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Our Land of Enchantment

New Mexico introduction


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Acoma Pueblo

We love to take a US road trip exploring one (or sometimes several) of the states, and one of the ones we enjoyed the most was our 2011 visit to New Mexico.

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted! And what delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants, and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions). We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell. We stayed in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. We saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. And as we travelled I came to think that there was more than one New Mexico.

Native New Mexico

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Taos Pueblo

There is ‘Native New Mexico’, seen best in the ancient pueblos such as Taos and Acoma, but throwing its influence over the whole state. Long before Europeans came to settle this area, native tribes lived here for hundreds of years. For centuries, these ancestral Indians lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering their food throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago, some of these groups began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, known as pueblos, while others remained nomadic. As everywhere in North America, the coming of the white settlers devastated the lives of those who called these plains and mountains home, and that too is part of their history. Today 22 tribes live in the state: Apache, Navajo, and 19 pueblo tribes (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jémez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picurís, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Kewa, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni). New Mexico’s unique character owes so much to these tribes. The cuisine incorporates elements of traditional cooking, such as the blue corn tortillas and puffed-up sopapillas. The adobe building techniques were embraced by the Spanish settlers and now dominate towns like Taos and Santa Fe. Arts and crafts thrive and are dominated by the pottery, jewellery-making, weaving and painting of the various tribes.

Hispanic New Mexico

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San Jose de Gracia, Trampas

There is also ‘Hispanic New Mexico’. Wherever you go in New Mexico, the Spanish influence is apparent. The most obvious legacy is the large number of beautiful adobe mission churches, of which the oldest is variously said to be San Miguel in Socorro (built between 1615 and 1626, but currently closed for restoration following major water damage) or another San Miguel in Santa Fe (built between 1610 and 1628, thus started earlier but finished later). Very many place names too point to the Hispanic influence: Santa Fe (the city of the Holy Faith), Albuquerque (named for the Spanish Duke de Alburquerque) and smaller places like Los Cerillos, Las Trampas, Quemado – there is even a Madrid! In particular the Roman Catholic religion, introduced by the Spanish, has had a lasting influence on the state. We were fascinated by the way in which the native pueblo churches had combined their own traditional faith with the ‘new’ one, with equal emphasis placed on their adopted saint (San Geronimo in Taos, San Esteban in Acoma) and on the natural spirits that have shaped their lives for centuries. Local crafts owe much to this Catholic tradition, such as the brightly painted pictures (santos) and carvings (bultos) of saints that you’ll see not only in churches but in galleries, restaurants and homes. And parts of the state seemed to us to be dual language, with signs commonly in both English and Spanish, and the latter language heard regularly on the streets. Sometimes you might even fancy yourself in Central, rather than North, America!

Wild West New Mexico

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Sign in Truth or Consequences

Having grown up in an era when both films and TV programmes set in the ‘Wild West’ were popular (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Alias Smith and Jones’. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, and many more) we were equally fascinated by ‘Wild West New Mexico’. Anyone who has ever watched a western has seen New Mexico, or something very like it. Vast plains, huge skies, and more cattle than people – it is not difficult to imagine a cowboy galloping over the nearest ridge, and indeed many locals still dress the part. And wherever you go, the ghosts of outlaws past will follow you, most notably Billy the Kid. We ‘met’ Billy in so many places. In Silver City, where he came aged just 13 and got into trouble from the start. In Mesilla, where he was tried and condemned to be hung in the courthouse, now (inevitably) a ‘Billy the Kid’ gift-shop. In historic Lincoln, where he escaped from another courthouse in a shoot-out. And in Fort Sumner, where he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried alongside a couple of his pals. But Billy of course was not the only outlaw. Perhaps our most memorable encounter with the ghosts of the Wild West was in Cimarron, in the bar of the St James Hotel, whose ceiling still bears the bullet holes of the many gun-fights that took place here, and whose halls are said to be still haunted by some of the victims.

Space Age New Mexico

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The Very Large Array

Bringing the story right up to date, there is ‘Space Age New Mexico’, because the state's wide open spaces didn’t just suit cowboys – they are also ideal for certain sorts of experiments, especially those involving space flight or missiles. The barren expanses at its heart, around White Sands, have seen first-hand the power of science, both for good and for bad. It is here, at the Trinity Site, that the world’s first atom bomb was detonated on 16th July 1945. Trinity is only open to the public on a couple of days a year, and I’m not sure that we would have visited even if one of these dates coincided with our trip, but we did see one of the ‘souvenirs’ of that deadly experiment, the fragment from Jumbo, the vessel built to contain the explosion, which is now on display near the Plaza in Socorro. On a more positive note, the amazing Very Large Array provided one of the most interesting mornings of our trip. Here, in the middle of the flat Plains of San Augustin, scientists study the heavens with the help of these huge radio telescopes. And if you’re interested in man’s adventures in space, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is the place to go. I loved getting the opportunity to sit in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions), and to ‘land’ the space shuttle on their simulator.

And maybe it isn’t just human scientists who find New Mexico ideal for their experiments?! There are many who remain convinced that aliens crashed on a ranch just outside Roswell in 1947, and the town has traded on the incident ever since. Whether you believe it or not, this is an opportunity to see tacky Americana at its most glorious, with ‘aliens’ on every street corner and a whole museum devoted to proving the truth of the story.

Natural New Mexico

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Fall colours in Picuris Pueblo

But the setting for all these stories, both factual and fictional, is as important as the tales themselves – ‘Natural New Mexico’. For while humans have made their mark on New Mexico over the centuries, and in a number of ways, it remains for the most part a state of wide open spaces and natural wonders. You can peer down into the depths of 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, travel mountain passes well over 8,000 feet above sea level, wander among the remarkable rock formations of the City of Rocks or the hauntingly pale dunes of the White Sands. Travelling in September and October, we were treated to displays of golden aspens and of flowers in all hues. Nearly half the state’s annual rainfall comes during July and August, and the dry dusty plains respond with a wonderful show. At lower elevations I never tired of seeing the yellows, mauves and reds alongside the road and spreading beyond in the pastures on either side. And at higher ones the vistas were often of waves of dark green and gold, the conifers and late-dropping trees setting off the early-turning aspens to best advantage.

Travelling to New Mexico

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El Paso Airport

It may perhaps seem a little odd that for a holiday spent touring New Mexico we should fly to Texas, but for a couple of reasons El Paso made real sense as an entry point. Firstly flights there from London were just a little cheaper than to Albuquerque, the only obvious alternative. But secondly, and more importantly, it suited my route planning (and route planning for these trips is always largely my responsibility!) to start in the south of the state. I knew that we would want to spend several nights in Santa Fe, and probably only one in most other places en route, so it made sense to make Santa Fe roughly the mid-point of our tour, which would have been very difficult had we landed in Albuquerque.

So El Paso it was. We flew with United, changing in Chicago where we had a five hour layover. That seemed quite long, but once we’d spent over an hour in the queue at Immigration, transferred to another terminal, and then spent a further hour in the queue to go through security, we were glad of the slack time in the scheduling. When we finally landed at El Paso it was 10.20 pm local time, 5.20 am London time, so we were pretty tired. But El Paso is a small and rather charming airport, easy to navigate and to face even when travel-weary. Furthermore we had booked a room for that night at the airport’s Microtel, an easy stagger from the terminal (less than five minutes’ walk across the car park area). Within 40 minutes of touchdown on the runway we were in our room – and there can’t be many airports where you can manage that!

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Our car number plate

We had arranged car hire for our trip with Hertz who have a base at El Paso Airport, so the next morning we walked back across to the terminal to collect our vehicle. We had to do some negotiation on arrival however as we weren’t at all happy with the car they’d allocated us, a Nissan Cube (ugly thing, with poor rear visibility and all the luggage on display however you stowed it, so not ideal for touring). But a quick discussion with a helpful lady on the counter and we were upgraded from compact to mid-size at no extra charge, with the only catch that we had to wait 15 minutes while the Mazda was brought over from another nearby lot – a small price to pay for what proved to be a comfortable and easy to drive car.

And I would defy anyone to tour New Mexico properly without the benefit of a car, except perhaps a very fit cyclist. Although there’s lots to see and do, places can be quite far apart and no public transport serves many of the most scenic routes, although in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are buses.

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Our hire car on the High Road to Taos

Plus, driving here is a real pleasure. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, as Chris nobly did all the driving, waving aside my rather half-hearted offers to help! But one reason for that refusal of help was the fact that with just one or two exceptions, the roads were quiet and the driving pretty easy. We covered just under 2,000 miles in the two and a half weeks of our trip, and that felt very manageable and undemanding. Our longest drive was about 220 miles, but most days we did around 100 and on a few very little at all.

So we have our car – it is time to hit the road!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:02 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes road_trip culture history usa science space new_mexico customs Comments (6)

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