Take the long way home

Joy Ufford photos

Plans for my long-awaited two-week vacation from Wyoming to New Mexico and back were redrawn several times before I actually left.

In the end, with my Escape wrecked and my down-and back driving trip canceled, my mother offered to give me her white Honda CRV, parked for months outside her apartment. I flew to El Paso and arrived late in Deming.

Anticipation for my first vacation in two years – us having our COVID shots and a desire to connect with my sister and mother – put me in a road-trip fever.

Taking back roads, looking for changes in landscapes, setting myself down in unfamiliar places, preparing for whatever comes – this was how I’d kicked off many dreary months of May.

My New Mexico departure was tentatively Mother’s Day afternoon – after the bouquet and lunch – but I delayed until my sister left. It took me that time to claim the Honda for my own. As we helped Mom sort through every drawer and closet, I joked that she had to give me a car to bring everything home.

With five days, well, four, I set the trip odometer at 0 and headed for the highway.

Plans to drive and camp on back roads faded with the reservations and national monuments claiming precedence. To hike through desert-red sandstone and offbeat canyons, watch sunsets on lavender indigo desert peaks. Get just lost enough to learn something new about myself. I had some of those experiences, in quick segments.

But mostly I observed from a distance, driving southwestern roads and becoming part of the panorama. Massive rock spires rising from the desert, undulating mesquite-dotted foothills, flatness spiked by proud saguaro and red sparks of ocotillo – my mind noting subtle and vast changes through New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

Outside, the overwhelming warmth soothed me, the steady sun wrapping around me from gray bedrock or red brick dirt or cindery dust under my feet to the deep blue above.

The only city I sought was Tucson, with landscapes of well-mannered cacti. Not for my friend Nicola, though – her artistic casita is shaded by mesquite, yucca and ironwood. I slept on her porch that night to feel the velvety warmth so missing from evenings at home. She understood, having lived in Jackson and the Bell Place on Cottonwood Creek in earlier years.

Lessons: Don’t expect 200 miles to be “quick” like Wyoming. Rush-hour traffic starts 30 miles before you get there. And check street numbers before sitting outside the wrong house for two hours in 90-plus heat.

Next stop was to visit Sharon Crittenden in Roosevelt, Arizona, where she and Paul moved for winters and she is at home again. No cell service, but I found her white-fenced “mansion” in the trees where Paul the bright red cardinal visits her daily.

“If she can find me here, she won’t have any trouble getting home,” Sharon told someone on the phone. We talked and hugged and I left the next morning.

I thought, “That is the truth. How hard could it be from here?”

I missed Pinedale, Arizona, but I did drive through Snowflake…

My short list whittled down to the Petrified Forest, Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep.

Each was incredible and condensed into driving loops, sites and trails that satisfy many travelers. None invited people off the beaten path. Adjusting expectations, I found pleasure walking more slowly to sense these places. Limestone, sandstone, peach, violet, umber and ochre, orange, blossoming ironwood, honeysuckle, potentilla, prickly pear and cholla.

Lessons: Visitor centers close at 4 or 5 p.m. when the sun is still shining. What now? Don’t backtrack – push ahead.

I was absolutely determined to avoid Salt Lake City and drive home via Highway 189/191, which in Utah is four lanes in each direction. But I missed an unmarked exit, eventually pulling the Honda off the insane interstate just south of the city, almost sobbing with frustration. I called Kevin for calming advice, accosted a young couple with a smart phone and drove to Heber City in the dark. So close and yet so far.

Lessons: If you drive more than two blocks off the interstate, you will get lost. Routes are not well marked; most people probably ask Alexa? And the cheapest looking motel will be exactly that.

I’d traveled through hot and dry, balmy breezes and blue skies. Driving north into Wyoming, the air turned sharp and chilly, green leaves still in tightly curled buds at home.

Lessons: Even a strange trip has its pleasures and wonders. Getting lost doesn’t mean you’ll never get home. Eventually, the whole escapade can fade into a distant dream – don’t let it.

Total return distance – 1,4737.7 miles.

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Joy Ufford photos

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