We decided on Santa Fe, New Mexico. Neither my wife nor I had ever been there, but we’d always wanted to go. And only six-and-a-half hours away by car? No problem.
It seemed like the perfect place: plenty of things to do as a family, great food and drink, and a very affordable condo rental on VRBO that could serve as the perfect spot for some romantic relaxation after the kids went to bed.
Or would trying to cram in a family vacation and a romantic getaway over one long weekend end up being too much?
We left for vacation in high spirits, as well as a good 15 hours early. Not only were we excited to get out of town for the weekend, but we were feeling pretty smart: A spring snowstorm was on its way, and in a few short hours would start clobbering the I-25 corridor between Longmont and Colorado Springs.
Our original plan was that we would wake up early and leave on Friday morning. But with the severe weather warnings, we hastily packed up our gear the Thursday evening before, put the kids in their jammies, and decided to head for Durango, which was safely south of Colorado Springs and the southern edge of the incoming weather.
We made it to Durango uneventfully, staying over at a La Quinta. The next morning, we awoke to rain and temperatures in the low 50s. As we ate our free breakfasts, we watched the local news on the TVs mounted high up on the walls in the dining area. They showed images of Colorado Springs buried beneath nearly a foot of heavy, slushy snow.
There was no doubt we had made a great decision leaving early. Unfortunately, we were just about to learn that we’d also made a horrible decision – specifically, the decision to stop at Durango instead of just driving all night to Santa Fe.
About an hour after we left the La Quinta, we were stuck in standstill traffic, looking helplessly out of our windows as a white-out enveloped us, and every other car around us. By noon, we were at milemarker 42. By 3 p.m., we were still at milemarker 42.
The kids watched movies in the backseat as a quiet, sickening dread washed over me. Three hours. No movement. All around us, 4×4 pickup trucks were stranded in the snow. We were in an old Toyota Prius, which we had bought used the previous autumn. We’d never really taken it out in the snow. And yet there we were, in quite literally the most severe winter conditions I’d ever seen from a driver’s or passenger’s seat.
My wife looked on Google Maps and saw that not only had they closed the interstate ahead of us, but they’d closed it behind us, as well. We were stuck in between with nowhere to go. The wind gusted up to 50 miles per hour, and the snow blew sideways as it fell from ceasely from the sky.
I ticked through the important stuff in my head: Plenty of water? Check. Plenty of gas? Check. Plenty of food? Check. Clothing? Check. And we weren’t stuck. We were just not moving. Intellectually, I knew we we had everything we needed to be safe. But on some deeper, less conscious level, anxiety was building.
And then the cars ahead of us crept forward. And we did, too. Snow scraped the undercarriage of our little Toyota. Please, Prius, don’t get stuck now, I begged the car telepathically.
Fifteen minutes later, we crested a hill and stretched out ahead of us – ground that had been barely touched by snow. The asphalt was not only clear of snow, it was mostly dry.
Southern Colorado has some strange weather.
We seemed to be in the clear, but we weren’t. To get to Santa Fe, we still had to make it over Raton Pass, just over the Colorado border on the New Mexico side. Raton Pass was closed due to weather. So we stopped in Trinidad at the start of the closure. I gassed up the Prius, and we hit a place called Tequila’s for some early dinner. It was packed with other travelers also waiting for the Pass to open.
I rubbed my temples at the thought of having to stay overnight there, of having made it only 230 miles in 11 hours of driving over two days.
Somewhere down in Santa Fe, a really beautiful condo waited for us. At least, it looked beautiful on VRBO.
As the kids munched their quesadillas, I noticed something: Good news seemed to ripple through the restaurant. At tables all around us, people were smiling all of a sudden, looking visibly relieved. Through the din of whispered conversation, I thought I heard something about the Pass being opened. My wife checked Google Maps. It was true.
By 5:30 p.m., we were on our way. When we cleared the Pass, we were greeted by “severe clear” visibility – blue sky without so much as a wisp of a cloud. We drove into Santa Fe as the sun was setting, which painted the sky pink and orange and purple. It was gorgeous.
By 9 p.m. (12 hours after we had left that morning), we pulled into the parking lot of the condo. In a few minutes, we would confirm in-person that, indeed, the condo really was beautiful.
It should have taken us six-and-a-half hours to get to Santa Fe. Instead, it took a total of 27 hours over the course of two days.
Museums, museums, and more museums
Our kids love museums. If you say the word “museum” to them, they literally jump for joy. That’s a big reason why we picked Santa Fe: It’s absolutely packed with museums. Really good museums. Too many good museums for a couple of parents who only have 48 hours to spare and two kids who keep shouting, “LET’S GO TO ANOTHER MUSEUM!”
We started out at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The woman behind the counter gave our kids pads of paper and pencils so they could draw and take notes as they went through. I’m thinking, Man, that’s a great idea! More museums should do that! Then she warned my wife and me that we should not let our kids get too close to the walls or art since they had pencils. So then I’m thinking, Yep, we’re going to be the parents of the kid who put his pencil through “The Barns, Lake George.”
I’ve always really enjoyed Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. This museum showcased a range of her paintings and illustrations through the years – far beyond the flowers. I would have been able to take it in more had I not been so hyper-aware of how kids never walk in a straight line, never look where they are going. Man, I really wished they didn’t have those pencils.
Fortunately, we left the museum without damaging any art. And despite my wish that they were never furnished with writing implements, we’ve now got a pretty great memento: my son’s renderings of Georgia’s works.
Among the other museums we visited were two on Museum Hill: the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, a well-curated and powerful place with an enjoyable “discovery” area for the kids. Then we headed across the courtyard to visit the Museum of International Folk Art. Very little can prepare you for walking into the main gallery, where there are literally thousands of sculptures, paintings, illustrations, weavings, and more. It was overwhelming in the best way possible.
The following day, we headed to the House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf, which I count as a museum of sorts, but may be more accurately described as an interactive art exhibit that feels like a waking dream. (I particularly liked opening a refrigerator in the strange house, and discovering that it was actually a doorway to a different world.) It equally terrified and amused the kids.
Then it was off to the Botanical Gardens (back on Museum Hill), and then to the Institute of American Indian Arts (which, if you visit, do not forget to check out the galleries upstairs), and then over to the New Mexico History Museum, which, among other things, included the Palace of Governors.
At this point, we were mentally numb. We knew we were in the presence of wonderful art and fascinating history, but as we walked through the Palace of Governors, I looked at my wife and asked her seriously: “Where are we?”
“An old place,” she answered, her brain as maxed-out as mine.
Meanwhile, our kids ran from one thing to the next, still enthralled by everything.
I recommend every museum emphatically. Just give yourself more than 48 hours to see them all.
Food and drink
My kids were determined to become experts on the quesadilla, I was determined to become an expert on margaritas, and my wife was determined to eat a variety of authentic and spicy local dishes. (I should mention that I have Crohn’s disease. So between that, and the typical palettes that children have, we usually eat pretty bland, boring meals at home.) So here’s where we ate:
Tomasita’s: Food was solid. Margaritas very good. The sopaipillas and honey they serve at the end of the meal? Heaven.
Cowgirl: Imagine a family-friendly dive bar that’s also a restaurant, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Cowgirl is like and why it’s so popular. They’ve got an actual playground on site, so instead of them acting like wild animals at the table, they can go do that out by the slide while you sip margaritas.
Tecolote Cafe: The place faked us out with its strip-mall location. There was nothing strip-mall about the interior, or their awesomely indulgent food. Inside, Tecolote is a light, spacious, festive spot decorated with handmade, customer-donated illustrations and weavings of owls. But the real interest is on the plates. We had chocolate chip pancakes, french toast, huevos rancheros smothered in red chile. Even their coffee was dynamite.
Kakawa Chocolate House: “Why don’t we just move here to Santa Fe?” my wife and I wondered as soon as we stepped into this tiny, insanely cute place that serves a variety of rich chocolates in sipping and truffle forms. The kids got the truffles, while my wife and I got the sipping kind (including one made with a blend of local chiles).
The Cheesemonger and Clafoutis: For our final night, my wife and I had the ambitious idea to have our own romantic “date night” dinner back at the condo after the kids went to bed. So we hit up the Cheesemonger and Clafoutis for a variety of cheeses, a baguette, and some very fine prosciutto and olives.
The Clafoutis baguette was one of the best baguettes I’ve ever had, and the rest of the spread was more than amazing. One small problem with our plan: When you’ve done seven museums and other activities in the span of 48 hours, you find that you’re just a little worn out once the kids go to sleep. So we redefined “romantic” as “let’s put our pajamas on and try not to fall asleep on the couch as we eat this stuff.”
Amaya: I was too busy trying to recover from a four-museum marathon with blood orange margaritas to notice how much the rest of the my family were enjoying whatever it was they ordered.
Cafe Pasqual’s: There’s a reason why a place would have a 20-minute wait on a Monday morning. Because it’s awesome. We decided to go out for one last breakfast, because we were basically robbed of our first day in Santa Fe.
The kids split an enormous short stack of pancakes and bacon while my wife enjoyed two poached eggs on avocado toast with bacon and dukkah. The syrup is so good it merits eating it by the spoonful, which is definitely something I didn’t do (did) because it would have been very rude and set a bad example for my kids.
Right and wrong
After our breakfast at Cafe Pasqual’s, we piled into the car and made the six-and-a-half-hour drive back – very relieved to encounter no snow and a little disappointed there wasn’t a blizzard that would have forced us to stay an extra day. Along the way, we thought about what we did right and what we did wrong.
Here’s what we did right: We went to Santa Fe. Santa Fe is a little city bursting with energy and life and culture and a lot to do.
Here’s what we did wrong: We decided to do all that over a long weekend. We also tried to have two vacations at once: a romantic getaway, and a family vacation. By any measure, this was still a great family vacation. But as most parents (including us now) probably know, a family vacation is exhausting. Especially with kids ages two and five. Doing it the way we did it, we left ourselves with little time or energy for anything more than activities.
So, despite how much fun we all had, it looks we need to go back. Just the two of us.