During my first two rounds with NCCC I was so wrapped up in the project and team that I never felt a strong urge to get away, and thus coming into round 3 I still had my whopping three vacation and two "life after Americorps" days at my disposal. With round 3 in Deming turning into the roller coaster ride that it is I could not have been more grateful for those days. I used two a few wees ago to travel home and visit family, attend my cousins wedding, fight off my cold and catch up on much needed sleep. While it was nice to see familiar faces the trip didn't recharge me in the way I had hoped, I needed more of an adventure and change of scenery. This last weekend I used my additional days to explore New Mexico, outside of the confines of Deming and my team. When I coincidentally met a woman in Silver City from Alamorgordo who had nothing but positive things to say about the area, including Cloudcroft and the Lincoln National Forest, I was sold. Five days of solo travel, a night of courchsufing and some random exploration were just what I needed to get me through this last month of service.
I began my trip with two days in Las Cruces, initially planning to spend the majority of that time with Couchsurfing hosts, these plans were altered slightly when I found out Ariana (our house mom) was in the roller derby Saturday evening and I was having trouble getting a hold of my hosts. Avoiding the Greyhound bus, I caught a ride with Ariana and her husband, attended the math and then opted for one night at the Days Inn to avoid showing up at my hosts house at 1 am. My hosts were in El Paso the entire next day so I camped out at the Days Inn pool, working on blending my farmers tan and delving into a new book, but more importantly avoiding the city in 95 degree weather. I met up with my hosts that night and spend the first half of Monday with Ryan while his wife was at work; we shared travel stories, plans for the future and similar life outlooks over brunch before it was time for me to pick up my Turo rental and actually start this trip. A previous corps member of mine introduced me to Turo and while some would be skeptical renting a car from someone they don't know, this was right up my alley. So far in my trip I had slept on a strangers house, had lunch with that person and then drove another strangers car, what a time to be alive.
An easy exchange of keys and a brief overview of the car and I was set to go explore, I was booked for two nights at the Cloudcroft Mountain Park Hostel and my only plans were to relax, visit White Sands National Monument for the full moon event, hike in Lincoln National Forest and soak in some nature. As I drove out of Las Cruces and into the mountains Monday afternoon I knew immediately that I had made the right move, the view was incredible and it was so nice to be on my own agenda for once. The hostel was halfway between Cloudcroft and Alamorgordo, set in amongst the trees of Lincoln National Forest, it was ideal. Coincidentally my hostel owner was named Stephanie and as expected I was only the second guest there, $20 for a "private" 8-bed dorm room, not a bad deal at all.
I found a Thai place in Alamorgordo for dinner (not much Asian food in Deming) and then headed over to White Sands for the full moon festivities, everything I read said to come early as these events attract the masses and they were not wrong. Pictures of White Sands does little to translate how unreal this place is, 15 minutes from the city scene of Alamorgordo it felt as if I was in an entirely different world, dunes of pure white sand rose up around me and stretched for as far as the eye could see. I can only blame being from the mid-west as the reason I've never before heard of this place because it's amazing. I sought out a dune without too many other people, hard to do near the stage, but I also wasn't too fussed about hearing the music.
I had brought my yoga mat, both as something to sit on and allowing me to play around with my self timer and [hopefully] capture some cool shots. Immediately I spotted two photographers and was equally torn between wanting them to come over to take my picture and running to a different dune. The older of the two went on his way, but the other shouted over to me, "I can take a few pictures and e-mail them to you if you want", obviously seeing me struggle with my self timer set-up. Pre solo-travel Stephanie would have been too shy to accept, but we were soon in deep conversation and as the sun went down proceeded to do a mini White Sands, sunset yoga shoot. Awesome pictures aside, meeting Julian that evening made my night, the music was horrible, crowds of families were swarming and I may not have lasted too long had I been on my own. With new company though I had someone to talk to, hear new stories and of course share some of my own. We parted ways, him en route back to LA and my staying put in New Mexico, but as I have a history of doing, I believe our paths will cross again somewhere down the line.
I didn't arrive back at my hostel until nearly midnight which meant an early Tuesday morning were not in the cards for me, instead I slept in a bit (8:30 counts these days), and then started my day with morning yoga and breakfast on the deck, realizing I had no where I really needed to be. Eventually, I peeled myself away from my book and headed for Cloudcroft to do some hiking. While the two trails I chose were "easy" they offered the perfect mix of both exercise, sightseeing and fresh air, I was in no mood to do an all day, try-to-get-lost-in-the-woods, hike. On my way to town I pulled off at the viewpoint for the old Mexican Canyon Trestle, wanting to get the birds-eye view before I hiked down to it. Having been in Colorado for winter, followed by the desert, I had missed hiking among the trees, exploring Lincoln National Forest was a dose of nature therapy I had not known I needed. The trail was easy enough, mixed with ups and downs, a few staircases, switchbacks and look-out points, ending at the base of the train trestle, built in 1899 and still in impressively fair condition.
From here I moved just down the road to the Osha trail, a 2-ish mile loop wrapping through the forest with a few impressive outlooks which offered views out as far as White Sands. It was interesting to see White Sands from such a distance, it actually appeared to be more of a lake set off in the middle of the desert than sand dunes, also it stretches much further than I would have first assumed. Both trails were equipped with various signage telling information about both the history of the area and wildlife one may spot while on the trails. Unfortunately though, the only wildlife I came across was one snake, scaring me probably as much as I scared it as it slithered off the trail. Properly covered in desert sand dust and with a new layer of tan I had one thing on my mind and was happy to find it at a small ice cream shop in the back corner of Dave's restaurant in downtown Cloudcroft. I feel like a majority of my 30-something counterparts would have been in the mood for a cold beer, but the child in me craved ice cream.
My third and final day in Cloudcroft was another slow start, initially I had planned to get up and out early, but upon rising and not wanting to leave my hostel porch decided against it. I sat on the deck and read, did yoga and enjoyed a slow breakfast before finally accepting that I had to leave. I made a quick stop at the "Apple Barn" one of those middle of nowhere knick knack stores, and while there was loads of cool stuff: mugs, magnets, cards, jewlery and stickers, I walked away empty handed. I did one quick hike, the Grandview Trail, just north of High Rolls which was a lot sunnier than my previous two, but have some more great views. Finally, it was time to go so I drove back into town, stopping briefly at McGinns Pistachio tree ranch, home of the worlds largest pistachio and a variety of flavors of both pistachios and wine, both of which I was sure to sample.
One of the best parts of of renting from Turo as opposed to a commercial car rental agency was the flexibility with which I could pick up and return the car. I was scheduled to have the car back in Las Cruces at 2:30, but early Wednesday morning the owner contacting me asking what time was best for me. We agreed on 4:30, giving me a little bit more time to explore which I ultimately used to get a late lunch / early dinner before my travels back to Deming. I've been on again off again vegetarian during my service in Americorps, however the green chili burger finally called my name and I settled in for an awesome lunch at The Pecan Grill and Brewery. I met the car owner at Starbucks, thinking it would make my trek to the Greyhound station a bit easier, but that problem was solved when he offered to drop me off there as well! Although I would be quite early for my bus to Deming, I couldn't pass up a free ride and gladly accepted. The only downside of all this was that the Greyhound station in Las Cruces is literally just a gas station with a few benches, but I've definitely seen worse in my travels so I hunkered down with my book, did a little people watching and waited.
I'd be lying if I said my mood didn't drop as I sat down on my bus back to Deming, I had thoroughly enjoyed my time away, remembering what it's like to be on the road alone, having only myself to worry about and meeting interesting people everyday. I wasn't quite ready to return to the hot Deming desert, get back to work on a mess of a project and ultimately be in charge of 9 other people, but by the time I got off the bus I had checked my attitude and accepted my fate. I have a love/hate for this place, and while some days can wear me out, being able to step back and see the different my team and I are making here does help to lesson that burden. In only three weeks we'll be back in Colorado with only a few days left before we graduate the program. Everyone loves to ask me if I'll resign (absolutely not) and if doing this all was "worth it", but I haven't thought enough about that yet. It's been quite the experience, I've met amazing people, seen interesting places, learned some valuable life skills and grown as a person, but would I do it all again? I don't know.... so for now I"ll just leave you with this:
A Year of Service
My life, being anything but predictable, has taken another turn. Rather than moving to Jeju, South Korea - my original plan for Fall '18, I'm going to test drive Denver, CO and its surroundings, an area people just keep telling me "I'd love".