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Inspired to Take the Road Less Traveled

A Florida woman and her husband discover unexpected delights during a road trip.

Joyce Nutta at the Continental Divide

One by one, I watched the mile markers zip by. My husband, Giorgio, and I had been on the road for eight hours—heading from our home in Florida to Colorado, where I’d be leading a summer workshop for teachers.

Giorgio thought driving instead of flying would be fun. Me? My back ached. My stomach rumbled. Every passing scene looked just like the one before! Fun? I thought. Why did I let him talk me into this?

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Don’t get me wrong, I like road trips. And with two kids in college, every dollar helped, so I was grateful to land this job during my summer break from teaching. I had figured I’d jet out there and back. No hassle. Not a penny wasted. Giorgio, though, had other ideas.

“Let’s drive!” he’d said over dinner one night, his eyes lighting up. “I’ve never been west of the Mississippi—and just think of all the local culture we’ll see. Besides, I’ve mapped out the route and calculated expenses. We can both go for a little less than the cost of your flight and rental car.”

“I don’t know…” I’d said. But by the time Giorgio had loaded the dishwasher, he’d convinced me.

Now I shifted uncomfortably in the passenger seat of our pickup. How many more miles to New Orleans? I wondered. It didn’t seem like we had been missing out on anything…especially local color.

Finally, we reached our motel, just outside the Big Easy. We were starving but had no idea where to eat. There in the motel lobby, a memory from my childhood came rushing back.

I was 12 and on a family road trip. Dad asked clerks, waiters and anyone else we met a simple question: “If you had friends here from out of town, what’s the one place you would make sure they visited?” I walked up to the front desk and asked the same question.

“Well, it’s dinnertime,” the attendant said. “So I’d say go to Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge!” She even drew us a map of the back roads to get there.

Mulate’s was mobbed. “An hour for a table?” I moaned. Wait…what was that sound? I looked around and saw a zydeco band gathering on a stage nearby. Kids played concertinas, grandpas played fiddles, and every generation between joined in, even some of the diners!

Giorgio and I couldn’t help but clap along. Before we knew it our table was ready. The crawfish étouffée and filé gumbo were out of this world.

I snapped a photo of Giorgio’s face, red and sweaty from the Tabasco, and e-mailed it to our kids: “Mom and Dad are enjoying their summer break too!”

Bright and early the next morning, we set off for Austin, Texas. A few hours on the road and I got antsy. There didn’t seem to be anywhere interesting to stop and stretch. Then I spotted a little roadside stand selling pecans.

“Let’s check it out,” I said to Giorgio. He steered the truck to a stop on the gravel and we hopped out.

There were all kinds of pecans—plain, salted, barbecued, sugar-glazed…even cayenne-peppered! I filled up a shopping bag and walked up to the counter. I knew just what to ask the cashier.

“That’s easy,” she said in her sweet drawl. “I’d make sure they had some real Texas barbecue at the Salt Lick.” She motioned for her husband to come give us directions.

After winding through Texas Hill Country for a good hour, we spotted a large compound. Dozens of trucks and cars were parked outside and sweet, woodsy smoke rose up to the sky. We didn’t need to read the sign to know we’d arrived at the Salt Lick.

Everyone from families in their Sunday best to hungry-looking cowboys waited round an enormous fire pit filled with grass-fed beef and homemade sausage. Barbecue never looked or smelled so good! I ordered a combo plate with beef ribs.

“You sure you can eat all that?” our waitress asked.

“No problem!” I said. Laughter came from behind me, then all around. What was so funny? Giorgio leaned in.

“Honey, everything is bigger here in Texas, including the portions,” he said, just as the server set a plate of brontosaurus-sized ribs in front of me. Wow! He wasn’t kidding!

“Can I have a…” I murmured between delicious bites. The waitress passed me a to-go box. “I figured you’d need this,” she said, chuckling.

We made good time to northern New Mexico. “I can’t believe we’re at our last stop before Colorado,” Giorgio said wistfully. At a café we asked our server Dad’s question. “I’d take them to Taos Pueblo,” the man said. “It’s a community of native people who settled in this area over a thousand years ago.”

We headed toward the mountains and found Taos Pueblo pretty quickly. There was just one problem: A sawhorse with a “Closed” sign blocked the visitors’ entrance. I knocked on the ticket window and walked around the building. Not a soul in sight.

As we turned toward the truck, a young man with waist-length, ink-black hair walked up. “Hey, were you trying to visit the pueblo?” he asked.

“Yes, but we didn’t know it would be closed today,” Giorgio replied.

“It’s our sacred Corn Dance ceremony,” the young man said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s how we give thanks to God for the bountiful harvest and ask his favor for future crops.”

Well, if the pueblo had to be closed to visitors, this was a good reason.

“You know,” the man said, “if you put your camera in your truck and observe respectfully, you’re welcome to join us.”

Giorgio and I followed the young man into a spacious courtyard lined with two- and three-story adobe apartments, some ancient, some new. Hundreds of folks in their native regalia chanted, drummed, stepped and twirled in celebration.

We stood at a distance, moving along with the procession past the adobe apartments, watching them bless each one. To think I could’ve missed this, I thought, remembering my reluctance at the start of our trip.

The procession ended at a small adobe chapel. “It’s open; let’s go in,” I said to Giorgio. Half a dozen rows of plain pine benches lined the sides of a dusty aisle leading to the altar, a spotlight shining on a golden cross above. It was rustic. And beautiful.

We placed offerings in a varnished wooden box. Then I knelt in the back pew and said a prayer of gratitude. For Giorgio’s idea, and for my dad’s simple question. The question that opened up whole new worlds to us…right here in our own country.

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