Southwest Magic

A road trip from California to Arizona and New Mexico transports a Sacramento writer into the swirling colors of the desert.
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. In the desert.
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

In pride of place in my living room now hangs an oil painting of a stark, crevasse-lined, pink New Mexican mountain ridge set against a deep blue sky. The mountain is void of vegetation, as spare and unforgiving as a NASA photo of Mars. And yet the rocks don’t look hard. Rather, they seem somehow fluid, repositories of light and of life. They look endlessly mysterious, as if those delicate colors hold an eternity of secrets. Perhaps it’s a cake rather than a landscape. Or maybe a blood cell enlarged a billion times. Depending how bright are my overhead dimmer lights, the sky is either a fading late-evening hue or a powerful desert-morning huzzah.

I bought the painting, somewhat on a whim, in a gallery in Taos this past September during a weeklong road trip through the Southwest with my partner. We traveled from California to New Mexico via Tucson, Arizona, and back to California.

Marissa lives in San Diego, which is where I headed from Sacramento to begin our road trip. From there, Interstate 8 snakes east, through the California desert and its Joshua trees, and out into the cactus lands of southern Arizona, running along the border with Mexico.

Organ pipes cacti in the desert
Organ pipes cacti

Tucson, Arizona—On the way into Tucson, we stopped to look at ancient petroglyphs carved into the desert rock. The car thermometer recorded 113 degrees—oddly, three degrees cooler than Sacramento that day, but still far too hot to do very much other than quickly walk around the site and then, dripping, flop back into the air-conditioned vehicle.

Tucson’s downtown is filled with bars and music venues, with old record stores and funky clothing outlets. Its outskirts are home to wondrous expanses of saguaro and organ pipes cacti, which look—respectively—like improbably tall traffic cops, armed raised aloft to stop oncoming traffic, and very prickly green organ pipes.

We stayed in the historic Hotel Congress, a creaky old place with period-piece, fully functioning wooden radios dating back at least to World War II in the bedrooms. Besides a rather nice restaurant and a willingness to host raucous local bands in the evening, the Congress’s chief claim to fame is that outlaw John Dillinger was arrested there in early 1934. Legend has it a ghost or two inhabits its hallways. We had dinner with an old university friend of mine at the Congress, walked down the street afterward to a nice gelato place, and the next morning drove out to the old San Xavier del Bac Spanish mission.

The mission, founded in the late 1600s and completed nearly a century later, has soaring, brilliant white walls that jump from the surrounding desert scenery. The church interior is refreshingly cool despite the omnipresent summer heat. It seems, somehow, a place removed from the boundaries of time. I could have stayed there all day. We were, however, aiming for Santa Fe, hundreds of miles to the northeast, in time for dinner that night, so we climbed back into the car and set off once more.

San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission

You can drive fast in the desert, which is good because there are long, long stretches of road to cover. We drove fast.

Northeast through Arizona, we cut left at Hatch, New Mexico, a small crossroads town that prides itself on being the center of the region’s, nay the very world’s, chili-growing industry. Every restaurant sells uber-spicy cuisine, and every house has bunches of deep red-purple chilies hung for drying out front. From Hatch, we kept going north. We cruised through Albuquerque as the sun was setting to our west and proceeded up to Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, New Mexico—The road twisted and turned, the elevation increased, the temperature dropped. By the time we reached Santa Fe, the plaza of which was built by the Spanish in 1609 (some 11 years before the Pilgrims arrived on the East Coast in the Mayflower), it was almost mild enough to put on a sweatshirt.

interior San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission

We stayed at the Old Santa Fe Inn, a pretty hotel with a kind concierge and a decent breakfast, for three days. We window-shopped in the streets surrounding the beautiful (but extremely pricey) plaza. We looked at art we couldn’t afford and bespoke desert-chic clothing. We ogled turquoise jewelry, handmade out in the pueblos—in some instances, it cost as much as a car.

More within our price range, we explored the beautiful St. Francis cathedral—no entrance fee—and spent a couple of hours in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, an homage to the artist who lived to be nearly 100 years old and spent most of her adult life roaming around, and painting, the hidden intimacies of the Southwest landscape. Later that evening, we ate wondrously flavorful New Mexican cuisine—heavy on chilies and a potpourri of spices—at Cafe Pasqual’s, its tables packed tightly together in an intimate space on the edge of the plaza.

At the O’Keeffe museum, I almost bought a high-quality print of one of the artist’s landscapes, painted near her remote adobe home in Abiquiu, in northeast New Mexico. In Taos, a day later, I found an original canvas that made me nearly as happy. We bought it from the artist, had her pack it up in multiple layers of cardboard, bubble wrap and more cardboard, and laid it in the trunk of the car for the long return journey to California.

Santa Fe’s St. Francis cathedral in the desert
Santa Fe’s St. Francis cathedral

On the Road—For three decades now, the Southwest has drawn me back again and again and again. There is simply no other road trip landscape more cinematic or—in its vastness and epic solitude between cities—more meditative. When I was in my 20s and living in New York, every year I would go to Auto Driveaway, the company that Jack Kerouac and his friends had used in “On the Road” more than four decades earlier, to find cars whose owners needed them transported west. The woman in the New York Auto Driveaway once—a cluttered little space on a midlevel floor in the Empire State Building—would take my information, tell me in her gravelly smoker’s voice that she would call me when a car showed up, and send me on my way. A few days later, she’d have a car for me, and I’d be on my way west. I hit the highways that way every year for five years.

Back then, when I didn’t have two spare pennies to rub together, I’d simply sleep in the car by the side of the road, under the starry carapace of the western skies. I didn’t have a cellphone then, nor was there satellite radio in the cars. I wasn’t a backcountry hiker, so it was as close to off the grid as I ever got. Auto Driveaway would give you 10 days to get from coast to coast, and I’d usually spend about five of them meandering through the deserts of the Southwest, hiking in canyons, visiting Native American communities, finding out-of-the-way classic diners for burgers and milkshakes, sometimes interviewing random people for travel stories that I’d write, and photographing a painted landscape of endless psychedelic hues.

Nowadays, I do have enough pennies to spring for hotels. I have a smartphone that means I’m in constant contact with the rest of the world, and endless choices of radio stations, podcasts and streamed music, as well as a classic iPod (perhaps my most prized possession) that serves as my personal jukebox. But the basic principle of the Southwest remains: It’s still a place of transcendent beauty where, if you have even an ounce of humility, you can’t help but feel you’re a transient, very temporary speck. In an era of bombast and gigantic egos, where everyone seemingly wants to be a celebrity, that sense of anonymity and insignificance is infinitely refreshing.

Creatures in the desert look as if they belong in an untamed Jurassic world: Gila monsters, furry spiders, scorpions, snakes, vultures, coyotes and more. Cacti dot the landscape, having spent millions of years evolving to be perfect water-conserving, bristling fortresses of spikes and thorns. Huge gorges have been carved deep into the rocks. You can find fossilized remains of sea creatures from back when this arid landscape was underwater, and entire petrified forests, the wood fossilized into exquisite red and brown and purple rock formations, from when the land was marsh.

Petroglyphs in Tucson
Petroglyphs in Tucson

Tacos Pueblo, New Mexico—In Taos Pueblo, inhabited at least part of the year by up to 1,400 people, roughly 150 skilled artisans—potters, tanners, painters, jewelers—live there full time and sell their wares to tourists. A few shops sell deep-fried Indian bread, slathered in honey and powdered sugar. The adobe housing—huge, multistoried complexes standing for roughly 1,000 years—are the ancient equivalent of apartment blocks. Till recently, the upper levels could only be accessed by ladders. These days, tourists can wonder around much of the pueblo, although the chambers where religious rituals and dances occur remain off limits to outsiders.

When Columbus sailed west and “discovered” the Americas, those Taos Pueblo buildings had already existed for nearly half a millennia. When the Pilgrims arrived in North America 400 years ago and set about “civilizing” the natives, Taos had already been a thriving agricultural hub for centuries. The Native Americans’ Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, one of the hemisphere’s most durable efforts to shuck off the new colonial rulers—it held the Spanish at bay in New Mexico for 12 years—was centered in Taos.

Today, you can still feel that history in the ancient pueblos and old cemeteries, their wooden crosses preserved from rot by the desert-dry air. In the unforgiving landscape, speckled with Spanish churches. In the arroyos and bosques through which flow hard fought-over waters. In the plazas that blend multiple cultures.

Painted Desert and Petrified National Forest, Arizona—On our way back west, we drove through the Painted Desert and the Petrified National Forest—among the most beautiful landscapes I have yet seen. The Painted Desert erupts with brilliant reds and oranges, dark grays and purples. The Petrified National Forest is, quite simply, weird. Huge, felled trees, cut into sections by the earth’s pressure from the ages when they were submerged, lie strewn through the desert. The trees have long since fossilized, the soft, organic sensation of bark and live wood replaced by unforgiving mineral hardness. When you wander through this petrified world, it’s a whisper from the future—of what a planet no longer capable of sustaining life might look like.

Heading Home—We drove through Flagstaff, gateway town to the Grand Canyon—we had a late-afternoon lunch at a fun ’50s diner—and west once more.

Painted Desert
Painted Desert

It was two days of hard driving, including a deep-into-the-dark-night journey across the Mojave Desert as we navigated our way to a motel in Barstow. It left my middle-aged eyes strained and scratchy for a couple of weeks, but it was well worth it. I breathe slower and deeper in the Southwest. My back muscles uncork a bit. I relax in the hugeness of the desert, where improbable swirls of color calm me and help guide me to a point of focus.

Each morning now, when I come downstairs, I look at my new painting, and it makes me smile. For a moment, at least, before the hustle-bustle of daily life kicks in, I see the pink mountains and I’m back in the desert, a tiny dot in a grand and wild immenseness.