Nobody does anything anymore without first checking the reviews. Whether it’s watching a movie on Netflix or buying a hammer at the hardware store, you’re practically obligated in this era of instantaneous thumbs-up and thumbs-down to see what other people think first, before you act. Even if those people have an axe to grind. Or a shtick to sell. Or no clue. Even if they’re not people at all.
You have to read the reviews. Even when you know — you just know — that you can’t always trust them.
We’ve just returned, Mary Jo and I, from our first real post-Covid vacation. This doesn’t count last year’s trip to see Luke in San Diego, which was a nice break — San Diego, In-N-Out, all that — but no vacation. Luke, in fact, didn’t go anywhere. You can’t go on a vacation if you don’t go anywhere.
(An aside, to the post-Covid remark: That’s according to at least one person.)
This trip, like most vacations should be, was a blast. But it was not without its hiccups. We had originally planned a grand getaway to Yellowstone, a great reunion with the great outdoors and a way to make up for too much time indoors since the spring of 2020. Luke was scheduled to fly into Bozeman, Montana, from California. Mary Jo and I would come in from Atlanta. We had booked a few nights in a cabin in the park, and a couple more in Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone. (Both are mostly in the northwestern portion of Wyoming, east of Idaho and south of Montana.)
But maybe a second after paying for the flights, booking our rooms, securing a rental car, and smoothing out our itinerary, major floods wiped out access to the north part of Yellowstone. (Hiccup!) We had to make a choice, and quickly. We could hope that the roads would be fixed by the time we got there so we wouldn’t be shut out from maybe a quarter of the park, including a big part where the wildlife roam. Or we could bag our plans, scramble to get our deposits back, and go to Plan B.
We bagged it. And made up a Plan B.
What about, Mary Jo suggested, the high deserts of New Mexico? It was close-ish to Yellowstone, so the airfare would be about the same. It was, maybe, similar to some of Yellowstone. It, at least, held in our minds the same American West kind-of neighborhood vibe. Plus, no one else had a better idea.
We got some recommendations from friends who had lived in the area. We, of course, checked the reviews. We flipped our flights, planned on trips to three national parks (White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains), booked a night in Albuquerque on each end of the trip, signed up for a few days in a desert spot an hour outside of Santa Fe, reserved another couple nights in Las Cruces (where we planned to nail down all three parks in basically three days), and worked up a whole new itinerary.
(Another quick aside: We dig national parks. We’ve done a lot of them as a family. We, with historian Wallace Stegner, agree that they’re one of the best moves the federal government has ever made. So this year, for the first year ever, I ‘fessed up to my actual age, coughed up $90 for this lifetime baby (>), and prepared to be wowed.)
In mid-September we convened as a family, for the first time since January, at the Albuquerque International Sunport (credit for not just calling it an airport), ready for a badly needed and much-delayed adventure. And it was great. Because — this is important — we made it that way.
Turns out the reviews (hiccup!) aren’t always spot-on.
I had been to Albuquerque, years ago, briefly, and had driven through New Mexico — the Land of Enchantment, officially, and as the license plates blare, the Chili Capital of the World — a few times, usually coming eastward from Arizona or going to other points west. I regarded it as pretty, I guess, in a low-key, untamed kind of way.
New Mexico is not, I would guess, what most people would consider a tourist destination. Much of it is great swaths of flat, open desert bordered by imposing mountains. It’s dry. It is largely brown and shades of brown, broken up by dusty reds and pale greens. A notable exception: In the southeastern part of the state, in the vast Tularosa Basin, some 275 square miles of desert have been buried under massive dunes of glaringly white gypsum (^). That is White Sands National Park, one of the more bizarrely beautiful spots you’ll see in this part of the country.
In the deserts of New Mexico, especially in the high deserts, it’s not always warm. The nights are cool. In the winter, it snows. New Mexico doesn’t have great metropolitan areas, either. In truth, it has none. It has funky small towns (like Santa Fe and Taos or, even funkier, the small artist enclave of Madrid, along what is known as the Turquoise Trail). It has Las Cruces and Albuquerque, neither of which would be considered by anyone who lives near a Top 25 city as a Top 25 city. But that’s about it.
What it has, in abundance, is a rich Spanish/Mexican/Native American culture (and the food that goes with it), a distinctive Western flair, and a proud, deep history. More, it’s a land that features daytime panoramas that remind you of how wide the sky can be (and how bracingly blue) and night skies so starry — those Top 25 cities can only dream of nights so inspiring, so beautiful — that remind you of how small we all are.
On our first day, we took a tram ride up to the peak of Sandia Mountain on the eastern part of Albuquerque, hiked its ridges and forests, and marvelled at the endless expanse of the basin below. The main part of our trip, though, was north of that, to the desert an hour outside of Santa Fe, where we hoped to tromp through the desert, take in the muted beauty that inspired painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and be swallowed into those cool, starry nights.
We stayed in a small adobe house near the tiny town of Abiquiu, off a couple of knobby dirt roads, hidden by tamarisk and junipers, and within eyeshot of a skinny mesa known as Cerro Pedernal, where O’Keeffe’s ashes were scattered upon her death. The closest restaurant was a rundown pizza joint a mile or three away. The next place after that was a half-hour drive.
We wanted to get away from the traffic, the Targets, the lights and traffic noise. And, boy, did we.
The first impression of our short-term home, before we even opened the side door, was this: My God, we really are in the middle of the desert. We could see a house or two up on a ridge, on the other side of an arroyo that ran near our place. We drove past a couple more on the way in. In the blackness of night, we could hear the occasional car pass on a two-lane road a mile or more away. But that was it.
The second thing that struck us as we pulled into the carport and lugged our bags to the door: Ants.
I guess we should have expected a little of the wild in the wilds of the New Mexican desert. (I guess, maybe, I should have checked those reviews a little closer.) But this was a lot of ants. A bag of ant killer was leaning against the side of the house. Ant traps were scattered all around the doors. We turned the key and immediately expected the worst. Ants in the cupboards. Ants swarming the kitchen table. Queen Ant taking a bath and laughing at us.
Thankfully, what we got was a small, charming, lived-in (in a good way) two-story, two-bedroom home with rounded exposed wooden beams, a generous kitchen, cushy furniture, and views out of every window. The ants mostly stayed out of the place. When they got in, it wasn’t much past the thresholds.
The night before, I had spent more than a half-hour on the phone with the owners, a retired couple that spent half of their time back in Virginia and half in their beloved New Mexico hideaway. They told me the places to hike around the house. They urged us to skip the interstate on the way up and take the Turquoise Trail instead. They warned us about coyotes at night (they’ll wake you up) and rattlesnakes during our walks (yeah, we saw one). They suggested that we use sunscreen and drink lots of water and take it easy on the first day to get used to the altitude. They were delightful and, more than that, extremely helpful.
They didn’t tell me about the ants, true. Or the desert mouse or two we heard rustling in the houseplants a night later.
Again … read the reviews. My bad.
The well-water that came out of the taps had a funky egg smell, but the owners warned me about that. (They had a filtered water system for drinking water and the one shower, and that was fine.) There was a scary odor coming out of the oven on our last morning there. And it took a little while to regulate the temperature at night, a process that involved opening various windows and piling on blankets.
For all its faults, though, this is what I’ll remember about the place: Getting up early the first day to watch the rising sun paint the clouds in that enormous sky. Talking, as a family, while Luke and Mary Jo whipped up some dinners. Sitting around a fire pit in the glorious, deep-black evenings, looking up at the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. Warm, dusty walks along the arroyo. The coyote howls at night. The burrs on our socks after a morning hike.
You don’t get any of that in a Marriott.
On our last full day in Abiquiu, we drove to nearby Bandelier National Monument (^), trekked through a couple canyons and explored the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs that have been there for more than 10,000 years. On the falls trails, we saw two people on the way into the three-mile hike, and two people on the way out. It was Yellowstone without the swarms of tourists.
The next morning, we did a final morning hike in the desert, stepped past the rattlesnake, said goodbye to our little friends, closed down the house, then took the long drive down through Albuquerque to Las Cruces and checked into (sigh) … a Marriott. Our plan had been to drop off the bags and roll over to White Sands, an hour away. But plans, as plans are apt to do, change.
The thing about the West; it’s big. Wide open. By the time we left Abiquiu, stopped outside of Albuquerque for lunch, then drove three more hours to Las Cruces, we were road-wasted. Plus, the next day was supposed to be a massive, two parks in one day trip, all the way over to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns and back. As it turns out, we never made it to either.
Instead, we dropped off the bags that night in our sadly sterile Marriott and crashed. I think we had pizza in the hotel. The fan on the air conditioner ran all night, which helped drown out the traffic noise. No coyotes were heard.
The next day, we took State Route 70 over the Organ Mountains and through the impossibly flat Tularosa Basin to White Sands, spent several hours at the park, then continued east into the town of Alamogordo, where we ate lunch at a divey drive-in and took a quick tour of the New Mexico Museum of Space History at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains.
We ate a fine Mexican meal (Red or green? they ask in just about every restaurant in New Mexico, and you have to pick your chili) outside of Las Cruces that night. The next day, we drove up to Albuquerque and dropped Luke off at the Sunport. Everyone headed back to civilization.
Not two days after we settled back into our suburban life, with its tiny skies and yapping dogs, its leaf blowers, crosswalks and perfectly boring roadways largely free of venomous reptiles, I opened my laptop to an email from VRBO. I knew it was coming. And I knew I had to respond. But I still hadn’t figured out what to do. Review-wise.
Ants: Not good.
Smelly water: A negative.
Mice: Ehh, we could do without.
Coyotes: Scary, but cool.
Burrs in the carpet: A pain, literally, but did we bring them in?
That rattlesnake curled up on the dirt road: We didn’t bother him, he didn’t bother us.
Convenience: Not very … but, again, isn’t that’s what we were after?
Comfort: Slept like a rattlesnake on the road.
Night skies: Incomparable. Inspiring.
Total experience: ??????
The problem with reviews is that you really can’t trust them. No matter how many you see, no matter how many you actually read, every person’s experience is unique.
When you read a bad review, do you wonder if it’s a thoughtful critique or just someone having a crappy day? When you read a good one do you think Is that person a paid endorser, or a bot? If a review mentions, for example, ants in a home — which, upon further review, at least one review did for the place we stayed — is that a legit complaint if the home, for example, is in the middle of a desert? Is that like complaining about sand in a beach house or a chilly living room in a Rocky Mountain cabin? Or a chewy chile relleno at McDonald’s?
I mean, really, what do you expect?
If it’s someone’s home you’re reviewing, even a vacation home, if it’s part of someone’s livelihood — this could be a restaurant, too, or a boutique, or just about anything — where do your responsibilities lie? Is your responsibility to the small business owner — say, the VRBO host or the local restaurateur, both of whom are really just trying to make a buck, maybe strap together a living — or to the next visitor/patron spending hard-earned money at the place?
Maybe honesty is the best policy here. Or maybe you might consider that your experience, good or bad, may not be representative of others and shouldn’t be taken that way, even mistakingly. Maybe, very possibly, your experience was an outlier. Maybe you were having a bad day. Maybe that chile relleno wasn’t that bad.
I wrestled with the review and ended up giving our Abiquiu stop five stars. Out of five. Maybe that makes me untruthful. Maybe it makes me a wimp, or untrustworthy. The place had ants and a mouse or two and a couple other problems. It was remote. It was, by a good stretch, our most expensive vacation rental ever (though a large part of that was due to killer add-ons that don’t go to the hosts). The next people to rent the place should know all that, right?
But the place also provided us a chance to experience a unique place in a wondrous part of the country in an entirely different kind of way. It produced memories that will last a long, long time. A top-notch Marriott in Santa Fe, as ant-free as it may be, would not have come close to doing that.
Yes, you have to check the reviews. It’s the smart thing to do. Everybody does it. But, I’ve found, you don’t have to live and die by them. Not all of them. Not all the time.
Sometimes, a little bad helps you appreciate the good all that much more.