The Very Large Array has, at the same time, an incredibly descriptive and totally unhelpful name. The array in question is a Y-shaped network of radio telescopes that sit in the New Mexican high desert. They’re turned to the sky, listening to the sounds of worlds light years away from earth.
Unless you’re New Mexican or move in space science circles, the Very Large Array (frequently called the VLA) is likely foreign to you except for the vague feeling that you’ve seen it somewhere. It’s got a surprisingly large pop culture presence. Carl Sagan drove it into the public eye when he included it in Cosmos. The VLA is highly recognizable – movies like Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation have been shot here. Heck, Bon Jovi even shot a music video at the VLA.
Even if you’re not super into space or Jodie Foster movies the VLA is still worth visiting. Its hugeness and remoteness mean it’s awe-inspiring even without context. While it takes some driving to get to, it’s open from 8:30 – sunset every day for self-guided tours, making it an accessible day trip. I made the trip from Albuquerque one very cold afternoon in January. (That’s another thing to be aware of: not only is the VLA remote, it’s cold in winter.The woman in the gift shop told me it had dropped to -2 F with windchill the day before.)
The gift shop has shorter hours than the grounds, so if you’re interested in getting post cards or asking questions, come before 4pm. There’s a small theater where a short documentary plays on demand, which I’d recommend you watch to get acquainted with what you’re about to see. There’s also a small museum to wander through. I got in for free, but I can’t remember if it’s because I had a student ID or because I attended UNM.
After that it’s out into the cold! (Or heat, depending on when you go, I guess.) There’s a short walking tour that should probably take about half an hour. It took me about ten minutes because – have I mentioned this yet? – it was so cold. The tour takes you past a small dish, a few interpretive labels, and then right to the base of the closest working dish. From there you can walk up onto the balcony of one of the science buildings for a fantastic view of one of the VLA’s branches.
The closest dish. It moved when I was there, which was spectacular.
I was very much by myself this trip. Apart from the lady in the gift shop, I only spotted two other visitors and one scientist.
After you finish the walking portion of your tour you can drive a short distance to see one of the dishes in the massive service shed. Once it’s all fixed up they’ll roll it out onto a special set of train tracks and drive it very, very slowly to its new home.
The Trinity Test Site at the White Sands Missile Range marks the site of the very first atomic bomb test.
Ever since I moved to New Mexico for college, I’ve wanted to visit the Trinity Test Site. After my visit to Hiroshima, I felt like I needed to go, as a pilgrimage of sorts. This was easier said than done since it’s only open to the public for fifteen hours a year, for seven and a half hours a day on the first Saturdays in October and April.
For a site that’s only open twice a year, the Trinity Site is structured well for tourists. There are educational materials on the perimeter fence, educational staff on site, a booth where you can look at trinitite and uranium artifacts, and a pop-up gift shop set up by the folks from White Sands National Park.
Before you ask: no, it’s not dangerous to your health to visit. While there is more radiation in this area than average, it’s less of an issue than, say, being a frequent flier.
There’s also food (cooked fresh, but mostly baseball game sort of fare) and enough portable toilets to easily handle the crowds. BRING WATER. I never go anywhere in New Mexico without a liter of water on my person, and I keep at least a gallon in my car. Bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need, and snacks if you don’t want to eat overpriced sausage dogs. Besides water, the only real issue I had was with parking: due to the bottleneck caused by ID checking, I had to sit in traffic for half an hour to get into Stallion Gate, and I hit some more traffic before I reached the final parking lot.
Would I recommend checking out the Trinity site? If you’re in town at the right time of year, absolutely. It’s interesting for history and science folks alike. Because of what happened here, our history and science have been forever changed. That, at least to a lot of you, will make it worth the trip.
When to go: The first Saturday of October or April (check ahead of time – it’s possible they’ll go back to a once-a-year schedule). If you want to learn about New Mexico’s nuclear history and you’re not in town when the Trinity site is open, you can check out the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, or visit the memorial near Stallion Gate.
How to get there: Don’t use Google maps. Navigating between cities in New Mexico is easy, and you’ll want to use the Army’s official directions to navigate once you get close to Stallion Gate. There is also an option for joining a convoy from Almagordo.
May of this year, my brother flew down to New Mexico to tour my alma mater and help me drive my car back to New England. As it turns out, he’s not much for navigation or freeway driving, but what skills he lacks in those areas he makes up for by being a great adventure buddy.
Most of our trip was relatively boring because it’s hard to do lots of interesting things when you’ve got to drive for eight hours a day as well. With the help of Atlas Obscura, we did manage to make some pit stops worth blogging about. (Thus our chosen Instagram tag, #spookysiblingroadtrip.)
Traveling East out of Albuquerque you’ll cross some mountains and, soon after, the little town of Moriarty. A while later you’ll hit Tucumcari, a traditional stop on the Route 66 trek that we’ve always passed by. And then there’s nothing but flatness and windmills and a 75 mph speed limit to get you through the emptiness of the the Texas panhandle.
In the middle of this nothingness, there’s a teeny little town called Adrian. Adrian would be a drive-by town if it wasn’t for the fact that it sits in the dead middle of Route 66, half way between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Midpoint Cafe is dolled up in everything Route 66. (If you’re looking for gifts, it’s a good place to go.) The people are sweet, but the cafe has a limited menu with no vegetarian options after breakfast. By no fault of their own, they’re also frequently swamped with biker groups. As far as diners go, I’ve got really high standards – I grew up going to a local New Hampshire chain called Red Arrow Diner where the food is top-notch and cheap, the menu is huge, breakfast is available all day, and the hours are 24/7. As far as diners go, Midpoint is nothing too exciting. But if you’re making the trek, stop for the experience! If you’ve got kids or are a Pixar fan, it’s got a cool connection to the movie Cars, too.
Further East is the city of Amarillo, Texas. When driving the opposite direction, this is always our last hotel of the trip. When heading through Amarillo, we always make a stop at Cadillac Ranch, an art project that’s turned into one of 66’s most recognizable features. The amount of languages here is always astounding, as is the way people trek through a cornfield, almost reverential, to look at the spray paint covered Cadillacs.
After this we diverged from the mother road, traveling through Arkansas and then up through Kentucky instead of through Missouri to Chicago. Our route was longer by several hours, but it let us see a new part of the country and make a few cool stops we wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise, like our stop at a seafood restaurant featuring a Billy Bass Adoption Center.
Little Rock was much cuter than I expected, and we spent an hour or two walking around, enjoying the river. Next, we headed to Cave City, Kentucky.
Cave City was sort of like a dream. We got a little turned around and ended up in the downtown area, which was completely uninhabited except for several cats.
We tried to find interesting regional food and ended up at a cafeteria that was in the process of closing for the night. The whole thing felt like a Crooked Still song should be faintly playing in the background. We eventually gave up on regional eats and settled for Mexican.
We stayed at a little Tepee motel. It was quaint from the outside, but I wouldn’t recommend it because of the bugs. Their dead little bodies were scattered around the windows, and I saw more than one crawl across the bed. I figured they must be bed bugs, but wavered later because so many were near the wood of the windowsill. (This feels like a good time to leave you a link about bed bugs: x)
Cave City sits adjacent to the biggest network of caves in the world, Mammoth Cave. It’s so big there are still unexplored sections! You can visit the top side of the National Park for free to walk or bike, or pay to go down into the caves on a guided tour. We did the Domes and Dripstones tour, which I’d recommend if you’ve only got a few hours to spend at the park. If you plan ahead and go on a weekend, there’s a strenuous, 6 hour caving tour called Wild Cave that sounds like an absolute blast.
Much of the cave’s history is tied tightly to the history of the African Americans who were integral to the cave’s early history. Standing in the interpretive center I poured over all the materials, killing time before our tour while hoping to learn something new. I stood in front of a display about one such explorer, absorbed in the material, when a park ranger approached me. “Interesting, isn’t it?” he asked, and I nodded. He pointed at the display and told me that the man I was reading about was his ancestor. After years of visiting National Parks all across the country, that little exchange is one of my favorite memories.
From Kentucky, we headed to Ohio, where we met up with a friend who assured me that yes, the state is mostly made of corn. After this brief sojourn we headed to the teeny little town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
What’s in Point Pleasant, you ask? Well, not too much, unless you happen to be really fond of cryptids, aliens, urban legends, and anything spooky. Which I am. (I even run another blog about it, I’m that much of a nerd.)
Point Pleasant is home to a legendary creature called Mothman. Is it an angel? An alien A sandhill crane? No one really seems to be sure. But Point Pleasant’s embraced the legend, and monster enthusiasts make pilgrimage to the tiny town from all over the states.
We then headed into Pennsylvania – home territory, at last! After a long day of adventuring in and driving through quite a bit of rain, I really wanted pasta for dinner. A simple request, in the decent sized town we were staying in.
Alas, it was not to be.
There isn’t really a short version of this story and the long version would need a post to itself, but I’ll do the best I can.
First, consider this: my brother can’t read maps. Not even if they’re in the GPS and showing exactly where we are on the road and exactly where we need to go.
Second, consider this: toll roads in Pennsylvania are BRUTAL. They’re expensive as heck, they’re hard to get off of, and if you get on the wrong road you’re gonna stay on the wrong road for an awfully long time.
With those two bits of background information, it probably makes a little more sense that we managed to miss the exit for the pasta place two miles away, managed to get desperately off track multiple times, ended up driving twenty miles away and settling for the first place that sold food besides the gas station. We listened to the same Crooked Still album five times straight through that day.
The next day we also found ourselves many, many miles off course, turned around, missing exits, and stuck in traffic for hours because of roadwork that wasn’t even happening at the time. There weren’t even any cryptids to break up the monotony. Finally we made it home to New Hampshire. I was exhausted, achy from so much driving, and I never wanted to see or touch or think about a car ever again, but hey. Ethan and I were still friends and several adventures richer, and that’s all that matters on road trips, right?
UPDATE, December 2016: Gatos y Galletas is now closed. But, if everything goes smoothly, a dog cafe will soon be opening in Albuquerque. If and when that happens, I’ll make sure to post about it.
Cute cats and hot drinks are a natural combination, so it may be surprising that the first cafe to officially combine the two opened in Taipei, Taiwan, only 19 years ago. The concept hopped over to Japan, where stressed workers who lived in pet-less apartments made the concept explode.
Something about the culture or the laws in Taiwan and Japan make cat cafes a breeze to open. When I visited Minimal Cafe in Taipei, cats wandered behind the espresso machine and dozed on top of a rack of mugs straight out of the dishwasher. This would terrify US health code inspectors. Actually, I’m pretty sure terrified US health inspectors are the main reason the first cat cafe in the US opened only two years ago, in 2014. It’s hard to know how many cat cafes are in the US, but the number seems to be about 20.
I’ve loved the concept ever since I studied abroad at a university that had an on-campus cat cafe, so I was thrilled to hear that a cat cafe was opening up near my alma mater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, right along old Route 66. Gatos y Galletas opened April 22, 2016, and you’d better believe that my cat-loving roommate and I were there opening weekend.
Here’s how most cat cafes work in the US: food is ordered and prepared in one room. This room is completely separate from the room where the cats are. Cats can’t get into the food room, but people can bring their food into the cat room on disposable tableware. (Why disposable, I wonder? Isn’t the point of a dishwasher to…wash dishes? Cleanse them of things like cat hair? Am I mistaken? But I digress.) Many cat cafes (in the US and elsewhere) charge a flat cover fee, or sometimes an hourly fee. Some, like Minimal Cafe, simply charge a lot for their food and drinks.
Gatos y Galletas is Spanish for “Cats and Cookies”. It’s alliterative in both languages, which brings me great joy. Gatos y Galletas offers vegetarian fare, coffee, and loose leaf teas. You can stay with the cats for as long as you like for a cover charge of three dollars. It’s got a clean, healthy, friendly vibe, and although the food tastes a little too “healthy”, the drinks are fantastic.
Gatos y Galletas hosts friendly, adoptable cats from Fat Katz Albuquerque, a local no-kill rescue. The first time I visited, the cafe had been open for under 24 hours. We got to see the very first cat go home with his new family!
It’s a great little spot to hang out or study, and if you’re driving through and you’ve never been to a cat cafe, I’d recommend visiting. It’s totally worth it.
I shot some footage and made a little video, just to dabble. It’s just made in the YouTube editor, but I’m happy with how it turned out! Check it out below.
Ahh, Albuquerque: home of Breaking Bad, the Southwest’s little Hollywood, frequent butt of jokes because of how difficult it is to spell. (Say it “al-boo-kwer-kew” in your head – we all do.) Interested in visiting this interesting city in the Land of Enchantment? Read on!
Albuquerque is two things all year round: high and dry. If you’re not used to the altitude and you let yourself get dehydrated, things will go downhill very quickly. Pack a water bottle and use it frequently, pack chap-stick and lotion or else your hands and lips will bleed, and make sure you have ibuprofen. (Maybe it’s just me, but I get altitude headaches for about a week after I return to ABQ or go somewhere else.)
It doesn’t sandstorm here quite like it does in other parts of the Southwest, but we still get strong winds and dust in our noses.
Albuquerque is not the safest place in the world. Or the states. I don’t want to scare you, I just don’t want you coming to me on twitter yelling “Hey! You didn’t tell me about the weird drunk guys on Central!”
The international district through UNM and downtown goes from safe and charming (Nob Hill, UNM’s Campus) to “yikes” in seconds. It’s unlikely you’ll get bothered. Just use common sense, avoid side streets off Central if you’re by yourself and it’s dark, walk confident, have a cell phone ready, and don’t worry about it too much. That goes for men and women both, by the way. But look. If I could do it at eighteen after growing up in a quiet New England town, you’ll be fine.
CULTURE AND BLENDING IN:
New Mexico is pretty laid back. There’s a huge mix of people – hippies, lots of artists, Diné folks from reservations up north, celebrities in town for filming or relaxing…the list goes on.
This is good! It means you don’t have to work too much to blend in. Clothing tends to be relaxed, patterned, and warmly colored. Cowboy wear isn’t uncommon but tends to be tamer than you might see in Texas. Silver and turquoise are popular among older ladies. Young women tend towards quirkier trends and wear lots of tribal patterns.
WHAT TO DO:
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a must-see. Depending on when you visit there might be dance exhibitions and Indian fry-bread, which you must try. Personally, I’d opt for the Cultural Center instead of Old Town.
Sandia Peak Tramway. The ride is a little gut-twisting, but the views from the top are lovely.
If you have kids, check out Explora!, a fantastic local kids’ museum. The botanical gardens are also great for kids.
Breaking Bad Filming Sites. It’s not hard to find these, as the hit television show pretty much included the whole of Albuquerque as a secondary character. You can take a tour or do it yourself. Whatever you do, please don’t throw pizza on any roofs. The White’s house gets a massive amount of visits, and as far as I know is still occupied by people who don’t want to spend hours picking melty cheese off of the roof.
Petroglyph National Monument, for some quick hikes and interesting rock carvings a short way outside the city.
Route 66 crosses the Pan American Highway just a mile or two away from where I lived freshman year of college. Check out the Route 66 Diner if you’re interested in absurdly large banana splits. Along Central there are several old Route 66 hotels. I can’t vouch for any of them, but they’re nice to look at.
Nob Hill is a quirky little section of Central that I can spend hours wandering.
Santa Fe and Tent Rocks are both their own deal, but are an easy day trip north of town.
WHAT TO EAT:
Frontier is an Albuquerque classic. When I fly home from school, I always pick up a dozen tortillas on the way to the airport to bring back to family. That’s how good it is. They squeeze their orange juice fresh, and their Frontier Roll is to die for. This is the one place in the city that I’m absolutely floored didn’t make it into Breaking Bad.
The Range (in Albuquerque proper and Bernallio City as well) is my personal pick for good New Mexican food.
Favorite local chains are Flying Star and Satellite Coffee, run by the same parent company. Satellite’s got unique drinks and a great atmosphere. Flying Star’s got a wide selection of great food and is a good pick for keeping a family of vegetarians and omnivores happy. At Satellite, make sure to try the red stuff.
Speaking of coffee, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend vacations in coffee shops for blogging/working/people watching purposes, Humble Coffee, Java Joe’s and Michael Thomas are all good options.
For something a little different, head to Gatos y Galletas, one of very few cat cafes in the US. I wrote about it here.
There’s a little place off Central called Annapurna that serves Ayudervic Indian food. If you want something healthy but flavorful, stop in!
Classic New Mexico eats include piñon, horchata, and anything with green chili.
GOOD TO KNOW:
-New Mexican food is NOT MEXICAN FOOD, I repeat, NOT MEXICAN FOOD. It’s it’s own thing.
-If someone mentions Christmas in the context of food, not holidays, they’re referring to a combination of green and red chili. Pretty much every New Mexican dish includes chili, and you can order with green, red, or a combination.
-People give directions using North/South/East/West all the time. This is because the Sandias are dead East. It’s hard to get too lost with this knowledge in your back pocket.
-Public transit exists, but it’s slow and seedy as heck. Stand near the bus driver and keep an eye on your belongings and you’ll be fine.
-New Mexicans really like Breaking Bad. The finale was a huge deal around here, and the Albuquerque Journal published an obit for Walter White. So even if it’s not your thing, don’t smack talk it unless you want to get, well, smacked.