Save the High Road for Last

Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips isn’t like most travel guides. I don’t even try to cover everything there is to see along these scenic side roads; instead, I deliberately pull back to a wider focus that puts the routes and the various attractions along the way into a larger context; geographically, geologically, and historically. By concentrating on quasi-permanent things like roads, rather than transitory things like restaurants, I’ve created a useful guidebook that (hopefully!) won’t be obsolete after two or three years. Beyond that, I wanted to create a book that will be at least potentially useful to travelers at every level of expertise, from first time road-trippers to the savvy old dogs (guys like me) who have “been there, and done that” dozens of times.  That last requirement was a pretty tall order. How is it even possible to avoid excessive, overly specific detail, while still offering something new to the self-styled experts?

The key to that last is in the research. Even the most boring place in the world will come to life in interesting ways if you dig deep enough, so that’s exactly what I did, and because most of my more intensive research was done after I’d already driven all of the routes, I discovered a wealth of fascinating information that I would have loved to have had in advance. Many reviewers that have commented on my book have said that reading it makes them want to “gas up the car and go!” Writing the book had the same effect on me! So many of the places I describe had such a fascinating back story that I was super eager to see them again, in the light of my far more complete understanding of the “big picture.”

In mid-April, I had an opportunity to give it a whirl. I had book signings scheduled in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, so my wife and I drove out from Phoenix, and turned that week of my book tour into a mini road trip. We’d been to New Mexico together a number of times, but she wasn’t with me when I researched the area around Santa Fe for the book, and she had never been to Taos. She’d heard me talk about the famous scenic byway known as the “High Road to Taos,” so that’s the one we chose for our test drive.

“Okay!” I said confidently, as we pulled out of our hotel parking lot. “Open up the book to Chapter 23, and read the first paragraph.”

“Why?” she replied, looking over at me suspiciously. “I thought you knew where we’re going?”

“Of course I do,” I countered. “I’d just like to use the instructions in the book for all the turns and such, to see if it works the way it’s supposed to.”

Not really seeing the point, she cracked open the book, found Chapter 23, and started reading. “Hey!” she said, after about a minute. “I thought we were taking that ‘High Road’ you’re always talking about. This chapter is all about something called the ‘Low Road’?”

“We’re going to drive to Taos on the Low Road, the route I describe in Chapter 23, and then we’re going to drive back to Santa Fe on the High Road, which I describe in Chapter 24.”

“I want to see the High Road,” she insisted. “Let’s do that first!”

“That would defeat the purpose. Remember, I wanted to see if all the turn-by-turn instructions are actually useful.”

“The books already out. Don’t you think it’s a little late for testing it?”

“Humor me!” I insisted.

Leaving Santa Fe, we did, in fact, follow the turn-by-turn instructions laid out in Scenic Side Trip #23. We drove north out of the city along Bishop’s Lodge Road, followed the route as written through Pojoaque and Los Alamos Canyon, and then passed the Puye Cliff Dwellings on the way to Espanola. From there, we followed the Rio Grande north to Pilar, took the extension into the Rio Grande Gorge along NM 570 to the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, then turned around and made our way back to the main road, NM 68, just before making the rapid climb up into the foothills. There were spectacular views of the gorge at the top of the climb, exactly as described in the book. On the way into Taos, we pulled over for a closer look at the San Francisco de Asis Church, where I captured the photo at the top of this page.

The drive back to Santa Fe, following the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway, was stunning, even nicer than what I remembered from my earlier trips. It was almost like a homecoming! My decision to save the High Road for last on this Santa Fe to Taos loop was based on my instincts, and on a truly intensive study of topographical maps, backed up with my notes and photographs from my research road trips.

Those instincts were dead on. Every time we came around a bend in the road, we were presented with perfect picture-postcard views of farms and fields and picturesque villages:

On NM 518, the High Road to Taos
Photo by Rick Quinn

And of deep valleys, soaring, snow-capped peaks!

Truchas as seen from NM 76 on the High Road to Taos
Photo by Rick Quinn

The ribbon of highway was scribbled across the landscape like a child’s drawing of a mountain road; the entire tableau was absolutely perfect! The direction of travel DOES matter on these mountain roads, because the direction of travel determines your angle of view, each time you come around a bend. Thanks to my research, we were pointed in exactly the right direction, both coming and going.  All in all, this was one of the most wonderfully satisfying day trips that I’ve ever taken, and by using my own book as a guide, we made a great drive even better!

Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips is an eminently practical guide book that is actually useful! Even for a savvy old dog!

Rick Quinn

Rick Quinn

Rick Quinn was born and raised in Arizona, earned a degree in anthropology, then hit the road, indulging an admittedly peculiar whim by hitch-hiking to Tierra del Fuego. In one way or another, he’s been on the road ever since, living in a dozen diverse locales, from Paris to Peru, San Francisco to Washington D.C., working as a photographer, a coffee farmer, a magazine writer, a postman, a novelist, and, until his recent retirement, a corporate-level financial systems expert with the Postal Service. Rick is a veteran road tripper who has driven both the Alaska Highway and the Pan American. Rick's RoadTrip America, Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips was published in April, 2018 by Imbrifex Books,