I’d just driven 76 miles from Albuquerque down to Socorro, New Mexico. Across the town plaza was a fragment of Jumbo, a huge vessel meant to contain the conventional explosion of the first atomic bomb set off at the nearby Trinity site. It was a clump of misshapen steel the size of a potato sack on top of a modest pedestal and incongruously located beside a playground. I found the surprisingly good Manzanares Street Coffeehouse across from the chamber of commerce, where a sign listed all the reasons to shop in Socorro, including be greeted by name. Nearby was a large mural of an Indian standing in the desert.
Socorro was the starting point for my trip along Route 60, an obscure road that travels coast to coast, sometimes by its rightful designation, sometimes absorbed into newer highways. In this corner of the Southwest it is overshadowed by its more famous neighbor to the north, Route 66. But Route 66, as someone in Albuquerque told me, “has been in formaldehyde ever since they built the interstate.” Route 60, on the other hand, hasn’t been made redundant by any larger road. It still takes you places.
A 1956 issue of Arizona Highways magazine devoted to Route 60 was what sparked my interest. “For a thousand years before the arrival of the first freight wagon, the path of the future ‘Route 60’ had known the soft pad of primitive feet. Over this Route have since come perhaps as varied a passenger list as anywhere on earth: mountain men, prospectors, pioneers, missionaries, freighters, Indian Scouts, army troops, bandits, cattle thieves.…” It was not clear, more than 50 years later, where exactly I fit into this list. Maybe I was a prospector for new experiences and unknown vistas.
I called Barbara Moore of Blue Canyon Gallery, which had caught my eye when I was looking into Magdalena, the first of a string of little towns on my route.
“Should I drive out now?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You should spend the night in Socorro and come in the morning. There’s not much to eat here.”
Then her voice brightened. “The gas station has food! They have pizza and a kind of stew.”
I opted against a kind of stew and walked across the street to the chamber of commerce. A friendly white-haired gentleman informed me, to my surprise and distress, that I might have to drive halfway up to Albuquerque to get a room. It turned out I had arrived just in time for the great migration of geese and cranes at nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Socorro was packed with birders. He said if I hurried I could catch the evening rush, when all the birds gone since morning come back for the night.
Eight miles off Interstate 25, Bosque del Apache is an oasis of dirt roads, meadows, and marshes. I jumped out at the first trail I saw and began walking, my heart beating with excitement at this unexpected treat. I could hear a distant clatter of hoots and tweets. But I saw no birds. The trail went on for a couple of miles. In the middle of nature I began to feel that most intensely urban anxiety—that there is a party going on somewhere but you are not invited.
I finally returned to my rented Mustang without having seen so much as a sparrow. It was the most stressful nature walk I have ever taken.
Driving slowly back toward the highway through the deep blue dusk I stopped at an empty expanse covered with something white, beside which stood a couple of ladies with binoculars. I looked out and realized the field was not empty but filled with light geese murmuring away as they settled in for the night. I got out and joined the ladies. The sky grew darker and darker. Then the geese lifted into the air as one large, ungainly shape, like a giant zeppelin coming untethered. When they passed overhead their wings were more felt than heard, percussive, like the vibrations as a subway roars into a station. The ladies cried out with pleasure. I felt a rush of oneness with nature and the world, tinged, in my novice birdwatcher’s mind, with uneasy thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock. But the geese were not interested in us, only in avoiding being snatched by prowling coyotes.