ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. and DURANGO, Colo., July 22, 2017 — “If I end up with incurable cancer, I’ll see if I can hire hire one of my students to be my own Jesse,” I said. “I know a thing or two about chemistry.”
“Picht, you aren’t that morally bankrupt,” replied Professor Keele. “At worst I see you turning into a Trump voter.”
“It doesn’t take cancer to push me there,” I retorted. “Maybe a bad head cold. And I catch colds all the time.”
But he was right: I could probably never bring myself to cook meth. Grow pot, maybe, and cook brownies. But I’m still fascinated by Walter White, so when Harlan asked whether we could stop in Albuquerque on our way to Durango, I readily agreed, even though Albuquerque isn’t actually on the way to Durango when you’re in Santa Fe.
“There’s a lot more to do in Albuquerque than in Santa Fe,” said Harlan confidently. “It has over 600,000 people. There must be something to do.”
He’s a 16-year-old who’s been raised in a small town in the woods. He dreams of places where there is something to do, and he imagines that they always have populations of half a million or more. He claims we never take him to those places, though in the last year or two I’ve taken him to Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. He spent days in an angry funk when he found out we were going to spend a week in Durango.
The least we could do was take him to Albuquerque.
The drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque takes less than an hour. With efficient packing the night before, we would be there in time for breakfast.
My travel guide recommended Mary and Tito’s Cafe, just a few blocks off of I-40. Their red chili drew rave reviews, and their carne adovada was supposedly the best in New Mexico. So by 10:00, there we were.
“This looks like a dive,” said Harlan with deep disapproval. “I bet only sketchy people eat here. Let’s go to IHOP.”
“I don’t like anything here,” said Catherine crankily, before we even walked in the door.”
She woke up angry two years ago, when she was 12, and hasn’t gotten over it. And she only likes ramen, hot dogs, scrambled eggs, sausage and spaghetti. She nearly starved to death in Iceland.
Mary and Tito’s does NOT look like a dive, inside or out. It’s a small and pleasant establishment, in business since 1963. The people there looked like they’d been coming for breakfast for decades, and our server was pleasant, efficient and unobtrusive. I glanced quickly at the menu and saw eggs, carne adovada, red chili and hash browns. If they were best known for adovada and red chili, that’s what I’d have.
My wife, Lisa, opted for an omelet with red chili. Harlan went with huevos rancheros with green chili. Catherine ordered a piece of sausage.
I’ll say now that if I’d met Mary before I met Lisa, and if that red chili-carne adovada recipe is hers, I’d have fought Tito for her. I can’t say from personal experience that it’s the best in New Mexico, but it was pretty amazing. That’s the best use I’ve made of $6.50 in my life. Lisa liked her omelet, but she was raised by an English mother with all her summers in England, and she’s never developed a taste for the fiery foods that I love. I think she’d have preferred it without the red chili.
Harlan ate all his breakfast but seemed unimpressed. “Huevos rancheros comes with beans?” he asked incredulously. “Who eats beans for breakfast?” My mom’s family is from Taos. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Four Corners area. We eat beans for breakfast. Teens are all amnesiacs.
Catherine is a prophetess: She didn’t like the sausage. I ate it with the last smears of my red chili. It was delicious.
From breakfast, we headed for the old town. There was little activity and parking was easy. Old town Albuquerque isn’t extensive, but it is pretty and well preserved.
Like old town Santa Fe, it’s anchored around a plaza with a church, San Felipe de Neri. There are fewer art galleries, more t-shirt stores. The target demographic seems less music-and-wine-festival, more cowboys-and-Indians. But arts, crafts, and artisanal coffee are there, too.
Harlan was still in pursuit of a New Mexico visor. He didn’t find one. I found disappointment. It came in the form of a black t-shirt with an attractive “honey skull” image that I almost bought, but didn’t. Later Harlan asked why I didn’t buy the Walter White t-shirt.
“What Walter White t-shirt?”
“The one you were staring at.”
His face was made into one of the Mexican-style skulls.
“I thought for sure you were going to buy it.”
I’d been looking at it upside down, so I didn’t recognize the face. Alas.
We landed in the American International Rattlesnake Museum. It reminded me of Santa Fe’s bug museum, but instead of terrariums with tarantulas, there were terrariums occupied by every type of rattlesnake found in the American Southwest, and some from beyond.
The variety of rattlesnakes in the Southwest is astonishing. There were pygmy sidewinders, diamondbacks, timber rattlers, Mojave rattlers. Rattlesnakes with “horns,” pink, grey, white and black rattlers.
At the bug museum you can hold a tarantula. For obvious reasons, visitors aren’t allowed to hold a rattlesnake. You can, however, hold a small python and pet a tortoise. And you can buy a mug with a rattlesnake pattern with a rattlesnake head peering up at you from inside. Alas, they’re made in China.
The exterior of the church, San Felipe de Neri, is lovely. The interior is pleasant, but not as beautiful as the churches in Santa Fe.
Albuquerque is probably a better place to buy turquoise and silver jewelry than Santa Fe.
Santa Fe is an art colony, and half the people there in summer are tourists. Albuquerque is a more workman-like city. It’s difficult to compare directly unless you’re looking at specific artists, but the prices in Albuquerque seemed generally lower. And they’re lower outside the old town than within it.
There’s a market in the plaza on Saturdays. We missed that. We also missed the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, which I’ve seen before and highly recommend, and the Turquoise Museum, which I hear is wonderful but have not seen myself.
I wanted to go to both, but I didn’t want to put up with complaints from the back seat, and we did want to get to Durango at a reasonable hour. I’ve resolved to return with Lisa some day for the museums and the hot air balloon festival in October. Autumn is, in general, a better time to visit Albuquerque.
We left Albuquerque in mid-afternoon to go on to Durango. The drive, via I-25 then on to state highway 550, passes through arid, beautiful, desolate and dramatic landscapes. You pass places with names from Tony Hillerman novels, good places not to have your car break down without a cooler full of water.
“Why do you have to fill up half the trunk with that stupid cooler?” asked Harlan before we left home. “There’s hardly room for the luggage.”
This is country where you feel yourself desiccating with every breath. Bodies don’t rot here; they mummify. The membranes of your nasal cavities crystalize, your skin looks dusty and drives you crazy with itching if you don’t slather on the lotion.
That’s why you fill up half the trunk with your stupid cooler. Now please pass me another bottle of cold water.
We were in Durango before six. We went straight to the Steamworks brewery for dinner. It’s one of the more popular casual spots in Durango, with a popular menu of ales and lagers and extensive, inexpensive lunch and dinner menus.
My green-chili quiche with a cup of tomato-artichoke soup and a salad with lime-cilantro vinaigrette was $10. Catherine had a pepperoni pizza (half of it is still in our refrigerator), Lisa had tacos with local beef and corn salsa with roasted asparagus ($12), and Harlan had some sort of over-stuffed sandwich that he devoured like a starving teenager.
We’ll be in Durango for five days. The kids are beginning to lighten up with the promise of a rafting trip down the Animas River and a hike to a silver mine. Will Harlan and Catherine both survive this trip, or will it turn into a Tony Hillerman novel?
That remains to be seen.