Northern New Mexico, where I live, was already beset by wildfires when a friend arrived for a visit and some local travel last week, so I was ready for a break from all the smoke and ash in the air.
And I wasn't alone in my desire to hit the road. That is how six women, each with different tastes, diets, and habits, end up heading south in a caravan of three cars. We ambled into the badlands of southern New Mexico, the Gila Wilderness and west Texas. Along the way, smoke from the Wallow Fire, so named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness area where the fire originated, settled thickly across the parched mesas while dust devils danced across them.
Although I had been assigned the task of shopping for provisions for the trip, I was running low on time, and asked an obliging and intrepid travel companion to make a grocery run. After a flurry of text messages and phone calls including excruciating minutiae about pretzel rods and precise instructions on what type of trail mix not to buy, she returned from the market with four heaped shopping bags.
"That's the last time I'm going shopping for you," she said sweetly. "Ever."
Close quarters allow for character to manifest, and it doesn't get much closer than a car. Tough women will take sleeping bags, lumpy cots, sketchy bathrooms and vehicular snafus without a hitch. But try crowding six starving women around a plate of duck-fat fries - five really, because I momentarily forgot that one is vegetarian and duck fat isn't - and watch all signs of civility crumble.
A box of fragrance-free baby wipes can go a long way, as we learnt when one of the party brandished a box of mint chocolates from her stopover in Chicago, only to realise they'd liquefied in the heat. Another thing that can travel a fair distance is scent, as we realised, since I had made the malodorous mistake of suggesting another pickup turkey meatloaf sandwiches for the road. Within an hour of leaving home, they smelt like a sweaty foxtrot, something between a head of garlic and a barnyard floor.
I'm easy in a car: a black-coffee kind of girl - no soft drinks, no diet sodas, no crumbs. My beacon is the promise of a good meal at the day's end. At the close of the first day, rumpled and road-weary, we arrived at our bed and breakfast on a wildlife reserve. The air conditioner squeaked, the bed creaked, but we were so happy to see both that the complaints never registered.
Showered, we stretched our legs in the cool evening air, enjoying a brief happy hour of limeade and crisps while the house poodle tromped around proprietarily, demanding treats. Feeling renewed, we set out to explore the town, and the whole world felt fresh and bright and new.
Later, we had a high-concept, 14-course dinner composed of foraged foods. This included a lot of New Mexico native crawfish, an invasive species in the landlocked Gila wilderness. The meal was very good, but the tired traveller needed solid sustenance, and we were all left craving pizza.
As any seasoned traveller knows, "character" and "rusticity" are sometimes just euphemisms for "shabby" and "dated". Half our party was reminded of this cruel fact when they were forced at 2am, by reason of impending meltdown, to check out of their furnace of a room, which lacked a fan and windows, leading them to a small, air-conditioned motel attached to a diner on the main strip.
Breakfast at the B&B was polenta with poached eggs, corn salsa and a side of turkey sausage, but between one vegetarian and two people who hate eggs, we turned out to be better suited for the sparse efficiency of the Holiday Inn Express, where we stayed on our second night in Silver City. With its pillows labelled "firm" and "soft", starched linens, high-speed wireless internet, and predictable continental breakfast of yoghurt, bagels, English muffins and hard boiled eggs, it's my budget-friendly fallback when I'm passing through these parts.
We headed toward Marfa, Texas, on Interstate 10, with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to our right, and El Paso, Texas, stretching before us and to our left.
"I'm hungry," someone announced. El Paso has a huge Lebanese community, so I was fairly confident that there was decent food to be found in the city. We decided not to take any exits.
Once we reached Marfa, it was so hot that all we wanted was to drink lemonade and wilt in the shade. We spent our mornings in Marfa at the weird and Alpine-spirited Marfa Squeeze, a small Swiss café, where I made the shameful mistake of ordering a "Casablanca" sandwich: hummus, tapenade and tomatoes on toast. What I deservedly got was a mouthful of hummus that tasted as though it had collided with a plate of French toast. The cinnamon-flecked garbanzo paste could only have been the result of a flustered prep cook's blind reaching for an unlabelled jar of spices, thinking it cumin, perhaps, then shaking a ton of it into the hummus without smelling it first.
Eventually, we ambled toward the small town of Truth or Consequences, where the pickings were slimmer than ever, and the sign on the door to the restaurant at our small mineral springs lodge commanded us, inconveniently, to "visit our sister restaurant in NYC!". At a nearby steakhouse where we headed for prime rib quesadillas, our kindly waiter informed us he'd been there longer than we've been alive. The next day at dinner, we drowned our homesick blues in huge bowls of spaghetti and meatballs. We were ready to go home, but not until we'd visited the local bowling alley for a little sadism and karaoke.
On that first night of the trip, while we were driving along the darkened country road back to the B&B, a dozen startled mule deer fawns scampered into the road, obstructing it. We sat in the idling car, immobilised but enchanted. For the first time in weeks, I voluntarily yielded to the elements and the circumstances beyond my control, and felt completely at peace. This is the magical power that travel holds for me.