Before this trip, I’d never been to Colorado or New Mexico before. I’d never seen the Rocky Mountains, and although I had been to Arizona, it was almost 20 years ago, and I didn’t get the same perspective that I had this time. This time I found myself truly marveling at the landscape, the mountains, the desert, the overall expanse of land that exists in so much of the United States.
After all, I am a Northeasterner: born in the Bronx, raised in the suburbs of NYC, and a resident of New England since I was eighteen years old. I’ve never lived in the country; I’ve never lived more than 90 miles from a major metropolitan area. I now live a few miles from Springfield, Masschusetts, and about 25 miles from Hartford, Connecticut. Although Springfield and Hartford aren’t huge cities, they are densely populated urban areas without much open space.
It’s true that from our home we can drive thirty minutes or less and be in fairly rural places—farms are nearby, and the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire are just two hours away. But even in those places, you don’t see miles and miles of empty road surrounded by undeveloped land with barely a sign or gas station or store to be seen.
So driving through Colorado and especially New Mexico was eye-opening for me. We took I-25 south from Denver and headed to New Mexico. Here we were on an interstate highway, the speed limit 75 miles an hour, and within a short distance from Denver, we began to see mountains. I snapped photo after photo as we sped by, trying to capture the Rocky Mountains from the car.
Fortunately, we decided not to take I-25 all the way to Santa Fe, but stopped overnight in Raton, New Mexico, the first town over the state line from Colorado, about three hours south of Denver. It was not a scenic place. We stayed in a Best Western right off the highway, and the highest rated restaurant in town on TripAdvisor and Yelp was the place right in the Best Western. It was not good. But it was edible. There was no nightlife in Raton, so we rose early to get started on the rest of our journey.
Before we left Raton, however, I’d spotted a brochure for “Historic Raton” in the motel lobby and asked the person at the front desk how to get there. She very pleasantly gave me directions, though I have to think she wondered why I wanted to see the town. The town consisted of two parallel streets of buildings (with two or three cross streets) about maybe a quarter mile long. And almost all the buildings were empty, boarded up, out of business. It was depressing.
But it was important for us to see. This was a town that had once been an important mining town, according to the brochure. Even more recently those stores and building must have been occupied. What did the people who lived in Raton now do for work, besides work at the Best Western and the few fast food places near the highway? Is this why so many people in this country feel so disenfranchised, so angry? Sure, there is poverty in all kinds of places all over the country. Springfield itself has a large population of people who are unemployed or underemployed, living in desperate conditions. But a whole town of almost all empty buildings? What must it be like to live in such a place?
We left Raton with a sense of gratitude for all that we have and with a sense of embarrassment that we generally take so much for granted.
And then we ventured on towards Santa Fe. This time we took Route 64, a two-lane road running southwest into New Mexico. For the first forty miles or so, the road ran straight and flat through miles and miles of ranch land. The endless fields of dry beige and green grass, speckled here and there with cattle, were mesmerizing. We both just kept saying, “This is incredible! Look at how much land there is.” I wish my little iPhone camera could capture the scope of open land we saw. There were mountains in the distance, but overall the land was flat and wide as far as we could see.
Then we entered the Cimarron Canyon area, and the terrain suddenly changed. We were surrounded on both sides by walls of tall evergreen trees and then incredible stone formations above and in front of us as we followed the winding roads up and down and up and down the terrain. It was like going from a huge empty room into a tiny dark hallway that twisted and turned so that you couldn’t see where it would end. And it was gorgeous. It was truly gorgeous.
And then it got better. We passed through the canyon and emerged at the top of hill overlooking the Eagle Nest area with a large blue lake below us to the left and the mountains shadowing us to our right. In just over sixty miles we had seen three very different types of terrain. And barely a town or even many cars. Who owned all those ranches? Who worked on them? Where did they live? We didn’t know.
From Eagle Nest we drove another thirty miles to Taos, passing through more open land and more mountain roads. We stopped briefly in Taos to stretch our legs, but we knew we were coming back there after our stay in Santa Fe, so we did not take the time to look around.
After following Route 64 for about 100 miles (and for just over two hours), we picked up Route 68 in Taos to take the “low road” or “river road” to Santa Fe. The first portion of Route 68 was awe-inspiring as we looked down at the Rio Grande and climbed high and twisted roads over the mountains and back down again. In front of us and to our left we could see the white snow-covered peaks of the mountains while to our right we could see the deep gorge that the Rio Grande had carved into the land around it.
Finally, after passing through the rather non-scenic section of Route 68 near Espinola, we arrived in Santa Fe by lunch time. And there we settled for the next four days, having now seen both how beautiful and inspirational our country can be and also how sad and empty it can be.