December, for most, is that special time of year when we prepare for holiday festivities, battle wintery weather conditions, and travel to visit with our loved ones. For some, it is a time to escape all of that and take advantage of having some free time to hit the road. A couple of years ago, my wife, Zara, and I opted for adventure and made the decision to take a 13 day road trip through the rugged American Southwest, our primary destination being Taos, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
Starting from our former home of San Francisco, two days later following our drive via the iconic route 66 we arrived in Taos on Christmas day, just in time to witness a perfectly suited spectacle to begin our Southwestern experience, the astonishing dance of Los Matachines. It is an ethnic and colorful ritual involving the residents of Taos Pueblo and having been celebrated for many generations since man started to define borders.
Often performed on Christmas day, its setting is unlike any other I’ve encountered, set against the breathtakingly beautiful, adobe-laid backdrop that is Pueblo. It is a multi-sensory experience; smoke rising from burnt wood and wild sage; the sound of drums and syncopated stomps generated by dancers clad in deer and buffalo hydes hitting the clay-colored ground in unison on their way to center stage; the presence of the elusive Hum flowing through the Taos mountains.
Los Matachines dance is a conflux of Christian Spanish, Mexican, and Native American folklore; an anthropological wonder with archaic origins that should only be witnessed in person. Unfortunately no photographs or video is allowed in the Pueblo, which makes it even more special and personal.
While in Taos we took a day trip to Bandelier National Monument to explore the famous Anasazi cave dwellings and on the road south of Taos we serendipitously stumbled upon the endearing gas pump museum in Embudo, NM — a must-see attraction.
Bandelier National Monument bolsters a deep and rich history and is one of the most important ancient pueblo sites.
Numerous pictographs and carvings can be found etched into the porous dwellings surfaces. It is a wonderful place to visit in the winter because there are very few people at the site during this time of year. With snow on the ground and crystal clear skies, the surrounding monument sits perfectly still in the midst of birds, grazing deer, and rabbits.
From Taos we made a b-line towards Durango, Colorado, winding through snow-covered mountains as the sun rose around us, illuminating the picture-perfect winter landscapes with deep purples and oranges.
We happened upon the picturesque town of Pasagosa Springs. It is quite a sight to take in as the town appears engulfed by the natural sulphuric fog that powers and warms much of the town.
Our trip was then followed by a succession of memorable landmarks including the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Four Corners where incredible terrain conjures up images of old Spaghetti Westerns and roaming dinosaurs.
Next, we set our sights on the secluded Canyon De Chelly National Monument in Apache County, Arizona. We traveled through the Navajo Nation, the road dotted with emaciated horses, dilapidated homes and dry brush — exhausting images that showed us the unfortunate truth of the living situations for most in the area, but the landscape still holds a lot of beauty and the mysteries of the Anasazi people.
One of the draws to Canyon De Chelly is the famous prehistoric Sliding House Ruins, otherwise known locally as Kináázhoozhí. We fortunately carried a high-powered scope with us and were able to view ancient drawings on the wall of the canyon floor, from up high on the canyon ridge.
For a unique experience we decided to stay in one of the nearby Navajo hogans in Spider Rock campground, recommended by our friend Tracy who had spent time in the area. Again, it being the dead of winter and a holiday, it was peaceful and we had the whole area to ourselves, except for our skinny little friend Logan, who greeted us joyfully as we pulled into camp. We grew very fond of Logan and gladly shared some of our meals with him.
Our first evening at camp we improvised a rustic stuffed lamb dish served with veggies on the side cooked right in the fire pit. We picked up some herbs and a fresh cut of lamb and stuffed the lamb with a mix of chopped mint, crushed nuts (from our collection of road snacks), as well as salt, black pepper and some mustard packets we picked up at gas stations throughout the trip.
After the lamb has been cut into a single long semi-thin slab for rolling purposes, stuff with the mix and roll while tying the exterior with butcher’s twine. Add a few rosemary sprigs and crushed garlic around it, dust the outside with the spices including some salt, black pepper and cumin powder, and drizzle it with a bit of olive oil. Lastly, cover the lamb in foil and place right on the hot coals for about 15-20 minutes, while turning from time to time. Once removed from the foil, place on direct flame tosear the meat before serving.
With a little bit of planning and some creativity, one can create wonderful meals even in remote locations.
For the last leg of our journey back in California, we took in one last sight and camped again at perhaps one of the most sought-after and mystical destinations in Southeastern California’s Mojave Desert. Joshua Tree feels like stepping back in time, with coyotes and abundant yucca trees speckled across the arid dessert and giant boulders forming a natural fortress as twilight cloaks the sky during night fall.
Since we had some prosciutto left from our last meal at Canyon De Chelly, come dinner time we stuffed chicken breasts with arugula and a few slices of fontina cheese.
Tip: If cooking outside while on a road trip, always carry a small thermometer to measure your meat’s interior temperature, especially while cooking at night since it’s hard to gauge proper doneness. I’m personally partial to the Thermapen, but any portable thermometer will do.
Back in my sous chef days, I would typically cook the stuffed breasts on a pan while finishing them in the oven with a reduced marsala sauce, but this time around we worked with a simple iron camp grill, which in my opinion works just as well, if not better.
I wasn’t raised in the U.S. and over time I have heard mixed feelings about the Southwest from Americans and non-Americans alike, but having experienced it so intimately for myself, frankly I have to admit that it may have been one of the most amazing trips of my life. In our years of traveling the world, we don’t always get to encounter a place with as much cultural richness, historical significance, and sheer natural beauty as we did on this journey through the American Southwest.