The Ultimate Road Trip (South West USA)

By Témoris Grecko and Vivienne Stanton


(The following is an English-language version of a story that appeared in Spanish in National Geographic Traveler Latinoamérica, in April 2009.)


We’re driving down Cerrillos Road, a six-mile strip of hotels, motels and fast food restaurants, and we’re getting desperate. We’ve rejected two motels already (one smells like eggs, the other stale cigarettes), and many have rejected us, already full for the night. We bump into fellow travelers at each stop. We eye each other like we’re vying for the last brownie at a bake sale. We’re in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and everything is adobe, down to the strip malls and McDonalds. It’s sunset and the buildings look like they’re melting, soft brown hues glowing like the hills.


Finally, we find a room. The Silver Saddle Motel is $55 a night, with a truck outside selling green chili, a coffee caravan in the car park, blueberry bagels for breakfast, and a battered silver horse shoe nailed to the wall above the door. Described by our guidebook as “Americana at its finest,” it seems exactly what we’re looking for to begin our week-long odyssey through the American South West, a journey that will take us through four states, over 1,000 kms, gas stations, roadside diners and some of the most spectacular desert scenery we’ve ever seen: the Ultimate USA Road Trip.


Santa Fe is a fascinating three-way blend of Old Mexico, Native American Indian and cowboy pioneer. It’s the oldest settled part of the South West, and revels in its rich past and mixed identity. We eat dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where waitresses in cowboy hats serve mesquite-grilled steaks and salmon tacos with black-eyed pea salsa, and frozen mangoritas (mango margaritas) in beer pitchers, while a country band plays in the courtyard. A couple, who looked like they’d stepped off the set of an old Western, walk in—he in a black hat and spurred boots, she with a corset and lace petticoats—and sit by the band.


We’d like to stay, but we have an early start the next day. The key, we decide, to a good road trip is pace. Never stopping too long in one spot, always moving on to the next. You build a rhythm that speeds you from one place to another, with that delicious, double-edged feeling of exhilaration and nostalgia, of letting the past fall away behind you, never quite seeing enough, and the excitement of moving forward to destinations unknown.


From Santa Fe we take the high road to Taos, and have our first, real taste of South West scenery – dramatic rolling hills, rocky sandstone, pale, broad, washed out mountains. “The West is color,” wrote author Jessamyne West. “Its colors are animal rather than vegetable, the colors of earth and sunlight and ripeness. Tawny, buff, ocher, umber, tan, beige, sienna, sorrel, bay, blood-bay, chestnut, roan, palomino: the colors of objects bleached, sun-drenched, dry, aromatic, warm; the color of stubble fields, of barley, of foothills, of sage, of ocean and desert sands; colors capable of reflecting light like a mirror.”


We drive through land the colour of naked skin, over its bumps and crevices, past giant rocks, casinos and Indian pueblos. We stop at Chimayo, a healing sanctuary where 30,000 people make an annual pilgrimage each spring to rub holy dirt onto ailing bones. We eat ‘tamal pie’, a hybrid of cornmeal and salsa that tastes nothing like pie nor tamale, but is delicious. We drive on through the Taos mountains, rounding cliffs like ants crawling across giant anthills. There’s a storm in the distance, falling hard on the wide-plains and rolling mountains.


Taos is a small town of 5000: a mix of bohemians, hippies and mainstream dropouts, artists and greenies, old Mexican families and outdoor sports enthusiasts. We stay in the Sun God Lodge and drink margaritas in the Adobe Bar of the Taos Inn, where people toe-tap to a breakneck bluegrass band. In the morning we browse the markets and buy beautiful, Navajo-designed silver and turquoise jewellery, then visit Taos Pueblo. It’s one of the oldest (built around 1450 and continuously inhabited ever since) and biggest multi-storied pueblo structures in the US, with houses stacked on top of each other like a muddy wedding cake.


It’s a living town as well as a World Heritage Site, with a school, modern homes, a post office. You need a permit to visit and to take photos. The beautiful organic, adobe architecture, that so impressed the Spanish when they arrived in the 16th Century, has changed little in the past 1000 years. Electricity, running water and indoor plumbing are prohibited in the Pueblo. The 150 or so people living there seem indifferent to us – as though tired of being exhibits in a real-life theme park.


Driving out of Taos, we stop at the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, the second-highest suspension bridge in the US, and watch the river cut through the rocky canyons 200 metres below like a thin green blade. We buy ice cream from a lady in a rainbow-painted school bus and gaze out at the emptiness of the Taos Plateau. As strawberry swirl drips down our fingers, black clouds gather over our heads.


We plough north, and the sky breaks open and washes the car with rain. New Mexico may have an average of 300 sunny days a year, but when it does rain, it’s intense. We drive on in the wet, past eco-friendly “Earthship” houses dug into the dirt like turnips, constructed of used tires and cans. Buried on three sides by earth, they heat and cool themselves, make their own electricity and catch their own water.


The view breaks into magnificent alpine landscapes, blue-toned mountains, green fields, grazing cows and horses, with storms and lightning on one side of the highway, clear skies and sunlit space on the other. Stopping for gas in a town called Chama, an old steam train billows black smoke into the air. We buy beef jerky and homemade fudge to see us through to dinner; our last stop before crossing into Colorado.


While we started our trip with at least the intention of staying healthy (we stocked the car with water bottles and a collection of vitamins more colourful than a packet of m&ms), it seems anathema to our cause. Roads trips are supposed to be unhealthy, right? – requiring only a convertible, a glove box filled with mini bottles of booze, a bluegrass soundtrack and a brush with the law? or at least beef jerky, Twinkies and Diet Coke. (At one gas stop we actually managed to find vitamin-fortified Diet Coke.)


Our best intentions quickly dissolve, and we soon become experts at fast food, connoisseurs of fast food. From Arby’s to Taco Bell to Denny’s to IHOP we hold out bottomless coffee cups and iced-filled pitchers of post-mix cola like old pros, waiting for refills served by waitresses in white shoes, with pencils in their ponytails, and names like Jenny, Shania and Sue-Ann pinned to their chests. In the town of Cortez we slide into a booth next to a French family eating burgers, and order salads smothered in creamy, calorie-filled Thousand Island dressing.


Cortez is our base for exploring the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site where ancestral Anasazi Puebloans carved multi-room cities into the rock face, and thrived for more than one thousand years before mysteriously vanishing.


Thirty minutes east of Cortez, the road begins a steep 20-kilometre climb along a switchback route, with stunning views in every direction. The park itself is a series of rugged, pinon-covered canyons and mesas, flat-topped mountains that rise to a summit of more than 2,500 metres at Park Point on the North Rim, which towers above the Montezuma Valley. From there the mesa gently slopes southward to a 1,800 metre elevation above the Mancos River, with 600 or so separate dwellings dotted over the park, dug into the ridges like honeycomb. At its peak in the 1200s, some 18,000 people may have crammed inside Mesa Verde’s warren of small rock and plaster rooms. You can spend a day exploring the different sites, as well as a museum at Chapin Mesa.


We visit Cliff Palace, the largest site at Mesa Verde, with 150 rooms and 23 ceremonial chambers, or kivas, where a population of a few hundred lived, planted corn, beans and squash and raised turkeys, building ever-more elaborate structures into the cliff, including stone apartment houses with mortar and a network of aqueducts. Their civilization reached its climax between 1100 and 1300, then disappeared. Why is still a mystery, but one theory is that they left during a prolonged drought. Also, given the finite cliff-space, overpopulation depleted firewood and big game, so they may have decided to look for food and space elsewhere.


Next we visit Balcony House, which we reach by climbing a 10-metre wooden ladder at the north end of the overhang, and exit on our hands and knees through a narrow, 3-metre long tunnel. The Anasazi must have been small and nimble people. Driving out of there, as the sun goes down over the valley, turning it pink and orange, we see deer nosing through the grass by the roadside.


From there we head past the Four Corners Navajo Tribal Park, where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet, and the red rock landscape glows in the afternoon light. In Utah we drive past the dusty town of Mexican Hat, named for a rock formation that resembles a giant sombrero, perched above a canyon carved by the San Juan River, and onto the Mormon town of Bluff.


The scenery keeps amazing us. Just when we think it can’t get any better… it gets better. Each curve of the road, each bend, brings new wonders. Deep canyons, bright red ranges, long rugged plains with peaks behind them that look carved into the sky. We hardly speak, and turn off the music. This is the earth laid bare, bald, without trees or shrubs to decorate it, revealing all its intimate details. It makes you feel like you, too, have been stripped back to something elemental, dry and raw.


Suddenly, big monoliths appear in the distance, shimmering like a rust-coloured city. We’re about to enter probably the most iconic American landscape: Monument Valley. John Wayne shot westerns here, Forrest Gump stopped running, Billy and Captain America drove their choppers through here in their search for the Great American Dream in Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise sped through on their one-way dash to the Grand Canyon. Seeing it is like driving in a movie set – it doesn’t seem real – so much open space, so much colour, such huge rocks, inverting our sense of where we are. Perhaps Willer Cather best summed it up when she wrote: “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world, but here the earth was the floor of the sky.”


Click on the image to see a Monument Valley's slideshow


Monument Valley isn’t actually a valley, but an upwarp of sedimentary rock at least 260 million years old, surrounded by sentinels that have yet to fully erode. The floor itself is more than a one and a half kilometres high, part of the 200,000 square-km Colorado Plateau. Because sandstone is easily eroded, the wind, rain, cycles of frost and heat have cracked and chiseled the valley to its present form, of roughly 40 pinnacles, buttes and mesas.


The park is on Navajo land, with a 25-kilometre dirt loop road which goes past the major sites, with stops at each one. The spires, buttes and mesas all have names that are self-explanatory: The Mittens, Elephant Butte, North Window, Totem Pole, the Thumb. There’s a rock that looks like an owl (Owl Rock), and arches that look like eyes, (the Spectacles). The place is full of Europeans, busloads from Italy, Germany, France, making the most of a US exchange rate in freefall. They take pictures on horseback, posed in front of a mesa, and bump along in open-bed trucks with handkerchiefs wrapped over their faces to protect them from the dust. They rent black biker leathers and Harley Davidsons and live their “Born to be Wild” fantasies amid the bouldered landscape.


Most visitors only stay a few hours, but some have unpacked tents and are setting up for the night, making the most of the shifting light as it plays across the stone pillars and dramatic skies, painting them different hues. We linger until the sun is low, reluctant to leave. “It can’t get better than this,” we tell each other, yet again. But it can.


What better finale for the ultimate American road trip than the biggest natural wonder of all?


Nothing can prepare you for your first, breathtaking glimpse of the Grand Canyon. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of the canyon, you can’t overestimate the sheer size. Its dimensions are mind-blowing. Water, wind, ice, time, gravity and plate tectonics have conspired to create a 1.6 kilometre deep chasm that averages 16 kilometres in width and runs 445 kilometres from one end to another. It encompasses 492,665 hectares. No single standpoint offers anything more than a partial view. The only complete photographs are taken from space. It’s little wonder that more than four million people arrive each year to gaze into the abyss, muttering versions of “wow” in umpteen languages.


We arrive on the South Rim as the late-afternoon sun casts over the walls of the canyon. Cloud shadows move across multi-coloured, striated walls made from millions of years of deposit and erosion. Here and there we glimpse the Colorado River, a greenish thread carving its way ever deeper into the earth, as it has done for the past 17 million years – according to the latest estimates – exposing nearly two billion years of the earth’s history, nearly half its 4.5 billion lifespan. When the first Europeans arrived in 1540, a party of Spaniards looking for the fabled cities of gold, they spent three days on the South Rim, failing to find a way to descend to the river. Unable to appreciate how deep the canyon was, they estimated the Colorado River to be only six feet wide.


Today, there are many walking trails that can take you down into the canyon, including a gruelling two-day hike to the Colorado River. We decide to make the rather shorter and less strenuous descent on the Cedar Ridge Hike, a 5-km round-trip 350 metres below the rim of the South Kaibab Trail. You can hike the trail alone, though at your own risk, as the rangers never tire of reminding hikers (one told us there were several rescues a day, usually due to sprained limbs and heat exhaustion, but there were also fatalities; about 600 people have died at the canyon since the 1870s).


There are also free ranger-guided tours, explaining canyon geology and history on the way down. It’s a fascinating descent into geological time. The layers of rock represent different ages, our ranger explains, and different origins. But all have something in common: they were created in a marine environment. Here, in this dry land in the middle of the continent, tropical seas came and went over the space of millions of years, with their layers of mud and silt, tides and dunes, fish and reptiles, echoes of which are locked in the walls of the canyon.


In the morning light, the panoramas are breathtaking. We realise we could spend hours and days looking at this canyon, and never tire of it. No two perspectives, no two moments, are the same.


We leave the Grand Canyon reluctantly, our road trip coming to an end. Heading back toward Mexico, we pass through Sedona. The towering red buttes and mesas are like an afterthought of the grandeur and beauty we’ve seen, a cool down after a long run. We stop in an organic café for lunch and, Sedona being the New Age capital of the world, get invited to a drum circle for the Full Moon. Declining, we hit the road, the words of that most classic road tripper Jack Kerouac in our heads: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world saluting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”


One response to “The Ultimate Road Trip (South West USA)

  1. Good way of observing things – I’m a little more of a monochrome individual, myself

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