We sit near the airport gate, not right in front of it since sitting room is unavailable, but just a few benches away. We are gate C10B, loading group E, which is a lot of letters to work with for a simple flight, if you ask me. Since group E is the last to board, we wait to be called.
And we wait.
It felt a little too long, so I meandered to the desk and ask the attendant, “are you boarding to El Paso soon?” She stares blankly at me for a moment before saying, “we already boarded.” Oh dear.
I run back and grab Jess, my best friend, and we dash back to the attendant. I quickly extend my apologies and ask if we are the last ones. A simple “mhmm” is all she offers. She scans our tickets and we run to the plane and they close the doors behind us. We made it! Barely.
As it turns out, this “we made it, but just barely” sentiment would become the overarching theme of our trip. Whether it was returning our rental car, entering parks, or obtaining permits, we just barely made it with a sliver of time to spare. And by “sliver” I mean a mere few minutes. What can we say? We like to live life on the edge.
WELCOME TO EL PASO
We chose to fly in and out of El Paso, Texas for its proximity to southern New Mexico, where most of our activities would take place. We did a sweet little loop: El Paso, White Sands desert, Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and back to El Paso.
Since our plane landed in the afternoon, we opted to stay the night in El Paso and make the journey to White Sands in the morning. You may be wondering to yourself, what exactly is there to do in El Paso? Fair question, dear reader. To this I say: not a whole lot. Now you may interepret this as “perhaps do not go,” and good on you if this was your interpretation, as this precisely what I mean.
In El Paso’s defense, there was more to do than I thought, but still less than one would hope. While it does leave a little to be desired, Jess and I are a solid team of explorers with a sincere talent for making the best of things. We drove a bit out of the city and found ourselves at Franklin Mountains State Park, where we enjoyed a nature walk through the cacti. Later we ended up at a brewery near the University of Texas before calling it a day back at our AirBnB, which had 3 fluffy cats. It ended up being a surprisingly lovely day, but then again I massively enjoy all the aforementioned things: cactus, beer, and cats.
WHITE SANDS DESERT
This was the big kahuna – the reason our road trip was set in motion in the first place. We had talked about the White Sand National Monument for years and finally made the trek down. While we knew that we would love it, what we didn’t know was that everything there was out to kill us – which I mean quite literally for the most part. But we survived! (Barely.)
Apparently there are a lot of critters in the desert; huge spiders, uncomfortably large beetles, and despicable fire ants. There is also a very bright yellow object in the sky (duh), made even more potent to the skin as it reflects off the white sand, which naturally happens to be every crevice of the place. Oh, and it was monsoon season, we can’t forget that. If the 10 hours of massive wind and lightning didn’t do us in, the 6 hours of pelting rain was sure to get the job done. Or perhaps it could have been the coyotes that circled our tent while we slept – they were a solid contender, too.
Sunburns, wild animals, drastic weather, and a small bit of dramatics aside, White Sand desert is one of the most spectacular places I’ve had the privilege of visiting. It has no comparison, and to camp there, even under unique circumstances, was astounding. Walking barefoot across the soft dunes, being surrounded by sand and mountains in every direction for as far as the eye can see, and standing in complete silence that was so quiet it felt deafening, was an otherworldly experience.
ONWARD TO ROSWELL
With my X-Files t-shirt on (worn with absolute pride, I might add), I was ready to make my entrance into Roswell, the next stop on our road trip. To stay to theme, we were behind schedule and naturally had only 30 minutes to enjoy the town if we were to make it to Carlsbad on time. As it turns out, 30 minutes is really all you need.
Roswell is a kitschy town, and of course you could explore for hours, but with limited time our priority was Alien Zone, where for the low price of $3 patrons are granted access to a goldmine of alien dioramas that are so bad they can only be described as good. In fact, I would venture to claim that they were fantastic, in a who-actually-made-these-and-how-do-I-thank-them-for-their-strange-yet-beautiful-artistry kind of way.
ON THE ROAD
Speaking of things that fall under the umbrella of the strange and weird, perhaps now is a fine time to present our collection of roadside attractions. First and foremost, the World’s Largest Pistachio! (Of the non-edible variety, to be clear.) While a great number of towns in southern New Mexico really feel like the armpit of America, I cannot deny that Alamogordo is a real treasure for procuring the likes of the World’s Largest Pistachio. What an honor to behold, Alamogordo, an absolute honor. Admiteddly, this was a pre-planned stop; once I read about its existence, I was giddy to see such a behemoth nut for myself. We arrived at 8:50am, and although it officially opened at 9am (yes, it’s safe behind a locked gate), they let us in 10 minutes early. Such a treat.
Of almost equally high honors is what I can only appropriately describe as a roadside smorgasbord of strangely selected objects of overwhelming size. When I woke up on that lovely Monday morning, I did not know that I needed to see a giant dinosaur head, or a pair of ginormous – yet surprisingly dainty, hands springing from the ground. However, now that I’ve experienced it first-hand (hehe), I feel like it has transformed me into a better citizen of this world. For that, New Mexico, I thank you.
NEXT STOP: CARLSBAD CAVERNS
To say that Carlsbad Caverns National Park is large is an outright understatement. Even stringing together a large number of words that legitimately mean “large” cannot quite do it justice; “ridiculously ginormous,” “absolutely enormous,” “unbelievable expansive,” “endlessly cavernous.” None can appropriately convey it’s size.
The cave(s) inundate your senses from the moment you walk in: the sheer darkness immediately absorbs you, the smell of mildewed rocks hits like a wall as you descend further, and the deafening silence is only broken by the rhythmic sound of water droplets as they softly fall to their final resting place.
It is a 1-mile descent along switchbacks to enter the cave, then you find yourself in The Big Room, which was arguably named by someone seriously lacking in creativity, but I do respect their ability to get straight to the point. This ginormous cavern of fascinating cave things (“cave things” being the scientific term for what is inside), is the starting point for further exploration. From here you can walk the entire 1.2 mile loop, or take a shortcut through The Big Room to the exit. Visitors can exit the “natural way” (back the way you came – no thank you), or via the elevator (yes, please). Also, please forgive my lack of cavern pictures; taking photos in the near pitch dark has its challenges, as one can imagine.
Like El Paso, the town of Carlsbad doesn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist delights, but if you want to eat the best enchiladas of your life surrounded exclusively by oil miners getting off work for the day, then I cannot recommend it enough. While an overnight isn’t recommended, squeezing in a lunch at Carnicería San Juan de Los Lagos is esstential. I’m still having dreams about those enchiladas.
FINAL STOP: GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS
To complete our New Mexico/Texas loop, we stopped by Guadalupe Mountains National Park before heading to the airport. It is a small national park, particularly when compared to other all-stars, such as Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier, however, Guadalupe offers visitors several trails to explore. We chose to hike Devil’s Hall, a 4.2 mile out-and-back with rock scrambles, wildflowers, mountain views, and a small canyon at the end with natural made stone stairs. (This canyon being the “Devil’s Hall.”)
Prior to visiting, I did not hold high expectations of it being a spectacular national park. Honestly, it was more or less on the way, so why not stop by? Perhaps it was this mentality that had me pleasantly surprised. While it is not quite on par with most other national parks, it is absolutely worth a visit.
True to theme, we had very little time to get from the Guadalupe Mountains to our next destination, which was an especially important one this time: returning the rental car by 2:30pm to avoid a late fee. To get to El Paso on time, and by “on time” I mean precisely on the dot, we needed to finish our hike at 12:45. We of course returned from our hike at 12:50 and were ready to hustle, and pulled into the car rental return lot at precisely 2:22.
We made it! Barely.