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Route 66 Revisited: Rediscovering New Mexico's Stretch of the Mother Road

As the old Bobby Troupe hit suggests: Get your kicks on Route 66. The highway that once stretched from Chicago to California was hailed as the road to freedom. During the Great Depression, it was the way west for farmers escaping Dust Bowl poverty out on the plains. If you found yourself in a rut in the late 1940s and 1950s, all you had to do was hop in the car and head west on Rte. 66.

Of course, the road existed long before it gained such widespread fascination. Built in the late 1920s and paved in 1937, it was the lifeblood of communities in eight states. Nowadays, however, US 66 is as elusive as the fantasies that once carried hundreds of thousands west in search of a better life. Replaced by other roads, covered up by interstates (mostly I-40), and just plain out of use, Rte. 66 still exists in New Mexico, but you'll have to do a little searching and take some extra time to find it.

Motorists driving west from Texas can take a spin (make that a slow spin) on a 20-mile gravel stretch of the original highway running from Glenrio (Texas) to San Jon. From San Jon to Tucumcari, you can enjoy nearly 24 continuous paved miles of vintage 66. In Tucumcari, the historic route sliced through the center of town along what is now Tucumcari Boulevard. Santa Rosa's main street, Historic Rte. 66, is that city's 4-mile claim to the Mother Road. In Albuquerque, US 66 follows Central Avenue for 18 miles, from the 1936 State Fairgrounds, past original 1930s motels and the historic Nob Hill district, on west through downtown.

One of the best spots to pretend you're a 1950s road warrior crossing the desert -- whizzing past rattlesnakes, tepees, and tumbleweeds -- is along NM 124, which winds 25 miles from Mesita to Acoma in northwestern New Mexico. You can next pick up old Rte. 66 in Grants, along the 6-mile Santa Fe Avenue. In Gallup, a 9-mile segment of US 66 is lined with restaurants and hotels reminiscent of the city's days as a western film capital from 1929 to 1964. Just outside Gallup, the historic route continues west to the Arizona border as NM 118.

For more information about Rte. 66, contact the Grants/Cíbola County Chamber of Commerce (tel. 800/748-2142; www.grants.org) or the New Mexico Department of Tourism (tel. 800/545-2040; www.newmexico.org).

The Turquoise Trail

Known as "The Turquoise Trail," NM 14 begins about 16 miles east of downtown Albuquerque, at I-40's Cedar Crest exit, and winds some 46 miles to Santa Fe along the east side of the Sandia Mountains. This state-designated scenic and historic route traverses the revived ghost towns of Golden, Madrid, and Cerrillos, where gold, silver, coal, and turquoise were once mined in great quantities. Modern-day settlers, mostly artists and craftspeople, have brought a renewed frontier spirit to the old mining towns.

Golden -- Golden is approximately 10 miles north of the Sandia Park junction on NM 14. Its sagging houses, with their missing boards and the wind whistling through the broken eaves, make it a purist's ghost town. There's a general store widely known for its large selection of well-priced jewelry, as well as, across the street, a bottle seller's "glass garden." Be sure to slow down and look for the village church, a great photo opportunity, on the east side of the road. Nearby are the ruins of a pueblo called Paako, abandoned around 1670.

Madrid -- Madrid (pronounced mah-drid) is about 12 miles north of Golden. This town and neighboring Cerrillos were in a fabled turquoise-mining area dating back to prehistory. Gold and silver mines followed, and when they faltered, there was coal. The Turquoise Trail towns supplied fuel for the locomotives of the Santa Fe Railroad until the 1950s, when the railroad converted to diesel fuel. Madrid used to produce 100,000 tons of coal a year, and was a true "company town" but the mine closed in 1956. Today, this is a village of artists and craftspeople seemingly stuck in the 1960s: Its funky, ramshackle houses have many counterculture residents who operate several crafts stores and import shops.

The Old Coal Mine Museum and Old West Photography (tel. 505/438-3780) invites visitors to peek into a mine that was saved when the town was abandoned. You can see the old mine's offices, steam engines, machines, and tools. It's open daily; admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $1 for children 6 to 12, and free for children under 6. You might want to have a picture taken in one of the 1,000 costumes at Old West Photography, $3 per person, $25 for one 8 by 10 or two 5 by 7s.

Next door, the Mine Shaft Tavern (tel. 505/473-0743) continues its colorful career by offering a variety of burgers (try the green chile cheeseburger) and presenting live music Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons; it's open for meals in summer Monday to Thursday 11am to 6pm and Friday to Sunday 11am to 8pm. In winter, meals are served Monday to Thursday from noon to 4pm and Friday to Sunday noon to 8pm. The bar is open in summer Sunday to Thursday 11am to 11pm and Friday to Saturday 11am to 1am. In winter the bar is open from Sunday to Thursday noon to 10pm and Friday to Saturday noon to 1am. Next door is the Madrid Engine House Theater (tel. 505/438-3780), offering melodrama during the summer. Its back doors open out so a steam locomotive can take center stage. The place to eat is Mama Lisa's Café, 2859 NM 14 (tel. 505/471-5769). You'll find salads, sandwiches, and New Mexican specialties, all prepared with fresh ingredients. During the summer, it's open Wednesday to Monday, from 11am to 4:30pm. In winter, it's open intermittently, so call ahead.

There's Art in Them Thar Hills -- Once a fabled mining town, now Madrid has become a notable arts village, a great place to wander on a sunny day. Start on the south end of town at Al Leedom Studio, 2485 NM 14 (tel. 505/473-2054), where the studio's namesake blows inventive glassware (on weekends, you can watch). Around the corner, step into the Painted Horse Gallery, 2850 NM 14, (tel. 505/473-5900), an intimate place showing modern landscape paintings by Dean Dovey, as well as jewelry and gifts. Jezebel, 2860 NM 14 (tel. 505/866-JEZEBEL), just down the street has lamps with dazzling pressed-glass shades. Next door, Indigo Gallery [ST], 2584 NM 14 (tel. 505/438-6202), represents 20 artists who live in New Mexico, their colorful work ranging from realism to abstract. Stop for coffee and pastries at Java Junction, 2855 NM 14 (tel. 505/438-2772), where you'll want to gawk over their vast hot sauce collection, including brands named "Scorned Woman," "Cowboy Cayenne," and "Original Death Sauce." If you'd like to stay the night, inquire about their Victorian suite upstairs. On the north end of town, check out Seppanen & Daughters Fine Textiles, 2879 NM 14 (tel. 505/424-7470), a quaint house draped floor to ceiling with weavings from lands as near as Navajo and as distant as Tibet.

Cerrillos and Galisteo -- Cerrillos, about 3 miles north of Madrid, is a village of dirt roads that sprawls along Galisteo Creek. It appears to have changed very little since it was founded during a lead strike in 1879; the old hotel, the saloon, and even the sheriff's office look very much like parts of an Old West movie set. You may want to stop in at Casa Grande Trading Post, 17 Waldo St. (tel. 505/436-3005), a shop that was featured on PBS's Antiques Roadshow. You'll find lots of jewelry and rocks, as well as the Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum, full of artifacts from this region's mining era.

It's another 15 miles to Santa Fe and I-25. If, like me, you're enchanted by the Galisteo Basin, you might want to stay a night or two in nearby Galisteo at the Galisteo Inn (tel. 866/404-8200 or 505/466-4000; www.galisteoinn.com). Set on grassy grounds under towering cottonwood trees, this 300-year-old hacienda has thick adobe walls and all the quiet a person could want. Rooms, all remodeled in 2004, are decorated with brightly painted walls and fun, bold-colored art. In their La Mancha restaurant, May through October, the inn serves Sunday brunch and lunch Friday and Saturday and dinner Tuesday to Saturday; some nights live music plays on the lovely patio; in winter, hours are more limited. There's a lovely pool large enough to swim laps, a hot tub, and guided horseback riding with Galarosa Stables (tel. 505/466-465; www.galarosastables.com). The inn is on NM 41, 15 miles from Cerrillos via the dirt County Road 42. For another good horseback-riding outfitter in this beautiful area, try Broken Saddle Riding Company. A 1 1/2-hour ride is $55 a person, and riders are grouped according to skill level. For more information, call tel. 505/424-7774 and listen to the recorded message, or go to www.brokensaddle.com.

If you're getting hungry on the way back to Santa Fe, stop by the San Marcos Café, 3877 NM 14, near Lone Butte (tel. 505/471-9298). Set next to a feed store in a curvaceous old adobe with wood plank floors and lots of Southwest ambience, this cafe serves creative fare such as cinnamon rolls and their special eggs San Marcos -- tortillas stuffed with scrambled eggs and topped with guacamole, pinto beans, Jack cheese, and red chile. Open daily 8am to 1:50pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.