Just past the border northwest of Santa Fe, take an immediate detour from the obvious path through the valley and up through the mountains. Respectively, White Rock and Los Alamos were created to house and sustain a community of scientists, engineers and military personnel and service industry workers providing human infrastructure for nuclear and atomic scientific progress. If you dig natural history more than atomic history, Bandelier National Monument is a prime example of what New Mexico offers in publicly observable archaeological treasures.
Keep moving west past the ruins, and depending on inclination, you'll discover either the San Pedro Mountains, or to the south, the Jemez Mountains. The latter houses the Jemez Indian Reservation, Fenton Lake State Park and Jemez Springs. While in Jemez Springs, Los Ojos Bar is worth a gander if you're craving greasy enchiladas and enjoy the smell of patchouli. From there, you can wind your way up north to Cuba on Highway 550.
Cuba sits near the Contentinal Divide, sandwiched between big mountains to the east and desolate badlands to the west. You can experience rustic New Mexico towns en route to Abiquiu if you take Highway 96 north and then head west to its intersection with U.S. Route 84, bordering Abiquiu Dam. Georgia O'Keeffe's storied Ghost Ranch sits just up the road from this intersection on the road to Tierra Amarilla and Chama. The state park used to run a small but interesting zoo, but it's been closed for several years now. The lake is gorgeous. Tierra Amarilla is the site of the famous 1967 courthouse raid led by Chicano activist Reies Lopez Tijerina. The town's rustic enough to be interesting, but this insider's enclave can prove unfriendly to outsiders.
Up the road in the village of Chama, tourism is more welcome. Here, the prime attraction is the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, a vintage, narrow-gauge steam locomotive. Peep mountains' majesty. Chama is the gateway to a plethora of outdoorsy delights, like hiking, camping, kayaking and rafting on the nearby Rio Chama. It's close enough to Colorado to give visitors a real sense of that Rocky Mountain awesomeness without the elevated pricetags and Texas license plates.
The road out of Chama heading west to Farmington is mostly a lonesome, wide-open journey except for the town of Dulce. In fact, Dulce is rumored to sit atop a vast underground military base. Proponents of this particular conspiracy theory claim there's an entrance in a mountain on the edge of town. Supposedly, this base is where our government maintains all interstellar interactions.
If you stay on Highway 64, you'll eventually escape this alien landscape and end up in Farmington, part of an unlikely urban settlement centered in the San Juan River Valley. It's an oil town, but this bustling metro is also awash in culture. San Juan Community College has a theater department known for its innovative productions, and the city also intersects with the Navajo Nation. Racial tension between white settlers and the Navajo people have flared and subsided over the years, but seem to be improving after multiple civil rights investigations.
The road out of Chama heading west to Farmington is mostly a lonesome, wide-open journey except for the town of Dulce. In fact, Dulce is rumored to sit atop a vast underground military base. Proponents of this particular conspiracy theory claim there's an entrance in a mountain on the edge of town.
As you travel to the very northwest corner of New Mexico, you venture into Indian country. The Navajo Nation spreads out like a sandy ocean in the Four Corners area. Shiprock is just that, a geographic vessel in the midst of a sagebrush-covered sea. The town by the rock is a metal town. Like a lot of small settlements on the Navajo Nation, the youth express their individuality and discontent by embracing rock and roll.
U.S. Route 64 rolls on northwest. It must be one of the most barren roads in New Mexico. Right before you cross into Arizona, there's a tiny, one-gas pump village called Beclabito. On the other hand, if you head south, you can take the infamous Highway 666, now called Highway 491. The devil's highway passes through Tohatchi, Sheep Springs and Gallup.
Gallup is a big town on the edge of several reservations, with an airport, a defunct army base and a fairly busy railroad department. The place isn’t much to look at, but it's another gateway city that leads to outlying wonders like Zuni and Arizona's painted desert. The Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in early August is legendary. If you dig diner fare, Gallup's the place; check out Earl's Restaurant or the Ranch Kitchen. There's also a cool, Old West-style hotel called El Rancho in the middle of town. Constructed in 1936 for R.E. Griffith—yes, D.W.'s brother—as a high desert haven for the rich and famous, the historic landmark is a must-see. Efforts to revitalize Gallup have brought mixed results over the years, but checking into one of the several dozen rooms named after Old Hollywood royalty takes the sting out. Both silver screen sirens—like Ida Lupino, Jean Harlow, Mae West and Paulette Goddard—and leading men of yesteryear—like Peter Graves, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and even the Marx Brothers—camped out at El Rancho, and now guests can arrange to dream where their favorite Golden Age star once rested.
Take I-40 east to Grants, where the great monster Leetso, aka uranium roughly extracted from earth, has proved a mixed blessing. The uranium-enriched boom town's residents suffered when the industry collapsed in the '80s and many miners and their families still suffer from lingering environmental illnesses. Grants has seen a lot of ups and downs, and its festival falls firmly in the ups category. The 13th annual Fire and Ice Bike Rally happens from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 21. Events listed in the rally's online schedule include: bikini-bull riding, a Mr. Fire and Ice contest, a bike rodeo, stunt performances and live music by several acts, including all-girl AC/DC tribute band Thund-Her-Struck. I'm so there; now where's my stars-and-stripes burqini?
One of the four Navajo holy mountains, Tsoodzil aka Mount Taylor rises up north of Grants. Beyond that mountain lies a vast wilderness. Chaco Canyon is hidden there. The roads beyond Crown Point on the way to the ruins are rough. To the southeast and southwest of Grants, respectively, two more accessible monuments to our state's rich cultural past wait to be discovered: El Morro aka Inscription Rock and Acoma, the sky city pueblo. Inscription Rock serves as an etched-in-stone record of hundreds of years of travel through New Mexico, but take heed: Pulling out your Swiss Army knife to add to history is ill-advised. A couple of Japanese tourists were charged by the feds not too long ago for making that mistake. Access to Acoma is tightly restricted; non-Pueblo members must be escorted on and off the site in groups by tribal officials. The view from the plateau where Acoma sits is unparalleled as the whole state yawns wide before your willing eyes.