III. QUEMADO (OR THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE), NEW MEXICO & THE PAINTED DESERT
photos, music curation & story by alexis stember coulter
There was no reason for us to go there other than that we needed somewhere to stop for the night on our way from New Mexico to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Largo Cafe and Hotel in Quemado was rumored to have a great green chili burger and clean lodgings so we called and booked ourselves in.
Arriving after dusk on an unlit highway, we nearly drove past it, seeing no evidence of the town we thought we were in search of. It was just the hotel, a gas station across the street and darkness beyond that.
We walked into the Largo Cafe and stood at the register, waiting to be seated. The staff seemed disoriented and unorganized and half were doing their apparent jobs while the other half spoke in hushed nervous tones amongst themselves. Finally, a middle aged woman approached.
“We’re closed,” she said. It was 7:45pm.
“But your sign says you close at 8.”
“Not tonight. We’re closed.”
Dylan and I looked at each other. Something was clearly wrong but it was unclear what and only half the staff seemed concerned. Dylan tried again.
“Would it be possible to just get a fried egg to go or something? My wife is pregnant as you can see and that gentleman there is still cooking….” A man with an oil-stained chef’s apron flipped a handful of burgers on an open grill and didn’t appear to be aware of any change to the evening’s schedule.
“No. Can’t do it. We have an emergency.”
She closed the till, flipped the open sign in the window to closed and walked away.
“Excuse me-” Dylan interjected. She looked back. “Can you tell us where else we can go?”
“Arizona’s not far. Or you can go to the grocery store across the street.”
Dylan pointed in the direction of the gas station. “There?”
We stepped out. We’d already paid for the room at the adjoining hotel but were contemplating driving straight to Arizona. Something felt gravely off. We went to our room and discussed.
Things to consider:
The roads were pitch black and we were in deer country. Driving conditions were less than optimal.
Our cellphone reception was non-existent. Google Maps wouldn’t be able to help us out on the road and we had no physical map.
We’d already paid for our hotel.
We didn’t know if or where we could get another hotel once we were in Arizona.
The whole point was that we were hungry and it was possible nothing would be open by the time we got there.
We decided to stay but were deeply uncomfortable about it. A few people had gathered in the parking lot behind the restaurant and were alternately huddling and pacing. It looked as though something nefarious like a murder had happened. My pregnancy brain kicked in again. I’d survived the plane; I couldn’t die here.
Stayed: Largo Cafe & Hotel.
Ate: Wonderbread with peanut butter and whatever else we could find at the grocery store, otherwise known as the gas station.
PAINTED DESERT AND PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA
We made it through the night and left the Largo Hotel as early as possible. We never did find out what the emergency was. Headed for Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, we detoured to visit the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park before heading north.
We entered knowing nothing about the park and were greeted by a remarkable rainbow of earth, heat and Triassic layers. Formed by millions of years (213 million to be exact) of earth’s organic instability and subjected to ancient volcanos, floods and droughts, this desert wore its story in a tapestry of colors created by the build-up of mineral content in its sediment over time. The ground rose and caved in grand fashion around us and it was hard not to feel small in the presence of such majesty.
There were surprisingly few people as we walked the paths of the interior and we could largely commune in private, appreciating this land before time that was so gratefully and graciously preserved by those who came before.
Stayed: Just passing through.
Saw: The land before time.
Ate: Tuna melt at the Painted Desert Diner.
Alexis Stember Coulter is a mother, producer, photographer and writer. She is currently working on a book detailing her 15 years living in New York. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Dylan, daughter Ella and their coterie of family in southern and central California. You can follow her on IG (Trust me - it is fantastic) @alexisstembercoulter