By Sharyn Jackson

My girlfriend and I sat in the trunk of the SUV we'd practically been living out of for the past week and a half and watched the sun set behind the great smoky mountains. Not the Great Smoky Mountains—that's where we vacationed last year. Rather, we shared barbecued duck and roasted pork while an aria from La Bohème piped out of someone's car speaker outside the Santa Fe Opera. As the sun dipped behind the blue-gray hills, we breathed deeply the thick campfire air that, despite its devastating origin, still smelled better than anything we'd ever breathed at home in New York.

Nearing the end of our two-week tour of New Mexico, we joined the other fancy-pants tailgaters as per local tradition. Only, without portable tables and chairs (and tablecloths, and candles, and crystal…), we contorted ourselves into the rear of the red RAV4 we'd nicknamed "Georgia" and precariously balanced our dinners on our laps.

At least we made sure to bring wine, a bottle of merlot we’d picked up after a breakfast-time tasting at Vivác Winery, a small but critically acclaimed outfit somewhere between Taos and Santa Fe. In green-alien wine glasses from Roswell, we toasted to all the things about New Mexico, good and bad, that we had learned in 1,700 miles of exploration:

If you have a choice, rent a monster truck. There’s rarely a need for parallel parking.

Christmas might sound like a magical way of ordering food, but just get the green—and eat a lot of it. You’ll never see it again once you leave. (Same goes for sopaipillas.)
“Galleries” are just tchotchke stores. I am now the proud owner of three ceramic vases, two pairs of turquoise earrings and a wide variety of magnets.

Like everywhere else, black clouds overhead mean rain is coming, even if no one believes it. Plan accordingly.

The most terrifying thing we saw on our trip: the Rio Grande Gorge, and our GPS telling us to drive down into it.

July 4 weekend means barbecues and a day off to some people. To others, it’s the anniversary of the best extraterrestrial crash ever. We took the long journey to Roswell to check out the International UFO Museum and Research Center and got there a half-hour before closing—enough time to realize you only need 15 minutes to get a good photo of yourself next to the animatronic aliens and go.

Though southern New Mexico’s wine pales in comparison to the Vivác we tried that morning, it was potent enough to get us through an abductee panel discussion. Most interesting was the guy who was abducted in 1956 and now devotes his life to helping other abductees figure out just what the heck the aliens implanted into their nostrils.

The 45.8 miles of New Mexico State Road 20 is the most desolate road we saw. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you can probably speed.

While US Route 285 might appear just as desolate, don’t speed. That’s $76 worth of experience talking.

If you’re going to White Sands, do it on a Sunday. That’s when George Stone, a Santa Claus doppelgänger and resident of High Rolls, brings his pet camel Matilda for a sunset stroll on the dunes. He’ll let you pet her and he’ll give you a million-dollar bill.

Don’t trust an auctioneer, even if he’s dressed like a friendly cowboy. At a pie auction in a little park behind the Cloudcroft Chamber of Commerce, a smooth-talking salesman almost convinced me to give up $50 for a peach pie—and I hate peaches.

Never lie to your friends about winning a pie at an auction.

If there were a Flying Star Café in New York, I would eat lunch there every day.

No one in New Mexico has actually seen Breaking Bad. So even if it’s your favorite show in the world, don’t mention it to everyone you meet, because you’ll sound like a geek.

What hipsters are to New York, funky middle-aged ladies are to Santa Fe. They are everywhere, they are “artsy,” and you can’t tell them apart from one another. I spotted my favorite one at Double Take on Guadalupe Street. She was wearing a long, shapeless beige blanket-turned-frock layered over wide-legged, white linen pants; a wide-brimmed wicker hat; rings on seven fingers; and a stack of giant beaded bracelets that should have made it impossible for her to lift her right arm. Naturally, I found her at the jewelry counter.

Thanks to Jambo Café, I now love coconut chicken stew.

There’s a way around the “no photos of the artwork” rule at SITE Santa Fe. Pose someone alongside one of Pae White’s huge, stunning tapestries, and pictures are totally allowed.

Finally, if you’re tailgating at the opera and you don’t have a table handy, be sure you bring lots of napkins. And then leave the windows of the car open to let the smell of spilled merlot air out.

Village Voice calendar editor Sharyn Jackson hails from New Jersey, but came to Santa Fe seeking relaxation, adventure and a much-needed break from New York City.