Family road trip: El Malpais, white-knuckling through a storm, and old Route 66

The Toupin family's RV has now rambled from the southern Midwest into the fiery red deserts of the American west. 

Melanie Stetston Freeman/Staff
Road sign for Route 66 in Santa Rosa, NM.

[Editor's note: Laurie Toupin and her family are road tripping across America and sharing their experiences in a series of blogs. See the related links menu to the left for past installments.]

Arizona may have the Grand Canyon, but New Mexico has the El Malpais National Monument.

Here, the black skeletons of extinct volcanoes proudly stare down at the lava scarred landscape – huge black mesas, cinder cones, plateaus, trenches, caves and other eerie formations.

I had never heard of this place until we passed through it on Route 40 to our RV campsite in Grants, N.M. But it was breathtaking. Even the kids were impressed … which is more than I can say about the Painted Dessert or Petrified Forest National Park, both in Arizona, or any other (to me) amazing geological feature of the West.

At Lavaland Campground in Grants, Jacob, 5, found his first tumbleweed. Now he insists that his carefully collected collection of these spiky weeds sit in the RV's shower so he can take them home. We’ll have to talk about this later…

There is nothing here – no playground, no pool, not even a picnic table. Yet we all had a blast biking around the area. The vistas are incredible. It is cooler here than expected, about 73 degrees. Both Maria and Colie, age 11 and 9, commented that the air smells fresh and clean.

The kids dug moats in the soft, red dirt around the few trees in the campground to help them catch the rain from the storm we saw was coming.

The view of the sky is so unobstructed here from buildings or trees that one can see for miles. We felt like we were in a fish bowl surrounded by massive cloud banks. We could hear the thunder and see the peals of lightning and the streams of rain in the mountains and mesas 360 degrees around us.

There is sand in those mountains

We had already passed through this storm when we traveled through Colorado and visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park. After about a quarter-mile walk, you reach 30 square miles of sand dunes that climb 750 feet in the air. People were scaling the tallest peak. I was happy to coerce Colie, 9, to make it to the first hill!

The sand is so soft and fine. We rolled down the hill, ran up, and rolled down again. We dug in the soft sand and buried each other’s feet. We watched other people slide down the dunes on wake boards. Someone tried a regular sled. But unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Jacob and Maria loved this place. And so did I. But the wind was strong and it kept blowing sand, which stung, so we didn’t stay long. The sand can reach 150 degrees in the afternoon sun. And because it is easier to walk in bare feet, we wanted to leave before the sand got too hot. As it was, the return trip hurt our feet so much that we had to put our shoes back on – this was only 11 in morning.

As we left, I could see the storm miles away. We were heading right into it. When the deluge hit us, the storm's wind accompaniment shook our RV so much that I started white-knuckling the steering wheel. The kids were so quiet.

I was reminded of the story in the Bible when Elisha goes out of the cave’s mouth to seek the Lord. The Lord was not in the earthquake or wind, but rather in a still, small voice. While I clung to that thought, I felt something compelling me to turn veer from my course and take a highway that lead into New Mexico. 

As I turned parallel to the storm, the wind’s impact lessened and I was able to relax. The rain continued for a while longer, but it didn’t matter. We were safe.

The people who suggested Colorado over my original route from Kansas into eastern New Mexico were right from an adult’s point of view.

There isn’t much to do in eastern New Mexico except to enjoy the beautiful expanse of dessert scenery. I loved it. But after a while, my children wanted to retreat to a movie in the back of the RV. They stayed there until I called them back out as we entered the El Memphas region. 

An unexpected stop

In Albuquerque, N.M., we picked up I-40 – the interstate that replaced the majority of Route 66 in the western United States

But Historical Route 66 is alive and well thanks to the efforts of one man – Angel Delgadillo. Mr. Delgadillo was a barber in Seligman, Ariz., when the Interstate bypassed his town and caused its tourism dollars to dry up in the 1980s.

He started a campaign to preserve the original Route 66 and founded the Route 66 Association of Arizona in 1987. For 10 years he talked to anyone who would listen.

Eventually, Route 66's gradual dismantling ruffled the feathers of enough people that states began protecting the sections within their borders. Then in the late 1990s, former President Bill Clinton secured $10 million in federal matching grants to help states restore and preserve the road.  

Delgadillo turned his barber shop into a gift shop, museum, and visitor center along the “new” Historical Route 66. Now, many shops and restaurants carry Route 66 paraphernalia and mementos. We’ve stopped at quite a few along the way!

The producer of Cars based his movie on this small revival town, saying that Seligman was as close to Radiator Springs as one could get. The kids were thrilled to find out that this was the home of one of their favorite movies.

I love finding these little gems. But most of all, I am treasuring this time that we are spending together as a family, having adventures and working through whatever experiences the journey hands us. 

So far, our trip can be summed up by the words on a magnet we picked up at Delgadillo’s Route 66 gift shop: Yay! Roadtrips!

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