I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: No matter how alluring your destination, the stops along the way are often just as memorable.
That held true on our recent travels. In between our longer stays in Stillwater, Albuquerque and Memphis (yes, we covered a lot of ground!), we found fascinating diversions in such places as Elk City, Oklahoma; Tucumcari, New Mexico; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. More about those discoveries another day; today we're visiting a couple of places that are even farther off the beaten path.
We happened upon the first while trying to find our way to Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, southeast of Albuquerque. Even with a GPS, it's a confusing undertaking, because the monument comprises three separate sites: Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira.
It helps to get your bearings at the visitor center in Mountainair. After driving so long we were sure we must have missed a turn somewhere, we finally arrived at Mountainair. I figured we'd buzz through the visitor center, pick up maps and move on. But a glance around town convinced me to linger a bit longer.
Though the business district is only a few blocks long, Mountainair is clearly a haven for creative souls. Mosaics and murals decorate walls and fences; sculptures stand in parking lots and protrude from building fronts.
I was particularly taken with one mosaic installation, Reptile Rendezvous, in front of the national monument's visitor center. Created by artists Samantha Baumgartner, Rebecca Anthony and Tomás Wolff, the piece features a larger-than-life snake stretched across the top of a curvy, concrete bench, with smaller ceramic lizards scattered about.
Sunflowers show up in a number of murals around town, a nod to Mountainair's annual Sunflower Festival. With a juried art show, live music (this year by groups including the Folk City Hipsters and Nervous Nation) and a sunflower hat contest, it sounds like a can't-miss event.
Unfortunately, we did miss it, by a couple of weeks. But we weren't too late for lunch, and we were ready for a refreshment break by the time we finished looking around town. We found just our kind of place: Alpine Alley Coffee Shop. The friendly folks, outstanding food and artsy, eclectic décor reminded us of our hometown hangout, Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
The next day, we found another treasure along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail. You may already have read my account of visiting Leroy Gonzales in Golden, but there was more up ahead in Madrid. Though a bit more touristy than Mountainair, Madrid still has a funky, handcrafted feel.
I especially loved the colorfully decorated mailboxes that lined the road.
Ray especially loved Maggie's, the movie set diner where scenes from the 2007 comedy "Wild Hogs" were shot. The building is a gift shop now (Wild Hogs t-shirts anyone?), and the haughty woman selling souvenirs the day we visited was no Marisa Tomei. Still, it was a kick to see the place—and the Wild Hogs Adopt-a-Highway sign on the way out of town.
One of the most memorable highway highlights wasn't a sight at all, but a sound. Just west of Tierjas, New Mexico, we detoured off I-40 to travel over the Singing Road. On this short stretch of old Route 66, rumble strips are configured to play "America the Beautiful," but only if you drive over them at exactly the speed limit, 45 miles per hour.
Having traveled through quite a few amber waves of grain, admiring purple mountain majesties and fruited plains, we felt like singing along. But before we knew it, the rumble strips had run out, the road was back to humming its usual monotone and we were off to see what other surprises the highway had in store.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.