On The Road: Welcome to Albuquirky

“Hello, Kitty” in the clouds

By Annette Hinkle

Last Wednesday night, we touched down in Albuquerque at 11 p.m. — which is a weird time to find oneself in a weird city. As we stepped out of the airport, it struck me that the outside temperature at that hour was cool and virtually the same as it had been when we left New York a few hours earlier, but it lacked the humidity that makes everything rot and grow fuzzy mold on the East Coast — cars, lawn furniture, shoes, wood shingle roofs.

The dry arid air told us we had stepped into a foreign land. As we rode the nearly empty shuttle bus from the “Sunport” to the rental car center, even with minimal light from the midnight waxing moon we could tell there were no trees — just a sandscape defined by scrubby bushes that seemed entirely capable of becoming tumbleweeds if they so desired. It was all backed by a mountain range at the edge of a desert city where it would most certainly dawn clear and hot the following morning — a morning on which we had a very specific itinerary to follow.

At a time when most people in Albuquerque were sleeping, we picked up our rental car (upgraded to a 4-Runner because all the mid-sizes were long gone at that hour) and headed off into the desert night, stopping at a truck stop mostly for the novelty but also to buy bottled water and a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses for my daughter who would surely need them in a few hours.

Then we found our Super 8 hotel (which truth be told, was a Mediocre 8 at best). After a few hours of sleep, the plan was to hit the road — a four hour drive through former Apache territory, punctuated by an authentic Mexican lunch in Cuba, New Mexico, past Chaco Canyon and on to Durango, Colorado where in two days time we would witness my niece graduate from high school and I would reunite with all four of my siblings and a few very young relatives I had never even met.

But before setting out, we had a mission — well, my husband Adam had a mission. He was determined to do some “Breaking Bad” by visiting several of the sites made popular by that cultural phenomenon which is, of course, set in Albuquerque. Like many unwitting victims in the series, my daughter and I were simply along for the ride.

For the record: I’m not a “Breaking Bad” fan, at least not yet, though I plan to one day be. It’s one of those plethora of TV shows I’ve yet to sit down and binge-watch season by season. Sure, I’ve seen an episode here or there, but among the many well-honed procrastination techniques I’ve developed over the years is the one in which I never get around to watching any popular TV series with anything approaching regularity. I mean, I’m still working my way through the first season of “Mad Men”… and I worked in advertising!

So despite the fact I kind of pride myself on not making time for television, “Breaking Bad” is on my to-do list, along with all those other great shows people have recommended over the years whose titles I have forgotten.

The author’s husband in front of Walter and Skyler White’s house.

But I digress. We’re in Albuquerque and on the hunt for vestiges of Walter White and his methamphetamine trail, starting with his humble abode. Lo and behold! There is an address — 3828 Piermont Drive, Albuquerque. Even Google maps (which I still call MapQuest for some reason) has it listed as Walter and Skyler White’s house on their app.

When we pulled up in front of the modest ranch house, my first thought was, “Oh my, these poor people.” It was easy to tell that the residents of 3828 Piermont Drive had long ago crossed the thin blue line from fame to fatigue. “Do Not Trespass” signs peppered the desert lawn, as did signs warning that video cameras were operational.

As we approached slowly from the east in our obviously rented SUV, we noticed a woman getting into her car in the garage. Though we were simply driving down a public street and well within our right to gawk or shoot photos if we like, I’ve never been comfortable stalking others, which is probably why I didn’t pursue paparazzi in college.

“Keep driving,” I told Adam as I slumped down in the passenger seat, as if that made a bit of difference, and watched as she put her car in reverse and backed down the driveway.

We did another loop around the modest block and by the time we returned, the coast was clear, the place was quiet and the garage door closed.

Better for a photo op anyway.

So we exited the overly white rental SUV (not my daughter, of course, who is 14 and mortified, especially in her new truck-stop aviator sunglasses), and I took the obligatory “this-is-me-in-front-of-Walter-White’s-house” shot of my husband with his iPhone. I advised him, wisely, I think, to refrain from doing that ridiculous thumbs up thing which guys love to do but I find as mortifying as my daughter currently finds her parents.

As we walked back to the car, another vehicle pulled up on the other side of the house and two men got out and did the exact same thing in front of the house that we did. I considered offering to take a picture of both of them in front of 3828 Piermont Drive, but that just felt excessively intrusive — especially for a “not yet” fan like me.

Within minutes, the photo of my husband (sans upward pointed thumb, mercifully) in front of Walter and Skyler White’s house was posted on Facebook and folks from as far away as Amsterdam were asking if we had thought to toss a pizza onto the roof (second episode, season three). Let me tell you, it’s hardly an original idea and a few months ago Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” admonished fans who have done just that in the past.

“There is nothing original or funny or cool about throwing a pizza on this lady’s roof,” Mr. Gillian said in a podcast interview. “It’s just not funny, it’s been done before. You are not the first.”

And therein lies the danger of unintentional fame. Sure, the money is great and so is the attention when property owners hit pay dirt by renting their home to a television series. I’m not sure how many other gigs in Albuquerque pay as well. Very few, I bet. But what happens when that series gets popular, and I mean really popular? So popular that people are regularly tossing pizzas onto your roof (a la season three, episode two).

That’s when the high price of fame becomes apparent. It’s sort of a case of be careful what you wish for. Unlike a famous actor who can don a fake beard and some dark glasses when he goes out in public, it’s hard to disguise a house. Painting it another color isn’t likely to fool anybody.

“Breaking Bad” has, for better and for worse, made Albuquerque a destination and visitors from all over the world now come there to ogle sites made famous by the series. I suppose we were no exception.

In the end, we never got around to finding Twisters, the burrito joint that doubled as Los Pollos Hermanos (the front for Gus Fring’s drug empire), but we did manage to work in Tuco’s headquarters — in reality, a graffiti covered coffee shop at 906 Park Ave SW. Though our discovery of Walter and his cohorts’ haunts was self-guided (which means every RV in every driveway was a well-placed prop in our minds), there are plenty of outfits offering organized “Breaking Bad” tours of Albuquerque.

It’s odd to think of a tourist trade based on a show based on the cooking of crystal meth, but this is America after all, and when you get right down to it, little is beyond the realm of possibility or taste here.

I’m sort of surprised that this notion of “TV tourism” hasn’t yet found its way to the East End. Potential tour stops could include locations from Showtime’s “The Affair,” USA Network’s “Royal Pains” and all the places where we couldn’t avoid the Kardashians last summer (Buddha Berry being ground zero).

When TV starts referencing real life by creating a real cottage industry, it’s an odd collision indeed. A truth that is stranger than fiction and one that provided it’s own exclamation point on the day we drove north on Route 550, out of Albuquerque bound for Durango.

As we left meth-city behind and picked up speed on the open New Mexico highway that headed north, I noticed in the sky a most miraculous sight — a cloud shaped just like another popular cultural icon “Hello, Kitty.

Could Area 51 be any stranger?