One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
– Henry Miller
I love it when friends or family come to visit us in New Mexico. I look forward to these visits not only because I enjoy spending time with those I don’t often get to see, but also because playing tour guide reminds me how beautiful and wondrous New Mexico—and indeed much of America—can be.
It is so easy to get caught up in the prevailing notion that adventure is the exclusive domain of overseas travel. Let’s be honest–in our consumer culture, travel has become yet another commodity, another sign of wealth or status comparable in some circles to a Porsche or a home theater system. We tick off countries and compare our lists: I’ve been to 16 countries – how many have you been to? Our travels are material conquests, notches on our belts that are confirmed through colorful stories and exotic snapshots. Photo albums on our bookshelves, neatly labeled: Thailand 2006, Czech Republic 2008, Zimbabwe 2011, Patagonia 2013, etc. While this brand of consumerism appeals more to me than the alternative (I would much rather accumulate experiences than “stuff”), sometimes I still question my own motives and the impact of my travel compulsion on myself and the world around me.
Granted, many of us travel abroad for stated reasons beyond social status or the accumulation of “adventure wealth”, and the commodification of overseas travel may well be a byproduct of our other motives. Many travelers live in a geographically or climatically limited region and seek new activities not available at home. For instance, Costa Ricans might want to go skiing, Russians might want to go reef diving or, in my social group, climbers often travel abroad for new experiences in verticality (Patagonia, the Himalayas and other mountainous regions are popular destinations). Some people travel to experience cultural history, such as the rich and layered Anglo history in Europe or the more ancient human past of the Middle East. And still others travel for internal reasons–some ineffable driving force propels them onward, always seeking an open road and what remains of the unknown in a trampled world. They have an insatiable hunger for newness, variety, and the insecurity of being a foreigner in an unfamiliar land.
(I fall into all of these categories to some degree, but mostly the last.)
No matter the declared motives, overseas travel seems to be a rite of passage these days. You are not considered worldly or intrepid until you have had at least one adventure (or even better, misadventure) in a foreign country. The notches on our travel belts make us somehow more socially interesting and insightful than our untraveled counterparts, and tales of our various exotic exploits are by default more entertaining than those sought on domestic soil.
And we keep racking up the conquests, we travelers. We keep notching our belts and telling our tales.
Of course, the irony of all of this feverish overseas travel is that in the end, our adventuring will likely lead us right back to where we started; for as it turns out, what we are often seeking abroad is a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of what it means to be home.
Don’t get me wrong—I think foreign travel generally has a profoundly positive impact on the traveler, and I regularly advocate overseas adventures to anyone who will consider it. But I think there is also value in embracing your home turf, and in truly knowing a place beyond the surface experience of the passer-through. There is a depth of exploration in any place that waits for our interest, waits for us to return from our travels to discover what we were seeking was here the whole time.
It’s rare that people come to Southern New Mexico as a destination; people usually come here to visit family/friends, or stop in on their way to more exciting locales. As a result, the region’s true gems rarely suffer the crowds of the more glamorous and popular nearby spots in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and even Texas. And most New Mexico tourists stay to the north, enjoying artsy Santa Fe and picturesque Taos Pueblo. So when friends come to visit our borderlands, I adopt the role of hometown tour guide with gusto. Last week was one such occasion, and we hit several of the area highlights.
A brief rundown of adventures to be had close to home (for us, anyway… for you, an invitation to consider Southern New Mexico as a domestic vacation destination):
White Sands National Monument:
Always a crowd pleaser, this National Monument is only 45 minutes from Las Cruces, and 20 minutes from Alamogordo. White gypsum sand dunes stretch out as far as the eye can see. On summer full moon nights, the park hosts evening events for the public, sometimes with live music. I’ve been here 20+ times and I still love it.
The Organ Mountains:
Dominating the eastern horizon from Las Cruces, the Organs provide ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and rock climbing. Their toothy granite spires seem out of place in the flat desert landscape, and in the rare event of snowfall they could be confused for the Sierras. Springs and waterfalls can be found in some of the canyons, and wildlife abounds in the grassy meadows and live oak thickets. Legislation is being proposed to protect this area as a new National Monument.
Wild West historical fun! A stop on the Butterfield Overland Trail, Mesilla was once the Las Vegas of the Wild West. Billy the Kid was sentenced to death in the plaza, and Pat Garrett was murdered in an arroyo outside of town. Many of the buildings in Mesilla date back to the mid-1800s, and many of them boast rich Mexican and early American history and hauntings. Makes for a fun afternoon, and be sure to grab a cocktail at the ornate Double Eagle bar.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
Simply amazing. Covering an area equal to seven football fields and with a floor-to-ceiling height at one point of 360+ feet, these underground caverns and their limestone formations are a must-see. You can either walk down the natural entrance or take an elevator 700 feet underground to the aptly named Big Room. Tours are available for other chambers. I’ve been here 5 times and never tire of it.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument:
Over in the Gila Wilderness (the first designated wilderness in the country) near Silver City, these Mogollon dwellings are perched in cliff side caves. Similar to the more famous Mesa Verde structures in Colorado (but without the crowds), these ruins date to about the same period and are very well preserved. Nearby there are breathtaking backpacking and hiking routes, as well as several natural hot springs along the Gila River Middle Fork.
Other sites of interest include: myriad petroglyph and Native American heritage sites such as Three Rivers, mining history in the Gila region (including the now-closed Catwalk and several ghost towns), the country’s southernmost ski area at Ski Apache, hot springs spas in Truth or Consequences, the Very Large Array near Magdalena, and world-class rockhounding opportunities. I could keep going, but you get the idea.
This may sound like a visitor bureau’s shameless self-promotion plug, but the point is that there is adventure to be found wherever you are. I’m sure you could make a similar list for the place you call home and, while it’s easy to take these spots for granted, it might be worth your energy to remind yourself of all the backyard adventures available to you and everyone else. In America, we are fortunate to live in such an enormous, diverse, and geographically rich country, we needn’t really look much farther than our own doorstep to start an adventure. Even if your own country is much smaller, it likely offers a broad wealth of cultural and natural sites of interest.
And, next time you’re swapping stories with another travel hound, ask her instead what “microadventures” she has taken close to home. Or take the time to ask domestically inclined folks about what amazing things they have seen and done in their own country. You might be surprised just how interesting those stories can be.
After all, as Pico Iyer once wrote,
Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.
And if we try, we can do this almost anywhere.