Always take the backroad. It’s the smart traveler’s truism everywhere, but nowhere will it work magic more reliably than in New Mexico. Set your course with all the certainty of a cottonwood leaf surfing an autumn breeze, pack a thick road atlas so you won’t get irretrievably lost, and abandon the highway wherever an intriguing tributary offers itself. You’ll stumble across an unadvertised volcano, a former ghost town, an Ancestral Puebloan ruin. Wander into a canyon with no trail and no name and let it rough you up a bit: New Mexico will never take your blood without giving something back.
I’m taking a 10-day, 1,000-mile trip that begins and ends in Albuquerque, looping north through Santa Fe and Taos, west to the mysterious Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the living pueblo of Ácoma, and south to volcanic El Malpais National Monument and revitalized Silver City.
As I travel, I find I’m exploring layers of culture along with landscape. You hear that New Mexico is all about the weave of its cultural triad: American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo. But there is an overarching culture here that runs deeper than ethnicity. New Mexicans are forever defying conventions, improvising fresh ways to make a living and exercise the pursuit of happiness, adapting to the hands they’re dealt. My friend Susan Hazen-Hammond, a Los Alamos poet and artist, tells me that New Mexicans don’t actively try to be different. “We simply are different. Sometimes it pleases us, sometimes it startles us, and sometimes it alarms us—but whichever it is, we want to preserve who we are.”
Albuquerque to Santa Fe: 2 days, 70 miles
“Myths explored, phobias cured,” promises a sign outside the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque’s Old Town. Okay, I’ll bite. The privately owned museum is part tourist trap, with trinkets and party-joke rubber snakes, but the 33 species of live rattlers are stunningly beautiful, their beadwork a festival of argyle geometry. And a reminder that in New Mexico, nature is harsh and deadly, beautiful and irresistible.
Albuquerque unrolls westward from the Sandia Mountains into a “vast, sweeping, slightly concave dish ideally designed for collecting light, width, and space,” as Robert Leonard Reid writes in America, New Mexico. “These it distributes to valley residents like electric power.” It’s impossible to drive or walk anywhere in Albuquerque without feeling energized, and sometimes tingling with unease, at the awesome scope of sky and mountain.
At every turn, Albuquerque also displays the awesome scope of human civilization. A quick freeway hop from the National Atomic Museum’s panorama of nuclear science and history, about 20,000 prehistoric images―maybe homages, possibly prayers―bake in the sun on basalt boulders at Petroglyph National Monument. Among the figures are snakes (of course), mountain lions, birds, insects, humans, and shamans, and it’s not idle graffiti.
“We have more than 20 contemporary tribes telling us this was a sacred place,” monument archaeologist Gretchen Ward says. “Volcanic landscapes like this are places of great significance because they represent connections to the earth below.”
Now north to Santa Fe. I could make the drive at interstate efficiency, driving I-25 and reaching New Mexico’s capital in an hour. But a road trip is no time to be efficient. I detour on State 14―known as the Turquoskullsise Trail for the ancient turquoise mines in the Cerrillos Hills―which winds north and east. I explore for eight hours, including a mountain detour to 10,678-foot Sandia Crest and a couple of hours prowling fetchingly scruffy Madrid. The town is a textbook illustration of New Mexicans’ gift for improvisation. An artist’s studio announces itself with a roadside collection of cowboy sculptures made of scrap car parts. One gallery owner gives me a capsule history of Madrid: “Founded as a company mining town in the 1800s―coal. It became a ghost town in the 1950s, was ‘rediscovered’ by hippies in the ’70s. Now it’s the artists’ turn.”