At last we feel and smell like real explorers.
It has taken two weeks for this family of four to shed our city skins and collect the dirt of three states under our fingernails.
We have eaten with bugs, been washed out by rain, danced on red rocks and been hypnotized by the weirdness and wonder of the Southwest.
Having left home in San Diego April 30 and motored from the California high desert to the badlands of Arizona, we arrive May 12 at the foothills below the snow-capped peaks of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains.
It should be wonderful, but outside it is raining gatos and perros and somehow we have missed the exit to Santa Fe.
But taking the wrong turn can lead to the best discoveries, such as Hole in the Wall Welding--a strange photo opportunity we stumbled upon the first day of this grand three-month journey around America.
We are packed in our un-air-conditioned car like sardines in a tin can. Two hours from Los ngeles on the 10 freeway, the desert blow-dryer switches to high.
We find Hole in the Wall Welding off the Indian Road exit to Palm Springs. A giant black steel spider, at least 30 feet tall, with a Volkswagen for its body, is planted in front of the establishment's closed garage doors. You could drive a truck between its legs. Another VW fitted with stagecoach wheels sits nearby.
"What is this place?" we ask.
A mechanic working nearby tells us the owner/creator is asleep.
"Should wake up tonight," he says.
In a nearby desert rock quarry, near an American flag on a pole and an abandoned World War II troop carrier, our kindergarten-age son, Henri, finds the remains of a '50s-style beauty parlor.
This is not a mirage. We take turns on the pink-vinyl hair-salon chairs, half expecting Jack Palance to make an appearance.
Our destination is Joshua Tree National Monument in the high desert, half an hour away.
The daily skirmish begins in the back seat, where a bagful of clothes marks the volatile border region between Henri, aged 5, and Matilda, 2.
"It's my Magna Doodle!" shouts Henri.
"No, it's mine!" Matilda blasts.
"It's both of yours, share it!" we scream.
We set up our dome-shaped four-man tent among the prolific Joshua trees at Black Rock Canyon Campground in the monument.
The trees are hairy things: mutant toilet brushes gone wild in the desert.
At sunset, we spot a family of great horned owls that have made their home in a tree near the camp's ranger headquarters.
A jack rabbit dinner arrives with a flap of wings, and the owls tear at the warm carcass.
There is more nature at our dinner picnic table. We share our steak and corn with hundreds of buzzing gnats.
"I can't eat this with these bugs," Henri protests.
"But they're protein!" we tell him with gusto.
On the main road through Joshua Tree Monument the next day, thousands of butterflies scatter before us as the scenic drive sweeps past big jellybean-shaped boulders surrounded by low, green scrub and more campgrounds.
Our recession travel philosophy is to rough it in campgrounds for a week or two and then recover in a nice hotel.
In Phoenix, we prove that staying with relatives is even cheaper than campgrounds. Our Grandma Gussie and Grandpa Leo fatten us up with hospitality and homemade bagels and lox.
After a couple of days of pampering, we head north to Montezuma Castle National Monument, one of the best-preserved Indian cliff buildings in the United States.
Busloads of middle-age tourists sporting video cameras crowd the short path to a viewing area of the crumbling ruin.
This is not Buckingham Palace. Montezuma Castle is the size of a small two-story house and was home, 700 years ago, to a group of Sinagua Indian farmers.
"I want to go in the castle . . . pweese ," cries Princess Matilda.
Sorry Matty, tourists are not allowed inside.
After lunch in the Monument's picnic ground and some squirrel feeding, we continue north to Sedona.
We drop into a valley of awesome burnt-orange canyons laced with lush green bushes.
It is a photographer's dream, and they are everywhere. Perched against tripods at turns along the road, snapping away at the monoliths and buttes.
We set up our tent by the side of a creek in a free wilderness canyon camping area a couple of miles from Sedona.
Henri rushes to the creek to catch bugs.
The biggest thrill for us is hiking to a nearby orange mesa to enjoy solitude in what seems to be the middle of a brilliant oil painting.
We go wild, climbing and jumping on the sunset boulders.
The town of Sedona, home to 14,000 people, attracts an incredible 3 million tourists a year.
There are Jeep, hiking and New Age spiritual tours of the region, as well as art galleries and craft stores for the free-spending. We find them handy for shelter during the frequent thunderstorms.
Despite all the tourists, Sedona seems unspoiled. We try trout fishing in Oak Creek and let a little one go. It's too cold to try the Slide Rock, a natural formation upstream from the town.
Moving north into mountain pine forests around Flagstaff, we are chased by thunder and lightning away from our planned campground at Sunset Crater National Monument.
Following the railroad tracks, and overtaken numerous times by trains with "Santa Fe" emblazoned on their cars, we speed east through the Petrified Forest, over the Arizona state line into New Mexico.
Indian trading posts beside the highway, offering free coffee, Pepsi, cheap gasoline, a live buffalo and the world's largest turquoise nugget, welcome us to what seems to be a foreign territory.
We are starting to feel like we are in the Wild West at last.
"It's like 'Fievel Goes West,' " says Henri, reminded of the last kids' movie he had seen before leaving home.
In fading light we find Red Rock Campground, near Gallup.
The scenic campsite, under a striking ocher cliff, is a base from which to explore the nearby rock formations and the Navajo and Zuni Indian pueblos.
It's an area rife with cultural riches. There are wide smiles and friendly waves from locals at the nearby Navajo reservation. Wondrous woodcrafts and silver wares with ancient powers are displayed in numerous tribal museums.
Our big problem is drying out after a wild thunderstorm that tore out tent pegs and flooded sleeping bags and clothes.
Luckily the campground had a clothes dryer.
We take a side trip south of Grants into El Malpais National Monument because Henri wants to see the Bandera Ice Caves.
Formed in a section of a 17-mile-long hardened tube of lava, the only cave in the group that visitors are allowed to see, 75 feet below the surface, is a funky tourist attraction.
For $5 you get to walk to the bottom of the freezing cave and view a slab of green ice.
"Yes, it is real ice," our cave guide, Carole, told us.
This is not a life-changing experience, but Henri loved it.
Heading east again, we drive into our sixth and most spectacular lightning storm, exploding above Albuquerque.
The storm turns day to night and floods the highway.
Dirty and grimy and in need of an alternative to camping, we eventually find Santa Fe and a comfortable motel equipped with a full kitchen to cook our meals and a laundry to wash our smoky clothes.
When the weather clears, we explore Santa Fe--one big art gallery connected by sidewalks and tiny, charming streets.
The chile pepper is worshipped here as food and decoration. Taos-style adobe homes are everywhere, and the Southwestern fashion style of the locals is impeccable.
In the Plaza, the heart of the gallery district, we share a $2.35 Frito Pie at Woolworths.
Ay caramba! This "pie" of chili ladled on top of a pile of Fritos and topped with cheese is one feisty number.
Across the road, Indian craftsmen sell their silver and stone carvings every day along the sidewalk at the Portal area outside the Palace of the Governors.
At the 200-year-old Original Trading Post on San Francisco Street, Clark Griffin shows us a selection of Indian fetishes--carved stone animals with tiny arrowheads strapped to their backs.
"The Indians believe that if you point the arrow towards something you want, it will bring you good fortune," he said.
We point one toward Texas--our next stop.
It is time to toast the first leg of our adventure with a bottle of cheap wine in our hotel room.
Sorry, but no chance. In New Mexico, it is illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays, except in restaurants, a tradition started by the Spanish Catholic pioneers.
It doesn't matter. We wash our blue-corn tortilla chips and salsa down with crystal-clear water straight out of the tap. The air is clean, and we feel renewed. These happy campers are ready to mosey on to the cowboy state.
Making Cents Count
Here are some of our strategies for keeping costs down:
1. No fast-food restaurants. We purchase all of our food in supermarkets (also good for bathroom stops). Lunch is made in the car with tortillas, cheese, turkey slices and sprouts. Breakfast is cereal and fruit. Dinner is meat and vegetables. The average daily cost for food ranges from $6 to $16. Some grocery buys will last us for several days.
2. Stay in national park or state park campgrounds because they are cheaper and often better than private campgrounds.
3. Stay in free campgrounds where possible. Or stay with relatives--it is even cheaper.
4. Happy hours with free buffets are good for dinner if you can shamelessly refill the tiny plates.
5. Go to Thrifty Drug Stores for 55-cent ice creams as a special treat for children.
6. Keep your eyes peeled for free coffee at gas stations.
7. Give the children water in a sports bottle.
8. Buy a $25 Golden Eagle Pass at any national park headquarters. It allows free admission for the whole family to national parks and monuments and is valid for one year.