Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips

or Overcoming Pavement Aversion Syndrome


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Think back to a time when you were young and innocent—long before you learned it was sinful for an overlander to enjoy driving a paved road. Go back...before roof tents, onboard showers, and moving dots on mapping apps; back to a time where “county highway” could mean anything from divided four-lane to poorly maintained dirt. Remember when you’d pick a direction and let the road carry you away, with little more than your wits and a bag of truck stop munchies to see you through?

Six hours out of Prescott, too far into the drive to turn round, a vacant spot on the back seat where my map bag should rest informs me we’re on just such a trip. The assignment is a review of Rick Quinn’s Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips, but in the hasty packing that occurs when you have only a day and a half off work, I’d left my maps sitting on the desk at home. Continuing east, we press on with little more than Rick’s book to fill in the blanks.
Pavement Aversion Syndrome, a condition that afflicts many overlanders, can cause one to blindly ignore entire regions filled with potential adventures based solely on the lack of soft-surfaced through routes.
Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo


Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo

I’m fortunate to live right smack in the middle of one of the book’s side trips, fifty miles from the nearest interstate, and getting to the start of a route I haven’t yet driven requires stringing together three other side trips. Our course takes us through the largest contiguous forest of Ponderosa Pines in the world—yep, it’s in Arizona—and down from 7,200 feet on the Mogollon Rim to the Roosevelt Dam at 2,000 feet. It’s a secluded and exciting drive through a rugged and beautiful country.

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We roll into Lordsburg, New Mexico, just after sundown; the town is a living cliché. The main drag is desolate, still and quiet save the dull drone of a broken railway crossing protesting under a long line of stopped boxcars. A wall of semi-abandoned warehouses and storefronts stands to the south, ripped right from the set of an old western flick. Opposite, the crumbling foundations of long-forgotten service stations and rail depots separate us from quadruple tracks and the town’s only remaining saloon. A lone car drives past to find the immobile train blocking the road, and turns back to find the long way around. Even the cloudless sky burns far too bright here—red, pink, and blue fire blazes up from the west, and drinking in the scene feels like getting smacked in the eye with an Instagram filter.

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I look to the passenger seat to see she’s read my mind: such perfect light and so empty a location, we have to shoot here. An hour goes by and not much changes. A farmer drives past on his way home, momentarily confused at the pretty redhead poised against the lamppost. The sky seems to fade in slow motion and continues providing ample light as we reluctantly pack up and head east for our motel sixty miles away.

Yes, motel. I know, it’s blasphemy to use anything but a roof top tent. Get over it. The cheap motel is the overlander’s ultimate “force multiplier” (see: tacticool). It’s an easy sell: think about how many times you’ve had to cut your adventuring short or miss out on a stunning sunset photo, all because you had to find a campsite before dark. What about that time you only had Saturday and Sunday but wanted to explore someplace a full day’s travel away? Fifty bucks and an all-night drive is a small price to pay for that extra day of wandering.

Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo

Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo

After a quick stop to take in a roadside cemetery, the rising sun finds us in Silver City. The town is one part hippy art community, and one part throwback to its mining days. The mining-era sewer—affectionately referred to as The Big Ditch—has been turned into a greenbelt along Silva Creek. Though lush and beautiful, the lack of upkeep has sadly kept the place dirty and frequented by vagrants. We’re too late for breakfast, but just late enough to grab a proper Reuben from Millie’s Bake House before making our escape north onto US-180.

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Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland ExpoDesert quickly gives way to grasslands dotted with massive oak trees, the broad valleys split by streams that still flow even this late in a dry year. Mountains tower above; not too tall and not too jagged, soft like I’ve come to expect from New Mexican terrain. Wilderness gives way to ranchland, then towns so small you miss them if you glance out the wrong window. The townsfolk are quiet yet friendly, and their general store is well stocked. Rinse. Repeat. I wish we had more time to explore; I could spend weeks wandering the dead end side roads off these canyons. Highway 180 is proving a worthwhile destination in and of itself.

In Glenwood, one such side road catches our eye and pulls us off course to a hiking trail called The Catwalk. Too sexy for the creekbed, the trail is suspended a few dozen feet above the water when the canyon gets too steep to support it. It’s a stunning place, but it doesn’t squeeze into the confines of a photograph well, so it’s best experienced in person.

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High up in the mountains above The Catwalk, the ghost town of Mogollon is squeezed into any flat space they could find between Silver Creek and the surrounding hillsides. The water actually flows down the one-lane main street, which has been rebuilt a half-dozen times after being ripped apart by floods. The restored buildings are home to artists, a museum, a theater, and a cafe; unfortunately, we’ve arrived off-season on a weekday and nothing is open—the risk we take when avoiding crowds. Still, the town is worth exploring a bit while we chat about the possibility of a return trip later in the year.

Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo

Overland Journal, National Geographic, AFAR, Traveler, Sunset, camping, travel, Overland Expo

The trademark warm breezes and fluffy white clouds this region is known for stay with us for the climb onto the eastern Mogollon Rim. With relatively predictable roads and another known destination, we take full advantage of the gorgeous golden light, stopping to explore every small town, abandoned structure, and sweeping overlook along the way. The final leg of our loop lies ahead: a hundred miles of road winding through the Ponderosas, with the setting sun marking our course west toward home.

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None of the places we visited on this trip are on dirt roads. None of them would have been discovered if we weren’t willing to spend the day exploring over pavement. As is true with many areas, the geographic isolation of the region makes for few potential through routes, which by necessity are paved—and by necessity, most of them are small, blissfully secluded two-lane.

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RoadTrip America's Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips was written for the interstate traveler who’s grown weary from dull hours of driving straight lines, its trips meandering away from the 18-wheelers and monotonous divided four-lanes through some of the Southwest’s most stunning landscapes and history. The book isn’t an end-all-be-all travel guide—nor does it claim to be one—it’s there to inspire your desire to explore. Details are intentionally kept to a minimum: the estimated travel time and a few highlights to tease your wanderlust are all you’re given, which adds a welcome pinch of mystery to each route. Though intended to expand the horizons of the pavement pounder, as a die-hard overlander (I’ve logged more dirt than paved miles) I found it an equally eye-opening reminder of just how much fun can be had cruising down some long-forgotten two-lane tarmac.


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Author
Chazz Layne — I am a designer, photographer, author, and adventurist. I’m the lead creative at Layne Studio. I shoot photos for clients in the adventure, automotive, and outdoor industries. I write articles for travel and adventure publications. I make stuff in the Layne Workshop. I’m based out of Prescott, Arizona, but I prefer wanderlust over the comforts of home. chazzlayne.com

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Comments

  1. Chazz:
    I sincerely enjoyed reading your review. My goal was to create a guide book that would prove useful for travelers at every level of expertise. I find it particularly gratifying to have provided a bit of inspiration to a dyed-in-the-wool overlanding enthusiast such as yourself.

    Rock on, and happy trails to you!

    Rick Quinn, author, Arizona and New Mexico, 25 Scenic Side Trips

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the kind feedback, and of course, writing the guide book. It's already inspired another adventure since this review, and will no doubt lead to many more.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete

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