“Scenic Side Trips” looked fabulous on paper. I’d spent days—weeks, actually, tracing routes on a map with colored highlighters, trying to figure out the best, most efficient way to connect the dots on all the points of interest that I had identified in Arizona and New Mexico. There were hundreds of them; parks and monuments, historic sites, geological marvels, and roadside curiosities of every description, laced throughout by thousands of miles of scenic highways. My goal was to divide all that into 25 unique itineraries, each of them drivable in a single day. I wanted the routes to flow logically, with minimal overlap, little or no backtracking, and, unless there was literally no other option, no Interstate Freeways.
Most of the routes that I had traced on my map were in familiar territory, the desert southwest where I was born and raised, following roads that I’d driven on countless occasions. There were many others, especially in New Mexico, which led through areas I’d never been before, including a fabulous variety of totally cool stuff that I’d always wanted to see, but never had time for. Famous places like Carlsbad Caverns and Taos Pueblo, obscure places like the Bisti Badlands and the Tent Rocks, and scenic byways running through mountain ranges I’d never even heard of prior to researching the area for my book.
My first order of business was to get out on the road and drive, every mile of every highway I intended to write about. I needed current, first-hand impressions of everything that might be of interest to a person taking a road trip, from the condition of the pavement to the clarity of the signage to the availability of options for lodging, not just at the end of each route, but in the middle, as well, for the benefit of travelers who might want to take their time and spend an extra day completing their side trip.
“Begin at the beginning” might be a time-worn cliché, but it’s also sensible advice, especially when you’re talking about a project as complex as writing a book about road trips. The first batch of routes that I set out to drive were my “Scenic Alternatives to Interstate 10,” beginning with Scenic Side Trip #1: Van Horn, Texas to Las Cruces, New Mexico. I’d driven that particular stretch of Interstate at least a dozen times over the years, completely unaware of the marvels that were just beyond the mountains to the north. The route I’d traced added almost 250 miles to the journey between those two towns, but it included two national parks: Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns, as well as White Sands National Monument, the UFO Museum in Roswell, the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, and a dozen other totally cool stops and attractions, ranging from the world’s largest pistachio to Ruidoso Downs. This was going to be a perfect test of the “side-trip” format I’d devised for this project. I’d created an outline of a linear, sequential narrative that would serve as the framework for all the details I planned to add later. The finished version, as I envisioned it, would be a do-it-yourself guided tour through some of the most extraordinary countryside in the southwest. At this point, all I had was that bare-bones framework, and I was about to use it to guide myself through wholly unfamiliar territory. This was my ideal opportunity to see how well my theory worked in practice!
A couple of my oldest, closest friends joined me for this inaugural voyage, so the deck was stacked: it was guaranteed to be a fun time, from beginning to end. We got on the road in Tucson just after sunrise, and made it to the West Texas ranching town of Van Horn by mid-afternoon. Rather than hang around, we got started on our side trip straight away, heading north out of Van Horn on TX 54. After less than an hour, we joined with US 62, and drove straight into the heart of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
The views, the skies, the clouds were magnificent, but we still had many miles to cover, so we kept going, another 30 miles north, to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It was too late in the day to explore the caverns, but we were right on time for the Bat Flight: every night at sunset, visitors to the park can gather in a small amphitheater to watch as hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the caverns on their nightly bug hunt, an amazing smoke-like swirl of living creatures, ethereal in the half-light of dusk. After the show, we found a motel room in the town of Carlsbad, and the next morning, we headed straight back to Carlsbad Caverns, and were first in line for the elevators down to the “Big Room,” one of the world’s largest subterranean chambers, where we spent an hour taking the self guided walking tour through the extraordinary cavescape.
After Carlsbad Caverns, we stopped at the Living Desert State Park, a microcosm of the Chihuahan Desert, and from there we drove north to Roswell, where we stopped in at the campy “International UFO Museum and Research Center.” For the next several hours we drove the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway through beautiful mountains. We paused to take pictures in the remarkably preserved town of Lincoln, scene of the bloody Lincoln County War and the place where young Billy became an outlaw, back in 1878. Down the road in Capitan, we paid our respects at the gravesite of Smoky Bear, and then followed wonderful, isolated highways south through fields of wildflowers on the Mescalero Apache Reservation as far as Cloudcroft, a cool town in the tall pines. Another wonderful road led down out of the mountains to Alamogordo, and there was still enough daylight to keep going, out to White Sands National Monument. One of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen was building in the skies to the west. This was a wonderful end to a truly wonderful day—and we hadn’t even finished the first of my scenic side trips!