The Great American Road Adventure: Wisconsin

At around 4 hours, Minneapolis to Madison was one of the shorter drives of the trip. We drove out from Minneapolis around 12pm on a Friday, and arrived in Madison around 5pm.

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Main street of Madison

The Graduate, our hotel for the night, was a quirky college-themed hotel room. After briefly dropping off our things for the night, we set out and walked the streets of Madison, which Michael informed me, is a college town. The main strip of Madison was already busy early in the evening, with an overpowering ratio of college-aged youth to older people making up the bulk of the crowds.

We walked by the state capitol, and admired the architecture, before choosing a restaurant for dinner.

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Wisconsin State Capitol

As one of the northernmost states bordering Canada, with wide expanses suitable for farming, Wisconsin is known as one of the largest national producers of dairy. Due to this, I had been eagerly anticipating our arrival in this state, knowing that I was in for some good cheese, and especially, cheese curds.

Like the majority of meals that we’d eaten so far on the trip, we enjoyed a delicious meal in Madison, the experience amplified by satisfying my craving for cheese curds.

After dinner, we retired early, ready to leave Madison the next day, and venture to the heart of America’s cheese country.

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Lake Mendota

After breakfast the next morning, we packed up and drove from Madison to Green County, Wisconsin. The primary attraction for us in Green County, was a cheese factory. It took from 45 minutes to an hour to get to Green County, and while driving, we passed a town that looked like a historically preserved Swiss outpost, that I made a mental note to come back to after we were done with cheeses.

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Outside of Emmi Roth Kase

We parked near the cheese factory we’d picked, Emmi Roth Kase, and went inside. It was around 12pm on a Saturday when we came in, and there were a bunch of people inside browsing already. Green County is without a doubt haven for cheese lovers. There were kinds of cheeses paired with unimaginable things, such as chocolate, and a myriad of other things that would seemingly not pair well with it. Imported dairy products also featured.

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After settling on a cranberry cheese, we went back to the car, and with reckless abandon and without utensils, I ate the cheese in a manner that you would expect of one who has come to Wisconsin just to eat cheese.

The surrounding areas had little in the way of restaurants, so Michael and I decided we would go back to the town of New Glarus for lunch, and look around while we were there. When we got to the town and found parking, we discovered that the town was celebrating Oktoberfest that weekend, and there was a lively market with German treats and lots of rotund Americans drinking beer in the streets. Unfortunately for those of us in New Glarus that day, it happened to be about 35 degrees, and we had begun to perspire unpleasantly as soon as we stepped out of the car.

Driven inside by the heat, we picked a European restaurant to eat at, and had a long wait. The food at the restaurant was one of our few mediocre meals on our drive across the country.

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After eating, we strolled around the town, and admired the architecture style of the town. The town advertised itself as ‘Little Switzerland’, and we read somewhere that a Swiss colony had established itself here in the 19th century, developing into a village, and then to become the town it was today.

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Swiss style architecture in New Glarus, WI

After our walk, we left the sweltering heat of Wisconsin, and proceeded to drive to Chicago.

The Great American Road Adventure: Minnesota

We drove up to Minnesota through Iowa, stopping to visit the world’s largest gnome in Ames (a sight we noted that many elderly road travelers were also interested in). We then continued to Minnesota, and arrived there around 6pm the same day. We checked into The Marquette hotel and dropped our things off, before heading out to dinner at The Bulldog North East.

Minneapolis was a world away from Kansas City, where we had been just that morning, and it felt like we had finally left the backwoods and returned to urban civilization. The drive from Kansas was one of the longest of the trip, and Michael was understandably tired that night.

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The world’s largest gnome

A certain hobby of mine is to look up regional food specialties for places I visit. A regional specialty of Minnesota that I’d been looking forward to eating for some days before, is known as tater tot hot dish. A rich and heavy dish intended to keep you warm during the cold Minnesota winters, the traditional form of tater tot hot dish is comprised of ground beef, covered with tater tots, and set with cream of mushroom soup.

The Bulldog North East served a dressed up version of the dish, with braised beef brisket, brussels sprouts, mushroom bechamel sauce, and truffle infused tater tots. It was one of the more decadent meals of the trip.

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Minnesota specialty: Tater tot hot dish

After dinner, Michael and I went to a bar called Pat’s Tap, still within the city, but in a neighborhood with a more suburban feel. We met my friend Lindsay there, who lived nearby. She happily gave us some more food recommendations, and we called it a night after one round of drinks.

The next morning, Michael and I had breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen in central Minneapolis, just a couple of blocks from our hotel.

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Toasted sausage bread

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Mahnomin wild rice porridge

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We had a heavy and delicious meal here, before walking around the city.

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Downtown Minneapolis

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In short, Minneapolis was an interesting city with great food, and livability potential that we regrettably didn’t get to see a lot of. Pressed for time, we left after breakfast the morning after we’d arrived, and drove on to Madison, Wisconsin.

Life in New York: Hot in the city

It was spring in New York, and I was walking down the street, iced coffee in hand, with the jaunty step of someone who had finished work two hours early. Three months after I got my initial job offer, I started my new job, after initially telling the company the visa process would take “2-3 weeks”.

It was the most exhilarating thing to finally begin working after several months of visa paperwork stress, and also exciting to be in a new workplace after so many months of idling around. Michael and I were also in a happy place, and aside from my occasional moodiness at being homesick, things were going well.

It was then that I reflected with some pride (and smugness!) that I eventually got everything that I wanted, though it took longer than I initially expected.

Meanwhile, I walked down the street, thinking to myself, ‘How long before you get to call yourself an expat?’ Reflecting on my life in the US, I thought that things had drastically improved compared to the first couple of months of my move. It was true, the vicious odor of urine that permeated every street corner still assaulted me at every turn, but I learned to bear it.

With work and my romantic life now seemingly in a good place, other parts of my life, like my social life began to come together, and I took solace in the fact that slowly but surely, everything was coming together just like I’d envisioned.

 

 

 

Life in New York: The coldest winter I ever knew

Every night I fell asleep to the sound of the sirens. New York was sometimes still an eyesore to me.

It was during these cold holiday winter months that I felt the most homesick. It was jarring for me to be separated from the people I loved the most, especially at a time of year when I wanted to be closest to them.

During the end of autumn and beginning of December, I had a short lived stint at a startup, which proved to be the closest I ever came to having a nightmare job. Frustrated with the disconnect between my ideal work life, and my actual work life, I decided to keep looking for something more in line with my initial pursuits, and went back to trophy girlfriend life.

The new year rolled around, and it was a contemplative time, as it generally always is for me. I felt more homesick than ever around this time, and I longed to be with my family, while looking forward to my brother’s upcoming visit over February and March 2018.

My brother’s trip to New York was an idyllic one, the meeting of familiarity and adventure, as we explored New York together. When he went home after 2 weeks, I was sad, to say the least. It was then that I learned that the cost of adventure comes at the high price of living apart from the people you love the most.

During this time, I accepted a promising job offer, and looked forward to the completion of pending paperwork for my new visa. Despite what I’d heard about the visa though, and my friends’ seamless experiences with the visa, I had a nerve-wracking couple of months, fraught with setbacks. Finally, two months after I received the job offer, my preliminary paperwork was approved, and Michael and I were able to book a trip back to Sydney in order to do my visa appointment.

After so many weeks spent dreaming of coming home, the trip back home was surreal. Coming home this time was almost as difficult as leaving in 2017, because I knew I would be gone for another year, and perhaps for the foreseeable future. I felt like I’d left something good in pursuit of adventure and excitement in an unstable political climate, which perhaps wouldn’t be the best for me in the long term. A part of me looked forward to going back to New York, and there was a part of me that clung to my life in Sydney.

Nevertheless, there was an unshakeable determination and desire to see how far I could go. So I brushed my feelings aside, and prepared for the reality of another few years in New York.

I thought about how this time, two years ago, I’d just started my first adult job, and had been on the fence about moving to New York. It was ironic how fast things could change.

The Great American Road Adventure: Kansas

The drive from Denver to Topeka, Kansas was supposed to take us 7-8 hours on the I-70 East. Still suffering from the dreadful after-effects of the edibles in Denver, the 5 hour nap refreshed me completely. After I woke up, it was about 2pm, and Michael and I decided that we’d stop somewhere for lunch in the next hour. After looking up some places on Yelp, we decided to stop for a late lunch at a place called Al’s Chickenette, in Hays, Kansas.

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We didn’t have much choice in stopping for lunch at Al’s. It was the best reviewed place on Yelp within 50 miles, that was on the way to Topeka. It took us one hour to get there, and we arrived around 3:30pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Much of the ride had been spent gazing out of the window to stare at cornfields.

We parked in the small car-park outside the restaurant, and proceeded in. Due to the unusual hour for lunch, we were the only customers in the restaurant when we came in. The servers in the restaurant all looked to be about high school or college aged, and were milling about chatting to one another when we came in.

Michael and I were served by a couple of the young servers, neither of whom were from Kansas, but told us they had moved there for college.

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We continued driving to Topeka after our meal, arriving around 7-8pm.

Topeka continued to be stiflingly hot even in the evening, and we were sweating as soon as we set foot outside the car. For dinner, we had Indian, while making small talk with the restaurant owners who’d sat next to us by chance. Michael was fascinated by the seeming randomness of international immigrants who’d come to America 20 years ago, and settled in a place like Topeka.

The people of Kansas spoke with accents that were almost Southern, with a bit of something else thrown in. During dinner, we listened bemusedly to the conversation of diners next to us, who were discussing something at the intersection of religion and extramarital affairs.

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After dinner, we checked in to the Ramada Inn, part of a motel chain. The motel was one of the more unusual and lackluster that we’d stayed in on the trip. At the time of the road trip, I was making efforts to train for my first marathon, and having a gym at the hotel was crucial in making selections for where we’d stay. Though it is the capital of Kansas, Topeka had a surprising lack of hotels with gyms, which is how we ended up at the Ramada.

Some parts of the interior looked like they hadn’t been updated since the 70s, and also could have formed the backdrop for the hotel in The Shining.

The next morning, we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. This comprised of a heavy assortment that you would expect to find in a place like Kansas: hotcakes, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sausages, and eggs. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, and drove to a nearby attraction known as ‘Truckhenge’.

I discovered Truckhenge on the website Roadside America, which lists bizarre national attractions optimal for travelers making their way by road. Truckhenge, rated as ‘Major Fun’ on the website, can be described as an unusual art installation created solely by one man, Ron Lessman. The website advised calling the phone number listed to see if the farm would be open to visitors on days people intended to visit.

After Michael called, we drove there with some trepidation, noting that our surrounds looked like a place ideal to commit homicide.

Within 10 minutes’ drive, we’d reached our destination. The gate was closed to us though, and we wondered if it was open. We got out of the car after stopping on a grass mound across from the farm, and walked into the front yard, where we saw a man with grizzled hair doing something in the yard. After getting closer to him, we excused ourselves, and asked if we might be permitted to take a look around.

On turning around, he looked startled, but not hostile, and asked if we were the ones who’d called that morning. We identified the man as Ron Lessman, the resident, owner and creator of Truckhenge. Mr Lessman had a thick sort of accent that wasn’t quite a Southern accent, and nor did it seem like it was a typical Kansas accent. While enthusiastic to speak with us, we had some difficulty in understanding him.

Mr Lessman told us it would be $8 to see his property. Michael handed over $20, but noted later that he never received any change. Mr Lessman seemed to welcome the idea of visitors that day, and asked us if we’d like a tour. Though we said no, he proceeded to walk and talk with us about his creations, telling us anecdotes about some of the creations along the way.

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In front of the Lessman farm

He had a section of the farm that was dedicated to stumps of trees that had faces etched into them using a saw.

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Mr Lessman seemed especially pleased with these, and proceeded to tell us stories about each tree carving. He was also fond of making gestures, which Michael and I mostly didn’t understand.

Around where the trucks were, Mr Lessman left us to our devices. We leisurely strolled about his farm, admiring his creations.

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What we understood of the story behind Truckhenge, was that the local council had advised Mr Lessman to get rid of his trucks- the phrase they’d used, according to Mr Lessman, was “pick up the trucks”, which resulted in him “picking them up” according to his words, and a gesture with his arm. The art that came after, like the tree stumps, were a result of the initial trucks.

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The trucks were the last creations on the farm, before we were about to turn around and head back to the house. Then, we heard a humming, vibrational sound, and turned the corner around a bush, to see Mr Lessman doing something on a tractor. When he saw us, he hopped off the tractor, and started talking and walking with us back in the direction of the house.

Michael mostly asked Mr Lessman questions about his pieces, while Mr Lessman told us about how some high school kids would come there to take photos before going to the prom. As we neared the house, Mr Lessman suddenly turned to us expectantly and asked us if we’d like to see the inside of his house.

Micheal, ever cautious, said we had to get going shortly, but thanked Mr Lessman. A blank look came over Mr Lessman’s face, perhaps surprised at the unexpected denial. He then asked us, “Do you want a peacock feather?”

We’d seen peacocks strutting around his farm as we walked, and excitedly, I said yes, not knowing what the offer entailed. We walked back and reached the house, and horrifically, I realized that Mr Lessman meant for us to go inside the house with him to get the peacock feather.

He opened the door, and we both stepped through. Michael kept one foot nearly in the door, while I stood nearby. We watched as Mr Lessman stepped off to the side and retrieved a sole peacock feather from a nearby desk. The interior of the house had dark gray walls with high ceilings, and giant pieces of furniture or other objects that loomed over us and cast long shadows.

He handed me the peacock feather, and then said he could show us around the house. I thanked him, and Michael said we had to get going. It looked like disappointment crossed Mr Lessman’s face for a second, but he walked us out, and we thanked him for the tour and the feather. He shook our hands in goodbye, and we got in the car quickly, and began the drive to Kansas City.

It took us about an houralso to drive to Kansas City from Topeka. The temperature in Kansas City again, wasn’t much kinder to us, and we were dripping with sweat as soon as stepped out of the car.

We entered the restaurant I had chosen, Hayward’s Pit BBQ, to have eyes fall on us, and mouths hang agape. The restaurant had the largest and whitest customers I’d ever seen in one place at a time, and was also heavily male. We had plates of very heavy meat set before us, while Michael chatted to the male server about our road travels.

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I noticed that the waitresses here, even despite being middle aged and above, wore full faces of makeup, looking like the picture of traditional femininity. Michael remarked later that people in more conservative communities tended to conform to traditional gender roles compared to people in more liberal places. He also noted later that Kansas is a red state, and I thought that there must have been at least several people in the restaurant that day, that voted for Trump.

We finished our meal, paid the bill and left to drive north, to Minneapolis.

 

The Great American Road Adventure: Colorado

After about 5 hours on the road, we reached Denver around 6 or 7pm on a Monday evening. As we didn’t have a clear plan laid out, we’d been using the app HotelTonight for bookings, and used this for the entirety of the trip. We checked into Courtyard by Marriott upon arriving in Denver, which was at that point, the most comfortable stay of the trip.

The hotel was located right in the heart of the city, so we had no issues with finding restaurants to eat at, or things to do. As we checked into the hotel that evening, the receptionist recommended certain areas to dine in, and alluded to Denver’s ‘recreational activities’, advising us to partake if we pleased.

At this time, I wasn’t aware that marijuana is legal in Colorado. After learning this, I suggested to Michael that we should get some edibles the following night. After checking in to the hotel, we dropped off our things and freshened up, then walked to a nearby restaurant, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, for dinner.

We were seated immediately at the restaurant. Ophelia’s had a modern, trendy ambience, and was located across two floors, with a giant projector screen on the upper level. The seats faced the screen, which was playing something in black and white, made to look like it was from the 40s or 50s. We each had burgers there, which were superb, before heading out to stroll the city center.

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It was the first time in a couple of days that we’d been in a large city. We both felt comfortable and at ease in Denver at once, and decided that this would be the place to spend two nights. The streets of Denver were clean and beautiful, and the belief that the air was fresh also pervaded due to the knowledge that we were surrounded by mountains on all sides.

That night, we decided to go to a cinema nearby to see ‘It’, until late that night.

The next morning, we got up and walked to a nearby cafe, The Pig and Sprout, for brunch.

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Dip sandwich at The Pig and Sprout

After finishing brunch, we went for a stroll in the heat, before getting an iced tea, and an Uber to the Molly Brown House Museum. The Molly Brown House Museum is a real house that Titanic survivor Margaret Brown lived in at one point in time. The museum entrance fees cost $15 or less per person, and entrance fee includes a mandatory tour. The house museum was more interesting to me as a place preserving its Victorian heritage and furniture, and less so because of who Margaret Brown was.

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Interior of the living room

As we moved through the house museum, the tour guide gave us insights about upper class Victorian living customs, and about Margaret Brown and her family. It took us around 30 minutes to get through the entire house. After the tour, we walked to a nearby cafe for coffee, and then went to the hotel to rest before dinner.

That night, we’d decided to partake in Denver’s recreational delights, so I spent the afternoon looking up places nearby to get edibles. Michael and I left the hotel early in the evening that night, and went to a place called ‘Sweet Leaf’ in a different neighborhood of Denver.

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Unfortunately, I had brought only a copy of my Australian drivers licence, which the staff told me wasn’t sufficient as a form of ID for entry. They said I could enter with my passport (which I hadn’t brought), so only Michael was permitted to enter, and purchased a few items.

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List of edibles for purchase at Sweet Leaf

He told me that the staff inside had informed him that he wasn’t “allowed to buy anything to supply to me”, which I thought was unusual, considering that I had a valid license stating that I was well over the age of 21. We got an Uber to a restaurant in another neighborhood of Denver, featuring Asian and Cajun fusion cusine.

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Purchase from Sweet Leaf
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Deep fried alligator

After having dinner, we went back to the hotel and I had half of one of the truffle brownies that Michael purchased from Sweet Leaf. The container consisted of three brownie bites, which were small mouthfuls, enough for 2 bites. Each brownie bite had 10 milligrams of THC. However, after an hour, I failed to feel anything, so I finished the brownie.

I felt exceedingly tired soon after this, and retired to bed. The night that passed was not a pleasant one. I woke up every 2 hour, with a constant need to drink water. My mouth felt parched, and my head heavy.

In the morning, my alarm went off at 8am to wake me up for a Pilates class nearby. I got out of bed groggily, and stumbled into the bathroom. My pupils were dilated, and I felt like my vision was blurred. My head felt so heavy, I went back to bed for 2 hours, and skipped Pilates.

At 11am, it was checkout time, and despite the extra 2 hours of sleep, I still felt dreadful. This would be my first and last experience with edibles. We departed for Kansas with my head a mess.

 

 

The Great American Road Adventure: New Mexico

Michael and I set out for New Mexico late on a Saturday afternoon. Our intended destination in New Mexico was Santa Fe, but there was no possibility of reaching Santa Fe at a comfortable hour that night.

We were glad to get out of the stifling Arizona heat, but found that the temperature in New Mexico was much the same. The highway we traversed was one of the more bizarre ones that we came across while on our road trip. We passed multiple trucks that seemed to have the contents of the drivers’ entire lives compartmentalized in the backseats. When we got deep into the heart of New Mexico, we were often the only car in sight for a long way.

There were no sights to see along the New Mexico highway. Michael decided that we’d stop in a town called Las Cruces that night. It was still humid when we got out of the car at 8pm. Despite being a Saturday night, many of the town’s restaurants were closed by 8pm, which left us with only a couple of choices. The town could have been a setting forย  a horror movie.

We opted to have dinner at an Italian restaurant called Forghedaboutit! and hoped that the food wouldn’t be entirely forgettable.

I had no idea what to expect when we walked inside. The servers at the restaurant were pleasant. A lot of the people in the restaurant were older than us. There were a couple of people inside wearing cowboy hats. The food, though edible, was by no means very good, and therefore lived up to its namesake.

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Las Cruces, New Mexico
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Italian food in New Mexico

After finishing dinner, we drove an additional 30 minutes and checked in at our hotel, La Quinta, which is part of a national hotel chain.

The next morning, we woke up and drove for a couple of hours to White Sands National Monument. Again, it was a terribly humid day, and we began sweating profusely as soon as we got out of the car.

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There was a $5 admission fee per vehicle into the area, which granted access for the day. White Sands National Monument was a vast, rolling expanse of white sand that stretched into the distance. There were many others in addition to us who’d ventured out to brave the heat, and were happily strolling in the surrounds. A woman passing by advised us to take our shoes off to walk on the sand, assuring us that it wasn’t hot at all.

We then abandoned our shoes on a sand mound, before traversing the sandy hills.

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After frolicking in the unearthly white sand, we continued driving to our destination, Santa Fe.

We stopped for lunch at a diner in Carrizozo, New Mexico, called Abuelita’s. Again, this looked like a place that didn’t see foreigners much. As we continued our foray deep into the heart of America, it started to become more and more clear to me that people here were unacquainted with cooking vegetables. It was becoming exceedingly difficult to find vegetarian options on restaurant menus, let alone a vegan option that wasn’t a poorly made salad.

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The waitress at Abuelita’s seemed unusually baffled when I ordered and said I wanted a vegetarian chili.

“Just beans?” She asked quizzically, perhaps wondering why anyone in the world would want to eat vegetarian chili.

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After our meal, Michael and I left Carrizozo to continue driving to Santa Fe. I spent the drive sleeping intermittently, and feeding Michael protein bars while he drove. We arrived in Santa Fe around 3pm on a Sunday, and were able to check into Eldorado Hotel immediately.

Eldorado was a noticeable upgrade from the La Quinta of the previous evening. Michael and I were both satisfied and relieved by this. After dropping our bags off and freshening up, we left the hotel in the late afternoon to explore.

My first impressions of Santa Fe were that it was a tiny city, made up of two main streets. The architecture consisted primarily of earthy tones, with a focus on clay being the main material. It was very befitting for a city in a state named ‘New Mexico’.

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The weather that afternoon was slightly more mild than in the lower part of New Mexico. It was still hot, but bearable enough to walk around outside for at least an hour. After walking around a little and viewing the city, we decided to have dinner at a rooftop lounge called Coyote Cafe & Cantina, which was a recommendation from our hotel receptionist.

The rooftop bar was slightly busy when we came up. It was a marked change from the roadside stops we had made in small towns.

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View from the top of Coyote Cantina

The food here was also a marked improvement from that of Las Cruces, and Carrizozo.

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Corn cakes with grilled prawns in tangy gravy

I’d even go so far as to recommend visiting Coyote Cantina, if you ever find yourself in Santa Fe. After finishing our meal, Michael and I walked the streets a little more, and took a look at an art market that was just wrapping up in the late afternoon. In recent years, Santa Fe has become a hub for artists that are priced out of more historically art focused cities like New York, so art is plentiful here.

We had an early night after the long drive, but woke up early the next day to go to Meow Wolf, an interactive art exhibition that came as a recommendation from our hotel receptionist.

From Eldorado Hotel, it was about a 15 minute to Meow Wolf. In the building’s carpark, was this art installation, which Michael said was largely similar to an installation from Burning Man. We purchased tickets in the building and proceeded inside. The space where Meow Wolf is, was renovated from a former bowling alley with support from George R.R. Martin.

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I can only describe Meow Wolf as a playground for adults. We followed a long passageway, with abstract scribblings on the wall, and found ourselves in a dark room, with a house inside.

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We entered the house through the front door, and found many oddities within, reminiscent of an 80s sci-fi or fantasy movie.

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From the house, there were inconspicuous ways to get into another large room that was larger than the house, and more colorfully decorated. In short, exiting the house was akin to leaving reality for a fantasy come to life.

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There were several outer rooms with different themes in each section. One of the sections contained white, textured walls that resembled an ice cave. Not wanting to miss anything, we navigated each doorway and hidden exit, making sure we had covered all of them before leaving. One of my favorites was going through the small, circular hole in the washing machine, to come out in the more eclectically themed room.

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As we explored the labyrinthine fun house, visitors were able to experiment with displays and games within the house, which resulted in sounds, music and lights emitting from the sensory play areas.

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Some of the rooms in the house had a 1980s feel, with retro posters plastered on the walls, and 80s music playing in the background.

We spent at least an hour and a half going around the house. Setting foot inside was like entering a fantasy playhouse, not unlike something you would find in Stranger Things.

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We left Meow Wolf feeling content with our day, and proceeded to Las Vegas, a small town in New Mexico, for lunch, before crossing the state line into Colorado.

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