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Finding an introvert’s paradise in New Mexico

Finding an introvert’s paradise in New Mexico

One week, one roadtrip crammed with eccentric offerings such as Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an open house at the Very Large Array, and the state’s nuclear legacy.

A yurt with a hundred-mile view off the Turquoise Trail. An RV on an alpaca farm amid the southern scrub desert. A geodesic earth dome near hippie-flavoured Taos. With a week, a car, and an indispensable but unreliable GPS, I cut a north-to-south swath through New Mexico last October, staying in the quirkiest accommodations I could find on AirBnB (plus, full disclosure, Motel 6 when quirk was costly).

I have vacation moods, and I was in the mood for road-trip solitude inspired introspection. Add the Very Large Array open house and a seat sale to Santa Fe in my target month and a plan came together.

With limited time and unlimited intriguing places, I hadn’t intended to stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s biggest city, thinking I’d make it a quick meal stop on the way to somewhere else. But that was before I learned about the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival and the fortunate coincidence that my trip coincided with its 2017 dates.

I also didn’t expect that, still sunburned from a day amid giant radio telescopes in the scrub desert to the south, I’d be ducking into a home kitchen-based restaurant in Taos Pueblo in the north to escape the snow (snow!) and biting wind with a bowl of chili and fried flat bread.

Santa Fe

My direct flight from Vancouver took me to the pint-sized Santa Fe airport where a rental car and their last GPS unit awaited. Before I hit the road I had time to explore some of the capital city, including the open-air opera house (featuring a non-operatic The Shins concert), with its backdrop of the surrounding mesas, plus art collective Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return.

That immersive art installation/interactive multimedia story feels impossible to describe adequately. I was giddy from the moment I hit the parking lot under the shadow of a towering metal daisy-holding robot. Inside the converted bowling alley – owned, incidentally, by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin – just walking down the entrance hallway to the washrooms was a trippy delight, lined as they are with drawings and captions ranging from weird to hilariously weird.

The 20,000 square foot exhibit involves a mystery you can solve or choose to ignore: you enter a seemingly normal-looking house (except that it’s been constructed inside a bowling alley owned by George RR Martin), where a mysterious cataclysmic event has opened up a portal to other dimensions and caused the resident family to disappear. Or something. You can pour over the evidence and solve the mystery or, as I did, simply marvel at the bizarre and wonderful worlds you can enter via secret portals the fireplace, dishwasher, or fridge. With each turn there’s some new combination of a visual, aural and tactile experience. After a few hours of exploration, the novelty hadn’t worn off but my time had. I had to eat and get on the road in order to get to my first quirky accommodation reservation.

Tia Sophia’s was maybe my favourite place to eat in New Mexico. The small Sante Fe diner is unassuming with great food and friendly people who regaled me with what they knew about Canada (Don Cherry is apparently a regular), and I still dream about the carne adovada burrito with a sopaipilla – a food I’d never heard of before, but it turns out it’s a puffy fried dough served with sides of honey and cinnamon and even better than that sounds. But come on, fried dough with honey and cinnamon sounds about like the best thing ever.

Incidentally, the food in New Mexico was unreal. Simple, hearty, delicious. Everywhere you eat you’ll likely be asked “green or red” – as in, green chili or red chili, on pretty much everything. Unless you have more of a preference than I do, “Christmas,” meaning both, is a decision-impaired person’s gift.

The Turquoise Trail to Pie Town

From Santa Fe I went south along Highway 14, The Turquoise Trail, passing through Madrid (they pronounce it MADrid), a former ghost town now succumbed to touristy shops. I stopped for the night at a yurt high somewhere far above civilization, in the Shanti Community a woman named Shelly has created, with a handful of yurts, vans and RVs dotting her 10 acre parcel of land. She wasn’t around but her caretaker and friend Terri showed me around and took me on a long walk around the beautifully desolate landscape.

The impetus for the New Mexico trip was the open house at the Very Large Array (VLA), a biannual event that enticed me as a substitute for a recently cancelled trip to Chile’s Atacama desert that would have included two observatory tours. So my trajectory from Santa Fe was south toward Socorro, and my next resting place was an RV on an alpaca farm.

The owner, David, had been living in Vienna when he fell in love with the peculiar creatures and their sellable wool. He started collecting them from afar until he resettled near San Antonio (not that one, the tiny New Mexico one) to operate his own llama enterprise, teach elementary school, and host visitors like me.

The RV was midway between the VLA and the White Sands Missile Range, whose open house at the Trinity Site, the location of the world’s first atomic bomb test, was held on the same day. I opted at the last minute not to make the detour to the Trinity Site open house — too much driving and rushing for what felt to me little reward — but the state’s nuclear legacy was apparent even without it.

San Antonio has a few places to grab a green chili cheeseburger but I chose The Owl Bar and Café, famous as a place where Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear gang ate while they worked at White Sands on the Manhattan Project. The area’s culinary specialty wasn’t what I expected – it was so much better. Trust me and everyone else who will tell you the green chili cheeseburger is a must-try, whether here or elsewhere.

To drive in New Mexico is to feel like a very small piece of a very large world, with endless views that change only incrementally over large distances. And to visit the Very Large Array is to feel like our world is a very small piece of a very large universe.

The October 2017 VLA open house commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Jodie Foster/Matthew McConaughey movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book and partly filmed on site. Special talks and other events were taking place, but the highlight for me was the guided tour inside the facilities and to some of the very large telescopes, with scientists and engineers enthusiastically explaining the complexities of radio astronomy. No matter how much – or little – of the science I absorbed, it was awe-inspiring to stand under one of those enormous radio telescopes as it moves incrementally, craning its head to the skies, listening not just for signs of intelligent life à la Contact, but for clues into the formation of planets and other secrets of our universe.

On my way back north I had to make a westerly pitstop to nearby Pie Town, which barely registers as a town but has several pie shops dotting the highway after its instagrammable town sign. I went to Pie-O-Neer and the pie was fine – apple with the ubiquitous green chili – but really the highlight was being able to say I visited a place called Pie Town.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Because I was cramming the Albuquerque stopover into an already planned and crammed itinerary, I timed my visit for one of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s morning mass ascensions. All participating balloons in the world’s largest balloon festival rose up in stages over the course of the morning, with hundreds of colourful shapes dotting the sky and me darting along the ground in awe, trying to snap pictures of all the character balloons – Darth Vader and Yoda, aliens and spaceships, penguins and hedgehogs, mariachi and senorita. I wandered the massive, massive field as balloonists set up their balloons, dodging the crowds,  unfurling canvases and the baskets ablaze as the balloons inflate and “zebras” – coordinators dressed in referee outfits – guide the participants on when to safely launch. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and though I’d had pangs of not having time to see more events, I left after a few hours satisfied before even all the balloons had made their way into the sky.

Taos to Los Alamos

My last and favourite accommodation was near Taos, the northern ski resort area, for a few nights in a geodesic earth dome in a compound of homes mostly built by women. The original owner called it an “introvert’s paradise”, which the current owner quoted as a way of signaling that privacy was guaranteed (except from the friendly orange cat who greeted me outside the gate on the first night).

Nearby hot springs provided more relaxation time, and Taos Pueblo and its collection of ancient adobe homes – supposedly the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States, dating from 1200s — gave a glimpse at how the indigenous population lived and in some cases still live. Businesses attached to the homes provide some shopping and eating experiences without seeming overly touristy, but my impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was snowing (snowing!) so only a few of us hardy souls were wandering around.

On the way back to Santa Fe and my morning flight, I took a daytrip to Los Alamos, the former top-secret home of the Manhattan Project where the nuclear bomb was developed, perched high above the surrounding landscape on three long mesas. I wish I’d skipped the recommended van tour, with its nonstop, non-story-based commentary that didn’t pause even when some bored captives fell asleep in the van. There are self-guided or volunteer-guided walking tours that will take you to the museums and sites of interest (that’s Oppenheimer’s house in the bottom right of the collage), which would also leave more time to explore the spectacular scenery of the area, including the nearby Bandelier National Monument, which I rushed through as exhaustion set in at the end of my trip.

Before looking into what else I could do besides the VLA open house, New Mexico had never been on my endless list of vacation destinations. Once I started researching, I was left with a long list of places that weren’t practical to cram into a couple of weeks. And in that zen state that a road trip, dramatic scenery and displays of  larger-than-life human endeavors can inspire, accompanied by only my thoughts and my horrible singing to the radio, it’s no surprise that I made some major life decisions shortly after this trip.

Ring in the new

Ring in the new

This summer, a coworker and I were chatting while kayaking in the Burrard Inlet when I mentioned a former colleague had moved back from Europe and was now living on Salt Spring Island, picking up freelance work so she could work remotely. “I wish I could do something like that,” I said.

I recognized the look that flitted across her face before she said “Well, you could.”

I used to have that look. I used to say that to people when they said it about my decision to move to Mexico.

In the last couple years I’ve found myself saying things like “I always thought I’d do something like that again, moving to some other country” with a shrug, like it was too late.

People who know me at all know I like to travel. People who know me well know I moved to New Brunswick, Calgary, Mexico, and Vancouver for no other reason than the adventure of it. It’s what I do. I just haven’t done it for a while.

I always meant to put down roots in Vancouver after returning from Mexico. It’s the longest I’ve ever voluntarily lived somewhere. But it’s time for my repotting. Maybe past time. It was back in 2012, when I was working on the London Olympics, that I first got the birth certificates I’d need for a UK ancestry visa, which lets Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent who was born in the UK live and work there. Back then, I thought I’d want an escape after Steve’s imminent death, but I was wrong. I needed to not think about logistics, to not be away from my comfort zone. But recently I’ve been restless.

So I’ve given notice at my job. At the end of January I’ll head to South Korea to work on those Olympics, then finish up some things here at home and travel a bit. If all goes well I’ll be settling in the UK by June, trying my hand at more freelancing, less sitting in a cubicle, more European travel, shorter flights to do it.

I have plans to make that possible. I have layers of plans because some will work out and some won’t, and that’s part of the adventure.

The last time I felt like this, like I was working toward crafting another phase of life that excited me, my brother’s death derailed me. So I can’t shake the feeling that making these plans is an invitation for the universe to smite me. But I’m too rational to really believe that. Mostly.

As with my move to Vancouver I have no end game. I’ll settle somewhere until I don’t want to be settled there anymore. I’ll travel around the UK a bit but right now I’m thinking Edinburgh is where I’ll land, at least at first. By the end of the year, or decade, or some time after that, I may end up back in the Vancouver area, or I may end up somewhere else. There’s no need to plan that far in advance; there are too many variables.

I’ll sell my home. I’ll bring the cats. I’ll get rid of my stuff, except for a couple suitcases to take, and a bare minimum of sentimental and useful items I’ll store here until the future is clearer. There are a lot of logistics to work through but it’s not new; I’ve done this before. More than once.

There are always reasons not to take a leap like this. It’s going to be hard giving up the home I decorated to my taste and my taste alone. I’ll miss friends. I’ll miss the camaraderie of my workplace. I’ll be anxious about getting work and a place to stay. What if something disastrous happens to derail me before I even start? What if I can’t find enough clients, and can’t find a job? What if I can’t understand the Scottish accent? What if I can and they’re saying nasty things about me? What if I’m run over by a car because they drive on the wrong side of the road? What if a post-Brexit UK devolves into a Black Mirror-esque dystopia?

I’ve reached the point where I’d rather face these temporary what ifs about taking a risk than a lifetime of “what if I’d been brave enough to do what I really wanted to do?” I’m ready. Let’s do this, universe.

Fuzz therapy

Fuzz therapy

This isn’t just one of my favourite comic strips, it’s a way of life.

I’ve almost always had cats, and currently have two old-to-ancient ones in my home now. They are sweet, and soft, and love me unconditionally (but more so when I’m feeding or petting them). They greet me at the door when I come home, and curl up with me when I’m cozy and when I’m sad (well, more like when I stop moving).

But kittens, they are not. Their version of playing is to rub their heads blissfully against their catnip toys and to curl up on my chest in the middle of the night so I dream of suffocation. I’m not even tempted to adopt kittens, opting for older, more sedate cats, and yet the power of cute is undeniable.

But did you know there are a lot of kitten pictures and videos on the internet? I KNOW, RIGHT?! Even better, a subset of the catosphere involves people who open their hearts and Instagram accounts to rescue cats needing temporary homes because shelters are full, or not equipped to deal with the very young or ill.

At some point pre-election, when the news led to anxiety and insomnia, following accounts that document the lives of foster cats and kittens became my way to self-soothe. Some accounts I later unfollowed, but the ones that stuck were the ones that told a story – or more accurately, many little furry stories, one adorable picture and caption at a time. They remain a comfort when I want an escape from the news of the day or the sadness of losing someone I loved, so I’ve come to embrace my crazy catladyhood.

One of the first stories I encountered was little Ollie, an impossibly tiny orange kitten found in a window well with badly infected eyes. The pictures were initially difficult to look at, but he got medical care and a foster home through New York’s Beth Stern (Howard’s wife) and he’s now a beautiful ginger living a pampered life with fellow blind former foster cat Wonder.

try not to die from cuteness overload

A post shared by Ollie And Wonder (@ollieandwonder) on

There was the time Nikki from Las Vegas was on a TNR job – that’s trap neuter release, a way of managing feral cat populations – and caught three blind kittens in her traps. The frightened feral siblings were just young enough that she thought she had a chance of socializing them and making them adoptable. As the weeks went on we witnessed the setbacks and successes, and watched as she sent Sunny and Russ off to their loving forever homes.

And we cheered when Nikki, who has fostered hundreds of cats and whose frequent refrain to commenters is “NO I’m not keeping him/her”, adopted Stella herself, unable to break the bond they’d developed.

What did the toilet paper ever do to you? #blindcat

A post shared by Stella (@can_do_stella) on

Nikki also shared the journey of Bunny, who was rescued from difficult circumstances and nursed back to health. There was a period where it looked like the half-bald, underweight kitten wasn’t going to make it, but she now lives fluffily and healthily in a cat version of Disneyland with her forever family, who have built cat climbing walls in their loft apartment.

Carrying 3 plates of food and a glass of goat milk in that belly (notice that her head hasn’t grown at all since she moved to LA )

A post shared by Mamacita, Bonita & Bunny Inc. ( on

Cindy from Seattle shared with us little Lucy, wobbily navigating the big world with a mysterious neurological issue, and broke our hearts with the news that she had succumbed to a seizure. The animal rescue world has many heartbreaking stories, and while the accounts I follow focus on the happy journey from vulnerable rescue to adoptable kitten, the endings aren’t always happy. But we’ll always have Cindy’s pep talk to Lucy keep us going:

We all needed a pep talk today.

A post shared by Kitten foster home Seattle, WA (@foster_kittens) on

My current love is Ducky (aka Dove), one of seven #theWhitekittens fostered by Vancouver Islander Kristi — who is as kind and welcoming to her followers as she is to her cats. Her latest batch of mostly white babies were surrendered by the woman who had rescued the mama cat, after mama lost interest in feeding them. Ducky in particular was dangerously underweight so Kristi supplemented her kitten food with bottle feedings. Now the tiny fuzzball with permanent bedhead outweighs at least one of her sisters and is heading out for adoption this weekend, along with the rest of the adorable pack who sleep together, beg for food together, and do yoga together. Kristi’s word for what I’m feeling is shappy — sad to lose the virtual connection to these lovely creatures, happy that they will get permanent families of their own.

Shappy is what I feel about the animal rescue world, too. There are far too many adoptable animals everywhere, and too many heartbreaking stories, and too many awful people. But the foster parents of Instagram are all heart, and the kittens of Instagram make even the darkest days feel a little better, one purr at at time.

The legacy of Denis McGrath

The legacy of Denis McGrath

Reposted from TV, eh?:

So much has and will be posted about the Denis McGrath-sized hole left in the world after his death last night. A small part of his legacy is that without him TV, eh? would likely not exist. In an alternate, Denis-less universe, one we’re struggling to imagine now, I most likely would never have thought about the issues that led me to create it, and even if I had, it would have ended with a whimper not long after its experimental launch.

The origin story of the website is that while covering television and movies online I became fascinated with the way TV is made, with so much control in the hands of the writer rather than the director. I started following TV writer blogs, including Denis’s influential Dead Things on Sticks, to learn more about the process. That lively comments section is where I met the online Canadian TV community and began to realize … there’s an online Canadian TV community?

Obviously I knew Canadian shows existed but from Denis’s posts I realized there were a whole lot I’d never heard of, despite writing about TV. I wrote an article lamenting that fact, wishing for an online resource like a TVTattle or Futon Critic, and an anonymous commenter asked me why I didn’t start such a site myself — a question I immediately dismissed. I had no skin in this game. Just Denis’s voice in my head about the struggles of the Canadian TV industry.

I went to the Banff TV Festival to cover a David Shore (House) master class, among others, and while there I sat in a town hall discussion about how Canadian TV should appeal more to international audiences. I wondered why networks weren’t more concerned with letting me know about these shows first. Through it all Denis was a sounding board and a huge influence in my understanding of the issues at play, and he encouraged my attempts to write about them from the audience perspective.

That was when I quietly put up a bare-bones site and started posting stories and media releases about Canadian shows. I let a few people know, including Denis. I’m grateful to many but his support meant everything. He championed the idea from the first, and through his influence helped make it and me feel part of that Canadian TV online community almost immediately. What started as a whim suddenly felt valuable, because he saw value in it.

Through the years the TV, eh? charity auctions benefited enormously from his contributions, his bids, and his promotion. He harassed industry folks to donate and his followers to bid, helping raise thousands of dollars for Kids Help Phone. He was a tireless promoter of the fundraising campaign that helped relaunch the site after I’d closed it down a couple years ago. I don’t think anyone escaped his haranguing to contribute what they could.

We ranted at the crazy industry together and drove each other crazy at times. But he was always supportive and generous with the site and with me. We dated for a time, years ago, but long after that he continued to offer support and advice. Some of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me came from him. He valued some core things about me that others have occasionally tried to make me feel badly about, and I keep his voice in my head at those times. He had a big voice and a bigger heart, and he leaves an enormous legacy.

I wish everyone and every cause could have a champion like Denis McGrath. I wish for his wife, family, friends and colleagues some comfort that a Canadian TV community he helped create is grieving with them.

Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos

Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos

There came a point in the trip where I questioned the wisdom of swimming toward the man yelling “shark!” That point came later than you might expect.

I’d only been snorkeling once before, years before, from the beach in Cozumel. I mostly remembered feeling claustrophobic and sunburned, plus marveling at the colourful fish.

In the Galapagos, our group was swimming with the sharks. And the turtles, jellyfish, sea lions, an octopus, a penguin or two, and even more colourful fish. When one of us would see something exciting we’d yell for the group to come see, but usually it was our guide who spotted them first. Including a lot of sharks. And once, toward the end of that outing, the logical part of my brain started overruling the awe-struck part of my brain and I started to hyperventilate, logically.

That’s when I fell in love with snorkeling. I realized the claustrophobia, the struggle to calm my breath, the healthy fear of sharks, had all disappeared until I felt like a privileged guest in this underwater world.

The Galapagos Islands had been near the top of my travel wish-list forever. I knew of Darwin’s evolution epiphanies, the diversity of animals unique to the volcanic islands – blue footed boobies! giant tortoises! marine iguanas! sea lions as far as the eye can see! – and the remoteness which makes traveling there more difficult (and expensive).

I didn’t realize how many people live in the collection of islands, but meeting locals helped me feel like a privileged guest in their world as well. Except in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, whose town centre felt like every port of call, tacky tourist shops and all.

I have an aversion to cruises so when the opportunity came up to finally go to the Galapagos, I landed on the Galapagos Unbound trip from ROW Adventures. For a couple of nights we slept in tents on an isolated beach close to sea lions and hermit crab tracks, and the rest of the time in charming hotels (and charming is not code for dilapidated in this case).

It was my first time with that company and it was a mostly positive experience. It helped that I was one of the last people standing amid the gastroenteritis that blazed through our small group.

In the initial kayaking excursion, my friend and I were champions in our first time paddling together. The second excursion … well, we didn’t capsize or get swept out into the open ocean, but not for want of trying. Because we had seemed to know what we were doing the first time, our guides left us behind to fend for ourselves so we finally arrived at the destination exhausted and cranky.

But then we went snorkeling again, and crankiness couldn’t survive in this volcanic landscape inhabited by otherworldly creatures.