Wednesday, June 8, 2016

on the road: new mexico camping and arizona rafting

I recently returned home from another month long cross-country road trip. This one was amazing!

Every year since graduating high school, I've taken a road trip of at least 1,000 miles somewhere, most of them alone. Being out on the road with the radio, my tent and miles of unknown ahead is just something I enjoy a lot and I don't know exactly why. It's become an integral part of my work -- I travel, take photos, bring them home and make them into art -- but it's also my happy place, and where I feel very alive and challenged.

Just like last year, this spring I had a convenient break between commissioned paintings and summer shows and, as always, felt an aching pull towards long open roads and new adventures. Mike is still finishing up grad school, so on the first day of April I packed up our Toyota 4Runner with my camping gear and art supplies and headed out to spend a month on the road alone.

During last year's 5-week road trip, I fell in love with the Southwest but didn't get to spend much time exploring it. This year, I loosely planned to spend 3-5 weeks entirely in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, with a few specific destinations but mostly just leaving my itinerary up to chance and fate. I wanted to do more hiking and explore more small towns, and generally feel a little less rushed from one place to the next. The first two days were the exhausting but necessary long-haul drives due west from Boston to Indiana and then southwest Indiana to Oklahoma, punctuated by fast-moving thunderstorms, gas station coffees and a few stunning roadside camping sunrises. I pitched a tent one night and slept on top of my car's roof the next.

Every time I have the fortune to experience a hazy Oklahoma sunset or frost on a Kansas field, I'm reminded there is no such thing as a "fly-over state"; the oft-unappreciated landscape of middle America is just as breathtaking and humbling as any coast or mountain state, in it's own timeless, expansive way. After waking up in Oklahoma I headed west through Texas' northern panhandle, where the land is flat, gold and dry; the sky wide, deep and blue; the highway sprinkled with exits leading to bright red dirt roads and Route 66 ghost towns. Here are there, sprawling wind farms with rows of towering turbines suddenly take over the horizon and then end just as abruptly, massive modern technology giving way again to the quiet wind-rustled farmland.

Thanks for the color-coordinated horses, Texas!

It felt like a good idea to head south early on and try to avoid any lingering cold and snow in the Rocky Mountains, and White Sands National Monument seemed like good first camping spot. Heading west, the flat gold ranchland of northern Texas slowly gives way to the rockier, sagebrush-and-cattle guard dotted desert of eastern New Mexico. Turning south, I spent three hours on Route 54, an incredibly remote 2-lane highway that doesn't pass through much other than cattle range and railroad ghost towns nearly all the way to the Mexican border.

White Sands is like another world! A 275 square mile valley of rolling white sand dunes encircled by two mountain ranges, it offers hiking and sand sledding, as well as the opportunity to tent camp (no facilities at all) in the backcountry area of the dunes. There are only six backcountry permits available per night and no reservations -- you have to apply in person the day you want one -- so I was beyond relieved to walk up to the ranger's desk at 5pm and get my hands on the last permit left. I loaded up my backpack with all the gear I'd need for the night (tent, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, warm clothes, camp stove, propane, dehydrated food and wag bags), my camera and 3 liters of water and quickly set out for my campsite.

(This is me, happy to have reached the backcountry camping area before dark!)

The camping area is a short 1.2 mile hike up and down over the dunes, made moderately difficult by the soft, rolling sand, no sun or wind protection and a 40+ lb pack of backcountry gear. I planned for this to be a test run with all my backpacking gear, thinking it was just a mile hike back to my car if I forgot something or need to bail, but the "trail" was just footprints in the sand marked by a few brightly painted sticks and there was definitely no possibility of finding it in the dark.

Six tent sites are spread out between dunes, so once the sun sets and day hikers have left, it feels completely empty. Occasionally I'd see the silhouette or headlamp of one of my camping neighbors on a far-off dune but other than that I felt completely alone in this eerily silent rolling moonscape. 

I get a lot of questions about whether it's safe to travel alone and if I ever feel frightened sleeping in a tent by myself. Backcountry camping in White Sands actually felt more safe than some other places I've camped, because there were no animals or other people (besides the other tent campers) to be nervous about. There was nothing

AND THE NIGHT SKY. I mean, is this for real? It was mostly clear all night, except for a soft haze that lay over the San Andres Mountains and reflected light from (I think) Las Cruces. With no moon, the Milky Way was out in full glory.

As is common in deserts, the temperature dipped from 82 to 34 degrees overnight and I woke up absolutely freezing! The cold also completely drained the battery in my camera and phone, so I only had a few minutes to take photos as the sunrise overtook the rolling sand, highlighting the ripples and footsteps with electric shades of periwinkle, cream and pink. After my camera died, I started some water boiling on my camp stove, made coffee and blueberry granola outside my tent and sat in the slow-warming silence.

After packing up my gear and hiking out, I headed west over the San Andres, through Las Cruces, where I pulled over to take a photo and ran into biker Slyde Mike and his Harley, Byrd. You know those people who you just happen to get into a conversation with on the subway or some other random place and the conversation just flows like you've known them forever? I could have talked to Slyde for hours. Moments like that make me grateful for the random happenstances of life -- right places, right times -- and wonder about the ones we just miss by minutes or seconds.

Passing through Hatch (the green chile capital of the world!) I stopped to ask directions to a gas station and ended up getting a chile-roasting tour and a few jars of free salsa.

How funny is this emergency chili sign?

A few miles from the Mexico border I went through my first ever border patrol checkpoint. Out of nowhere, the road diverted under a massive structure with dozens of cameras and scanners aimed at my car and a bunch of border patrol agents eyeballing my Massachusetts license plate. I confirmed I was a U.S. citizen and passed through unceremoniously.

There are so many random things to appreciate on the road and learn more about. This metal sign outside Silver City advertised some of the century-old brand symbols used by livestock ranches in the area. Branding is a fascinating part of old west history... brands can be ornate, either representative of family heritage or location. They can also be the result of ingenious changes made by cattle rustlers to turn an existing brand on a stolen animal into a new one, such as turning an S into an 8, or a line into a 4, etc. and effectively changing ownership of the animal.

After a lot of desert driving I made it to City of Rocks, a tiny state park in the middle of the southern New Mexico desert made up of 40 million year old rock formations. Each campsite here is tucked tightly into the crevices of these huge 50 foot volcanic stones, accompanied by rabbits, quails, great horned owls and a coyote or three after the sun set. I hiked around the rocks at sunset but didn't stray too far from my tent after dark due to the high number of rattlesnakes there.

My only solid plans were made when I got my hands on a last-minute permit to hike Havasu Canyon in northern Arizona, so I left City of Rocks, meandered around the continental divide trail and crossed into Arizona. I still had three days before my Havasu hike so I stopped in Tucson for some supplies, spent a day camping and hiking at Catalina State Park, then took the advice of two guys at Summit Hut and headed north towards the Mogollon Rim in hopes of finding something cool. Route 60 winds north for hours through dry hills dotted with saguaro cacti, rolling piƱon forests and, very suddenly, opens up to the most spectacular canyon view.

Like most beautiful places, photos don't do the Salt River Canyon any justice. Dramatic red striated cliffs plunge down into a lush green canyon through which the Salt River churns and boils. Immediately after surprising you with this panoramic view from above, the road drops over 2,000 feet in a series of intense switchback turns that bring you all the way down to the canyon floor. 

I saw that long dirt road winding alongside the river and decided to find out where it went. Crossing the bridge brought me into Apache land, where a few hand-painted signs advertised whitewater rafting. A Native American woman selling jewelry on the road pointed out that there was no cell phone service here (or an hour in any direction!) but recommended driving down the cliff-hugging dirt path to talk to the whitewater guides in person. So I did!

By sunset I was setting up my little blue tent in the guide camp. Because the area is so remote, a few dozen guides spend two months living alongside the river in tents, campers and buses during it's short spring rafting season. Despite being the random stranger who just kind of showed up in their camp, everyone were really kind and friendly, and the next morning I was whitewater rafting beneath the towering walls of the Salt River Canyon. My guide Mike put us on a tiny two-person shredder raft, which made the rapids even more exhilarating than being in a larger 10-person boat. 

Several times on the river I kept thinking about how 24 hours before, I was standing on the ridge of the canyon alone wondering where that winding dirt road in the distance led to. No matter how many unexpected adventures I find, I am always amazed and grateful for the kindness of people I've met while traveling alone. After a long day of rafting, I shared dinner with Mike and the guides, then went to bed early so I could get an quick start to my next stop, a 3-day backpack into Havasu Canyon.


  1. Camping in the dunes at White Sands is going on my bucket list! Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Mae, thank you so much for sharing your travel stories. I hope to one day take a similar road trip and in the meantime enjoy living vicariously through your words. My fingers are crossed that at some point you share your list of essential camping gear

  3. Wow! I've been following your art since I saw it in O Magazine years ago. I'd say you're my favorite artist still. I love your wanderlust and images and how you put that all together and this post and these pictures make that even more true. My husband and I live abroad but our next adventure idea is to buy a camper van for our summers home and explore the U.S. and taking a look at these pics is exactly why. There's so much out there to see! Can I ask how you took those beautiful starlit night pics? On a tripod? What setting?

  4. The photos on your blog are absolutely incredible. I'm a first time visitor to your blog - referred by a long-time reader who is in a writing class with me.