Won­der of the wilder­ness

A whirl­wind tour of New Mex­ico proves en­chant­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By JES­SICA KWONG

HAV­ING trav­elled through much of the Amer­i­can South­west, from the golden Cal­i­for­nia coast to the red deserts and ma­jes­tic forests of Ne­vada, Ari­zona, Utah and Colorado, I had one state left to see.

But when I pro­posed a tour of New Mex­ico, all my Cal­i­for­nia friends asked, “What’s in New Mex­ico?”

I wasn’t ex­actly sure my­self, but I’d heard of the white sands and adobes, and I was able to con­vince my dad, who was not too thrilled at first, ex­cept for en­tic­ingly cheap flights.

I had him at “less than US$100 (RM428) flights round trip”, LAX and Al­bu­querque. Al­le­giant Air of­fers fares as low US$35 (RM150) each way – if you’re OK with ran­dom seat as­sign­ments and just one small per­sonal item to carry on. You leave Thurs­day, late af­ter­noon, and re­turn Sun­day night.

My pro­posed itin­er­ary was to spend the first day in the south at White Sands Na­tional Mon­u­ment and see any­thing else along the way. The sec­ond day would be split be­tween Santa Fe and Taos, and our fi­nal day would be be­tween Taos and Al­bu­querque.

Soon, af­ter do­ing his own re­search, my dad added a hand­ful of other places to ex­plore.

When we landed in Al­bu­querque In­ter­na­tional Sun­port, we were greeted by a mostly empty but beau­ti­fully adorned, turquoise-and-tan build­ing. Ground trans­port was easy – free shut­tles to the rental car area, with au­dio wel­com­ing us to the “Land of En­chant­ment”.

We drove south, straight to our Com­fort Inn & Suites at a town with the most un­usual name I’d heard of: Truth or Con­se­quences. Interstate 25 (I-25) was flaw­lessly smooth com­pared with the high­ways South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans are used to, the sky vast and full of stars.

At the crack of dawn, we had a con­ti­nen­tal break­fast and took pictures at the Truth or Con­se­quences sign be­fore hit­ting the road. The town with a pop­u­la­tion of about 6,500 is known for its spas, but with our light­ning itin­er­ary, we had no time for that.

Af­ter an hour and 45 min­utes south on I-25 and east on US Route 70, we reached White Sands. As we drove through the gates of the na­tional mon­u­ment, the land­scape around us faded from generic brown to white so bright it looked like snow.

There were dunes of snowy sand as far as the eye could see – equally scenic, mi­nus the ice cold. On a longer trip, I would def­i­nitely have gone sled­ding.

Very Large Ar­ray

Time was of the essence, though, and we had a three-hour drive ahead so we hit US Route 54 and con­tin­ued west on US Route 380 past the small towns of San An­to­nio and So­corro, then west on US Route 60 to New Mex­ico State Road 52 south to the Very Large Ar­ray, a must for my dad, who’s an as­tron­omy en­thu­si­ast.

Driv­ing up the dirt road, with a fleet­ing GPS sig­nal, we trusted our pa­per maps and weren’t sure we were go­ing in the right di­rec­tion un­til we saw sev­eral very large ra­dio an­ten­nas in the dis­tance. The thought of them was spooky – 27 an­ten­nas in a Y-shaped con­fig­u­ra­tion in the mid­dle of nowhere, pur­posely planted to ex­plore the uni­verse out­side our own.

This ad­ven­ture brought us to the late af­ter­noon, and time to book it to our last sight­see­ing des­ti­na­tion. The week­end be­fore Thanks­giv­ing hap­pened to be the Fes­ti­val of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Luck­ily, it wasn’t far – just south of San An­to­nio.

There are two times to see thou­sands of sand­hill cranes take flight – half an hour be­fore dawn or half an hour be­fore sun­set. We nar­rowly missed the lat­ter, but still saw hun­dreds of cranes fly­ing home af­ter a day of for­ag­ing.

An-hour-and-a-half back up I-25, we reached Al­bu­querque Old Town, where we had din­ner at the High Noon Res­tau­rant & Sa­loon, a sug­ges­tion from a travel guide­book.

The am­biance was rus­tic and the South­west­ern cui­sine im­pressed.

Af­ter din­ner, we con­tin­ued north on I-25 to our mo­tel in Santa Fe. In the morn­ing, we made a short drive to Santa Fe Plaza, the cen­tre of arts and culture. We strolled adobe-lined streets, took in the ar­ti­san crafts for sale on the side­walks, and passed more museums than we could keep track of. On our way out of town, we drove up Canyon Road, which has more than 100 art gal­leries and stu­dios within a mile.

We got to our next des­ti­na­tion, Ban­de­lier Na­tional Mon­u­ment, driv­ing an hour north on US Route 285 to New Mex­ico State Road 502 to New Mex­ico State Road 4. The main loop trail, a 2km path, was an easy, hour-long hike through hu­man-carved al­coves. Ladders al­lowed us to climb up and ex­pe­ri­ence what it was like for peo­ple who lived there more than 10,000 years ago.

From Ban­de­lier, we back­tracked to the White Rock over­look, an un­ob­structed view of the Rio Grande. By the time we got to the town of Los Alamos, which boasts the Brad­bury Sci­ence Mu­seum, it was closed and dark. Next time.

Taos stop

The roughly hour-and-a-half drive to Taos mostly on New Mex­ico State Route 68 felt long but was scenic, with mul­ti­ple changes in el­e­va­tion. We treated our­selves to a nice din­ner at a mod­ern north­ern New Mex­ico res­tau­rant in the El Monte Sa­grado spa and re­sort. I or­dered a chipo­tle maple-glazed elk ten­der­loin, rich and fill­ing, and my dad got red chili spiced hal­ibut.

Taos was small and easy to get around. Af­ter break­fast at the cosy World Cup Cafe, we drove 15 min­utes on US Route 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which gave us an­other per­spec­tive of the river – a queasy one for those afraid of heights.

Go­ing back the di­rec­tion we came from and tak­ing a slight de­tour, we took a step back in time at the Taos Pue­blo, a Unesco World Her­itage Site. The Pue­bloan peo­ple still thrive in the well-pre­served red­dish-brown adobe struc­tures and didn’t seem to mind tourists too much. We saw chil­dren play­ing, lit­tle girls picked up slabs of ice from a stream, and many doors were open to vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially if they wanted to buy sou­venirs.

Back in town, we checked out Taos Plaza, which was very quiet, and had lunch at Five Star Burg­ers, which served up big, bold-tast­ing pat­ties made of bi­son, lamb and beef.

The drive back to Al­bu­querque to catch our plane that night took just un­der two hours. We spent a few hours en­joy­ing the his­toric Old Town Plaza area, which had a dif­fer­ent feel from Santa Fe. The down­town was rel­a­tively small and mostly sleepy on a Sun­day. I made a note to visit the city dur­ing the Al­bu­querque In­ter­na­tional Bal­loon Fi­esta in Oc­to­ber.

It was a whirl­wind road trip, but with more sights than I’ve seen within rel­a­tively short dis­tances of each other. So what is in New Mex­ico? More en­chanted places than you can imag­ine. – The Or­ange County Reg­is­ter/Tribune News Ser­vice

Late af­ter­noon in the Red Rocks area of north­ern New Mex­ico, fea­tur­ing amaz­ing colours and rock for­ma­tions. — Pho­tos: 123rf.com

Dunes of snow-white sand at White Sands, as far as the eye can see, mi­nus the icy cold tem­per­a­tures. A mem­ber of the Taos Pue­blo sells ar­ti­san crafts and goods in­side one of the adobe build­ings. — TNS

The an­cient adobe houses of the re­stored na­tive pue­blo.

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