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July 24, 2014

Wednesday might have been the most fun day of our trip so far, and for completely unexpected reasons.

We started with several frogs in the hallway of our motel, which I found disturbing and Sam found hilarious. Then it was a four-hour drive to Albuquerque, which turned into a five-hour drive because we made a few unscheduled stops along the way–for souvenir shopping, for lunch, and to see Blue Hole.

What is Blue Hole? Well the name is entirely accurate but doesn’t quite do the place justice. There we were, driving along Route 66, when we saw a highway sign for Blue Hole. I pointed it out to Sam just because I thought it was a funny name.

“Oh! I’ve heard of Blue Hole!” he said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember, but I know I’ve heard of it.”

That was good enough for me. We had a pretty loose afternoon planned in Albuquerque, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to lose a few minutes to go see what Blue Hole is. It was fewer than two miles off the highway, anyway.

It turned out to be totally worth the detour. Blue Hole is maybe the coolest swimming spot we’ve ever seen. It’s a natural geological phenomenon that is basically just a small but very deep swimming hole surrounded by stone. Specifically, it’s 81 feet deep and stays a constant temperature of around 64 degrees, which is a bit chilly for swimming but on a hot, sunny New Mexico summer day it can be very refreshing. It also is not a stagnant pond but rather is constantly flowing, so the water is extremely clean and clear. And because it’s very deep, it’s also very blue–not the light blue of a Caribbean beach but the deep, rich blue of a sapphire.

Blue Hole

Blue Hole

It’s now a state park, which means there are changing rooms and a concrete diving board in addition to the much higher stone diving board left by nature. There were several people there but not so many that it was overwhelming. And everyone was clearly having a great time.

Hamster and I looked at each other. He wanted to jump in. We had not planned on swimming today and were certainly not dressed for it. But there were changing rooms, and we had clothes in the trunk, so I said OK. I was wearing sandals, so I dipped my toes in to check out the water. It was FREEZING! I decided there was no way I was putting my whole body in there. But Sam still wanted to, so I figured I would just watch him splash around for 15 minutes or so and then we’d continue on our way.

[This is probably when I should mention the thing about laundry. See, on Saturday night we were staying in a place with a guest laundry, so I asked Sam how he was doing on clean clothes. He said he was fine. Then Tuesday night as Sam was getting into pajamas he suddenly announced that he had no clean shorts left. None. I was not pleased. And the place we stayed Tuesday night had no guest laundry. As a result he was stuck wearing pants today, which made him a little warmer than me and thus more willing to jump into the cold water.]

As I opened the trunk to get out his bathing suit, I realized that we had no towels with us. At first this seemed like a dealbreaker, but then I suggested that we drive with the top down so he could simply dry off in the sun as we drove. He didn’t love the idea but decided it was a worthwhile trade-off. But then he remembered that both bathing suits he brought were dirty from use last week. Ahh, the never-ending consequences of his not telling me he needed me to do laundry until it was too late. We briefly considered having him wear a dirty bathing suit, but then realized that the laundry bag was at the bottom of the trunk, in the back, and we’d have to empty the trunk completely and then empty the laundry bag completely just to get to this dirty bathing suit. Alas, Blue Hole never got its Hamster.

The big thing to do in Albuquerque is hot-air ballooning. In fact there’s a massive balloon festival every spring–one of the biggest in the world, But balloons take off early in the morning and we were not scheduled to arrive until afternoon. I might have rescheduled some things to make sure we were there in time for a balloon ride if the festival was going on, but it’s not, and balloon rides are very expensive, and we’ve taken one before, on our first big road trip.

We got pretty high up into the air in a different way, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

When I was looking for other things to do in Albuquerque, one of the things that kept coming up is something called Tinkertown Museum. The descriptions of the place were kind of confusing but I put it on our itinerary because I figured the many people who rated it so highly couldn’t all be wrong.

Tinkertown Museum was our first scheduled stop of the day. I had high hopes mostly because I had been driving all day and I wanted something fun to keep us out of the car for a little while. When we pulled into the parking lot, we saw what looked like a very small private house decorated with various signs and sculptures and surrounded by a fence made of sticks. My heart sank. “This is it?” I accidentally said out loud. But we were there, and I didn’t want to drive anymore, and admission was just a few dollars, so in we went.

Tinkertown Museum

It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip so far. I’m not sure how to even describe this place adequately. Behind the strange facade at the entrance is a maze of rooms and outdoor walkways of various shapes and sizes. These rooms and walkways are decorated with all sorts of miniature figures and buildings, old license plates, odd signs of all sorts, and wacky stuff like an animatronic band, an old-timey automated fortune-teller, and much more. Some of the miniature figures move if your press buttons. The old-timey machines all work if you drop a quarter into each one, which of course we did. Everything in the place was either made or collected as a hobby (hence the name Tinkertown) by a strange and fun-loving local folk artist named Ross Ward, who died about 15 years ago. My description of the place has just begun to scratch the surface so I’ll shut up now and just show you some photos.

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown MuseumTinkertown Museum


Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

Tinkertown Museum

It was so weird and so inspiring and so much fun that we didn’t want to leave. And the gift shop was just as quirky as the museum: several tiny rooms, all sorts of cool, weird, and interesting items, somehow punctuating it all was a little basket of tiny plastic figurines next to the cash register with a bright pink sign that said, “NUDE BABIES 25 CENTS.” Sam and I looked in the basket. Yup, the figurines were actually tiny naked babies. I bought a dollar’s worth. I don’t even know why, or what I might possibly do with them.

Our next stop was not exactly fun but was necessary: picking up food from Sharon’s Gourmet to Go, a kosher caterer in town who made us food for Shabbos. Sharon is the last source of kosher food until we get to L.A. next Friday, so this might have been the most important stop of the day. I’m actually pretty excited about this because at my request she made us traditional New Mexican cuisine. For me, the biggest disappointment when it comes to traveling within the U.S. is the food. Yes, there are good kosher restaurants in a few cities. But so much of traveling is about sampling the local cuisine, and that’s basically impossible when you keep kosher. You may find kosher restaurants in most of the bigger cities but they tend to all serve the same pizza or cold cuts and potato kugel and schnitzel you get at home. So I can’t eat BBQ in Memphis or Kansas City or Texas, and I can’t eat sourdough bread in San Francisco, and so on. So I am overly excited to eat New Mexican food Friday night. In fact, I’m excited just to find out what New Mexican food is, because I don’t even recognize the names of some of the dishes she cooked for us.

By the time we got the food it was 4:30 p.m. and we still had two more big activities. Suddenly the day went from lazy and meandering to rushed and hyper-focused. We were going to a ballgame at 7, and before then we had to squeeze in a trip to the top of a mountain and dinner.

Albuquerque is mainly very flat but New Mexico is not, and on the edge of the city is a 10,000-foot mountain called Sandia Peak. The summit offers extraordinary views of not just the city but of almost 10% of the state, as you can see for about 75 miles in every direction. There are only two ways to get to the top of Sandia Peak: you can hike for 4-6 hours, half of which is spent climbing up narrow cliffs, or you can take the longest aerial tram in the world. We chose the latter. I forget the physical length of the tram ride but I can tell you that it takes 15 minutes each way and that your ears pop several times as you gain altitude. I can also tell you that as the tram moves hundreds of feet above rocky valleys it sways considerably in the strong gusts that occasionally come blasting through. I can also tell you that taking this ride in a tram completely packed with teenagers from Arkansas on a Christian mission includes a lot of screaming and a lot of selfies. But man, what a view we had once we got to the summit!

Sandia Peak

Sandia Peak Tram

Sandia Peak

Sam and I have now been at the top of three mountains higher than 10,000 feet: Sandia in NM, Haleakala in Hawaii, and Pike’s Peak in Colorado. I have no desire to climb mountains the traditional way, but man, there is something about standing on top of the world and looking out over everything below.

By the time we got to the bottom, though, it was about 6:20 and we still needed to eat dinner before the ballgame. We didn’t really have time to grill, but in the end that didn’t matter because the fire conditions were especially dangerous today so we weren’t allowed to grill anywhere near the mountain and we didn’t really have any other place to do it. So we quickly had sandwiches in the car and still got to the game late.

The Albuquerque baseball team is the Triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers, which means they’re usually pretty good. They used to be called the Dukes, but several years ago there was an odd episode of The Simpsons in which Homer uncovered and thwarted a secret plan to move the local team, the Springfield Isotopes, to Albuquerque. In 2003 the Dukes were sold and there were various legal and financial issues with keeping the name Dukes. Needing a new name for the team, the ownership decided to embrace The Simpsons episode and renamed the team the Albuquerque Isotopes. The team’s name is half the reason I wanted to go to an Isotopes game. The shirt I wore to the game says “Springfield Isotopes” across the chest and garnered several smiles and compliments throughout the stadium, especially from team employees.

The game itself started out disastrous for two reasons. First, the ‘Topes gave up 5 runs in the second inning and appeared to be on their way to a solid spanking. Second, our seats were fantastic–second row, right next to the visitors’ dugout–but they were also right behind an entire Little League team. Sam has had a ridiculous streak of being tossed a ball by a player or coach at every minor league game we’ve been to for the past four years. The Little Leaguers were probably 8, maybe 9, so they had a major advantage over Sam in location, in numbers, and in cuteness. They were also supremely annoying, constantly standing up and frequently screaming for players to toss them a ball in the middle of a play. They did eventually get a ball tossed their way, and a T-shirt, and Sam was getting increasingly frustrated. He was resourceful, asking the security guard for a ball, looking up the visiting players on his phone so he could call them by name instead of by number, and even leaning over the railing to the clubhouse tunnel and asking the players who were ducking out for bathroom breaks. Nothing worked. One visiting player, Fresno leftfielder Darren Ford, promised to get Sam a ball and then immediately sat in the dugout and forgot all about it. Sam got his attention a couple of other times but got no ball. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile the game turned out great. The weather was fantastic. Both teams featured former major leaguers we knew: Chone Figgins and Mike Baxter on the Isotopes and Dan Uggla on the visiting Fresno Grizzlies. The ballpark was friendly and comfortable and even had life-sized statues of Simpsons characters scattered around the main concourse.

The Hamster and the Homer Marge Bart Simpson Lisa Simpson

And did I mention the strange assortment of taco-related foods that raced around the bases?

Taco race

And the ‘Topes staged a comeback and ended up winning the game 8-7. But Sam still wanted that ball. Lucky for us, those Little Leaguers left shortly before the 7th-inning stretch, and Sam was now the only young kid in our section. The bottom of the eighth inning ended with a flyout to centerfield, and Sam hoped to get the centerfielder’s attention as he trotted back to the dugout with the ball. He didn’t need to–another player (number 25) walked right out in front of Sam, called for the ball, and then tossed it right to Sam. It took almost the entire game, but he finally got his ball.

Game ball

And then things got even better. As the Albuquerque closer recorded the last out, Sam ran to the other end of the Fresno dugout and started asking any player who would listen to give him the broken bat that lay on the dugout floor. It took a little while, but eventually he got someone’s attention–Darren Ford. by this time there were several other kids clamoring for the bat shard but Ford handed it right to Sam. He was on cloud nine.

Broken bat

And then it got even better. I didn’t tell Sam this until the game was almost over, but tonight was one of those games where kids are allowed to go on the field and run the bases after the game. When it was Sam’s turn he tore around the bases and confidently stomped on home. He was handed a little card saying “I ran the bases at Isotopes Park,” which he promptly got autographed by one of the Isotopes players who was lingering in the dugout. It was a fantastic end to a thoroughly quirky and thoroughly fun day.

Well, for Sam, anyway. My day wasn’t quite over; we’re staying in a Quality Inn tonight, which I chose because it has a guest laundry. I’m not getting much sleep tonight, but in the morning Sam will wake up to plenty of clean clothes.

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