After New Orleans, we sped through a blur of states: the remainder of Louisiana, small chunks of Mississippi and Alabama, followed by the panhandle of Florida and a portion of Georgia. We covered long distances, the longest being 446 miles in one go, punctuated only by fast food and motels that no longer seemed exciting. The terrain was mainly swamps and marshes, with lots and lots of trees, green ones! Once we hit Interstate-95, it really felt like we were home. Despite being 853 miles from New York, we were back on the East Coast, and within sight of the Atlantic – the ocean next to which Daniel and I both grew up.
Here are some photos of the girls, probably in the parking lot of a Waffle House, our new favorite fast-food chain. Their staff is super-friendly, they serve pretty decent coffee and their pecan waffles are the best. Did I mention the grits?
And so it was that we entered New Orleans trailer-less. Along Interstate 10, we had noted all the trailer parks, one of which was right in the French Quarter.
We did our best not to be sad, and checked in to the Holiday Inn on Royal Road, smack-bam in the middle of the French Quarter. It was kind of scuzzy, and 24-hour parking cost $28. But it did have internet, TV and two full-size beds.
After a restorative cup of tea, we set forth into the unusually windy and cold weather.
New Orleans does not look like it’s in America. First a colony of the Spanish and French, it didn’t become part of the US until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when Napoleon sold it and other lands west of the Mississippi River for some $15 million.
We spent our entire visit in the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, which because of its marginally higher altitude was spared much of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On our way into and out of New Orleans, though, we saw lots of shells of houses as well as lots of houses that looked brand new.
The French Quarter is a bit of a Cajun theme park, but it’s so beautiful and charming that it doesn’t really matter. We ate gumbo, fried crawfish, fried catfish, fried shrimp, hush puppies (also fried), French fries and the most amazing crab cakes.
Plus, at Café du Monde, some local doughnuts called beignets that come with a chicory coffee blend you find only in New Orleans.
Then, having learned that in the South, ‘fried’ is its very own essential food group, we rolled around appreciating more beautiful buildings, the great Mississippi riverfront, groups of excellent musicians and tarot card/ne-er do wells and the Louisiana State Museum. We caught an exhibition featuring Mardi Gras costumes through the ages, and my, were they fancy. Sophia thought that every last one of them was fit for a princess, a wedding or both.
We also figured out the meaning of the ubiquitous signs proclaiming “Who Dat?” meant. Getting the football theme was the easy part – the New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl in January. Working out Who did Dat was more of a challenge.
It turns out that the ever-faithful supporters of the always-losing Saints liked to shout “Who Dat”, or who’s that about to beat our team? So often is this invoked that Saints fans are known as Who Dat Nation.
Here’s the chant: "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
So now, of course, the chant’s losers have come out on top. Yey, Saints.
We started out with a LOT of guidebooks – to the US, to RVing, various states, etc. But given space constraints, we had to limit them to just one, a gift of Daniel’s mom, Barbara: ‘Road Trip USA, Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways’.
And boy, were we happy. The main premise of the book’s author, Jamie Jensen, is that by avoiding the interstate, you get to see the real America. He proposes eleven east-west and north-south routes across the US, pointing out lesser known history, museums, hotels, restaurants, state parks and gloriously kitschy Americana along the way.
Hopping-on and hopping-off eight of these routes, we started calling the book Jamie. We were also inspired to seek out our own smaller roads.
We wrote to Jamie, asking if we could interview him, and very kindly, he agreed. It turns out he has a UK connection, and even spent time living in Cornwall. Which is funny, since that’s where Barbara bought the book.
Q: How did you get started on your book? Or, better put, when did your interest in avoiding big highways become an obsession? Did you set out with the aim of writing a book?
A: My book Road Trip USA came out of years of travel around America, first as a kid on summer vacations, and later as a travel writer (working for UK-base guide books series like Rough Guides and Dorling Kindersley...) I did a USA book for both these companies, but the more I wrote for them the more I discovered that the places I found most interesting were far away from what my editors wanted to hear about -- they wanted me to cover cities, while I felt that the best things America offered were its small towns and wide-open spaces.
Q: You traveled well over 400,000 miles while doing research for this book. How hard was it to narrow down your chosen routes to just 11?
A: What I try to do in the routes I cover in Road Trip USA is to show travelers that they can go anywhere they want to go, without having to deal with the tedium of the Interstate freeway system. Of course, there are 100s of thousands of miles of scenic and country roads all over America, so the competition to get in the book was pretty fierce -- the roads all had to offer great travel experiences, but still be practical as well. What I basically ended up doing was rely on an earlier generation of roads; the ones I cover are generally considered the "old roads", but these were the main roads from the 1920s up until the mid-1960s, which is really the "classic era" for roadside Americana, so my roads tend to have tons more character than the more "modern" freeways.
Q: Did you travel primarily on your own, or did you have company? What vehicle(s) did you drive on your trips? You mainly recommend motels, but occasionally mention campgrounds – where did you tend to stay on your trips? Why?
A: I tend to mix things up -- for my most intense research trips, I travel on my own, but when I get somewhere nice I am usually met by my family (wife and 2 boys), or I try to connect with some friends. Where I stay depends on the place I'm traveling thru (and the weather!). In wide-open places like Arizona or Utah, I try to camp out and enjoy the natural world, but in the east coast and urban areas I rely more on motels and hotels.
When I was first writing the book (back in the early 1990s), I posted the text up on "gopherspace", the Internet predecessor to websites, and I got lots of input from people as well as a few "couch-surfing" invitations -- I still try to connect with people in the places I pass through, though I haven;t had as much luck with all these "social media" networks...
Q. Did you have any major mishaps on your travels?
A: Not really. I got a flat tire once -- and I got pulled over for speeding, but the officer
Q: We really like the book’s period graphics and styling. Was the retro theme part of your intention? To what extent was your background in architecture an influence?
A: Thank you -- I really enjoy collecting all the mages and graphics and logos that we use in the book. Having worked with other guide book series, I had a pretty good idea about how I wanted Road Trip USA to look and feel -- I definitely wanted to appeal to die-hard "Blue Highways" travelers, and also to people who never knew they were interested in road trips, but still responded once I got the book into their hands. The architectural angle is less clear -- though because I grew up in the post-war, car craziness of LA, I guess I have a natural affinity for all the great "Googie" and streamline design that makes roadside Americana so much fun to see.
Q: How did you fund your travels? What was your daily budget?
A: My first US travels were as cheap as you can get -- long before I ever thought of writing about travel, I set off across the country with about $200 in my pocket. Because I had all the time in the world, and no real destination, I found odd jobs here and there as I traveled -- I was hitch-hiking a lot, and standing by the road is a time-honored way to let people know you are available. Working -- cutting hay in Kansas in the middle of summer , sweating like the proverbial pig -- was a great way to get to know people, and I would usually get a few dollars as well as a bed and some square meals. My initial $200 lasted me more than 2 years, but these days I can blow thru that much "dosh" in a day or two.
Q: How much traveling do you do now? Do you take your kids with you?
A: I still travel as often as I can -- not months on end as I used to, but enough so that I get travel most of "my" roads every few years. 40,000 miles every new edition -- about every 3 years. The boys come on shorter trips, like up and down the California coast every Thanksgiving -- and now they're nearly teenagers I think they'll get more and more out of cross-country trips, too. We stop for a lot of baseball games, which gives us a theme for our trips.
Q: You spent some time living in the UK – what were you doing? Did you do much travel there and in Europe? How does travel there compare with USA travel?
A: I first came to England in 1987, hoping to work in social housing, but it was just when Margaret Thatcher made public housing illegal, so it wasn't exactly a "good career move". After a while I did notice an ad in the Monday Guardian saying some small publisher was looking for a writer to cover California, so I applied and got hired to write the Rough Guide to California. It was something like the 8th book in what has gone on to become a whole library of 100s of titles, so it was fun to watch the enterprise grow from a basement flat into a cornerstone of the Penguin list -- and it was a great introduction to British culture, for sure. Every year I go to England with my wife (who is from London and Yorkshire, and gets terribly homesick) and the kids -- they've had two full years of English schools, and a year in Berlin, too, so they are pretty international.
I like European travel for the coffee, pastries and architecture -- but there's nothing over there that compares to the sense of excitement I feel driving down some lonesome American road, with the radio on.
Q: What is your all-time favorite route across the USA?
A: I'd have to say US-50, between San Francisco and Washington DC -- tons of history, and a full range of American landscapes.
Q. You now live on the California coast – where else have you seen along the way that could tempt you to move?
A: I love and have lived for nice lengths of time in Cornwall -- it has everything northern California has (gorgeous scenery, fresh ocean air, good beer...). Vermont is nice, too -- but it's a long way to the ocean. And if someone gave me a Tuscan villa, I suppose I could consider that.
Q: Do you prefer to travel during the summer, or off-season? Why?
A: I'm definitely an off-peak traveler -- I hate crowds (unless we are all in a stadium and they are rooting on my team!)
Q. Have you done any RV-ing? If so, what kind of vehicle did you use?
A: My first big trip as a kid was in a pick-up truck camper, traveling with my Dad and brothers around all the western National Parks. RVs are convenient, but I find them a bit isoloating -- I hate having to hassle with parking. My own road trip vehicle is a converted Volkswagen Eurovan / Winnebago camper -- the newer kind of VW, with a V6 engine that has enough power to go uphills, unlike some of my earlier "classic" VW buses.
Q. Do you like vintage RVs? Any preference among Airstreams, Spartans, Avalons, Shastas, etc?
A: I love them all! But all I know about them, I learned at the Shady Dell in Bisbee AZ...
Q: Are you currently working on any new projects?
A: Along with some tech-savvy friends I am trying to bring my whole Road Trip USA effort into the digital world -- we may well have an "iPhone App" up and running by summer. Just don't ask me how it works!
Taking small roads past tiny towns, ramshackle housing, shrimp trucks, fancy condos on stilts and the skeletons of older houses destroyed by Hurricane Ike, we arrived at Galveston Island State Park. It was here that we would spend our final night in the Airstream, and our final evening with Dan and Marlene. So we all had a farewell dinner of sorts. With the wind picking up and evidence of weather destruction abounding, we selected a spot on the inner lagoon rather than on the blustery Gulf itself. Gaping at the glorious orange and fuchsia pre-storm sunset, we started out with Daniel’s famous homemade margaritas (and apple juice for the older girls), before moving on to snacks and salads. Working by the light of the full moon and their trusty headlamps, Daniel and Dan worked hard over a tiny barbeque, returning with stacks of fat shrimp, steaks, bacon and tuna. It was a fun night, so we went to bed reluctantly, knowing that we wouldn’t be back in the Airstream for months. We awoke the next morning, taking extra time over breakfast before tackling the task of cleaning and packing up the Airstream for its voyage across the Atlantic. By that evening – after a late lunch with Dan and Marlene at IHOP across the street from a choppy Gulf – we had dropped off the trailer for shipping. We were no longer Trailer People.
As soon as we pulled into Pioneer Resort RV Park in Port Aransas, Texas, it was clear we did not fall into the core demographic. Our first super-RV retirement resort had over 360 spots – all apart from ours filled with giant motorhomes - no shade, no barbeque (we had all been planning an outdoor food fest), and no refunds.
But worst of all, we were not invited to the Saturday night hoedown, one of many social events planned by the winter residents. I was told as much by the party’s costumed ringleader, who stepped in my path as I searched for the laundry room: “Do you have tickets? We are having a hoedown, and there are no more tickets”.
It turns out that clique-i-ness continues long after high school, we had no idea. But, then again, families with young children probably don’t turn up that often at retirement villages.
So we spent dinner inside Dan and Marlene’s Airstream, peering out the window at the party directly across the narrow paved road. We watched couples and singles bedecked in overalls and red wigs with braids, brandishing hoes and rakes. We hoped we were missing out on something scandalous (why else would we be left out of the party?!)– skinny-dipping in the small pool, partner-swapping, tequila shots, perhaps?
Unfortunately for us, we witnessed nothing salacious, and the party ended early and quietly.
So we watched the hilarious movie ‘RV’ starring Robin Williams as the head of a family who cancels a family trip to Hawaii to go on an RV adventure instead. Well, we thought it was hilarious – it probably helps if you’ve spent time RV-ing yourself. So it was nice to watch the movie with fellow RV-ers, who also thought it was funny.
Addendum: The next day, once the party was over, everyone at the park turned nice. Someone in the laundry room folded my laundry, so that they could take over the dryer. The ladies on Sunday reception duty gave helpful advice on to how to spend our day in the local town (seafood, dolphins, a bird sanctuary and a playground – plus another friendly Texan bus driver).
Having spent much of our trip visiting vacation spots off-season, it’s always exciting to go somewhere at the right time. Just over a big bridge from Corpus Christi in southern Texas is Padre Island National Seashore, a marshland area boasting fine white sands, warm weather – and a ton of wind.
We spent the night right on the Gulf of Mexico, paying our record low overnight fee: $8. There was no hook-up, but who cares when you can see every star unhindered by city lights, hear crashing waves all night long and wake up on the beach?
It was in fact one of our very few no hook-up nights where we didn’t freeze.
The next day, after a pancake breakfast, we walked about five steps to the beach: Sophia and Daniel built sandcastles – following the technical plans Sophia had drawn up the night before – while Lulu and I took a long walk down the straight shoreline, meeting all of two people.
After lunch, we were reunited with Dan, Marlene & co, who stopped to enjoy the beach before we all headed off further down the island towards Port Aransas.
One hears that Texas still considers itself a republic, and it’s not hard to understand why: it is BIG.
Interstate 10 traverses Texas for a whopping 879 miles, and various diversions took us considerably further than that. The western half of the Lone Star State is so empty that according to our atlas, Big Bend National Park is “near” El Paso, at a distance of over 300 miles. It’s true that the elevation is lower and it’s a tiny bit less dusty than in New Mexico, points of interest are few and far between. That said, the scenery is trance inducing: fort-like buttes, turrets, table-top mountains and minarets, punctuated only by yucca trees, saguaro cactus and yes, tumbleweed.
Gradually, grass starts to mix with sagebrush, and green trees with succulents, with the angular mountains softening into rolling hills. At the imaginary line dividing west Texas from east, trees gain the majority and rivers begin to appear.
From there, the land flattens out and farms appear. You can sense that the Atlantic is nearing.
Geographical differences aside, Texas takes itself very seriously. Cowboy hats, elaborate leather belts and mustaches are worn without irony, and the state flags decorate houses, cars and businesses.
Signs along the highway warn drivers: ‘Don’t mess with Texas!’, just in case they were thinking about littering.
Texas goes to great lengths to demonstrate its independent spirit, even boasting its own statewide fast food joint: Whataburger, a family-owned business that has given its name to the football stadium in Corpus Christi, its headquarters.
Dan, a great fan of his own state’s homegrown fast food chain: In-n-Out, was keen to sample Whataburger. So, one day, we all went for lunch. They had pretty much what you’d find at McDonalds: fishburgers, kids’ meals with toys, etc. The difference is that food ordered at the cash register is delivered by a (very enthusiastic, in our case) staff member, who comes bearing condiments. Dan wasn’t super-impressed, saying Whataburger didn’t compare at all to In-n-Out. We didn’t feel one way or another, but Daniel said the fries were good.
But the State of Texas and God are far more impressed (see photos of signs on store windows).
Texans are really hospitable, at least from what we saw. Especially on the bus: every time we got on a bus (which was about twice), the driver stopped in the middle of his route for about ten minutes to give us local history and directions…with a bus full of passengers. On the Gulf coast, at Port Aransas, the bus ride, which cost 25 cents, even came with free candy for kids! And in San Antonio, even fellow passengers got in on the game: striking up conversations, giving us helpful tourist suggestions, telling us about their estranged children and even calling the bus company to find out when our next bus was due.
Is Texas the only state that fashions food in its own shape? Dan and Marlene bought Texas-shaped tortilla chips at the supermarket, and our Houston suburbs motel had a Texas-shaped waffle iron that produced Texas-shaped waffles.
There must be more examples, I’m sure we only just scratched the surface.
After Sonora Caverns, Dan and Marlene decided to drive to Austin, the capital of Texas and increasingly, a center for music and art. One big draw for them was the Pecan Grove RV Park, which is smack-bam in the middle of the city and one of the country’s coolest trailer parks, according to many.
That all sounded great, but as we knew we’d soon be driving 1700 miles to New York and that our time in the trailer was quickly running out, we decided to go to San Antonio instead.
My friend Jesse is from there, and as we weren’t able to go to his wedding a couple of years ago, I wanted to see the place.
Also, San Antonio is home to…The Alamo, a place integral to two important things: American history and the movie ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’.
History students learn about how the former Spanish mission was the site of a standoff between some 160 soldiers led by James Bowie, William Travis and including the likes of American frontier legend Davy Crockett, and the Mexican Army, led by Mexican President and General Santa Ana, in 1836.
Texas – or Tejas – had long been part of Mexico, first under the Spaniards and then under Mexican rule, after independence. Anglo-Texans including Crockett, Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, many of whom had emigrated from federalist America and owned large ranches, decided that the province would do better if it were independent of Mexico.
After scoring a surprise victor over Mexican troops quartered in San Antonio, an emboldened volunteer army occupied The Alamo, long a strategic stronghold for the region,
Unexpectedly, Santa Ana himself came to stem the rebellion. Barricading themselves inside The Alamo, the separatists waited for days for the Mexicans to arrive, and then fought to the death during a battle that lasted 13 days – the soldiers were all killed, although the women and children hidden in an adjoining room were spared.
This event was the spark that ignited the separatists, who went on to win independence for Texas. Texas was in fact its own republic for 10 years, before becoming America’s 28th state in 1846.
In ‘PeeWee’s Big Adventure’, man-boy Pee Wee Herman embarks on a cross-country adventure in search of his beloved bike, which has been stolen by a neighborhood bully. Having been told by a fortuneteller that his wheels are in the basement of The Alamo, he heads to San Antonio, only to find out that the building has no basement.
The weather was not on our side: most of southern Texas was enduring a cold front, and we got rain – both normal and freezing. So we spent most of our time there indoors – eating at a great little Mexican place with homemade tortillas just across from our trailer park, having tea with Dave the Englishman and then enjoying the décor at an old German deli right in town. It wasn’t the right time to do the Riverwalk – a two-mile pedestrian walkway and park area along the San Antonio River.
But The Alamo was great. There were more people in costume (well, we think they were, but you never know in the Southwest), dressed as Mexican soldiers, Spanish colonists, Crockett & co, mustachioed rangers with guns (those may have been real), etc.
In Spanish, ‘alamo’ means cottonwood tree, but the tree dominating the outside of the complex is a huge live oak..
Inside, in the mission’s main room – costumed historians tell the tale of what happened within its walls. Further on is a small museum telling the story of the native Americans, Spanish colonial life, the Mexican era and Texas’ own developing culture.
We arrived at our San Antonio RV park, which was on the wrong side of town, in the pouring rain. Daniel always makes a point of arriving before dark, but today we did not achieve this. So we did not see a post on the side of the site, and crashed into it (at 5mph, so gently). “HEY”, yelled a voice, which emerged from the window of a gigantic motorhome. I hear the sound of an Englishman, I thought. So I asked the voice where it was from. “Phoenix,” it answered, in a distinctly English accent. “You don’t sound American,” I insisted. “Do you know English geography?”, reluctantly asked the voice, which was coming into focus as hailing from the North. Unfortunately, I did not know where Middlesborough was, but was told it was near the Scottish border. The man, whose face I could eventually make out, didn’t seem that interested in our invitation to come in for a drink. So we left it at that. When we emerged from the trailer into the next day’s hailstorm, he seemed friendlier: “Would you like to join us for a cup of tea?”, he called through a crack in the window, far above us. But of course! So into our first giant motorhome we went, satisfying our long held curiosity as to how proper RVers live. We sat on two very comfortable opposing sofas, behind the plush driver and passenger seats. When I noted that this was the furthest Daniel and I had sat from each other in about nine months, the man – Dave – demonstrated his motorhome’s slide-outs. At the push of a button, a section of his $200,000 Monaco slid in and out with the barely a quiet whir. It was very exciting, so he demonstrated this a few times. Sophia worked on her coloring, Lulu took advantage of all the space to crawl around, while Daniel and I drank Proper English Tea and heard about the life of Dave. Dave, whose career in the merchant navy led to the private sector in the form of shipping and meteorology, is now retired. Spending nine months a year in his RV traveling around the US, he uses his professional knowledge to follow the sun – and the summer in England. He was kind of confused as to why we would subject ourselves to such limited space, and such an old RV – and very worried about our shipping it to the UK – but was nice to us anyway.
Staying overnight at Sonora Caverns RV Park cost $15 a night – water and electricity included – but the guided tour of caverns themselves cost $20 per adult and $16 for kids 4 and over. Still, it was 21 miles from the nearest town, so we made due with dinner from cans and managed to stay under our $80 daily budget.
The girls and I had never been in a cave before, but Daniel had. We saw stalactites and stalagmites, and columns, which are a joining of the two. We spent a lot of time learning about caves – one hour and 45 minutes, to be exact: chandeliers, rooms, crystals and something toothpaste-like that may hold the cure for cancer. We had to be careful not to touch ANYTHING, as contact with bodies can mess with the living crystals inside a cave.
Our tour guide was a keen caver – don’t even think of calling her a spelunker…these days that term is an insult to the serious caver (the correct term).
We didn’t emerge with a burning desire to become cavers ourselves, although our guide had alluded to some pretty racy goings-on underground – old hippy cavers are apparently into naked ramen noodle wrestling, but she didn’t specify what the younger generation gets up to.
Contrary to our assumption that Dan, Marlene & co would run screaming from our slow, chaotic lifestyle on the road, it turned out that they thought we were OK. At least OK enough to suggest that our families travel together across the bottom of Arizona and New Mexico towards Texas.
We were to spend the next two weeks together.
The two groups are approaching our road trips in slightly different ways: we are very much camping, while they are at home, everywhere. But we found ourselves to be very compatible.
Ava and Sophia became fast friends, united not only in their big sister-hood, but also Disney princesses, the color pink, arts and crafts activities, jewelry, DVDs, nail polish…and most importantly, the joy of running around and screaming like lunatics after a long day in the car.
With the two trailers always parked next to each other, the girls liked running back and forth between each other’s “homes”. Interestingly, each wanted to be at the other’s trailer as much as possible. The reason for Sophia’s preference was obvious: they had a TV. We were less sure why Ava liked our place so much, but it was great having her and we were able to keep her entertained with lots of coloring books, necklaces and DVDs on the computer.
Because both families had babies, no excuses were needed for the constant stops for diaper changes and feeds, the getting-the-baby-to-sleep jiggle dance, uncontrollable crying (the babies), exhaustion (the mothers) or one person doing all the driving (the fathers).
We cobbled together a joint lifestyle that seemed to work for everyone: slow mornings, fun day trips, drinks in the evening and potluck dinners. Luckily, they were very patient about our loose approach to bedtime wreaking havoc with their usual 8pm end-of-day. Although, as we moved East, I guess Ava and Mila sort of kept their routines – thinking in California time zones, that is.
On the advice of Rich Luhr, Dan and Marlene were keen to visit Balmorhea State Park, not too far over the Texas border. And a good idea it was. Set on a natural spring whose waters are warm year-round, the park is also home to a restored desert wetland area. Here, birds abound and the endangered pupfish thrives among the tall green grasses. I specify green because it had been a very long time since we had seen anything green – apart from agaves, saguaros and other cactuses. Here, the air felt soft, and the sun no longer burned – we were, after all, several thousand feet lower than we had been for ages.
We even detected a hint of…springtime. But back to the spring itself: the park’s main feature is its 77,053 square foot pool fed by the San Solomon Springs (22 to 28 million gallons of water pass through it each day!). Visitors are invited to swim, snorkel and even scuba dive, cohabiting with the area’s many types of fish and turtles. So, at the end of February, the eight of us enjoyed a day at the pool. After a picnic, the girls splashed around and the adults snorkeled.
Having grown up swimming competitively, I have always loved swimming – fast. Learning use the snorkel was scary – breathing under water does not come naturally. But Daniel, who has his PADI license, explained how to do it, and it was great. Swimming just below the surface, making minimal splashes, regarding the fish – teeny and tiny – working to disturb their home as little as possible, appreciating the refraction of sunlight underwater, I achieved a previously unknown calm. Which seemed like the perfect metaphor for this trip.
We entered Texas at El Paso, where Texas, New Mexico and Mexico itself meet.
Speeding along through the city along Interstate 10, we could plainly see Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande, looking very much like another country with its slanted roofed houses sitting precariously on hills traversed by dirt roads.
We had been close to the border since Arizona, listening to Mexican radio for some time and knowing that just over the mountains lay a very different place.
Having intended to spend Christmas in Baja California, we were swiftly discouraged against entering Mexico by everyone from my parents to the newspapers and fellow travelers.
Mexico is in the midst of a quasi-war between rival drug cartels based in Ciudad Juarez and Sinaloa, with additional cartels from Tijuana and the Gulf mixed in – plus the Mexican state’s own army. The battle for hegemony has led to the murders of thousands of Mexicans, many of them civilians. There have been countless muggings, beheadings and kidnappings.
So we decided not to go.
Later in Texas, we met a couple – one spouse from El Paso and the other from Ciudad Juarez. In the past, they’d just walk over the bridge between the two without a second thought. Now, they avoid going across for all but the most important family engagements. The wife spoke of her sister’s neighborhood constructing a fence around itself, her cleaner’s husband being murdered in broad daylight and the sadness she felt seeing her country destroyed.
We didn’t have a TV, so we missed out on most of the outlandish costumes, make-up and drama of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
So we decided to hold our own Games, 60 or so miles outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, at White Sands National Monument.
Measuring 275 square miles, the dune field is made entirely of gypsum sand evaporated from nearby piles of gypsum crystals and then blown by the wind into rising meringue-like peaks.
(All you have to do is pretend you’re not next to the Missile Range, or Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested. The Monument closes on missile testing days). Also nearby – and less scary – are White Sands Space Harbor, a NASA Test Facility, the Sunspot Solar Observatory and the town of Truth or Consequences.
Sledding is encouraged here, so we spent the afternoon whizzing down the dunes on a plastic purple saucer purchased at the Visitor Center.
Everyone had a go, solo and with up to three riders – headfirst and feet-first, on backs and fronts. Boring a path into our favorite dune, we achieved infinite speeds, setting our own imaginary records and screaming with glee. With the world as her sandbox, Lulu had a blast.
As we were leaving, Daniel couldn’t help himself, leaping out of the car to complete an individual sand-surfing event with only the oncoming sunset to support him.
I was too worried to capture that one on video, but we did get some other events - see below.
Claire – On maternity leave from career as editor of monthly finance trade magazines, and occasionally a freelance translator. Half-American/half-English, raised in the suburbs of New York, has lived in London for almost nine years.
Daniel – Furniture designer/maker based on London’s Columbia Road flower market, for ten years, also an aspiring painter and DIY supremo. On one-year career break to reconsider options. English by birth, but mother is half-American and spent part of her childhood in Bronxville, New York.
Sophia – 3.5-year old spitfire who loves school, singing, swimming and being a big sister
Lulu – Born May 8 of this year, a model baby who eats, sleeps and gurgles.
Special guests – American, British and international friends and family who drop in along our trip to see whatever part of the country they fancy. They’re welcome to travel in the car with us and sleep in an adjoining tent.