From the Digest

Sticky Memories

PhotoBy Don Lesmeister and Mike Hellmann (August 2014)

As I looked out the SUV’s window, “riding shotgun” took on a whole new meaning. Here I was … riding down the highway in New Mexico, staring out at the rolling hills of the high desert, thinking what a rough terrain it was and how hard it must have been for the early settlers. The landscape looked as if it would go on forever, and the thought of not knowing where you were or how long it would go on would be at the very least disturbing. At that same moment inside the SUV, Eric Driskill’s boom box was playing Frank Zappa’s “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” It all felt like a dream, and I thought to myself: Wow! This is a hell of an adventure!

The whole thing started about five months earlier, when Mike Hellmann and I took an innocent Saturday trip to Drummond Nursery in Desoto, Mo. We bought a few plants and liked the little excursion so much we thought, hey, why not a weekender to Joyce’s place just outside Oklahoma City at J & J Cactus and Succulents. Sounded like a fun and easy thing to do.

A few days, later Mike e-mailed me with the idea that after visiting Joyce’s, it would only be another seven or eight hours to Woody Minnich’s place outside Albuquerque, N.M. After reading the e-mail, the old saying “In for a penny, in for a pound” rolled around inside my head, and I thought: “Why not? Let’s go for it and make it a truly memorable journey.”

Eric was told of the plan and suggested it would be a perfect time for him to visit his oldest and dearest friend just a half hour from Joyce’s. Fortunately for us, his friend offered to put us up on our way to Woody’s and also on the night before the last leg of our return trip home. Our journey was made much, much easier with his help. His name is Mark and simply put, he is a great host and a really nice guy. However … we knew the trip would be tough.

Mike Hellman: About halfway through the hellish winter of 2013-2014, I thought it would be good to get out of town and visit somewhere cactus and succulents lived to which we just didn’t have everyday access. Several times we visited Out of Africa in central Ohio before its owners, Mike and Maureen Massara, moved to Florida, but obviously, this trip would be a bit out of our reach for a long weekend journey.

As I was talking to Eric Driskill and Don Lesmeister on other topics, we discussed this scenario and agreed on a weekend trip to J & J Cactus in Oklahoma City. A call or two later, I realized that once in O.K. City, we were already halfway to Edgewood, N.M., where Woody Minnich and Cactus Data Plants relocated about seven years ago. Rational thought prevailed, and we planned to take the four-day trip over Memorial Day weekend to visit both.

I honestly do feel bad about not inviting the whole group along for the ride, but several factors made this improbable. The four-day trip covering close to 3,000 miles would be a marathon. No hotels or unnecessary rest stops were included in the agenda. To get to points A, B and C, we’d have to travel at least 10 percent over the speed limit at all times (please, don’t ask!). And, last but not least, showers and getting our feet out of shoes and socks were seldom. Not a trip for the faint-hearted.

Joyce’s place was great! Her greenhouse is new, big and full of goodies. She and her husband, Jim, welcomed us like old friends. We spent the afternoon buying plants (of course). Later that afternoon, we all had a late lunch together at a nice little Tex-Mex restaurant. Afterward, we talked for a while, then said our good-byes, hopped into the SUV with our new finds and headed back to Mark’s to spend what turned out to be a very short night’s sleep. Some might call it a nap! Our alarm went off at 1:45 a.m. the next morning. It was technically morning, but looked and felt a lot like late night to me, but we’re guys. Within 15 minutes after waking and a quick coffee, we hit the highway. Coffee became our friend.

Sometime around dawn it started to rain. The scenery started to look a little more like the Southwest. We were probably in Texas by then, when we stopped for breakfast and found out that further down the highway in the higher elevations, a hail and snowstorm had caused a multicar pileup.

I remember thinking that when we left St Louis, it was chilly. I was looking forward to the warmth of the Southwest. Sometimes the dream is better than the real thing, because it was cold and wet, and the T-shirt I was optimistically sporting was just not working.

Fortunately for us, by the time we got to the area where the trouble occurred, the weather had changed for the better. In fact, the rain had quit, and the clouds lightened, becoming those beautiful fluffy white cumulus clouds we all love to see pitted against a deep blue sky. You know, the image we see in all the travel posters and movies of the Southwest. It was a scene on a postcard, but we were driving through it. All was well, we were on our way to our second nursery — and getting warm!

Mike Hellmann: While crossing the state line, we realized that we were slightly ahead of schedule in arriving at Cactus Data Plants, and so thought we’d deviate from our original game plan and head south to visit Rio Grande Cacti, which is located just west of Roswell, N.M., the site where in July of 1947, a UFO supposedly crashed. Although tempted, we didn’t jump the fence around the federal property near Roswell. Just not enough time! This was a tough choice, but probably a wise one.

PhotoOur second nursery stop was a quaint little place in the middle of the desert run by a couple of guys living a lifestyle like a couple of hobbits. Their home was modest, comfortable and well planned, and fit perfectly into the desert picture. The place is called Rio Grande Cacti. It was landscaped with many of the cacti we try to keep alive here at home, but unlike home, they experience hot days and cool nights with next to no humidity. The plants love it there and looked happy.

So did the prairie chickens that eat the cacti seeds, much to the dismay of the owners. It’s become an ongoing struggle between chicken hunger and human profit. It was a gentle war with no real casualties except a few seeds. More of a complaint. That’s how laid back the scene was.

We bought more plants, repacked the SUV and headed toward Albuquerque and Woody’s place. It was somewhere between Rio Grande and Woody’s when I was looked out the window and thought, this was a hell of a trip – and we still had Woody’s place to take in. I thought, “Is this a great country, or what?”

PhotoWoody and his wife, Kathy – both retired school teachers – have truly found their personal Shangri-La. Living in the rolling hills of the high desert outside Albuquerque in a gated community of 5- to 7-acre land tracts. The homes are laid out so no other dwellings can be seen. All are built in the Pueblo style that is the dominant architecture of the area.

When we arrived, Kathy had lunch waiting for us and had dinner planned. The Minnichs put us up in their home and made us feel genuinely welcome. Their home is beautifully decorated. Everywhere you looked, there were acquisitions from different countries where Woody had traveled. He now devotes his time to traveling, lecturing and writing. Since retiring, Kathy has become a potter and had a lot to talk about with Eric, since he has been known to throw a little mud also.

Need I mention the Holy Grail … the greenhouse! A true jewel, eye candy, a repository of little treasures, Emerald City, etc. Some plants for sale, some not. A packed space with small aisles indicating that it is not set up for the public.

PhotoThis is Woody’s private collection with some plants he occasionally sells at events. We were not sure if he would sell or not. We had to ask. Nothing was certain. for a collector loves his booty. Whether it is antiques, Cabbage Patch kids or plants, a collector loves his stuff and does not always sell. Fortunately for us, Woody was very generous, and the three of us made out like the bandits we imagined ourselves to be on this all-too-brief journey to coyote country.

The next morning at 6 a.m., I woke up. The sun was shining in through the front window that overlooked the rolling hills dotted with scrub plants. It was unquestionably a page from the old Southwest when a jackrabbit trying to warm itself after a cool night hopped across my window view. It was one of those moments you remember. For that instant, all was right above and below. It was then I understood Woody and Kathy’s enchantment and love for the area. Well done, guys … picture perfect!

PhotoBefore we left for Mark’s in Oklahoma City, our last layover before our journey home, we were invited to travel 60 miles north of Albuquerque to Santa Fe to a famous little restaurant called Pasqual’s for brunch. It’s an eclectic place filled with friendly people and great food that has become a meeting place for travelers from near and far. It was a good time.

After brunch, Woody and Kathy walked us around to some of the more interesting places in Santa Fe, including an art gallery, where Woody saw a painting of a portly and jovial 17th-century fellow having a drink. He said the fellow in the painting looked just like Eric. It did! So Eric posed next to the painting for a picture. He mimicked the painting perfectly. More a time warp moment than a Hallmark one.

We later walked through an area where the Pueblo Indians sold the stuff they made. Lots of silver and turquoise. The other thing I noticed was that each seller had but a very small area. I later found out why this was so. It was their designated area. Just so much room for a large number of small business entrepreneurs. They were confined to a porchlike space on one side of a large building. I couldn’t help but think we still treat the real and true locals, the indigenous American Indians, poorly. But after all these years, an uneasy accord has been reached so business can continue. The way of the world, I suppose. Doesn’t have to be that way, but usually it is. Real democracy is tough.

We walked a little more, and although we really wanted to stay, we knew we had to leave. We felt as if we were saying goodbye to old friends.

PhotoWe got into the SUV, waved and hit the highway. Frank Zappa played, and Neil Young sang, “Rust Never Sleeps” on our way back to Mark’s. I was beginning to think we didn’t either. Where is the coffee?

We spent eight hours on the road, arriving back in Oklahoma City around 9:30 p.m. and finding dinner. We went to bed and got up at 5 a.m., drank coffee, said farewell to Mark and began the last leg of our journey. We stopped for breakfast, lunch and, you guessed it, more coffee. We filled the SUV a couple more times with gas and talked while we took turns driving and staring at all the plants.

We got back to St. Louis around 4:30 p.m. on Memorial Day, tired, with heads spinning, still trying to absorb what we had accomplished. In a short span of just four days, we drove 2,410 miles, visited three nurseries, had adventures and shared many stories. It was a hell of a trip that lived up to the anticipation. That’s a rare thing. It lived up to the dream! Do it again? When do we leave?

Mike Hellmann: I’m surprised with the group we have that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen more often. We took off with a general game plan and stuck with it about halfway. It was a lot of fun. Plants were everywhere but in the drink cup holders on the way back. We’ve even had them there before on earlier trips. If we had one more along for the ride, we would have needed two vehicles, which would have probably slowed us down a bit. There are more opportunities, though. The Succulent Symposium at the Huntington over Labor Day weekend, the Inter-City Show in August, etc. Who knows what we’ll do next?

The Huntington Symposium over Labor Day weekend … My recommendation is to go, have fun, pack light, stay energetic and remember: Coffee is your friend, but missed opportunities, not so much! Remember the old saying “Travel is broadening”? It’s true!