The caked-on debris sprayed backwards, spidering along the body panels. It told a story of the road, a color coded index of the miles. Iron-rich red soil from Taos and Santa Fe. Mud from melting snow in Sedona and Flagstaff. Gypsum from White Sands National Monument. Sand from the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. We stood gorging breakfast burritos just off of Gates Pass in Tucson Mountain Park, marveling at how the car wore those miles. Some 1900 hundred of them later, sitting among the saguaros, minute evidence of each town was like a trail of breadcrumbs we could trace back to the beginning, to Phoenix.
Bounding north on I-17 from Phoenix the first thing we notice are the saguaros. They’re everywhere, like thousands of spiny fingers pointing up at the cosmos. Tonto National Forest is starboard and eventually gives way to Coconino National Forest along the 144 mile journey. Beauty is everywhere and we almost fail to notice we’ve climbed nearly 6000’ in elevation by the time we pull into Flagstaff. The stop is but a means to an end, a few local craft beers and an overstuffed burrito before the soot-covered snow mounds direct us to I-40 and our path east. Gallup, NM is the finish line for day one.
The way the pre-dawn light gets accentuated in the flat, small cities and towns dispersed across the States is something I never tire of. The unobstructed view confirms just how small you really are. It’s early and bracingly cold. My fingers begin to lose feeling as I snap an image of the soft, pink hues of the clouds in the distance beyond the telephone lines and street lights that only recently flickered off. It feels like the whole world is still asleep.
There’s a series of peaks that create a crescent-shaped barrier at Taos, New Mexico’s eastern edge. Skiers bound for Taos Ski Valley pass through the city and gawk at the dried chilis hanging outside the doors of mom-and-pop markets. It’s rustic and artsy yet dotted with a few flashes of contemporized food and culture. We’re sure to check out the Millicent Rogers Museum on the outskirts of town. Rogers, the granddaughter of one of the original Standard Oil founders, gave up her socialite city life to collect and create art in, seemingly, the middle of nowhere. In the museum hangs a heartfelt note she wrote to one of her sons expressing her contentment with that decision:
“Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the earth, so that I felt the sun on my surface and the rain. I felt the stars and the growth of the moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me.”
The letter continues on, describing her love of life, her love of Taos, and how she no longer fears death. After finishing the letter, I left with a feeling of calmness. I’m not sure I’ve ever snapped a photo of a letter in a museum before, but for whatever reason, it struck me and a somewhat blurry image of it still exists in my phone.
We fill the remainder of our time driving around town looking at single-story adobe homes, a walk across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and a meal at The Love Apple. It’s a charming restaurant housed in an old chapel where the only light is the warm, yellow glow of a lit candle.
We forego the interstate and opt for route 518, carving our way to 76, passing through the small towns that lead to Sante Fe. There’s the San José de Gracia Church in Las Trampas, a colonial village established in 1751. Trujillo’s Weaving shop grabs our attention as we pass through Chimayo, pulling over to chat with the granddaughter of the original owner. We leave with a small, traditional woven rug.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe is beautiful both inside and out. Shadows of trees creep across the stucco exterior. Inside, we get a more complete picture of O’Keeffe. For two Virginia natives, it’s exciting to see work from her time at UVA. The museum contains her largest permanent collection and the hours spent gazing at her work slip by easily. We round out Sante Fe by ducking into vintage stores, bending at the waist to stare down at blankets covered in silver and turquoise at the Santa Fe Indian Market, and a meal at Radish & Rye, a friend’s recommendation tucked away in a quiet neighborhood just steps from the downtown area. If the meal didn’t sufficiently wind down the full day, the bourbon certainly did.
The next morning we’re headed south along 25 with wide swaths of arid land in every direction. Greenery and civilization are both in short supply. We’re on the clock today with two destinations convincing my foot to press the accelerator just a fraction closer towards the floor. At some point in my teens, I acquired an odd fascination with the development of nuclear technology. I read what I could about The Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, and the development of the first nuclear weapons. As such, Trinity Site was to be stop one for today. We’re alone on a desolate two-lane road when we pass a sign warning of missile tests. It’s equal parts exhilarating and uncomfortable. My youthful excitement is cut short when we pull to a towering gate at the edge of Stallion Army Air Field. A quick internet search yields unfortunate news; Trinity Site is not open to the public on the day we’ve arrived. In fact, it’s only open twice a year due to its location within an active missile testing zone. I sheepishly turn the car around and retreat. It’s a long, quiet drive back to the interstate.
Destination two is to be quite different. It announces itself when the low rumble of tires on asphalt gives way to a dull, muffled drone. If you’ve driven on freshly packed snow, you’ve heard this before. My wife’s arm extends outside the passenger side window, her phone aimed in every direction trying to capture it all. Rolling, white mounds surround us on all sides. It’s a surreal landscape. We’re in White Sands National Monument and it’s one of the more breathtaking scenes I’ve encountered. We park the car and scramble up a berm. Extending infinitely are undulating hills of gypsum. The sinking sun casts long shadows. The sand is cool and moist. We can only manage short distances at a time, each stop filled with a flurry of photographs. Fellow visitors are but small, black specks in far off distances. The initial thrill finally subsides and we take a seat to do exactly what we’d hoped to do—watch the setting sun. Darkness happens fast and we scramble back to the car, the temperature seeming to drop with each step.
Retiring back to Las Cruces, we gather some takeout items from La Nueva Casita Cafe and tote them to Bosque Brewing Company. We wash everything down with a few beers and retire early.
Tucson is hot and we need tacos. Just off of Congress Street is Mercado San Agustin, a public market housing a number of local merchants. My wife waits in line for Seis Kitchen, I grab a beer and close my eyes to the blinding sun in the courtyard. We’ve elected to stay to the north of the city in the Catalina Foothills, opting for a bit of seclusion. Built in 1929, the Hacienda Del Sol is a former girls school. Many of its architectural charms still remain. The grounds are beautiful, replete with open walking areas and desert plants of all shapes and sizes scattered about the property. A group of barrel cacti soak in the sun just outside of our room.
The trip is to conclude in Phoenix, but for all intents and purposes, Tucson is the end of the new. After spending some time in Palms Springs years prior, we knew we wanted to see more of the Southwest. There’s still plenty more to see, but those 1900 miles showed us both sun and sand, mountain and plain. Pausing in Gates Pass just before heading north gave us a moment to reflect. With few expectations, we hopped on a plane, then into a car, and drove a giant loop that made the most logistical sense. We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to see save for one thing; saguaros. They were at the top of my wife’s wish list. Her attraction to cactus began years prior and is reflected in many of her paintings. They greeted us when we arrived. They surrounded us in Gates Pass. She even got to hug one in Tucson. If nothing else, I’d say that alone qualifies as a pretty successful road trip.