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.
Magdalena, 29 miles down 60, is an old mining and cattle town whose heyday was in the 19th century. Now it features shops selling knickknacks, furniture, and Navajo rugs, mostly to people on their way to somewhere else. Blue Canyon Gallery is the first place you reach driving in from Socorro—the gallery, a house, and a kiln. In the shop one finds pottery made by owner Barbara Moore, and jewelry made by Indians on the nearby Alamo Navajo Reservation.
“Magdalena kind of went down the tubes in the late twenties and thirties, like a lot of the old mining towns in the area,” Barbara said. Her brown hair was in a bowl cut, and she had a wry, deadpan delivery. “It made a comeback in the fifties and sixties, when some hippies roosted on the land. Now it has quite a few retirees, which we are too.” Her husband, Jim Versluis, appeared. He was a bluff man with a sun-reddened face surrounded by wisps of white hair. We talked about how he fell in love with this landscape almost 12 years earlier, and he offered to take me on a favorite hike in the surrounding hills.
And so I found myself traipsing through the old Kelly Mine, around which the original town had formed. The miners had come hoping to find gold, quickly lowered their sights to silver, and ended up with lead for paint and pencils. We peered down into the mines, black holes in the ground. I threw pebbles, waiting several beats before each little ping. We came upon some fantastic views of the canyon that Route 60 cuts through here. What I most liked up there was the incredible hush. The landscape was utterly still, and yet it moved. A tall stand of cottony-looking shrubbery swayed in each breath of air that came across the mountain. Perhaps the altitude turned my head, but I could have stared at this silent picture and listened to the faint sound of the wind in my ears for hours. Jim waited patiently as I took pictures of the brush, and then we went down to the house and shared tea and the scones and eclairs I had picked up back at the Manzanares Street Coffeehouse. Barbara and Jim and I talked about their children, their cat, who moved stealthily between our legs, and life in Magdalena, which was a happy life for them.
Then Barbara said, “You know what this reminds me of?The scones and the treats?Richard.”
“Oh, yes,” Jim said.
They proceeded to tell me about their old friend Richard Fry, who had planned to work on his poetry when he retired from fixing copy machines. But then he inherited some land in West Virginia, and drove all the way from Magdalena to look at it. On a second trip there, he was killed by a tornado in Kansas.
“It was a pure accident of fate,” Jim said.
“I remember seeing it on the news,” Barbara said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
They both looked down at the table. But the somber moment gave way to the unexpected warmth of our visit. I bought a little wire brooch in the shape of a cat from their shop and hit the road.
I put the convertible’s top down. The road was smooth and flat as a runway. I opened the engine a bit, then some more. I flew by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s “Very Large Array”—rows and rows of gigantic white dish antennas that can be manipulated to work together like eyes and “focus” on deep space. I flew past the piñon trees that line the road like bunched fists of green. At times it felt as though I were standing still and the road was unspooling rapidly beneath me. The flatness seemed like it would go on forever. In fact, it was only 56 miles from Magdalena to Pie Town, whose two commercial establishments are both devoted to pies.
I contemplated the Daily Pie Café but in the end chose the Pie-O-Neer on the grounds of its bigger sign. A whole bunch of pies were laid out for perusal, and when I asked what they were, Kathy Knapp, the proprietor and chief pie maker, was summoned from the kitchen to explain. She had big blue eyes that conveyed a childishness and a kind of frontier pragmatism, which is a look I’ve seen before in the eyes of small- business people who secretly see themselves as artists.
She named the pies for me: butterscotch, Dutch apple crumb, New Mexico apple, cherry, peach, blueberry. On weekends, banana cream, coconut cream, and chocolate. It was Saturday but, she said, “We’re out of chocolate already.”
Pies have been sold in Pie Town on and off since it was settled in the late 20’s, so the legend goes, by a man named Norman who enjoyed making pies and sharing them with locals and people passing through. When the town applied for a post office 10 or so years later, the government wanted a more formal name, but Pie Town stuck.
I hung around for a while at the Pie-O-Neer, listening to the waitress, Thea, tell every table about the ins and outs of the romance novel she had written, Cat’s Masquerade, with the blowsy relief of someone delivering a thank-you speech at the Oscars, while also managing to take everyone’s orders and deliver the food. I had a very good green-chile stew and a slice of banana cream pie. Then I made friends with some locals, Don Kearny and Nita Larronde. I ended up standing behind the counter and serving them coffee while Don told me about his job as a wildfire expert with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pie Town’s official population is 60. It is located on the Continental Divide at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet. On the drive from Magdalena I hardly saw a soul. And yet the curious thing about Pie Town is that while you are at the Pie-O-Neer you feel like you are in the middle of everything.
I might have hung around longer but one of the workers in the kitchen explained that her truck’s starter was out; she had to get a rolling start, and the Mustang was in the way.
By the time I got to Globe, Arizona, it had been dark for half an hour. The sun had set as I switchbacked through Salt River Canyon. Now I welcomed the glow from the gas stations, the fast-food joints, the neon of old motels: El Rey, the Hideaway, El Rancho. I was jazzed and disoriented by the headlights and taillights swarming past me.
Part of the allure of a driving trip like this is the notion of getting away from it all, or all that is familiar. Part of “all” is your own sanity. Perhaps it was the film noir lighting, or driving fatigue, or that the motels all had their no vacancy signs lit, but a feeling of mild paranoia overtook me, and I started to feel like a fugitive. I finally got a room at the Belle Aire, a fugitive-friendly motel (its sign would have been at home in any Raymond Chandler novel), and slept soundly.
The next day I found myself in the old town jail, now part of the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts. “A little Alcatraz in the desert,” said my would-be jailer, Kip Culver, the local arts impresario and a Globe native. He is the leader of a band of merry urban renewalists who have been working to restore and landmark the town’s notable structures and to breathe energy into its cultural life. He took me through the center—a gallery, music studios, crafts studios, and a community theater that had recently staged the locally written production Justa Cafe. The whole experience was like entering Waiting for Guffman, starring the merry urban renewalists.
Kip took me to a hill above Globe. All over town you could see incongruous stands of tall cypress trees reaching up to the sky. Apparently the many Italians who had come over in the early 1900’s to build the nearby Roosevelt Dam had brought the trees along.
“It makes the landscape look practically Mediterranean!” I said.
“But there’s no beautiful blue sea,” said Kip, the pragmatist.
The last thing he showed me was the Noftsger Hill Inn Bed & Breakfast, in a converted schoolhouse. Innkeepers Rosalie and Dom Ayala have left the old blackboards up in the former classrooms, which as guest quarters were unusually large but kind of delightful and even cozy, too, decorated in a mix of Victorian and Old West. Rosalie said the only vacancy, the Cowboy Room, might be a bit small for me. A pair of chaps hung on the wall and an old-fashioned metal-frame bed filled most of the space, a former janitor’s closet. It was tempting, but so was the Arizona Inn in Tucson, a 14-acre, prewar, high-thread-count kind of place with a pool and a first-class restaurant.
My last stop on Route 60 was the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, nine miles east of the turnoff onto Route 77 for Tucson. I wanted to savor the preponderance of these archaic-looking plants but not to drive through the desert in the dark again, especially since the landscape on the way to Tucson was supposed to be very beautiful, abundant with cacti. I hurried, and as an afterthought I bought a little—but not that little—cactus from its nursery, buckled it into the front seat next to me, and took off down the highway with the top down. The cactus was encased in a small box with holes for air. It was like my buddy, riding shotgun.
In Tucson I picked up a friend and drove to the Arizona Inn for an extravagant dinner of filet mignon after checking in. Lots of movie stars have stayed at the inn since it opened in 1930, and you feel like a movie star yourself there; the lawns are green, the bungalows are secretive, and the main dining room ceiling is soaring. After dinner we lounged on beach chairs by the dark pool. It was utterly relaxing but soon I sat up with a start, remembering the cactus strapped into the seat of the convertible, whose top was still down. I was already cherishing that cactus as the one souvenir that would prove my Route 60 sojourn to have been real, and now I worried that it would be stolen.
“The cactus?” my friend said. “Stolen?” He pointed out that there was no shortage of cacti in Tucson. I lay back again and shut my eyes against the lush vines and hedges surrounding the pool, remembering how it felt to be driving down Route 60 as though I were moving through the dead center of a clear glass globe.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit the desert Southwest.
Where to Stay
2200 E. Elm St., Tucson, Ariz.; 520/325-1541; arizonainn.com; doubles from $219.
GREAT VALUE 1600 N. Broad St., Globe, Ariz.; 928/425-4406; doubles from $45.
425 North St., Globe, Ariz.; 877/780-2479; noftsgerhillinn.com; doubles from $90.
Where to Eat
Mile 56, U.S. Hwy. 60, Pie Town, N. Mex.; 575/772-2700; pies from $15; closed Sun.–Mon.
110 Manzanares St., Socorro, N. Mex.; 575/838-0809; lunch for two $15.
U.S. Hwy. 60, Pie Town, N. Mex.; 575/772-2711; pies from $20; closed Tues.–Wed.
What to Do
Blue Canyon Gallery
U.S. Hwy. 60, Magdalena, N. Mex.; 575/854-2953; bluecanyongallery.com.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
1001 Hwy. 1 S., San Antonio, N. Mex.; 575/835-1828; fws.gov.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Mile 223, U.S. Hwy. 60, Superior, Ariz.; 520/689-2723.
Cobre Valley Center for the Arts
101 N. Broad St., Globe, Ariz.; 928/425-0884.
Very Large Array
The next biannual free guided tour of the huge dish antennae is on April 5. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, U.S. Hwy. 60 between Magdalena and Datil, N. Mex.; 575/835-7000; nrao.edu.