Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “travel”

Diaper Pin

diaperPin2My husband treasures a diaper pin.  For those of you born in the era of Pampers and Velcro, a diaper pin is a very sturdy type of safety pin, but with a plastic head covering the fastener.  The  point of the pin is guarded in a G-shaped cavity, making it almost impossible for tiny hands to accidentally open the pin and get scratched.  The head of this  particular diaper pin is made of blue plastic  in the shape of a duck, with a cheery red beak.  It was part of a flock of pink, yellow,  white, and blue ducky diaper pins (twelve to a card!) used in the care and maintenance of our two sons, now grown and gone. My husband uses it to secure his sun visor to his belt loop or back pack when we are hiking or touristing.

We were scheduled for a visit to the Capitol, and were cautioned:   no pointy metal objects, not even knitting needles or hair pins.  My husband muttered, “ I must remember not to take my diaper pin” since he routinely secures his sun visor on any tour.

There we were in the entrance to the Capitol museum, about to pass through Security. Panic moment!  The PIN was attached to the visor cap – possible confiscation loomed!  Somehow the Sharp Object escaped scrutiny. 

My husband beamed with modest pride to a fellow traveller: “You can’t find these anymore.  This is the last of its kind”DiaperPin3

I didn’t have the heart to tell him – a few weeks ago I was rummaging in some storage boxes and  found an old yellow onesie that had belonged to our youngest.  Pinned all around the neck was a flock of little pink ducky diaper pins, saved for the daughter we never had.

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Security in our Nation’s Capital – 3 Vignettes

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TSA Precheck

My husband D and I applied for TSA pre-check privileges two weeks ago.  We had to do it in person at an H&R Block office in Santa Clara, with finger printing, passports and $85. each.   My ‘Known Traveler’ ID number showed up the next day on the TSA web site so my husband entered it for all the flights I am taking this summer, including ours to D.C.   I’ll have TSA Pre at all airport check-ins. My husband’s “KT” number, however, is still in processing.  He called TSA and was told by a friendly fellow that this is typical, implying that most terrorists are men and thus they take longer to check out.  He did say that there were no red flags on my husband’s profile.    So this morning we got our boarding passes for tomorrow and  –  Whee  –  we are both TSA Pre-Check.  Go figure.  Maybe because he had been this category on all his flights for the past few years.  Maybe because he is a distinguished WASP senior citizen.   Maybe because we are flying first class.  Maybe because it’s Tuesday.    Whatever, he will enjoy, at 5 am, NOT  having to shed his shoes and belt nor remove his laptop.

Security guard’s view

We got into our nation’s capital a day early for our  Travel Tour, to do some stuff on our own.   One of the suggested travel-packing items our tour leader recommended was a money belt.  Uh Oh!  Shades of the guy on our Barcelona tour who had his wallet filched  within minutes of arriving En Espana   –  or the warnings when we  were at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris  from the entrance Gendarme:  Beware of pickpockets.  So D bought a stylish (Hah) money belt and packed it .  Then, after we had finished our fine breakfast at the JW Marriott in D.C. he approached a tall, imposing, black security guard in the lobby and asked him,  “Should I be concerned about pickpockets here in Washington D.C. ?”

The guard thought for a moment and said,  “No, I’ve never heard of or experienced a problem, and I’ve lived here for 14 years.  And I carry my wallet in my back pocket.”

“Right,” my husband said.  “But you also carry a gun!”   The guard did not seem amused, but the money belt stayed in his suitcase.

White house walk-by

After dinner at a café across from our hotel we walked further down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House.  There were Secret Service men not-so-secretly patrolling in Kelvar vests, walkie-talkies, pistols, and some with assault rifles.  One can no longer go up and press one’s face against the fence to catch a glimpse of Michele Obama’s kitchen garden – there are traffic barriers keeping onlookers 10 feet from the fence.  Of course, the SS guys are selected to be handsome, charming, and to interact with the public – the one we approached sympathized with the difference between our memory of “the last time we were here we could…”  with a warm “too bad you can’t still, but welcome back.”  We found a bench further down Pensylvania Ave. and took a rest, and on our return found the sidewalk blocked, SS men at attention, no longer interactive.  A detour to the other side of the street led us back to our hotel;  on the way we found three DC policemen chatting. “What’s going on?”  “It’s just a drill.  If it were real we wouldn’t be standing here,”

Flight Risk

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“Time to get up, “ my husband D said , his voice roughened by sleep or the lack of it.  I opened bleary eyes.  It was 3:30 AM, the time D had determined we needed to rise in order to make our 6AM plane departure from SFO.  I pushed myself out of bed and wove my way to the kitchen to start some coffee.  My cell phone lay charging in its nest on the counter.  “That’s got to go in my bag,” I thought, as I picked it up.  Then I registered the message glaring from its yellow oval:  “Your flight has been cancelled.”

Shock, amazement, distress.  Our flight has been rebooked through Houston instead of Chicago, leaving at 10:50.  What to do?  Back to bed not a good option – too much adrenaline generated by the cancellation notice.  Tried unsuccessfully to doze.  Finally ate breakfast at 6:30, arrived airport at 9, to find a delay of another hour.P1020899doc

Flight delay. Delay. Delay. Finally a lovely first class seat in a new Dreamliner. We hover over Houston, which looks impossibly green below towering white clouds like the ghosts of Bryce Canyon hoodoos.  We land.  Our connection  in Houston leaves in 20 minutes, no gate info provided.  Mad search for departure info?  Found – ugh! Terminal E, we are in A.  Where is E?  D is looking at the airport map he ripped from the flight magazine, while I flag down a jitney driver.  “How do we get to Terminal E?” “Hop on” he replies, and off we go zig-zagging down the endless corridor, turning right here, left there.  He stops.  “Are we there yet?”  No, change to another  jitney.  Our original savior continues left at the Y, we go right, then stop again with our gate in sight.  We’ve made it.  We are not even the last to get on the plane.  And there is another delay in leaving, so we are even pretty confident that our luggage made it too.  The afternoon of orienting ourselves to our hotel and surroundings is blown, the welcome champagne and a nice dinner ditto, but we are GOING TO GET THERE!

Freeway Free in California: The Anderson Valley

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The Anderson valley, centered around Boonville, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study the evolution of “Boontling”, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders.  The valley is accessible only by twisty and nausea-inducing Hwy 128 at one end, and the “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as though you have gone back in time and space to  the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.

Here in late May the rolling hills are just finishing  with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.

Here wineries make award-winning pinot noir and cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking is easy, and the tasting is mostly still free.

Here you can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at Gowan’s Oak Tree, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.

Here is a State Park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State ParkP1040234doc was bequeathed to the state of CA by James P. Hendy, whose fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale, so there is a local connection.

Here the coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Café,) has regulars instead of WiFi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the 5th Grade Science Fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson which dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team.)

The valley can be hot  in late spring and summer, so you can go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivalling Big Sur, and a thirty-degree drop in temperature.P1040260web

You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed & breakfast inns, and other trappings of cutesification.  You can go further north to Ft. Bragg and the Mendocino Botanical Garden, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas, turning in summer to feature dahlias and roses. P1040257doc

If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge going south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (Population 208).  Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Hwy 1 with no guard rails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is narrow and twisty, but encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right, and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.

When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma town square, and of visits to Dry Creek Vineyard or the Coppola Vineyards Tasting Room replete with “Godfather” memorabilia.  The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists, the road a bit too challenging.  It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.

 

 

Coastal vs Central California: It’s Still About the Water

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Left side of the road

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right side of road – just add water!

My husband and I took a road trip a few weeks ago, driving from Los Altos down to Bakersfield and then east, returning via Bakersfield and Paso Robles and then up 101.

As far as the Pacheco Pass, the landscape was lyrically green with oaks and buckeyes sporting fresh foliage, and  wildflowers filling the crevices between the hills with streams of yellow mustard, buttercups,  and golden poppies. Rock outcroppings were wreathed in ribbons of late-rising fog like the karst peaks in traditional Chinese landscapes.

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On the other side of the pass, we dropped down past the San Luis Reservoir, much healthier-looking at first glance than the last time we had passed this way almost two years ago. But a second look showed us the thirty  feet of rocky scree which separated the current level of the reservoir and the grassy level of the normal shore.  Despite heavy rain in March, the reservoir was still only at 52% capacity, 57% of the average fullness for the end of March.

Further down the hill, we began the long trek down the west side of the Central Valley on Interstate 5 . Except for irrigated fields and orchards, the green was gone – and the signs began.

On a barren field of scrub brush “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Next to an expanse of almond orchard, “Dams, Not Trains.” Several signs showing a perplexed looking boy and the query “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”  On the side of a truck parked next to the Interstate: “Politicians Created Water Crisis = Higher Food Costs, Lost Jobs.” The signs reflected the anger of farmers who had lost their historically unlimited water rights through recent  legislation.  No longer could they rely on digging ever deeper wells to enable cultivation of whatever they felt like growing.

More telling were the signs which began to appear further south: “For Sale – 100 Acres Almonds”.  Still more poignant were the dead orchards – acres of almond trees uprooted, some already brown and dead, some appearing to have been sacrificed only a short time ago.  We saw one backhoe in the process of destruction.  I took some pictures: on one side of the road were healthy almond orchards stretching off into the valley haze, irrigation hoses clearly visible.  On the other side: no hoses, no trees, no greenery, only scrub brush and bare dirt.

Almond trees are currently one of the most controversial crops of the Central Valley.   Almonds are a lucrative product, but they require a lot of water, and the largest percentage of the crop is grown for export to Asia, where demand is rapidly expanding.  With water increasingly scarce, it is argued, why should we allow irrigation of non-essential crops for export, rather than focusing on nutritional basics to be consumed locally?  But who or what will decide what is or is not “essential”?

We crossed the California Aqueduct, sparkling with Northern California water headed for Los Angeles.  More signs: “Food Grows where Water Flows.”  “California produces 50% of US Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts.”

We passed a well-tended farm house with a pillared porch and tiled roof, surrounded by shapely almond trees.  We passed an abandoned stone bungalow, its roof caved in, surrounded by scrub brush.

With enlightened, long-term, apolitical water management, many well-tended farmhouses will survive.  But there will inevitably be many rotting bungalows amid the desert scrub. And fewer almonds in my Chinese chicken salad.

 

Homecoming

Home 2008

Home – October 2008

Every year since we were first engaged, my husband and I have returned to his home town at least once.  Our visit a few weeks ago was the first time there was no family member to greet us and no family home to stay in.  Since my mother-in-law’s death last year and our final visit to her house to help clean out the accumulations of decades, the old home has been sold.  Instead of an upstairs bedroom with a shared bathroom in a home within walking distance from everything we might want to do and everyone we might want to see, we stayed in a tidy suite at a Wyndham just beyond the bypass that skirts the town.  We did a lot of driving instead of walking.

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House October 2015

The young couple that had bought the old home invited us to come and see how they had updated it.  They had done wonders.  The narrow kitchen with its yellow formica counters and linoleum floor, where we had sat around the small table to dye eggs for many an Easter, was now a dining room and pantry.  The downstairs guest room, where I had slept chastely on visits to the home before our marriage, had been transformed into a master bathroom.  The dining room where three generations had gathered for Thankgiving and Christmas dinners was now a chef’s kitchen with gleaming stainless steel appliances and a granite island for informal eating. We ooh’ed and aah’ed and approved and told the new owner stories about how the house was built.  We had a fine time, but we won’t be going back.  It’s their home now.

We went for breakfast to Dunlap’s,  where we always had gone with my in-laws us because of the hearty portions and old-fashioned atmosphere.  We ordered eggs, wheat toast, home fries, coffee, and a fruit cup.  The eggs were perfectly fried.  The bread was only “wheat” in that it was a shade darker than “white”, but had none of the flavor or texture that we West Coast folks had come to expect.  The “home fries” were really hash browns, shredded, flavorless, and only browned in spots. The coffee was tasteless.  The fruit cup was dumped from a can of fruit cocktail.  We won’t be going back.

The next day for breakfast we tried Café St. Amand , a new French restaurant that advertised crepes and croissants.  I had a fresh-made crepe wrapped around fresh strawberries and blueberries and fresh whipped crème.  My husband had French toast made with brioche bread sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  It all tasted great including the French roast coffee, and it actually cost less than Dunlaps. .  It wasn’t small-town home cooking. We loved it, and went there again the next morning.

For dinner we went to the historic Dobbin House restaurant where we had celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. It had always been the best restaurant in town, despite the waitresses dressed in period costume and the pretentious menu  (e.g., describing the bread basket: A basket of afforted colonial breads paffed to your table fresh from our own bakery, served up with a galipot of butter.)

The food arrived: a plateful of salad, enough for a meal in itself.  Then the entrée – a large seriving of meat, heaps of vegetables, and a large baked potato with assorted trimmings to choose from.  I felt as though I was at an athlete’s training table. That’s not the way we eat anymore.

The next day we met a friend from the local college.  “You should try the new Gettysburg Baking Company,” he told us.  “They bake their own bread, even sourdough, and they have really good sandwiches.  It’s right on the square, where the Visitor’s Bureau used to be.  Too bad the new restaurant out at the Country Club is closed on Sunday. A guy from Philadelphia took over the clubhouse as a restaurant.  It’s really good – expensive, but they also serve tapas – small plates. You can make a meal of appetizers.”

We were amazed – a gourmet bakery and a tapas bar? Not the place my husband grew up in!

We did a lot of driving around the beautiful countryside.  The lawns were green, the trees were just beginning to turn red and golden.  We did some hiking on familiar paths.  But we returned to a hotel, and no one to share our adventures.

The town and house where you grow up are like molds that help form you into the person you become.  But there are reasons you can’t go home again.  You change. And so does the mold.

 

Freeway Free in New Mexico: the Turquoise Trail

turq-pics_056-995x269New Mexico Highway 14 – the Turquoise Trail – parallels  I-25, the main road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  I-25 despite boasting  three lanes of (light) traffic each way is not  a freeway, as it alternates creatively decorated overpasses with intermittent cross traffic.  If you want to travel a beautiful bypass full of surprises, choose the Turquoise Trail.

The name is  a marketing ploy to attract tourists.  There are no opportunities to mine for turquoise, and not very many of the Indian arts and silversmithing shops that are so ubiquitous around Santa Fe’s main plaza. “Turquoise” is mainly the color of the overpasses feeding toward the Interstate 10-15 miles west.

What you will find is beautiful rolling open country dotted with sage, pinon pine, and juniper, punctuated by red rock escarpments stretching off into the purple distance where mountains lump up against the horizon.

The_band-565x292And there is amazing and amusing roadside art, first in dribs and drabs, e.g.  lifesize mustangs cut out of sheet metal and painted bright colors, interspersed with mustang-sized sheet metal origami cranes.  Then cresting into a tsunami of eccentricity in the  artist colony of Madrid (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable – rhymes with Hagrid) – a rather dilapidated settlement of old buildings, bright paint, tie-dye and macramé warped out of the 1960’s into a colder, blander 21st century.

We had a deadline to meet in Albuquerque, so we did not stop even to take pictures.  But one day I want to trek the Turquoise Trail again, and maybe spend some serious time lolly-gagging in a weathered rocking chair behind the wind chimes and macramé plant holders on one of those slightly skewed porches looking out at the passing parade.

Freeway Free in Santa Fe

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If you are in Santa Fe, stay at the La Fonda. Why not? It has all the historic charm of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, or the El Tovar at the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is not located in a national park, so it went through some hard times before being lovingly restored to splendid 1920’s level grandeur. And it is MUCH more affordable than the Ahwahnee with all the wonderful hand-hewn timber, eccentric architecture (there are at least three different ways to get to any given room), interesting restaurant menus and wonderful service.P1020698web

 

IMG_0471webOnce you are there on the square, take a city tour. Why not? It will give you an overview of what you can walk to or drive to, some historical background, some pretty corny jokes, and an interesting group of fellow tourist to exchange home town data with. It’s a pleasantly slow ramp-up to the day, and you can hop on a trolley right outside the La Fonda. It will take you through the art scene street (see above), some excellent outdoor sculpture, and leave you with lots of ideas on how to spend your NEXT trip to Santa Fe. (Museum Hill?  A whole day we didn’t have to spend this time!)

 

Once you have finished your city tour, you will want lunch. There you are on the plaza/. Try the Famous Plaza Cafe – lots of history on the plaza, pressed tin ceiling, friendly and fast service, and killer fish tacos.P1020721web

 

Now it’s time for the museums. The New Mexico History Museum  is a GEM according to AAA’s road guide, and rightfully so. With admission you also get to explore the Palace of the Governors, one of the few surviving real adobe buildings in Santa Fe (the others are brick coated with stucco in imitation) and probably one of the few single-story palaces in the world.  And if you have read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes to the Archbishop” (and I hope you have, as a prep for your Santa Fe visit) you will find portraits of ALL the main characters hanging in the Museum or the Palace – instantly recognizable.

 

P1020741webOn your way back to La Fonda, be sure to explore inside the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi which faces the square. Again, if you have read “DCttAB” you cannot fail to be moved by the statue of the austere Archbishop Lamy who reformed and re-energized the New Mexico church mission, and by the little wooden Madonna, regally gowned by the devout needlewomen of the Santa Fe diocese, who is the core of Catholic tradition in the area, paraded around the square in her finery once eacy year.

 

You’ve walked a lot. Time to relax at the pool in the La Fonda central courtyard. It’s shielded from wind and sun and kept at a perfect temperature.P1020734web

 

Once you are dry and dressed, present yourself at the Bell Tower Bar at the very top of the LaFonda, with a 360 degree view of the square,the town, the mountains, and the clouds. Everyone up here is in a good mood – what nicer place could there be to strike up a conversation with the folks around the firepit or cocktail table?

And if you have not filled yourself up on appetizers at the Bell Tower, finish off your Santa Fe day at La Plazuela, the restaurant in the former courtyard (now roofed with a skylight) around the fountain at the center of La Fonda. There are other restaurants in town which boast Michelin stars, but none that can boast more atmosphere or history. I recommend the pork tamales.

 

The evening is up to you.

Freeway Free in New Mexico: The Town that Wasn’t There

The view from the road to Nowhere

The view from the road to Nowhere

The road to Los Alamos is paved now, and there are comforting stone barriers separating the driver from the precipitous drops edging the switchbacks as you climb from the valley of the Santa Fe River.  There are even scenic viewpoints provided so that you can look out over the valley of the Rio Grande as it carves its way toward El Paso.  It’s a long way from those days in the early 1940’s when the town was as isolated and exotic as Narnia, its only entrance through an inconspicuous door of an old adobe on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

In those days the inhabitants of Los Alamos were divided, like Narnia, into two very different groups, but unlike Narnia, they were putatively on the same side.  The town had been created by the US Military, and its routine labor and its decidedly non-routine security were provided by the Army.  But its purpose was to probe areas of science that had never been explored – to create the weapon that would end World War II, killing hundred of thousands of people, but by doing so save a million other lives which would have been lost through hand-to-hand combat, disease, ritual suicide, and other causes in a drawn-out battle for Japan.

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Dwarf meets Elf, with Man in the middle

Perhaps the uneasy alliance was more like that of Elves and Dwarves in the battle against the Dark Lord of Mordor. Certainly there was an elfin quality about Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists, and a foursquare dwarvish solidity about his military counterpart, General Leslie Groves.   And there were ordinary people at Los Alamos, too; there were cleaning women and secretaries and nurses and teachers, who played their roles without ever quite knowing what was going on.

Now the town looks quite ordinary.  There is a struggling downtown area with some small shops and restaurants, and a new shopping mall.  There is an excellent sandwich shop, Daniel’s Café (sharing space with Mary’s Gelato) .  I recommend the Tuna Melt.

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

There is a high school which had been originally funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and still gets 22% of its funding from the FEderal Government.  Since the principal employer in Los Alamos is still the Laboratory, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of physicists have gained national recognition for their school’s academic program.

And there is a wonderful museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, which tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of all three groups who worked there, as well as revealing as much as can be told about the lab’s current activities

For more about Los Alamos and the Mahattan Project, you can’t go wrong reading Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont, and then watching “The Day After Trinity”, a  fine documentary about Robert Oppenheimer.  And when you walk the sidewalks of  the Town that Wasn’t There, you’ll hear history echoing in your footsteps.

Freeway Free in New Mexico – Willa Cather Country

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On our first day in New Mexico we arrived in Albuquerque and drove north to wherewe would rendezvous with friends.  I was grateful that I had prepared for our trip by re-reading Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.  She gave me the words to describe what I was seeing:  “In other places the sky is the roof of the world.  Here the earth is somply the floor of the sky.” As we drove through the austere landscape that sky stretched over and around us in an immense blue expanse, shrinking the distant mountains and mesas to the size of doll furniture.

The countryside was austere, but not barren.  There were pinon pines twisting along the ridges, cottonwood tries lining the dry washes where water had flowed and would flow again.  The six-lane highway was punctuated by over-crossings decorated with southwestern motifs: thunderbirds, stampeding mustangs, desert tortoises, road runners.  The roads themselves led off to a couple of barns, or a boarded up gas station, or a billboard advertising Native American Jewelry – 5 miles west.

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We arrived at our hotel just the other side of nowhere (that is, fourteen miles north of Santa Fe), a comfortable and bland Homewood Suites just next to the Buffalo Thunder Resort Hotel and Casino, where we had dinner on the outside patio as the sun went down, the moon rose, and the artificial luminarias lit up the pseudo-adobe battlements.

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