20 Jun

Go West, Young Man – Reaching The Rio Grande

Well, it took us all of four days to complete the horizontal leg of our trip. We reached the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico and set out to follow it northbound. Since our trip to Central America, we’ve significantly improved our camping arsenal. We added a secondhand tent, propane fuel burner, and killer Klymet Static V air mattresses. Swapping our 12V refrigerator for a plastic cooler alleviates auxiliary battery headaches, but requires constant monitoring of the ice situation. After a few days, our food tends to float like a raft on Tennessee’s Ocoee River…

Travelling out of Asheville through the Great Smoky Mountains, we’re reminded how much of our own backyard we still have not seen. The Ocoee River across the Tennessee state line is only 3 hours from home and has some world-class rapids. The Ocoee Whitewater Center was the location of the slalom canoe competition during Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games (only 2.5 hours away).

Memphis, Tennessee is one city we had never been to and were curious about its vibe and music scene. There was a brief break in the rain for us to quickly check out a bit of downtown and the famous Beale St. No Elvis sightings and we skipped Graceland altogether. We’ll be back in the future to better check you out Memphis!

The Arkansas Welcome Center is in West Memphis, Arkansas. Confusing. It’s just on the other side of the Mississippi River from Memphis, TN. The lovely facilities on the side of the interstate provided all that we needed for a quick, free camp – covered picnic tables, 24-hr access to bathrooms and a cozy sleep inside Bruno. Ahh luxury.

We decided to skip out on our detour into the Ozark National Forest and opted to keep driving west. Most of the awesome things we’ve read about the Ozark Mountain range are in southern Missouri and we weren’t willing to deviate that far off-course.

We decided to camp just outside Oklahoma City. Who knew there were so many lakes in OK? Well, Travis’ idea of “fun” while driving through the Interior Highlands was to read the History section of the State’s Wikipedia page. That’s where we learned about the effects the Dust Bowl had on Oklahoma in the 1930’s. Poor farming practices, extended drought, and high winds forced many farmers out of the state over the next few decades. They eventually learned to plant trees to block the wind and dam a bunch of rivers to better manage their water. By the 1960s, Oklahoma had created more than 200 lakes.

It’s hard to tell, but we’re camping beside a nice lake here.

We blew straight through the Texas Panhandle – you know, that piece of the state that sticks up and looks like it’s giving you the finger? We didn’t stay, but we stick to what we’ve said before – Texas has the best rest stops. Grand. Over-the-top. Something to see. Travis also thoroughly enjoyed the classy signage.

“Port-A-Potty Bottles Or Bags Of Urine Put In Toilet Urinal Or On Ground Fineable Offense”

We stayed the night at one final rest stop just over the New Mexico border, and the next day we – along with Bruno – climbed into the Sandia Mountains which run along Albuquerque’s east side. Here is a shot looking south-west, where you can see the southern portion of the city.

Elevation: 10,678 ft. It’s a good idea to wear a hat.

To get back down the mountain, we opted to take a dirt road. We’re planning on doing some 4×4 driving in Utah, so we may as well warm Bruno up.

Looking NE from Sandia Mountains

Breaking Bad gives the impression that ABQ is a hardcore desert devoid of plant life, but there is actually lots of green near the Rio Grande, which runs up the west side of the city.

After ABQ, we drove up to see Santa Fe – a city I think we would have considered living in, if real estate prices were a bit more affordable. The afternoon sun can be pretty intense. The next best thing to a siesta is finding shade and enjoying a nice snack. The city of Albuquerque sits at 5,300 ft and Santa Fe at 7,200 ft, but adjusting to the high desert is easy: just drink more water than you’ve ever drank before!

Here is a night shot overlooking downtown Santa Fe:

After countless recommendations and an entire internet agreeing on its awesomeness, we decided to spend our Friday night at Meow Wolf. Part art exhibit, part mystery story – it was a mind-blowing spectacle that we considered worth the $20/pp entry fee.

Author George R. R. Martin gave $2.7 million to help a bunch of artists create this fantastic place, which is both extremely entertaining and hard to explain. My best attempt: it’s like being in a real-life video game that is based on the Netflix series Stranger Things.

Is the clothes dryer a portal to another place? Does the fridge transport you to another room? You’ll have to find out for yourselves!

We took about 2.5 hours to see and explore everything, and did our best to try and solve the main story line – something I think we 75% accomplished!

The next day we drove up to Los Alamos, NM to see the Bandelier National Monument. It’s a fun hike with a cool ladder climb at the end, but doesn’t hold a candle to the glorious Mayan ruins in Mexico and Central America. Pretty much all of the structures have eroded away.

About 700 years old, the community was around 500 people at its peak. Pretty interesting to learn how they lived in this high desert location.

Heading north, we pass through Taos, NM and cross the nearby Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near the New Mexico-Colorado border. Yup, those four ants on the river are kayakers!

Ohh look at this, a nice covered spot to overlook the bridge and have lunch. Thanks New Mexico!

Almost immediately on the other side of the river, is the epicenter of Earthships. These are sustainable homes that are built using recycled materials and can easily be “off the grid”. Pretty fascinating. There is a community of houses here and a visitor’s center with a $7/pp entry fee. They also provide training classes in case you want to attempt this back home.

We didn’t plan on it, but we ended up becoming best friends with the Rio Grande River on this leg. We had crossed it when we returned from Mexico last year, since it outlines Texas’ entire southwestern border. We knew that it dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, but this time were curious about its origin. Turns out, our plans to drive north were taking us straight to the very source! Our path just happened to continuously follow it from Albuquerque up to the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado.

We slowly and gradually climbed to the higher altitudes of the Colorado Plateau. Bruno didn’t complain at all. Well, to be honest he is complaining a little bit. During this trip his Check Engine Light has been coming on at least once per day. We have a cheap Bluetooth dongle so we can check his error code and clear it using the Torque app for Android. Long story short, he’s giving us a PO420 code which suggests that we need to replace his O2 sensor. There there, Bruno… maybe someday bud… maybe someday.

We camped at the small Rio Grande Campground in the National Forest at approximately 9,000 ft. Being beside a wide, flat river made us forget what a high elevation we were at. Until we were bloody cold (and thirsty) at night! We​ thought we were high in ABQ and then higher still in Santa Fe. The next day we crossed the Continental Divide at 10,000 ft and came through our final pass of the Colorado Rockies at 11,500 ft.

Downloading OpenStreetMaps before we left means we never get lost – except that time we ended up in a construction site in Mexico. Our maps tell us the Rio Grande River is traced back to the Rio Grande Reservoir and Dam near Canby Mountain, CO at 13,500 ft!

We had finally run through most of the food we brought from home about a week into the trip. The truth is, we’ve been inconsistent with keeping ice in our cooler – and with the questionable status of some of our meats, we thought there could be a headline “Bonehead campers bring pork to Colorado from North Carolina and die at campsite”. Amazingly, we’re still here to tell the tale.

Onwards to Utah!