A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.
The first week of October, we took a long-awaited trip back to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Albuquerque is about 280 miles due north, or four and a half hours away, and it was a first visit for both of us. From the first time I saw a postcard of hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque stuck to my nana’s refrigerator as a child, I was mesmerized. Fortunately, after weather foiled several attempts to balloon in New Zealand in 2006, I got to experience hot air ballooning with V during our diplomatic assignment to Australia in 2018 – in Canberra where we lived and over New South Wales’ Hunter Valley as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.
In Albuquerque we opted not to fly this time, due to cost and the inability to socially distance from other people in a hot air balloon basket. Instead we watched the 49th annual dawn Mass Ascension spectacle from the ground as more than 600 hot air balloons launched from a 78 acre field. This also gave me a better chance to see and photograph the balloons instead of being absorbed with our experience and logistics. While in town, we also visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, stumbled into a fall festival at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, and went hiking at two of the three Petroglyph National Monument sites – Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyon.
In early September, less than two days after I returned from a nearly 3,000 mile solo road trip to California, I turned around and went on another road trip; this time with V, and much closer to the borderland, three hours away to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
We wanted to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend by visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In a three-day flurry of outdoor pandemic-safer activity, we also visited Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, and the Pecos River Flume and Heritage Park. The latter is featured on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” as being “The World’s Only River that Crosses Itself,” and not even a sudden and hellacious storm thwarted our exploration of it.
One of my favorite things about serving on the U.S.-Mexico border has doubtless been the proximity to places in my home country I have wanted to visit. My experience traveling in the American southwest has been so limited there will be no way to check everything off the list this tour, but getting out to Carlsbad Caverns was something I really wanted to do.
If the first two days of my August road trip north and west carried a “fury road” theme as I mad maxed it across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, putting 1,279 miles between me and Ciudad Juárez in less than 37 hours, the following two weeks held a sweeter and more nostalgic appeal. From the pine tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California to the beaches of San Diego, my first trip to my home state in just over two years was a time to slow down and do as little as I wanted. More importantly, I got a chance to spend a little time with some of the people who I love the most and who I hadn’t seen in far too long.
Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.
Back in early May, my husband V flew to North Carolina to see his eldest daughter A graduate from college. Being less than seven weeks beyond major spinal surgery where healing of my bone fusion was critical, I was sadly unable to navigate a trip like that to attend. Each member of her graduating class only had a couple of tickets to share with friends and family, anyway, and she was unable to invite to the ceremony many people I’m sure she would have loved to share that important life milestone with. I attended virtually from Mexico, cheering from a hard-backed chair.
For me in early May, I was moving fairly slowly, had some difficulty getting up and down, and was not permitted to lift more than five lbs. I had been back at work since mid-April and in physical therapy since the end of April though, and the mental and physical haze of weeks of bed rest and the shock of the operation were beginning to lift. After spending a long work week in the office and coming home to an empty house night after night, I was ready to be somewhere else. I decided to take a Mother’s Day trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico; at about an hour and 40 minutes away from Ciudad Juárez, Las Cruces promised fresh air and a chance to change the scene while making some use of my new and fragile body. In other words, to feel like me again.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
In the last 10 days, tremendous progress has been made towards our move to Mexico, which froze in time when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown started in March. First, U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez transitioned from phase zero to phase one in what the Department calls the “Diplomacy Strong” framework, harking a continuous three-week decline in COVID-19 cases in Juárez and green-lighting moves for incoming officers. Second, we sought and received a packout date for later this month, freeing us to divide our possessions between air freight and car carry (since we are driving), and things we will finish, donate, or leave behind. These two key steps have unlocked all the tasks that we couldn’t do when we had no idea when we were leaving – post office change of address, purchasing a second car, planning our driving route and making reservations, and more.
Perhaps “isolation” is no longer the best way to characterize the way we are living, but in some regards it still feels very true. We continue to have the tedium of sanitizing all of our groceries and mail, wearing a mask when we go out, and trying to avoid touching any surfaces unnecessarily. But we have now made an effort to go outside more, venturing a 40 minute drive away for a hike at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. Wearing masks on the busy trail and later picking up takeout instead of going to our favorite local Mexican restaurant both highlighted the oddity of the times and made us grateful that things are starting to feel different. We also recently learned the gym in our building may reopen soon, with social distancing and mask requirements.
Today marks the 87th day of staying mostly home, teleworking, not seeing friends in person, and adjusting just about every aspect of our lives to avoid getting sick from the coronavirus. Although it’s good to self-isolate to protect ourselves, it can be really lonely.
During the first part of week 15 in Spanish (and the second week of my language immersion in Ecuador), I continued enjoying the great outdoors while generally getting my butt kicked by high altitude, thin air, humidity, inflammation and old injuries, and stairs. I had the last laugh though, because I practiced my Spanish, saw new and cool things, and made it through each challenge without quitting.
During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.
[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
Last weekend was a three-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday, and it was also my birthday. Long weekends for me usually mean a chance to bug out of town, especially when I can’t take any time off. So now that our car has been repaired and I trust it more than 15 miles in any direction, we decided to spend the weekend in Berkeley Springs. Berkeley Springs is a little town in West Virginia about two hours from DC, and it was a great break from the city and our daily grind.
During our time there, we went to the Apple Butter Festival, hiked in the forest, visited an 1830s-era canal tunnel, and tried out the local food scene as I marked the beginning of a new year.
During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.
[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]
Part of the reason I wanted to ride the Ghan train across Australia was to make a stop at Uluṟu (oo-luh-ROO) – the infamous red sandstone rock in the middle of the Australian Outback. Formerly known as Ayers Rock, to call it a “rock” is a bit of a misnomer; at just over half a billion years old and 348 meters or 1,142 feet tall, Uluṟu is visible from space. If you’ve ever seen a postcard or image of Australia, chances are it featured Uluṟu. I visited it previously in 2006 when my dad and stepmom came to visit, and it was one of the highlights of my euphoric grad school year in Australia.
Part of our touring package was a round-trip bus journey from Alice Springs for an overnight at Uluṟu, about 450 km (280 miles) each way, along with multiple activities and accommodation in the premier hotel on the resort grounds, Sails in the Desert. In retrospect, I wish I had questioned the distance a little more and arranged to stay at Uluṟu longer, but in order to reboard the Ghan in Alice Springs, we needed to either stay a night or wait until the following week to catch it north. And thus, a Hail Mary trip to Uluṟu it was.
For more than a year, I have been dreaming about a train trip across Australia on the Ghan. Now in its 90th year of service, the Ghan is a passenger train that traverses the “red centre” of Australia from south to north. Operated by Great Southern Rail, the 54-hour ride starts in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and ends in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, you could be forgiven for not realizing that covers an astonishing nearly 3,000 km (1,880 miles), plus whatever stopovers and forays into the Outback you do along the way.
This isn’t a trip you do on the fly. Most people who do it are retired – Australians call them “grey nomads” – and have been thinking about it for a lifetime. Several months ago I finally bought the tickets as a special gift to my husband, and in mid-June we took this inspiring 12-day journey. Now that we have safely returned home and entered our last month at Post, I cannot imagine a more profound way for us to have begun our goodbyes to Australia than riding the Ghan.