One of my best pieces of advice for a life full of excitement is to minimize expectations. Not necessarily to lower your expectations of people or places or experiences, but simply to not have them as often as possible. I find this allows me to do a better job of taking things at face value without risk of comparing to some preconceived notion I may have had.

All that being said, one of my most anticipated stops on this trip was undoubtedly New Mexico. Not only was I looking forward to the Land of Enchantment due to the amazing cinematography of Breaking Bad, but I’ve been hearing nothing but the best about this state and its diverse beauty for years. Additionally, this was to be the first leg of the trip where we would be camping.

I haven’t actually done much camping up to this point in my life but the outdoor experience was a huge motivating factor behind this trip. One night in particular a year ago solidified the fact that camping would have to be a huge part of this trip. My best buddy Scott and his girlfriend Diana and I were staying with some other friends at his dad’s house in Buck$ County, PA. The three of us decided to take a short hike in the dark to a big open field through the woods behind the house. As soon as we reached the field, I was absolutely captivated by vastness of the night sky and the diversity of dispersed sounds of life coming from all directions. After six years of living in and around cities, I realized what I had been missing out on. An added nugget for this post is that Diana herself is from New Mexico and has given me great advice the last few months, including prioritizing Taos over Santa Fe. Thank you both for taking that eventful stroll with me and for all the companionship in Brooklyn the last year!

Back to this trip..watching the Dallas suburbs turn to ranches and fields and ultimately the desert made for a stunning few hours in the car. We made it to Albuquerque in time to do some grocery shopping Saturday evening before heading to our campsite. We watched the moon rise over our tent as we cooked a delicious meal of quinoa, mixed veggies, and chicken sausage on our new best friend aka camp stove. Props to Jeff and Nikita for doing an incredible job finding some easy and healthy options at the grocery store while I did the much simpler task of acquiring a cooler, sunscreen and other random camping essentials.

Cooking outside by moonlight and eating together in the tent that first night was an awesome bonding experience for the three of us and something I’m going to thoroughly enjoy the rest of this trip.

Back to the talk of expectations for a moment…my good friend Katie from college has been telling me for a solid four years about the beauty of her home state. I will always remember her lamenting about the lack of true blue in the Philadelphia sky on what I had otherwise taken to be a nice spring day. Katie’s immense New Mexican pride was a huge motivating factor in making sure we visited and I can’t thank her enough. As if her inspiration weren’t enough, Katie’s parents took Jeff, Nikita, and I out to brunch on Sunday after our first night camping. The atmosphere was gorgeous and we were surrounded by lively Easter activities on this festive afternoon. I must admit that I somewhat foolishly passed on the traditional New Mexican fare in favor of the stellar blueberry pancakes. However, I was glad to learn how to properly finish off a meal with a sopapilla drizzled in honey. Gerry and Jennifer again made us feel at home in a faraway land and made sure we were planning on seeing the Rio Grande Gorge bridge on our trip up north to Taos. The meal could have only been improved if Katie had been there but I can’t thank the entire Graham family enough for their kindness and generosity and for being such excellent ambassadors of their state!

 

We left ABQ after brunch to head up to Taos. We made a quick drive through the Taos Pueblo and saw this stunning mural with the snowcapped peaks looming in the distance.

We drove a few minutes out of town to see the aforementioned Rio Grande Gorge bridge for ourselves. The sheer scale of nature’s beauty out West hit me as soon as we started walking alongside the Gorge. A hike alongside the rim led to a few minutes of sitting on the edge simply marveling at the grandeur before us.

Our initial itinerary (actually drafts one through ten or so) for the trip had us staying in New Mexico for just 36 hours. Countless people the last few months have raved to me about the beauty of both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Southern Utah and I wanted to check them out before continuing on into Arizona from the north. However, as we drove down into the Gorge to set up camp on Sunday night, a thought crossed my mind for the very first time and I couldn’t shake it. We had to stay longer. Rather than waking up at sunrise to make the 8 hour journey to Utah, we needed to slow down and enjoy the Gorge rather than rush out of this amazing state. It was a totally unplanned change of direction but already the best decision of the trip thus far. The Utah parks will be there for another visit another day, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a whole morning to explore what is easily the most spectacular place I have ever slept.

We cooked another great meal in the Gorge and watched the stars come out brighter than I’ve ever seen and twinkle more than I knew was possible. The impressive stargazing opportunity was quickly drowned out by the rise of the brightest moon of my life. I’m using an awful lot of hyperbole here but I can’t overemphasize how jaw-dropping this night sky was.

I woke up early Monday morning and went for a walk along the river, letting the lovebirds get some extra sleep. An easy stroll quickly turned into scrambling up the side of the Gorge and a bit of adventurous rock climbing towards the end. The rising sun and beauty all around me had the adrenaline flowing and watching the shadows move across the Gorge and down to the river was a calming early morning spectacle.

  

The three of us had a relaxing lunch along the river joined by some native rabbits and butterflies. We headed back to Taos for an oil change and to refuel when Nikita made a fortuitous friend at a coffee shop in town. Her willingness to ask for help and start an open dialogue with strangers is going to take us on some incredible adventures going forward if this experience was any indication. We were tipped off to the existence of a hidden waterfall in the mountains just a few miles away from the heart of town. We were in need of some exploration and a good hike and this waterfall sounded like the perfect prize to get us going.

The hike really opened us up to the diversity of nature in New Mexico and I’m so glad we got to see this side of the state and completely forget we were surrounded by desert.

 

We made a few balancing act log crosses, hiked over and through waist high snow in some parts, and found this pristine rock stacking spiral in a clearing.

 

After an hour and a half of hiking and with sunset approaching, we had to give up our search for the waterfall and head back to the car. Despite not reaching this ultimate pot of gold, the trip into the mountains was a welcome bit of exercise and motivated us to rely on local knowledge more and more going forward.

We could have easily accepted the fact that maybe we took a wrong turn at some point and called it a day, but we each had waterfalls on the mind and were blinded by this idyllic vision of a forested paradise. Once back to the car, we decided to drive up a steep and narrow road nearby to see if we could get a glimpse of the falls before darkness. Our desires got the best of us and caused us to knowingly ignore the posted sign stating that all traffic beyond a certain point was restricted to 4x4s. We got to a hill we couldn’t safely ascend and decided to head back down in defeat.

Of course the full lesson wouldn’t have been learned unless the car got stuck in a roadside wall of earth on the way down. I immediately felt like we were living some horrible roadtrip cliche but there was no time for such thoughts as the sun was setting quickly and we were really stuck. This mild crisis in a very remote area brought our team of three together like never before and we got to work. After an hour of trying to rock us out, placing logs in front of the front tire, and a childhood trip to the beach hole-to-China’s amount of digging on hands and knees, we finally got ourselves unstuck on the fifth attempt.

A healthy blend of positivity, a few apologetic and reassuring conversations had between myself and the car, and full belief that teamwork makes the dream work got us out of a rut and back on our way. We headed back down to Taos in the darkness triumphantly blasting Alright courtesy of Kendrick and Pharrell, closer together as a team than ever before.

The car survived unscathed and we had an all-too literal reminder of a lesson TLC tried to teach us all 21 years ago (Yes, you read that right. We all really are that old). We clearly should have appreciated the hike for what it was and the amazing nature it showed us rather than keeping our eyes focused on the idealistic prize that was out of our reach. Nonetheless it was a humbling moment and a hell of a lot of fun getting the car unstuck.

Thank you again to New Mexico for such a fantastic few days and for shattering any expectations I may or may not have had coming in.