Ácoma Pueblo to Silver City

You can't just wander around Ácoma Pueblo. Unlike New Mexico's other pueblos and natural attractions, visitors here are herded through in tours--but I can't really blame the Ácoma people, considering their history. I buy a ticket and board a bus to the top of the village, accompanied by a guide. It doesn't feel crowded: It's the day's first tour, and she will be lecturing only to me.

Situated just a bit east of El Malpais, Ácoma was founded around 1100 on one of the most spectacularly defensive sites in the Pueblo world: the flat top of a 370-foot mesa. The strategy apparently worked until the Spanish arrived with horses and firearms. In 1599 a swarm of soldiers climbed the rock under cover of darkness, seized the pueblo, and, in one of the most horrific acts of the Southwestern entrada, cut off the left foot of 280 Ácoma men and forced them to labor as servants.

The guide moves on to a story that I find especially touching. "The church forced the village to give up eight of our children. They were taken to Mexico City to be used as servants and were never seen again." She points to a basketball-shaped hole in the ancient cemetery wall. "We left that hole so their spirits can enter."

From Ácoma I continue south, climbing from desert into the dense Gila National Forest. There's a childhood memory here that I want to pursue: a steel catwalk cantilevered off the side of Whitewater Canyon near Glenwood. Catwalk National Recreation Trail is easy to find, thanks to the road atlas, and even more stunning than I remember. Mauve and gray rock walls soar 50 feet overhead; a riparian area of sycamores and willows flourishes on the canyon floor. I cherish intimate canyons like this because they exist as self-contained retreats, oblivious to the environment 50 feet beyond their borders ― and somehow, they seem to enclose not only biological worlds but spiritual space as well.

My last planned stop is Silver City, a former mining town that's now vigorously spinning itself into a picturesque and culturally lively retirement mecca. Like so many New Mexico places, historic and contemporary cultures are colliding and blending here. You can walk the residential streets, see loving restorations of Victorian homes, and make plans for the annual blues festival around Memorial Day. "It's a funny town," a gallery owner confirms. "All these retirees are moving here, and we have a drag show that sells out."

The miracle of New Mexico is that it hardly matters where you go and whether you arrange your lap around American Indian cultures or funky contemporary art or bizarre landscapes ― or overambitiously attempt a sweep of all these, as I did.

And it doesn't matter if you get lost, as I do, on another backroad while on the 280-mile return trip to Albuquerque. The road dips into an unheralded canyon in the pleats skirting the Gila National Forest. I park and bushwhack through desert cutlery for a mile. The canyon is beautiful; in most parts of the country, it would rate national monument status. In New Mexico, it's not even a destination, just a nameless miracle awaiting the traveler who loses his way while in a New Mexico state of mind.