Four Corners: A Delightfully Confusing Tourist Trap

Of course I knew that Four Corners – the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet – would be a tourist trap. But on a recent road trip from Durango to Monument Valley, Utah, I passed just five miles away from this geographically auspicious place and found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and see the only spot in America where four states meet.

The Navajo Nation operates the site, which sits inside their vast reservation, which is about as large as West Virginia. After paying the modest $3 fee in a booth, I noticed a sign warning tourists against spreading ashes at the site, as the Navajo believe that cremation is a “malicious desecration.”

I parked and made my way towards the monument, expecting to be able to touch an actual piece of dirt where the four states meet. But low and behold, the site, which is set amidst some wild, beautiful southwestern scenery, is an ugly monstrosity.

Rather than allow an untrammeled view of nature surrounding the site, there are four hideous concrete structures with stalls for vendors – all but two of them were unoccupied when I was there – and the entire site has been paved over, so there’s nothing but concrete. It was a cold Saturday morning and there was just one family at the site aside from myself.

One of just two Native American vendors who turned up that morning told me that in the high season people sometimes have to wait in line an hour or more to get their photo taken at the spot where the four states meet. I couldn’t help but wonder which state would have jurisdiction if an enraged tourist decided to kill someone who was taking too long posing for photos on the spot.

After walking across the spot, I noticed that my car seemed to be parked in New Mexico, which baffled me. I’d be driving in Colorado and hadn’t passed any sign indicating that I’d crossed into New Mexico. I looked back at the spot and tried to rap my head around the fact that I could look in four directions and see four states. And for the first time in my life I was thoroughly confused about what state I was actually in.

“Excuse me,” I said to the Navajo woman operating the booth at the entrance to the site. “But are we in New Mexico right now?”

“This is New Mexico,” she said. “But down by the river, it’s Colorado, off to the right, it’s Arizona, and over there it’s Utah.”

“But there was no sign to indicate that I had left Colorado and entered New Mexico,” I said.

“A drunk driver smashed into the sign,” she explained. “So it’s gone now.”

I crossed back into Colorado and then into Utah, crossing my 8th state border within ten minutes. Or was it 7? I still have no idea.

[Photo/video credit: Dave Seminara]

Hangover Cures: A Global Primer

New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, so what better time to provide a list of hangover cures from around the world? Our friends at Alice Marshall Public Relations in New York asked some of their clients about local versions of hair-of-the-dog. Unsurprisingly, the preferred remedies all have a distinctly regional flavor. Here’s to a headache-and-nausea-free January 1!

St. Barts
On this notorious party island, the secret is to stay awake. Pull an all-nighter, and when “the bakery” in St. Jean opens, score a croissant straight out of the oven. Devour it, cross the street and jump into the ocean.

Although I’ve found coconut water to be the best hangover helper in existence, Thailand has a more original cure. According to the Anantara Golden Triangle resort, Black Ivory Coffee (aka elephant dung coffee, which I believe puts kopi luwak to shame) is what does the trick. Elephants feed on coffee beans, which then ferment in their gastrointestinal tract.

The beans are then plucked out by the mahouts (elephant keepers) and their wives, roasted, and sold for approximately $1,100 per kilogram. But wait, there’s more! Eight percent of all sales are donated to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. No reason is given for why this cure supposedly helps, but I’m thinking this folklore is full of … you know.
As if being in the glorious Maldives weren’t cure enough, Naladhu luxury resort has my kind of cure in mind (that’s me, right, killing a hangover in Mexico). They provide queasy guests with fresh coconut water from their own groves. All those electrolytes along with potassium stop hangovers in their tracks.

Cape Town
According to chef Reuben Riffel of One&Only Cape Town, a swank urban resort, you need to drink yourself better. His solution is an alcohol-free tonic consisting of one cup of chilled Rooibos tea (an indigenous plant), a half-cup ginger ale, and 1 ounce of lemongrass simple syrup. Top with soda water, and a dash of Angostura bitters.

Santa Fe
After many visits to Santa Fe, I’ll swear by the local’s cure for a long night. A green chile cheeseburger is the prescription, although I’d add that a bowl of great posole, green chile, or a breakfast burrito also work wonders.

Nantucket Island Resorts recommends a brisk swim in Nantucket Sound, followed by a visit to Brant Point Grill for a Lobster Bloody Mary and lobster kabobs. Now we’re talking.

Have a safe, happy, hangover-free New Year’s!

[Photo credits: elephant, Flickr user rubund; coconut, Laurel Miller]

Intrigued by Black Ivory Coffee? Watch this video!

Ski Town Holidays: Not Just For Skiers

It sounds crazy, but not all ski-town tourists are there to downhill ski. In fact, many don’t even know how. I’ll also let you in on a local’s secret: not all permanent residents of ski towns know how to ski, and of those who do, many can’t even afford a season pass.

The fact is, there are now more options than ever for non-skiers and those on a tight budget to engage in other winter sports, if they’re not willing or able to hit the slopes. I know many couples that have differing ideas of a ski vacation: one loves alpine skiing, while the other is happier sitting by a fire drinking hot toddies or shopping. They make it work.

Regardless of your mutual or differing snow-centric passions, ski town holidays can work for everyone. Most resorts now have Nordic centers and outfitters that offer at least some combination of the below list, so there’s no excuse not to get out there this winter.

Nordic/cross-country skiing (free/cheap rentals!)
Snowshoeing (ditto)
Dog sledding (please do your research beforehand, to make sure the business has no animal welfare citings)
Cultural tours
Adaptive sports
Skjioring (when a skier is pulled by a dog or horse0
Hot springs
Sleigh rides
Horseback riding

[Photo credit: Flickr user US Embassy Sweden]

Winter riding at The Home Ranch, in Clark, Colorado (near Steamboat Springs)

Cleveland New Mexico: Where Cars Go To Die

A shabby peach convertible hogged the front yard. It stretched out like a sunbathing teenage girl would – at a long diagonal, facing the street, just begging to get picked up.

I walked right up to her, crouching down at the battered grill, where both headlights were missing, like gems pried out of a ring’s bed. I’d forgotten how much headlights, when you’re squarely in front of an old car, look like eyes. In this case: doe-eyes, blank and coquettish.

I had just a moment to photograph; the dogs would soon bark. Whose dogs? Anyone’s dogs. Everyone’s dogs. In Cleveland, a one-street town deep in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, I could count on two things: rusty cars, crowding front and backyards, and dogs, roaming said yards, ready to bark at me.

I’d first chanced upon Cleveland on a road trip from Taos – a long, meandering ride through fields and hillsides where the chipping hoods of old sedans kept peeking out of the sagebrush. New Mexico, I’d decided, was where cars go to die.

But nothing prepared me for the Mora Valley. Here was a place with more dead cars than living people. They filled pastures and slumped down ravines, their tires folded over in rolls, windshields cracked like lightning bolts. Two hours southeast and many mountain passes from Taos, I found myself in the true rust belt of America, wondering what joker named it Cleveland.

%Gallery-171373%In fact, this town was originally called San Antonio, founded in 1835 along a skinny river, 7,000 high in the sierras, in the northern reaches of what was then Mexico. Only in 1892 did San Antonio rechristen itself Cleveland (after Grover, the American President), for the purpose of getting a US post office. Still, Cleveland belonged to the Wild West, a town of mills and saloons, murders and feuds, hidden in the mountains and guarding a culture all its own.

I tried to find out more about Cleveland by asking around Taos. All people seemed to know, though, was a story about a bear. They told it like a tall tale. Once, not so long ago, an old lady was cooking in her kitchen. A black bear let itself in and attacked the cook. One Taos man had this to add to Cleveland’s lore: “It’s the Appalachia of New Mexico.” Back in high school, he was afraid of Cleveland guys. Something about shotguns.

Still, Cleveland called me. Those cars. All that rust. I’m no automobile expert; it’s antiques – the kind not at all in mint condition – that get me. I love the earth-tone palette, history’s whisper, the wear and tear of a couple lifetimes. But it was the way these old cars mingled and merged with the desert that so pleased my eye. The once-shiny work of the factory, reclaimed by the tan earth.

So I went back to Cleveland with a simple plan: I’d walk into the yards most dense with junkers and start photographing. I counted on four things happening. One, I’d get to admire the rusty beauties up close. Two, someone would come outside and ask what on earth I was doing. Three, I’d smile, give a wave, and dial up the charm before anyone could pull a gun. Four, they’d tell what was up with Cleveland.

There’s no pretty sign welcoming you in cursive letters to Little Cleveland. Instead, a mangled white Ford sits atop a hill like a giant lawn ornament. I’d taken no more than three steps towards it, hardly lifted my camera, when the barking began.

I didn’t look at the dogs, well able to imagine their teeth. Instead, I watched a silhouette fill the doorway of the trailer just behind the car. A man. Shirtless. I waved at his fluid silhouette and hoped he’d take my side.

Rick wore just jeans, plus a great mane of black hair that would make many women jealous. His body was lean but sinewy. I was pretty sure he could lift that dead Ford with two hands.

Why so many junk cars in Cleveland? I asked.

Rick widened his eyes at me. “Because people don’t want to get rid of ’em!” he cried, like my question was all wrong. Like maybe I should be asking why anyone throws anything away in this world, certainly here, deep in the mountains, where even a humble man has plenty of room.

Rick told me about a nephew, in Colorado, who’s real handy with cars. One day, Rick hoped, the nephew would turn these pieces back into a car. We stared at the hunks of Rick’s dismembered Ford, most of them stuffed in the open trunk. A side door bent outward like a giant metal wing. The sunroof was wide open, ready to collect rain. Yes, it was raining. A little, then a lot.

Rick pointed up his steep, dirt driveway. “That’s about to be a river.”

Rain soaked the valley of dead cars while I took cover in my living car. It was a borrowed sedan with Texas plates, which could be a liability in this town. The first settlers here built their homes in a tight line to protect against attacks. The Comanches were a threat, but so were nearby Texans, who led a raid here in 1843.

To this day – and even through sheets of summer rain – you can see traces of Hispanic influence all down the main drag. The busiest restaurant in town makes a single promise outside – TAMALES – and down at the gas station, you can’t miss the assurance that red and green chilies are in stock. Sure enough, I found the local pepper for sale in little pouches, easier to reach than a Slim Jim.

The woman working the counter is the daughter of a serious junk car collector. “He’s got a ’29, a ’48, a ’49 …,” she rattled off the make of her dad’s prized vehicles, pausing to remember some year in the 1970s – the youngest of her dad’s other kids.

But why so many? I knew that New Mexico had a long past, that people here hung onto its relics, and that rust was more of an aesthetic than an eyesore. But why so much of it in Cleveland?

“They’re waiting for an offer,” the man in line behind me said.

That’s just how it looked across the street, where the peach convertible showed off her curves, top down. I’d just risen to my feet to peek in the convertible’s open (and garbage-stuffed) cabin, when the dogs began again. Yipping this time, sounding safely puny. It was just enough noise, though, to tip someone off.

“Hi there,” a next-door neighbor appeared. He was built like a cop, bulky up top, but rather than kick me off the property, he lead me right into his neighbor’s backyard, where the real beauts were – the junk cars nobody was angling to sell.

I followed my guide through weeds, over woodpiles, past an ochre van with a bedroom’s worth of clothes creeping up its intact windows; past a long black hearse of a car with a tree branch resting across its windshield like a third wiper; past a white sedan, so mottled with dust it looked scaly.

I nearly missed the car tucked behind the house, reachable from someone’s bedroom window. A tree had risen through it, wedging between car body and bumper, climbing straight towards the clearing sky.

You can look at a car and more or less tell from its curves or angles what era it’s from. There are certain giveaways: rocket-like taillights, airplane hood ornaments, grills like gangster teeth. But behold a car that a tree has grown through and you get a sense of how very long it’s been junked.

Back on Route 518, I set out to crown a junk car king. The guy with the old Wagoneers, preppy misfits in their green and navy stripes? The school bus junkie, his property overtaken by giant metallic bees?

But I knew the junk car kingdom when I saw it; anyone would. Picture an automobile show, with one classic car from the past ten decades, left to rot in a field. Both sides of the main drag were edged with old sedans and vans and one truck whose crooked grill looked punched in, like a hockey player’s teeth. And behind it all, like an afterthought, a big barn of a house.

I smelled grass – freshly-cut – as soon as I cracked the car door. Strange, I thought. In the rare places where grass grows in New Mexico, people aren’t much into mowing. Just across the two-lane road, I spotted a couple men in work gloves doing something even stranger than cutting grass. Something I didn’t think happened in Cleveland. They were throwing things away.

Luis seemed relieved to take a break from clearing junk. Dressed from head to toe in black, he wore glasses with a glare so strong I couldn’t look him straight in the eye. The whole time we talked, Luis never quit rubbing his sore, gloved hand. “You wouldn’t believe how much we’ve cleared!”

But I did. To our left was a heap of garbage the size of your standard cabin. It wouldn’t disappear until many trucks took many trips.

Luis told me how many whiskey bottles he’d chucked today, how many rattlesnakes he’d scattered today, and how the owner of this house would bristle if he knew about today’s junk clearing. Raymond was in a rehabilitation hospital, after a bad fall. If he recovered and came back, he’d find only his house here, decades of garbage taken out.

“Have you heard about the bear attack?” Luis asked.

I nodded. In fact, I’d been meaning to ask someone whether it was true.

“That happened here,” he said.

By “here,” I thought Luis meant Cleveland. He meant the big barn of a house at our backs. The bear broke into Raymond’s kitchen, attacking and killing his mother.

The scrape marks across the front door were, in no uncertain terms, the work of a large claw. The door’s glass pane, which the bear pushed through, still hadn’t been replaced. Like so many of Cleveland’s scars and bruises, these were left raw and legible – indefinitely so.

The story Luis told me got more and more bleak. The bear attack was gory, and Raymond was the first on the scene. He didn’t take care of himself, drank too much, hardly washed his clothes. I felt like I was hearing the tale of the town’s fallen man. Until, that is, we got back on the topic of junk cars.

Raymond did one thing right. He invested in old cars, rare cars, cars other people scrapped without thinking twice. He parked them on both sides of the road, behind the woodpile, between crab apple trees, and just waited it out. Recently, a couple from Oklahoma was driving through Cleveland. They made an offer on one of his junkers. From the sky fell $6,000.

“Pretty smart, right?” Luis asked, eyebrows lifting, finally catching my eye. I couldn’t disagree. And I got the sense that this story – more than the bear story – hovered over this town, fueling the hopes of car collectors. You could call the men of Cleveland hoarders; you could also call them dreamers. Keeping a junk car in view, right out your window, I realized, feeds a vital fantasy: that one day, you might just have more.

I was about ready to drive off, but wanted a moment alone with the old cars of Cleveland. Spotting an isolated lot, I gunned it down a gravel road towards a cluster of tanks, cranes and the most beautiful old cars I’d seen all day: a pair of pastel ’51 Pontiacs.

What nature had done with these two Pontiacs was about to make my click finger sore. Purple blossoms sprayed out from the open engine. Tan brambles claimed the steering wheel. A riot of weeds hid the seat cushions. And on the round, red-speckled hips of both cars, the silver insignia with a Native American profile, shone like a day-old coin.

Any minute now, the sun would find an opening in the lavender clouds cottoning over the valley. It was the perfect finale, save the sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

“Can I help you?” asked a man riding shotgun in a modern SUV. His son was driving. I sensed more people in the backseat. Jacobo, owner of this tank yard, had brought the entire family to find out what I was doing here.

“I’m just photographing old cars,” I said, ready to put two hands up. I had, though, one thing going for me: I loved Jacobo’s Pontiacs, and so did Jacobo. Fiercely. That’s probably why I hadn’t gotten shot in Cleveland today. The old cars were the town pride, and I was framing them. So I was cool, I was let in, and before I knew it, I was following Jacobo down muddy roads, past dead tractor trailers, so he could show me the army green truck just like on “M*A*S*H.”

Propped on wooden planks like a washed-up boat, the “M*A*S*H” truck was hidden behind a barn. You could still make out the Red Cross insignia, but not for much longer. Side mirrors hung on by bent twigs of metal. Just like on “M*A*S*H,” but phenomenally beat up.

Jacobo’s entire family waited in the running truck while I crept around the dead one. What else, I wondered, was hidden off route 518? A first edition limousine? Train cars? Some Rolls Royce entwined by cacti? How much potential were the people of this town sitting on?

The climb out of Cleveland was steep; my view was aerial within minutes. I looked down over the pristine expanse of green, unlittered from this height. The Mora Valley could pass for a Promised Land up here. It dawned on me, foot pressed hard against the gas, that no one had given me the most practical reason to let sleeping cars lie in Cleveland. Your grandfather’s old Chevy probably wouldn’t make it over these peaks, and any truck that dragged it would have to work mighty hard.

And yet I found an old school bus trying its best, pulled over at a scenic overlook where I, too, paused for rest. A scruffy man in oil-stained jeans sat on the bottom step of the bus he’d just bought at auction. A chiropractor, he rides through Cleveland every now and again, ready to buy. A lot of guys, he confessed, turn him down.

“They say no?” I was as amazed as amused. All those guys talking potential, quoting me numbers: I loved the image of them shaking their heads when the moment of sale came to pass.

“It’s complicated,” he told me, gazing into the clean panorama of pines. “You have to understand the psyche of New Mexico.”

I ran through all the answers I’d collected in Cleveland, reasons for the abundance of junk cars. “The laziness,” said the gas station cashier, the only woman I’d spoken to all day. Another person said sentimental value: “might be the first car their dad drove.” A shy man watching me photograph by his barn brought up scrap metal; he would one day scrap his broken bus, but first, wanted to build a shed for it (yes, a shed to protect what he planned to scrap).

As for Jacobo, whose Pontiacs are allegedly worth $35,000 a piece, he chalked it up to liberty. Old cars keep a man free, he said, unlike the computerized cars of today, which authorities can track. He preferred a car no one could follow, and that any good mechanic – a friend, preferably – could fix.

I’d given up hope that any two Clevelanders would answer alike. People seemed to use the junk car question to just tell me about their town, their ways. I wondered whether we could all do this – define ourselves, quite well, by the things we won’t give up. What other people part with – easily, ritually – and we cannot.

Talking junkers, Clevelanders painted themselves sentimental and hopeful and suspicious and proud. They like to sit on potential, uncommonly patient. They’ll wait for decades, ready for someone to make an offer, ready to cash in, or ready to say no, and keep what’s always been theirs.

[Photos by Colleen Kinder]

Celebrate Georgia O’Keeffe’s 125th Birthday In Santa Fe (Tres Leches Cake Is Involved)

Mention Georgia O’Keeffe and cooking isn’t what comes to mind. But the iconic Southwestern artist was ahead of her time when it came to food. So says O’Keeffe’s former cook and assistant Margaret Wood, author of “A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe” (Red Crane Books), and “Remembering Miss O’Keeffe: Stories from Abiquiu” (Museum of New Mexico Press).

Wood shares anecdotes from her years with O’Keeffe, in an inspired demonstration class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. When not working with O’Keeffe in her Abiquiu garden, Wood procured eggs and meat from local farmers, and prepared simple, wholesome dishes such as leg of lamb with garlic and honey-mint sauce, or corn soup.

Santa Fe’s Inn on the Alameda is offering a special, “Happy Birthday, Georgia Experience” package, which includes a four-night stay for two, museum passes, a Georgia-focused class at the cooking school and more.

To purchase tickets for either event, click here, or call 505-983-4511.

[Photo credit: Inn on the Alameda]