As our plane begins its descent into Albuquerque, the man seated by the window lifts the shade, exposing the desert landscape below. “Wow, where did all the trees go?” asks Marshall, my 11-year-old grandson, from his middle seat.
Marshall has spent most of his life in the eastern United States, so the dusty desert landscape peppered with cacti and towering treeless mountains stuns and delights him in equal measure. Our highly anticipated trip to New Mexico is finally underway, with many more exclamations of “Wow” to come.
For several years I promised Marshall a one-on-one trip without his older sister, Katherine, who previously shared such a special experience with me. For myriad reasons, including COVID-19, our getaway kept getting delayed. But finally, we have embarked on what promises to be an epic adventure together.
Sharing my passion for travel with my three grandkids pleases me more than anything, especially since I live in New York, more than a thousand miles away from their Florida home. With limited time together, each moment takes on more significance and brings me (and them) so much joy. Yes, seeing new places serves as the catalyst for these journeys, but a treasure trove of memories emerges, and bonds strengthen.
Traveling to Aruba with Katherine, I witnessed her excitement in obtaining her first passport stamp. On a crab safari in Charleston, South Carolina, I watched my youngest grandson, Benjamin, taste fresh steamed crabmeat for the first time, boldly declaring it his new favorite food. On a deep-sea fishing trip in Clearwater, Florida, with all three grandkids, we squealed with delight at spotting a sea turtle beside the boat — a first for all of us.
Precious memories like these last a lifetime — memories my grandkids will remember with smiles long after I’m gone.
The exploring begins
After we pick up our rental car, Marshall and I waste no time setting off for Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave near the tiny town of Grants, atop the Continental Divide, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque. As we motor along this highway running through miles of uninhabited land, Marshall’s entranced by the burnt-orange sandstone spires and the wide, flat steep-sided mesas. I lose count of the number of times he thanks me for bringing him here — and our just-the-two-of-us getaway has only begun.
Arriving at the volcano park, we pick up a trail guide and start our hike up to the edge of the crater formed during the volcano’s eruption nearly 10,000 years ago. As we walk over ancient lava trails strewn with twisted old-growth fir, juniper and Ponderosa pine trees, we marvel at the magnitude of the explosion that occurred here.
In anticipation of our trip, Marshall researched the menacing New Mexico wildlife — poisonous snakes and the like — that we could possibly encounter. As we hike along he keeps a watchful eye out for such dangers, prompting me to thank him for all he did to ensure our safety. “I did that for me, TerBear — you’re on your own,” he jokingly responds, amused at this opportunity to playfully rankle his grandma.
Reaching the edge of the crater, we scan the horizon for the additional 29 volcanoes that make up the El Malpais region. We spot 12 in the distance, resembling mountains sparsely dotted with Ponderosa pines. Hiking back down the loop trail, we descend into an ice cave, where natural layers of ice glisten in shades of blue and green from the reflected rays of sunlight.
Throughout our hike, Marshall has paused frequently to read the trail guide, intent on not missing anything important. Watching this preteen take such an interest in seeing his geography lessons at school come to life in this environment so foreign to him, and be so enthralled by it all, warms my heart. I think to myself how grateful I am that I can give my grandson this gift he’s clearly appreciating.
An uphill climb
Eager to do more exploring, Marshall wakes up early the next day, much like a giddy kid does on Christmas morning, excited to check out the haul from Santa. Today’s challenge: the Pyramid Trail in Red Rock Park, just outside of Gallup, our home base for the trip. Venturing on the deserted trail with cell service a distant memory, we begin the gradual ascent that rapidly becomes a taxing uphill climb. I grow breathless; my pace slows. Marshall forges ahead, turning around periodically to ask, “What’s taking you so long, TerBear?”
Old age doesn’t seem like an answer he would understand, so I quicken my pace, gasping all the way. I reach Marshall as he balances himself on an inches-wide ledge.
“Wait!” I shout.
“Why?” he asks.
“I don’t think that’s the right way to go — it’s too narrow.”
He assures me it’s a safe way to the next level, then scrambles up to a rock with ease, the invincible nature of youth on full display. I take a deep breath and gingerly step out onto the ledge myself, only to quickly freeze. To my left, a drop of more distance than I care to calculate looms. My legs begin to tremble as my latent fear of heights returns with a vengeance.
“I can’t do this, Marshall,” I say.
“Sure you can,” he responds, as he comes back down and coaxes me up the rock to safety. When I look down I spot a slightly larger ledge. “Marshall, that’s the correct trail,” I say, pointing to my discovery.
Lesson learned (for both of us): Sometimes Grandma knows best.
With the angst behind me, I’m rewarded with 360-degree views of the high desert, peppered with glorious red rock cliffs. We both stand still a few moments, overwhelmed with the landscape’s majesty.
Another morning, we drive about an hour south of Gallup to the El Morro National Monument, a prehistoric pueblo preserved atop a sandstone promontory. It’s Marshall’s first exposure to petroglyphs, and he’s captivated. Later, time spent with an elder from the Zuni tribe reveals a fascinating culture and lifestyle previously unfamiliar to both of us.
A learning experience
We learned a lot about each other during our four-day journey, growing closer with each new shared experience. Marshall became acutely aware of my fear of heights, and I now know he’s not a fan of going airborne in anything small, a fear that came to light when he vehemently nixed my booking a hot-air balloon ride.
It also became apparent that neither of us minds a long drive if it leads to new discoveries. That revelation prompted us to expand our itinerary to include Four Corners Monument, the spot where my budding young wanderer could add three more states — Arizona, Colorado and Utah — to his been-there-done-that travel résumé. From there, we drove another 100 miles into Arizona to experience the beauty of Monument Valley, where majestic sandstone bluffs tower above the sandy desert floor.
These long drives revealed so much more than enticing landscapes, as we engaged in lengthy conversations that continued for miles. Marshall loved hearing eye-opening stories about his dad, Chris, as a boy. He particularly liked the tale about a 6-year-old Chris, dressed in camouflage, hiding in a tree in our Florida front yard and watching from above as I ran around the yard searching for him, calling his name in a near-panicked state. Imagining the scene, he laughed and noted, “I think I get my prankster side from my dad.”
Always curious about my travels, Marshall asked me, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” My quick response: fishing for piranhas in the Peruvian Amazon with four other women. Baiting our primitive fishing poles with raw meat, we caught 48 of the legendary fish with razor-sharp teeth. When we’d had enough angling, our guide suggested a swim. Not considering that we’d be in the same water where we just reeled in the feisty flesh-eating fish, I eagerly jumped in to cool off.
Laughing hysterically, Marshall asked, “Seriously, TerBear, why would you even think about going into that water?” In that moment he learned that his supposedly wise-with-age grandmother is capable of inexplicable antics. He may have even thought, Grandmas don’t always know best.
Memories to cherish
On our final day, on our drive from Gallup back to Albuquerque, Marshall asks if we can continue another hour to Santa Fe, an idea that gets a thumbs-up from me. He had read that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — a subrange of the Rocky Mountains — form a portion of the Santa Fe National Forest outside of New Mexico’s capital. Winding our way up the peaks, we arrive just before sunset, as the moon is beginning to emerge, the fading light casting shadows across the fir trees clinging to the rocky cliffs. Taking in the view, Marshall grins from ear to ear. Tallying up the wildlife we spotted throughout the week, including a herd of elk and one entertaining road runner, he declares his affection for the American West.
As darkness falls we slowly snake our way back down the road, stopping a few minutes to stargaze. Moved by the brilliant celestial show, Marshall turns to me and says, “I’ll never forget this.” Tears of joy fill my eyes, and I reply, “Neither will I.”
Terri Marshall, a New York City–based journalist, finds happiness wherever she roams, but that happiness multiplies when the grandkids come along. Find her work on the TravelingMom and World Footprints websites and in Girl Camper magazine.
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