Texas to Oregon in a classic Mercedes 280se Coupe: Day 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico to Kayenta, Arizona

I didn’t sleep very well last night. Between the GI distress and being a tad weary after driving for three days… and then there was this:

Outside our hotel window

Did I add that it was backlit by a strong light. Right. Outside. The window.

I guess this serves as decor in New Mexico.

Speaking of which, the one decoration I DO appreciate are the Ristras strung up everywhere. They make for a nice color accent and backdrop as I’m out prepping and loading the car for our journey today.


Feeling better, we enjoy the hotel breakfast buffet, and I peruse the weather on our proposed route up into Colorado. Specifically we want to head to Durango, then up US 550 (aka “The Million Dollar Highway” to Ouray. I’ve traveled this route before in the Colorado Grand tour, and it was also recommended by my friend Frank Barrett as we enjoyed a lunch together a few weeks ago in Bend, Oregon.

However, it was clear that the entire west of the USA was being blanketed by a major storm system. My weather radar app on my phone showed precipitation across the entire Pacific Northwest, Intermountain West/Great Basin area, and the Rocky Mountains… except New Mexico and Arizona. Given the elevations involved, the likelihood of being snowed upon is really high if we drive north to Colorado, so I decide to head west. I look at the map and find a few roads I have yet to drive, linking with a few that I have driven, and we calculate our destination in eastern Nevada. We plan to cross the mountains just west of Los Alamos, NM, then head up to the Shiprock area, then west to Monument Valley, then northwest through Utah and into Nevada.

Arriving in Los Alamos

We take a leisurely route through and out of Santa Fe, via a twisty road through a canyon north of town. It is filled with the usual Santa Fe things: fancy galleries, fancy restaurants, and fancy homes (all built out of adobe of course) and of course fancy cars, several of which give us thumbs up as they pass us. We amble our way towards Los Alamos, a place I can’t recall ever visiting, despite all the time I’ve spent in the area. It is up on a series of mesas at the base of a mountain range. Really a pretty place, but unusual in that it is clearly a “Company Town” with the company being the Los Alamos National Laboratory. There is a lot of history here, at least recent history since the town was created in 1942 to serve as the headquarters for the Manhattan Project. Since it is the last largish town we are going to be in for a while, we stop to pick up some things, hit a restroom, and most importantly get some coffee for Testa Rossa. We find a grocery store with a Starbucks inside, and I park the car a good distance away in the large parking lot. I often do this just so I can get some exercise. I also do this because parking lots are likely the most hazardous places in the world to drive a car. The risk to life and limb is near zero while you remain in the car, but the risk to the car is very high. I REALLY don’t want to get any dings or dents in this car, as the whole plan is to sell it as soon as possible after we get home. I just get out and start walking, without bothering to lock the car. As we enter the store we split up, with Testa Rossa beelining for her coffee, and me making a restroom stop, and then grabbing a few groceries for the road. After I check out I find Testa Rossa and she says she wants to head back to the car since it is unlocked. I stay behind and snack a bit, and I think about what she just said… and think to myself “why on earth is she so worried about the unlocked car? This town is populated almost entirely by PhD Physicists!”

I return to the car and tell her my thoughts and she laughs and agrees with me. Of course the car and its contents were intact and left unmolested while we were in the store.

Getting underway, we wind our way through and out of Los Alamos. There are clear signs of the nature of what goes on here, in many odd, both subtle and blatant ways. For example, most of the homes in and around the town that we see are quite modest, but virtually every home has a nice car parked in the driveway. The most hilarious one I see is a tiny bungalow, which looks a tad run down, but has a Tesla Model S parked in front. Nice cars are driving around everywhere, and there are large signs here and there that state that all vehicles are subject to search at any time. The Lab has several sites and entrances all with clear and present physical security. As we leave Los Alamos and head into the mountains the roads, despite it being a Monday, are crowded with road cyclists, and the trail head parking lots all contain cars. After about 30 minutes of driving west, things settle down to normal, western landscapes again.

Valle Grande, west of Los Alamos

Highway through the mountains, AFTER the construction.

We are rolling along a nice wide highway through the mountains when all of a sudden we come around a corner and encounter road construction. The pavement has been removed, and it is down to dirt. In fact, the actual road pathway has been blocked and a temporary bypass road has been made through some cones. I gingerly maneuver the car through this area, and after a few turns find myself completely blocked by construction equipment. We wait for a while, and it becomes clear that they are actively clearing out a path for us to go through the zone. Eventually they wave us through and we find ourselves on a very dusty section. The car is surrounded by a cloud of dust, and it is getting into the passenger compartment in volume. I had no idea this was on the menu for today. I can’t recall seeing any sign warning us of the impending construction, but too late now, we are in it deep. Soon we once again have our way blocked by heavy equipment. I get out of the car as we wait and ask the workers how far the construction goes ahead. They reply that just “three bends up the road” the way has been graded as of last week and it should be clear driving after that. They tell me, “you’ve got balls bringing that car up here” to which I respond “I had no idea this construction was up here.” I ask how far before we’re on pavement again, and they universally shrug their shoulders… they have no idea. We wait likely thirty minutes before we’re able to continue (we had to wait a bit for traffic coming the other way first) before we continue making progress again. Sure enough, just a short distance from our stopping point the road surface dramatically improves, though it is still very dusty. About four miles later we’re back on excellent pavement again. I’m a bit dumbfounded by how they can perform this near total repave of the section with pretty much zero signage until we’re right upon it. Oh well, New Mexico! The delay has cost us a LOT of time, so I figure we’ll have to readjust our ambitions on where to stay tonight.

We exit the mountains and head down towards the Farmington area, and stop for a pee-break, an ice cream sandwich, and a chance to survey lodging possibilities. We consider either Monument Valley/Kayenta, or Page, Arizona. I’ve visited the former, but haven’t been to the latter. I’ve driven most of the roads in this part of the world, between my college days climbing road trips, and the 2011 Southwest Oil Leak Tour. Feeling some time pressure due to our construction delays, we get moving, but the relatively populated area stymies us with stop lights and traffic from Bloomfield, through Farmington, and into Shiprock. It seems to take forever to get through this part of New Mexico. We finally break free of the congestion west of Shiprock as we approach the border with Arizona. I point out the Four Corners area to Testa Rossa, referring to the “Breaking Bad” episode where Skyler visits the monument after Walt’s “I’m the one who knocks” speech. We don’t visit the monument, but the general area is visible to our north.

Approaching the Monument Valley area in the Four Corners region.

Our cumulative delays have us choosing to stay in Kayenta. This will allow us to check in, get gas, dash up to Monument Valley in time to catch the sunset, then grab a dinner at The View hotel overlooking the Monument. It is cloudy, but there are breaks in the clouds that just might make for a spectacular sunset, in what is clearly one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth.

Plan in place, we begin to execute. While we’re getting gas, Testa Rossa checks for hotels on her phone. She sees the one that is right across the street has a good price, so we drive over and check the quoted price at the desk versus the one online. The price is the same, so we check in and go to our room, and unload. I grab my camera and we head north to the Monument.

The Coupe in Monument Valley

I’ve been here before, but this is Testa Rossa’s first time. Unlike my last visit which enjoyed clear weather, the sky today is heavily overcast, with some slight clearing to the west. The valley is beautiful to behold, as always. I start by parking the Coupe in a scenic spot and snapping the photo you see above. Sure, it’s dusty from the construction zone, and has bugs splattered all over the front, but it still looks good. Afterwards I park it and we walk around, soaking in the view as the sun sets. It is surprisingly empty of people… just a few European and Asian tourists here and there, as well as a few other Americans. I have my whole camera bag and swap lenses on the camera a few times trying to get the essence of the place. No lens ever comes close, as it seems is always the case. The setting sun fails to break through a properly placed opening to illuminate the monuments, but some interesting light plays on the clouds and the mountains in the distance. Satisfied that it isn’t going to change for the better, we head in to the hotel to sit down to dinner. I had eaten there before, specifically breakfast on my last visit and I thought it would make a better choice than Kayenta, which seems to have just fast food. Unfortunately the restaurant only serves hotel guests for dinner as a matter of some policy, which is absurd, as the place is not even half full. Turned away, we head back to the car and back to our hotel a bit to the south in Kayenta. Turns out our hotel has a restaurant, and it is still serving dinner. We get a table and again note that just about everyone around us is a visitor from overseas. Brits, Germans, French, etc. A lot of motorcycle tourists as it seems like riding a Harley on Route 66 is a big deal for Europeans. Go figure.

The food and service at the restaurant is terrible, and very… VERY… slow. The insult to injury is that alcohol is banned on the Reservation, so you have to endure all of this sober. I can only imagine the disappointment all these overseas visitors are feeling. The place is empty before we are able to clear out. We head back to our room and I sleep like a log.

Monument Valley