Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Visit to Albuquerque

People like to break things up into neat little groups.  It is a technique people use in order to try to simplify a world that, in reality, is quite complicated.  In the United States, we take our cities, and break them out into various groupings.  We place cities in groups based on their region, their size, and sometimes even by culture.  I am as guilty as anyone of doing this.  But, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a place that reminds us that we need to respect two basic tenants of humanity, which apply both to the Cities we visit, as an entity, as well as to each and every one of us individually.

Each City, just like every one of us, has a distinct and unique individual identity.  In this identity, we see reflections of factors such as its geographic location, its history, and some of its specific influences, such as specific personalities and prominent industries.  We also see some specific quirks that cannot be easily explained just by looking at what we observe elsewhere.  It is the same way with each and every one of us.  When we are being true to ourselves, our behavior patterns manifest in a similar unique manner, a manner that can only be described as attributed to our unique person.  I feel it every time any one of my friends responds to anything I do or say by simply saying “That’s so Steve”.

Also embedded in the character of any City I have ever visited are reflections of natural law, or the universal truths that bind us all together.

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Albuquerque reminded me of both of these two basic facts.  Albuquerque has a unique heritage.  It has similar beginnings as Santa Fe, and even has an Old Town Square that reflects these beginnings.

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However, much of the city was built in a much more sun-belt style car-centric manner.  It is one of the most storied towns along historic U.S. route 66.  Route 66 embodies multiple eras of U.S. history, including the mass migration to California during the Great Depression, and later the first decade after the second World War, when the American road trip first became accessible to a large swath of the American people; the middle class.

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Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the end of the 1970s.  While the route covers a large distance, traversing many different parts of the country, it is the Southwest, New Mexico and Arizona, that is often most commonly pictured when people imagine that classic road trip on route 66.  While the exact location of the route 66 town in Disney’s Cars is not disclosed, the imagery in the movie clearly points to a southwestern location.

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Albuquerque celebrates its pivotal position along route 66 by both preserving some of the places that were legendary stops for travelers along this highway.

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As well as creating restorations that recreate the experience of being at a travel stop along the old highway, much the same way old west towns recreate the American West during the 1800s.

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Route 66 is even the subject of a major controversy in town.  A proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, called Albuquerque Rapid Transit, would more or less follow the path of historic route 66 through town.  Residents of a hip area of town adjacent to the University of New Mexico called Nob Hill appear united in opposition to the project.  Some of the signs I saw opposing the Albuquerque Rapid Transit referenced protecting the heritage of route 66.  However, I wonder if this opposition is motivated by route 66 preservation, or the desire to avoid any changes to the neighborhood.

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Regardless of whether the people are motivated by the desire to preserve route 66 in its historic format, or preserve their neighborhood the way it currently is, on display here is one aspect of humanity that appears consistent across all cultures.  When people are enjoying their current situation, they generally do not desire change, and, in many cases, will fiercely oppose it.  This has been the case for me, personally, at various stages in my own life, and is also evident in a lot of the behaviors I observe in others when they react to changes in the workplace or their favorite social media outlet.

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It also appears to be basic human nature to seek out a broader view of the world from time to time.  It is the reason people go to the top of the world’s tallest building, hike Mount Rainier, or sit and gaze down at Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign.  Albuquerque’s answer to this is the Sandia Peak Tramway.

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This tramway takes passengers on a 15-minute ride from a base elevation of 6559 feet (already significantly higher than the center of town), to a peak of 10,378 feet. Here, visitors to the area can see unique rock formations.

 

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Learn about the unique biomes that can be found in the mountainous terrain (Breckenridge has a similar exhibit, but uses an actual garden).

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And, can get a view overlooking this city that actually covers a much broader area than just the Albuquerque city limits.  In fact, Sandia Peak is so high that it is quite difficult to make out individual buildings or even neighborhoods in town!

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The culture is unique as well, seeming to combine so many aspects of the West and Southwest.

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Along the Rio Grande River, which cuts through the center of town, a bike trail, as well as numerous parks provide the urban outdoor space that Westerners seem to value so much.  Whereas, in many other cities I have visited and lived in, living in close proximity to a park is desirable, but kind of a bonus, it feels as if people here in the West view being near a park as a prerequisite, a necessity of life itself!

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On this particular Sunday afternoon, a parade of classic cars rolled through Old Town Square, showing off their classic appeal, and the hard work each and every car owner put into maintaining their vehicle’s shine.

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That evening, on the West side of downtown, another group of people are gathered, also showing off their vehicles, and, almost downright partying.

When I think of all the cars revving their engines up at night, all I can say is, “That’s so Albuquerque”.  One could speculate what mix of cultural influences, old Spanish, sunbelt, Western, Hispanic, etc. lead to Albuquerque being the way it is today.  But it is more than that.  The same can be said about any other place one would visit.  That is why we travel, not just when we need to go somewhere for business, or when we wish to visit people that live in another place, but also when we desire an experience we simply cannot have in our respective hometowns.

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

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Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

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The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

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The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

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The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

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One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

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Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

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The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

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Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

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It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

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The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

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Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.

 

 

An Old World Town in a New World Region

In the U.S.A., we are quite accustomed to the seeing certain kinds of towns in certain parts of the country.  Since cities were built earlier on the East Coast, we expect to see towns laid out like Boston, Annapolis, or Charleston.  These cities tend to be a bit more challenging to navigate, as is particularly the case with Boston.

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By contrast, in the Western part of the country, we expect to see towns built more around automobile (or the automobile’s predecessor in the late 19th Century, the horse drawn carriage).  Cities like Phoenix, designed with driving in mind, have mostly straight-line roads, with suburban areas having windy subdivisions.

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This is what we have come to expect from towns in this part of the country.  So, when I first looked at Santa Fe’s road network, I was quite surprised to see a city full of windy roads that resembled something I would expect to see along the East Coast, or in Europe.

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Oddly enough, New Mexico is one of the oldest regions in the U.S., at least when it comes to architecture.  The historical lineage is just different.  New Mexico is home to over a hundred Native American Pueblos that date back to long before anyone associated with the United States of America would arrive.  Many of them are still inhabited, with some having been inhabited for over 1000 years!  This is quite a long time for this part of the world.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol city was founded originally as a Spanish colony in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower would come ashore in Massachusetts, and still retains much of its original Spanish style.  In some ways, driving into New Mexico feels like entering a whole different region, fairly instantaneously.  I first noticed this storm chasing in college. It was my first time in New Mexico, or Arizona.  I was previously unaware of the prevalence of adobe style buildings in these two states, and was somewhat surprised to see how abruptly the styles of the building around me changed once I crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico.

Santa Fe appears to have retained much of its cultural heritage.  Aware that New Mexico has a substantial Spanish history, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out a Spanish restaurant downtown.

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Taberna came highly recommended by the staff at the hotel, and certainly did not disappoint.  The food was excellent, and, on this particular evening, a performer named Jesus Bas performed for the customers.  I sincerely, if only for a moment while sipping a glass of wine, tasting enchiladas, and hearing Spanish music, felt like I was in Spain.  Well, at the very least, it made me want to go to Spain.

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I decided to somewhat follow in the footsteps of one of the people who inspired me to start writing about my travels, Anthony Bourdaine.  For those not familiar, he is a chef who eventually became the host of a series of food related travel shows.  I watched a lot of his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations, where he did not just simply describe the food he was eating, he would also reflect upon the experience, what certain places made him feel like, and what historical context they can be placed in and such.  His current show, which is actually a bit less food focused and more focused on the travel is called Parts Unknown.  So, I was actually quite excited to see a souvenir shop actually called Parts Unknown.  Additionally, the shop is located only a few doors down from one of the places Anthony Bourdaine visited on the Season 2 episode where he travels around New Mexico; the Five and Dime, a shop where he gets a Frito Chili Pie, a commonly served dish in New Mexico.

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I did not end up getting the Frito Chili Pie, as there were a limited number of meals I could have here in Santa Fe.  I mostly just looked around at the souvenirs available in this shop, which featured Santa Fe’s connection to one of my favorite aspects of American History, route 66 (although the route bypassed Santa Fe starting in 1937).

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I ended up going to a place called Horesman’s Haven, a small restaurant on the edge of Santa Fe famous for authentic New Mexican style food where Anthony Bourdaine was caught off guard by the level of spice in their green chili.

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My chili was not quite as spicy, but still packed quite a punch.  I am glad it did!  Many people try to avoid spicy food while on vacation, to avoid experiencing an upset stomach while far from home.  In this case, the level of spice was an important part of the experience.  Life is meant to be experienced.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to avoid bad outcomes.  In my view this is a sure fire way to miss out on countless rewarding experiences.  Bad outcomes are going to happen.  We just need to manage them in our own way.  Missing out on a whole bunch of experiences, and I am talking about things much more significant than one high quality meal, bears a much greater cost than the occasional unfavorable outcome.

I am guessing this is the attitude taken by the unexpectedly high number of people who make a living as an artist in this town.  In the downtown part of Santa Fe, it seemed like half of all buildings house art galleries.  Santa Fe is known for art galleries, but there seemed to be way more than is necessary to support a town of roughly 70,000 people, even if all of those people are wealthy and have dozens and dozens of pieces of artwork hanging from all of their walls.

Like New Mexico as a whole, Santa Fe appears to have an interesting set of values that does not fit neatly into one of the categories we have become familiar with.  It is western, but also European.  It is cowboy, but also quite diverse.

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It is a state capital, but has a state capital building that looks nothing like any of the other ones I have seen across the country.

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It is the kind of place that erects historical markers dedicated to fiscal responsibility, an important, even if not flashy, achievement, and one that reflects the western values of personal responsibility.

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It is also a place that erects building dedicated to the memory horrible death marches in Europe.

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It is both “old world”, and “new world”.  It does what we all need to do, both in our own cities, and more importantly, individually.  It combines old ideas with new ideas in a way that uniquely represents its individual identity.

Road Trip to Santa Fe

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I spent about half a decade working in the Insurance Industry, an industry with a significant presence in Bermuda.  At workshops, conferences, and in meetings, I would regularly interact with people who lived there.  The place certainly has its draw, and with the right opportunity, a person with experience in the industry could make a really good life there, despite the high cost of living.

I often imagine what it would be like to have a totally different life, in a totally different place, particularly when traveling, or when I meet someone from somewhere far away.  While working in the insurance industry, although I never seriously considered up and moving to Bermuda, I did imagine what it would be like a couple of dozen times.  Each time I imagined it, I would always end up dwelling on the lack of room to roam around there.  The island is only 20.6 square miles, and getting anywhere else requires a flight.  I pictured myself moving there, getting my swimming trunks out, snorkeling, attending a few parties and such, but then, eventually, just getting restless, and missing something I love to do here in mainland U.S.A.; taking a road trip.

There is something I really love about road trips.  When I refer to road trips, I am not talking about simply driving somewhere.  A lot of people drive to work every day, or to a relative’s house every other weekend, and those drives don’t feel like “road trips”.  I’m talking about driving somewhere a significant distance away that is not a routine trip; somewhere that is somewhat unknown.  On road trips, we have somewhat of an idea as to what to expect, based on what we have heard, read, or researched, but we do not know it intimately.  We have not experienced the towns we will pass along the way, which exits have the best deals on gas, and where the best restaurants are.  In other words, there are still some surprises, and we are still going to encounter something unexpected.

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Driving south along I-25, the first indication that one is reaching the Southernmost portion of Colorado is the Spanish Peaks.  While visible farther north, they take prominence south of Pueblo. The Spanish Peaks are nowhere near the tallest features in Southern Colorado.  In fact, within 30 miles or so, there are 5 mountains taller than 14,000 feet (14ers)!  But, since they are relatively isolated from other natural features, and can be seen quite some distance, they are a prominent landmark toady (an entire region is named Spanish Peaks country, as well as the names of countless business in the region), and were a prominent landmark on the old Santa Fe Trail.

Approaching Trinidad, CO, the last town before the New Mexico border, the Spanish Peaks disappear from the horizon as the highway enters a much hillier region approaching Raton Pass.  It is here that the path of Interstate 25 joins with the old Santa Fe Trail, which it will more or less follow for the remainder of the trip to Santa Fe.  This trail was first pioneered by the Spanish and later played a pivotal role in American history including westward expansion, and the eventual conquest of the Southwest from Mexico.

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I had mixed expectations of Raton Pass.  Many years back, I was on a ten-day storm chase. Our group was situated in Clovis, New Mexico, which is quite close to the Texas-New Mexico border.  We were discussing the possibility of chasing upslope storms roughly an hour northeast of Denver the following day.  Some of us brought up the possibility of driving west to Raton so we can take the Interstate to our target destination, but the group leader balked at the idea, instead suggesting driving up 385, as he felt it might be risky to take a large convoy of chase vehicles over Raton Pass.  We ended up deciding not to drive up to Northeastern Colorado, as, in the morning, the storm outlook had weakened, and we no longer felt it worth the drive.  By the way, this is common on storm chases, you really never know where you will end up going.  However, ever since then, I had kind of wondered what it was like to drive over this pass.

As the photos indicate, the road gets windy as motorists climb from Trinidad, at roughly 6000′ in elevation, over Raton Pass, which tops out at 7834′.  It’s definitely not nearly as rough as heading over the Rocky Mountains along I-70 or I-80, but definitely is a much more major incline than anything a group of people that drives largely in the Great Plains from Texas up to South Dakota would typically experience.

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Oh, and in one of the strangest of coincidences, the top of the pass is right at the border of Colorado and New Mexico.  This is odd as, first of all, the Colorado-New Mexico border is defined as the 37th parallel, and has nothing to do with where any mountain pass is located, and roads through mountain passes are built to take the safest and most effective route.  The fact that the place where this road crosses the 37th parallel most effectively happens to also be the high point seems to me as a pure coincidence.  Maybe someday I will read into this, the story behind the road and such, but I have yet to do so.

After a descent into Raton, the road reaches a segment that is long, flat, open, and rather empty.

I switched the music on the radio to classic rock, The Clash, Ozzy, Queensryche and such.  For some reason, there is something about the sound of guitar rock that makes more sense while driving through scenery like this than many other forms of music.  As the afternoon passed along this landscape, cloudy skies gave way to peaks from the sun only every once in a while.  A few periods of gentile, chilly rain fell from the skies.  In some ways it reminded me of a storm chase gone horribly wrong, the day slowly but surely slipping away with no prospects of favorable storm conditions developing.  However, in other ways, the drive was relaxing, allowing me to think without any distractions.

After passing through a town called Las Vegas, NM (which I assure you is nothing like the Las Vegas in Nevada), the highway turns West.  It kind of loops the last 60 or so miles into Santa Fe, even heading back northward for the last ten miles, following the route of the old Santa Fe trail.  However, unlike the previous 100 or so miles, this part of the trail, and the drive, is far from flat.

To the right, is the southernmost part of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and an area now part of the Santa Fe National Forest.  It is these mountains that the trail routed 19th century pioneers around.  To the left are a series of bluffs which, luckily, the trail did not have to also bypass, as it would have added many more miles to the journey.  The road itself slowly climbs over Glorietta Pass, descending only slightly into New Mexico’s Capitol City- Santa Fe.