"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."