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  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
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.