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Looking for the perfect place to go for a drive? Try New Mexico, "The Land of Enchantment."

by Paul Gerald

I don't know of any better way to show you New Mexico than the way I have shown it to myself over the years: by means of a road trip. This will have to be a virtual road trip, unfortunately, but we'll still be moving pretty quick, so hang on.

We start by flying to El Paso, renting a car at the airport, and driving immediately over the border into Juarez, Mexico, for an afternoon of cheap beer, food, and shopping. And why not? Then we'll turn north on Interstate 25, following the green strip of the Rio Grande for 80 miles to, believe it or not, Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. (A quick note on El Paso: The only thing to do when you get there is keep going.)

Aside from having your picture taken by the town sign, the reason to stop in Truth Or Consequences is that it has one of the world's truly great youth hostels (private rooms and a tepee are also available) with a barbecue pit, a deck out by the river, and hot mineral baths with a view of the river and mountains.

Welcome to New Mexico.

Albuquerque is a big, sprawling grid full of museums and galleries and more ridiculously good Mexican restaurants than should be allowed in one place, but what we're going to do is go out to the west edge of town and check out Petroglyph National Monument, where a 17-mile lava flow is covered by more than 15,000 petroglyphs, most dating from A.D. 1300-1650 but some going back 3,000 years. Archeologists say people have lived on this spot for 12,000 years.

In the afternoon, we'll take the world's longest tram ride, the 2.7-mile Sandia Crest Tramway, up to 10,360 feet above sea level. The other side of the mountain is a ski resort, but we're here for a brief hike among wildflowers and then dinner with a view a few hundred miles in every direction, that is. We'll see all the mountains of New Mexico, some of them 13,000 feet high but just blips on our horizon, and the great Rio Grande Valley stretching out from north to south. Watching the sunsets from up here is like swimming in a river of awe, and when the lights of Albuquerque start to twinkle, you won't be able to imagine a better end to the day.

Next we'll go to Santa Fe. That 50-mile drive takes us up into the mountains, back in time, and way ahead in style. Santa Fe is right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo ("blood of Christ") mountains, and while its residential developments are slowly moving up into the hills, they at least have the decency to pass laws keeping every house to a two-story adobe style. The result is that the town seems to blend into the countryside, the beauty of which has inspired artists for about 2,000 years. Santa Fe also does not allow billboards, which might make it the coolest municipality in America.

I don't know exactly how many art galleries and restaurants there are in Santa Fe&nbsp how many barbecue places are there in Memphis? but rumor has it that a lot of people have to work at more than one, since they outnumber the population. Other than those, all they have in Santa Fe is beautiful countryside, a few centuries of alive-and-well history, Indians selling hand-made silver and turquoise jewelry on the plaza, an outdoor amphitheatre that's home to the world-class opera, and a ski bowl right outside of town. Santa Fe may be a little full of itself and a lot expensive, but go there anyway.

Next stop is Taos, with two choices for how to get there. Both options are on my list of America's 10 Greatest Drives. We could take the interstate northeast to Springer, then good ol' U.S. 64 (the same road that takes you from the Memphis suburbs to the Jack Daniel's distillery and East Tennessee) up the winding, 25-mile-long, pine-filled, river-following, campsite-rich Cimarron Canyon, which tops out in skiing and trout-fishing country at a gem called Eagle Nest Lake, then down the hill into Taos. Whew.

Or we could take a route that really needs to be the title of a country/western album or a book of poetry: The High Road To Taos. The High Road takes you through Chimayo, home of an awesome restaurant in a hundred-year-old ranch house called Rancho de Chimayo. Also in Chimayo is a famous old church, El Santuario De Chimayo, where people come from all over to get all sorts of ailments healed. The Hispanic people around those parts have a fascinating blend of old Indian gods and Spanish-colonial Catholicism; the result is the spectacle of people waiting in line to enter a room filled with the crutches and canes of the previously healed to take sacred dust from a hole in the floor, which is regularly refilled by a priest with a milk carton. It's strange, but take it from this cynical traveler with firsthand experience: They don't like jokes at El Santuario De Chimayo.

The rest of the High Road is just pure driving pleasure, through such places as Truchas and Ojo Caliente, towns that cling to the edges of slopes so steep that when the signs say "low shoulder" they're often talking in the hundreds of feet. It winds and wanders, showing mountains and high pastures and lonely, rocky countryside. Most recommended is to take it on after a late-afternoon dinner in Chimayo, with the sun setting, your stomach full of blue corn tortillas and salsa verde, and the stereo playing the Marshall Tucker Band.

Taos is known for galleries, Kit Carson's house, the historic Plaza and such oddities as a small collection of mildly pornographic paintings by author D.H. Lawrence in the manager's office at the La Fonda hotel (a couple of bucks will get you in to see it.) Taos is touristy, but it's best used as a base of operations for exploring the area. Just outside town is a suspension bridge over the Rio Grand Gorge, the river so far below you that it looks like a postcard. Right around Taos you can go rafting, fishing, hiking, biking, or skiing Taos Ski Valley is without question one of the half-dozen finest mountains in the land and is open through April 6th. (There are 10 ski areas in the state, three of them strictly for cross-country). And the road from Taos over the gorge and up the San Luis Valley to Leadville, Colorado, is also on my Top 10 in America list.

Right on the edge of town is the Taos Pueblo, where the people have lived essentially the same way and in the same place for 1,000 years. (Well, there are some TV antennas on the pueblos these days.) They still get their water from the Rio Pueblo de Taos, which comes down from the sacred Blue Lake up in the mountains, and they still bake their bread in outdoor domed ovens. You can attend certain ceremonial dances, but leave your cameras at home.

While you're in the area, you should also go see Ghost Ranch, where painter Georgia O'Keeffe used to live and work. It's now a museum of conservation, ecology, and heritage, with more than 40 species of live animals (orphaned or abandoned) that are indigenous to the area.

Well, time, money, and space are running out, so it's time to leave New Mexico. (Meet you in Juarez!) We'll have to come back. We didn't even make it to the Anasazi ruins in the Four Corners area, or the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the southwest part of the state, or Bandalier National Monument, where you can climb a series of ladders up a few hundred feet to the Medicine Man's cave in the side of the cliff. Up there, the people of a thousand years ago cut a series of person-sized holes in the wall, each one humming at a different pitch, jug-style, when the wind blows over its opening.

We also didn't see Carlsbad Caverns, where you can tour one of the biggest caves in the world and, at certain times of the year, watch a couple million bats take flight at dusk. There's another cave in the park, Slaughter Canyon Cave, where rangers will take you through. This is a totally undeveloped cave, where the only light is the one on your head and the only food and water is what you carry. The brochure includes such lovely phrases as "ladder climbs, pool crossings, tight, twisting crawls, and free climbing." You'll have to let me know how it is. There are 10 other totally wild caves that you can explore, but only if you get a permit, know what you're doing, and are really into caving. I didn't, because I don't, and I'm not.

If you go to New Mexico in October, you can marvel at the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, the biggest in the world, and in November at the Basque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande in the southern part of the state, you can see something like 150,000 migratory cranes, ducks, geese, hawks, and eagles. I've never seen that, but Charles Kuralt recommended it in his latest book, Charles Kuralt's America, and Charles Kuralt has been everywhere.

New Mexico is old, beautiful, spiritual, nicely lonely in some places and well-populated in others, whatever temperature you want at most times of the year, desert-flat and mountain-high. It is, in short, one of the great treasures of America. I can't wait to get back there. n

For more information than either of us can handle about traveling in New Mexico, visit http://www.viva.com/nm/regions.html on the World Wide Web.

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