Thursday, September 29, 2016

White Sands National Monument

After spending a day in Roswell, we had a spare day before heading to Carlsbad. We decided to drive two hours to the White Sands National Monument, and I'm so, so glad we did. White Sands is like nothing else I've ever seen, or will ever see again. Located in the Tularosa Basin in between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, New Mexico, White Sands is 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes, the largest such dunefield in the world.

WSNM is controlled by the National Park Service and you drive through the park in a big loop. You can stop along the way and explore the dunes, and I was surprised at how much freedom we had. We stopped at a few different points in the park, but all of the dunes start to look the same after a while. There are bathrooms at every stop, and cute little picnic shelters that somehow manage to look both vintage and futuristic.

I had read that you're allowed to sled on the dunes, and they conveniently sell sleds (and buy back used ones) at the gift shop. I bought two, and we all took turns on the dunes. The funniest thing about the sledding is that as you're hovering over the edge of a massive dune, it looks terrifying—I kept imagining this scene from Christmas Vacation. But once you start going, the sand turns out to be a less-than-ideal sledding surface and you descend relatively slowly. I even bought wax and applied it liberally but it was a bit anti-climactic—although that didn't stop me from wiping out in slow motion, as I do in most athletic situations.

 We arrived at White Sands at about noon, which is probably the very worst time to be there—it was hot. Luckily for a family of tourist-hating tourists, this also meant that the park felt almost empty, which was worth the dehydration and potential sun-stroke. Speaking of which, White Sands is very much a desert—the first one I've ever experienced—and the signs reminding you to make sure you have water are not to be taken lightly. During our visit we noticed no less than four ambulances tending to people who presumably became overheated, and I can't imagine what it's like in July or August.

The sand feels like beach sand, but finer, and cool to the touch. The whole area also had a vaguely chemical smell that I imagine comes from the gypsum, used to make plaster of Paris and fertilizers. It's so strange to be surrounded by so much sand but not an ocean, and the mountains in the background only added to the surreal moonscape. I imagine that White Sands is as close as I'll ever come to feeling as if I've landed on another planet, without leaving the US.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

World's Largest Pistachio

If I had one dream job, it would be for someone to pay me to travel to each and every one of the World's Largest Things. I love strange, roadside attractions pretty much more than anything else. Maybe it was all those early years I spent watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse, but I love anything novelty-sized—bigger, or smaller than it should be. I've seen the third World's Largest Garden Gnome, the World's Largest Longaberger Basket, the World's Tallest Uncle Sam and the World's Longest Go-Kart Track, but I'm always eager to add more to that list.

As we were driving to White Sands alongside highway 54/70 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, we came upon McGinn's Pistachio Tree Ranch , home of the World's Largest Pistachio. My sister and I both immediately recognized it from Roadside America and yelled "AHHH IT'S THE WORLD'S LARGEST PISTACHIO PULLLLL OVERRRR," to my startled brother-in-law behind the wheel.

McGinn's is an 111-acre pistachio farm and vineyard, and of course there's a large shop to explore after the huge pistachio lures you in. They sell pistachio-emblazoned everything, and an old miner (not unlike the ones we saw at Howe Caverns and the Niagra Wax Museum) greets you at the door. But of course I was most excited to discover that McGinn's has their very own pressed penny machine, featuring the pistachio with the words "Alamogordo, Pistachioland."

The World's Largest Pistachio is not a real pistachio (this should be obvious by now), but it's big enough and ridiculous enough to be a true roadside gem. The plaque beside it reads: "This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of Thomas Michael McGinn (1929-2007). The founder of the pistachio tree ranch, this little slice of New Mexico desert was Tom's canvas to create his tireless legacy his tireless dedication to his dream made his farm the success it is today. Tom dreamed big, expected big, and accomplished big things. He would have said this monument is not big enough. His legacy lives on."

There's really no point to the huge pistachio—other than a mandatory photo-op—but I bet most of the people that stopped at McGinn's did so because of it. We certainly did, and ended up buying souvenirs and pistachios before getting on the road again. The world needs more people like Thomas McGinn and his big dreams—and more novelty-sized roadside attractions to honor them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

(It's Always Sunny in) Philadelphia

I briefly mentioned how much I loved Philly in this post of reflections photos, and I've since professed my love for Pat's Steaks and Reading Terminal Market. I've only been to Philly twice, but I'm already sold. A lot of the city reminds me of what I love most about New York—historical markers on every block, adorable streets lined with charming row houses, walkable streets and enough people and building density to feel as if you're really in a city. But Philly also seems to lack a few things that are not so desirable in New York—the maddening rents and crushing crowds. I'm sure Philly has its downsides, as all places do, but my two experiences there have been so delightful that I'm eager to discover what else the city has to offer.

One of the first things that greeted us as we walked from the train station was a bridge flanked by four of the large stone eagles from the original Penn Station. I'm a bit obsessed with finding remnants of old New York, and I was delighted to find that at least some parts of Penn Station's former glory have not been lost. Philly also has its share of famous public artwork, including a huge, steel clothespin by Claes Oldenburg, and the iconic LOVE sculpture.

One thing I wanted to make sure we did was to ride Philly's subway. I am so intrigued by public transit in other cities, particularly subway systems, and we only rode a few stops but I was charmed. The Philly subway feels like a mix of New York's and the DC Metro, and it was clean, easy to navigate and you can still pay with a token (!).

While attempting to walk off some of our cheesesteak calories, we stopped at Professor Ouch's Odditorium, which is basically my dream store. In addition to having a legitimate curiosity show in the back room, they have so many wonderful things for sale, including a large selection of sideshow memorabilia and medical oddities (I bought a particularly wonderful '60s eyeball model).

We mostly wandered around somewhat aimlessly, in awe of the adorable historical streets and ivy-covered homes. We had a drink at the oldest bar in Philly—McGillins Old Ale House—breakfast at the very cute diner, Little Pete's, and wondered out loud what our lives would be like if we defected to a place filled with cheesesteaks, tree-lined streets, wonderful art and excellent cemeteries. I'm not done with New York just yet, but it's nice to know that if I'm ever in need of a change—or when I'm priced out entirely—that Philadelphia exists just a short train ride away.

More Philly posts: Reflections  |  Pat's Steaks  |  Magic Gardens  |  Reading Terminal Market