New Mexico Scenic Drives ~ I-40 & Route 66!
Traveling from east to west on I-40 through New Mexico is the fastest way to get to many National Parks and scenic destinations in the Southwest. Because of the desolate vast expanses of this region, the speed limit on I-40 is 75 miles per hour. This means that the travel time that it takes to cover the long distance through New Mexico is somewhat bearable.
It can take nearly a day to go from one end of the state to the other on I-40. Most of the scenic landscape along this highway is a flat desert that stretches out forever with a few distant mesas. There is not much of anything to break up the monotonous scenery when traversing the eastern half of the state. Toward Albuquerque in the center of the state, the long drive on I-40 West starts to get interesting. The Rocky Mountain terrain takes over and there are some nice majestic views. As one travels further west toward the border of Arizona, the red and orange sandstone rock outcrops paint the landscape with classic western views.
Historic Route 66 parallels I-40 all the way through New Mexico. In fact, there are still a few sections of Route 66 that are old dirt roads from before the mid 1930's. Yes, Route 66 was a New Mexico dirt trail long before it became a glamorized paved road.
Because the distances are so vast in New Mexico, many of the old original Route 66 wayside stops have vanished over the years, because there was not a sufficient population to support the local businesses. In some places along "The Mother Road" in New Mexico, the only thing that remains is a few dilapidated buildings and a concrete slab where gas pumps used to be. After seeing the dusty remnants of the past, it is easy to imagine how the livelihood of so many people were devastated when Route 66 was bypassed by I-40.
Just like in Arizona, modern New Mexico Route 66 tourism is still thriving in some small towns along I-40. A good old fashioned diner restaurant or western style steakhouse can be found in nearly any old town along Route 66. Everything from RV Parks to old fashioned motels and "cheesy" 1950's style tourist traps can be found in places where the Route 66 lifestyle still lives on. Albuquerque is world famous for its "Mother Road" heritage and this city has a website devoted to everything Route 66.
Toward the western end of New Mexico, there are many Navaho and Zuni trading posts along both I-40 and Route 66 that are worth checking out. These trading posts offer an opportunity to purchase priceless mementos of a once in a lifetime vacation out west. The trading posts offer a vast selection of Navaho rugs, pottery and works of fine art. Navaho and Zuni silver and turquoise jewelry is what many of the native trading posts are famous for. The craftsmanship of the local silversmiths is exquisite and the jewelry has meaningful design.
Of course quality commands a price and you get what you pay for. I wanted to get a wool blanket with a Southwestern style design for a long time. After visiting several trading posts along I-40, I finally found one that I really liked at Indian City. The fancy bright color Southwestern style blanket (in the photo above) may have cost a few dollars more than average, but the quality was great and the design work is timeless. Now when somebody says, "Where did you get the cool looking Indian Blanket?" ... I can tell them a little something about New Mexico!
There are more opportunities to experience some cultural exchange along the way when traveling west on I-40. Many western tribal nations have gotten into the modern hospitality industry and there are a few tribal resort hotels and casinos in the western end of New Mexico along I-40. Some of these resorts are the closest accommodations to nearby Native American Heritage Sites and National Monuments.
By the time that I was approaching the border of Arizona, it was a few hours after dark. Hunger started setting in, so I decided to find accommodations in the town of Church Rock by the Navaho Nation. As luck would have it, the Navaho Fire Rock Casino was on Route 66 in Church Rock and as everybody knows, a casino usually has a restaurant that is guaranteed to be open late.
As it turned out, Cheii's Restaurant in the casino was having its grand opening after a recent remodel. The new menu featured many Native American food specialties from around the local Four Corners region. If my memory is correct, I tried the Four Corners Vegetable Stew. The Four Corners Stew was made with local Navaho farm sourced squash, beans, maize and sweet potatoes. This old fashioned Navaho vegetable stew helped to revitalize my dulled senses after the long drive.
After the great meal at Cheii's Restaurant, I played casino card games for a few hours and made enough money to top off the tank with gas before calling it a night. The visit to the Fire Rock Casino turned out to be a memorable Route 66 experience!
As one can see, traveling west on I-40 through New Mexico does not have to be a long boring drive. All it takes is getting off the four lane expressway and doing a little exploring on good old historic Route 66 to perk things up. Stretching the legs while doing some shopping at a trading post helps too and nearly anything purchased will be a conversation starter for many years to come!