I’ve long felt that part of any road trip needs to be the flexibility to deviate from your plan when something cool comes along. On this last trip, I regretted not stopping at a weird looking display inspired by UFO culture in the middle of southern Colorado. I might not be back that way anytime soon, and seeing something that unusual is what travel memories are made of.
But I did make one stop on a whim because something was happening in front of me that contained all the visuals for an indelible recollection. Maybe a half hour west of Clayton, New Mexico, I was heading west and toward a sizable line of afternoon thunderstorms spreading over the expanse of the high plains. I was on a particularly lonely two-lane highway that didn’t look to be leading anywhere.
As the storms built ahead, the sun was still trying to peek though, lighting up the scrub brush and sage that carpeted seemingly endless rolling hills that bunched up between ancient volcanic formations to the north and the mightier Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west, which at that time were getting pounded by heavy sheets of rain.
And then I saw it, off to the right: A lone windmill, its fan spinning at a healthy clip, not far from what looked like the ruins of an old farm house.
My right foot let off the gas, I checked my rearview mirrors for traffic (there was none) and I pulled over fast.
Out came the camera as I photographed the windmill, its slender form jutting up into a backdrop of an increasingly turbulent sky, one that promised to unload at any minute but was holding off for now. Graffiti marked the mostly roofless homestead; apparently this was a good place to pull off, drink or get high, and make a mark. In the background, sunbeams still pierced the clouds, lighting up chunks of the land while in other places, curtains of rain swept through.
This being a solo trip, I was fortunate that I didn’t have to bother anyone by making this abrupt stop. I spent about 15 minutes documenting the scene, and I kept telling myself how lucky I was to have stumbled into it. I love taking a good pic, and that place at that moment provided it.
And it also reinforced something in me. I’ve long said how much I love New Mexico. It has all the charms of Colorado, but it adds its own spice, namely those vast, empty spaces with brilliant, wide open skies – a vastness into which you can empty your soul. And while this scene didn’t have that brilliant high country blue, the skies gave me something else that was equally magical, even if a bit threatening.
Ten minutes after I left, I fought through a hellacious squall that turned everything outside my windshield into a thick, gray soup. Storms move, and I was moving, too, and thus the magical pre-storm tapestry in which I reveled passed.
Travel is often framed by stories of interesting people, novel foods and lessons in culture you can’t get from the couch. I love all of that.
But sometimes travel is a moment, and you best not miss it. Such is the nature of the ephemeral: Pay attention now or you’ll lose it forever.