Before Route 66 became the Mother Road of northern New Mexico in the 1920s, there was the Santa Fe Trail for wagon trains in the 1800s. And before then, Spanish colonists explored this region as early as the 1500s. Prior to their arrival, roads radiated out from the mysterious Chaco Canyon settlement, and pre-Columbian cultures traded turquoise down the Rio Grande to as far south as Mexico City. So migration through this area stretches back for eons.
Point being, when you experience the “Corvette roads” of New Mexico, you’re skimming over the stream of time. Early trappers and traders obviously didn’t cover the dusty, expansive landscape with the same speed and style, but they discovered its enchantments long, long ago. Which makes touring the area all the more compelling, given the astonishing depth of history that lies underneath the roadbed.
Starting with a more recent reference point, we checked out the remnants of Route 66 still in evidence a few miles west of Albuquerque, a city named for some obscure Spanish court official by a local politician looking to curry favor. (Some things never change.) Near Exit 140 off I-40, there’s the aptly named Route 66 Casino, which hosts car shows and other entertainment. Right across the highway is the abandoned Rio Puerco bridge, along with a short stretch of decaying asphalt with sagebrush sprouting between the cracks. This crumbling tarmac and rusty suspension structure serve as a mute tribute to the Mother Road. Let your mind wander back several decades, and you can imagine the endless stream of Model T and Model A Fords trundling over it to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. (Or perhaps, much later on, a brief appearance by Buz and Tod in a C1 Corvette from the Route 66 TV series.)
The NMCA (New Mexico Corvette Association), was on its way to the Route 66 Casino for a car show, so we prevailed on them for a few snaps to capture the feel of the area, along with some landmarks in downtown Albuquerque. David Gwilt, who heads up the association, has a nicely customized C6 that we plan to feature in a later issue.
Getting back to Historic Route 66, at one time it followed a circuitous path through Santa Fe, about an hour’s drive north, so we felt compelled to retrace it. But instead of taking a high-speed run on the I-25 highway, we followed poet Robert Frost’s advice and took the road less traveled: the Turquoise Trail. This two-lane blacktop heads north on at exit 175 on Rt. 14 from the eastern side of Albuquerque. (Be sure to top off your tank in town, as there’s only one gas station on this slower way to Santa Fe.)
Not only does this byway offer an opportunity to flex the suspension of your Corvette (bikers dig it for this reason as well), but it also offers a detour to the top of Sandia Peak. You won’t be able to resist bombing the curves and switchbacks that wind through the pine trees to grab one of those forever vistas of the Rio Grande valley at 10,000 feet. (You can also catch the same view by taking the Tramway from the western side of the peak.)
Once you’re down off the mountain, going farther north on the Turquoise Trail offers some other intriguing waypoints, such as the old mining town of Madrid. (Unlike the Spanish city of the same name, it’s pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable.) Now a haven for artists, gift shops, and honkytonks, it’s worth a stop for a bite to eat and some window shopping. It even has a Hollywood connection, since some scenes from the movie Wild Hogs were shot there.
Another movie location is a few miles up the road is the turnoff for Los Cerrillos, where some of the buildings on Main Street still show evidence of past movies filmed (Young Guns and Outrageous Fortune). There’s also a trading post that features Cerrillos turquoise, drawn from the oldest mining district in the United States.
The rest of the road to Santa Fe rolls through classic New Mexico landscape, ruddy hills dotted with pinion and juniper trees under a vast indigo sky, as depicted in the stunning scenery of the movie Silverado. When you finally come upon I-25, take the entrance ramp toward Las Vegas (that’s New Mexico, not Nevada). Otherwise you’ll end up on Cerrillos Road, which is the stop-and-slow way into town. Instead, stay on the freeway a few exits farther north, and then get off at Old Pecos Trail. It winds past Museum Hill, the site of a massive covered-wagon sculpture depicting a strenuous climb on the Old Santa Fe Trail. (A portion of Rt. 66 tracked over it before a disgruntled outgoing governor created a shorter, more direct route to Albuquerque.) Here we gathered with members of another Corvette club, fittingly named “Old Santa Fe Trail Corvettes.”
Maybe our editor called ahead (or warned them about me), because they were very hospitable and accommodating for group shots. Actually, credit should go to William Hon, a former fighter-jet pilot and retired transportation administrator for the city, who now is part-owner of the Primo cigar shop (it’s actually more like a plush man-cave). He pulled a few strings to round up his local Corvette buddies on short notice, showed us around town in his C5 and “Jake”-themed Stingray. He also hooked us up with a couple of Corvettes owned by local police departments. (Stay tuned for upcoming features on those.)
Both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque clubs enjoy socializing a lot, heading up to Hyde Park on the way to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, along with numerous other trips in the area. So visiting Corvette owners might want to touch bases with these clubs to see what’s cooking during their visit.
Be advised that summer is the high season in Santa Fe for both the Spanish and Indian marketplaces, with row upon row of vendors hawking handcrafted curios, turquoise jewelry, and Indian artifacts. Santa Fe, cited as the oldest capital in America, is now one of the top art markets in the country. If you’re into that sort of thing, don’t worry about trying to fit your collectibles into the limited storage areas of your Corvette, as most visitors just ship everything home. But you’ll need to plan well ahead for lodging to beat the crowds. The La Fonda and Loretto are two popular hotels located near the center of town.
The “shoulders” of the summer season are quieter, cooler times to take in the startling sights of this “City Different,” as it’s been dubbed. There’s an incredible array of galleries, museums, shops, and restaurants to relish. Try any of the local green-chili dishes, as they have a special tang. If you go out drinking, don’t forget that you’re at 7,200 feet, and it’s easy to get lightheaded. (Maybe that’s where the “Land of Enchantment” state motto originated.)
The pueblo architecture in the area is so unusual, that some novice visitors think they’re in a different country. Indeed, the local inhabitants have a reputation for being a bit “strange”—and they’re proud of that image. This counter-culture getaway has a free- spirited sense of “anything goes,” where you can shed a Puritanical conscience—yet not in a vulgar Vegas sort of way. It’s a place to relax the reins on your creative impulses and make your own personal “dream catcher.”
Fittingly, there are no straight roads in Santa Fe, so find a place to park and stroll around downtown, or wander down historic Canyon Road. It’s a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Park and chockfull of art and sculpture. Get lost in the maze of narrow streets, and you’ll be entranced by the tastes and textures, and go away feeling you’ve not only visited a faraway land, but also a forgotten time. vette
Writer’s note: This piece is dedicated to my father, Truman Temple, a long-time resident of Santa Fe, who taught me the value of a good turn of phrase.
|New Mexico Corvette Association www.nmcorvette.org|
|Old Santa Fe Trail Corvettes www.oldsantafetrailcorvettes.com|