MatadorU student Jenna Vandenberg gets caught in the Southwest…again.

“YOU CAN GET to Orlando in four days,” my friend assured me. “You can work and stay with me until then.” He nodded once, satisfied that I’d stick around just a little bit longer.

I glanced out the window. My eyes darted past the casinos of the Las Vegas skyline and followed 95 east.

I caught his eye. “Yeah, I’m leaving tomorrow. It’s gonna take me two weeks to get to Florida.”

But the sun set as I drove through Flagstaff, and I remembered why I keep getting stuck here.

He shook his head and tried again to convince me to stay, but my car was already packed. True, the half marathon I was registered to run in Orlando was a couple weeks away, but there’d be a lot to see along the way. I hadn’t been able to ride the Sandia Peak Tram last month in Albuquerque. My newest pair of cowboy boots had never been to Texas. I had a list of twelve restaurants I needed to try in New Orleans.

Two weeks wasn’t going to be long enough. I should have left last week.

I burst out of work the next day and headed straight for the freeway. My plan was to zoom through Arizona and slow down somewhere past Navaho country. I’d been through the Grand Canyon State on countless occasions, and it was the only part of the drive I wasn’t particularly excited about.

But the sun set as I drove through Flagstaff, and I remembered why I keep getting stuck here. In the daytime the place is all tumbleweed and dry sage brush. But at dusk the purple sky, red rocks, and streaky sunsets make the desert landscape look inviting. It’s false advertising, but I fall for it.

Next thing I knew a week had passed and I was barely out of AZ. So much for leisurely exploring Texas, for eating my weight in jambalaya and beignets.

Winslow, AZ

My first delay took place just four hours out of Vegas. On learning about an upcoming small town festival and 10K race, I pitched my tent (with its four broken poles) at Homoluvi State Park. The next morning I threw on running clothes and drove three miles across I-40 to Winslow, Arizona.

Once I hit 3rd Street I turned my music down so the locals wouldn’t roll their eyes. I’d been listening to the Eagles’ “Take it Easy”:

“Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / and such a fine sight to see.”

I pulled up alongside Standin’ on the Corner Park (2nd Street and Kinsley Ave), dashed into the Standin’ on the Corner store, registered for the Standin’ on the Corner 10K race, and soon found myself racing past food vendors setting up for the annual Standin’ on the Corner Festival.

Photo: cogdogblog

My plan was to run at half-marathon pace, but when I noticed there were only three gals ahead of me at the four-mile mark, I decided to speed things up. Sixteen minutes later I was handed a first place prize of $18 worth of services at Pistols and Pearls Salon. If you want to win a race, go to Winslow.

Camping at Homoluvi State Park is $25, including park admission. Spend a few hours checking out the shards of Hopi pottery along the trails here. Free camping is an option at McHood Park, five miles south of Winslow on Highway 87.

There are also plenty of cheap motels (Sleepin’ on the Corner Motel, anyone?), but La Posada Hotel is the best place to spend the night. This “last great railroad hotel” has been renovated to include in-house museums, gardens, a restaurant, and rooms starting at $110.

Snowflake, AZ

After spending a sufficient amount of time standing on various corners, I collected my mangled tent and had an early dinner at the Turquoise Room, the restaurant in La Posada. My waiter told me that all their cheeses were locally made at a little ranch near Snowflake.

Immediately interested, I called the ranch and was headed that way as the sun went down. I could’ve stopped forty minutes down I-40 to spend the night in a wigwam, but I turned south and found lodging in Snowflake instead.

After an early morning run down Five Mile Canyon and a quick tour of the town’s historic homes, I forced my little Honda Civic down ten miles of red dirt roads to Black Mesa Ranch, where David and Kathryn Heininger were having one of their popular open houses, complete with goat petting, cheese eating, and milking demonstrations.

Photo: Author

The couple moved to Arizona in 2000 with the intention of retiring alongside the mesa. They were going to keep a few goats for milk and meat. That plan went out the window as soon as the first kid hit the ground. It turns out baby goats are pretty cute.

The Heininger’s now maintain over 80 free-range goats on their commercial farm. The goats don’t know they’re free range, though, and like to be near their buddies at all times.

“Sometimes thirty-five of them will cram into a pen,” says Kathryn. “I have to tell them to move so we won’t lose our certification.”

She’s kidding of course. Anyone who comes to the farm is duly impressed with the operation. The lab where Kathryn sends milk samples has been known to call and ask if she’s accidentally mailed in a pasteurized sample. It’s that clean.

She especially goes above and beyond her “Humanely Raised and Handled” certification during kidding season. A baby monitor and camera are hooked up in the barn so she can rush out at 2am when a mama-to-be starts a frantic bleating chorus of what can roughly be translated as “where’s my epidural?”

If you’re interested in a farm vacation or want to spend a week learning the ropes, David and Kathryn are usually open to teaching classes and entertaining guests on the ranch. Many visitors have gone on to start their own cheese farms after spending some quality off-the-grid time with the goats.

Show Low, AZ

Although I could have easily spent the entire month at Black Mesa, I eventually moved out of their bunkhouse and headed back into town. After some “award winning” pasta at Enzo’s Italian Restaurant (928-243-0450), I continued south.

Just as the brown hills were turning gold, I pulled into Show Low. Thirty minutes outside of Snowflake on Highway 77, hiking and horseback riding are the main activities here in Arizona’s White Mountains.

If you’re staying in Show Low, there are plenty of campgrounds and cabins up and down Highway 260. Check out wmonline.com for lodging and the Lakeside Ranger Station (520-368-5111) for hiking options.

If you’re here during winter, there’s an Apache-run ski resort just outside of town at Sunrise Park.

Pie Town, NM

The next afternoon, I broke my usual sunset-only driving rule in anticipation of dessert at the Pio-O-Neer Café in Pie Town.

I’d been through the tiny town a few weeks earlier for the Pie Festival, held annually on the second Saturday in September, and had fallen hard for the town somewhere between cheering on racing horned toads, listening to Ken Moore the Cowboy Poet, competing in water balloon tosses, and learning strategies for the high stakes pie-eating contest.

Photo: Author

“I only eat spinach the week before the Pie Fest,” one contestant had informed me. “The gas expands my stomach.” I’d nodded seriously and made sure to not stand behind him during the big event.

Pie Town was a lot lonelier this time around. The café was on an extended hiatus, and no one was to be seen in Jackson Park. Not wanting to spend the night in the deserted town, I drove another twenty miles down the road to set up camp in the $5/night Datil Well Campground.

To get over my lack of pickle upside-down pie, I ran the three-mile loop above the campground. The dramatic shadows cast by the setting sun made the up-close views of the Cibola hills and San Augustin Plains well worth the possibility of rattlesnake bites and mountain lion encounters.

After my run, I tied my broken tent between a picnic shelter and a tree and went to sleep. Luckily I woke up in the middle of the night, because the stars were even better than the sunset. To the delight of several mosquitoes, I spent half the night on top of my car, just staring.

Click here to Google Map this route.

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