Northwest New Mexico is home to several of the state’s 23 Native American tribes: the Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, Acoma, and Zuni are among those who reside in the region. Despite westward expansion in the late 1800s and the federal government’s efforts to “Americanize” the native people, Indian culture remains strong. The rugged and vast terrain that served as a backdrop for many Western films is a mecca for those seeking to explore some lesser-known natural wonders of the still-wild Wild West.
The Mother Road
It’s a beautiful June day in Gallup as my wife, Kris, and I prepare for the first of four days exploring the area. Just outside our door is historic Route 66, often referred to as the “Mother Road.” In the road’s heyday, a nearly endless parade of Detroit iron traveled this route. Today, the British invade, with Kris piloting her 2014 Triumph Thruxton and me on my “scrambled” 2010 Triumph Bonneville.
As we pass through the downtown area, with its colorful buildings, the influences of both the Native American people who lived in this area for centuries as well as the railroads that came here in the mid-1800s are ever present.
While the majority of the original Route 66 in this area has been absorbed by I-40, we opt to stick to the frontage road, NM 118, as long as possible. Heading west out of town, our route crisscrosses the freeway several times and leads us past abandoned and surviving buildings and businesses from the old road’s glory days. Just west of the New Mexico/Arizona state line we turn onto the interstate. Traffic is light, and we soon arrive at the Petrified Forest National Park in northeast Arizona.
Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 as a national monument and designated a national park in 1962, the park now encompasses more than 221,000 acres and sees roughly 800,000 visitors each year. It has a north entrance off I-40 and a south entrance off US 180, with the aptly named Petrified Forest Road running 28 miles between them, taking visitors from one end of the park to the other.
From the north entrance, the blacktop leads us through high desert prairie, where we pass a gathering of mule deer perched atop a small hill. A long-abandoned old car catches my eye and I motion to Kris to pull over. Nearby, a roadside marker designates the location where the original Route 66 once traversed. Still standing are telephone poles that ran along the route. At their base, the old roadbed is still somewhat visible.