New Mexico

June 25 - June 26


Sunday - Day Two

We leave Tusayan early in the morning, and take a detour on a federal highway to get back to the Interstate without retracing the path we took to get there. This detour crosses the highest point in Arizona, and returns to the Interstate just past Flagstaff. If we'd had more time we would've driven along the canyon and through the Painted Desert to rejoin the highway there but that would have taken us too much out of our way, and we want to be wise about driving through the desert. So we take Highway 180 instead and I read to Philip what we're missing.

Not that Highway 180 is disapointing. It is virtually deserted and runs through a couple of National Forests, which on the western side of the peak we are crossing consist of short evergreens and twisted deciduous trees like those that line the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The road we drive along climbs into a couple of mountains. As we near the first, we drive through typical desert-like land, with lots of scrub bushes and few trees. As we climb, we drive through forests which have been thinned by fire, and on our right (to the south) rises a hill with a spectacular red cliff. Then we go over one peak, and we descend into a green land; even the eastern side of the red-cliffed hill is green, so much so that Philip remarks that it looks like an Irish hill. Now the forest is taller, thicker, with birch trees among the pines. We come down into a plateau which houses ranches and lodges: a ski resort in winter. Then back into the forest, and down into Flagstaff.

Petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

"Did the forest get really really scared?"

This is what Philip says to me as we plan another detour into the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park on our way to New Mexico. He says that because as I read to him about the Grand Canyon, and what the AAA tourbook said that some tourists say after seeing it for the first time. Apparently these have been known to ask if the government built the canyon (!!??!!?!). So maybe the government scared the forest as well.

The Petrified Forest is that part of Arizona where archaeologists and palaeontologists go digging for dinosaur bones. Further west, we passed a part of the highway where there were dinosaur statues on either side of the road and a Dinosaur Museum where one could look at bones and buy bits of petrified wood, and right by the highway was a dig (Nico was very excited!!!). This was part of the National Park, but we didn't know at the time. It is called the Petrified Forest because it was, long ago, part of a swamp where trees fell into the bog and decomposed very slowly. Apparently the water also bore large deposits of silica and as this seeped into the wood it stayed and, over time and various drownings and dryings of the areas (subsequent Ice Ages I presume) these silica deposits were converted into quartz. The result: logs that look and feel like stones.

The Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

We didn't spend long in that park. We went in just long enough to let the tyres of the car cool (see below) and to wander around and take some photos, and then we went back on the road. We also entered in the desert end of the park, a fair way away from the Petrified Forest itself, and so we had to do with the bits and pieces of wood on display. There was, however, a cultural centre where we did go which used to be a hotel, and which has been restored as a mini-museum. It is furnished with early twentieth-century pieces and decorated with Indian artwork. Then we return to the highway and continue our drive.

Driving through the desert brings its own interesting problems. Perhaps the most dangerous is a potential tyre blow-out, brought about by increasing air pressure in the tyres from the hot roads. We left early - at 7:20 - but now it is midday and it is HOT. We keep passing tyre fragments looking like roadkill on the sides of the highway.


Gallup, NM, is a meeting place of many roads. The I-40, the 'historic' Route 66, state highways leading to different reserves, all meet in Gallup. P & I stop there to eat, let the car 'cool' off, and get gas. Then we set off again. The land we drive through is rolling and grassy, prairie maybe, with flat red-walled mesas to the north. These are beautiful, textured with bushes and striped red and white and pink and ochre. Clouds scud into ranks up ahead (the forecast did say rain) and cast shadows over this land, blacking out bits here and there. And we drive on.


The mesas near the highway as we move towards Albuqueraque, sometimes offering their red faces to our views. We drive through Navajo territory and what the map calls 'Indian Lands', and in places in the cliff faces are the cave dwellings of legend. I think of the Hopi and the Zuni, and think of 'The Sorcerer and His Magic' - this is the land of the boy who was forced into sorcery by being accused of being a witch. Most likely these dwellings are legendary tourist stops. As we near Albuquerque the land climbs, and when it crests a ridge we look down into the bowl of the city, through which flows the Rio Grande. This we cross much as we crossed the Mississippi in 1997 - with very little fanfare and no chance to get a view, on a four-lane highway bridge. At the city we turn onto northbound I-25, heading for Santa Fe and Las Vegas. Albuquerque spreads out like a table set for dinner. This road climbs some more, with a set of elephantine mountains to our right, and to the left, in the west, the mesas. This is the land of countless Cowboy-&-Indian movies. Now the Indians open casinos and tourist shops and draw the cowboys' money in.

Santa Fe

We pass the capital of New Mexico, its puebloesque houses, flatroofed, rising on slopes throughout the city, and the land becomes more mountainous, the hills around us rising smoothly, like a child's drawing, looking like inverted, wide-lipped Vs. The land is greener than it has been, and these hills are clothed in vegetation, though their red skins show through. The palette: adobe, skyblue, forest green. If this is the terrain in which the college nestles, it will be beautiful. After each ridge, we descend into greener country. And as if to explain why, the clouds overhead shade the land from the sun.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas ('The Meadows') is found in a country that rises towards the Rocky Mountains. It gets more rain than elsewhere, and is indeed greener than the rest of New Mexico that we have seen. But it is a very small town. Philip and I find the motel, which is located almost beyond the city limits, and go to dinner at an inn further up the main road that leads to town. In the morning we will get up, drive around the town, and then go on to Montezuma and the American UWC.


back to los angeles
back to day one
on to day three


san francisco
los angeles
new mexico
new york city
quebec city