Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dazed and Amused in Austin, Texas – Part I

I knew this could be a problem. Less than 12 hours after returning from my heart-thumping rendezvous with Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I departed for a first date with Austin, Texas. The pitfall of such brazen promiscuity? I’d gotten so besotted with New Mexico that I forgot to do any research or planning for Austin. I scooped up a few articles I’d printed out ages ago and scrambled to make my flight.

Now, as many of you know, this is highly out of character for this congenital planner. (I didn’t earn the nickname “Planny McPlannerson” for nothing.) Arriving in a place I’ve never visited without a guidebook, map or at least a heavily-researched list of ideas is frankly unprecedented. I was winging it, and I felt out of sorts. I also felt somewhat unburdened. I couldn’t be responsible for the success or failure if I didn’t plan it, I rationalized.

To be fair, I have gone on spontaneous adventures orchestrated by non-planner, Type B friends and significant others. And I enjoyed how they pulled me out of my comfort zone. But in those instances, I just followed their lead. This time I was meeting a college friend who rivaled me in the planning department. Shockingly, though, she confessed she hadn’t had time to look into Austin either. Gulp!

So here we were – two Type A control freaks in a rental car without even a decent map to pee on. For a panicky moment, I didn’t even think we had the address and directions for our B&B, though it turned out we did. The sensible thing would have been to rent a GPS with our car, but we gamely headed out with our crappy Avis map. Not surprisingly, we were soon muttering “This can’t be it!” and calling the B&B to find out where we’d gone wrong.

Fortunately, once we found the historic Woodburn House (built 1909), located in the venerable Hyde Park neighborhood, we realized we at least had a soothing resting place. With its double porches and yard full of pecan trees, things were looking up. Plus, our lovely room (a steal at $125/night including breakfast) was remarkably plush and period-appropriate without any of the bright floral prints or doilies you might expect. Instead, we got soft robes and plenty of surface space, a real luxury when you have toiletries for two women.

Yes, we were here, in a grand mansion surrounded by tiny Craftsman bungalows, but now what? Being in Texas, eating some BBQ seemed like a good first move. So we pulled out the laptop and headed to the upstairs porch to do some Googling. The air was warm and humid (an odd sensation having just come from arid New Mexico), and the reviews were equally confusing, pointing us to joints outside of town (e.g. The Salt Lick) for “the best BBQ in Austin.” With our paltry map, and the growing darkness, we balked at driving that far.

Eventually we gave up and decided to drive towards downtown. We were winging it, after all. We were soon rewarded for our intrepidness with Ironworks Barbecue, located in a former ironsmith’s shop south of the rowdy Red River District. (According to their website, they’re ranked #1 in Texas, but isn’t it funny how every BBQ place is rated “top” by someone?) We ordered the $12.95 sampler platter, which came with sliced beef, one rib, sausage, beans, potato salad, pickles…and a slice of white bread. Yep, soft, enriched sandwich bread like you’d buy at the grocery.

I was puzzled…and a little turned off. It wasn’t until I learned that the slice of bread was a deep South tradition – meant to sop up all the good stuff – that it made sense. But I still think it’s weird. Nonetheless, I managed to scarf up most of my ginormous platter (ignoring the bread) and still find room for the banana pudding. Sitting with our cafeteria plates on the screened porch, I was satiated - and staring to get a sense of Austin’s casual scruffiness.

Later, we motored through the downtown club area, where pounding hip hop beats spilled out followed by packs of kids who seemed very young. This is a mild concern when I think of living in a big college town (Austin is home to the University of Texas, with 48,000+ students) – namely, feeling old and saying things like, “This place is way too loud.” So not surprisingly, we instead chose a tranquil gelato bar where we could hear each other and catch up.

Normally, I wouldn’t question whether this was lame, but in a good-timer place like Austin, you feel a little ashamed. Tomorrow we’ll do better, we agreed. We just needed to find the part of town that was our speed.

Read on for Part II!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Desperately Seeking Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’ve been eager to return to Santa Fe since I started this blog in June 2008. My quest at the time was to find my geographic soul mate, and Santa Fe loomed as potentially “the one.” I’d last visited on a post-college road trip, and of all the places we stopped, it stood out as the city with the most unusual, peaceful lifestyle. And truly, there is nowhere like Santa Fe, which is why it’s ranked the second best place to live in America by Sperling’s Best Places as well the number four destination in the US by Conde Nast Traveler readers.

Since the start of the blog, however, a lot of things have happened. I’ve gone on dates with long-standing crushes (e.g. Charleston, South Carolina), old flames (e.g. New York, New York), and new, unexpectedly beguiling suitors (e.g. Los Alamos, California; Apalachicola, Florida.) I’ve thought a lot about the right size city, as well as other criteria like home prices, culture and airport proximity. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve questioned whether I should be looking to hunker down in one place for the rest of my years. After all, is that really a fit with my intractable wanderlust?

The result is that I’ve dispatched the notion of a “long-term match” in favor of “my next great affair.” My new vision is that I still have several more places to live in me, and I should be looking for a place to spend the next five or so years with. This has been a fundamental shift in thinking, as I don’t have to reconcile things like: could I live in an arid desert forever? Or, will I ever return to the East Coast? Or, what about my dream of living abroad at some point? Now, I’m looking for the stepping stone that will help me relieve my ticking “real estate clock" and grow as a person.

So how did Santa Fe sync up when I finally visited in March? Beautifully, in all ways but one: price. Despite New Mexico’s generally low cost of living (it’s the 27th cheapest state in the US), Santa Fe is not a bargain. It’s the most expensive county in New Mexico, and thanks to its far-reaching reputation and million-plus tourists per year, it attracts wealthy retirees, transplants and second home owners who help keep the housing prices elevated. Case in point: while the average home price in Santa Fe County is down from 2008, it’s still averaging $440,000 thus far in 2009. As a true luxury destination, it’s also not unusual to see $1,000/night hotel rates and $35 dinner entrees catering to the elite visitors seeking refuge here.

Beyond this $$$ revelation, Albuquerque emerged as an affordable, livable city (area population 845,913) not to be overlooked, and I saw that the areas along the Turquoise Trail in between the two offered nature, space and privacy, the latter being something that had recently jumped in importance after one too many days working from home to the sounds of construction, car alarms and hyperactive yip dogs. If it was within reach to have more room, more acreage and more serenity for as low as $115/square foot, and be within easy driving distance of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque (including the airport), wouldn’t that be the best of all worlds? The answer: YES.

So you could say my crush on Santa Fe has not be extinguished - it’s only broadened to include the surrounding area, which encompasses desert, forest and mountains. The great joy of a state with only 1.9 million people (making it the sixth most sparsely populated state in the US) is that getting from place to place does not involve any of the pain, frustration and incivility that driving 30 minutes or an hour within LA can invoke. It’s frankly therapeutic for this Angeleno to be able to drive 75 miles per hour without stopping. The difference is that you actually do cover 75 miles in each hour you drive, versus spending 20 minutes stuck in traffic only to move half a mile.

Thus, the conclusion of my trip was that I don’t have to live IN Santa Fe to enjoy it. I just need to be nearby. That way, I can still grab an organic/fair trade coffee at the uber-funky Aztec Café (pictured above), an amazing Ayurvedic stir fry at yoga-centric Annapurna (when you sneeze, they say “Blessings”) or some down-home BBQ and brew at the Cowgirl Bar & Grill. Or I can head to the historic Pink Adobe restaurant’s Dragon Room lounge whenever I'm craving the Rosalita, the best margarita I’ve had in years, which is made with cranberry and gran gala, a triple orange Italian liqueur.

Maybe I’ll even rent a hot tub at the Zen mountain retreat Ten Thousand Waves. Because the relaxing drive just might wear me out.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Big, Dysfunctional Family in Madrid, New Mexico

Highway 14 (aka Turquoise Trail) is the scenic highway connecting Albuquerque and Santa Fe. You could say this is the route for non-commuters, lollygaggers, dreamers and, on the weekends in high season, tourists. Anyone who’s in a hurry takes Interstate 25 (75 mph), but blissfully, we were not.

Starting in Albuquerque to the south, you begin at the base of the Sandia Mountains, which tower over Albuquerque. (See some amazing photos here.) There is literally no spot that doesn’t have a view of them. You then unsuspectingly climb much higher in route to Santa Fe (7,000-feet high,), which is a fact is of no small significance. Though these cities are less than an hour apart, there is a ten-degree temperature difference due to the altitude. If it’s 70 degrees in Albuquerque, expect it to be 60 in Santa Fe.

The snowy shot above is me at Sandia Peak (at 10, 768 feet, the highest point in the range). You reach this point by car from the east (as we did), or by the world's longest aerial tramway from the west. At the top, altitude stupidity set in for us, producing some very silly photo-taking, as well as an impulse buy of a green turquoise ring at the gift shop. (For the record, I still love it.)

And yes, I said altitude stupidity, not altitude sickness. Although I did experience a few moments of dizziness and dehydration the first few days, what I experienced more intensely was feeling dumb as a rock. For example, I “lost” my cell phone, only to find it in my hand. Twice. Rather embarrassing stuff like that. So when people talk about the effects of altitude here (such as actor Seth Rogen, who said that his difficulty breathing while filming in New Mexico is the reason he had to lose weight), they really need to include a warning about this one!

As you get further from Albuquerque on Highway 14, the terrain changes from evergreen mountains fed by snow to high desert. Then suddenly you find yourself in Madrid, a town so kooky that it makes Santa Fe seem almost staid. The first clue? It’s pronounced “MAD-rid, not “Ma-drid.” The second? It’s almost entirely populated by artists, some 300+ of them. (A fact often quoted is that it has more artists per capita than anywhere else in the US.) “We’re a big, dysfunctional family,” one of them told us cheerfully.

A former mining town deep in a gulch, Madrid is like a Wild West outpost, freethinker’s refuge, art gallery and little bohemia all rolled into one. Every old house facing the road has been converted into a gallery or store selling art, sculpture, snacks and more. In many cases, the wares are out front, and the artist lives in back. Everyone know everyone, and with no more building permits available (due to a lack of water), the town has been saved from modern development.

Despite the tiny population, you can get a drink at the Mine Shaft Tavern, a coffee at Java Junction (also a hat shop and B&B) and a gourmet meal at The Hollar. You can buy all manner of art. You can even buy rent movies at the general store (pictured below). But more importantly, you can interact with lots of spirited artists. Some are incredibly friendly, others are wary of newcomers (one artist told us it took him five years to “get into the club”) and many are full of love/hate for the tourists who fuel the town. But it’s safe to say that not a single one of them seems to want to leave.

The same could not be said for the "ghost town" of Cerillos, just three miles north. From the looks of it, everyone has left. But it turns out that’s not really true, and those who do live here enjoy the façade of a deserted place. That way, no one bothers them. It’s spooky driving through a seemingly abandoned town that you know has people in it. (Mary's Bar, pictured below, is still operating, believe it or not, with 91-year-old Mary Mora behind the counter). There are walled compounds that contain hints of life, but not for your prying eyes to see. Compared to colorful, commercial Madrid, Cerrillos is the place to truly hide – not just from people, but from the present day.

Back on Highway 14, it isn’t long before we reach Santa Fe and are assaulted by the unimaginative, copycat nature of the modern world. (That is to say, the southernmost parts of Santa Fe developed in recent decades.). Strip malls. Starbucks. Or our Holiday Inn Express, built self-consciously to look “rustic” and “Southwestern.” Yes, it was perfectly comfortable and not unattractive, but who are they fooling?

Fortunately, downtown Santa Fe remains one of the most distinctive places in the world, with its twinkling artistry and singular architecture. It’s a bright spot in the sea of sameness, with Madrid as its most defiant satellite. But is it still my top geographical crush?

Stay tuned for the answer to that as well as a full report on Austin, Texas. (Sorry that I'm so behind!)