Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: January, 2013

From Albuquerque to Tuscon

Day 5 (December 29, 2012)

It was clear. Slightly chilly. A fine day for driving with a few detours.

There are many ghost towns in Sierra County, New Mexico. I’ve heard that Chloride was a rather nice one to visit. But we only had time for one, so we went to Cuchillo, the closest one to I-25.

Then we stopped at Truth or Consequences. Mostly to find a particular gift store. But when we arrived, we found that the gift store had closed down and moved to online only. But there was the post office…

Then we stopped at Deming for lunch at El Mirador. It had a stereotypical atmosphere of an old worn diner, but the food was rather good. Also, it was the first time that we encountered horchata.

Then it was all the way to Tuscon. My sister was quite adamant on trying Lani’s Luau, a Hawaiian restaurant, for dinner. It’s located in an unassuming store front in a strip mall. We had Kalua style pig wrapped in taro leaves. I’m personally a bit “meh” on Hawaiian-style food, but the portions at this place are huge. We saved the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Patience (or Not) of One Sort or Another

Day 4 (December 28, 2012)

The old man, a volunteer at the visitor’s center at Petroglyph National Monument, seemed to take great pleasure in explaining the park trails in roundabout detail. I only listened with half an ear, impatient to actually get on a trail. It is a fault of mine, to find long, circuitous speech tiresome. If only people would get straight to the point more often. The only exception I’d make would be for storytelling where the method and style of telling may be as important (or more so) than the bare bones plot.

Petroglyph National Monument consists of several discrete sections, wedged off by an encroaching suburbia. The first trail that we drove to, the Piedras Marcadas Canyon, was closed off for the season. But the trailhead itself sat in a strange place, behind a burrito joint and an oil change establishment, winding through people’s backyards.

At Boca Negra Canyon, the most interesting trail was the Mesa Point Trail which squirreled its way to the top of a lava flow 5,280 feet above sea level. Being at the top of the mesa is a far less scary proposition than going up or coming down. But that said, not all the tourists we saw who attempted this ever made it to the top. The steps are narrow and precarious, winding around boulders scrawled with petroglyphs in odd positions. If you’re afraid of heights, you might not even want to start this one.

One lady who gave up climbing to the top told me I had great shoes, making me momentarily confused. No one ever compliments my shoes because they’re always the practical sort. But then I realized that I was wearing hiking boots and she was wearing the sort of flats you’d find on yuppies heading to yoga class.

We ate lunch at Boca Negra, under the hungry eyes of a small chipmunk. Then we hiked Rinconada Canyon, playing hunt and find with the petroglyphs scattered along boulders and rubble which made up the canyon walls. A couple of hikers, deep in conversation, had to back track once they realized they had zoomed past us without looking at the scenery. Parents who brought their kids spent most of their time pleading and cajoling. I could understand why this particular trail would be boring to anyone under the age of fifteen. Some petroglyphs may be obvious but others are definitely less so. It takes patience to find some of them.

By the time my sister and I finished the Rinconada Canyon trail, it was around 3 PM. My sister was eager to see the tramway at Sandia Peak before the sun set and it would probably take too long if we decided to hike the volcanoes trail located at the opposite end of the park. When we got to the tramway station, though, there were warnings that there may be limited visibility at the top of the mountain. But as we were there anyway, we decided to risk that. And by the time we got to the top, the clouds had been whisked away by a brisk, numbing wind.

We walked around a bit, but it was too cold to stick around too long. I tried to send a tweet out at the top of the mountain, but there was no cell phone reception. Briefly, we took refuge at the High Finance Restaurant & Tavern. The appetizers were really mediocre although my sister gave the hot chocolate there a thumb’s up. (She should know, I suppose. She’s been to hot chocolate tasting parties with her friends.) The people at the table next to ours kept on ordering more alcohol and getting more drunk.

We came back down just as the sun started its descent. The light hit the side of the mountain, making the feldspar glow orange-pink. A pair of bobcats loped along the rocks, ignoring the metal gondola overhead filled with photograph-obsessed tourists.

At the bottom, we went to Sandiago’s for dinner. As we had the foresight to make a reservation there, we got a window-side table and watched the sun set over Albuquerque while we ate. The food here was great (I had the Baja Tacos with mahi-mahi and my sister had the Carne Adovada Plate) and I would recommend the place to anyone wanting to eat at Sandia Peak. But as the portions are extremely generous, be prepared to take home leftovers!

Wood to Stone and Capsaicin-Induced Crankiness

Day 3 (December 27, 2012)

Breakfast was cold cereal at the hotel. Soon after dawn, we headed out. Nothing marred the sky or the road. Two hours later, we turned off the exit for the Petrified Forest National Park.

At the south entrance, don’t mistake the first building you see as the visitor’s center. It’s a tourist trap, selling all sorts of petrified wood imported from elsewhere. We didn’t buy anything, of course. What would be the point of lugging back home a pretty piece of rock that wouldn’t be doing anything but sitting around collecting dust anyway? All we did was ask where the real visitor’s center was–which happened to be further down the road.

There are a lot of rules. You can’t take anything. Can’t touch anything. Stay on the paths only. On the back of the doors in the restroom stalls, there is a warning about keeping on the paths because you’d disturb the soil microbes otherwise. I certainly know the significance of this warning, given what I do, but I wondered if any other visitors to the park would understand or even care.

My sister and I slowly went through the park, systematically hiking every single trail except one (Blue Mesa) because that one was closed for the season. The chilly air was no obstacle. After all, the body warms up if you keep walking. But it was a deterrent to many of the other visitors to the park. It was amusing, and a little sad, to watch them drive up to a point, hop out to take pictures for two or three minutes, and then hop back into their cars to drive to the next sign post. Sometimes, they wouldn’t even get out of their car to take the pictures. They’d just reluctantly roll down the windows, snap a few, roll the windows back up, and go.

At one particular point, while my sister and I stood on a lookout point gazing down into a magnificent canyon as satiny as a peach, a minivan filled with Chinese tourists pulled up and we heard them loudly complaining that it was too cold to get out. Fortunately, they only stopped for a moment and then they were gone. And we had nature to ourselves again.

The ravens weren’t afraid of any of the humans in the park. Perhaps they’ve grown accustomed to all the visitors tramping around. One sat at a parking lot, letting a caw ring out every couple of seconds or so. “Maybe they’re like undercover surveillance cameras,” my sister had joked. “Every caw means they’re transmitting information.”

We ate lunch, leftover chicken tikka and saag paneer from the previous night, on cold metal picnic benches in the Painted Desert. Strangely, no animals came to this place for handouts. The picnic area stood cold, shadowy, silent, and lonely. No other visitors ventured here. By the time we finished eating, our fingers were numb. But I thought it was rather glorious. Why should nature cater to us anyway? It goes about its own way.

Our arrival in Albuquerque coincided with rush hour. And the stress began. Drivers weaved the lanes willy-nilly. Entrances and exits sat way too close to each other. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to driving in large cities. Or maybe it’s poor planning on the part of whoever designed interchanges. I’d like to think the latter.

Originally, we had “planned” on going to a restaurant serving Middle Eastern cuisine. (Planned, as in looking up highly ranked restaurants on Urbanspoon at the last minute.) But despite the fact that online, it said it served dinner, it was closed at 6 PM. Which we thought was a bit ridiculous. We resorted to wandering up and down Central Avenue looking for some place to eat and ended up settling on the Korean BBQ House. It was okay. I was mostly annoyed because the squid I ordered was dripping in spicy sauce. On the actual menu we were given in the restaurant, there had been no mention of spicy sauce. So for anyone thinking about this place, take heed of the online menu as that appears to be more accurate. I’m afraid my sister had to endure my ranting through dinner.

I think the combination of the stress of navigating Albuquerque rush hour, the disappointment of not being able to eat at our first choice restaurant, and a dish turning out not to be what I expected made me snap. At that precise moment in time, I was very unhappy. Of course, now looking back on it, it really was a minor bit of unhappiness compared to other things. And if you’re going on a road trip blind, so to speak, you have to be prepared for disappointment as well as delight.

However, the night wasn’t all lost. For dessert, we had some deliciously colorful drinks from the Boba Tea Company.

On the Road Armed with Vegetable Chips

Day 2 (December 26, 2012)

After a sizable meal at one of our cousin’s regular breakfast haunts, Kensington Cafe (I had the Sandy Eggan, a breakfast bagel with eggs, cheese, avocado and tomato, which was very filling but also pretty good), and picking up some water at a nearby Target, my sister and I headed north on I-15.

The drive on I-15 was fairly uneventful. A brief rain shower did make the drivers around me freak out and significantly slow down. And the bit of interstate going through the mountains between San Bernadino and Hesperia was rather pretty. I should probably also admit here that I did all of the driving on this road trip. Mostly due to practical reasons as my sister’s home is in a large city with an excellent public transport system and she hasn’t driven in five years. I, on the other hand, have experience navigating dirt roads and blizzard conditions. So my sister acted as navigator, looking at maps, fighting with the GPS, and checking out my blind spots when needed.

A little past noon, we arrived at Barstow. But we soon nixed plans to have lunch there. For one, we weren’t all that hungry after the large breakfast. And secondly Barstow, despite being in the middle of nowhere, appeared to be on the brink of being devoured whole by a gigantic retail monster. Outlet malls sprawled everywhere. Perhaps after Christmas sales exacerbated the effect, but the place crawled with crazy-eyed shoppers. So I gassed up the rental and we headed east on I-40, munching some vegetable chips my sister had the foresight to pack for the trip.

Along I-40, we caught glimpses of the old Route 66. I suggested that maybe we could drive on Route 66 instead. My sister pointed out that it was smaller and we’d go slower and we’d never make it to Flagstaff before the sun set. So we continued on I-40. However, we did stop for half an hour in Kingman to look around.

The drive so far had been excellent. But as the elevation climbed and we began noticing white stuff on the ground, it also began to snow. The car dashboard began hysterically beeping. After a quick check of the manual, my sister informed me it was doing that because the car was warning me it was getting below 39°F and there might be slippery road conditions. No duh, silly car. Just outside of Ash Fork, Arizona, the traffic came to a complete halt.

Ambulances and police cars passed us. The radio mentioned nothing about a jam on I-40. Just Californian traffic news. A woman who couldn’t wait jumped out of her car and took a pit stop at the side of the road. “This is probably going to be the worst part of our trip,” I mused aloud. “We’ll be going back to San Diego on the southern route.”

“I’m just glad you’re driving and I’m not,” my sister replied as all the vehicles inched forward ever so slowly on the icy slick road. “At least it’s not snowing now.” She was right. When the traffic stopped, so did the snow.

By the time we edged past the scene of the accident, all we could see was a large semi shoved to the edge of the road shoulder. The ambulances were gone. But the traffic didn’t quicken after the bottleneck either. Despite the 75 mph speed limit, everyone was going 20 mph from there all the way to Flagstaff. By the time we got to our destination, it was 9 PM and way past our estimated arrival.

The only place near the hotel that was open at that late hour was the Delhi Palace. I was pretty tired and brain dead after all the driving, so I let my sister, the knowledgeable foodie, order for me. We had chicken tikka and saag paneer. It was surprisingly good, for a strip mall joint next to a Walmart, but it possibly could have been my hunger talking, too.

That night, we watched the Weather Channel hoping things would be clear the next day.

From Snowy Montana to Sunny California and a Brief Musing on the Nature of Love

Day 1 (December 25, 2012)

The whole impetus for the trip came when my sister and I were talking about places to go for our winter vacation. “Let’s go to Albuquerque!” I said. “I don’t think they have much snow. And more importantly, I’ve never been there before.”

My sister was at first a little skeptical. After all, what was in Albuquerque? I had no idea, but that in itself wasn’t a deterrent to me. A vacation, if the sole purpose isn’t about R & R, has little purpose if there isn’t a bit of adventure and discovery along the way. But my sister, a foodie, quickly came around when she realized this was her chance to experience more authentic Mexican food. Apparently the stuff is usually of dubious quality north of the 49th parallel.

Originally, I had thought about heading straight to Albuquerque and spending time there, but it soon morphed into a road trip starting in San Diego where we would first visit one of our cousins. Our final plan became the Loop: 1) take the I-15 north from San Diego to Barstow, 2) the I-40 from Barstow to Albuquerque, 3) the I-25 from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, 4) the I-10 from Las Cruces to Tucson, and 5) the I-8 from Tucson back to San Diego.

On Christmas Day, I flew down from Missoula to San Diego to meet up with my sister. (The thing that I usually notice about fellow passengers is how some of them dress so uncomfortably for a plane ride. I suppose for them, the desire to be fashionable and to be seen trumps comfort and practicality.) I got a rental car which hadn’t been my first choice, but it’s Christmas so sometimes you just have to roll with things. The Volkswagen Passat ended up serving us well throughout the trip. The only thing I was really annoyed with was the fuel door which was definitely not user friendly. It didn’t open when I wanted it open and it opened when I didn’t want it open. Also the user manual that came with the car? My sister scoured the thing and there’s no freakin’ phone numbers to the car company’s help department.

Anyways, we hooked up the GPS to figure out a way to get to our cousin’s apartment but at first the GPS was uncooperative as it continued to think it was still in Montana. After many long minutes of attempting to coax the device into believing that it was in San Diego, we gave up and called our cousin for directions.

By the time we arrived at our cousin’s home, the GPS had decided to behave and we were starving. Our cousin, her boyfriend, and his brother decided to take us to one of their favorite restaurants, Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot. Seeing the place completely packed was definitely promising. Once we got a table, we decided on getting a split hot pot–one spicy, one non-spicy. We also ordered a whole bunch of stuff to go into the hot pot. And it was delicious. Highly recommended. (Also, after reading the menu I finally learned what one of my favorite vegetables tongho was in English: chrysanthemum leaves.)

Afterwards, we ambled around Balboa Park which was decked out with lights for the holidays. It was also quite weird seeing one of the museums advertising a torture exhibit. (Note: My digital camera does not do well in the dark so these are the only ones that turned out not terribly blurry.)

Later that evening during the course of conversation, our cousin brought up the fact that her sister had sent her a “salacious” picture of their parents. Apparently her sister had found an entire “romantic cruise photo shoot” on their computer. “She didn’t hack their computer,” my cousin took pains to explain. “Besides, they didn’t mind that we wanted to show the pictures.”

“Is this something that once I see I can’t unsee?” I had asked.

“No! It’s totally cute!” She showed me the picture.

My aunt and uncle were on the deck of a cruise ship in an uncomfortable looking cinch pose. Fortunately, they were wearing ordinary clothes. But it could make for a horrible romance novel cover.

“That’s…weird,” I managed. I handed the picture over to my sister.

She was a bit speechless. “Uhhh…”

The thing is, this photo shoot seemed completely at odds with what my sister and I know about our aunt and uncle. They and our parents grew up in the sort of cultural milieu where such lavish documentation of affection just isn’t done. While my uncle is a little more easy going, I think of my aunt as the quintessential tiger mom not so secretly obsessed with status and appearances (sort of like an Asian Hyacinth Bucket)–constantly driving her daughters to excel so that they could ultimately become medical professionals.

My cousin further told us that she and her sister had constantly badgered their parents to actually show that they love each other. “But we didn’t know that they would do this!” Maybe all that badgering finally made them snap and they decided to do something to embarrass their kids. Although if that’s the case, it backfired as my cousin thinks the whole thing is awesome.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with over-the-top displays of love. But what I find troubling is the belief that the only way to show that you love someone is to have that over-the-top display. Sure, some people do it and it’s natural to them. But not everyone has the personality, cultural inclination, sheer chutzpa, or any number of other things to do that sort of stuff. A grand dramatic gesture isn’t necessary to show that you love someone. The small seemingly mundane things can also express love. And to me, those small things seem far more believable because they are harder to fake and less dependent on an audience.

And so with that philosophical thought bouncing around in my head, I tried to get some sleep on my cousin’s couch before the long drive the next day.