Category: Travails of a Guidebook Author

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!

One Crazy Trick for Working Productively at Home

Freelancers! I finally cracked it!

And it’s the most boring thing in the world:

Pretend like you have a real job.

These are the images that come up when you search for "office job." Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase "office job."
These are the images that come up when you search for “office job.” Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase “office job.”

Starting time is 10 a.m. You get a lunch hour–that’s when you do all your fiddly errands, like running to the frame store, or looking at rugs on eBay. (Ignore the unfairness that, in a real office-job situation, people don’t relegate eBay searches to lunch hour.) You knock off around 7 p.m., and spend your evening painting the living room, reading books, whatever.

I KNOW. The whole point of being a freelancer is so you don’t have to do this crap. But…it works. At least it worked for me for the last critical two months of finishing my book draft. (It’s done! It’s done. 150,000 words, give or take. Now: the long wait.)

But, of course, fooling yourself into thinking that your writing is as important as a regular office job, and that you absolutely have to show up for it–well, that requires a whole other bag of tricks. Such as:

1. Clock in with Toggl.
Usually I use Toggl to make sure I’m earning an OK hourly rate on low-paying jobs. For the book, I just used it to make sure my butt was in my chair for at least seven hours every day.

2. Clear your schedule.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.
Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

For a freelancer, saying no to work is the most painful thing in the world. But you’ll have to do it until you get this one thing done. You know how you tell yourself that you work more efficiently when you have a few projects to play off each other? It doesn’t work when one of those projects is massive and genuinely requires all of your time.

3. Be married.
It’s nice to have someone to pay the bills and cook meals, in the background.

4. Don’t be married.
Regular human interaction, such as giving and receiving love, is just too distracting. Also, another human in your space who keeps different hours from you can be too distracting.

5. No, wait, be married.
What am I thinking?! Of course you need love and human support. What would I have done without Peter? Then again, it did help that he went to Australia for ten days. That was when I could really set up a regular work schedule.

6. Embrace electronica.
You need low-key, nonstop music. No lyrics. I like SomaFM: Deep Space One for mornings, Earwaves for afternoons. Def Con Radio occasionally, because the weird motivational samples make me feel like I’m at a different job.

7. Log out of Facebook.
Some people resort to turning off the Internet, but I found that if I just logged out of Facebook, I quelled the urge to visit it all the time, because logging back in was a hassle. All my other time-wasting strategies are relatively harmless (except for those eBay rugs…). If you do need something stronger, Concentrate is a good Chrome plugin.

8. Eat an easy breakfast.
If you are, for instance, waking up hours before your partner (and not because you’re one of those oh-I-can-only-create-in-the-cold-clear-light-of-dawn people, no sir, but only because said partner sleeps till noon) and you want to get right to work with a minimum of fuss, you must dispense with all morning food creativity.

To this end, I have started every day since, oh, October 2012, with two slices of a particular Swedish-ish fruit-nut bread. The indomitable Cristina Topham, aka The Wayward Chef, gave me the recipe, in a slightly more Swedish form.

I cannot praise it enough. It’s like granola, but granola you can spread butter on. It keeps you full until noon, when said partner may awake and fix you lunch.

This is what comes up when you search for "Swedish office job." Everyone talks about Sweden's great social services--but no one mentions the lack of heat.
This is what comes up when you search for “Swedish office job.” Don’t they have heat in Sweden?

Freelancers Breakfast Bread
This bread may actually be the one crazy trick to working productively at home–many thanks again to Cristina Topham.

I buy all the ingredients in bulk and keep the nuts, rye flour and seeds in the freezer, so they don’t go rancid. The original recipe used dried figs and hazelnuts, which is excellent, but hazelnuts are often rancid before you even get them home, so I most often use pecans. Don’t ignore the flax seeds–they have a nice slippery quality. I made it without them once, and it was meh.

For a denser, more sour bread, you can shift the flour more toward 2:1 rye:AP. If you use a kitchen scale and go by weight, it’s easy to tinker with this proportion. In fact, a scale is much easier all around, as it leaves you only the bowl and liquid measuring cup to wash.

And note the long bake time: You must make this on one of your free evenings, not in the morning.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together in a big bowl:
1 1/4 cups (195g) rye flour
1 1/2 cups (195g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (150g) rolled oats (regular, not quick-cooking) OR quick-cooking steel-cut oats (these make a fluffier bread, but they must be the quick variety!)
1/4 cup (35g) flax seeds
1/4 cup (35g) pumpkin or sunflower seeds
1/2 cup (70g) nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts; first two, break up by hand, no need to chop)
1 cup (150g) dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, apricots, figs; for latter two, better to chop roughly or cut with scissors)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a measuring cup, combine:
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in; or yogurt thinned with milk)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup molasses

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir. Every time I make this, it’s a different consistency, but it tends toward super-thick, like glue. Don’t make yourself crazy stirring in the flour–if there are a couple of dry spots, it won’t matter too much.

I bake this in two smaller loaf pans, so I can freeze one; you could also use one large one. Either way, butter it or line it with parchment paper. Squash the batter into your loaf pans and smooth the top with a wet knife (that’s the Cristina Topham pro-tip right there).

Bake on the bottom rack for between 1 hour (two small pans) and 1 hour 20 minutes (one large pan). Let cool on a wire rack. Slice thin and eat with lots of butter and pinch of crunchy sea salt, plus very milky coffee, which, Cristina tells me, is the Swedish way.

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.


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


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

newmexico 085

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.

newmexico 077

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.

newmexico 079

newmexico 075

newmexico 050

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.


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.


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.

newmexico 168

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:


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.

newmexico 171

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!

newmexico 167

(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.

New Mexico: The Southeast

This trip, I made a beeline for the southeast quadrant of New Mexico, just to get it out of the way. Historically, let’s just say I haven’t been bursting with enthusiasm for this part of the state. There are tremendous natural attractions out here–Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands–but a whole lotta nothin’ in between, and if you go too far east, it’s like you’re in Texas, in a bad way (i.e., it smells like cows and oil).

BUT, lo and behold, it turns out that if one goes to the southeast first, when one is full of pep and vigor, and one’s eyes haven’t yet been dulled by hundreds (nay, thousands) of miles of scenery whizzing by at 70 miles an hour, then the southeast has a lot to like.

First up, Tucumcari. Which is barely southeast. It’s on I-40, not far from Texas, and the billboards all say “Tucumcari TONITE!” It’s one long strip of old motels, and honestly, I had never stayed the night there before. This time I settled in at the Blue Swallow Motel (more on this later), and chilled the heck out.

At the Blue Swallow
At the Blue Swallow

It was the golden hour, so all the ruination of Route 66 was looking immensely scenic.

You toucha da truck...
Note the warning: You toucha my truck…I breaka you face.

(The person who did up this truck used to have a junk shop in a repurposed restaurant–the sign said Doofnac Xemi. Alas, it’s shut.)

I had some chicken-fried steak for dinner, garnished with a piece of kale. Yes, kids, there is still a part of the country where kale is just a hardy decorative green thing. If you want something green, have some Jell-O. Though to be fair, there is a farmers market in Tucumcari, and it was hopping.

Some of the farmers selling at the market also own the Odeon on 2nd Street.

"The Heat" was hilarious.
“The Heat” was hilarious.

Before cruising out of town the next morning, I happened to see the world’s most wonderful murals on the wall of a public pool.

There's a baby burro with a floaty mat around the corner.
There’s a baby burro with a floaty mat around the corner.

Next stop, Fort Sumner, where maybe the guy who did the WPA mural in the courthouse could’ve used a little bit of that lighter touch from Tucumcari.

What is going on here? I just don't know.
What is going on here? I just don’t know.

In Clovis, I visited the Norman & Vi Petty Museum, commemorating the work of the producer behind Buddy Holly. It was all about the tubes.

Mmmm, those are some darn fine knobs.
Mmmm, those are some darn fine knobs.

And with my not-yet-road-damaged eyes, I could really appreciate this excellent example of bank architecture.

Bet they still give Dum-Dums to the kids...
Bet they still give Dum-Dums to the kids…

Portales, peanut basin of the Southwest, has redone its movie theater.

But why it's called the Yam, I could not tell you.
But why it’s called the Yam, I could not tell you.

In Carrizozo, Roy was still mixing chocolate ice-cream sodas at Roy’s Gift Gallery, and my favorite sign in all of New Mexico was still there.

Now improved with an old truck and a donkey.
Now improved with an old truck and a donkey.

Up in Cloudcroft, I drove the Sunspot Highway and looked down on the wasteland of southeastern New Mexico. Not too shabby.

That white streak across the middle is White Sands.
That white streak across the middle is White Sands.

New Mexico: The Bootheel

This year was the third time I’ve updated my New Mexico guidebook. You’d think I would’ve gone pretty much everywhere by now, since New Mexico is not a heavily paved state and there are only so many roads to drive.

But in fact, there was a whole stubby little bit of the state I’d never set foot in–the so-called bootheel, which sticks down in the southwest corner. The closest town on the interstate is Lordsburg, which might explain why I’d never driven down there. Lordsburg is a pretty dismal ex-railroad town, with so much chain-link fencing that it kind of saps your strength to drive farther.

On my guidebook research trips, I try to put a couple of roadblocks in my schedule, to force myself to slow down and take a periodic break. So I booked two nights at the Casa Adobe, in Rodeo, New Mexico.

newmexico 176

I wish I could’ve stayed a week. The house was lovely, and there’s no cell service in Rodeo, and no internet at the house.

newmexico 041

And the light…ahhh.

newmexico 164

Rodeo is just a mile or so from the Arizona border, and Cave Creek Canyon, which is famous as a great birding spot. I mean, famous in birding circles. There is something uncanny about the Arizona border–somehow the instant you cross it, the scenery gets better than what was on the New Mexico side. I’m not sure how they pulled that off. These mountains, just on the Arizona side, were freakishly lush and vibrant.

newmexico 157

The trade-off, though, is you have to deal with Arizonans and their immigration panic:

newmexico 151

(My New Mexico is such a hippie New Mexico that I didn’t even realize until the government shutdown that NM’s southern district had elected a Tea Party wackadoo to the House of Representatives. So the immigration panic isn’t limited to Arizona, I now understand. It’s just NM doesn’t have any warning signs on the highway…yet.)

On the second day, I drove back up to near Lordsburg and visited Shakespeare ghost town, which is open only once a month or so. On the way I stopped at the gas station, and saw this critter:

newmexico 043

Imagine my thumb next to him for scale. BIG dude. Locusts! In little coral-colored bikini tops, they kinda look like.

newmexico 049

Shakespeare is fascinating because it’s really nicely preserved, but it also has this layer of more modern history, of the family that has owned it for a few generations. One woman taught dance classes there for decades, and one cabin is lined with recital photos–worth the price of admission.

newmexico 046

Quiet moment in the lynching room…anticipating the gun fights later.

newmexico 056

Also at Shakespeare, I learned that the freakishly colored locusts are actually perfectly adapted to a landscape made of volcanic rock and mine tailings.

newmexico 064

The really nice thing about being in Rodeo, in the middle of nowhere, for two whole days, is that I appreciated Lordsburg a bit more when I came back. There are a couple of good cafes, after all, and some choice neon. And the museum has a really good exhibit on German WWII POWs interned around here. And they were practicing roping at the fairgrounds.

newmexico 096

If you don’t hear from me, it’s because I went to be a cowgirl in Rodeo…