US-70, Revisited

Home can be a bit of a nebulous concept. It’s a place. It’s people. It’s brick and mortar. It’s a geographical location. But it’s also sights, sounds, smells, and importantly (at least to me), home cooking. Home isn’t just one thing.

KOA campground in Alamogordo, just east of White Sands National Monument, at sundown.

It’s funny to me. I’ve been told we go to interesting places with our children. It helps when one’s spouse comes from an area that, by most estimations, is from a bit off the beaten path.

There are lots of clichés about home. “There’s no place like home.” “You can’t go home again.” Or, as a warning issued by one of my favorite bands, “don’t go back to Rockville.”

Home can be a bit of a nebulous concept. It’s a place. It’s people. It’s brick and mortar. It’s a geographical location. But it’s also sights, sounds, smells, and importantly (at least to me), home cooking. Home isn’t just one thing.

Home can have a lot of different connotations. Hopefully, most of those are positive, good memories that we can draw and build upon. For some people, however, home can be a painful concept. We are somewhat a product of many environments of our upbringing, home being one. If home was a painful concept growing up, hopefully we can rewrite the script, change the programming, and home becomes a source of good memories and strength in the future.

Before anyone craps themselves, I’m not talking about me in this case for this blog. (I have good connotations of home; I’m not damaged, at least here!) In healthy adult relationships, one of the great things that I enjoy is getting to see the world through your companion’s or children’s eyes, on their terms. Furthermore, as a parent, I’d like my children to be able to see the environment in which their parents were raised. For me, that’s been easy. We live in the area where I grew up. That was not by design, it kind of happened that way. In order to expose them to Sonia’s hometown, that’s been a little harder to accomplish.

Sonia, on top of Guadalupe Peak.

A little background on Sonia Kesselring, formerly Sonia Hibberd. Her nickname is “Chief”, for an episode of the Simpsons where Homer’s face wound up on a box of Japanese detergent; don’t ask. I used to describe her to people who had not yet met her as a Northern Californian with the granola turned down (I will amend that later). Before we met in college, she kind of had three hometowns where she grew up. Las Cruces, New Mexico. Grapevine, Texas (my wife was in the same school system as Norah Jones, although Sonia was older and never met her). Pismo Beach, California (the movie “Little Giants” was filmed close by. Has anyone seen Rick Moranis lately?). That’s a fair amount of moving in your school years. Normally when a family moves like this, the first two thoughts that come to mind are “military brat” or “pastor’s kid”. In Sonia’s case, her father worked for IBM. The joke in her family was that it stood for “I’ve Been Moved.” Her mother and father moved considerably more than that in their adult lives. They have some interesting stories to tell, and they probably handled it better than I would have, no doubt about it.

Two summers ago, our family took what we call “the Great Southwestern Road Trip.” Part of why we took that particular route was that we wanted to see the Grand Canyon. But a huge part of it was that Sonia had some strong memories of taking trips with her family in the southern Rockies as a child. Having lived the first six years of her life in Las Cruces and then vacationed and visited family in the high desert, she has always felt a kinship to the region. Seeing as that I didn’t have any other suggestions for the trip, it sounded like a great idea to me. And, wow, was it ever a wonderful concept. Simply put, it was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. I can see why people love the area. And I can see why Sonia has such an affinity for it. You can take Sonia out of the high desert, but you can’t take the high desert out of Sonia.

Given that I am on sabbatical this year, we wanted to fit in some big trips (remember, we’re doing a lot of camping and KOA cabins. We’re on a budget, people). And the upcoming summer, we have a long trip planned to revisit and expand upon our trip from two years ago. But Sonia had not been home to Las Cruces in a long time. She went twice during my residency. We took one trip in 2003 to meet her parents in Las Cruces and visit her grandparents that were still living there. She returned a year later for a memorial service due to the passing of her grandmother. And that’s been it. It was by no accident then that we decided to take our spring break driving down to southern New Mexico and spend a little time and Sonia’s backyard. It was LONG overdue.

Although this trip was much shorter than our trip in 2015, it was still amazing. We were able to show our kids a ton of fascinating places. We spent two days hiking in caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The last time Sonia had been there, she got to go on a cave tour for a cave called “New Cave.” It was literally open to the public for less than one year. This is now known as Slaughter Canyon Cave. And it was unbelievable. If you get the chance to go to CCNP, do it and don’t think twice. We took the kids on an “easy day” to Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest. This is a year-round, 70 foot waterfall in the midst of the New Mexico mountains and the desert. It’s like an oasis in the middle of nowhere and was the perfect place to soak our sore bones. We also spent one day hiking to the top of Guadalupe Peak (highest point in Texas) in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is barely 10 to 15 miles across the New Mexico border into Texas. (Someone describe this area as a southwestern Badlands. I cannot verify this as correct having never been to the Badlands, but from the pictures I’ve seen, it seems to be apropos.)  This was the first time that our children have ever hiked to the top of a mountain. It was only the second one for Sonia. In any of these locations, we barely scratched the surface. All four of us agreed that we want to go back and see more in each of these areas.

When we travel, I would describe us as a traveling band of gypsies. Only less organized.

But for me, that was not the big treat. One came early in the trip, and one was ongoing. We spent our first night in New Mexico in Alamogordo. We broke camp the following morning, and went to White Sands National Monument to hike the Alkali Flats Trail, and then went to have lunch in Las Cruces. I had hiked this area with Sonia about 14 years ago, so it was interesting to compare it to our memories of the area, and just see what our children thought about it. It’s visually stunning. You are hiking on white gypsum dunes, so your depth perception is a bit off. Furthermore, you are in the desert between two mountain ranges, so it’s hotter than hell. But it’s remote, and it’s gorgeous. It’s one of the most mentally challenging hikes you’ll ever be on. And the kids loved it. They would still be running up and down the dunes if we let them.

Alkali Flats Trail, White Sands National Monument. Stunning.

We ate lunch at the same restaurant we visited 14 years prior called Andele. The food brought back a ton of memories from when we had been there in 2003 (and the town smelled of roasted chile peppers). Sonia got really jazzed about eating sopapillas with honey. For those of you who don’t know, sopapillas are puff bread that are fried and served piping hot. In other parts of the country, they are ruined with ice cream. The true New Mexican way to eat sopapillas is to drizzle them with just a bit of honey. On the rare occasions we get sopapillas, although the kids and I really enjoy them, I can see true happiness well up in Sonia’s eyes.

I tried to do as much of the driving as I could on the trip, so Sonia could be a passenger and really soak in the surroundings. The ongoing treat for me, was to get to see her in the mornings and in the evenings at the campground. I would catch her gazing at the sundown reflecting on the mountains, or the sunrise beginning to peek out on the high desert. Or I would actually catch her sniffing the air. She seemed comfortable. She seemed to be in her element. And, despite having moved away at age 6 and then only visited family from time to time in the area, she seemed at HOME. It was a very heartening sight to see. To a person, we all enjoyed the area. Given the fact that none of us of ever had a migraine in New Mexico, it’s easy to understand why. But for Sonia, this was palpably different.

On the day we left Carlsbad to start driving back to Branson for the state archery tournament, I picked her brain about it. I asked her if this trip was nostalgia for her, or a new adventure.

“It’s a new adventure.” She had a big grin on her face.

I then asked her, “Does it feel like home?”

She gave a long answer. She talked about growing up in Las Cruces, and being able to go for walks with her family out her backyard, just roaming in the desert. She talked about memories and mental glimpses of enjoying sunsets in the desert. And specifically, she spoke of how much she enjoyed the dry, warm, Piñon scented mountain air. But no specific answer to the question was given.

“But does it feel like home?”

She paused. And then she gave me a very emphatic and very joyful “yes.” She went on to explain that St. Louis feels like home, because she’s never been in a community where people feel so rooted, a place with a history and a pride. But it wasn’t until we had that conversation that she acknowledged that she still thought of New Mexico as home. Even if it wasn’t something tangible, something that you could put your finger on, it still felt like home. And I agree with her, or at least, I can see where she’s coming from. (I’ve figured her out finally. She’s a high desert woman with very little turquoise jewelry.)

It is part of the reason why when I’m driving through different parts of the U.S., I try not to criticize a particular area too much. It’s someone’s home. You don’t slag on someone’s home. Home shapes us, it’s in our blood, we react to it and against it, and helps mold us into who we are. If you’re a visitor, choose your words carefully.

New Mexico is a big place. It is the fifth biggest state in the U.S. in terms of area, but in the mid 30s in population ( There are big beautiful areas, both urban and natural. But there are areas of abject poverty as well. As we continue our travel this summer, I want my kids to notice everything. I want them to have an appreciation for an area that’s different from where we are currently. I want them to appreciate someone else’s home. I want them to appreciate their mother’s home. In doing so, I know they will have a better understanding of their mom.

Best smile in America. Contest over.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: