In praise of the back roads


David Whitley goes the long way round in New Mexico, and is very glad that he did so


What on earth is that? We’ve come through the high pine forest, careering around curving roads that look down into deep gullies. It’s one of those roads that’s an undisputed joy to drive along, yet suddenly it changes. After a descent, the horizon gets all big – but with something rather weird blocking the way.


They look like rolling sand dunes, but seem oddly crusted – as if the sand has been baked and hardened. As far as I can work out, they’re not sandstone, and they’re not your usual rock formations either. They’re, well, a field of lightly toasted yellow hills.


This is the sort of thing you get when you go the long way. When there are two routes, and one might take an hour or so longer than the boring, obvious one, it’s almost always better to take the fun option.


It’s a theory that proves itself again and again as we travel through New Mexico. Detour one from Santa Fe to Albuquerque loops past a giant, green, volcanic caldera, then rusty, red rock monuments that feel like they’ve come from central Australia.


Detour two heads through turquoise country, and Cerrillos, a town that looks so old-fashioned Wild West that westerns are still shot there. It also has an unfathomably weird Turquoise Mining Museum, which is less a museum and more a collection of junk that the owners couldn’t bear to throw out. Dozens of old poison bottles, rattlesnake skulls and bison horns leave little space for the undoubted highlight – a wall full of different types of barbed wire.


Shortly after comes Madrid, one of those delightful little hippy villages that only hangs out on back roads. It’s all bright paint, ramshackle wooden buildings and tie-dye. A sign in the café says: “In 1897 nothing happened here”. And no-one seems to mind – it’s an old mining town that artists moved into back in the 1970s because housing was cheap. They’ve stayed and it’s now the sort of place that bikers come miles out of their way for in order to get a brownie and a smoothie.


But it’s not the stops that count so much as the journey. It’s all about doing something because you can rather than because you have to, and that changes the mindset. Whimsy and silliness creep in, time stops feeling so restrictive.


The final detour comes on the way to Tucson. It turns a four hour drive into a five-and-a-half hour drive, but provides us with the most astonishing scenery we’ve seen in a state that’s pretty much 100% astonishing scenery.  Blackened stumps of recently burned trees sprinkle the backdrop as we climb high over the continental divide, mountain range after mountain range lining up in waves in the distance. We start adding to the drive time: there are going to be plenty of photo stops.


Eventually the road ends up in Silver City, an unexpectedly lovely university town that has preserved its pioneer-style buildings and turned many of them into galleries, cafés and pubs. We plonk down in a gelato bar, and get chatting to the owners. They’re from Baltimore originally, but after a few visits, Silver City got under their skin and they decided to move. What they’ve created is something more than an ice cream shop, however. People are sat around playing board games and one part of the room can be sectioned off for community meetings. It’s important to be sociable, that’s the message. And it’s one that fizzles through the town that has fallen firmly on the creative side of New Mexico’s arts vs military divide.


A short refreshment break turns into something more – a glimpse of a town’s heart. We wander for an hour or so, increasingly charmed and less concerned about getting to Tucson for any particular time. The back roads, again, have worked a curious magic.

by David Whitley