By Bill Wood
This first appeared in American Motorcyclist magazine in February 2004.
Our New Mexico adventure begins in Madrid.
Madrid is an odd mixture of Old West and New Age artists’ colony, somehow encompassing both the Mineshaft Tavern and the Silver Moon Gallery. It’s strange, but kind of fun.
Sandia Crest and its antenna farm. Photo by Daniel Schwen
Much more fun awaits down the road, though. Approaching the town of Golden, Route 14 winds through a series of corners going over a ridge, but that’s just the warmup act for New Mexico Route 536, which we pick up at the town of Sandia Park. From here, it’s 14 miles and about a million corners to the 10,678-foot summit of Sandia Crest.
My riding buddies and I ride through endless switchbacks to the summit, with its breathtaking overlook of Albuquerque, 1 mile straight down the near-vertical western face of the crest.
Everything about the high country of Sandia Crest combines to make this a memorable stop: the bracing wind, the thin air and the unnaturally deep blue sky. Best of all, we’ve got the same road to look forward to on the trip down.
When we get back to the bottom, we’re about 20 road miles from Albuquerque, where we plan to eat. So we make it an even 150 by striking out straight south on state Route 337, then picking up a short stretch of U.S. 60, before following the Rio Grande north on state Route 47.
Our route takes us through scrub-covered mountains before dropping us into a huge desert valley stretching for dozens of miles. The only thing moving, other than us, is a long Santa Fe freight train that’s dwarfed by the expanse of landscape.
By the time we make it to our meal stop at dusk, we’ve developed a serious hankering for tortillas, tamales and quesadillas. Fortunately, Los Cuates, an Albuquerque institution, delivers huge portions of authentic New Mexican cuisine. As we leave, the bikes are a whole lot closer to their gross vehicle weight ratings.
The final stage takes us up the winding, southwestern leg of Route 4 that we didn’t see this morning. Our group moves like a train through the darkness, with the overspray from our headlights revealing glimpses of red-rock canyon walls around the Jemez tribal reservation. As we shut down the bikes in the motel parking lot, a dome of stars is revealed, with the Milky Way arcing straight overhead. The dark shoulders of the surrounding mountains are identifiable only as the places where the stars disappear.
It would be enough of a day to satisfy any rider. But we’ve got another ahead of us, and as it turns out, New Mexico has plenty more to offer.
The next morning starts as a rerun of the first, with a trip on spectacular Route 4 through Valles Caldera and Los Alamos. But where we turned south toward Santa Fe before, we continue northeast on state Routes 503 and 76, also known as the High Road to Taos. And suddenly, we’re not in the United States anymore.
The landscape changes first, from Southwestern desert to the surface of Mars, with deep-red soil folded into convoluted shapes like crumpled paper.
But even more dramatic is what happens to the road. One minute you’re riding on something that looks very much like an American two-lane highway. Then you pass a sign warning you to slow down for a village, and the road narrows to a single lane winding among adobe structures that are just inches off the pavement.
Visually, many of the communities along this route have much more in common with Mexican villages than with anything on this side of the border. The houses look as old as the land itself, while the small shops are identified by signs in Spanish and by the colorful murals covering their walls.
The showplace of each community is something you first take to be a gaily decorated park. In fact, it’s the local cemetery, where each grave site is adorned with statues, icons and dozens of flowers.
One indication of how far removed these communities are from the modern world comes near the town of Trampas, where we pass a small hacienda whose source of water is a wooden aqueduct, carved from tree trunks, that spans a creek.
The road starts out meandering like a goat trail through every fold in the complex landscape. Then you find out why it’s called the High Road to Taos, as it climbs up onto an exposed ridge line with endless views in all directions.
We turn east on Route 75 at the town of Penasco, then north on 518 a few miles later. And once again, it’s a different world.
This time, we’re rolling through the dense fir trees and golden aspens of the Carson National Forest. High mountains stretch into the distance, their peaks disappearing in the clouds. Take away the New Mexico route signs, and you’d swear this was the heart of the Colorado Rockies.
Ahead is the ski resort town of Taos, laid out at the foot of New Mexico’s highest mountains. We come in through the back door, joining up with state Route 68, the main road up from Santa Fe. It’s easy to identify, since it’s carrying all the traffic we’ve avoided on the High Road.
After two days traveling through everything from volcanic craters to open desert, from deep forest to wind-swept peaks, it’s clear we’ve barely scratched the surface.