there was nothing but a building and a brew tank off a dirt road.  At the brewery, we found really original beers, like the Imperial Java Stout with a strong coffee taste or the State Pen Porter, my personal favorite with a nutty taste and a tap handle that looked like a jail tower.  While I may not have loved them all, each beer was something I knew I would not be able to try anywhere else.

Driving back from the brewery, I was shocked to see a dark brown lump dance over the road.  My mom was equally as shocked to hear that I thought tumbleweeds didn’t exist and that they were just a cinematic tool to make a place look deserted in movies.  We were both shocked when she drove over one and a scraping noise starting coming from our car.  At the next red light, my mother pulled over and yanked the tumbleweed out from under the car to my laughter-induced tears.

The brother of the infamous tumbleweed. This one battled with a fence, while the other battled with our car.

A local we met at the brewery suggested we try The Shed for dinner that night.  I Googled the restaurant and called to make reservations, which I was denied.  Due to the restaurant’s popularity, reservations were already full for the night.  We went anyway, hoping someone would be a no-show and were luckily seated within half an hour.

The food at The Shed was forgettable, other than the green chile sauce, which is made in-house.  What made this meal memorable was the building itself, a hacienda dating back to 1692 made up of nine brightly colored rooms with large windows and low ceilings.  We ordered margaritas, still a thrill to drink with my mom since I had been away at college for much of my time as a legal drinker.  As a 22 year old, I got carded everywhere I went in Santa Fe and was even told one that I looked 17.

After two days exploring the city, it was time to venture out of Santa Fe.  My mom planned a road trip up to Taos, a ski town in the mountains.  We planned to take the high road through the mountains to Taos, then turn around and take the low road along the Rio Grande River back to Santa Fe.  We expected the drive to take an hour there and an hour back.

Snow on our drive up to Taos

We did not expect the drive to take us through the middle of nowhere, across cattle guards through impossibly high mountain passes.  The directions neglected to mention that we would be on a road with no towns and no sign of civilization for miles.  So there we were, mother and daughter driving through a snowstorm at 7,000 feet down a road with street signs pointing to dirt paths winding into the forest.  I was the navigator and, while the directions we had failed us, my iPhone had enough bars for me to see that we were actually heading the right way.

Even though we got lost, it was my favorite day of the trip.  Since it was still snowing and we were concerned about getting lost again on the way home, we didn’t spend much time in Taos to make sure we got back to Santa Fe.  A few miles into our drive back, we saw a visitor rest area that was near the river.  We stopped and took a ton of pictures of the murky water rolling through the mountains on the other side of the highway.  The river followed us as we drove along the low road.  There are ample places to pull off the road and even walk right down a gravel path to the river’s edge.  We also made a pit stop at Black Mesa Winery in Velarde.  Wineries have been my mom’s thing: She likes to collect glasses from different wineries to hang up in our wine rack, and this one made a nice addition with a kokopelli etched into the glass.

The vines at Black Mesa Winery, home to many cats

If we had done this drive when I was a child, there would have been yelling about getting lost and worry about the snow.  But now, as a 22-year-old, a road trip with my mom was about stumbling upon unexpected surprises like the winery, laughing when we got lost and talking.  We spent four hours in the car that day, catching up on the details of each other’s’ lives that couldn’t be shared by phone over 700 miles.

The last night of our trip, we went to Milagro 139, our favorite restaurant of the trip.  The restaurant is an open room with a glass ceiling and a second floor balcony wrapping around the outside.  Trees climb up the middle of the room to the light.  I had Chiles en Nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef, raisins, pomegranate and pumpkin seeds drizzled with a walnut sauce.  We finished off dinner, and the trip, with a chimichanga cheesecake.  The best part of dinner was that I finally ordered a glass of wine without getting carded.  It seemed as if I had grown up after all.

The next morning we flew back to Chicago, where my mom got her connecting flight to Connecticut.  We hugged goodbye in O’Hare Terminal 2 and cried like we always did, even though I knew I would see her in less than a month.  While she walked to her next gate, I headed back to my own life and my own home.


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