The Other Side of the Road

A guide to road tripping as a mother, an Other, and part-time explorer.

So, here’s the thing. I never saw myself as the kind of woman who would have kids biologically, let alone two kids before I turned thirty. No, my plan was to travel the world, write many books of poetry, and live life on my own terms. 

Life rarely ever works out the way we want it to, though. 

My name’s Michelle and I’m a Cuban-American 30 something learning how to parent two lovely brown babies with my partner in life, a native born Memphian named Louie. Our family is unconventional, multiracial, multiethnic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Louie and I met about six years ago while I was a Teach For America corps member in Memphis. We quickly fell in love, and in about 6 months, I found myself pregnant. After many tears, laughs, and days of soul searching, we decided to start our little family and we haven’t looked back since. This isn’t to say things have been easy since that decision; raising two kids with minimal family support in a city where neither of you are from is no walk in the park. But, with a little planning, a strong budget, and a willingness to forgo some of the finer things in life, we’ve made some amazing memories and traveled to some fun places, both here in the US and abroad. 

So, to the thesis of it all. For most women, the idea of having kids and a life seem diametrically opposed. I’m here to tell you, that doesn’t have to be the case. A few summers ago, my little family did the impossible: a 10 day road trip across the South. We visited the following places: 

  1. Charleston, South Carolina
  2. Fisherville, Virginia
  3. Washington, D.C.
  4. Bardstown, Kentucky
  5. Southeast Missouri
  6. Memphis, Tennessee
  7. Birmingham, Alabama

Now I know you might be thinking, Two kids? 7 stops? 10 days? She’s out of her mind! But I’m here to tell you that it can be done, and I can’t wait to show you. As far as planning a trip like this, here are some steps I took to make sure we could a) afford it, b) find housing, and c) not lose our minds along the way. 

STEP 1: Figure out where you want to go. 

For us, this whole process started when we were invited to read at a friend’s wedding in Virginia. We figured, since we’re driving, might as well visit Louie’s family in Memphis. And since we’re going to Memphis, might as well visit my uncle in DC since it’s not too out of the way. Suddenly, many of the pieces started coming together once we were able to nail down specific locations/people we wanted to see. 

STEP 2: Think about the kids. 

Because our kids were really young (a three year old boy named Lito and a 6 month old named Violet), we knew that we would need to make frequent stops so they wouldn’t get too cranky. Hence the 7 cities. Louie and I are proud Road Warriors and once made the drive from Memphis to Miami while only making 3 20 minute stops. Fortunately, kids have a way of making you slow down and enjoy the moment. While making one of the final legs of our trip from Kentucky to Memphis, we noticed signs for Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, a national park hidden away in the mid-south. We decided to make a slight detour and had a blast! My son got to do a little hiking while I nerded out over the historical artifacts. Thinking about the kids means opening yourself up to new possibilities that aren’t on the schedule. 

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Lito taking in the views at the Great Falls National Park in Virginia

STEP 3: How will you get there? 

Because Louie and I have made paying down debt and traveling our two biggest priorities, we drive wonderfully functional pre-hoopty vehicles made in 2008. Both of our cars already have over 100,000 miles on them. We decided to rent a car for our trip rather than possibly burn out our own. We shopped around for deals and used some credit card miles we had to help make this happen. We also booked our car about 5 months in advance of our trip to make sure we were getting a good price. 

STEP 4: Housing

Think about the type of trip you’re taking. Are you a Grizwalds kinda family (from the Vacation movies) on your way to a theme park? Are you trying to take in the sights around you with no specific plan, stopping as needed? Are you a combination of both, like my family? Knowing where you want to go ahead of time will help you find great deals on hotels or get Airbnbs booked with plenty of time to spare if that’s more your thing. We decided to stay with family and friends for a majority of this trip (there’s no way my Cuban uncle would let me stay in DC without him), so we were then able to splurge on some cute Airbnbs in Virginia and Kentucky. The nice thing about Airbnbs is that they are much homier and often times provided random essentials that kids need, like toys, bassinets, kitchens, etc. Hotels can also be great though, especially if you know you’re not going to spend any time in them. A few months before your trip, take a minute to think about how you want to spend your nights. 

STEP 5: Food

Charleston Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles in Charleston

This one can be really tricky, especially with a 3 year old that has the metabolism of a hummingbird but the palate of a college student (seriously, who eats ramen for breakfast?). If you’re a foodie family, I would suggest saving for food a few months in advance of your trip. Think about your price point. Are you going to indulge in street food, sit down restaurants, chains, or fast food? All have their pros and cons, so it just depends on what you want. We did a combination of all of the above. By keeping breakfast and dinner simple,  we were able to take advantage of fancy restaurants at lunch time prices. We also didn’t have to worry about formula on this trip because I breastfed, but having used formula in the past, it saved me loads of headaches when I prepackaged the servings before a long trip. We estimated about $100 a day on food, and used cash to help keep us on that path.

Baby's first food

Poolside Watermelon in DC (this was her first taste of real food!)

STEP 6: But what will we do??

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Tour of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky

I’ve taken my son on all kinds of trips: professional development opportunities for work, family trips to Disney, even overseas to St. Martin for a family vacation. At the end of the day, kids will be entertained no matter what you do as long as you pay attention to them (well, let’s be real, he’s not gonna enjoy any arthouse movies any time soon). Now that we’ve added a daughter to the mix, we do have to think about things like stroller friendliness, hands on activities, and noise (she’s a light sleeper and hates loud noises). The more moving you do, the more freedom the kids have, the better off you and they will be. National Parks are a great option if theme parks aren’t your thing. Beaches are also great, even with a baby. Children’s museums are ridiculously fun, even for adults. And if you and your partner need some adult beverage time, many breweries and restaurants will allow children. The more you bring your kids to these sorts of locations, the more acclimated they will be when they get older. There are so many more options than people realize. 

STEP 7: Help! [Insert child’s name here] is crying and I can’t do this right now. 

Expect the melt down. Kids are little people that are still figuring out how the world works. Sometimes they need some space, sometimes they need to walk around, sometimes they just need a hug and a kiss from their favorite person. Meltdowns are messy, and frustrating, but if you expect them to happen, you can catch them before they become too big, and even prevent them from occurring. 

VA Caves

Caverns were a great option for our family; Lito was able to run around and explore while Violet took a nap in daddy’s arms.

So in a nutshell, that’s how I went about planning out my family’s summer road trip across the south. It took a few months and some creative budgeting, but overall it was an amazing trip. I can’t wait to plan another road trip. I think the Dakotas are calling.

 

 

My Ultimate Travel Inspiration: Abuela

A note from the author: This is a tribute to my abuela who recently passed away on Friday the 13th, September, 2019. This article was made possible thanks to my family who shared their oral history, where I was able to match up parts of her story with photos and documents. She often would explain, “yo crucé montañas, rios, y oceanos para poder pasar tiempo contigo” to the grandkids in order to help us understand what kind of effort, distance, and sacrifice was invested in order for her to spend time with us. Clarita was a soul full of colors, love and forgiveness. She was magic with her unconditional love, like a poesía de alegría. She could lite up any room she walked into, filling a house with her energy resembling vibrant colors. To better understand why Clarita was the way she was, our greatest inspiration to keep going despite life’s obstacles, the following is her story.

Clara Beatriz Rey was born on July 29th, 1934 in Bogotá, Colombia, although the date is debatable. This stereotypical vivacious Leo personality argued that her real birth date is unknown since she has no birth certificate to prove it. Her family’s life took a turn when she was 4-years-old because her dad Guillermo Rey Chacón passed away due to Tuberculosis, leaving behind Clarita, her older sister of 7 years-old Maria Helena “Nena”, and their Mami Maria Helena Vazquez.

They moved in with her mom’s 14 siblings, 5 tios and 9 tias who helped raise the young girls. Her mom was the oldest of the 14, therefore she was known as el gran poder, or the mighty power, also due to her affability and kindness leading to a certain don, or gift, she had liaising with people. Clarita would later acquire this same don and impressive ability of connecting with people in a way that even a stranger on the street would love talking to her.  Furthermore, Maria Helena had a distinct ability to play the piano that her parents ordered from Germany.

Clarita finished up to 7th grade (2do de bachillerato), then went to work at a Kodak 100_4407shop that some of her aunts worked at, as well as a laboratory where she packaged medicines. Cue meeting her future husband Carlos Jaime Chavarriaga (pronounced Hi-meh) on a bus towards downtown, both of them on their way to work in 1954 when Clara was 19-years-old. Jaime worked at the Manhattan store, a clothing line for men. By the end of 1954, Jaime and Clara wed at the Iglesia Santa Teresita, and then by 1955 their first daughter Martha was born.

 

First Trip Abroad, 4 Kids, and Career

Clarita y Martha - Culver City, California

Clarita & Martha in Culver City, California

By the end of 1955, a tia of Jaime offered the family of three their first trip to the United States. They took a short stop in Cuba for a couple of days, and they stayed in the USA for about 5 months. Since they stayed in Culver City, California outside of LA, Jaime tried out for various roles as an extra for several movies searching for “Hispanic” actors. He wasn’t able to find a job, so they returned back to Colombia. However, this trip must have made on impact on her first born (and possibly the second born too since she could have been conceived in the USA), which later on it will make sense why.

Shortly after, the brood grew to a total of 4 kids with Maria Clara (1956), Carlos Jaime (1958), and Claudia Rosa “Rosita” (1960). In order to not confuse Carlos Jaime Jr with his dad, we will refer to Jaime Sr as “Don Jaime.” Most family trips consisted of long weekend “Puente” holiday trips to warmer climate and lower altitude pueblos outside of cold mountainous Bogotá a couple of times a year. Girardot, Melgar, and Utica were the most frequented spots. Don Jaime’s brother, Guillermo, was a pilot, therefore the couple or the whole family sometimes got to travel thanks to his benefit. By airplane in Colombia, they visited coastal locations like Barranquilla and Tumaco both on the Caribbean and the Pacific coast respectively. 

 

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Clara on her way to Tumaco, Colombia on the pacific coast in 1971. Her brother-in-law Guillermo was a pilot, so he let her take a quick photo opp.

Family Trips in Colombia:

Entrepreneurship ran through Clarita’s veins, as did her nurturing and healing essence. In 1962-66 she started a fashion design business out of their own house where she had a couple of seamstresses on her team. In 1964-69 she created a cake and dessert business overlapping with the other business. Fast forward a bit of time in 1983, she supported Carlos Jaime’s travel agency business which later turned into a catering and events business, Banquetes Pablo VI, which still continues to this day 36 years later. However, her love for working in the healthcare industry prevailed.

Clarita found an internship working as an instrument nurse at the Hospital San José in 1968. To the dismay of her husband Jaime, who like many men at the time felt she should stay at home to child rear and tend to housework, she went against his wishes as she discovered her passion for working in healthcare and continued with it. At the time, Don Jaime had been working at Abbott as a pharmaceutical drug salesman who visited different Doctor’s offices, a job he held until retirement when he created his own related company Disfarma LTDA. Throughout the years, Clara worked seasonally or part-time at several different hospitals: Clinica Palermo, Clinica de Marly, Hospital Militar, and Clinica del Country. She specialized in supporting heart surgeries from about 1968 until about 1988 usually on part-time or short-term based assignments. She took two separate breaks between those 20 years, once in 1977 and once in 1981.

Clara was always savvy to find or create opportunities anywhere. She landed a job as a live-in nanny for two Cuban girls in the Miami, Florida area (Coral Gables) in 1977. She was there for about 5 months, where she would send her earnings as remittances back home to the family. At the time, the eldest daughter Martha was 22, therefore she helped run the household in Colombia. She later had to go home for unexpected reasons the family does not like to talk about, however the experience served as preparation for exciting opportunities to come in the USA and abroad.

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Clarita’s Beauty Battle Scar

She took almost a year-long break in 1981 after she severely broke her right arm in a freak mini elevator accident at the hospital, when a small container (aka dumbwaiter or lift), that transported medical supplies and other materials between floors in the building, fell on her arm and broke skin and bone. Around the same time, Don Jaime and Clara separated since they spent most of their time fighting. It was a very tough year for Clara due to her arm, her failed marriage, and her eldest daughter had left to live in the USA for good. Once her arm was fully mobile again thanks to healing and physical therapy, she persisted with her seasonal work at the hospital. This is only one of the many examples of Clarita’s strength and resilience. It wasn’t until the birth of her first grandchild in 1988 that she decided to drop everything and leave Colombia for a while.

A New Chapter – Grand-parenting All Around The World

At the wedding from left to right: Clara, Richard, Martha, and Don Jaime.

Her eldest daughter Martha met a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Richard Tracy, in 1978. They wed by 1980, and moved to the U.S. by 1981 after Richard completed his volunteer service. By 1988, they were living in Richard’s hometown Toledo, Ohio when Alexandra was born. Clarita decided by the time that Ale was 3 months that she was ready to be a full-time grandmother in the USA to help while both parents worked full time. A year later, and still the only birth of her grand kids she ever witnessed, Michele was born in 1989. Just two months after that, her 3rd granddaughter Diana Carolina or “Caro” was born in Bogotá to Carlos Jaime and his wife Diana Patricia. Because of this, Clara spent most of her time traveling between Colombia and the USA for the rest of her grand kids’ youth until the U.S. grand kids turned 18. For 19 years, her visits to the USA would usually span about 3-6 months each, about once a year, all depending on her Visa and who was able to cover her flights.

 

The most exciting birth of a grandchild occurred in the outskirts of Milano, Italy. Clara’s second daughter Maria Clara received a scholarship to study Opera in Italy, and she was there with her partner Carlos Yañez who was also studying his PhD from 1987 to 1994 for 11 years. In 1992, Clarita’s only grandson Andrés was born, providing her another way to explore outside of Colombia and help rear her 4th and last grandchild for a full year. In addition, she landed a job as a nanny for twin Italian girls. With her youngest daughter Rosita, who at the time worked for the Colombian airline Avianca, she was able to travel very easily due to perks and benefits from the job that were extended towards family. The two traveled throughout Europe together while they spent most of the time in Milano. They traveled to London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and all around Italy. Maria Clara and her family lived in Italy until 1996, when they moved back to Colombia.

 

Rosita and Clarita always traveled together when Rosita worked for Avianca

Again thanks to Rosita and Avianca, Clarita got to travel all over Latin America for the rest of the 90’s and early 2000s. They traveled to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Quito. Maria Clara and Rosita spent a lot of time going to visit the USA to accompany Andrés and Caro throughout their youth, but not as much as Clara traveled there with the them. Thanks to Clara’s dedication and guardianship, as well as Rosita, Maria Clara, Martha, and Jaime’s funding and hard work, the four cousins grew up like siblings and all became fully bilingual Spanish-English.

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The 4 primos/siblings: Alexandra, Caro, Michele, and little Andres all together for the first time ever at the Bogota Airport.

Clarita en Santiago de Chile

Clarita and Rosita visiting Maria Clara and Carlos when they lived in Santiago, Chile

In 1991-1997, Martha’s family was living in Texas for 7 years, therefore Clarita had visited enough times to establish relationships in San Antonio, TX. She was able to acquire jobs with her Visa at the time working as a maid at a hotel, as well as babysat from time to time. When Martha’s family left for Mexico in 1997, she decided she was going to try to acquire U.S. citizenship. She continued work at the hotel, found a job at McDonalds, and helped care for disabled people. Whenever she had some extra time, she traveled to Mexico and was able to see some of the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon with Martha’s family. Perhaps due to viewing the USA as a ‘superior country’, Clara worked hard to acquire U.S. citizenship. She studied for years for the citizenship test to prepare for once she qualified to actually take the test, especially this visibly worn list of 100 questions in English. Although Clarita had the help of Martha and family to bid for citizenship, benefited from white privilege, and she worked very hard at several jobs, sadly her dream did not come true. It could have been the political and cultural nature of Texas, it could have been her broken English, but unfortunately U.S. citizenship was not granted to her after her test in 1999.

 

 

An Adventurous Life

Clarita Passport Photos

Clarita’s Passport photos through the years

Nonetheless, Clarita lived the last 20 years of her life traveling everywhere with her family. It was always her family connections who made it possible for her to travel so much, and on occasion she was able to save her own hard earned money from different jobs in order to be able to travel. Martha’s family moved to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1999, Maria Clara and her family moved to Chile for a year in the early 2000s, and then her sister Nena’s family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2006, so there was still a lot of traveling. By 2012, all of the female grand-kids graduated from college, and so the family started traveling more together to new places. Alexandra moved to California, where it was the first time Carlos Jaime and Diana Patricia traveled to the USA in 2014 with the rest of the family. After that, different family members traveled with Clarita everywhere including an epically captured trip to Cuba.

Cartagena, Colombia:

Las Vegas, Nevada and the Grand Canyon:

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Clarita was very modern for an abuela, savvy with her cellphone, especially Whatsapp. Here is a picture she sent Alexandra about her piece of luggage she kept just because of the memorable trips Alexandra took with it.

Clarita was a resilient, independent, adventurous, and a vivacious soul. Her love for exploring new places almost matched her greater love for her family. For about 3 years, she begged Diana Carolina for a trip to Aruba. That trip did not occur because her 3 granddaughters thought they had way more time to plan and save up for the trip. Clara passed away unexpectedly in September of 2019 due to catching bacterial meningitis which sparked sudden rapidly deteriorating health. Thankfully, she did not suffer as she was in a coma for 11 days straight, 3 of which she was half-awake to what the family deems a miracle chance for her to say her goodbyes before she passed. The whole family was convinced she would live past 100+ years just based on her positive, magnetic, and vivacious attitude. Nevertheless, the family holds Clarita’s spirit in their hearts, and are currently grappling with how to move forward with this new void in their lives.

 

Stay tuned for our trip to Aruba which will pay tribute to Clara Chavarriaga Rey! Who knows when it will be planned, but it will happen!

Montañas, Rios y Oceanos

Possible tattoo inspiration found by Michele. Clarita, a Leo with the Sun as it’s ‘planet’ (star), would often say “yo cruce montañas, rios y oceanos para pasar tiempo contigo.”

Santa Maria Valley – On the Coast of Somewhere Beautiful

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, look no further than the Santa Maria Valley. This hidden gem is nestled between the slopes and rolling hill slides of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The valley offers an array of activities for nature enthusiasts, foodies, and people who delight in rest and relaxation. Just don’t forget your corkscrew!

For those in the Los Angeles area, hop in your car and hit the 101 North freeway. Soak in the lush green scenery and palm trees as you drive along the coast past La Conchita, Summerland, and Montecito. Once you make it to the 154 freeway you’re greeted with several vista points where you can make a pit stop. Bring your camera so you can capture the picturesque mountaintop views and be blown away by nature’s wonders.

Stay at the Historic Santa Maria Inn

A perfect blend of antique and modern; the history of this hotel dates back more than 100 years and is known for having hosted many famous guests such as Charlie Chaplain, Rudolph Valentino, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, and President Hoover. The hotel offers several warm fireplaces, an outdoor swimming pool, and a wine cellar. Enjoy breakfast, brunch and dinner in the Century Room Restaurant or grab a drink at the pub. The hotel plays 1930’s music softly in the background, which makes for a very charming ambiance. It is also believed that ghosts haunt the hotel. Stories whisper of a sea captain apparently murdered by his mistress and has haunted the hallways of the hotel since 1917, particularly room 210. Alongside the sea captain, the ghost of actor Rudolph Valentino lurks through the Santa Maria Inn and reportedly frequents room 221. Many other spooky incidents have been reported inside rooms and around the hotel grounds. Phenomena such as the piano keys playing on their own, mysterious footprints, the opening and shutting of doors unexpectedly, unexplained perfumed scented smells, and spinning hands on a clock have all been seen by both guests and staff.

For the nature enthusiast

The Oso Flaco Lake California State Park provides everything from lush mountains, to a beautiful lake that leads to the ocean, and sand dunes. Walk or jog over dirt trails, wooded paths and bridges through several diverse natural habitats. Spot the various flora and fauna or bring binoculars for bird watching.

Visit the Dunes Center beforehand to learn about the conservation and restoration of the Guadalupe-Nipomo ecosystem. The center provides general information on local dune access points.

For the foodies

Three favorites that you can’t miss out on

Maya Mexican Restaurant

Family owned and operated by the Cadenas family, this colorful restaurant has been serving home style Mexican food for over 53 years. Offering everything from fresh mariscos (sea food) to tamales and award winning menudo, the menu does not disappoint. Walk in during happy hour every day from 2pm – 6pm and spend your day on the patio eating guacamole and chips while sipping on a michelada beer cocktail or fruity margarita. You might even decide to stay and catch the live mariachi band that plays on Friday evenings. Whatever time of day you decide to go in, you’re guaranteed a belly full of authentic Mexican food.

MOXIE Café

More than burgers. You’ll be surprised to walk into this eatery and feel as if you’ve been transported to a WWII air force base. The truth is, many people are unaware of the military history that surrounds the Santa Maria Valley. The local Allan Hancock College and Santa Maria Airport were once pilot training facilities opened in 1927 and 1942, respectively. In fact, Hancock Field was one of eight civilian aviation schools to provide training to future military pilots. The Santa Maria airfields became training fields for new fighter pilots prior to their immediate transfer overseas. And between 1942 and 1944 the airfield trained 633 fighter pilots that later took these skills to the forefront of battle. As a tribute to the servicemen and local military history, the owners of MOXIE café incorporated an aviation theme to their décor and menu. The B-17 Bomber breakfast burrito and P-38 Lighting breakfast burrito are just an example. The eatery also encourages local food sourcing and provides healthy options packed with veggies and fruit suitable for every dietary preference.

Far Western Tavern

Santa Maria style barbecue. This contemporary California ranch cuisine inspired by local traditions offers an array of barbecue dishes all prepared with fresh flavors from local farms, ranches and vineyards. For dinner, savor the world famous bullseye steak – 14 ounces of signature boneless ribeye. Not a meat eater? No problem! The menu offers the Portobello mushroom option with roasted vegetables and grilled polenta. Paired with your favorite glass of wine – or two – this restaurant makes for a wonderful fine dining experience.

Is it wine o’clock yet?

Known for high quality pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and pinot blanc, the valley offers approximately 40 vineyards spread over approximately 7,500 acres of sprawling land.

Whether you are a wine connoisseur or still deciding if you prefer white or red wine, the expert staff at Cambria Estates Vineyards and Winery is ready to greet you with a warm smile and walk you through every wine tasting. Cambria offers two flight options – the Estate Flight – a deliciously crisp assortment of pinot gris and chardonnay which ends on a rosé pinot noir note. And the Pinot Flight – a tantalizing pinot noir assortment. You can sample wine or purchase a bottle and enjoy a beautiful view of the vineyards that stretch across almost 1,600 acres making Cambria the largest single-location vineyard in the area.

The Strawberry Festival

Last but not least, don’t miss out on the annual strawberry festival, which kicks off the valley’s strawberry season, supports local agriculture and healthy indulgence in strawberries while encouraging communal participation. Here you can sample strawberries from farms throughout central California. Vendors offer delicious creations that range from strawberry nachos to strawberry ribs and everything in between. This event is great for children and adults, alike and offers an array of activities from cooking demonstrations to wildlife showcases and fun carnival rides. This year, the festival took place during the last weekend of April. Check the Santa Maria Fairpark for future dates. Don’t miss out! People travel from far and wide to take part in this festival and accommodation books up quickly.

Into The Wave

I’m grateful to be born in one of the most beautiful states in the country. I will admit this statement may be a little biased, but there’s a lot to back it up!

While many people’s first impression of Arizona is a hot, desert wasteland (they’re not completely wrong), the natural beauties of this state are plentiful. We have the well-known landmarks of the Grand Canyon and Sedona Red Rocks, but there’s also a plethora of lesser known, just as incredible sights: Havasupai Falls, Antelope Canyon, Kartchner Caverns.

A few years ago, I heard about another hidden gem; The Wave, a spectacular sandstone rock formation that is a result of centuries of sand and wind erosion dating as far back as the Jurassic age! The Wave is just one of the beautiful sites within the Navajo Country and Coyote Buttes southwest region that straddles the border of Arizona and Utah. Navajo Sandstone, as this geological area is called, is is known for spectacular rock formations and natural beauty.

One of the first things I learned was that it was extremely hard to get to, not only because of the rigorous 6-mile hike, but also because of the permit process. Sandstone is soft and easily damaged; only 20 people a day are allowed access. Given that this is an internationally known travel destination, with thousands of people seeking the opportunity to make this hike, the odds for entry are extremely low. According to Bureau of Land Management, in 2013 the chances of actually obtaining a permit were between 4%-8%, depending on the time of year.

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There are two ways to obtain a permit to hike The Wave. The first is through the online lottery system – applicants must apply for a permit four months in advance, and pay a non-refundable fee of $7 (you can apply to your permit here). The second way is through a walk-in lottery – hopeful applicants must visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kenab, UT in person, and a drawing will be held for permits the following day.

So how did I get so lucky to obtain such an elusive permit? Well that was thanks to a very dedicated friend, Bryan Soto. Bryan is an avid outdoorsman and traveler and had been applying for permits for over a year. Finally, after trying and failing many times, luck was on his side and he was granted 4 permits for a Thursday in the beginning of June. (Read more of Bryan’s application process and experience on his blog – La Onda). With four permits in hand, Bryan and his girlfriend Marisol (AKA my Little Sis) were deciding who to bring along this adventure with them. Marisol suggested they take me and my partner, Oscar, along as a graduation gift to me.

All it took was a couple of text messages, and we were on board! Oscar and I requested the days off of work, booked our flights to Phoenix, and were ready for our adventure.

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Oscar and I flew into Phoenix Wednesday night straight after work. Bryan and Marisol were there right when we landed, and we embarked on the four hour drive up to Page, Arizona. We spent the night in a local motel and woke up early in the morning ready for our hike. The trail head for The Wave was about an hour and a half drive away from Page – 40 minutes down the highway, and another 40 minutes down a dirt road. We finally arrived at our starting point at about 8:30am – and full disclaimer, this was already MUCH too late to start. We had hoped we would have started before the day got too hot, but the notorious Arizona heat had already started to settle in.

We weren’t exactly sure what to expect on our hike, but the complete lack of a trail was not one of them. When Bryan obtained the permits, he was also sent a map of how to get to The Wave. The map entailed of photos of landmarks with notes on how to navigate. We were basically on our own when it came to figuring out how to get there, it’s no wonder that some people who embark on this journey never find the final destination. The Wave is hidden, I was expecting a simple walk to into a canyon, however it was a difficult hike up and down the Coyote Buttes with The Wave located in a small mountain range.

It took us about an hour and a half to hike the 3 miles to The Wave. If you are not an experienced hiker, I would NOT recommend this trail.  It’s very easy to get lost, the heat is oppressive, and with only 20 people allowed each day, your chances of finding help are slim. However, if you’re up for the adventure and challenge, then the frustration of the permit process is totally worth it.

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Finally the pathway opened up to The Wave. Cut out from centuries of sand and wind, we were surrounded by walls of orange-red rock that shone vibrantly in the mid-morning sun.

We were in awe of the beauty that was all around us. It was as if we were on another planet!

We spent about an hour and a half at The Wave – eating lunch, taking photos and taking in this beauty that we were privileged and blessed to see in person. Once we noticed that the sun had started to settle comfortably on top of us, we decided it was time to head back.

As difficult as the hike into The Wave was, it was nothing compared to the trek back. At 1:00pm, the sun was directly overhead and there was no shade in which we could take refuge. The lack of trail meant that we were backtracking against the landmarks we had used to guide us in. At one point, we hugged too close to a butte and on the way down we completely lost sight of where we were going. We spent about 30 minutes in the hot sun trying to figure out how to get back on track. We knew we were only about a mile away from our car and did our best to keep calm. Eventually Oscar, the master navigator and savior, found the way and we were back on track.

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The Wave was by far one of the most difficult hikes I’ve been on. Although the terrain was fairly easy to climb and scale, the lack of a trail and the overwhelming heat made it extremely challenging. Despite the difficulties this was one of my most memorable hikes.

If this hike is on your bucket list, I highly recommend applying for a permit, getting your gear together, and waiting for your lucky day.  I will always cherish this experience, knowing that I am one of the few people in the world who has gotten to witness this beauty first hand. I am forever grateful.

Con Mucho Amor,

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Location: The Wave – Northern Coyote Buttes, Arizona/Utah Border

Photographer: Bryan Soto – La Onda

Dress: B.Yellowtail (Previous Collection)

 

 

 

My First Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I hope this works. I hope this works!

I held up my Smithsonian contractor badge to the National Museum of African American History’s guards, expecting to be turned down. I passed through the staff entrance, and the second guard waved me in to go ahead.

FINALLY.

I was glowing.  Washington, D.C. has been my home for two months, but I still couldn’t get a ticket. I was allowed to be inside, at last! How competitive is it to get into this museum that opened in in September of 2016?

Well, here’s part of their “things to know” part of their website:

“Same-day, timed passes are available online only, beginning at 6:30 a.m. daily.  A limited number of walk-up passes are available at the Museum on weekdays, beginning at 1 p.m.”

I’ve heard friends mention how lucky they were not only go be able to get a timed ticket, but to be able to take time off work in order to do so. Tour buses load people here every day, and I can only imagine how much in advance they must reserve their tickets.

So, how did I get in? Since I’m giving walking tours at the American History Museum, I have a Smithsonian employee badge that grants me employee access (and a sweet discount at the gift shops and food courts!).

I’d finally made it after weeks of cycling past with my bike tours, only being able to explain the NMAAHC’s design from the outside. Tourists cannot help but wonder what this building is, its corona-like, multilevel design and brown color standing in stark contrast to the white monuments. Even the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is made up of a Chinese, white stone (of hope).

Sir David F. Adjaye, a Ghanaian British Architect, modeled The NMAAHC’ after crowns worn by the people of the Yoruban culture. Step closer, and it looks as if each panel is carved in the most intricate way. It reminded me of the intricate design that gates have in Mexico. They are ornate and functional.

The museum closes at 5:30 daily, and since I’d just gotten off work, I only had two hours. I began my visit at the the amazing Sweet Home Café, and as I expected, I had to wait in line. This museum is still so crowded that they can only let in a few folks at a time. Luckily, the menu was waiting outside with me as I decided what to get. There was regional food from places like the Creole Coast: Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S.C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso. There was corn bread and there were collard greens.

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I went with The Agricultural South’s BBQ pork sandwich, slaw, pickled okra, baked mac & cheese, and a lemon bar.

I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be alone for long. I walked my tray over to a table in the middle of the huge cafeteria. As I bit into my mac and cheese, Franklin E. McCain’s piercing gaze met mine. His seriousness under his thick, black rimmed glasses reminded me that while yes, I was here to enjoy the food, that I shouldn’t take my decision to sit wherever I wanted to for granted.

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Franklin was one of four African American college students who, in 1960, sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but after being rejected, they didn’t budge. Their passive resistance sparked a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South-and the world.

Soon enough, an older African American couple with hot dogs and orange Fantas on their trays sat down with me. I was frustrated by the fact that while this café had a variety of Southern comfort foods on display, hot dogs were the most affordable, filling items on the menu for them. The older woman and I started talking about the prices. She said “Can you believe it costs $7 for two sodas? Do you know how many sodas I could buy at the grocery store with that?”

I felt comfortable yet unsure of just exactly how accessible this museum really was. Maybe they have to offset the costs because this is a free museum, after all. One reason I love the Smithsonian Institute is that their initial endowment was given with the assurance that they would continue the dissemination of knowledge and that this would be free to the public-forever.

Soon enough, the granddaughter, who was in town for an interview, came and sat with us. I told her this was my first time here, and she mentioned the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which is also one of the country’s 19 Smithsonian museums. Her mom rolled grandma up on her wheelchair and offered everyone yams, green beans, and fried fish on little plates. They were from North Carolina, D.C., all over. I could relate to them on that level.

It was nice to sit and chat with a family while enjoying rich, stick-to-your ribs food. “Who wants some potato salad?” Mom said, as she looked at me, and only me, knowing I’d accept. I giggled and spooned some on my plate, mentioning that I was not on a diet.

I only had an hour to explore, and the suggested I start from the bottom floor (there are two floors below and three above ground) because the journey begins with the slave trade and is, needless to say, an emotional one. I was already feeling so many different emotions just while enjoying a sandwich.

As I walked down the elevator, I saw something I thought I’d never see in this museum: Just another white, teenage boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt. Other than the sweatshirt, he looked like just another boy on a field trip. What is he doing here? Did his teacher make him come? What is he thinking? I was confused, then relieved, that he was at least in a space like this that would hopefully make him question what the phrase on his sweatshirt even meant, once he’d realize that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 609 slaves.

As a guard lowered myself and other guests down in an oversized elevator, he dismissed us with “I hope you have a kleenex. You’ll need one!”

And so, the journey began, past the miniature shackles used for children crossing the Atlantic-if they survived at all- and into Brazil, Jamaica, Virginia…

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“I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” -William Cowper, you just explained Colonialism in a nutshell.

Then came the exhibit on the American Revolution. For the first time, I’d seen an image of Boston King, a former slave turned Loyalist soldier. That’s how both the British and Americans recruited black men–by offering their freedom, if they didn’t die from smallpox or musket fire. It was so powerful to see images of men like Boston and Crispus Attucks (this runaway slave was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, which partially led to The American Revolution) being represented along with the countless other images of white men serving in the war that we’ve all seen.

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Boston King, a former American slave-turned British Loyalist who, after fighting in the American Revolution, peaced out to Canada then Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown.. Painting by John Singleton Copley.

The next room was one of my favorites. It exposed Thomas Jefferson’s faults. While, yes, he was an intelligent white man, inventor, Vice President, writer, and more, he also owned slaves. He wasn’t as enlightened as we think. Presidents would continue to hve had slave ownership up until Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, the general who helped the Union win The Civil War owned a slave at one point in his life. I knew Jefferson had slaves, but I hadn’t known that the children he’d had with one of his slaves (starting when she was 17), all inherited the same title as their mother. All men aren’t created so equal, are they?

As I was processing this, a young black girl stood between her mother and a glass case with shackles for slaves inside of them.

“Those were to make sure that the slaves wouldn’t escape” the mother explained to her little girl. “They even put them around their ankles?” she asked, innocently. “Mmhmm, even around their ankles,” mom said, cooly.

As a white presenting Mexican with a white presenting Mexican mother, I would never have been able to feel that sense of “This could have been me” in the way that this mother and her daughter probably felt and were used to feeling.

I barely made it to the section with Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in bringing slaves up North through The Underground Railroad, when a guard told us the museum was closing. I hadn’t even made it past this floor before it was time to go. So, just like everyone else, I walked intentionally slowly so that I could savor my final seconds in this revealing place.

Finally, the National Museum of African American History’s was giving me what I needed: Real Talk. Real History. I’ll be back for more.

Featured image of the NMAAH by Flickr user cmfgu.

#FindYourPark: Governors Island

The Back in Time Zone Tour is a collection of experiences at historic spots in the USA based on vertical time zone regions. This year’s edition is inspired by the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and their #FindYourPark campaign. All month long I’ll be sharing some fantastic places, and hope you’re inspired to see what’s in your part of the country!

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NYC’s “newest” park is also one of its oldest, and with 172 acres of land you might be wondering why you’ve never heard of it before. Most visitors to the southern most point of Manhattan are there for the Statue of Liberty, but a small step in another direction will take you to a different kind of island.

This wonderful place is Governors Island; my favorite park and #1 recommendation for anyone’s summer visit to NYC. It seems out of place being so close to the city, and the story behind it makes a visit really stand out.

The island was once a busy military base for the officers (and their families) of the US Army, and later the Coast Guard. Residents had everything they needed without having to trek over to the mainland, and it was a busy place for over two centuries. Its strategic location near the mainland made it a natural choice for it’s use during the Revolutionary, Civil, and the 1812 wars.

It was occupied until 1996 and sat unused until the Federal Government sold the island to the city of NY in 2003. Plans to redevelop the land as a public park began in 2010, and soon a new era began.

 

A quick ferry ride from the Battery Maritime building takes you to a sort of town, full of old buildings and sprawling green spaces from another era.

Your arrival at Soissons Dock begins with National Park Rangers greeting you with helpful information. If you head left, you’ll see Fort Jay, a star shaped defensive barrier built in the 19th century.  If you take a right, you’ll be heading towards Castle Williams, another fortification that was heavily used during the Civil War to house Union troops and imprisoned Confederate soldiers. Funny enough, in the 1960’s Castle Williams was used as a community center, art space, and children’s nursery for the Coast Guard.

Colonel’s Row and Nolan Park are picturesque, tree-lined paths and houses that were once the homes of high ranking officials and their families. Your typical town staples are sprinkled around these areas, with a theatre, church, and gym nestled among government buildings.

 

Developments to the place have been super awesome, and the Governors Island Alliance has done an incredible job with preserving a lot of the still-functioning structures while demolishing others and creating new, versatile public spaces. Bike paths, creative spaces, and rolling open areas will sooth your busy “NY state of mind”; something that’s much needed in a high energy city like this one.

I recommend bringing or renting a bike when you arrive on the island to efficiently scope out all there is to see. Peering into dusty windows trying to catch a glimpse of what’s inside and the awesome architecture will keep you busy.

It’s even cooler when you realize that there are people alive today who have fond memories of growing up on the island not long ago!

 

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My love for the island is unique and happened unexpectedly in 2010. My stint in concert production during the summer was the Converse Concert series that brought a whole new generation of people to the island right as development was beginning. I spent some beautiful summer days/evenings getting to really know the island and getting my history fix in-between cruising around in a golf cart and the live music.

My favorite memories are the nights that I got to sleep on the island because of early call times. Once that last ferry left the island with the day’s visitors, I was (almost) alone in one of the world’s busiest cities surrounded by a vast amount of space. Sunrises over Manhattan from this angle are incredible, and I loved those solitary moments. I regret not exploring the island more at night, but I think it’s understandable given how CREEPY the place could feel.

Governors Island is open seasonally, and the last day for 2016 is September 25th. You’ve still got some time to check this place out, so go #FindYourPark!

#FindYourPark: The White House

The Back in Time Zone Tour is a collection of experiences at historic spots in the USA based on vertical time zone regions. This year’s edition is inspired by the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and their #FindYourPark campaign. All month long I’ll be sharing some fantastic places, and hope you’re inspired to see what’s in your part of the country!

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I know what you’re thinking…The White House is part of the National Park Service?

You bet! It’s that kind of surprise that makes the #FindYourPark campaign so awesome, and you never know what’ll make you say”I had no idea!”.

Even better to know? Last year Michelle Obama lifted the ban on photos inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and #WhiteHouseTour is so hot right now. Hashtag away my fellow Americans, because this is an awesome place to visit.

The White House has SO MUCH history, and it’s only fitting that it’s in my time traveling series. It is part museum, part ceremonial landmark, and has evolved right alongside American story. Though it is the home of the First Family, it nevertheless ultimately belongs to the American People.

Planning Your Visit

Tours are self guided and requests must be submitted in advance to your Member of Congress. If you are from outside of the USA, you should contact your embassy in the District of Columbia to inquire about arranging a tour. Space is limited, visiting times can be found here, and all White House tours are FREE!

Cameras with removable lenses weren’t allowed in, hence my photo quality, but cell phones and simple point and shoot digital cameras were. Common sense should be good with what not to bring, but here’s a list. There’s no storage on site for items so I recommend bringing the absolute bare minimum.

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That’s me on the right!

A Brief History

After much debate of where the young nation’s capitol should be and where its leader should live, President George Washington selected land on the Potomac river that was given by Maryland and Virginia to be the District of Columbia. Government was to operate on land “not exceeding ten miles square”, so careful planning was taken to change what was then farmland into the heart of the USA.

City planners mapped out roads and buildings for the district, and construction on the President’s home began in 1792. Irish American architect James Hoban designed the home, and the mansion housed its first President in 1800 when John Adams moved in. In August 1814 it was completely burned down during the War of 1812 by the British but was then rebuilt. The West Wing was added in 1901, followed by the East Wing in 1927. It has undergone countless renovations and construction phases, and each presidency has left a mark of some sort on the home.

What’s in a name? Why is it white?

You might have learned that it was painted white to hide burns after the British set the mansion on fire during the war of 1812…A nice story, but the legend is very false.

The exterior was first coated with lime-based whitewash that was meant to protect the porous sandstone from freezing and deteriorating during harsh winters. “The White House” then continued to be refreshed with white paint…and the nickname just kinda stuck. It became the official title in 1901 as decreed by President Theodore Roosevelt. (Fun Fact: painting the exterior takes 570 gallons of paint to complete!)


As far as historic places go, The White House isn’t stuffed with antiques or gilded up like some of the other historic homes I’ve visited. There are portraits presidents and  first ladies everywhere, and it was really cool to recognize them as you walked through. The French inspired Blue Room is where the only wedding of a President and First Lady getting married inside the home has been, and the Green Room was a personal favorite of President Kennedy. The parlors have evolved and been redecorated many times, and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House is dedicated to the mansion’s preservation and function as a museum.

The White House Historical Association has a great website with lots of information and photos of the mansion. Give it a look, read up on some history, and #FindYourPark!

*Featured image is credited to Wikimedia Commons, and the images in this entry are my own.

#FindYourPark: Women’s Rights National Historic Park

The Back in Time Zone Tour is a collection of experiences at historic spots in the USA based on vertical time zone regions. This year’s edition is inspired by the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and their #FindYourPark campaign. All month long I’ll be sharing some fantastic places, and hope you’re inspired to see what’s in your part of the country!

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Oh how I adore the Finger Lakes! A region so dear to my heart, and with a National Park that speaks to me and inspires me to do so much more. Summer is a beautiful time to visit this area of upstate New York, so I zipped north this past weekend to visit the Women’s Rights Historic National Park in beautiful Seneca Falls.

Seneca Falls was the location of the first Women’s Rights Convention that was held on July 19-20, 1848. Advertising itself as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman”, the meeting was organized by the two iconic suffragists: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. It produced the “Declaration of Sentiments”, a document that demanded equal social and legal status for women. While the right to vote was included, it was actually quite controversial and was only included because Frederick Douglass argued for its inclusion (Yup, he was there!).

The Declaration of Sentiments was a huge first step in what Stanton considered the official beginning of the women’s rights movement. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence with several important changes to reflect their goals, its influence spread across the USA and fueled the movement.

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However! In a plot twist worthy of legend, the original document hasn’t been seen since it was taken to Frederik Douglass’ print shop in Rochester to publish in his newspaper. Last year the White House launched a campaign to #FindtheSentiments in the hope that it’s not lost for good, just patiently waiting somewhere to be unearthed.

Funnily enough, while the document remains at large, the actual table it was written on has been identified. You know what’s even crazier? In my personal education and that of the small amount of people I polled, I never KNEW about the Declaration of Sentiments or details about the incredible women who contributed to it, and for that I blame the all too common erasure of remarkable women in school textbooks. It’s not just Women’s History…it’s OUR history, and it needs to be more than just an afterthought.

Visiting the Park

You begin your visit in a Visitor’s Center right next to the Wesleyan Chapel, the actual building where the convention was held. The center’s two floors document what a woman’s role in society meant and the limitations placed on her life throughout American history, and delves into inequality that persists today. The exhibits are interspersed with compelling quotes, outdated artifacts that are ridiculous to us now, and images of women who have blazed their own paths. You can pose with bronze sculptures of your convention heroes, appropriately placed in front of a painted version of Alice Paul’s Suffrage Flag.

The chapel next door has preserved original rafters and areas of brick and plaster, and frequently hosts speakers and features temporary projects. After this area you have the opportunity to visit the M’Clintock House, where several convention planners drafted the Declaration of Sentiments. The parlor has a reproduction of the original table used (the real one is in the Smithsonian) and a Park Ranger will discuss more of the M’Clintock family’s involvement in the budding Women’s Rights Movement as well as the Underground Railroad. They were pretty interesting!

I ended my visit with a tour of Elizabeth Cady Staton’s home on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, a small building that has an ancient chestnut tree in the front yard that was certainly present when she lived there. Her writing desk and armchair are on display in rooms with accurate wallpaper reproductions from her residency, and you learn a little bit more about her life.

On a Related Note…

The drive to Seneca Falls is scenic and passes many vineyards worth visiting for a glass of wine and also my favorite cider house. I highly recommend checking out the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast and their episode about the Declaration of Sentiments to listen to on your way up to Seneca Falls to learn a bit of what you’re about to experience.

This National Park is SO much more than just a place to commemorate a significant event, and I left feeling inspired and fired up. When a historic site leaves you asking questions and swirling with new ideas, you know your visit was a success!

#FindYourPark: Mission San Jose

August is the birth month of the National Park Service, so to celebrate I’m sharing some of my USA history themed adventures in a project I call the Back in Time Zone Tour!

Last summer I visited destinations along the East Coast/EST and did a series inspired by the idea of the “Great American Road Trip”. This year the theme is in honor of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, and I hope it inspires you to go out and check out some of the awesome cultural heritage places near you! Need some ideas? There’s the hashtag #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque that show some of the wonders the USA has to offer.

This week’s park was my first time in this area of America and I’m glad I got to see it!

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Spanish Colonial history in the USA is not something I’ve explored often, being from the Northeast, and I was very murky of the region’s history of settlement. It hit me that my Texas born cousins were probably learning more about that while my NJ upbringing meant visiting a lot of places where George Washington *probably* slept.

Tucked away south of downtown San Antonio and part of the National Park Service, the Mission of San Jose is one of four Spanish colonial missions that are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Missions were a Catholic system designed by Spain to colonize and protect their land in New Spain from other settlers, and the walled communities focused on converting Natives  to Catholicism in order to build up a population on the frontier. Built in 1720, the Mission of San Jose was the largest and most active and once had up to 350 Native Americans living on its grounds.

 

The “Queen of the Missions”, San Jose’s sheer size and beauty made it notable among New Spain settlements, and picking out interesting architecture techniques is a fun game of “hidden picture”. It’s most famous for the Rose Window  “considered to be one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in North America“, which has a dramatic legend surrounding its naming and sculptor.

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Today it’s a quiet reminder of what once was, and my visit felt very tranquil. It was a blazing hot day and I couldn’t imagine actually living in these elements, but the rooms inside the walls where Native families lived were surprisingly cool. The mission’s church is still an active parish with regular services open to the public.There is also a display area with a number of interesting artifacts, and some super knowledgeable park employees eager to share info. I thought a lot about the stories being told and the perspectives that frame them. While the focus may be on the goals of the Spanish and its role in US History, I was inspired to do some digging about Native American stories and what kinds of people were present before Spain decided to “clam” the land.

 


If only I had more time to explore the rest of San Antonio! I definitely look forward to going back, but until then…onto the next spot!San Antonio, TX.JPG