Stroll through historic Mesilla, on the southern outskirts of Las Cruces, before starting this 420-mile drive over the mountains from New Mexico to Arizona. The character-packed little town has a warm, colorful, Mexican-Spanish atmosphere and is where William Bonney-alias Billy the Kid-was sentenced to death in 1881.
Our route from Las Cruces to Deming and Silver City spears across an eternity of scrubby desert, where distant mountains look like isolated islands. The sky's immense canopy is made magical by changes of light-sometimes subtle, sometimes sudden-and by great galleons of cloud.
Silver City is where the mood changes. Freeway traffic becomes a fast-fading memory as State Highway 180 threads its way through uninhabited mountain and valley scenery. A few miles later, part of the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest recalls Aldo Leopold, a pioneering ecologist who defined wilderness as country where a man could travel on horseback for two weeks without crossing a single road.
We made a side trip to the tiny ghost town of Mogollon, crossed the wooded San Francisco Mountains, then wafted down to Springerville. A population of 2000 plus such fancy amenities as gas stations, restaurants, and motels make this by far the biggest settlement encountered during the 165-mile-drive from Silver City.
Miles of high, gently undulating desert with vast views unfold between here and journey's end. Only the most sanctimonious of saints could resist at least one leadfoot sprint on straight roads virtually devoid of traffic, which lead toward the impossibly distant horizon. Resist the temptation to follow State Highway 180 into Holbrook, because the alternative is a memorable, twenty-two-mile cruise through the Petrified Forest National Park to viewpoints overlooking part of the Painted Desert. There is something wonderfully surreal about 225-million-year-old trunks and branches.