Land of Enchantment: New Mexico trip leaves me wanting more

Old Cars Weekly archive – August 21, 2008 issue

Story and photos by Ron Kowalke

The best endorsement I can give the state of New Mexico is that even before my first day of vacation there was over, I was already planning my next visit. My first trip to the “Land of Enchantment” was geared toward touring as many salvage yards as I could get to in a week. With only a minimal plan, a freshly purchased New Mexico road map and enough junk food to make a toothbrush recoil in horror, I set out from Albuquerque International Airport in an easterly direction in search of automotive treasure.

Call me Elmer Fudd, but I totally defied Bugs Bunny’s oft-quoted missive: “I shoulda took a left at Albukoiky!”, choosing instead to follow a more efficient, clockwise pattern through the state. This time-saving strategy paid dividends in that I was able to visit four salvage yards filled with vintage vehicles. While this number may seem small, it was actually a decent achievement when viewed within all the unplanned stops I made at museums, roadside attractions and, best of all, old car sightings in fields and on abandoned ranches.

As is my mission on most road trips, I avoided interstate highways, which I feel never represent any state’s true make-up. It didn’t take long to realize that no matter which minor road is selected to drive in New Mexico, the scenery is dazzling and the old car discoveries are plentiful.

In what I suspect is a love it or hate it reputation among residents of Roswell, N.M., the city’s association with it being the purported site of a 1947 alien spacecraft crash landing is nonetheless used to advantage by some local businesses. (Left) One enterprising limousine service owner offers tours to the crash site, while a downtown Roswell motel (right) is billed as the preferred stay when aliens visit.

 

Memorable museum stops

While salvage yards and discovering abandoned cars and trucks was the focus of my trip, it would have been criminal to not visit a few of New Mexico’s fascinating array of museums. Prior to leaving Albuquerque, my first stop was The National Atomic Museum. Both fascinating and frightening at the same time, this popular tourist stop has outgrown its present downtown Albuquerque location and will be moving to more spacious quarters outside of Albuquerque in 2009.

Among the many memorable displays depicting the history of the Atomic Age was a photograph taken of the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Soviet Union after its terrifying 1986 “meltdown” catastrophe. The engaging and knowledgeable tour guide on site explained that the entire reactor site and its outcrop of buildings had to be encased in concrete to prevent further escape of radioactive fallout.

Wanting my next museum visit to be a bit less taxing on the mind than the debate over whether nuclear energy is now safe enough to be one of our mainstream alternative energy sources, I opted for something also buried in concrete, but no longer a threat to our safety.

The wording on this headstone is worn and hard to read, but it marks the gravesite as the final resting place of William H. Bonney, alias “Billy the Kid,” and his two accomplices in crime, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. The trio are buried in a gated cemetery adjacent to the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, N.M.

 

New Mexico played a major role in the taming of the “Wild West.” One of the major players in creating that “wild” label was Henry McCarty, who was better known as the outlaw “Billy the Kid.” Now buried in a former military cemetery in Fort Sumner, N.M., in a gravesite located next to the Billy the Kid Museum, it’s hard to imagine this “baby-faced” young man being such a notorious killer. Legend has it that “Billy” killed 21 men before he was gunned down in Fort Sumner at age 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

While New Mexico has a rich history being an integral part of the old west, it’s more modern claim to fame hinges not on something territorial, but rather extraterrestrial. While many may scoff at “little green men” having crash landed their space craft in a rancher’s field in remote New Mexico, it’s taken seriously — and presented in a like manner — at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, N.M.

Also undergoing tremendous growth, this museum will also be relocating to a purpose-built site in downtown Roswell in the future. While no actual evidence of either the crashed spacecraft or its alien pilots exist in the museum, enough irrefutable first-person accounts of the July 1947 crash landing northwest of Roswell and its denied post-crash military cover-up exist to make non-believers question their stance. If for no other reason, the museum is worth a visit just to drop some cash in the gift shop on the great T-shirts available.

art of an outdoor display at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, the Sonic Wind I rocket sled “measures human response to sudden deceleration.” Originally operated at nearby Holloman Air Force Base, on Dec. 10, 1954, Dr. John Paul Stapp rode this 24-foot long sled to a speed of 632 mph. Photographs of the event prove the human face is quite elastic at that high speed.

 

To lend balance to the speculative nature of alien spacecraft in Roswell, nearby Alamogordo is home to the New Mexico Museum of Space History. It’s one of those visits that reinforces your pride in both country and the human race. Every important member in the history of space exploration is pictured with their biography, from Ham the chimpanzee who pioneered “manned” spaceflight to the creators of the Space Shuttle program and its coming successor. The current movement toward privatization of space travel also gets its fascinating due in what is otherwise a NASA-focused environment. Having children of my own, and constantly fretting that our younger generation is losing touch with our country’s history and traditions, this is one of a handful of museums in the world that should be mandatory for all U.S. citizens under the age of 18 to visit and write a lengthy school report on.

Missed opportunities

Of course, I ran out of time before getting through the entire state. Maybe that “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny was correct in that turning left out of Albuquerque might have been the better route. Then again, if I’d have seen everything in my first visit, I’d have no reason to go back.

This graphic motorist warning is my favorite road sign from the trip. Many roads that were cut into hills in New Mexico incur rock slides that no amount of paintless dent removal can mend.

 

One of the biggest disappointments of the trip was my not being able to visit the Trinity site where the first above-ground atomic warhead was detonated in central New Mexico. The site is only accessible twice annually, the first Saturday of both April and October, and that’s it. My aforementioned visit to The Atomic Museum fueled this desire to visit what is basically a crater in the earth-turned pasture, after reading about our country’s foray into nuclear weapons and its aftermath.

I also ran out of time and had to speed through the White Sands National Monument, one of the most beautiful deserts on earth. Comprised of almost sugar-like gypsum sand, this natural wonder spans 275 square miles and includes many walking paths to view the vegetation and animals that call this desert home.

On a more positive note, I was able to take a drive through the majestic Bandelier forest near Los Alamos, as well as take a walking tour through the “Valley of Fires” near Carrizozo, N.M. Located approximately 30 miles from the aforementioned Trinity site, this 3 mile wide by 44 mile long mass of hardened lava, called pahoehae, traveled like a slow-moving river from a long-ago volcanic eruption 7 miles away.

The abandoned vehicles in New Mexico make for great photo opportunities, especially when coupled with abandoned dwellings as this pair show. (Above) A 1966 Pontiac Bonneville hardtop with fender skirts can be found in Ocato along Highway 120 while (below) a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 sedan has been picked clean in Conchas Dam along Highway 104.

 

With the focus of my visit to New Mexico being activities that revolved around automobiles, it was a must to spend time driving on or adjacent to the “Mother Road,” Route 66. The rich history of this colorful road really came to life for me while driving through Tucumcari, N.M. The city’s vintage architecture complete with old neon signs is still plentiful, but that, too, is fading away as the world progresses.

Coffee table books abound chronicling the vintage elements that remain along “The Mother Road,” the legendary highway that is Route 66. This sign fronting the abandoned Lasso Motel is home to several bird’s nests (see bird on top of sign), and resides in Tucumcari, N.M., through which Route 66 passes.

 

When it was time to fly back to Wisconsin, I knew that it was a week well-spent and one I’ll carry memories of forever. I was dog-tired after the whirlwind pace I maintained all week, but, at the same time, felt exhilaration at the prospect of returning someday to finish my tour of New Mexico.

And just as the trip had been full of surprises all week, New Mexico had one last bit of entertainment for me on my early morning drive to the airport to return home. Traveling west on I-40 toward Albuquerque International Airport, the traffic on the multi-lane highway slowed to a crawl in all lanes. Not being able to see that far ahead to spot the reason for the slow-down, I crept ahead and tried to remain calm that I’d still make my flight despite the setback.

After a half-hour of doing the three mile an hour shuffle to travel just over a mile in distance, I came upon the culprit for the blocked highway. A car crash caused by someone yakking on a cell phone and not paying attention to where they were going was my initial guess at the beginning of the traffic jam. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It seems the Albuquerque area is ideal for hot-air ballooning, and a balloonist’s rig sprung a leak. He was then forced to make an emergency landing on I-40 with the gondola and deflated balloon lying across the entire westbound lanes.

Only in the “Land of Enchantment!”

Coupe central

During my week of driving around rural New Mexico, I was continually amazed at the amount of old cars and trucks that were abandoned and remain where they were parked, possibly decades ago. Most reside in fields, on ranchland or in pastures. I spotted several in and around abandoned buildings or long-shuttered farm dwellings. Many are kept in backyards of current residences.

Even after a week-long steady diet of seeing abandoned vintage iron, I was still left slack-jawed upon sighting a yard full of old coupes as I traveled south on County Highway 469 near San Jon, N.M.

The coupes were loosely arranged on one side of the yard of a house that was boarded over. There were no neighboring residences, and the yard was accessible, so I grabbed my camera and took advantage of the up-close encounter with one of my favorite body styles within the collector car category.

The 11 vehicles parked in the yard were comprised of 4 Chevrolet five-window coupes, a Dodge five-window coupe, a pair of 1930s two-door sedans and 4 other more modern vehicles. All the coupes were missing components, but their body shells were all rust free, with the exception of surface patina.

Other than their San Jon location, there was no house number on the abandoned dwelling so the ownership situation of these vehicles is a mystery.

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