18 September. Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Executive Summary: Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Bernal, Pecos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. 7:30 start; 6pm finish; 269 miles. Midnight, and I’m so exhausted that I can hardly keep my eyes open, so I’m calling it a night. I’ll update tomorrow and try to get some sleep in the meantime.
We all had agreed last night to try to get an early start this morning for what might be a long day mileage-wise, at least compared to our last several days (we predicted upward of 220 miles, plus detours). Dad and I were both awake and ready to go not long after 6am, but we waited patiently another hour to let everyone else sleep awhile. Since we had an internet connection, I wanted to review with the group the draft blog posts for the past 2 days, but since that would prove too time-consuming (let’s face it; these are long-winded), we unanimously decided to just throw the post on the web and get going, which we did shortly before 7:30 am. However, before we left, we provided some great entertainment for the handsome motel owner (who wanted me to write that – hi, Bill! :) ), who strolled over to see what we were up to. It must be fun for him and his wife, Terry, to meet a new group of assorted guests every day. Tom and I had observed that he spent a good deal of the afternoon coordinating parking for the motel’s guests, which he did in a limited space with great diligence and skill.
First up today was breakfast in Santa Rosa, but of course we took some detours on the way. Opting to follow the scenic / authentic road at least from Palomas to Montoya, That proved unwise. Rolling past farmers readying for their workday and cows lying or grazing next to the road – but of which gazed right back at us with curiosity – we marveled at how close the old Route 66 hugged the edge of the interstate right-of-way, seeming almost to hang right over it in places. A short bit along, the road turned suddenly muddy, a soft, red mud that looked treacherous. Encountering the first such spot, we stopped to take a closer look before attempting to drive it. Tom was okay taking the Skyliner through, so we proceeded; both he and Dad were marvelously skillful at maneuvering their large vehicles through that muddy spot and the nearby interstate underpass, which seemed a particularly tight squeeze for the camping rig. We continued through a couple of low-water crossings (one dry; one somewhat wet), but the third one stopped us dead. Wide and seemingly impassable, it was clear that the locals took a little off-road detour up and across the muddy shoulder, but none of us felt too comfortable with that notion, all envisioning ourselves spending the day trying to get un-stuck from that mud. So we (carefully!) turned around and headed back up the same road down which we had just come, likely to the great amusement of those (both farmers and cows) who had watched us merrily head out that way in the first place. As we buzzed on past a few minutes later on the interstate, we noticed that the department of transportation was already on the scene, unloading a Caterpillar likely to be moving around some dirt to fill in some of those low-water crossings.
We stayed put on the interestate, thus forced to skip Montoya, Newkirk, and Cuervo (three "dear but near-death towns, strung out like amulets on an antique Spanish chain") entirely, all the way west to Santa Rosa, another Route 66 icon that, unlike Tucumcari, needed little advertising, benefitting from the weather: "Presumably more people have been snowbound in Santa Rosa than in an other place on old Route 66 west of St. Louis. The old road, with its tail-twisting route, was far more difficult than the newer highway to keep clear. And with snow-removal equipment at a premium in this desert state, folks caught in blizzard conditions around here tended to stay put. . . That’s usually when they discovered that Santa Rosa wasn’t such a bad spot in which to be stranded." We stopped for breakfast, selecting (as much by chance as by choice) Joseph’s Bar & Grill, where their "Fat Man’s" friendly face has grinned for 53 years since 1956, serving up good food and live music – same family, same care for the traveler. When we asked our waitress whether she was part of the family that owned the place, she scoffed and told us candidly that she wouldn’t be working if she was.
Known as the "city of natural lakes," Santa Rosa features an 86-foot-deep sinkhole called the Blue Hole, its most famous artesian lake and a SCUBA diving haven. I was keen to see it (and would have liked to have gone diving in it, or at least for a quick dip – but we hadn’t the time for the former, and I thought it too cold for the latter; I would have been chilly the rest of the day), and it didn’t disappoint; a gorgeous little oasis of inviting blue water with pleasant surroundings and divers going down even as we arrived. Sadly, we had to be on our way, but we did see a cool stone water fountain sculpture on the town square on our way out.
There are two options for crossing New Mexico: the later, more direct alignment that is almost entirely interstate, heading due west from Santa Rosa through Milagro, Clines Corners, and Moriarty before reaching Albuquerque, or an older, more round-a-bout northern route. We chose this "Santa Fe Loop," which meant that we turned off the interstate at I40 exit 218 to head north by slightly northwest toward Las Vegas. We turned again sharply southwest just short of Romeroville (8 miles south of Vegas), following Route 66 on what is now mostly I-25 frontage. On the way north we were treated to pleasant mesa views, and some scenic ruins where the old Route 66 joins highway 285 in Dilia. North to Romeroville, we rose and fell with the now-mountainous terrain, pausing to photograph a charming concrete post bridge in a quiet canyon between there and Tecolote. We exited at Bernal to follow a short paved dead-end road to a 1916-era church with Starvation Peak, a tragic Santa Fe landmark, haunting the background. There, we found the church itself locked, but encountered something perhaps more interesting in the cemetery outside, where a worker was fashioning a headstone that will be shaped like a railroad locomotive. He clearly had put in a great deal of thought and workmanship on it already for the deceased – a railroad man who had been his friend – and we felt privileged to be able to view this work in progress. When he told us that it should be finished next week, we decided we should detour through here in order to see it, on our way back from California. Lucky us: unlike the early Route 66 travelers (or many of us, at most points in our lives!), we have the luxury of knowing that we shall pass this way again!
Continuing north and west, we stopped next at Pecos National Historic Park, an interesting park that is home to the ruins of a pueblo and mission church, where the Pecos Pueblo stood five stories high around 1100 A.D. We walked a short mission ruins trail that took us to see the remains of a pueblo mission church and parts of the pueblo itself: desolate, windswept adobe ruins in an amazingly beautiful site, flanked by the tree-covered Glorieta Mesa to one side and other mesas to the other, with pleasantly-rolling fields between. The Pueblo Indians apparently weren’t thrilled about the attempt to convert them to Christinity; no wonder that they eventually massacred the interlopers in around 1700 A.D.!
We spent some time walking the Pecos ruins and reading the loaner guide about the mission’s rise and fall, and we learned from the park ranger that it had been raining in the area for a week – which explained the washed-out, muddy roads we had encountered earlier.
This area saw some heavy civil war action at Glorieta Pass, and we searched in vein for the Glorieta Battlefield, site of a pivotal civil war battle in which Union troops ambushed a railroad train and seized vital supplies in March 1862. I had been fascinated to learn this, not having realized that the civil war was fought this far west – and I certainly didn’t recognize the name of the battle here! So I was disappointed not to be able to find the site – although we did discover an attractive Baptist convention center on the site of where most of the tourist literature indicated that the battle would have been fought.
Next up was the Glorieta Pass, at over 7500 feet, the highest point on pre-1937 Route 66. From there we plunged down toward Canoncito and Santa Fe, stopping to see a Santa Fe Trail Marker (Route 66 follows several highways through New Mexico: the El Camino Real, the Old Santa Fe Trail, the Ozark Trail, and the National Old Trails) and a Nuestra Senora de la Luz church at Canoncito – a Spanish-style adobe structure with a wistful-looking hillside cemetery of wooden crosses – before continuing toward Santa Fe through some amazing views.
A detour forced us to reroute south and west before returning to the Old Pecos Trail and then the Santa Fe Trail into downtown. With some difficulty (which surprised us; we would have thought that they would want to encourage people to drop off vehicles and walk around to spend money!) we found parking for both vehicles near the visitors’ center, stopping there to pick up maps and advice before setting out on foot for a downtown walking tour. I inquired about the oldest church, house, and bell in the United States, the Loretto chapel, the End of the Trail monument, the 1867 soldiers’ monument, La Bajada, and a local place where we might find ice cream. The gentleman stuck answering my questions provided us with a map but little else: he didn’t recognize La Bajada (an interesting part of old Route 66, where a pre-1966 road carved a long gash across a slope to a treacherous series of switchbacks that can still be hiked today, west of town) and the oldest bell, but was able to point out most of the other places on a map – although (flashbacks to Lebanon, Missouri, another town lacking local ice cream treats) he said there were no local places where we would be able to get ice cream, suggesting a Baskin Robbins near the Plaza. Wow, I never realized that ice cream was such a rarity at local establishments!
I have to confess to being disappointed with Santa Fe, which struck me as way too over-commercialized; not at all the down-to-earth, semi-granola community I had imagined. I had never been there before, and had envisioned an artsy, laid-back town of friendly, creative, down-to-earth people, some old west atmosphere, and heavy Mexican influence. I was unimpressed. We drove into town via a lengthy street lined with one kitchy souvenir shop or purported artistic gallery after another, all eagerly touting wares for sale rather than celebrating New Mexico’s beauty or art in general. And the man at the visitors’ center seemed most eager to direct me to an 8-block stretch of road apparently packed with more shops! Then everywhere we went, we were underwhelmed by the sights we had come to see, but overwhelmed with the hard-sell. We skipped the Mission Church altogether, after I realized that (in addition to charging admission!) they required visitors to actually pass through the gift shop in order to enter the church. We all coughed up the $3 to enter the Loretto Chapel and see the miraculous staircase, built with 37 steps and two complete 360-degree circles but without any support or nails. A canned 9-minute audio told us its history and that of the chapel surrounding it, now privately owned and part of a spa complex – and adjoining a mini mall of souvenir shops. Santa Fe’s downtown Plaza was so tightly packed with souvenir stores that it was difficult even to see through to the plaza itself, on which we decided to pass, not having the stomach to run the gauntlet of vendors. I was disappointed not to see the End of the Trail marker there – but the weather pretty much spelled out the end of the trail for us, with a cloudburst hitting while we were in the Loretto Chapel. I volunteered to run back and return with the pickup to pick up the rest of the group so that one instead of five would become soaked. After fetching everyone else, we decided to get out of downtown and make straight for Albuquerque, and skip La Bajada, which sounded interesting to me but was unfamiliar both to Doc (who lives less than an hour away) and to the man at the visitors’ center right there in town – perhaps it isn’t as interesting as I had been lead to believe by all the guidebooks... Although I wondered about this, noting that the vistas as we descended from Santa Fe toward Albuquerque were spectacular.
Instead, we hopped on the interstate, following I-25 south. Making amazing time on the freeway from Santa Fe, we reached Doc & Kathy’s place in the northern Albuquerque suburbs by 6pm. I know them through Bernie, who worked with Doc before they left Colorado Springs, relocating here, several years ago. I hadn’t seen them in many months, and this seemed a perfect opportunity not only for me to catch up with them, but to be able to introduce them to my family. And I knew that the Stich brothers would be fascinated by Doc’s rocketry work – with which he indeed fascinated Dad, Tom, and Don after dinner by showing them his current project, complete with video footage of a recent launch.
We had intended to treat them to dinner someplace in Albuquerque, but when I asked Doc for a recommendation, he told me that we were going to eat "at a really nice restaurant... in there," pointing to their house. They must have been hard at work all afternoon, because we entered to find appetizers awaiting: we sipped and nibbled on wine, beer, cheese & crackers, fresh fruit, and chips and salsa, seated around a table on their back terrace with a gorgeous view up Sandia Peak on the slopes of which their neighborhood is nestled. Moving inside to the dining room, we feasted on a delicious banquet of corn on the cob, ribs (Dad’s all-time favorite!), rolls, and assorted vegetables, topped off by some kind of German chocolate cake that was delicious but so rich that I thought I would burst.
They didn’t think it would work to leave the camper in the street overnight, so Mom and Dad drove it to a nearby casino and slept in it in a parking lot there. Meanwhile, Tom & Don (who would stay in the guest room) and I (an air mattress in the office) decided to watch Jay Leno with Doc & Kathy... but we all were falling asleep, and decided to call it a night before midnight.