On the way to nowhere in particular, there’s plenty to see
By Maren Tarro
There are about 60,000 miles of highway snaking across New Mexico. They cross back and forth over the varying depths of the Rio Grande Valley, up and down steep, jagged mountains blanketed with towering ponderosa pines, and in and out of scraggly mesquite-strewn deserts. Some of those miles are smooth and paved. Others are barely discernible from the landscapes they traverse.
I’ve logged eight years in New Mexico and quite a few highway miles; but nowhere near 60,000. Commuters see asphalt as the means to a destination's end. But as an experiment, I decided to reverse the formula: to simply go where the road leads. I grabbed a map, a carton of Camels and a few suggestions from friends and headed out. I also brought along my husband, Jason, to act as the voice of reason and for roadside assistance. What follows is what we found.
Gypsum, Nuts and a Chimp Named Ham
Starting from Las Cruces we hopped on Hwy. 70 toward Alamogordo. Halfway between the two cities is White Sands National Monument, the world’s largest gypsum deposit. The impossibly white gypsum forms enormous dunes that migrate slowly with the wind, leading to occasional deposits on the highway. Several dunes straddled the fence marking the park border, evidence of their steady advance—also evidence that chain-link fences can’t hold back sand.
Riding down the dunes on a waxed snow saucer seems like a great idea until the realization sinks in that you have to walk back up the dune. Walking in sand is exhausting; walking in sand uphill is tortuous. I took my turn on the saucer then headed to the visitor center. I had hoped to buy a container of sand, but removing sand from the park is a federal offense. Back in the car, I discovered a way around the souvenir rule—just wait until you leave the park to empty your shoes.
In Alamogordo we stopped at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. To be honest, I've never cared much about space travel. The way I see it, I can wear diapers and drink Tang right here on Earth. But I am a sucker for monkeys. Beneath the museum’s lawn lies Ham, the first “astrochimp.” A small plaque describes Ham’s contribution to America’s space program; namely, being shot into space to see if a man could survive the trip. Somebody thoughtfully placed a plastic banana on his grave.
Somebody thoughtfully placed a plastic banana on his grave.
Just outside Alamogordo, Hwy. 54 is lined with pistachio farms. There are several gift shops that sell pistachios and things made out of them. They all have great nuts, but one certainly stands out. The Pistachio Tree Ranch is hard to miss with its giant pistachio looming over rows of carefully trimmed trees. Billed as the world’s largest, the nutty statue is a tribute to Thomas Michael McGinn, the ranch’s founder.
Another Alamogordo oddity is a surplus store, Moore's Trading Post, on Hwy. 82. Easily mistaken as a pile of crap in the desert, a closer look reveals the curious hobby of the shop’s owner. Next to the entrance is a 10-foot-deep pit home to a writhing, vicious mass of rattlesnakes. Several more dwell in terrariums inside. The vipers are wild-caught and only in residence during rattler season, released into the desert just before winter. For 25 cents apiece, you can buy your very own balloon to inflate, attach to a fishing pole and lower into the pit for the snakes to strike. Beyond creepy but strangely entertaining.
Continuing on 54 we drove up to Carrizozo and stopped at the Valley of Fires. The vast lava flows, now extinct, left behind fields of black rock as a reminder of New Mexico’s volcanic past. Just 1,500 years ago, vents in the Earth’s crust released rivers of the molten rock that were five miles wide. Scenery-wise, it’s not too exciting. But the self-guided tour is rather interesting, pointing out pressure ridges and lava tubes and introducing words like pahoehoe. That’s “ropy-looking” lava, and it's pronounced "puh hoy-hoy."
From 54 we turned onto 349 and took a scenic drive through White Oaks and Ancho. White Oaks is an old mining town that once produced a significant amount of gold. Today, White Oaks is home to museums commemorating its past and artists carving out its future. Though the pavement ends where this teeny town begins, it’s worth driving through. From the schoolhouse to the occasional mansions, the town’s architecture is a break from all the adobe around here.
We stayed on that road as it graded into dirt and headed further up to Ancho in the Lincoln National Forest. We followed the winding road through ponderosa pine forest, passing no other cars or signs of civilization.
We managed to drive through Ancho without realizing it and reached a small but paved highway numbered 55. We followed it to Mountainair, stopping at a small restaurant—the only one we’d seen in hours—called Ancient Cities. Most of its patrons wore cowboy boots and were obvious regulars. The food, a mishmash of American and Mexican, was largely marginal with the exception of a surprisingly tasty relleno. Unlike fiery Hatch green chiles, this one was nearly fruity in flavor. Skipping dessert, we decided to hurry on to Santa Fe to crash for the night.
We procured some holy water as well, figuring, if nothing else, we could make some holy mud pies.
Holy, Holy, Wholly
After a good night’s sleep we went north to Chimayó. Lured by holy dirt, we dropped in on El Santuario, "the Lourdes of America." Rumored to possess miraculous healing powers, the Santuario’s dirt is scooped up by thousands of pilgrims every year. Many pilgrims leave behind walkers and back braces as a testament to the potency of the holy soil. Wooden crosses and walking sticks lean on walls and fences, leftovers from the recent Holy Week pilgrimage. Though we lacked any specific ailment or devotion, we filled small containers with dirt (purchased from the predictable gift shop) and winked at Our Lady on our way out. We procured some holy water as well, figuring, if nothing else, we could make some holy mud pies.
Across from the small chapel is a café selling—no kidding—holy chile. We’d been told of Chimayó’s special crop, so we took the opportunity to give it a try. A man presiding over a table covered in a multitude of dried chiles walked us through his wares. Pairing crushed and powdered red chile with pistachios, he talked us into buying $20 worth. I can’t say if it’s holy or not, but there was no denying its deep, citrusy flavor.
We kept north through Truchas and up to Taos. Outside Taos on Hwy. 64 we paused briefly on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The second-longest suspension bridge in the country, it’s easy to be hypnotized by its size and height—though it's difficult to ignore the slight swaying sensation caused by each passing vehicle as you stand on the bridge. Even more difficult to ignore is the bridge’s reputation as an ideal last stand. Each year a handful of wounded souls, some traveling from across the country, dive from the railing hoping to find relief from tribulation at the bottom of the rocky gorge.
Just past the bridge is A Greater World—though not the one the jumpers were seeking. A Greater World is an Earthship community striving to redesign subdivisions with green solutions that turn modern home construction on its ear. We paid $5 for a self-guided tour that included a video and access to a completed Earthship. An indoor cistern was filled by a waterfall of rainwater caught by the specially designed roof, and there were planting beds that produced food year-round. The entire home wholly functioned on green, self-contained systems. Outside, several more homes were visible in various stages of completion: Crews packed tires with dirt to form outer walls while others mixed adobe and stucco.
In the Company of Spirits
Backtracking a bit on 64, we headed to Cimarron by way of Red River and a few other highways. We had hoped to stay over at the St. James, New Mexico’s premier haunted hotel. Once frequented by Billy the Kid, Jesse James and every old-Westerner imaginable, the St. James Hotel is now supposedly visited by more ethereal (though equally restless) guests. Our plans fell through when we arrived to find the St. James under construction. With no ghosts, only sawdust, we began backtracking again.
From the edge of the crawl space he beamed a flashlight into a littered room. During Prohibition, it wasn't filled with shattered beer bottles, but with folks drinking and gambling on the sly.
We turned around and went back to Red River, an adorable mountain village that hosts snowbunnies in the winter and hikers, bikers and rafters in the summer. The off-season means few dining choices but great hotel rates. We checked into the Riverside Lodge, and the front desk staff provided us with a list of restaurants still open during off-season. We chose Timbers. Though we weren’t into the décor—cowboy boots and antiques nailed to the wall—the food wasn’t bad. Chicken-fried steak, mashed sweet potatoes, a prime rib sandwich with Muenster and horseradish mayo, thick-cut fries—it was all good and smoothed over our disappointment in Cimarron. Our server, whose name was (honest to god) Bucky “Danger” Thrash, hustled as if it were the height of ski season, even directing us to a bar for an after-dinner drink.
Walking into the Bull O' The Woods Saloon was like walking into any small-town bar. The handful of local patrons immediately recognized us as out-of-towners and began wondering what the hell we were doing there—not because they were hostile, mind you, but because we were the only tourists in town. After a beer or two, we inquired about the “shot ski,” a single ski prominently featured on one wall. They explained that it held six shots, to be taken simultaneously. Since there were only two of us, we asked if anyone wanted to join us in partaking of the “shot ski.” Turns out, this was a fast way to make friends. Several drinks later, our newfound friends—bartender Joey, plus Dylan, Juan, Leroy and Rooster—suggested I venture beneath the bar for a peak back in time.
Joey pulled up a door in the floorboards and led me under the bar. I followed him through a crawl space carpeted with broken glass. From the edge of the crawl space he beamed a flashlight into a similarly littered room. During Prohibition, Joey explained, it wasn't filled with shattered beer bottles, but with folks drinking and gambling on the sly. He let me take a bottle and jar as souvenirs.
Solace in the Wilderness
The next morning we hit the road again, back on 64, to Tierra Amarilla. We grabbed lunch at a little place, Margarita’s, that makes its own tortillas and rates the heat of its chile according to where its diners call home. When I told our server we were from Las Cruces, she shook her head and said, “Oh, it’s not hot at all.” And by Cruces standards, it certainly wasn’t.
A little further up the road is Los Ojos, a town that’s hardly a town, more a scattering of buildings. In one of those buildings is Tierra Wools, a workshop that turns out impressive examples of traditional Hispanic weaving. Dyeing is done in steel tubs over wood fires, spinning happens Sleeping Beauty-style and weaving takes place on looms controlled by the most skilled hands. Skeins of yarn still damp from natural plant-based dye-baths hang to air-dry, while intricately designed rugs are draped, suspended in time, awaiting completion.
Whether working or praying, the monks are usually silent, their stillness blending into the desert’s hush.
We then took Hwy. 84 in the direction of Abiquiú, stopping to yell at the natural sandstone formation Echo Amphitheater. With our echoes still trailing us, we turned down forest road 151 and drove. And drove and drove down a sketchy dirt road bordering the Chama River. The river was stunning, with forks and whirlpools winding through the yellow and red desert, carving its way through the soft sandstone. Near the point we were ready to turn back, an adobe steeple became visible through the juniper. We had found Christ in the Desert.
Christ in the Desert is a Benedictine monastery established in 1964 for those wishing to seek God in solitude. The path to the monastery leads visitors through the Stations of the Cross, where countless rosary beads have passed through praying fingers as part of the brothers’ devotions. Besides praying, the brothers work diligently to produce a number of crafts that are sold to support the monastery. The handmade goods include soap, candles, rosaries and lip balm. Whether working or praying, the monks are usually silent, their stillness blending into the desert’s hush.
Leaving the monastery, we were held up by a herd of cattle. Firmly urged on by a sun-aged cowboy, the cows snorted at us through our windows and seemed to take humor in stopping to nurse young in our path.
Pie in the Sky
As we pushed south, following the Continental Divide, the desert flattened out with occasional sandstone formations rising up to break the horizon. Prairie dogs outnumbered people, and the few towns we encountered seemed accidental. The highways were often little more than graveled trails appearing as dotted lines on the maps; 509, 117, 608. Sometimes we couldn’t tell when we’d left one highway and gotten on another. Cigarette smoke drifted out our windows to join kicked-up dust as the only trace of our migration through the unfrequented desert.
The road began to climb again and other drivers made appearances. At 8,000 feet we reached Pie Town. Called home by only a handful of people, the town provides rest and supplies for outdoor adventurers. And pie. The Daily Pie Café serves breakfast, lunch and some of the best pie in the state. While everything we tried on the menu was as tasty as only homemade can be, the café’s signature green chile-apple-piñon pie was beyond compare. It brought together New Mexico’s finest goods in a single pastry, a slice I’ll not soon forget. Spicy, sweet and nutty, this lofty combo was matched only by the town’s lofty altitude. East of Pie Town, we passed through the VLA, or Very Large Array. Twenty-seven giant radio antennas spread across the Plains of San Agustin, standing silent as they listen for the murmurs of the universe. The radio waves picked up by the VLA are converted into images, allowing scientists to get a better view of space.
Silver, Opals and Home
Like so many New Mexican towns, Silver City came about through mining. Just as the silver finally ran out, so too will the copper mined outside of the town. But Silver City is determined to be more than a mining outpost. Its townspeople's attention has turned toward the arts, hosting art fairs and a film festival. The downtown area doesn’t appear to have a single empty storefront, and its cafés have no shortage of customers. We stopped by Alotta Gelato. Bright and open, the ice cream shop has become so popular that tables had to be placed in a storage area to accommodate the crowd. We tried pistachio, sour cherry, raspberry and banana. There’s no better way to break the monotony of a long drive through the desert than with cool and brilliantly flavored gelato.
Just as the silver finally ran out, so too will the copper mined outside of the town.
In Deming we lunched at El Mirador, a small Mexican restaurant recognized by Bon Appétit in 2002. And with good reason. Each dish was expertly prepared using handed-down recipes and inherited know-how. Carnitas were fried to a crisp on the outside with melt-away centers, and asada tacos packed massive beef flavor into meaty bits and pieces. Refried beans were rich and creamy, and the rice was light and tomato-flavored.
After stuffing ourselves we made one last stop before heading home: Rockhound State Park. The only state park that allows visitors to remove rocks, Rockhound has an abundance of jasper, common opals and geodes. For the patient who know what to look for, these semiprecious stones are theirs for the taking. We found black perlite, quartz and a couple common opals before calling it a day and retreating from the blazing sun.
From Deming, home was only an hour away. We unloaded our souvenirs and relived our journey through the pictures we’d taken along the way. With almost 2,000 miles added to the odometer, we’d seen a sizable chunk of this state. Far beyond the interstate we found strangeness and beauty, roadside attractions, and stark landscape contrasts. But with so many more miles still untraveled, our trip seems incomplete. Who knows what unexpected gems are to be found down highways 13, 146 or 104? Perhaps the next time I’m just trying to get from point A to point B, I’ll pick an exit at random and take the long way home.
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