Once again, my 2021 Volvo XC90 (dubbed Vivian Valet Volvo) made even the utterly uninspiring, monotonous drive from east to west Texas pleasurable. Rerun snored away while Sirius and Vivian’s 600W Harman Kardon Premium Audio’s 14 speakers kept me up to date with cable news and then calm with classical music.
As temperatures could acutely rise and fall from day to night, often in minutes, I especially loved the verbal temperature feature. Pressing a steering wheel button while saying “I’m cold” or “I’m hot” would cause Vivian to automatically increase or decrease temperature by three degrees. Vivian became far more than Valet Volvo. She was nearly clairvoyant. volvocars.com
Just nine miles from the Mexican border crossing to Ciudad Juarez, El Paso has grown immeasurably since my last trip through it during the dark ages driving cross country to graduate school. The most persistent memory is a plethora of tumbleweeds. No longer. Today there is even an indoor skydiving facility, should that desire strike.
Likeable Las Cruces, New Mexico
Forty-six miles away on the threshold of the Chihuahuan Desert, Las Cruces is a hidden gem that made for a perfect break from the long drive. Little did I know how much I would come to adore this town of just over 100,000 people and its surroundings.
At the pet-friendly Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, I felt like I was arriving to an amiable relative’s richly decorated large hacienda. Wrought iron chandeliers, intricately carved furnishings, gleaming pavers and culturally significant artwork throughout provided a strong sense of history. Parking was steps away and staffers from bellman to bartender were so hospitable, I felt at home.
My terrace room had a large private patio overlooking manicured landscaping and a gorgeous pool. Rerun sniffed the patio plants, curled into a ball and fell asleep, no doubt dreaming she’d found hound heaven.
There is no shortage of exceptional Southwestern, Mexican and American restaurants in and around Las Cruces. However, if you eat only one meal, it should be dinner on the patio at Hotel Encanto’s Mezcla.
Just as Mezcla’s furnishings and décor combine modern, traditional and quirky, so too does its incredibly talented executive chef, Aaron Spring. A native of nearby Alamogordo, chef Spring brings deft imagination to his culinary creations. The spicy blue corn gazpacho was refreshing; the salad with prickly pear dressing was a feast; and prawns, mussels and squid served in an ambrosial red sea of spices were exquisite.
Happily satiated, I had zero intention of ordering dessert but my arm was “twisted” by a kindhearted server. Never could I have imagined bananas foster and nachos in the same sentence much less in the same dish. It was a heavenly, mouthwatering confection of taste, texture and originality doubtful I’ll forget. And I don’t even like bananas. hotelencanto.com
Old Mesilla is five miles away with historic Basilica of San Albino on its north end. Mesilla, once part of Spain, Mexico, Texas and the Confederacy, officially became part of the U.S. following the 1854 Gadsden Purchase.
In 1881, Wild West legend Billy the Kid was tried in Mesilla for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. Kid was taken to Lincoln 150 miles away. Just before a daring escape on a stolen horse, Kid killed the two deputies supposedly guarding him. Kid was then shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner where he is allegedly buried. With Kid’s death, so ended several notorious days of the Wild West.
Wonderful White Sands National Park
Leaving at sunrise with a full moon on the horizon we headed an hour northeast to White Sands National Park, the nation’s most recently designated, 62nd national park, that’s part of the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. The range, the nation’s largest military installation spreading over 3,200 acres and five counties, is the birthplace of space and missile activity and used by the military, government agencies and private sector.
All of that explained the Orwellian white box cameras strategically placed at various heights at the park’s entrance, the presence of an abundance of military and state police cars, and a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.
Although intending to start hiking at the 7 a.m. opening to avoid the crushing midday heat, we were delayed two hours by a missile practice that occurs on five random days a month.
Without doubt, this is the most underrated national park of the many I’ve visited. With massive, wave-like gypsum sand dunes encompassing nearly 300 miles of desert in the middle of the Tularosa Basin, it’s the world’s largest dune field of its type.
Ethereal, lunar surrealism came to mind. Resulting from a bygone evaporated sea, the sand is as soft as sifted white flour. It’s also cold, even midday, as gypsum reflects light. Speaking of light, every hour was remarkably different with shadows, appearing celestial.
Being prepared and having plenty of water are crucial when hiking, as the area often has a 50-degree temperature differential. Indeed, at the start of our four-mile black diamond hike it was 59 degrees. Two hours later it was 100. While four miles in two hours may seem like a tortoise pace, looks can be deceiving. The glorious Sahara-like sand dunes hills are incredibly difficult to climb — think going nowhere very fast.
The copious amounts of soft sand in my shoes were not at all irritating, unlike regular sand, and Rerun was certain she was in Shangri-La. Here a Lab could dig to her heart’s content and literally make zero progress. Had it not been for Rerun’s neon-colored harness, I would have lost her forever in that white sea.
White Sands National Park is so magnificent, it certainly requires another visit.
The end of the road for now
Though well worth it, adding White Sands to my itinerary set me behind schedule. So we had to make the final 760-mile leg to the coast in one extremely long day. As usual, the valiant Vivian Valet Volvo made even this enjoyable.
During this unprecedented time, Rerun and I had covered serious American ground while socially distancing. All told, we drove 4,300 miles through eight states, visited many national and state parks, several lakes, walked numerous hiking miles, stayed at pet-friendly hotels and ate a slew of delicious outdoor meals. Rerun was great company, didn’t talk too much and could chew a mean bone. She also proved a sensory sleuth at small-town cemeteries while apparently sharing my odd fascination with them.
Along various highways, byways and roads, there were also seven departed deer, two dead skunks, a lifeless white horse, a speeding ticket issued by a small-town sheriff’s deputy who looked to be about 12, and of course, countless memories. Including unlimited tail wags.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer, but content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.