In a classic American road trip, Rosemary Behan explores New Mexico and west Texas.
America's empty quarter is an adventure from another era
"The entire state is on fire. Emergency evacuation is possible. I have to get downwind now, I will update you." Three days before I'm due to leave for New Mexico, the wildfires raging through America's south-west have almost reached the nuclear laboratories of Los Alamos. I'm not about to cancel my plans, but little did I know that my friend, Nouf, Santa Fe resident and my host for two weeks, has already booked her own flight out as a precaution.
Thankfully, a day later, the message is more upbeat. "Don't worry. Albuquerque is downwind from Los Alamos. I'll be there to pick you up - I just might not have any hair left."
As the flight descends, my heart sinks. A thick, flat layer of smoke still hangs high over the vast plains in the centre of the state and I wonder if I've made the right decision. Yet I can still see through the haze to the mountains beyond and, as the plane drops lower, the visibility improves so much that I'm no longer worried. New Mexico is a big state - bigger, it seems, than even the worst drought in over a century.
Nouf and her friend, Amy, a photo editor at Outside magazine, based in Santa Fe, pick me up at the sleepy airport in a Toyota Highlander and we immediately hit the road to Silver City, in the south-west of the state. We're missing the details of Albuquerque, such as the National Atomic museum, because three more friends are waiting and an improbably elaborate gourmet meal is planned at a restaurant called the Curious Kumquat. I don't mind the rush because America, probably more than any other country on Earth, looks best through a windscreen.
Our route takes us straight down the I-25 and, within minutes of leaving the state's biggest city, we're cruising through the Chihuahuan Desert under a big, blue sky filled with billowing clouds. Even though it's tinderbox dry, the mesas are mesmerising: a rich blur of browns and greens backed by sparse hills and jagged ridges, bathed intermittently in strong sunlight and shadow. The road follows the diminutive Rio Grande and we stop for petrol at the City of Elephant Butte (population 1,400) before heading west along an empty road through the pretty southern edge of the Gila Wilderness, a protected mountainous area covered in forest. We end up at Bear Mountain Lodge, a lovely b&b sitting in 72 hectares of its own land.
I'm in the bathroom when John, one of the owners, appears in our bedroom to make up the pull-out bed. "Where did you learn to talk like that?" he says quizzically as he hears my accent. "Not in Silver City, that's for sure." Maybe it's the size of this place, and the corresponding lack of people, which lends a spaciness, an eccentricity and slight craziness to the towns we visit and the people we meet.
Once an Apache campsite, Silver City was founded in 1870 as a mining town to accommodate the waves of prospectors who were settling in the area. Looking at old photographs of the town, superficially little seems to have changed except for the introduction of cars and traffic lights: its population of 10,000 is essentially served by one main street filled with saloons, cafes, banks and small offices, though there's an almost-northern California vibe in the brightly coloured houses and boutique shops dotted around the adjacent streets. What the miners would have thought of our 14-course tasting menu at the Curious Kumquat, which included crayfish with kombu and curry leaf, though, is difficult to imagine.
During the night, I'm woken by a lightning storm over the plain outside our window, and the drumming of much-needed rain on the roof. After a delicious breakfast of polenta and corn salad, I drive with Sondra, another of our party, to Pinos Altos, a scenic mountain "ghost town" 10km north of Silver City. Here there's another even more diminutive main street, settled in 1803, with a big old saloon called the Buckhorn, complete with a wooden veranda, a brick and wood-built opera house, a museum and crumbling corner shop. In the museum we meet George Schafer, who tells us that the population of the town, where the local copper mine is still the biggest employer, is now just 350 and that it only got water mains in 1988. His family lived in the house (now a museum) for generations before him and the living rooms, bedrooms and store rooms give us a glimpse of both the hardships and the spoils of Victorian-era living. On the way back to town we pass by the enormous Santa Rita mine, 1.6km wide and deep.
We get back on the I-25 through Las Cruces to El Paso in west Texas, which is less than half the size of the adjacent city of Ciudad Juarez across the border in Mexico, which, thanks to a spiralling drug-related murder rate is, according to the local newspaper El Norte, "the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones". We don't stop, and are soon making our way along the I-90, following a railroad and skirting vast cattle ranches where dust devils dance and vast golden grasslands roll towards jagged mountains. We stop at Prada Marfa, an art installation which features a shopfront filled with shoes in the middle of nowhere.
Further on we see a huge, white balloon that looks like a spaceship. The crazies, it seems, aren't limited to New Mexico, where, apart from the nuclear testing, UFOs are celebrated at Roswell; just outside Marfa, a viewing platform has been built on account of the mysterious "Marfa Lights", glowing balls of light in the night sky which were apparently first seen in 1883. The most likely explanation then was campfires or mirages caused by hot and cold air colliding; now it's car headlights on Highway 67 to Presidio. A sizeable number of the people we see at the platform, though, seem to believe they are witnessing paranormal activity. "Look at the line of them," says one woman through binoculars, "these ones stop and start".
In Marfa itself, an attractive railroad town of 2,000 people, which has been colonised by artists including Donald Judd, trendy restaurateurs and other assorted hipsters, we stay at Thunderbird, a 24-room motel dating from 1959 which has been recently revamped by architect Bob Harris. The languid Route 90 takes us straight into town and right to the blue neon Thunderbird sign. In the courtyard there's a palm tree and a swimming pool; I jump in to cool off.
At El Paisano Hotel, used as the base for the 1956 film Giant, directed by George Stevens, we meet our friends Robin and Laura from Taos, who have joined us in convoy and are staying at a campsite-cum-trailer park called El Cosmico. We happily devour plates of chips dipped in green chilli salsa, only to find our mouths on fire. The waitress laughs pitilessly. "It's nuclear warfare in a cup," she says, smiling. "I usually get people to sign a waiver." We move on to Padre's, a restaurant which, from the outside, looks like a ramshackle warehouse; inside it's an industrial-meets-shabby-chic mélange of chandeliers, niche drinks, a stage set and traditional bar games. It quickly becomes our favourite place in town.
Over breakfast the next morning at a Swiss cafe called Squeeze, my friends tell me they can't face the 200km drive to Big Bend National Park. It's Independence Day weekend, and I resolve to go alone, taking as prophetic the fridge magnet slogans on display: "All know the way - few actually follow it."
It's dead south along the exhilaratingly empty Highway 118 and, by 2pm, I'm at Panther Junction, the park's main visitor centre. A ranger recommends some spots and a scenic route back to Marfa; refreshingly, although it's already late in the day, he says: "You got plenty of time to do all this."
By car, that is - one could spend a month hiking the park's remote tracks. Yet even on the road, during this hot weekend, it feels like I have the 3,000 square kilometre park to myself. Near the Rio Grande I turn off onto an unsealed road and walk to some hot springs. It's so still and quiet among the reeds and palm trees that I'm startled by a lone horse drinking on the opposite bank. On my way back to the car an ageing cowboy wearing a Stetson appears from behind a decaying tree. "That thing's been hanging on the 20 years I've been coming here," he says, apropos of nothing. "But it's still alive!"
I drive up to the highest point in the Chisos Mountains, with alpine plants by the side of the road and eagles wheeling overhead. Near the top a black bear cub crosses the road ahead of me. A ranger at the Chisos Basin visitor centre tells me they are Mexican bears, which have repopulated the area since the American black bears were hunted to extinction. They are more welcome here than Mexican immigrants, who sometimes walk illegally across the international boundary which runs for 400km along the park's southern edge. On the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive route to the south-west of the park, I can see for miles in every direction. I reach the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande, where a dramatic gorge and a small stream is all that separates the US from Mexico. I could easily hop across, as there are no fences and no border officials, only small signs warning of a US$5,000 (Dh18,364) fine or a year in prison. I spot the occasional border control vehicle on the road, but all else is quiet in this exquisitely beautiful spot. It's degraded only by the lack of water in the river - some 93 per cent of it is now diverted for agricultural and industrial use - although at certain times of year it's still possible to raft and kayak.
I exit the park at Terlingua, in the west, and drive along Highway 170 beside the Rio Grande to Presidio. The sun begins to dip and the empty two-lane road through green scrubland and rippling hills, with the river cutting through a fertile flood plain, with Mexico on the other side of the valley, is just as the ranger at Panther Junction said: "real pretty". Much further on, Presidio is sprawling and depressing, full of car repair workshops and boarded-up shopfronts. On the home run to Marfa, along Highway 67, I see what those mysterious start-stop lights were all about: it's an immigration checkpoint. I arrive back in Marfa at 10pm and find my friends at Cochineal, a painfully chic but impressive restaurant where a delicious Texan steak is waiting with fries and onion rings.
I'm sad to leave Marfa, but we press on back into eastern New Mexico stopping at Carlsbad Caverns, which, unlike Big Bend, is overrun with visitors on July 4. The walkways are crowded and the queue for the lifts taking visitors back to the surface after visiting the caves is over an hour long, so despite the existence of fast-food restaurants to keep people occupied underground, we opt for the 45-minute hike out. It's the most exercise I get all week.
From Carlsbad we pass through towns called Artesia, Loving, Hope and Organ on the scenic Route 82, the loveliest part of which winds through the Lincoln National Forest, where again I spot a big black bear across a small valley. The road emerges from the forest and winds down through the beautiful Sacramento Mountains and across the Tularosa Valley, home to the White Sands Missile Range and Spaceport America, from where Virgin Galactic customers will soon blast off into space for $200,000 (Dh734,560) a pop. At White Sands National Monument, sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals spill over a fence at the road's edge.
Back on the I-25 heading north and we're soon in Truth or Consequences, a spa city which changed its name to that of a radio show in 1950. Apart from the restorative thermal springs, it's a weirdly dull place, exemplified by the dire scene at the local bowling alley and karaoke bar. The Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa is something of an oasis, with comfortable rooms and deeply soothing and restorative private hot baths, massage and facial treatments: it's perfect to counter the effects of the road and I leave feeling rejuvenated.
A few hours further north, past the still-smoking fires of Los Alamos, and we reach Santa Fe, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Originally settled by Native Americans, the area was colonised by Spain in 1598, becoming part of the much larger "New Spain" which had Mexico City as its capital; Santa Fe was established as the capital of the province in 1610. It's now an artist's town on steroids, its well-heeled centre crammed full of art and photography galleries of varying quality.
There's a lovely old plaza, but there's also a touch of the theme park about it; I can't help feeling there's also something odd that, after centuries of widespread destruction of Native American culture by both Spanish and American prospectors, it's now feted everywhere you look. With its giant folk art market, trolley buses and souvenirs, it's perhaps what Mexico would look like if it were filled with Americans. To an extent, of course, that's what it is.
The museums are interesting - the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in the hills outside town has a fantastic display of ceramics, beadwork and textiles, with top-class geographical and social commentary and photographs. In the gift shop, cards bear Native American proverbs. "Don't let yesterday take up too much of today", one reads.
Back in the plaza, the Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the US. The museum inside describes the "frontier process" as "the essence of New Mexico history". There's an old stagecoach and other fascinating artefacts - even a violin fashioned from rawhide described as "a typical frontier solution" to a lack of wood.
Frontier solutions were also found for the problem of crime: a broadside posted in the town of Las Vegas reads: "Notice: to thieves, thugs, fakirs and bunko-steerers, among whom are Billy the Kid and Sawdust Charlie - if found within the limits of the city after 10pm, you will be invited to attend a grand neck-tie party, the expense of which will be borne by 100 substantial citizens."
In the impressive New Mexico History Museum, there are unflinching narratives in all media covering every period in time, from Catholic missionaries to accession to the US and the promotion of tourism. One Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Indian industrial school, lived up to his name when he proclaimed: "In Indian civilisation, I am a baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilisation, and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked."
There's also a museum dedicated to Georgia O'Keefe, who lived and worked in New Mexico, developing an intense emotional response to its land and light - though there are precious few of her works on display.
One of the best legacies, of course, is the food, and we kick off our exploration of Santa Fe's culinary scene with a visit to Pasqual's, a lovely cafe where we feast on breakfast quesadillas covered in melted cheese, guacamole and salsa, fried potatoes covered in red and green chille and sour cream, and a selection of sandwiches. "Life is a recipe-less salad that is forever being tossed", is the menu's sign-off.
After a trip to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-inspired spa in the hills, we're ready to head off again, this time with Laura at the wheel going north along the scenic high road to Taos, which winds through mountains, farmland and small villages with historic churches, small shops and homemade-looking cemeteries. We stop and enjoy chocolate cake and coffee at Sugar Nymphs cafe in Penasco - with a circus and theatre attached, there seems to be more going on than you'd expect. The surrounding areas look idyllic, but Laura stresses that there are widespread intergenerational drug problems in towns such as Chimayo ("Dad in jail after allegedly injecting nine-year-old son with heroin" reads a headline in the Albuquerque Journal).
Taos is situated on a high plateau and, with a population of less than 5,000, has a pleasantly low-key atmosphere. The nearby Taos Pueblo is again something of a museum, though a scenic one at that, and our guide does a good job of explaining the place's role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the Taos Revolt, which happened after the US took over New Mexico in 1847.
The final stop of our road trip is at the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a few kilometres from Taos. It's 10.30 in the morning and, as we walk across the bridge, we're told by a family that there's a body at the bottom. We take a look, but it's hard to admire the view when someone has ended their life. We walk away feeling sad and subdued. "It's kind of ruined my day," one of the family, from North Carolina, says. Someone phones the police while others take pictures. Nearby, a line of vendors is doing a roaring trade selling trinkets.
If You Go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Chicago from Dh5,600 return in economy or Dh18,660 in business class. Return direct economy flights from Chicago to Albuquerque cost from US$379 (Dh1,394) with American Airlines (www.aa.com)
The hotels In Silver City, Bear Mountain Lodge (www.bearmountainlodge.com; 001 575 538 2538) has double rooms from $178 (Dh650) per night, including taxes and breakfast; the Holiday Inn Express (www.hiexpress.com; 001 575 538 2525) has doubles from $116 (Dh425) per night, including taxes and breakfast
In Marfa, Thunderbird (www.thunderbirdmarfa.com; 001 877 729 1984) has double rooms from $120 (Dh440) per night
In Truth or Consequences, Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa (www.sierragrandelodge.com; 001 575 6976) has double rooms from $112 (Dh411) per night, including breakfast and taxes. In the spa, a 75-minute signature facial costs $125, including a 30-minute private mineral bath
In Santa Fe, Ten Thousand Waves (www.tenthousandwaves.com; 001 505 992 5503 for lodging, 982 9304 for the spa) has doubles from $199 (Dh730) per night, excluding taxes. Shared hot tubs cost $23 (Dh86) and massages from $109 (Dh400)