One night in Albuquerque

032907 Albuquerque-7In 1988, the Ballard Bruins, my high school's boys' basketball team, made it to the national finals, which were held in Albuquerque. It was the first time I recall really hearing of this town and not much of a touchstone for anything. Then, about nine years ago, I flew through Albuquerque on my way to California. Still a smoker at that point, I snaked my way through their giant Taco Bell of an airport to step outside for a ciggie and gazed out at the flat landscape thinking, "Huh." Now we're in Albuquerque for a day (and a night) and I'd have to say my reaction is pretty much the same. In fairness, let's set the scene: Chris and I are headed for our first pure R&R trip in a year. We cashed in our coveted Southwest frequent flier tickets for a couple of freebies out here and are booked for two nights in Taos and then two more in Santa Fe. However, in order to meet whatever baloney regulations accompany said tickets, we found ourselves having to fly in one day early. We couldn't get an extra night in our Taos digs, so we threw up our hands and in the spirit of adventure, figured it could be fun to spend a night in Albuquerque.

Again: Huh.

Oh, right. Back to fairness... In order to make our 7 am flight to Albuquerque via St. Louis, we had to rise at 4. Needless to say, we were dithering around until the last minute and, coupled with pre-vacation excitement and the I-have-to-get-up-how-soon-jitters, we didn't fall asleep until 1. I'm not good without sleep, people. Let's face it, I'm not that good with sleep.

I will say, however -- and Chris will even vouch for me -- that I'm becoming quite a little trooper when it comes to early morning travel. Right up until I hit the point where I've been up for six or seven hours and then I crash like an evil beast, all horns and thorny comments, hurling accusations and bile in Chris' general direction. He gamely calls this my being "done."

By the time we landed in Albuquerque, picked up the rental car and headed away from the airport, it was about noon our time, 10 local time, and I was still doing fairly well. We decided vittles were of the first priority while we killed time before checking into our hotel. Chris pointed us towards the campus of the University of New Mexico, a very beige institute of higher learning, and we headed to the legendary Frontier restaurant for breakfast.

The Frontier is a 24-hour joint that serves up New Mexican food, traditional breakfast fare and burgers, etc. since the 1970s. At first just one storefront on Central Ave, it has slowly swallowed neighboring joints so that it stretches horizontally into a mishmash of dining rooms practically the length of the block. It's giant. When we were there, there was no line at all, but signs placed at distances throughout ("10 minutes wait from this point") suggested that when it gets busy, the line stretches the length of the place. Nice.

Like good Southwesterners, we ordered up a couple of plates of huevos rancheros and took a seat to wait for our number to be called. It gave us a chance to make sure we were in keeping with the restaurant's posted rules, which include "No yelling or profanity," "No firearms (No exceptions)" and something about no hoods worn up on the head.

We sat down at a window booth and chased our eggs and beans across the plate with amazing fresh warm tortillas that put the packaged crap to shame. A delicious mess. Is there a right way to eat huevos rancheros? Hunched ver your plate, fingers dripping, utensils lying clean and mocking to the side?  

But, as they say, a body at rest... As soon as I sat down, I could feel myself fading. And we still had 2-1/2 hours until hotel check-in.

Next we tried a perk-us-up coffee at Satellite Coffee, a block or two from Frontier. But sitting with caffeine is still sitting and I was heading, dangerously quickly, for "done." So we trolled the internet a bit for something really exciting and stimulating to do in Albuquerque and came up relatively blank. That's not to say there isn't something to do here. There must be, for God's sake. It's just to say that we couldn't find it.

So we headed on over to Old Town, Albuquerque's first neighborhood, dating back some 300 years. We drove through downtown on Lomas, past the brand-spankin' new courthouse and the gigantic scales of justice. The sky here is gigantic and the landscape at this time of year the very same beige of all the adobe buildings. Everything is the color of putty, including the landscape. Even the strip malls, filled with familiar national chain names, adhere to the adobe style which makes everything seem muted and unmemorable. The minute you pass something, it's as though you never saw it.  

We missed Old Town on our first pass through but since we were on historic Route 66, we followed it a few miles further west just to get our first glimpse of the Rio Grande which was a nice cooperative brown at that point, high and moving slowly.

If you'll permit me an aside here...when I worked at a marketing firm in the mid-1990s, we produced direct mail for car dealers and auto manufacturers. Car dealers are known for their exquisite taste and subtlety so, often, the account executives would come back and request that the letters, flyers, brochures, etc. contain more flashy, useless elements...starbursts, colorful emblems, that sort of thing. One of the guys who worked there referred to this stuff as "jick." It's a terrific word, still used by those of us who survived our tenure there but left years ago, to refer to the sort of colorful, useless crap life often presents you with. I think you can see why it's relevant to this story...

Located as it is in between run-down strip malls along historic Route 66, Old Town is a couple small blocks of adobe buildings that once housed important figures during the city's inception and now house...jick. Jewelry, souvenirs, statues of Native Americans, shot glasses, etc. plus a few restaurants and cafes nestled in there for good measure. It's possible that there's some truly exceptional handiwork there, but it's tough to pick through everything. Plus, the truth is -- and it's sacrilege in this part of the country -- I'm just not much for the turquoise. And it never helps anything, ever, when an authentic adobe hut selling sparkly and fringy overpriced clothing advertises itself as a "red hat zone." Nothing good can come of it.

If I weren't so grumbly at that point, I would probably have noticed that even though it was very quiet while we wandered around -- some of the shops aren't even open at this time of year -- it was an unbelievably gorgeous day. And even I, with my jaded, weary heart, was moved by the simple beauty of the San Felipe de Neri Church.

Having killed a remarkable amount of time in Old Town, without purchasing anything other than a cup of coffee, it was time to head to the hotel where a nap in a big, comfy bed was beckoning me. It turns out that the nomenclature of the Best Western we hotwired may well have been ironic. We usually do really well with the internet crap-shoot that is online hotel room bidding, but there's  just not much you can do when a hotel billed as three-star simply ain't. You can't change the thick layer of dust on the fake plants in the lobby, the scowling welcome from the pock-marked faced youth behind the counter. Nor can you change the concerning existence of a giant cigarette burn on the bed blanket in a non-smoking hotel or the disturbingly cloying scent being pushed through the air vents.

You can, however, whine about it to your husband. A lot. Still whining, I crawled into the bed and we did what any good American tourist would do in a new city: turned on the TV. Since we get no TV reception at our house in Ann Arbor and don't have cable, you must remember that this is a relative luxury to us. And so while we navigated that strange travel-induced space where you're tired but can't sleep, we marveled at what we'd been missing and caught up on some crucial programming: the search for the Ultimate Coyote Ugly girl on Country Music Television. For two hours. Man, was it nerve-wracking! Would Kassi master the "devil" dance? Could Amber master flair bartending? Could Gina conjure up enough personality to match her breasts? Fantastic television.

Somehow we napped anyway, dreaming of cut-off shorts and dancing on bars, that fitful sleep of travelers where you constantly jerk awake like you've stepped off something. Then we headed back down to the college area in search of a slice of pizza. We were surprised at a) how early a lot of things close down here, considering their proximity to the campus and b) how many times we were approached and asked for money during a two-block walk. I must say there's something slightly seedy about Albuquerque, the sense that you're not entirely safe.

We wound up eating at Saggio's, a local favorite pizza joint, where the wood-oven pizza was absolutely delicious, and the crazy decor and wall murals were the perfect thing to gaze at in our post-nap dizziness. Then we took a quick drive over to Nob Hill, a two-mile stretch of Route 66 that's home to Albuquerque's more sophisticated side, with boutiques, record stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries and more. Unfortunately, by 9 o'clock on a Thursday night, most shops were closed.

Still, we really dug the Satellite Coffee location in Nob Hill. This one has a pretty full menu of sandwiches and salads, etc. plus a to-die-for dessert case. Chris had a peach melba tart and we enjoyed a couple of lattes. I was especially impressed by the selection of magazines available for purchase, everything from your regular periodicals to special interest mags, alternative pubs and lit mags. Nice touch for a coffee house.

Then it was back to the Best Western (or, if I were feeling particularly clever, the Worst Western or the Dust Western), to sleep perchance to dream, knowing Taos awaited us the next day. Just as we were falling asleep, Chris stirred.

"Honey?" he said. "I miss the Coyote Ugly girls."

"Me, too, sweetheart," I said. "Me, too.