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.
Mesn de Mesilla, Mesilla, New Mexico (505-525- 9212; www. mesondemesilla.com). Bed-and-breakfast near Mesilla’s heart.
Bear Mountain Lodge, Silver City, New Mexico (505-538-2538; www.bearmountain lodge.com). Owned by New Mexico’s Nature Conservancy.
Best Western Arizonian Inn, Holbrook, Arizona (928-524-2611; www.bestwestern. com). A good bet.
Do visit downtown Silver City’s antique shops and other attractions on Bullard Street.
Do take a bravery pill before tackling the narrow, tortuous mountain road to Mogollon.
Don’t forget that it’s illegal to take fossils from the Petrified Forest National Park. This really is jailhouse rock.
Eat & drink
Diane’s Restaurant and Bakery, Silver City, New Mexico (505-538-8722; www.dianes restaurant.com). Traditional and sensibly priced.
Booga Red’s Restaurant, Springerville, Arizona (928-333- 2640). Choose from Mexican and American dishes where the cops eat.
Mesa Italiana, Holbrook, Arizona (928-524-6696). Within walking distance of several hotels and motels if you fancy a drink or two with your pasta.
New Mexico Tourism Department (800-733-6396; www.newmexico.org).
Old Mesilla Visitor’s Center (505-647-9698; www.vivamesilla.org).
Arizona Office of Tourism (866-275-5816; www.arizonaguide.com).
What we droveBig skies and mountain views called for a ragtop, so we took a Chrysler PT Cruiser GT convertible. The turbocharged, 2.4-liter engine was appreciated in the mountains, where 220 hp made the Cruiser brisk enough to be entertaining. Its styling divided opinions-“It looks like a shopping basket with a big handle” was one. Snow fell north of Silver City, but warm clothes and a lusty heater made top-down driving a lot of fun.