Road report #9 – Denver to Santa Fe

Friday, October 13th, I set off from my friends’ house in the mountains in Silverthorne, CO for the last 60 mile push to Denver.  It was slow going.  The Colorado mountain passes, generally ranging in elevation from 8,000 to 11,000 feet, were seriously challenging Greta.  She could only sustain a max speed of 30 mph on the mountain pass inclines. I knew she’d be slow, but come on!  I kept to the right hand lane, hazard lights blinking, hoping nobody smashed into me from behind.  It was stressing me out a bit.  I hoped nothing was seriously wrong with Greta.

Arriving at my sister’s house in Denver was a relief.  I was looking forward to being in one general place for more than a day or two.  I was ready for a break from the road churn.

I like visiting Denver.  People are so nice and outgoing and ready for a good time. My visits always seem to include too much in the line of drink and food and this trip was no exception to this trend.  Fun times as always!!

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What you might find in the bathroom at Armida’s Mexican Restaurant and Lounge.  Great karaoke at this place!

My time in Denver was interrupted by a short side trip to Fort Collins, CO on Monday and Tuesday, October 16th and 17th.  Fort Collins is a little over an hour north of Denver and is home to Rocky Mountain Westy. a VW Vanagon mechanic and conversion specialist.  I spent both days hanging around Fort Collins while they sorted out several issues with Greta.  These guys were great!  Can’t recommend them enough. They helped me understand that Greta’s sluggish performance on mountain passes was normal due to the effect of the high altitude on the engine’s performance and was not indicative of a serious issue.  Whew!

The side trip to Fort Collins, CO, turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  I really enjoyed poking around the town while Greta was in the shop and I added Fort Collins to my list of possible future landing places.  The historic downtown is full of art galleries and restaurants and the town seems to have a vibrant art scene.  A trail system runs through the city along the river and safe biking options seem available.   People were super friendly and outgoing.  Worth a second look in the future,  I think.

From Fort Collins, I headed back to Denver and continued the fun and indulgent hiatus from road travel and enjoyed visiting old favorites (Denver Botanical Garden, walks in Wash Park,  Sushi Den, The Dive In) while developing tastes for new Denver habits (Kaladi Coffee, Comida’s in the RINO district, The Englewood Grand Bar).

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The Pinus bungeana (Lacebark Pine) grove at the Denver Botanical Garden.  Oo la la.. love that bark!

Catching up with family and old friends was grounding and a nice change from being around strangers all the time.  Getting out to enjoy and indulge in Denver’s sights and sounds was rejuvenating and flat out fun.  But after ten days in Denver, it was time to push on.   Fortunately I had found a trucking service center in Denver to fix Greta’s furnace issue so I wasn’t hitting the road still with a broken furnace.  Camping was back on the table.

Monday, October 23rd, my friend Alyssa flew in from Seattle. She was leaving her husband and dog behind in Seattle for 10 days to be my co-pilot on the Denver to Santa Fe stretch of the road trip.

From the Denver airport we headed out route 285, heading southwest.   Our first stop was Salida, CO, a town specifically recommended to me by several people to check out as a potential future landing spot.  LOVED IT!  A beautifully preserved historic down town; right on a river;  hiking/biking/skiing galore;  a funky, artistic vibe;  felt like tourism wasn’t the only gig in town.  We had a great overnight at the Simple Lodge and Hostel and enjoyed good burgers and beer at Benson’s. (They had a kolsch style beer on tap! Made my day!)   Salida is solidly on my list of potential future landing spots.

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Alyssa and moose at Benson’s in Salida, CO.

Tuesday, October 24th, we set out from Salida heading for Crested Butte, CO.  We followed route 50 up to Monarch Pass at 11, 316 feet.  Alyssa, Roo and I got out of the van at the pass and hiked up to the ridge to take in the incredible views.

From Monarch Pass, we continued along route 50, stopping at the ranger station in Gunnison to look for info on hikes that we could do on our way into Crested Butte.  We decided on checking out the Taylor River and Reservoir, a slight diversion to the northeast on our approach in to Crested Butte.

The road wound picturesquely along the Taylor River canyon and we enjoyed the leisurely drive, taking in the fall color along the way.   As we approached the reservoir, we came around a corner, a sheer rock wall to the right, guard rail and drop off to the left.  I noticed what I thought was water dropping down the rock wall onto the road.  It turned out to be black ice and I lost control of the van when we hit the patch, veering first at the rock wall face to the right and then veering back left towards the guard rail and drop off. Fortunately I didn’t oversteer or slam on the brakes.  We ultimately ended up doing a 180, coming to a stop, facing back the way we had come.  A little in shock and disbelief of what had just happened,  I gently eased the van back down hill.  Alyssa and I both agreed the wisest corse of action would be to skip seeing the reservoir.  A few minutes back down the road, we stopped along the river for a snack and a Roo river romp and a breather while I recovered from the shock of losing control of the van.  Still freaks me out to recall the incident.  The road trip gods were truly looking out for Alyssa and I that day.

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Roo romping along the Taylor River with her stick, er, make that log.

From the Taylor River area we headed into Crested Butte and landed at a friend of Alyssa’s.  We treated ourselves and Ryan, our host, to pizza and beer that evening at The Secret Stash (order the Notorious F.I.G. if you ever make it there. Tasty pizza!), located in the ridiculously cute historic part of Crested Butte.  After dinner we spent a cozy evening at Ryan’s sweet pad, hanging with his dog, Reba, and picking his brain on what to do and what not to do in our days on the road to come.

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Reba and Roo.  This is the closest I’ve ever seen Roo lay to a dog that she barely knows.  I’m sure she was just angling to take over that plush dog bed the second Reba vacated it.

Wednesday, October 25th, rolled around and as usual Roo and I were the first ones up.  I took her for a walk around Crested Butte South and hoped to hunt up a latte.  I found excellent coffee and baked goods at Camp 4 Coffee. The day was off to a great start!

Roo and I were not the only person/dog combination out for their morning walk and coffee search but we were the only person/dog combination attached by leash and I’m sure we stuck out as the out-of-towners that were are.  I often measure the value of a place based on how dog friendly it is and Colorado mountain towns stand out as dog friendly meccas.   For example, there is a sign at the end of Ryan’s street that reads “FREE ROAMING DOGS WILL BE FINED”.   Ryan told us that someone had come along and removed the ‘D’ so that the sign read “FREE ROAMING DOGS WILL BE FINE” for a period of time.  Eventually the city caught on and added back in the missing ‘D’.  We all agreed it was time for someone to remove the ‘D’ again.

By the time Roo and I returned from the coffee hunt, Ryan and Alyssa were starting to stir for the day.  We packed up and said bon voyage to Ryan and Reba.  Alyssa and I stopped again in historic Crested Butte to fuel ourselves up at the The Guild Cafe where we found finely crafted coffee and tasty breakfast options.  We drove out of the northwest side of town and started making our way along the Kebler Pass Road, part of the West Elk Loop Scenic & Historic Byway.

Wow!  This was an amazing drive.  The road up and over Kebler Pass, peaking at 10,007 feet, starts from Crested Butte and runs generally west 30 miles until it intersects with Highway 133 near the town of Paonia.  Most of the road is gravel and runs through the largest stretch of aspen forest that I have ever laid eyes on.   The leaves on the aspen had already fallen, affording us views of the mountain vistas.  We stopped for a quick hike in the Lake Irwin area near the pass and took in the views.

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Alyssa and I were both trying to imagine what the drive up and over Kebler Pass must be like when the aspens are at the peak of their fall color.  We had seen enough isolated aspens and cottonwoods in protected pockets still holding onto their leaves and knew how gloriously golden a single aspen or cottonwood could be. What would miles and miles of aspen forest be like??  If we hiked in it would we feel like we were bathed in gold?  We have both vowed to return someday to find out.

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One of the many amazing, so stinking pretty views along the Kelber Pass road.

After completing the Kebler Pass road, we stopped in Paonia, CO for lunch and a quick walk around the small, funky downtown area.  Then we were off for our last driving stretch of the day, aiming for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.   As we drove, the scenery transitioned from mountain forests to high desert plateaus.

We rolled into the park late in the afternoon.  The entrance station was unmanned and the campground was practically deserted.   I’ve never seen so few people at a national park before.   After securing a campsite, we quickly set out to try to get a hike in before the sunset and got a little taste of how amazing the Black Canyon area is.

We spent that evening enjoying a camp fire and star gazing and then we settled in for our first night of camping in Greta.   It was cold but the furnace was working again so we spent a comfortable evening.

Thursday, October 26th, we awoke to sunny skies and we set off to hit every overlook hike we could get to along the south rim of the park.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is difficult to describe.  It’s a natural wonder of the world, a freak of nature, amazing and sort of terrifying.  From some of the overlook trails it was possible to peer 2000 feet straight down.  Similar to my experience when I visited the Grand Canyon, my brain was having problems making sense of the sheer quantity of space in front of me and it left me feeling weak in the knees.  But the views were intoxicating and we just had to check out every last look out spot we could get to before we were ready to call it and hit the road.

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Alyssa on the ridge line.
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Alyssa assumes the position of “Don’t drop the phone!”

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I’m sitting down because my knees were shaking to hard to let me stand comfortably near the edge.

Mid afternoon we left the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and started to make our way south along route 550, headed into the San Juan Mountains for a night in Ouray, CO.

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Stinking purty scene along route 550.

We had heard that Ouray is a ridiculously picturesque town, known as the Switzerland of the US.    We were not disappointed… see for yourself!

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Ouray, CO.  Can it get more stinking picturesque? I think not.

And bonus! Ouray is known for hot springs!  We quickly dismissed any ideas of camping and agreed we should get a room at a place with hot spring pools.

After a soak in the hot springs at our hotel we set out for a night on the town.  We hoped to start the evening at the distillery with a tasting of Colorado whiskeys but found they were closed for a few weeks, taking a break between seasons.  We found several other places in town also closed for a short break before the winter season hit.   Ahhh.. the schedule of a Colorado mountain town.   Got to love it.

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Cruising main street, Ouray, CO.

We hit the two brewpubs in town and then hit the hay early, wiped out after a couple of beers and whiskeys.  As we were falling asleep, Alyssa and I were already strategizing on how best to fit in another hot spring soak in the morning before we checked out.

Friday, October 27th,  we both rallied early to start our day with coffee and hot spring soaks.  We checked out Cascade Falls on the edge of town for a quick morning walk before heading out of town, bound for Durango, CO.

The drive between Ouray and Durango is one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.  Signs like this one are typical:

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We stopped in Silverton, CO, along the way to Durango and had a blast poking around this cute town.  They have a park in downtown with a public art installation featuring xylophones, free to all to be played, and we gave them a whirl.  We enjoyed listening to a terrific pianist, knocking out ragtime classics, while lunching at the newly remodeled Grand Imperial Hotel.    After lunch we did a took a quick walk up to the Christ of the Mines Shrine and enjoyed the spectacular view of the town and surrounding valley.

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View of Silverton, CO from the Christ of the Mines Shrine.

From Silverton, we continued the drive to Durango and hit more stinking pretty.  I was looking forward to checking out Durango.  It was on the list of potential long term landing spots as I’d heard many positive things about the town.

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Molas Pass, CO – so stinking pretty.

We rolled into Durango mid afternoon, got settled into a motel on the edge of the historic downtown area and then headed out for dinner.  We quickly formed less than favorable opinions of Durango as a good potential long term landing spot for me.  Too much of a college town party scene and a few too many rough and crazy looking people roaming around on the streets for my tastes.  Perhaps our Durango experience was somehow flavored by the fact that it was the weekend before Halloween and perhaps the party scene was on overdrive as a result.  Either way,  not exactly the town vibe I’m looking for in the next long term place but it made for a fun evening.  When in Rome…

First stop was the Eno Wine bar for fancy cocktails and an appetizer.  Then onto the Diamond Belle Saloon in the historic Strater Hotel, famous for period decor and costumes as well as gun fight reenactments.  The saloon was packed and had a very festive, drunkey vibe.  A talented female trio was belting out some good bluegrass tunes.   While sitting at the bar Alyssa conceived of a game that we would continue to play for the remainder of the evening called “Halloween or Durango? You tell me.”  Muy fun.

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Tending bar at the Diamond Belle Saloon.
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Diamond Belle Saloon scene.  The lettering along the beam:  “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”

We sat at the bar, chatting to our barstool neighbors, and found ourselves in conversations that we hadn’t really expected to have in southwest Colorado. One with a cowboy-esque electrical engineer, referencing the work of geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells and arguing that the U.S. should adopt a more socialist model.  The other with a friendly woman, long time resident of Durango and common frequenter of the saloon.  She was nursing a red wine and some sort of cocktail simultaneously (impressive!) and proudly showing off pictures of her gay son and partner and their recently adopted children in their halloween costumes.   Unexpected and an absolute hoot!

Based on a tip, we headed around the corner to the Wild Horse Saloon for some live music and dancing.  We caught the tail end of the Cha Cha Dance contest, grand prize of $200, and then watched the live music and dancing.

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I was in heaven!  I love me some country music and dancing.  The band was great! Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away” was the hit of the night (for me anyway) and landed solidly on the Greta road trip sound track.

I was so entertained.  I find it fascinating to watch a couple on the dance floor that really know what the heck their doing.  None of that sway side to side shit but real dance moves that require two people to move as one.  That’s some badass skill.

And it’s not just the good dancers I love.  I love anyone brave enough to put themselves out on that floor.  I love the whole scene, good and bad. The look of contentment on peoples’ faces as they glide and move effortlessly around a dance floor, or stumble their way in blissful clumsiness, either way… when I see that look I think, “I want some of that..we all NEED some of that.”

And then of course there are always the dance floor dumpster fires.  Those couples where one or two of them are only out there because they’ve had way too much to drink and it’s probably not going to end pretty but it’s impossible to tear your eyes away.

Alyssa patiently sat by and indulged my dance floor voyeurism.  We called it a night before it got too late and things got weird.  The plan was to skedaddle out of Durango as early as possible the next day so we needed to hit the hay.

Saturday, October 28th, we hightailed it out of Durango, aiming to make it Tao, NM for the evening.  About an hour outside of Durango we pulled into the town of Pagosa Springs for breakfast and a quick walk around.   Man! Alyssa and I were both regretting that we hadn’t driven through Durango the day before and landed at Pagosa Springs instead for an evening.  This town is the shiznits!  Hot springs right on a beautiful river that flows through the middle of town Skiing, biking, hiking, rafting, climbing, riding, etc… you name a recreational option, this town has it.   Alyssa was ready to plant herself in Pagosa Springs and move no further.

 

From Pagosa Springs we pushed on and drove through pretty country and up and over a couple of mountain passes.  The landscape increasingly turned to high desert sage brush.   As we approached Taos, we started to notice strange, whimsical structures and stopped to figure out what exactly we were seeing.

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It was a housing community made up of Earthship Biotecture designed homes.   What a wonderfully weird and rad and inspiring thing we had stumbled upon.  The structures are designed to be totally autonomous, off the grid homes.

Construction supplies include recycled materials such as used automobile tires, glass bottles and tin cans.  The use of recycled glass bottles lets light in, creates a beautiful stained glass effect from the inside, and makes use of a cheap and plentiful waste product.

After going gaga over the Earthship community, we got back on the road headed towards Taos.  Alyssa and I were both taken by surprise when we hit the bridge that spanned the Rio Grande River gorge.  Whoa!  Big bridge! Big river gorge!

We pulled over to walk out on the bridge and take pics with the rest of the tourists.  Well, I actually sprinted because I was so freaked out by the height that I wanted to get back to the van as fast as possible.

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While I waited in the car in the van for Alyssa, I executed a google search on “Ojo Caliente”, a town name we had just recently seen called out on a road sign.  It rang a bell to both Alyssa and me but we couldn’t remember exactly what it was.

The search results returned pictures of people sitting in hot spring pools with beautiful sand stone towers in the background.  When Alyssa returned to the van,  I showed Alyssa the pictures and said this is about 30 minutes away.  She responded with “Why aren’t we driving there right now??”.  So we said, SCREW TAOS! and changed our destination to the historic hot springs spa of Ojo Caliente.

We hightailed it to the resort and secured a spot in their campground and then took a quick hike around the grounds.  Holy freaking friolejes we could tell this place was something else.

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After the quick hike we headed over to the resort to soak in the pools.  The resort is just beautiful , featuring historic buildings and a hot spring/spa with several hot spring pools, saunas, mud baths, etc.

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Ojo Caliente Hot Springs Resort

The sun was setting as we hit the facilities.  We watched the stars come out and the moon rise.  I floated for many minutes on my back in the heated swimming pool staring up at the sky.  It was magical and I experienced a deep sense of calmness while just floating there.

After turning ourselves into prunes, we went to the resort’s restaurant and had a very nice meal featuring vegetables from the resort’s garden.   The amount of vegetables we were served was absurd.  It being the end of the growing season, the chef saw no use in holding back and just prepared what was available and ripe and served what they had on hand.  As a result, the salads coming out of the kitchen were seriously big enough to feed four people.  We were in hog heaven.  Stuffed and fully sated we staggered back to the campsite and cozied up in the van for the night.

Sunday, October 29th we woke up in a cold van.  The furnace was out again in Greta, damn it!  Roo and I got up and got going and repeated our hike from the day before but this time we had more company on the trail.  Yikes!

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Cow along the trail at Ojo Caliente Hot Springs.

After my morning walk with Roo, Alyssa and I sauntered over to the resort restaurant to find complimentary coffee and a wood fire to warm us up.  This was true glamping!

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Ultimate glamping.

A nice couple also camping at Ojo Caliente shared travel tips with us before we headed out.  They had a sweet dog named Bode who patiently posed to show off his leaf hat as well as his self portrait in his fur along his side.

We packed up the van and started making our way to Santa Fe, via a scenic route through the area NE of Santa Fe.  Our first stop along the scenic drive was for brunch at Sugar Nymphs in Penasco.  Amazing scones and breakfast options.

Totally stuffed we continued the scenic drive, stopping in Las Truchas and Chimayo to check out historic churches and churchy stuff.

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From Chimayo we headed to Santa Fe via road 503, a crazily curvy and narrow road at times.  Picturesque as hell but at times, I honestly thought we were perhaps driving down someone’s driveway.

We landed at our lovely little casita airbnb in Santa Fe and headed out to check out Maria’s for dinner.  Maria’s is famous for their extensive margarita menu and tequila tasting flights.  We indulged in both margaritas and tequila tasting.  I learned of the joy of a honey dipped sopaipilla for desert.  After dinner we returned to our rental casita to watch the starry sky from the hot tub.  Out first night in Santa Fe was pretty freaking awesome.

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Monday, October 30th, we awoke to our first full day in Santa Fe.   We decided to walk into the Plaza area and see if we could hunt up decent coffee.   We walked along the Santa Fe River trail, grooving on the adobe architecture and public art along the way.

We fueled up on excellent coffee at Iconik Coffee Roasters and took in some of the sights in the Santa Fe Plaza area.

Saint Francis Cathedral:

The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts:

The more I walked around Santa Fe the more charmed I was with the town and architecture.    It felt like being in a foreign country.  The low adobe horses with courtyards and the narrow winding streets were not typical of my experience of U.S. towns.  Art and religion were on display everywhere.

Monday afternoon we drove up road 475 into Carson National Forest and enjoyed a nice hike on the Black Canyon Trail.   After the hike, we headed to a Japanese inspired spa bordering the national forest,  Ten Thousand Waves , for an evening of soaking, massages and dinner at the Japanese style pub.   Worth a visit!

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Alyssa enjoying the foot soaking tub while waiting for our private hot tub, cold plunge, dry sauna area.  Pretty luscious.

Tuesday,  October 31st, we spent most of the day poking around The Plaza and Canyon Road area, discovering the fine food at Pasquale’s and visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

Seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s work was one of my primary reasons for visiting Santa Fe.  I read about Georgia O’Keefe in my teens which started sort of an obsession (I named one of my first cats, Georgia, in her honor) so a trip to Santa Fe had to include my pilgrimage to her museum.

Unfortunately the museum was in the process of turning over the exhibit and just two small rooms of paintings and sketches were available for viewing but OH MY!  Seeing the paint strokes, the smudges, the texture of the paper, the subtle third dimensional qualities of her pieces knocked my socks off.   I was totally unprepared for my reaction to seeing her work up close.

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“Anything”

The full exhibit was going to open that upcoming Saturday and I decided right then and there that I was NOT leaving northern New Mexico until I had seen the full exhibit and visited her studio up in Abiquiu, NM.

After museums and walking around town, we took an afternoon siesta at our casita and then made attempts at costumes (Alyssa as a cowgirl, me as Red Riding Hood) and headed to Meow Wolf, an art installation/live music venue, for Halloween.  It was SO FUN and weird and whacky in the best way.  We poked around the art installation space and then shaked our booties to first a brass/funk band and then to a hedonistic, afro-pop inspired act.

This piece should be entitled “Helllppp…. meeee…”:

Alyssa (in her cowgirl costume), exploring the space:

The opening act, the Partizani Brass Band:

Headliner, Golden Dawn Arkestra’s intro:  (Unfortunately failed to get any music. Was too busy dancing!)

Wednesday, November 1st, came around and sadly Alyssa was to fly out that afternoon.  We decided to fit in a trip to Bandelier National Monument before she had to be dropped at the airport.  Just an hour outside of Santa Fe, this proved to be an incredibly scenic step back in time.

After Bandelier, I dropped Alyssa at the Santa Fe Airport, the smallest airport I’ve even seen.  The difference between premier and general parking was whether or not you parked in the paved or gravel outdoor parking lots.

I spent that afternoon catching up on laundry and trying to get organized for being a solo traveler again. I hadn’t really thought or planned out too much past Alyssa’s departure date.  I extended the reservations an extra night at our Santa Fe airbnb and spent the evening working on the plan to kill time in northern New Mexico while I waited for the full Georgia O’Keefe exhibit to reopen.  But that’s for another road report.

In the meantime, poor Roo is sorely missing Alyssa and continues to look for her. Sorry, Roo…just you and me for now.

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6 thoughts on “Road report #9 – Denver to Santa Fe”

    1. True ‘dat! I am amazed at just how much beautiful country there is out there. I could easily spend months and months just exploring one of the states I have visited. I am constantly passing stuff by because there’s just not enough time to get to everything.

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    1. I will definitely be going back to Santa Fe in 201. If you’re interested in crossing paths there at the same time let’s chat. More exploring to do there for sure!

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