As I’m writing this, we’re driving down New Mexico Highway 60, under the giant cloud-floured mixing bowl of sky. The old prairie, the Llano Estacado, stretches away on all sides pretty much as far as the eye can see. The early Spaniards really did drive stakes into the ground through here to mark their path because they’d get lost otherwise. Standing here, looking at the prairie, I agree that yup, they certainly would have gotten lost.
Today the girls and I are out and about a little further than usual. I might make it as far as West Virginia ordinarily, but New Mexico is more western. For those of you who are a little fuzzy on US geography, New Mexico is the part north of Mexico (hence, our river is the Rio Grande de la Norte) and we’re between Arizona, Colorado, and Texas. Today we’re road-tripping across the eastern half of the state with my dad. Normally we’d take I-40 for a lot of this, but the interstate is hilly and infested with semis, and we’re pulling a gigantic trailer, so the back roads will be friendlier. Part of this route I’ve driven for as long as I can remember and part of it will be new to me.
We’re passing the Tolar Gravel Pit. I’m marveling at the sight of bare dirt piles! It’s beautiful dirt, a nice reddish-brown, and in Virginia it would get covered over with greenery in about two days flat. I obviously needed to get back to New Mexico if I missed dirt.
The girls are in the back seat coloring. Meg just got a new Paw Patrol color book, which is engrossing, but she looks up as we pass trains. Kate and I observe this one has five engines.
We’ve made it to Taiban, which pleasantly backs up to a little low line of red bluffs and is famous for two things: a wooden structure with all its doors and windows open to the sky and a sign reading “House 22.” For years that sign baffled me. I figured it pointed to a house, which was #22. Was this historic? (New Mexico is highly historic.) But WHERE WERE THE OTHER 21 HOUSES? I can count and there are not 22 houses in Taiban. My dad, about two years ago, finally explained that the sign meant 22 miles to the town House. Who would name a town House? For crying out loud.
I’m liking that building. FINNEY FARMS, it reads, DRINK MILK and EAT BEEF. Well, that certainly is clear.
We’re at Fort Sumner.
“That’s where Billy the Kid was buried,” my dad pointed out.
“Who was Billy the Kid?” asked Meg.
“Oh, he was an Old West desperado, kind of a troublemaker, a gunfighter, kind of a bad guy.”
“Why was he buried?” Meg wanted to know.
“I can’t remember if he was shot or hung, but the law finally caught up with him. Maybe he was shot by a sheriff or maybe he was hung, and then they buried him here.”
The little grill where we had lunch was full of rodeo memorabilia and featured Billy the Kid both in an eponymous burger and in the bathroom. That’s concerning, all things considered, but definitely historic, which makes it okay. As we were finishing, the proprietress came along and flipped all the signs from OPEN to CLOSED. “It’s hot in here,” she said. “Nothing to do but close for the day.”
The guy at the other table said, “Why, don’t you have air conditioning?”
She retorted, “You got ten grand for it?”
I feel that the girls and I have had a cultural experience.
Past Fort Sumner and the Pecos River valley, the road gets up into hill country. There seem to be more lonely windmills, kept company by cows hoping for shade. We’re almost under the clouds billowing out of the west that we saw earlier. Mesas are starting to loom blue on the horizon. We see about two other vehicles on the road, and one is labeled NANCY’S TRUCK. So there.
Our next stop was Yeso, New Mexico, a town I never previously heard of. You know how decay photography is kind of a thing, where the photographers love to shoot buildings that are falling apart? They should go to Yeso. It’s great. There are a dozen or so buildings that were probably at their prime around Route 66 era, and now you can see the local stones and boards and adobe they were constructed from. Turquoise Road leads off to the right, but I think that name might be optimistic. A new post office and a big adobe ranch house are the current signs of life.
A little further down the road there’s a random pull-off and two picnic tables with shelters. Clouds stripe the road with sun and shade, and one tree looms up photogenically. I photograph it. The fields now are full of cholla cactus instead of yucca and sagebrush.
More towns pass by, Vaughn and Encino. They’re bigger than Yeso, still with not much in the way of actual businesses, but the road is lined with closed motels with awesome mid-century signs.
We’re nearly to Clines Corners. It sits on a high part of the plateau surrounded by giant juniper. This is more similar to the wild lands where I grew up, where piñon pines and juniper grow in symbiotic pairs. I’m looking for the piñons, but I don’t see any. I know we had drought and a plague of bark beetles a few years ago; maybe the piñons haven’t grown back since then. At Clines Corner, the girls stand on a piece of petrified wood and I buy two New Mexico t-shirts, a quarter pound of fudge, and precisely eight taffies, which the girls eat and ruin their supper (oops).
We’re heading north to Santa Fe. Big rocks stick out of the ground for no particular reason. We’re getting back to my old stomping grounds; my home mountains line the horizon. To our left passes the Galisteo Basin where they filmed the first Thor movie. I originally saw that movie in a theater in Richmond, and, well, I’m not very good at watching movies quietly.
Normal people at Thor: “That’s Chris Hemsworth! Squee!”
Me: “That’s the Jemez Mountains! Those are my mountains! I know those mountains!”
I still think the mountains are cooler even than Thor, and we’re just about to them, so that’s exciting.
Yeah, it’s good to be out sharing this with the girls.
Photo Credit: All images by Carolyn Bales.