Back to the future


Seven hundred years ago, in a canyon west of what is now Albuquerque, a Native American chiseled the image of a star onto a boulder.

Today, eighty miles south of this same canyon, an astronomer points an array of radio telescopes toward stars in distant galaxies.

Whether artist or astronomer, conquistador or cowboy, Puebloan or physicist, New Mexico often seems the crossroads where time and space intersect.

Old Town

One such crossroads is Old Town in Albuquerque, located near the banks of the Rio Grande.

San Felipe de Neri Church, Albuquerque
San Felipe de Neri Church

Founded by the Spanish in 1706, Old Town is a few blocks of historic adobe buildings around a central plaza and the San Felipe de Neri Church. Old Town is at the heart of Albuquerque, literally and figuratively.

I stayed at Bottger Mansion, a B&B on the edge of Old Town. Built in 1908 by a wealthy hotelier, the mansion later served as a boarding house.

Machine Gun Kelly and his gang holed up at Bottger while on the run in the 1940s. So did Elvis Presley in the ’50s and Janis Joplin in the ’60s.

Frank Sinatra once performed in the courtyard after a wedding.

The question “Red or green?” is posed frequently. Locals add chile sauce to everything. One morning at the B&B, waffles were served with green chile-apple compote.

Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument

Code in the canyons

West of town I explored Petroglyph National Monument. The park protects five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites and an estimated twenty-five thousand petroglyphs created by Ancestral Puebloans and early Spanish settlers.

Most were carved up to seven hundred years ago. The petroglyphs are chiseled on the black, varnished surfaces of volcanic boulders, which have tumbled down from a seventeen-mile-long escarpment.

At Boca Negrada Canyon I climbed narrow trails around house-sized rocks covered with ancient images. Later I walked the Rinconada Canyon, a two-mile loop. Numerous petroglyphs could be seen on the boulders a short distance from the trail.

Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument

Many of the images seem recognizable—dancers, flute players, mountain lions, birds, snakes, lizards, spirals, stars. Even handprints. Some look like space aliens.

In the 1600s Spanish shepherds carved religious crosses.

The meaning of many of the symbols is unknown to researchers. Native Americans treat them with deep reverence. “The mountains and mesas are our churches.”

Ancient trade routes

The Spanish word pueblo is used variously to describe a people, a culture, a style of architecture, a language, and a time period, but it means village.

Enchanted Mesa
Enchanted Mesa

The nineteen pueblos of New Mexico founded the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in 1976.

Its collection of Puebloan art includes pottery, weaving, baskets, paintings, and jewelry. Troupes regularly perform traditional dances.

One exhibit explained the life-purpose of the Puebloan people: “We are to love one another, take care of one another, respect one another, and conduct ourselves properly.”

The Ancestral Puebloans of the Rio Grande valley evolved from nomadic tribes who began building more permanent residences. Around 750 CE they were stacking rectangular rooms together in multiple stories, often in canyons or on mesas.

The largest of these villages, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, has around seven hundred rooms in five stories. It may have housed up to one thousand people. Apartment buildings of this size were not built in New York City for another eight hundred years.


The Ancestral Puebloans were sophisticated traders with regular routes. With the Plains people, ancestors of the Navajo and Apache, the Puebloans traded maize, piñon nuts, beans, squash, cotton, and salt for buffalo jerky, animal hides, flints, and shells.

Archaeologists in New Mexico have found the remains of scarlet macaws from Mexico, proving the Puebloans and their trading partners walked great distances.

At the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology is a clay pot painted with the image of a fish, a food not associated with the Puebloans. Where and when did the maker of the pot see a fish? Most likely, the Puebloans encountered the creature during a journey to the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles away.

Abó, Salinas Pueblo Missions

Failed missions

The first Europeans to come in contact with the Ancestral Puebloans were Spaniards, led by conquistador and explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. He mounted a massive expedition from Mexico in 1540. While looking for the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, he traveled as far as present-day Kansas.

His expedition marked the first European sighting of the Grand Canyon. He and his men visited several pueblos, riding the first horses Native Americans had ever seen and leaving behind a legacy of violence.

Finding no gold, the Spanish left the Puebloans alone for fifty years. Then, in 1598, Juan de Oñate brought the first Spanish colonists to the Rio Grande valley. When they arrived, they found the natives had access to valuable salt, gathered from salinas (lakes). On display at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe is the oldest piece of European armor ever found in the United States, an iron helmet worn by one of Oñate’s soldiers.

The Puebloans in the Rio Grande valley numbered between forty and eighty thousand at the time of the Spanish incursion. They lived in separate villages, distrustful of each other and often speaking different languages.

Gran Quivita, Salinas Pueblo Missions
Gran Quivita

However, relations between the Spanish and the Puebloans deteriorated when the invaders tried to collect taxes and convert the natives to Christianity. The Spanish demanded food and clothing from the Puebloans, commodities which were in short supply.

The Puebloans accepted Christianity as a parallel religion until the priests destroyed their sacred kachina masks and kivas. Revolts were frequent and reprisals brutal.

I drove for two hours on desert highways past desolate ranches to visit Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The monument consists of three sites with pueblo and mission ruins at each. In the 1600s more than ten thousand Puebloans lived in the Salinas area.

At Abó I toured the roofless Mission of San Gregorio with its crumbling adobe walls. A major trading station, Abó dates to the 1500s. Mounds of unexcavated pueblo ruins surround the church.

Quarai, Salinas Pueblo Missions

The Gran Quivira ruins, the largest of the three pueblos, is about twenty-five miles south of the dusty desert town of Mountainair. A trail leads past the ruins of the first mission church and through an uncompleted second church, started in 1659. Nearly two thousand Puebloans lived on the ridge next to the mission. In 1672 the pueblo was abandoned.

The Spanish called the site Las Humanas, a name that referred to the Jumanos people who painted or tattooed bold stripes across their faces. They looked like members of Kiss, according to the depiction in the museum.

North of Mountainair are the ruins of a third pueblo, Quarai. As with the other missions, a combination of disease, drought, famine, and Apache raiding led to the abandonment of Quarai in 1678.

At Salinas I was just thirty-four miles north of the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945.

Acoma Pueblo

First American Revolution

Who was the first American hero to lead a revolution and drive a powerful European force out of North America?

George Washington? Sam Adams?

His name is Po’pay.

Po’pay was a religious leader from the San Juan Pueblo. In 1675 he was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned by the Spanish. Upon his release, he began planning a rebellion. A fellow member of Po’pay’s pueblo said, “It took a unique individual to orchestrate the revolt across two dozen communities who spoke six different languages and were sprawled over a distance of nearly four hundred miles.”

Po’pay coordinated the attack with all of the pueblos by sending runners to each with knotted ropes. The number of knots in the ropes corresponded to the number of days remaining before the attack. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 caught the Spanish soldiers and colonists by surprise. They retreated to Mexico.

Quarai, Salinas Pueblo Missions

Po’pay then worked to destroy the traces of Spanish rule and return the Puebloans to the old ways of life. They succeeded in protecting their independence for twelve years.

In 1692 the Spanish returned, this time suspending the slave-labor system and allowing Puebloan religious ceremonies. Drought, famine, and disease had worn down Puebloan resistance.

The two sides joined forces to fight the marauding Apache and Navajo. Gradually, New Mexico became a blend of Puebloan and Spanish cultures.

In 2005, a statue of Po’pay was unveiled in the rotunda of the US Capitol. Po’Pay holds a knotted cord in his hand, the signal for the beginning of the revolt. On his back are scars from the whippings he received for practicing his religion.

National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

Trinity site

In 1939 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to FDR, wherein he recommended the president look into the development of nuclear technology. The president listened. A few years later, a sleepy ranch community thirty miles northwest of Santa Fe attracted the attention of the US Department of War. It was looking for a secret location to develop the atomic bomb.

The story of the atomic age, as told at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, is both interesting and disturbing. Mostly disturbing. It covers the origins of atomic theory, World War II, the Manhattan Project, the Trinity test, the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War.

About one hundred of the world’s top physicists, including Einstein, emigrated to the United States between 1933 and 1941, due to persecution in Europe by the Nazis. Many got involved in the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos was chosen as the site for weapon design and production.

National Museum of Nuclear Science and History
Replica of Fat Man with B-29 bomber

After the bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the project, was inspired to quote from Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

On July 26 the Allies demanded Japan’s surrender. The Japanese ignored the demand. The bombs were prepared.

On August 6 the bomb called Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Between the two, over three hundred thousand were killed.

The exhibit goes to great lengths to portray the bombings as the rapid ending to the war. Replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man are on display, along with a yard full of wartime planes, rockets, and missiles.

Route 66

Route 66

In 1706, King Philip of Spain granted permission to thirty-five families to establish a new city on the banks of the Rio Grande, a stop on the Camino Real (royal road). The city was named for the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque. (The extra r in Alburquerque was dropped along the way).

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway expanded to Albuquerque in 1880, bringing growth. And mythical Route 66, connecting Chicago and Santa Monica, funneled carloads of adventurous travelers through the middle of the city, beginning in the 1920s.

Reminders of Route 66’s glory days are everywhere. Along I-40 I was amused by the kitschy dinosaur-and-teepee motifs at all of the exits through the Navajo reservation. Several auto-court motels line Central Avenue, where the route runs through downtown Albuquerque. The El Don Motel has one of eight neon signs in town listed in the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties.

Route 66
Route 66

Northeast of town, a Swiss-engineered aerial tram sweeps you to the top of the Sandia Mountains, a four-thousand-foot increase in elevation, topping out at over ten thousand feet. Fifty passengers per car.

The final span between the second tower and the top is 1½ miles, the longest cable span in the world.

At the peak, the view is spectacular, overlooking the lights of Albuquerque and the lingering sunset, which graduates from orange-pink to blue-indigo like every Southwestern post card.

Billy the Kid, Ben-Hur and Heisenberg


In Santa Fe, I parked the rental car on San Francisco Street in front of the Cornell Building. There I noticed a bronze plaque, commemorating the imprisonment of Billy the Kid in a jail once located in the building.

The Lincoln County War of 1878 was a feud between rival business cartels in the New Mexico Territory, marked by back-and-forth revenge killings.

The two sides fought over control of the cattle industry. Each included lawmen, ranchers, and outlaws. The Tunstall-McSween gang, including Billy the Kid, were known as the Regulators.

In revenge for Tunstall’s murder, the Regulators killed Sheriff William Brady, among others. Further killings climaxed in a five-day gunfight that resulted in more deaths and the scattering of the Regulators. In 1880, newly appointed Sheriff Pat Garrett hunted down the Kid, killing him and two others. In the New Mexico History Museum, the Kid’s spurs are on display.

Breaking Bad

While the feud raged, Lew Wallace, governor of the New Mexico Territory, spent his evenings in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, working on a novel. The novel was Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, published in 1880. Wallace often worked in a darkened room, fearing a bullet from outside.

He wrote the crucifixion scene in the book following an edgy meeting with the Kid. The 1959 film adaptation of the novel won eleven Academy Awards and spurred book sales past Gone With The Wind.

Another outlaw, William White of the Breaking Bad series, called Albuquerque home. A candy shop near the B&B made the look-alike blue-crystal meth for the series’ production. The show’s sets are everywhere. I easily spotted Tuco’s headquarters, the car wash, and the law office of Saul Goodman. Numerous no-trespassing signs are posted in front of Walt and Skyler’s fictional home. I did not attempt to toss a pizza onto the roof.

Turquoise Trail

Turquoise Trail

The Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe has little to do with turquoise, except that it passes near Cerrillos, a mining town in the late 1800s.

The output of gold, silver, lead, and turquoise from the Cerrillos district mines was greatly exaggerated in order to sell mining-company stock. Scenes from Young Guns were filmed in Cerrillos.

The town of Tijeras is the southern gateway to the trail. There is little to see at the Tijeros Pueblo Archaeological Site. The original pueblo was built in 1313 with adobe mud and, once excavated in the 1970s, backfilled to protect it from erosion.

Mayor Leroy of Golden

Along the trail I stopped in Golden to take photos of a found-art display on the side of the road. Golden boomed when gold was discovered in 1825. Now it is a ghost town.

A bearded, gap-toothed man named Leroy suddenly appeared and, with great excitement, proceeded to show me his creations.

He claimed to be the mayor of Golden. No one else wanted the job, he said. I suspect he lives in the abandoned house near his art. He gave me his mailing address and asked me to send him a copy of the photo I took.

Passed through Madrid, a funky artists’ colony with a population of around two hundred. It was once a company-owned coal-mining town. The last scene of the movie Wild Hogs was filmed there. Near Santa Fe, vendors sold roasted piñon nuts and elk jerky out of their cars along the side of the road.


The shrine to turquoise is not on the trail but in Albuquerque—the Turquoise Museum. It covers the history, geology, mineralogy, mining, grading, jewelry-making, and mythology of the gemstone. Founded by J.C. and Lillian Zachary, the museum has been operated by five generations of the family.

One room showcases a selection of specimens from the family’s collection, considered the largest in the world. Samples from over one-hundred well-known mines from the United States and around the world are on display.

Joe Dan Lowry, fourth generation, is recognized worldwide as a leading expert and author of two authoritative books on turquoise. My tour was conducted by Jacob Lowry, fifth generation.

He said very little turquoise is still mined in the United States. Over eighty-five percent of the turquoise sold in the world comes from China. International buyers value the gem based solely upon on the four Cs. Only Americans entangle the value of the stone with Native American artisanship.

Santa Fe

End of the trails

The Spanish established the village of Santa Fe as the capital of the New Mexico province in 1610, making it the oldest state capital in the United States. (Consider that the Jamestown colony was established in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620.) Construction of the Palace of the Governors, the capital building, began the same year.

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1810, the United States claimed New Mexico as its territory. A treaty in 1848 made it official.

In 1862, Confederate troops occupied the city for a few days. In 1912 New Mexico became America’s forty-seventh state.

The Palace of the Governors changed hands as the territory did—Spain, Puebloans, Spain again, Mexico, United States, Confederate States, and United States again. It remains the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Native Americans still gather in the portico as they have for generations to sell handmade crafts.

All roads led to Santa Fe, the endpoint of three National Historic Trails—the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri, the Camino Real from Mexico City, and the Old Spanish Trail from Los Angeles.

San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe
San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe

The oldest church in the United States is the San Miguel Chapel. Oral history suggests it was built around 1610 by Tlaxcalan natives who came to New Mexico from old Mexico.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is dedicated to her life story. Between 1929 and 1949, O’Keeffe spent part of nearly every year working in New Mexico. She collected bones from the desert and made them subjects in her paintings. In 1934 she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, and, inspired by the scenery, decided to live there. She wrote, “(The) cliffs over there are almost painted for you—you think—until you try to paint them.”

The museum has the largest permanent collection of O’Keeffe’s work in the world. Subjects include her iconic flowers, skulls, and landscapes.

Jansky VLA
Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array

Array on the plains

Blue-cornmeal pancakes with prickly-pear syrup for breakfast.

In the Old Town Plaza a church held a huge all-day revival. Hundreds of people attended, wearing white top to bottom. The men looked like wedding ushers in white suits and ties. The women wore white lace over their heads.

I travelled through the towns of Socorro and Magdalena, a two-hour drive from Albuquerque through prairie ringed by mountains, on the way to the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the most scientifically productive ground-based telescope ever.

Petroglyph National Monument

The VLA observatory is located on the flat, high, dry Plains of San Agustin, an ancient lakebed some fifty miles west of Socorro. It consists of twenty-seven radio antenna-dishes in a Y-shaped configuration.

Each of the telescopes weighs two-hundred-forty tons and is over eighty feet in diameter.

Each dish is mounted on railroad tracks, so the configuration of the array can be changed. Cows graze beneath the telescopes.

The data from the antennas is combined electronically by a supercomputer to give the resolution of a single antenna-dish twenty-two miles wide.

Radio astronomy is the study of celestial objects that give off radio waves, invisible to the human eye. Astronomers using the VLA study stars, quasars, pulsars, supernovas, galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, the sun, and the planets.

Sandia Mountains
Sandia Mountains

The observatory is 3-D mapping the Milky Way, measuring black holes and watching the echo made by the Big Bang. In 1989 the VLA was used to receive radio communications from Voyager 2 as it flew by Neptune. It discovered ice on Mercury.

Scenes from Jody Foster’s movie Contact were shot at the VLA. She narrates the video in the visitor center, saying that since the beginning of time humankind has looked to the skies for answers. Like the Puebloans who carved images of stars on rocks. “Who are we? Why are we here?”

Despite the plot of Contact, the VLA is not assisting in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Or so they say.

Acoma Pueblo
Acoma Pueblo

Sky City

Horses grazed freely along the side of the road in pueblo land. Signs advertised frybread for sale. I marveled at the rock formations.

Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled butte, almost four-hundred-feet high, about sixty miles west of Albuquerque. Settled around 1050, the pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. The word acoma means “the place that always was.” The isolation and steep walls of the pueblo have protected it for over a thousand years.

Coronado described the pueblo in 1540 as “one of the strongest ever seen, because the city was built on a high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top.”

Acoma Pueblo
Kiva ladder, Acoma Pueblo

Historically the only access to the pueblo was by climbing one of eight sets of hand and toeholds, gouged into the vertical rock face. Since then, a road has been cut to accommodate Hollywood. At least three movies have been filmed at Acoma, one in the ’30s, one in the ’50s (starring John Wayne), and one in the ’70s (Henry Fonda).

A shuttle bus delivered me to the top where I met Brendan, an Acoma native. He led a small group through the rocky, sandy streets, sharing history and telling stories.

Approximately fifty Puebloans live permanently on the mesa. The pueblo comprises two- and three-story adobe residences, around three hundred of them, with exterior ladders to access upper levels. There is no electricity, sewer, or running water. Residents heat and cook with wood, draw their own water, light with butane, and use composting toilets. Around six-thousand tribal members live in the area around the mesa.

Acoma Pueblo
Adobe oven, Acoma Pueblo

Some nuggets from guide Brendan:

• In Acoma society, women own the property.

• Property passes to the youngest daughter in each family.

• Lineage is designated by the maternal name. Brendan is in the Sun clan. His wife, the Parrot clan. Accordingly, their daughter’s family designation is Big Parrot-Small Sun.

• Marrying within clans is forbidden.

In 1629, construction began on the huge San Esteban del Rey Mission, which, along with the pueblo, is a Registered National Historic Landmark. The ceiling is supported with huge ponderosa-pine logs. The walls are whitewashed adobe, several feet thick. We were not allowed to take photos inside the church or in the graveyard.

Brendan would share little about the pueblo’s religious practices. “Three times in our history, they tried to eradicate our religion,” he said. “We keep it to ourselves.”

Petroglyph National Monument
Star petroglyph

In 1598, the Acoma Puebloans heard Oñate intended to colonize the area. They revolted and killed some of his men.

The Spanish took revenge on Acoma, burning most of the pueblo, killing more than six-hundred Puebloans and imprisoning approximately five hundred more.

Men over the age of twenty-five had their right feet severed. In 1998, a bronze statue of Oñate, New Mexico’s founder, was erected near Espanola. Protesters cut off the statue’s right foot with a saw.

Brendan gave us a choice for getting back to the center—shuttle bus or steep hike down the rock face. I chose the hike. The stone steps were irregular, practically vertical and without railings. In one section, I was thrilled to use the one-thousand-year-old hand and toeholds.

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