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Friday, May 16, 2008

Boulder to Tucson

Mr. Chalmers and I went on an honest-to-god vacation while my mom stayed here in Georgia with the bug for almost a whole week! We went to Boulder to attend a party celebrating the impending wedding of two good friends of ours, then drove south to Tucson and flew back from there. Here are some pictorial highlights, with notes and soundtrack suggestions.

The Saturday farmer's market in Boulder was shockingly good. I guess in the mountain states, where it's freezing even in May, farmer's markets might tend to be heavy on the meat—I kept having to stop Mr. Chalmers from buying large cuts of beef (we were staying in a motel). I had a wonderful breakfast of a crusty, yeasty, sticky pecan roll and a mole tamale, the latter pictured below.

Boulder is swank, y'all. We had pretty good sushi for dinner at what might have been a chain restaurant (Mr. Chalmers was told by someone at the party that new chains are tested out in Colorado because the population is representative of the U.S. as a whole). The night before, we had a surprisingly good dinner at (our hosts' choice) a Tibetan restaurant—luckily it also featured Indian dishes, which in fact made up the bulk of the menu.

Before the party, we were taken to a bar on the outskirts of the city called the Rocky Flats Lounge, where certain of us put David Allan Coe, Tom Petty (deep album track), and the Shins on the jukebox and all of us were regaled with tales from the Internet trenches by famous music critic Frank Kogan (whose book is as fun as it sounds, by the way).

It was a relief to see that not all of Boulder is brand-sparkling-new and Green.

We had two breakfasts the morning after the party. One of them was in Louisville (pronounced Lewis), at the Huckleberry. It's not the kind of place I'd expect to like, and it was crowded with Mother's Day people even very early in the morning, but we took seats at the bar and had a really good meal with our New York Times. I had a crabcake eggs Benedict with perfect fried potatoes.

With a certified Kogan mix CD in the car stereo—new favorite song: "Ta, Da, Tako Je" (which can be heard here) by Grupa Zeris—we made our way to Albuquerque on Sunday, via Taos (late Mother's Day lunch at a touristy terrace on the square) and Espanola, where we were thrilled to see two actual low riders (one of them in time and close enough for me to snap a picture). We'd been to Espanola a few years ago and seen none.

Somewhere on this drive we heard an announcement on WNMX AM 540 that said something to the effect that they are making some changes at the station to better serve their listeners. One of these changes is that they are no longer playing requests. Hee. A couple songs later, we heard the most bizarre cumbio ever, and I so wish I knew what it was; basically this guy is just singing as if he's in terrible, terrible pain. It's something WNMX thinks we should hear.

First meal in Albuquerque, as it probably always will be, was at an old favorite of Mr. Chalmers (and as of three years ago myself), the Frontier. I had a green chile cheeseburger, Mr. Chalmers having beat me to the chicken enchilada with green. It was exactly right. Sadly I was too full to even contemplate—no, that's not true, I agonized over the decision—a hot buttered sweet roll.

Second meal in Albuquerque was at Mary & Tito's: carne adovado, fried eggs with red chile and hash browns (back); cheese enchiladas with green chile and refried beans (front). I think we both preferred the adovado we'd had last time we were in ABQ at Barela's Coffee Shop, and I didn't care so much for the green chile enchiladas—the cheese was not quite melted, and the chile was a bit watery and mild. Still, you can hardly go wrong with enchiladas for breakfast.

Between Albuquerque and the turnoff for Hatch—new favorite song: "Cappuccino" by the Knux (which can be experienced here); Mr. Chalmers's new favorite: "I'm in Love with You" by Cassie (uh, here)—the landscape looked mostly like this, parched and brown and very, very bright, for miles upon miles:

I looked at the map and saw that this stretch along the Rio Grande is called the Jornada del Muerte. True, that.

Fun road signs, part 1: between Rodeo and Douglas on route 80: "Watch for animals, next 112 miles." Thanks.

Bisbee! Why don't more people like us go to Bisbee, Arizona? Has Jonathan Franzen written about it yet? It's apparently a birding mecca (we saw—and heard—some of the craziest birds there), but it's also a beautiful old mining town carved out of the Mule Mountains. We stayed at a truly perfect little motel, the Copper City Inn. Wine was waiting for us when we arrived (one of the best things about this place is that you're given a code for the main door lock and the door to one of the three rooms in the motel in advance, so you never have to check in or out, or be greeted in any way). We had our wine out on the balcony while we listened to the birds and the sun set. (This picture, I should note, was taken the next morning—hence the coffee mugs where you might be expecting wineglasses.)

Having freshened up after our day's jornada, we strolled around town, stopping for a drink at perhaps the most photogenic bar in the Southwest, the Bisbee Grand Saloon. View to my right:

And to my left:

It was a slow night in Bisbee, the kind of disturbingly desperate bartender told us. We had dinner at the only place within walking distance that was open, the old Copper Queen hotel, out on the pretty, heated terrace at dusk. (Come to think of it, there are a few reasons people like us don't go to Bisbee more often; maybe it was the off season, or just too late in the day for much commerce to be going on.)

Next morning, coffee then breakfast, then a quick stop for gawking at the mine. A sucker for open-pit mines since my early childhood in Butte, I took about three dozen pictures of the Lavender pit mine (copper) just east of town; here's one:

If you look at a road atlas, you'll notice that the route from Bisbee to Nogales, right along the border, is signified by either a dotted line or a thin-black-outlined white line. I floated the possibility to Mr. Chalmers that this could be a dirt road, and he was dubious that a dirt road would make it into Rand McNally. Of course it was dirt, all forty or fifty miles of it, and not only dirt but almost continuous mountain switchbacks. With a couple exceptions, the only vehicles we saw on that four-plus-hour stretch of road were Border Patrol SUVs.

Fun road signs, part 2: About two hours into the unimproved winding mountain road: "Unimproved winding mountain road, next 14 miles." Soon afterward, around Lochiel, the road became paved, and we cheered; then about fifty feet later: "Pavement ends." About three hours in, Mr. Chalmers spotted a scary and official-looking sign up ahead and said, "Now what kind of shitty sign is this gonna be?" and it said something like "Cars must not leave the road," but in Spanish with no translation.

Nogales! By the time we reached Nogales we'd had our fill of Border Patrol, so we decided to stay on the AZ side for lunch. Jardines de Mexico was chosen at random, but it was absolutely lovely. I had a sweet, refreshing horchata and a chicken mole torta that I was head over heels for; Mr. Chalmers had a carne asada torta that he said was okay but too heavy on the mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, Grandma was having her way with the bug's wardrobe, and sending us pictures on the email. Here's the bug at lunch at Big City Bread back in Athens. Have you ever seen so much gingham?

We missed her all the time, except on the airplane and at certain other points during our trip—for example, at the Rocky Flats Lounge, and when we pulled off to take in the view on the road between Palominas and Lochiel, Arizona, where there were sheer dropoffs with very little in the way of barriers and much in the way of warnings about dangerous UDAs in the area.

We'd saved all our fancy meals for shiny Tucson, and instead of taking pictures of our gorgeously plated food I concentrated on preserving the memory of random parking lots and grocery stores. Here's the road down from the foothills, where we had dinner at sunset on the (heated) patio at J Bar, in the Westin La Paloma spa and resort:

I'd scoured Chowhound for weeks and uneasily come to accept that fancy restaurants in Arizona are often associated with spas and resorts, and this place was independently recommended by a Tucsonian colleague of Mr. Chalmers, so we went ahead. We had an appetizer of a cold roasted poblano stuffed with hamachi seviche (with croutons, which were unexpected in a ceviche but delightful) and sitting in a pool of chilled cucumber-mint broth. It was good, and tangy with lime. I had a seared salmon with corn quinoa, "Peruvian" potatoes in some sort of creamy sauce, roasted beets, and fried yucca chips spiced with canela. It was a good, if complicated, plate of stuff. Mr. Chalmers had the carne asada. I think it was less good. Boy, I should be a reviewer. Oh, and the margarita (rocks, with salt) was top notch.

We stopped at a couple grocery stores after dinner. I like walking slowly through supermarkets in new cities and seeing ways they're different from the ones I'm used to. For example, probably not surprisingly, the big Tucson Safeway in the rich part of town featured an enormous section devoted to kosher foods. Here's but a small part of it:

Mr. Chalmers got us a slice of carrot cake to eat in the car for dessert, and it was sweet and thus awesome. We stopped at a Trader Joe's that night—my first Trader Joe's, if you can believe that. Nothing too special, but it seemed well priced, a place to pick up staples like dried pasta, dried fruit, coffee, yogurt, maybe cheese. I got some funny pasta and some dried lychees for the bug, some dark chocolate for me (not knowing that there was a big box of fun spicy Cowgirl Chocolates, a gift from my uncle and his wife, waiting for us at home).

Up early one morning (we were still on toddler-parent EST, even though the funky and ambitious Hotel Congress, where we stayed, was on hipster-cat's-eye-glasses-wearing roots-rock-listening twenty-something time), we took a short and somewhat confused hike in the Saguaro National Park:

. . . then hit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We wished more than ever that the bug was with us, and vowed to return with her in three years.

We both had chilaquiles for the first time, at Teresa's Mosaic Café in Tucson. They're on the left in this picture:

Mr. Chalmers said it was the best thing he ate on our trip. Fried corn tortillas layered with a rich, long-cooked tomato sauce and melted cheese, it sounds so simple, but I'm sure it's one of those foods that's easier to screw up than to get just right. The tortillas were somehow crisp and tender and soft at the same time. I was equally impressed by the black beans, which made good use of epazote (possibly fresh), and were the ideal consistency: creamy beans that nonetheless hold their shape, with a not-too-thick, not-too-thin liquid around them.

After a walk through the Barrio Historico, we couldn't not stop at a warehouse-sized building advertising "vegetable donuts." From the display cases shoved into one corner of the vast and otherwise empty space, I picked out a plain cinnamon-sugar cake donut and a mango empanada, both excellent. The empanada crust was sweet and extremely tender and crumbly, the filling just tart enough to offset it. The donut was crisp on the outside and light on the inside.

Our second fancy meal was our last dinner in Tucson. We walked to Cafe Poca Cosa from the hotel, and ate on the (unlovely) patio, which completely filled up soon after we arrived (make reservations, is the lesson). The menu apparently changes twice a day, and was presented on a chalkboard accompanied by a waitress explaining all sorts of rules about what you get and how you get it. We each ordered the chef's plate: three small portions of main dishes of the chef's choosing (with the promise that each of our selections would be different), with a pile of salad on top and a bowl of pink beans and one of rice with corn on the side. It was all pretty good. The small portions were large. I was celebrating having snagged a big recipe-testing job via email and cell phone that evening, and had two glasses of red sangria that I liked a lot. The chef herself stopped by all the tables to ask sweetly how things were going—and incidentally the chef at J Bar was also omnipresent on the patio: Is this a western thing?

I'm leaving out quite a bit, I'm sure, but right now I'm all blogged the heck out. We were happy to come home to our little sweetheart, who we're told was a perfect angel the entire time. I reintroduced the old T-shirts into her lineup.


1 comment:

heidi said...

Thank you for this travelogue. It sounds like a swell time!

I'm going to make my husband read it. In his field, there are many more jobs out that way. Other than the heat, the SW has a lot of great things to offer, doesn't it? It is so very different from the upper midwest, in really fascinating and wonderful ways, I think.

I tried to move in that direction after graduate school, but the closest I got was two years in Wichita, Kansas. Not recommended.