Take a three-day drive through the deserts and mountains of southwestern New Mexico
Paul Costello

When I stopped thinking that babies in strollers were adorable and started hating them for taking up so much space on the subway, I knew it was time for a break from New York. I wanted to seek new experiences in a setting that invited reflection, but I had only a long weekend at my disposal. So I planned a three-day drive through the deserts and mountains of southwestern New Mexico, land so sparsely populated that the government uses it for missile tests.

I invited my mother, Joanie, to abandon her close-knit New England village and come along for the ride. We wouldn't meet many people—that, after all, was the point. But the itinerary was packed with unusual sights: the requisite ghost towns and plateaus, plus petroglyphs, dune formations, and a contemporary art installation in the middle of nowhere. So we set off on a two-woman tour of no-man's-land and its various oddities and legends.

WE PICKED UP OUR RENTAL SUV in Albuquerque and sped through tract-house suburbs, watching the land grow emptier. Once you're surrounded by mesas instead of minimarts, New Mexico is ideal driving country. The highways are virtually empty, the official—and largely unenforced—speed limit is 75 mph, and there are so few exits that it's virtually impossible to get lost.

In tiny San Antonio, about an hour southwest of Albuquerque, we stopped at Manny's Buckhorn Bar & Grill, a pink roadhouse with a stuffed mountain lion in the back room. The bartender, a native New Mexican, warned us to watch out for chupacabras in the desert. "You know what those are?" he asked. Having studied folklore and mythology in college, I did: monsters in Mexican legend that suck goat blood. Mothers invoke chupacabras to warn children of the dangers that lurk in the night. "Most Anglos don't know that," he marveled, and gave us some free iced tea. Even as the quantity of our human contact was dropping, it seemed, the quality was improving.

We left the Buckhorn's dimly lit comfort and drove into the blazing daylight and the Valley of Fires, a 144-square-mile lava field that stretches past Highway 380. The sun overhead seemed more fiery than the valley, with its large patches of jagged black rock that look like a charred lunar landscape. The lava hadn't flowed from a traditional volcano but had seeped from vents in the ground between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago—very recently, in geological terms. In local American Indian lore, lava fields such as this one were thought to be the blood and bones of giant animals that roamed during the prehistoric Age of the Gods.

The animals depicted at the Three Rivers Petroglyphs site were easier to make out. We were the only ones viewing these rock carvings, etched by Jornada Mogollon villagers about 1,000 years ago and thought to have mythological significance. In fact, there wasn't even a visitors' center, just a sign instructing us to insert the admission fee into a pipe in the ground. We climbed a trail and examined the chalky, Cubist-looking line drawings. I thought I could make out a chupacabra, and there was no one around to disagree.

The White Sands National Monument, just past the town of Alamogordo, is 275 square miles of stark white gypsum dunes, created by the evaporation of an ancient sea. They resembled massive snowdrifts, especially with the visiting kids sledding down the sides. Except for the dry heat and the occasional scrub, we could have been in the Arctic, not the desert. White Sands even has its own version of animals that use coloration as camouflage, the way polar bears and snowy owls do. The ruse worked: we looked in vain for the so-called pallid bats, which have adapted to their environment by turning chalky white. Later, letting the fine grains of powder run through our fingers, we agreed that this was the calmest and oddest place we'd been so far. As the setting sun turned the gypsum pink and lavender, our drive back through the dunes felt like being inside a prism.

Our hotel reservation lay in Mesilla, a suburb of Las Cruces on the far side of the White Sands Missile Range. The range hosts trials for experimental weaponry that regularly require the closing of Highway 70. Fortunately, our trip didn't interfere with military science, so we soon arrived at the Mesón de Mesilla, a simple inn with a serious restaurant. We ate four courses, headed to our room, and fell asleep, unaffected by any atomic residue.

LIKE PALLID BATS, WE TOO WERE ADAPTING to our environment. By the next morning we no longer liked being surrounded by lots of people. So we ignored the unchecked sprawl of Las Cruces and explored Mesilla's warren of adobe buildings, including a courthouse from which Billy the Kid escaped in 1881. There's no avoiding Billy's violent shadow in New Mexico: he must be the state's most famous resident. Dozens of legends compete with the few hard facts that are known about the bandit. My favorite story has him moving west from New York with his mother. A troubled adolescent, Billy began his life of crime in Silver City (110 miles northwest of Mesilla), possibly killing a drunken miner who impugned his mom's honor.

Joanie and I love dangerous rebels, so we headed to Silver City and the nearby ghost town of Pinos Altos, which is home to a morbid piece of Billy memorabilia: the hearse that carried the body of Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed Billy and (in that pre—talk show age) wrote a best-seller about it. The rickety contraption is on display at the Hearst Methodist Episcopal Church, now an art gallery and museum with paintings and handicrafts by local artists.

Art in New Mexico isn't limited to mementos of the Old West. One hundred eighty miles northeast of Silver City is Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, a seminal work of Land Art composed of 400 steel poles implanted in the high desert. Between May 1 and October 31, six visitors are allowed to stay each night in a cabin adjoining the work, which is maintained by the New York—based Dia Center for the Arts. We had managed to book a night there and had strict instructions to meet at 3 p.m. at the center's branch office in Quemado, so we sped through the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests. Climbing into the mountains, we watched the trees and cliffs recede behind us like waves.

DE MARIA CHOSE THE SITE, which is 45 minutes from the nearest town and officially secret, for the virtues of being remote, empty, and in an area of relatively high lightning activity. But he has never really explained why he decided to build the field in the first place. An article he wrote for Artforum magazine describes the specifics (400 poles of polished stainless steel, planted 220 feet apart in a grid exactly one mile by one kilometer and six meters; average pole height 20 feet 71/2 inches, the tops forming a flat, level plane) and offers a few maxims ("The invisible is real" and "The sum of the facts does not constitute the work"). De Maria's opaqueness reminded me of the Field's New Mexican neighbors, such as the Jornada Mogollons and their petroglyphs, and Billy the Kid and his competing legends.

The artist does insist that visitors stay overnight in order to see the Lightning Field in various types of light. A Dia guide drove our four roommates and us to the spare but comfortable cabin, showed us the emergency phone and the enchiladas in the fridge, and then left us alone. We walked among the giant poles, which provide a focal point for the cinematic desert setting. The light and the landscape are as much a part of the artwork as the metal poles themselves. Lawrence Rinder, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, suggests that the installation should actually be called the Light Field, "because you don't need to have lightning to experience it. It's really about the effect of the light and its variations on the steel poles, the feel of the air and the silence of the land." As the sun began to go down behind the clouds, the curving light turned the poles into markers along the horizon—you could see every last one in each direction. With the boundless view, the sunset seemed to last forever.

The next morning, we tore back toward Albuquerque. Cliffs rose around us as a storm started in the distance. Above the mesas, we finally saw lightning. After our night of waiting, the flashes seemed like rainbows—a sign from God that he had watched us watching. Our entire weekend had been filled with examples of man's relationship to his surroundings, how we work to leave our mark in the vast expanse of nature: the odd petroglyphs carved on the rocks, the Lightning Field punctuating the desert, even the smooth highways that let us zoom through breathtaking mountains and canyons. De Maria wrote that "isolation is the essence of Land Art," and it had been the essence of our trip as well. After three days I still had no desire to return to the crowds of New York—but I wasn't about to move into a cabin in the desert, either. It was easy to feel inspired in the quiet grandeur of New Mexico; the true challenge, I realized, would be to retain that calm on a packed subway car.

DAY 1 Take I-25 south from Albuquerque to San Antonio, home to Manny's Buckhorn Bar & Grill (Hwy. 380, San Antonio; 505/835-4423; lunch for two $18). Follow 380 to Carrizozo; then pick up 54, which passes Three Rivers Petroglyphs. At Alamogordo, take 70 southwest, past White Sands National Monument. Eat and stay at the Mesón de Mesilla (1803 Avda. de Mesilla; 505/525-9212; dinner for two $70, doubles from $57), two miles west of Las Cruces.

DAY 2 Take 10 west to Deming, and 180 north to Silver City, from which Pinos Altos is a seven-mile detour. Switch to highways 180, 12, and 32 north until you reach Quemado and the Dia Center for the Arts (505/898-3335; www.diacenter.org). The only way to visit the Lightning Field is through Dia; $185 per person in-season includes transportation to and from Quemado, lodging, and two basic meals, out-of-season, $85.

DAY 3 Leaving Quemado, take 36 north to Trechado, then 117 north to I-40, which brings you east to Albuquerque.