Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe lies an overlooked stretch of ghost towns, biker joints and eerie landscapes
Tires hum on rough asphalt, cold clean air blows in through open windows. We crest a rise in the two-lane road and the vista opens around us: a sea of rolling hills, pale golden swells dotted with spots of dark green juniper and piñon trees. To the east are the Sandia mountains, high jagged peaks piercing a vivid cerulean sky. We’ve reached the back side of the range, having escaped the gravitational tug of Albuquerque and its four-lane interstates.
Damn it’s good to be back home in New Mexico.
My mom, Kathie, and her husband, Mark, are along for the drive, and we’re idling north on Highway 14, a back road to Santa Fe. Some call this the Turquoise Trail, after one of the various minerals mined along the route since the 1800s. But even for a lot of locals it’s a lost route, an overlooked stretch of ghost towns and lovely, eerie landscapes.
Tourists may adore Santa Fe and its northerly cousin Taos, but most complain about having to fly into Albuquerque to reach those destinations. A haphazard sprawl across the high-desert valley, the city has taken some serious lumps in the press lately. I went to school here, but I get it. I’d want to get the hell out right away, too. That’s what I did as soon as I graduated college.
Of course, you could always just blast up Interstate 25 to reach Santa Fe in record time; the toilsome 55 mph limit of my youth is now a glorious 75. There’s even a train service, the Rail Runner. But forget all that. Nothing gets me into the slow, sun-seeped vibe of New Mexico like this road.
Directions: from the airport (or, to use its official title, the International Sunport (A) — as if you were dancing in on an intergalactic beam of light), jog right at the I-25/I-40 interstate exchange, forgoing the expeditious route north. You’ll transition out of the city and toward the Sandias, the 10,000-foot chunks of granite framing the city. Drop out of the highway flow at Tijeras (B), a canyon rift between the rising topography, and then slow the hell down.
You’ll be moving toward the back side of the Sandias now, passing Molly’s Bar, a biker joint worthy of a Robert Rodriguez film, and another road that leads to the top of Sandia Peak and truly stupendous views. That path is great — twisty and fun — and would make a perfect foil for my borrowed muscle car. But that’s not what we’re doing today, so we shoot by. Shortly after that turn-off, most signs of civilization come to a hard stop. You’re in real New Mexico now.
The engine is thrumming and the wide wheels spit gravel up into the metal underbody. My mom and I have taken this road hundreds of times. It was one of the first I drove as a teen with a driver’s permit. And it’s the only place I can think of that hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. There is something both ephemeral and eternal to this landscape. You can see very far. It almost demands re-training citified eyes; looking not just to there, feet away, but all the way to the horizon.
Out in the hills are secret towns like Hagan and Coyote, collections of collapsed buildings and rusted machinery that were once bustling mining centers. Highway 14 passes right through the ghost town of Cerillos, one of the earliest gold rush destinations in the southwest.
With nice twists and whoopty-do hills, this is fun driving at any time of year. Even winter, though it often brings snow, has its charms: The air gets even sharper and more clear, with none of the watery light of the Midwest or slate-gray ceilings of the East.
Now we’re picking up altitude, rising noticeably higher until, finally, the drop into the townlet of Madrid (C) (pronounced “MAD-drid” in these parts), roughly halfway along the 54-mile route. Hippies and artists moved in during the 1970s, and it’s a vibrant place despite the beaten, sagging buildings on the outskirts of the village. There are art galleries (of course), but the art is surprisingly good. There’s also an old-school soda fountain at a store called Jezebel and a hell of a green chile burger at the Mine Shaft Tavern.
I’ve never bothered to do the tour at the Old Coal Town Museum (the ramshackle joint looks like it might fall onto your head), but I have walked down the center of the road all the way through town on a sleepy sunny afternoon, unmolested by a single car brushing me out of the way. Madrid is the kind of place where you find yourself wondering what your life might become if you picked up and bought one of those houses with a turquoise-painted door.
And then northward, through another place where time seems to have stopped: Cerillos (D), once filled with booming hotels, brothels and bars and now little more than dirt roads and fake-fronted Western buildings. This is film-set land, and for good reason. You can’t recreate this stuff. Look up at the top of a bluff and a lonely wooden cross stares right back down at you.
Now come the final miles, where the topography changes again and you know you’ve left Albuquerque far, far behind. A long set of fine rolling hills takes you past the state penitentiary, where helpful signs warn against picking up hitchhikers.
On the horizon, Santa Fe (E). It’s a good town. But on this day, with family in the car and sunshine in my face, I half consider just turning around and doing 14 all over again. I hear Molly’s has a hell of a live band this afternoon.
Photographs by Steven St. John