The High Road

Posted on Thursday, July 14th, 2011 in Stories

“Improvement makes straight roads; But the crooked roads without improvements are roads of genius.” — William Blake

Like the 18th century poet William Blake I am an aficionado of crooked roads. I find them as irresistible as freshly baked pie. A true son of Route 66, I prefer cruising the twists and turns of America’s Main Street, or any of the nation’s other venerable two-lanes, to coasting those endless slabs of monotony littered with generic culture that pass for today’s interstate highways.

One of my most revered roads of genius is the High Road to Taos, a narrow and often treacherous ribbon of asphalt that snakes through a necklace of enduring Hispanic villages in the forested Sangre de Cristo (“the blood of Christ”) Mountains of northern New Mexico.

I have maintained a passionate love affair with this region for many years. That is why, no matter how far I stray, I always return. When I was a struggling young writer in the late 1960s, it was northern New Mexico, and especially the countryside and villages flanking the High Road to Taos, that provided me with unforgettable adventures and extraordinary teachers. The people and the land nurtured my creative soul.

As I would later write, “I sucked in piñon smoke as if it were holy incense. I smoothed my palm over petroglyphs — graffiti etched in stone by ancient people. I parked my pink-and-white Ford Ranchero named El Coyote on a trail high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and never found it again. I stalked rainbows that stretched back to the beginning of time. I rubbed the adobe earth into my hide. I became a moon hunter. I drank snowmelt beneath evergreens that climbed slopes once cloaked in glacial ice.

“I watched the classic dance of planets in the night sky and worshipped star clouds. I walked with saints and looked the devil right in the eye. I absorbed the nuance of history and culture. I bathed in the intensity of visible light flooding through the rarified mountain air. I held hands with a bonafide witch. I found countless mentors, wisdom keepers, and bold lovers.”

I also promised myself that I would die in this land. I intend to keep that pledge.

This is a place that offers choices and opportunities. It is a land of poco tiempo, or “little time,” where clocks seem useless. It is also a land of variety, including the many trails and roadways that crisscross the region. Simply the act of going from the ancient capital city of Santa Fe to the funky chic town of Taos provides two interesting options.

One way is the low road, or U.S. Highway 84/285. This direct four-lane route passes through the Río Grande Valley highway towns of Pojoaque and the low-rider haven of Española. It then enters a soaring black basalt canyon as New Mexico 68. The narrow road runs alongside the Río Grande and eventually leads to Taos.

The other way to go from Santa Fe to Taos is the High Road, designated a New Mexico Scenic Byway in 2002. I always tell anyone making a round trip to try both the river and mountain routes, but if it is only a one-way trek those intrepid folks who prefer roads of genius should take the 70-mile long High Road. They will never regret it as long as they use some caution and common sense.

For some the journey to Taos via the High Road — with its looping switchbacks and long picturesque approaches — can take as little as a few hours or, it may require an entire day. For a special few it is a never-ending journey.

Since I first traversed the High Road many years ago, the traffic count has increased while most of the landscape and the sites along the way are as familiar as always. There are some exceptions. Nothing stays the same — even in Chimayó, Córdova, Truchas, Las Trampas, Peñasco, and the other mountain villages, including some that in the late 1700s acted as the first line of defense on the frontier of New Spain.

History and culture have been tampered with and it shows. A sense of isolationism in the villages has largely gone along with some of the old adobe structures and a way of life — replaced in part by house trailers, quaint b&bs for the turistas, television dishes, and other evidence of so-called progress. Many of the modern conveniences have helped make village life more comfortable. Sadly, the problems that plague our cities, such as alcoholism, drug addiction and the resulting crime that is spawned, have also spread to some of the villages along the historic route.

Yet, I return to the High Road every chance I get. Enough of the old treasured enticements are left to lure me back. And, like all roads worth taking, it is never predictable. That counts for a lot, at least for me and other two-lane wanderers.