From New Mexico

NM 2014-08-16-2700

“Old Main” Prison Tours in New Mexico

Tip of the hat to the woman I overheard talking on her mobile in the DFW airport this summer:

“And we were, like, going to go on this rilly cool tour of the prison outside Santa Fe? But it was, like, totally sold out?”

After I got over the cognitive dissonance (prisons? tours? upspeak?), I quickly googled and found…yes, the New Mexico Corrections Department runs tours of the “Old Main” prison facility outside Santa Fe. (Go check out that link now: There are two more tour dates this season.)

Which was still a little hard for me to grasp, actually, because that prison, which is no longer in use, was the site of one of the country’s worst prison riots, in 1980. Thirty-three people were killed, many in really grisly ways, and the whole facility was taken over by the prisoners for a while.

I was seven years old then; we lived about 45 minutes down the road. I happened to overhear the grownups talking about what went down, and happened to see photos (a family friend, unfortunately for her, was a paralegal with the state attorney general’s office and had to deal with all the materials). Let’s just say I learned a bit about man’s inhumanity to man, with a blowtorch, at an early age.

So…now it’s a tourist attraction? I was confused, but I booked tickets for Peter and me later in the summer.

Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.
Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.

It was a really good tour. Other sites of trauma and tragedy should be so lucky to have their stories told so well.

A lot may have hinged on our particular guide, a retired guard who started work in the facility in 1981, not too long after the riots.

Our guide in action.
Our guide in action.

His experience kept the tour from seeming morbid or voyeuristic.

The tour itself was done in interesting way, telling the hour-by-hour story of how the riot began and developed. You couldn’t really make up a worse set of unfortunate factors and bad management: recently installed but untested “bulletproof” glass; an unsecured construction site in one cell block (that’s where the blowtorches came from); prison policy that dressed “vulnerable” prisoners (pedophiles, snitches, etc) in different-color jumpsuits, and so on.

Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.
Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.

Woven in were details about how the corrections department learned and changed following the incident.

These details included not just practical things, such as the more secure way they store cell-block keys now, but also “softer” stuff, all the various programs for prisoners and the like.

One goal of these tours, I realized at the end, was perhaps to explain to people why treating prisoners well is a far better idea than treating them poorly. Even my mother, who is a pretty liberal lady, said when we were talking about the tour later, “Well, prison should be terrible.”

Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.
Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.

Actually, no, these tours seem to be saying. If prison is terrible, it makes people do terrible things–and then these brutal people will get out of prison and live right next door to you!

So, yes, please, teach the gang leaders how to decorate cakes that they can give to their kids when they visit. Yes, please, have prisoners grow vegetables and run a printing press and sew boxer shorts for the other inmates.

It seems to be working. The woman who spoke to us at the end of the tour said recidivism in New Mexico is only 48 percent–which sounds not so great, but the national rate is more like 75 percent.

The view out.
The view out.

So, here’s to being soft on crime, or at least on criminals. Thanks, NMCD–I certainly never thought I’d be inside that building and hear the full story I did.

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Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

The 2013 Highlights Reel

The last few years, I’ve really enjoyed doing the end-of-year wrap-up. This year…it’s a tiny bit of a strain.

That’s not because 2013 sucked. It’s because I stayed home a lot, with my butt in a chair, staring at a computer screen. (See previous post.) The “writer” part of “travel writer” was the main thing going this year.

To that end, Highlight #1: I finished my $%#$#$%#$–I mean, fabulously stupendous and thrilling!–book draft. It was a little anticlimactic. One imagines triumphantly running laps to cheering crowds. Instead, one presses ‘send,’ then turns to all the other crap that has piled up in months of neglect.

(Does this mean you will very soon see my book on store shelves? No. Getting a book into book form takes a good long time. Anticipated publication date is February 2015. Please keep your breath bated till then!)

I wasn’t in NYC for the entire year. I went to New Mexico several times, which yielded some great moments. Highlight #2 was doing one of my dream stories, eating my way around Silver City, New Mexico. Thanks to the New York Times travel section for publishing the results! The story was, for a thrilling moment, the seventh-most-emailed on the NYT site, and someone hated on me on Twitter for it! You know you’re coming up in the world when you’ve got a Twitter hater…

On my second trip to New Mexico (why so many? Because Jet Blue started direct flights to Albuquerque!), I camped out at my mom’s for a while and wrote, and then, Highlight #3, Peter and I spent a few days at Los Poblanos. This may very well be my most favorite hotel in the world, and believe me, I never thought I’d be saying that about anything in my hometown. They have the cutest damn goats. And a lovely restaurant. This is the first time in my life I’ve done what felt like a grownup resort vacation. Paid real money. Lolled around the pool. Drank wine with our friends. Visited the goats. I wouldn’t want to do it alllll the time, but I can see the appeal, when it’s somewhere with taste as good as Los P’s.

Then, Highlight #4, Peter and I traveled overland and car-less from Albuquerque to Vegas to California. Why? Just to see if we could. We took Amtrak to Williams, AZ, then took the tourist train to the Grand Canyon. At the Grand Canyon, we hopped on the return flight of a scenic-tour plane to Las Vegas. We were the only people on there with luggage, and top in my little file of smug travel moments now is the one where the pilot was like, “What? You flew one-way? You don’t have a car?” and gave us a thumbs-up. That made up for walking around Vegas in record-high temps. Then we flew to SFO (sorry, no snazzy workaround there), attended a wedding by bus due to the BART strike, and finally, took Amtrak to Los Angeles, on the fab Coast Starlight. The whole thing cost marginally less than if we’d rented a car, so that’s also in my file of smug travel moments. On the other hand, it costs a damn arm and a leg to travel in the U.S.! Now I know for sure that our trips to Thailand are in fact cheaper, including airfare.

Highlight #5 came on my third trip home (yup, on JetBlue), when I went waaaay down to the far southwest corner of New Mexico. That’s all in a post here. NM is my mainstay guidebook title (new edition from Moon coming in the spring!), and it’s great that there are still spots I haven’t seen. And they’re so damn beautiful.

After the last NM trip, I buckled down at home. Strangely, that was Highlight #6, writing–a very distinct thing from Highlight #1, which was finishing. In fact, the actual writing should be Highlight #1, and being done with writing (for now) should go farther down the list. After I managed to get myself focused and settled down, I really did enjoy spending a good six or seven hours every day messing around with words.

And my industrious fake-office-job schedule meant I had the evenings free, so I managed to do Highlight #7, painting my living room. My friend Amy picked the color, and it is beyond fabulous.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you're curious.
Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you’re curious.

(I also finally finished painting the dining room–astute readers of this blog may remember the Bollywood dining room as a highlight of, er, 2009.)

Oh, and Highlight #7.5, because this isn’t a design blog, but we got a new dining room table and chairs. The chairs I bought in Raton, New Mexico, and shipped home and still paid less than anything here in NYC. More and more, my guidebook jobs turn into shopping trips.

That’s about it for 2013. Today, as this posts, I will be on the way to Rwanda, followed by a few days in Ethiopia. Switching gears entirely.

Happy new year, and best wishes for all new destinations and ever-more-comfortable home bases!

New Mexico: Vintage Motels

You know I have a thing for old hotels. Not just olde historicky hotels, but what I call vintage hotels.

One of the “rules” I have about vintage hotels is that they can’t be renovated to be old-timey–they just have to be that way. But after this last trip around New Mexico, where I spied some exceptionally good old motels, I think I have to lighten up a little bit. The people who are working hard to preserve them–which also involves some renovation, because they’re so far gone–deserve some credit.

Tucumcari, on the east edge of the state, is a great little outdoor Route 66 museum, starting with the Blue Swallow Motel. It may be the oldest surviving motel on Route 66 in New Mexico, and the owners make sure it feels like 1939, right down to the old black phones. Previously, this place was owned by an electrical engineer who fixed up the neon, and before that, it was owned by the same woman for something like forty years.

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Just across the road is the Motel Safari, from a slightly later era, also very nicely re-old-vated.

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I especially like how the old sign has been redone to mention Internet and flat-panel TV.

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And down the road is the Historic Route 66 Motel, which to be honest, I was only able to peek out through cracks in the drapes, because no one was in the office, but I dig the floor-to-ceiling windows.

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And just to give you an idea what the alternative is, let’s take a look at some of the motels in Tucumcari that haven’t been treated so kindly. Restrain your sobs, if you can.

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That last one might be the worst, just because it was aiming so high. The Taj!

Raton, up on the northern edge of the state, is also a hot spot for great old motels. (What is it about border towns?)

First, of course, there’s the Melody Lane.

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I wrote about the Melody Lane before, but the gist is: steam saunas in the bathrooms!!!!! Dreamy.

Less dreamy: the iron-fisted owner (required of a good vintage hotel; and actually, she was very nice, just intense about cleaning) retired, and sold the place to a new crew. No idea if they will keep the place up, but I am suspicious because their eyes did not light up when I asked about the saunas. They more like frowned, at the thought of how much maintenance they will require, and how many annoying people will roll up asking about them. On this visit, I left the place heartsick with worry.

But then! Just down the road, on the south side of Raton…is the delightful Robin Hood Motel.

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It’s lovely and lemon-yellow, and has lovely flowers planted everywhere and a teeny-weeny pool and a woman who’s run the place for ages.

And then and then, even farther down the road, is this place.

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I almost didn’t stop. I was pretty done with Raton by then. But something made me turn around and drive in. Here was the office:

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Look at that paint job. Look at how orderly those little cactus pots are! Good signs.

I rang the bell, but no answered. I walked around the corner.

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Aaaagh! I might have done a little dance right there in the empty parking lot, to release the overwhelming cute-oldness that was squeezing my heart. But it didn’t work, because then I turned around and saw these screen doors!

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(Please note how the *hose* is even color-coordinated!!!)

I felt a little like I was in a fairy tale when I went over and peeked at the screen doors. The inside doors were open! To let in the fresh breezes! I could see right into the rooms, and the beds were covered in powder-blue chenille spreads. And I’m practically crying while I write this. Everything was so intensely perfect, and not museum-like or kitschy-retro. I felt like if I’d opened up one of those doors, and walked in, I might never have gotten out of 1958.

But no one was around. I scuffed back to my car, got in, and drove away. But! Just as I was turning onto the highway, I saw a truck pull into the driveway of the motel, so I made a loop-de-loop back.

“Are you the owner?” I asked the guy in the truck breathlessly. He was old and weather-beaten and wore overalls.

“Yes, it’s my place.” He spoke just enough to let on that he had a German accent. What? Who comes from Germany to run an ancient motel? There was so much I wanted to ask him, but I just got the prices and went on my way. Kicking myself now. Planning my return trip soon, to sleep under one of those blue chenille bedspreads.

Thank you, Maverick Motel owner. You made my trip.