Highway 84 rewards those who stick with it. The payoff for grinding through the Panhandle’s aching flatness and its smelly feed lots and eastern New Mexico’s desert scrub is the slow climb into some of the most beautiful country in the southwest.
After covering nearly 600 miles Friday, I stopped for the night in Santa Rosa, N.M., a little high desert town on I-40 with more motel rooms than people. Santa Rosa’s not much to look at, but after hundreds of miles of empty scrubland, a truck stop looks like an oasis. All I wanted was a clean room and a good bed (the Best Western took care of that). In the morning, after a quick stop at the Route 66 auto museum (I couldn’t resist after seeing what
they did to this Edsel), I jumped in the car for the final leg of the trip.
Mercifully, things start to get interesting near Santa Fe. You can see the mountains in the distance and feel the air cool as you climb. The transition is jarring: one minute you’re in the desert, the next you’re driving past Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and rows of perfectly stuccoed and earth-tone-painted homes. Even the highway overpasses are decorated with artsy interpretations of Native American pictographs. Santa Fe is adobe Disneyland.
But my favorite part comes north of Santa Fe. Once you cross the Rio Grande in Española – it’s wide and fast and stained the same reddish-brown as the dirt – you start climbing and twisting through stunning red rock cliffs and canyons. Further north on 84 the cliffs turn a pale yellow and rise in long, graceful ridges topped with sage and juniper. This is where I start looking for familiar landmarks: the Ghost Ranch, the Echo Amphitheater (a natural half-dome cavern that does just what its name suggests when you shout into its mouth), the Trujillos general store, squatting in stubborn isolation amid the empty canyonlands like an Old West relic.
The road rises, then descends into the wide grasslands of the Chama Valley, 7,800 feet above sea level. The Continental Divide rises ahead, painted a misty blue. After more twists and climbs, the first pines start emerging amid the sagebrush. And then everything changes. The highway tops another ridge, and suddenly you’re in thick stands of pine and spruce – the wet side of the mountains. It never fails to make my blood pump a little faster. Thirty more miles to Pagosa Springs.
It’s raining when I hit town, and the rain perfumes the air with pine. It’s 68 degrees in mid-July. Heaven.
I drive through the old downtown, rows of restored frontier buildings that hug the curves of the Piedras River, all of it surrounded by soaring green mountains. If Norman Rockwell had lived in the mountains, he would’ve painted this place.
The rain stops, so I pull into the public parking lot on a ridge overlooking the river and take it all in: teenagers splashing amid the rocks, kids and grownups gliding on tubes, people walking the riverside hike-and-bike trail. Across the river is the hot springs, a sprawling collection of oversized hot tubs fed by the natural springs that drew the Utes and Navajos here centuries ago. That sulfur tang in the air. I can feel every muscle in my body relax. Pagosa has become sort of an adopted second home for me over the years.
I still have a 20-minute drive over a narrowing series of unpaved roads to reach the cabin. Then it’s time to get to work.