We flew out of Maryland and had a reasonable direct flight into Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines. Jeff was fighting a sinus cold, but otherwise we were in fairly good spirits. Audra and I had just gotten back from Maine, which was extremely relaxing – if a bit rainy and cold – and the excitement of going to a new place on the other side of the country was keeping us going.
From the airport, we had to get a rental car in order to drive north to the ranch. This was one of several shared expenses that we agreed to since a) we couldn’t get to the ranch without it and b) many of the places we wanted to go required a car. The drive to the ranch was about three hours.
Crossing the small bridge just off the highway into the property, we got our first good look at the place. It did not knock us out, and was obviously a bit worn down, but still suitable enough from the outside. The key was left for us in a secret location outside. After finding the key, we brought our bags in from the car and began to explore inside.
Once inside, we noticed an immediate deviation from the photos we’d seen. Promotional photos will always be a bit more glitzy than the real thing. But what we found, in total, turned out to be quite concerning. We were told that the place had been recently cleaned a few days before our arrival, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the place. There was a used water bottle in one of the rooms and several things in the kitchen left over from the previous visitors. The kitchen counters had containers of rat poison out in the open, with some of the poison spilling over onto the counter. These were not acceptable conditions for cooking.
The recreation room had a large air conditioner in one window. The openings on either side of the vent were large enough for a squirrel (or something bigger) to crawl through. The bedrooms were a bit danker than we thought they’d be, but I could have dealt with that. Many of the lamps didn’t work, or had to be rigged in various ways to make them work off of the ill-maintained outlets and wiring. The thing that really got us, in the bedroom that Audra and I selected, were the mouse droppings in the sheets. Of course, from the moment we saw that, everyone was wondering what else was lurking in the place.
Before I convey what happened next, I need to back up and give you some perspective on my personal attitude towards traveling. In terms of traveling, I tend to go into a sort of zone these days. That zone includes :
– No complaining. – When a problem is encountered, deal with it. Until then, chill out.
– When traveling with a group, everyone helps each other out. Once the plane lands, we’re in it together.
– If I’m on vacation, I’m not going to worry about money. If I’ve made the commitment to go on vacation, I’m going to make sure I have a cushion of cash in the bank for an emergency, as well as access to credit should I need it.
– Be sensitive to intercultural concerns.
I’ve even worked in a bit of a “when in Rome” attitude, though I still draw the line in many places. Most of my attitude can be credited to my trip with the anarchists and Hungarians in 2003. That trip opened up my tolerances tremendously, much further than Audra’s, and in general, probably further than most people I know. It helped me build a thick skin in terms of dealing with the challenges of the road.
The mental stamina involved in my approach to travel is also an extension of my Buddhist studies. In the particular flavor of Zen Buddhism that I prescribe to, we have something that the teacher Dogen and others call “uncomplaining all acceptance.” In other words, regardless of what happens, you should not complain, and anything that happens – with the right amount of focus – can be accepted and dealt with appropriately. This is the only way I was able to survive the tremendously unsanitary conditions at certain points of the west coast trip, or handle the ham sandwich incident in Sardinia.
I’ve always enjoyed camping. I’ve studied survival, outdoors and otherwise. I go into any trip prepared to do whatever it takes to get through it, and I’ve grown in the process. If that involves doing things that are unpleasant, then so be it. The important thing is that I am a) not sitting at a screen for 8 hrs a day, or b) worrying about the everyday concerns of my increasingly busy life back home.
What transpired next at the ranch was the exact opposite of the zone I just described. It was also the opposite of anything any of us were expecting on this trip.
Upon seeing the mouse crap in the bed, I thought to myself, “If this were just me, I would find a way to stick it out.” There were multiple options available, if we were committed to dealing with the problem on site. But it wasn’t just me. Audra had a history of sleeping problems, particularly when there were rodents about (see our trip journal about Worlds End State Park in 2007). She also had a bad experience with voles back when she lived at home, actually coming to my house for a week to sleep. If she doesn’t sleep, it is likely that I won’t either.
Jeff was quiet, which if you know Jeff is not a good thing. Not very pleased with how things were turning out, at one point he just said, “No, we’re not staying here. If I have to put us up somewhere, we’re not staying here.”
Kristy has done a bit of “roughing it” in terms of travel, including eight days camping and rafting in the Grand Canyon, and she has been to Europe several times. However, at times she can be a self-admitted princess. So it was actually unusual for Jeff to beat her to the punch. As I gauged how everyone was reacting, I knew I would be outvoted if I suggested that we stick it out together at the ranch. Besides, Kristy had the car keys, so where she went, we all went.
This sudden crisis bothered me on a number of levels. I can put away my ideals for a moment. For to cling to them too much is also not following the middle way. But on a practical note, the money was spent. We had already paid the $1000 to get there, and we were now going to be forced to find other accommodations. In addition, since we won the trip in an auction, we didn’t have much recourse to get our money back. No money actually changed hands with the owners of the ranch. On top of this, the school was just barely able to stay open, financially strapped from low enrollment and impacted by the recession. To come back from this trip and expect a refund – no matter how much we were inconvenienced – was not a subject I wanted to dive into. It was a touchy subject at best, possibly even a conflict of interest. I really didn’t want to go there.
At that point, I was less concerned about the money it was going to cost to fix the problem, and more concerned with what our options were. We were a good three hours from any major city. Las Vegas New Mexico is not exactly a metropolis. We weren’t flying back for a week, so we had to do something. We decided the next step was to contact the owners and make them aware that we weren’t happy. Audra called them and gave them the rundown on the conditions. Their response was, “Well, it’s rustic.” In response to our complaint about the mouse poop, they suggested that we strip the beds and use the clothes washer. None of us found this acceptable since a) we were on vacation, b) we were explicitly told that all of this had been done just days before our arrival, and c) there was nothing to indicate washing everything one night was going to help with the (obvious) ongoing problem of rodents. In response to our complaint about the rat poison on the kitchen counter, they said, “Well, no one has ever gotten sick before.”
Audra got off the phone and we discussed the owner’s responses and discussed the matter some more. We all came to the conclusion that we could not stay there. My ideals aside, everyone else had very good points. Jeff hadn’t had a real vacation in something like three years, so for him to be exposed to this was not fair. He was even muttering about possibly flying back early. The ranch obviously wasn’t living up to any of the expectations that we had formed based on the photos, the way it was talked up by the owners, and the website.
Audra and I felt particularly terrible because we had pulled Kristy and Jeff into this trip. Had it been just the two of us, I am sure we would have had the same problem to solve, but the fact was we had two other people whose money and time were now tied up in this. They had the same information we did, and agreed to come, but only after we opened up the opportunity to them.
Our next step, before leaving for sure, was to make sure we secured replacement accommodations. Among the four of us, with our multiple cell phones and Blackberries, we couldn’t get any internet access. Kristy’s cell phone had a better signal, so while she called her mom back in Westchester, PA, Jeff an I played what has come to be known as the $1000 game of pingpong in the recreation area.
Booking a week for four people on such short notice was going to be tough, so we agreed on a general budget and hoped for the best. Kristy’s mom found a few hits on Hotels.com. The best option turned out to be Sagebrush Inn in Taos, another 2.5 hours away. By that point we were already traveling for about 11 hours. So what was a few more? There was one more catch. Because the Sagebrush was booked for a wedding, they had limited vacancies. So instead of getting three separate rooms, we ended up crammed into one room with two double beds, and one bathroom. It looked like those years in college were about to come roaring back.
Before we left the ranch, I called the owners back and told them we had finally decided that we could not stay there. Their response was rather cold. It was…