By Mary Jacobs
This time of year, when the dog days descend, I’ve always lit out of North Texas for cooler territories. This year, COVID-19 made it a challenge, especially for someone (like me) with a high-risk person in the household.
However, I didn’t think the challenge was an unsurmountable one. Traveling can be done, if you choose a destination within driving distance and where you’ll be content taking all your fun outdoors, in the car or at your lodgings. For my son and me, Ruidoso, New Mexico checked all those boxes.
Ruidoso is located in the Sierra Blanca mountain range, with temperatures topping in the low 80s most days, and little humidity. Many come for Ski Apache resort, Mountain of the Gods Casino, and Ruidoso Downs Racetrack – all of which are currently closed (although you can still bet on the ponies online) But we planned to spend our time hiking the trails at Lincoln National Forest and enjoying the views from our porch.
This trip took some COVID-19 safety strategizing, however.
In my mind, the biggest risk was spending 8 hours each way in the car with my son (who doesn’t live with me.) To assuage my worries, my son took a COVID-19 test, but that proved useless. The results didn’t arrive until 20 days later; we were already in Ruidoso by then. (He was negative.) But for 14 days before the trip, he was extra careful, working from home and going out only for groceries, when the stores were empty. (Pro tip from my son: use Google maps to determine when a retail outlet or other destination is least busy. Find your destination, scroll down, and you’ll see an hour-by-hour breakdown of customer traffic at the location.) Given his precautions, I felt relatively safe.
The next big worry was bathroom stops. Given the eight-hour drive, we’d have to stop on the way at least once or twice. I armed myself with a plan: I’d wear a mask, tote my own paper towels for handling doorknobs, faucets and toilet levers, and make it quick. No loitering in the snack aisle afterward. After washing my hands, I’d also applied a dollop of hand sanitizer as soon as I got back in the car for good measure.
For lodgings, we rented a house for the week via Airbnb. Having the whole place to ourselves gave us more room; we weren’t in close quarters with other guests and we had room to spread out. We could eat takeout comfortably on the dining room table. Check-in was contactless. The house hadn’t been occupied for a few days before, but, out of abundance of caution, I brought Lysol wipes and gave high-touch areas like doorknobs and fridge handles a quick swipe. I also brought my own pillow. (Tip: With business down, many Airbnb hosts are willing to discount their prices. Before reserving, email your selected dates to the host and ask for the best offer. That email saved us 200 bucks.)
We spent our mornings at Lincoln National Park, hiking the many moderate or easy trails with great views and interesting flora and fauna along the way.
In the areas we visited, ranger stations were open, but most bathrooms were not, and picnic pavilions and grills were closed. We planned accordingly.
Our two pooches tagged along for the trip, and probably had the best time of the four of us. Lots of walking on the trail, and the two-legged ones were around all the time.
Afternoons, we would drive to a lookout or a peak. We snapped pictures at the gorgeous outlook on the road to Ski Apache and watched the sunset at Monjeau Peak. On one drive, we stopped briefly as a small herd of wild horses crossing the road – a surprisingly thrilling sight.
Even driving around town was fun, as we spotted deer and elk in yards and nearby parks.
On our last day, we drove down to Cloudcroft, an hour away, and hiked on the Osha Trail, also in the Lincoln National Forest. We strolled the wooden sidewalks of the traditional Western town, ducking into Texas Pit BBQ for some takeout ribs (which we ate in the car, torturing the dogs) and Burro Street Bakery for two slices of pie, which we took home for later.
At the moment, New Mexico is mandating people to wear masks at all times in public. We even saw some people in masks out on the trails. I don’t usually wear a mask when I’m outdoors in uncrowded areas. As a compromise measure, I wore a gaiter and pulled it up over my mouth and nose when we passed other hikers.
The state of New Mexico also requires out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Nobody seemed to be tracking that, however, and there were plenty of Texas license plates in the parking lots. I’m not sure exactly how “self-quarantine” is legally defined, but I think we followed the law in spirit. We spent our time in the house, outdoors or in the car. We brought food for the week and cooked breakfast and lunch at home. In the evening, we picked up takeout. Twice we enjoyed the great pizza from Café Rio, which has sidewalk pickup. We also tried Casa Blanca (Mexican), Michael J’s (Italian), and Noisy Water Sushi, all delicious and as best we could tell, all following safety protocols carefully. Many of the local eating establishments had resourcefully put up tents in their parking lots, allowing diners to eat outside, but we opted to dine at home.
I have to give props to Ruidoso. Residents and business owners seem to have rallied in an effort to reopen safely. Almost everyone in the downtown area wore a mask, even outdoors. Shop owners were all in masks and signs requiring masks were prominent. Members of the chamber of commerce passed out swag bags with masks and sanitizer to shoppers on the sidewalk.
The strong compliance in downtown Ruidoso made me feel brave enough to break quarantine and do a little shopping on our last day. We donned our masks and went in the morning, before the shops got busy, avoiding any places that looked crowded. All of the store clerks were properly masked and seemed happy to have our business. We did our part for the Ruidoso economy, spending about $300 on souvenirs, wine, kitchen gadgets and treats for the dogs.
And in places where I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t spend money. On the way home, at a stop in Roswell, I considered picking up an alien souvenir or two. But noticing the almost universal non-compliance of Roswell residents – nobody was wearing a mask – I left, taking my cash with me.
Pack these items and keep them handy in the car:
Paper towels – To avoid touching door handles or gas pumps.
Lysol wipes — For sanitizing high-touch surfaces.
Hand sanitizer – For cleaning hands any time you return to the car.
Masks – Enough to last the trip (plus Woolite, if you plan to hand-wash them on the road.)
Snacks and drinks – To avoid extra stops.
Bug spray – Humans aren’t the only disease vectors. If you’re planning to spend time outdoors, take steps to avoid West Nile and Zika, as well as COVID-19.