Goth Panda

June 29, 2015

Plans for 2015-2016

When we got back from Australia two weeks ago, for the first time in years, I did not have the next trip planned. In the beginning of April, we moved from the Philadelphia area to Central Pennsylvania, where I’d gotten a new job. Although just about everything having to do with this move, including the new location and my new job, have been terrific, I had to give up my stored-up vacation days and start over. So for a few months, we are going to be homebound. This is not as bad as it sounds; we have several weekend trips planned, and several weekends hosting houseguests. But my next chance for a long trip is over the holiday break.

In keeping with my new theme of wanting to go somewhere warm, we decided to knock out a state that Mike hasn’t been to yet and visit New Orleans. This is also fulfilling another goal of mine to take an overnight train trip, since we will arrive via Amtrak. We will drive up to visit Mike’s sister in Arkansas for Christmas, then return to NOLA for a few days before flying home. I have been to New Orleans, but it was more than 10 years ago, and not for very long. I’m going to have to come up with something interesting for us to do, since my favorite things (beignets and French Quarter houses) are not going to interest Mike very much.

We decided almost spur of the moment to make our May/June trip next year to see some more Utah National Parks. The real impetus was when I checked the National Park hotels at Zion and Bryce Canyon and found out they had (very few) rooms available. I’d already had the basic plan for the trip mapped out, so I snapped up the reservations, and also added an overnight stop at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which I didn’t get to see last fall. My obsession with National Parks and National Park hotels continues. I thought about making our next goal (after achieving the 50 States) visiting all of the National Parks, but I’m not sure because there are a few I am just not interested in. But we might get almost there without making it an explicit goal.

In late summer, we have two possibilities: Nova Scotia or back to Bar Harbor. We’ve never been to Nova Scotia, and usually a new place would win out over a repeat, but I loved Bar Harbor so much that I view these as almost even.

For next year’s holiday break, I am thinking of going back to the Southwest: specifically Big Bend National Park, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe. I will not pretend that the regional cuisine is not a major reason for this plan.

February 5, 2014

Cross-Country Road Trip Day 5: White Sands National Monument

At the top of my notes for this day, I wrote, “Road trip problems: not enough room for stolen mini toiletries.” I had brought regular size versions of shampoo and everything else we needed, but I felt compelled to take the free mini ones in each hotel room in case of some unspecified emergency. By the time I got home I had a pretty large collection.

We got started early this morning and headed for White Sands. We crossed through the lower half of New Mexico, and I was surprised by the scenery. I knew there was skiing in New Mexico, but I thought it was in the Northern half, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. When we drove through Lincoln National Forest, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, snow and pine trees appeared, and we passed kids sledding down hills.

New Mexico

We planned to stop for lunch in Alamogordo, the biggest town close to White Sands. We tried to go to a nice restaurant, but since it was Dec. 23, the place was closed for a private holiday party. We got in the car and searched for another option on Yelp. Which is how we ended up at Eddie’s Burritos. Eddie’s is not a “nice” restaurant – it is located in strip mall, for one thing – but the burritos were huge and delicious and the staff was friendly. They had an extensive salsa bar where you could have all the guacamole you wanted. So all in all it was a good change in plans.

White Sands National Monument is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. It looks like snow or exceptionally white sand, but it is really made up of a pure mineral, hydrous calcium sulfate, which remains behind after the water in the playa evaporates. The “sands” aren’t sand at all. It is softer and not as gritty. It looks and feels more like talcum powder or baking soda than real sand.

White Sands NM

The brightness of the dunes was blinding; even with sunglasses, I joked that my retinas were seared afterwards. It was only 50 degrees when we were there, but the bright sunlight and the dunes made it seem like it should have been hotter.

White Sands NM

It wasn’t very long after we got to White Sands that we realized what the main visitor activity was: sledding. Almost everyone who wasn’t us had round saucers and were using them to slide down the sandy hills. At first we were confused, since it seemed like that might not be good for the dunes. But the park service clearly didn’t have a problem with it. They sold and rented saucers at the gift shop.

White Sands NM

Instead of sledding, we hiked around the backcountry campsites, went to the visitor’s center where they was a busload of Chinese tourists, and then went out on the short nature trail. All in all, we stayed much longer than I had planned. It was a really interesting and unique place. But that of course made us late getting to Tucson, our stop for the night.

We stopped for dinner in Las Cruces at another Mexican restaurant, as you do in the Southwest. We started out trying to find a different place, but all the Yelp recommendations were for drive-in restaurants. We were looking for table service since we were spending quite enough time in the car, thank you very much. We ended up at Las Trancas, which turned out to be a pretty good choice. For the most part, we had really good luck with restaurants for the whole trip.

Between Las Cruces and Tucson we had our first border patrol check point. I was really surprised by this. We never crossed the border, but there were three places we were stopped by border patrol on the way to San Diego. This time they asked if we were citizens, but they didn’t search our car which we were grateful for, because it was a mess by this time.

We got to our Tucson hotel late. The clerk was from Massachusetts, but he made a joke about the New Jersey water and asked if we glowed in the dark. Uh, no. Then he said that we must get that question all the time. Wrong again, buddy.

January 31, 2014

Cross-Country Road Trip Day 4: Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns

We woke up early on Day 4, tired, cranky, and hungry. I forgot to mention that due to the icy driving the night before, we never stopped for dinner. And in order to make it to Carlsbad Caverns before it closed, we had to leave pretty early. I had signed us up for a tour at 1:00 p.m., but I knew we were not going to make that.


Luckily the roads weren’t bad. By the time we crossed into New Mexico, the day was sunny, the speed limit was 75 mph, and there were very few other cars on the road. We had left the icy interstate behind, and the driving was excellent. We were also lucky that New Mexico gave us another hour.

New Mexico

New Mexico

We pulled off the road to take a photo of this sign, and minivan pulled off behind us to do the same thing. It was clearly a family on a road trip, just like us.

We made it to Roswell, NM in time for lunch, and we stopped at a local Mexican restaurant, Los Cerritos. Mike and I both ordered chilaquiles, which neither of us had ever had before. I learned that however I thought they were pronounced was definitely wrong, because our Latina waitress said it back to me and for a brief moment I thought she had gotten it wrong. And then I realized that no, I was the one who had gotten it wrong, of course. We spent the rest of lunch trying to remember how she had said it, to avoid future embarrassment, but I don’t think it stuck.

Then, of course, we went to the UFO Museum, which is both cheesy and awesome. If you are a big fan of diaramas, this is the place for you.

Ufo Museum

Alien Crash Diarama

Artist’s recreation of the crash

Alien Crash Diarama

Another interpretation


They come in peace. Shoot to kill.



Alien Cover-up

Tell me more, Mulder.

Alien Autopsy

Alien autopsy!

After raiding the gift shop, we headed out for Carlsbad. The landscape for the first part of our trip through New Mexico was flat and pretty similar to Texas. As we got closer to Carlsbad, we started to see more desert features, like these hills.

Carlsbad Caverns NP Entrance

Carlsbad Caverns NP

We got to the caverns in time to go through all of the Big Room, which is the largest cave chamber in North America at 8.2 acres. The trail through it is a mile long, and we were down there for about 2 hours. We made it back to the elevators pretty close to the last rides up for the day.

It was really hard to take photos in the caverns. You take the elevators down 750 feet to reach them. The park service has installed flood lights so you can see the formations, but the lighting overall is very dim. If there were no lights at all, it would be absolute pitch black. I switched off between using my Canon and my iPhone for photos, because sometimes the iPhone actually worked better. But although some of the photos came out okay, I don’t think any photos, even ones shot professionally, give you a real sense of what it is like.

Carlsbad Caverns NP

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

The space is huge, and the air is humid and dank. At some points water dripped on my head. Mike and I didn’t get freaked out by being in the caverns, but I could certainly see how a person could really get freaked out by it. And apparently people do, if the warning signs are any indication. We didn’t see any of the famous bats, since they had migrated for the winter.

Carlsbad Caverns NP

We were staying in Carlsbad for the night, so when we resurfaced, we headed into the town for dinner. Carlsbad doesn’t have a lot in the way of culinary choices, but we found a really nice restaurant, Yellow Brix (which doesn’t seem to have its own website). We got to the hotel pretty early and for the first time since we started the trip, we had some time to relax.

December 23, 2013

White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument.