ALBUQUERQUE ‘No-one Expects The Spanish Inquisition’
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
Albuquerque is a breath of fresh air. Literally. It is invigorating. After over 15 months on the road, almost all in the Eastern states, we found this desert oasis so invigorating and exhilarating. It all feels so pure and clean, like breathing in on those frosty mornings when we set off to school as children. The air is as pure as crystal, the sky is azure blue, and all this is set against a backdrop of the magnificent Sandia Mountains.
But what made this all the more impactful was that, to get to here, it took hundreds of miles of an unimaginably ugly and mind-numbingly boring drive on a pitted Texas road, dicing every mile with death-wish oil trucks rushing to and from the skeletal refineries that blot the landscape. It was deeply unpleasant.
We left Texas having planned to spend a leisurely week getting to Albuquerque. We planned to have 4 days at a place called Carlsbad, where there are some famous caves, and a further stop to break up the 400+ journey . But we quickly abandoned any scintilla of an idea we may have had of exploring the mysteries that lay in wait between Ft Stockton and Albuquerque as the ghastly Route 285 took us through seemingly endless oil well country. On either side of us, the 'nodding donkeys' robotically and tirelessly pump-jacked away in their soulless task of bringing the black gold to the surface in this desolate wasteland. So we put our heads down, grabbed the steering wheel and drove.
This was unfortunate as we loved that first part of West Texas, that is until we left Ft Stockton. We had had a wonderful drive to Ft Davie National Park, 75 miles south, and enjoyed seeing the McDonald Observatory, perched on the top of the highest hill in the area. This dome on the hill was the dream of one Texas banker, William Johnson McDonald, who was fascinated by the heavens above while he built his fortune on this planet below. So when he finally popped his cowboy boots and hung up his stetson he left the bulk of his million dollar estate, an astronomical amount in 1926, to his state's university to build an astronomical observatory. He died without immediately family but avaricious distant relatives did not take too kindly to this display of benevolence and immediately challenged the will. After a protracted dispute, the judge gave them $200,000 to make them go away. Fortunately, there was enough left to build the second biggest telescope in the world. We joined a tour which was led by an intellectually indulgent professor who spoke like a machine gun and never once explained anything in a way that we mere Earthlings could understand. We came out still not knowing the difference between a Black Hole and a Super-Bloody-Nova.
The McDonald Observatory sitting in its lunarscape
Traveling can have its disappointments, and the torturous drive from Ft Stockton was one of them. The whole landscape raped and scarred by Man in his relentless quest for the oil needed to energize his indulgent lifestyle. But the moment we crossed into New Mexico it all changed. The desert, up to now as flat as a sea bed, started to roll gracefully, the cattle returned to graze and the rocky mountains appeared once again on the horizon.
We took two days to get to Albuquerque. And now that we can spell it, we can talk about it. Many locals refer to it as ABQ, clearly surrendering to their failure to spell it the same way twice. And who can blame them as it is misspelt anyway, being named after the 10th Duke of AlbuRquerque. The name originally derives from the latin Albus Querkus which means 'white oak' (but sounds to us more like a pal of Biggus Dickus, one of the oversized stars of Monty Python's Life Of Brian - the funniest film ever made?).
One of the things that make it special is that the Rio Grande flows through the city, as does Route 66. That means it has historic royal blood running through its veins.
Albuquerque, the most populous city in the state, has the most stunning backdrop, sitting in the foothills of the magnificent Sandia Mountains. There is something very special about this part of New Mexico.
Downtown is nothing to write home about, another version of the American urban congregation of offices, bars and restaurants. The place to head for is the historic Old Town. Here you can feel the bustle of Spanish settlers' village life of yesteryear. At its center, the Old Town Plaza, a small square park with a bandstand, was laid out by Spanish colonists in the 1700s and is surrounded by historic adobe buildings, packed with Native America art and gaudy trinkets. It's all a bit touristy but to their credit they have managed to give it an authentic feel, like a sort of Mexican Kathmandu or Cuzco.
San Filipe de Neri Church, Old Town
Market traders in Old Town Plaza
Seventy miles south, driving down the scenic Salt Mission Trail, we found the three Salinas Pueblo Missions - Abó, Quarai and GranQuivera. The Salt Mission Trail was a well-worn trading route linking in to our old friend the Camino Real (today, Route 66 still follows the Trail’s exact route as it passes through Albuquerque).The missions were built in the early 1700s to provide sanctuary and to do a bit of hardline preaching and converting. The Franciscan Friars settled here to convince the local Native Indians about Heaven and Hell and the miracle of Jesus. They even drafted young boys into their choir (no surprises there) and tought them to sing hymns and chants in Latin. Very useful. Well, if you can't assimilate into the New World, you might as well change everyone around you into living in your Old World. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, ipso facto et cetera. Amen.
Quarai Mission, dwarfing the Little Woman
It was never going to be easy. Native Indians attacked regularly and there were the inevitable clashes between church and state. But the settlers had brought with them their trump card - the Spanish Inquisition. Here in these missions, hearings investigated unfaithfulness, superstitions, blasphemy, heresy and witchcraft. They then found them guilty and delivered their summary justice. Mission Indians were spared this trial by red cloaks but were forced to give evidence.
In the end, they were all driven out by either disease, drought, famine or the Apaches.
The impressive semi-ruins still hold their secrets in their red brick stones and you can stroll through them at your leisure and for free, but they ask you to stick to the paths. They can be very persuasive these park people with signs like this:
New Mexico is vast. The clarity of the air under the desert sun means that only the Earth's curvature stops you seeing further. It delivers what it promises - straight roads that disappear over the horizon, carefree balls of tumbleweed blowing in front of your car, decrepit houses held in time, preserved by the desert climate. The good thing about rushing here is that it gives us more time to explore. Next week we climb up to Santa Fe, a town that heralds so much excitement for us. Thank you for joining us. It means so much. Oh, and the cats are fine but it does get very cold at night. It drops 30 to 40 degrees from midday to midnight to way below freezing and so we have to sleep with all four cats spread-eagled between us. Thank God we bought a bus with a king-sized bed. It’s like a frat cat dorm.
New Mexico fixer-upper
As the full moon rose over the Sandia Mountains on Thursday we felt very lucky indeed. We had a true, sincere Thanksgiving. We started counting our blessings and stopped counting the glasses of wine as we sat by the fire.
Watching TV outside the bus
Thanksgiving Full Moon over the Sandia Mountains
Since we got to the Wild West, we have been on the search for real cowboys. Today we met these guys at a town appropriately named Mountainair. We called into a gas station, the only one for fifty miles around, only to find each pump had a sign 'No Gas'. What was lucky was that we met these fine young men, both born in this distant hillside town. When asked if we could take their photo, they just politely replied 'Yes, Sir', 'Of course, Sir', 'Where are you from, Sir?', 'It would be our pleasure, Sir', 'Thank You, Sir'.
We had found a bastion of youthful good manners in a distant town in New Mexico. There is hope.