When a couple has driven more than 2100 miles and spent a day and a half of the past eight in the car, what could possibly make that couple turn around and go the opposite direction?
America, the Beautiful.
At dinner the previous night Carl and Darlene told us about The Singing Road, a short stretch of Route 66 that, when driven at exactly 45 MPH, plays America, the Beautiful. We’d driven the Mother Road in 2011 and wondered how we could have missed something so delightful, until we found out we hadn’t because it didn't exist yet. It was added in 2014 in a joint effort by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the National Geographic Society (who paid for it) to get people to slow down. It’s one of only five “singing roads” in the world. The first one was created in Denmark in 1995 and is called - get this - the Asphaltaphone. Just like our unexpected trip to Jemez, we figured we’d come this far; what’s another hour when you can be serenaded by blacktop?
I know you’re wondering: does New Mexico’s singing road really sing? Yes! And it was totally worth heading east before heading west.
If you want to drive the Singing Road it's located on NM 333 (also Route 66) Eastbound between miles 4 and 5.
By this point you may be thinking - “Are Jim and Theresa ever going to leave New Mexico?” Yes, I promise, but not quite yet. We had some stuff carved into rocks to see.
Our second-to-last stop in the state was Petroglyph National Monument. To get there we drove past subdivisions and Starbucks and then bam! there’s a giant wall of black boulders rising up from the valley. We entered the Visitor Center and learned that the park actually consists of three separate sites and there are no trails at the center. Hearing of our limited time, the Ranger kindly directed us to Boca Negra Canyon. It’s the most developed section and offers the easiest access to petroglyphs.
Before we left the center we attempted to purchase a National Parks Access Pass, but because this national monument was free it didn’t sell them. When we approached the booth at Boca Negra we were surprised to find there was a charge of $2. In a somewhat unusual arrangement, the City of Albuquerque actually operates that particular section of Petroglyph and they charge $2 per vehicle on the weekends and $1 during the week. That’s because Boca Negra began as the Indian Petroglyph State Park in 1973 and was not dedicated as a National Monument until 1990.
(If we’d had our National Parks Access Pass the fee would have been waived. I’ll go into the whole National Park/Monument/Historic Site system later.)
We took the Mesa Point trail and scrambled up the side of the escarpment like a couple of goats. Wide steps led to narrow trails that were sometimes marked with rope, sometimes not. We climbed higher and higher, and before we neared the top we were a mile above sea level, looking down on the city in the valley. This flatlander was shocked that I had hiked uphill at that elevation and could still breathe. Maybe Utah wouldn’t kill me after all...
We were standing on the West Mesa, formed 200,000 years ago by six volcanic eruptions. The lava flows gradually broke into boulders that tumbled to form the escarpment. As they aged, the basalt oxidized, creating a black surface that coated the lighter rock underneath, making a perfect canvas for etchings. There are about 25,000 petroglyphs throughout the park. Boca Negra contains only 5% of the petroglyphs in the whole monument, but it still seemed like they were everywhere. The majority was left by Native Americans, but there’s some Spanish artistry, too. There were a few boulders that weren’t adorned, but even that might have been a trick of the sun. It’s said that these etchings choose when and by whom they’ll be seen.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a little fascinated (read: obsessed) with history. I want to know and see and feel what happened yesterday to make each place what it is today. When I pick at a thread and find out it’s part of a blanket that drapes our past, it feels like I’ve pulled order out of the knots that free will creates. One thing leads to another and next thing I know I’m a foot away from a rock carved with “Don Juan de Oñate was here.”
(That guy was everywhere.)
Which leads me to our last stop in New Mexico: El Morro National Monument. We’d briefly pulled into El Malpais, but it was closed for the season so we continued climbing higher until there were more pines than juniper and the sandstone bluff practically jumped out at us.
El Morro is an imposing site, but for early travelers it was a welcome one. At the base of this mighty mesa is the only water source for miles. The pool is practically hidden in a nook and is fed by snow runoff and rainwater. We wondered how it was originally discovered, thinking it was probably the tell-tale black streaks the sluicing streams marked down the face of the cliff that gave it away. It’s like an ancient rest stop, providing a place to pull over for Puebloans, and then Spaniards, and finally Americans. It’s sobering to realize that we’ve only had easy access to running water for less than a century. In 1920, fewer than 1% of homes in America had indoor plumbing. For the people who passed through, and for those that briefly lived there, that pool was a cool drink of water.
The pool is most certainly cool, but what made El Morro eligible for National Monument status in 1906, one of the first to be designated, is the inscriptions. The base is covered with carvings dating back a thousand years. First there were petroglyphs, hundreds of them. Many of those are thought to have been left by the people who lived atop the mesa from 1275 - 1350. Visitors can now hike through the partially excavated village of A'ts'ina, which had about 850 rooms and could house up to 1500 people.
The first non-native to leave his mark was Oñate (of course) in 1605 as he was returning home to San Gabriel from a trip to the Pacific. In 1849, Lt. James H. Simpson was surveying the Zuni and Navajo territories for the U. S. Army. He and artist Richard Kern not only left their signatures, they also began recording the inscriptions. Oddly enough, considering the years the Spanish had visited this landmark, this was the first time anyone thought to write anything about what the two Americans dubbed Inscription Rock.
These carvings represent the march of human occupation in this corridor, even to the way some obliterate the ones left before, and in other places the three eras and cultures coexist so that petroglyph is next to Spanish is next to English.
See - we can all get along. It’s written in stone.
We left El Morro with the overly-optimistic hope that we could fit a visit to Petrified Forest National Park into the day, but when we saw the sign on I-40 it was ten minutes after they closed, so we waved as we drove by and made our way to Winslow, Arizona.