I left Tucumcari this morning, after getting my tires checked for their air. Route 66 west of town is not safe, so I hopped onto the Interstate with R.E.M. blasting in the stereo. The scenery was quite spectacular with mountains and brushweed in the distance, as I sang along to songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” Near the village of Cuervo, I exit the Interstate to take an old segment of Route 66 that guidebooks were raving about. Now keep in mind that yesterday I had some pretty rough gravel to deal with west of Glenrio. But with my tires in good shape, I decide to risk it – and because I’ll be driving slowly, I switch R.E.M. for some Leonard Cohen.The next few miles was the most rewarding and beautiful part of my trip so far. I was going 25 miles an hour, not because I really had to – but because I wanted to. I had the whole place to myself, as Leonard Cohen’s mellow bass voice echoed throughout the car. As the car made its slow trip along the old road, I saw two deer – and about six cows – strolling along the road. You even have birds laying down on the asphalt because no one’s around, only to have them fly away when they hear a car coming. Going that slowly and being in touch with nature made me realize how far away I really was from everything, but I had this amazing sense of feeling totally safe and comfortable. This was not the Texas Panhandle – it was the desert prairie of New Mexico, and nothing wrong can happen here. I really encourage you to see all the photos I took on my Facebook page.
As I approach the city of Santa Rosa, it’s 11:00 a.m. – too early for lunch, but I can still stop to buy a bolo tie. Well, the town was deader than a doornail. It’s Sunday, and almost everything closes down in New Mexico. But even on other days, Santa Rosa looks like it wouldn’t have much to offer. So I stop for gas, and then take Route 84 – which will take me north towards Santa Fe. Rather than the straight drive to Albuquerque, I’m doing the scenic route.I put my Paul Simon “Graceland” CD into the car stereo, and drive up the scenic route towards Santa Fe – singing along happily with the hills and brushweed surrounding me. By 12:30, I’m close to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is not technically on Route 66, but it’s only a few miles away – and I’m curious to see what New Mexico’s namesake to the Gambling Den is like. And besides, it’s time for lunch.
I arrive in Las Vegas, and am enchanted by the town square and historic architecture. I stop at a traditional New Mexican restaurant called La Casa de Loera, and chat with Mike the waiter. I ask him where I can buy a nice bolo tie in town, and he says there’s a great store in town called Tito’s where they make their own jewelry.But it’s Sunday, and Tito’s is closed – as are most other places in town. So at the restaurant owner’s suggestion, Mike looks up Tito’s number in the phone book, and asks him if I can come over to the store and buy a bolo tie. Tito says that his wife Mary is over at the store right now – even though they’re closed. Mike walks me to the store.
I should add that I never asked Mike (or Tito) to do any of this for me. But this is what New Mexican culture is like – so friendly and down-to-earth. I walk into the store, and Tito’s wife Mary is there to greet me. “You want a bolo tie,” she says – as she shows me a couple of their hand-made wares. I really like the turquoise one, and she offers me a $25 discount for it. Then, she indulges my request to take a picture of me in my new bolo tie. She suggests we take it in front of a painting of the Las Vegas landscape.
I walk out of the store totally pleased, because now I have my Western gear complete. And I didn’t have to wait until I got to Santa Fe to buy a bolo tie, just to get conned by some tourist trap. “Santa Fe is overrated,” says Mike. Before leaving town, I check my e-mail – and see that my friend George (who I hung out with back in Oklahoma City serendipitously) commented on my Facebook status: “stop listening to your CD’s and put on the radio … New Mexico radio is awesome!” I keep that in mind, as I get back into my car.From Las Vegas to Santa Fe, Route 66 follows the Old Santa Fe Trail – which is steeped in its own history. As I follow the road amid the hills and forests, I think about how this trail was used by the Pueblo Indians, the Spanish Conquistadors and the U.S. army in 1846 who invaded Mexico to start the Mexican War. All the while, I have found a great radio station to listen to – Radio Free Santa Fe, which prides on its local independence.
A few miles away, I am in Pecos. That we don’t have a government shutdown doesn’t just mean that I can go to the Grand Canyon next week. It also means I can visit a lot of other national parks in the area – such as Pecos National Monument. Pecos was an ancient Pueblo village, until the Spaniards discovered it in 1581 and tried to convert everyone to Christianity. The park allows a beautiful tour through what are both old Pueblo ruins – as well as an ancient Spanish church that was later demolished. I take 45 minutes walking through the area, as I reflect on what has happened to this part of the world. But I don’t have much time … really want to get to Santa Fe.I’ve been to Santa Fe once before – when I was in High School, and on vacation with my family. And I remember it as a fun historic place, with a Plaza in the center. I was quite disappointed this time – the Plaza is nice with its historic adobe architecture. But the stores are all over-priced tourist traps, or uber-gentrified places like Sotheby’s. And at 4:00 p.m., the Plaza had nothing but homeless street kids – which reminded me of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, or Haight-Ashbury. I can see how as a 17-year-old, I would have thought it was cool. At 33, however, I’ve grown tired of that scene.
But I don’t want to trash Santa Fe – because I was only there for an hour. I will vouch, however, that the people are really nice. When the parking attendant (two blocks from the Plaza) learned I would only be there for an hour, he didn’t charge me – “just as long as you leave by 10:00 p.m.” And when I ordered coffee at a nearby bar, I didn’t have the cash – and the bartender refused my offer to pay with a debit card. That’s what New Mexico is like. Everyone here is so nice and laid-back.As I leave Santa Fe and head due south, Radio Free Santa Fe becomes harder to listen to – so I switch around the dial and find an Albuquerque station that plays ”
“Generation X” music. The mountains north of Albuquerque are nothing short of amazing, as I zoom down the I-25 with cars hitting 70-80 miles per hour. At Algodones, I exit the Interstate – and takes Route 66, which follows the El Camino Real all the way to Albuquerque.
As I drive along the Camino towards Albuquerque, the mountains lie on my left in all their majestic glory – while I sing along (and laugh) to all these old songs on the radio that hearken back to my 8th Grade and early High School years. The road goes through a couple Indian Reservations, before becoming more and more urban – until I finally reach my destination for the night. I’m staying at the Route 66 Hostel on Central Avenue for the night, which is by far one of the cleanest and most friendly youth hostels I’ve ever stayed at. It’s been another great day …