New Mexico is an icon of the desert southwest, a place of culture and natural beauty; a land of enchantment… though for many Americans it feels like anything but. Their perceptions have been skewed by the lonesome expanses of highway 10 and 40, leading them to believe the state is nothing more than a borderland, a void to be crossed before reaching their destination. As a Texan traveling to Arizona and back twice a year, I admit to falling prey to these very same views, and so in August I set out to experience New Mexico in an entirely new way, on the Gila Legends Expedition.
Above image by Jake Quinones
For those who aren’t familiar, this five day event leads participants over 375 miles of backroads with elevations ranging from 4,300 to 9,600 feet. Along the way they are greeted by stunning vistas, multiple water crossings, historic land marks, and plenty of wildlife including possible sightings of Mexican Grey Wolf. Jake Quinones, your guide, also keeps things interesting with facts on local culture, tales from the region’s natives, and even some personal stories from his own family’s background. For those looking to experience the real New Mexico, this trip is just about the best place to start.
It begins in the low reaches of the desert, where crystal clear streams wind their way through ancient river beds, and cacti cling to the sides of canyon walls. Pools of water have created lush oasis, and among them stand the remnants of old outlaw hideouts and the camps of native war chiefs. Almost anywhere else these well preserved sites would be off limits, but here in the remote reaches of the state visitors can take a stroll through history and experience dwellings adorned with cave paintings hundreds and even thousands of years old.
At higher elevations the desert becomes more fertile, giving way to expansive grasslands of rolling green hills. While wandering down the dusty two tracks that lazily stretch through this region, I began to feel like we had been transported across the world to the Serengeti, and the romance of adventure took hold. Given the silence over the radios, I’d say we were all equally stricken by the beauty of the scene unfolding before us.
It was in these plains that I rekindled my love for New Mexico, while taking a morning stroll to watch the sun rise. I soon found myself crouched in a misty field mesmerized by the fog slowly drift around me, but as the light began to cascade over the trees and tall grass, a warm glow radiated through the entire valley turning everything it touched to gold. With wolves howling in the distance and the morning’s dew sparkling in the light, I finally understood why this was the Land of Enchantment, and I spent the next hour just letting it all sink in.
Where the plains end the mountains begin, and a lush green forest rolls out to blanket the land. It too bares a unique beauty, and in some places the foliage is so thick that it seems to form an impenetrable wall of vegetation. Others sections however are nearly devoid of life, characterized only by shrubs and the scarred expanses of landscape burned by various fires. It’s impressive in its own right, but a grim reminder of why we must be so careful in our camps.
Above image by Jake Quinones
Image below by Jake Quinones
Of course as a four-wheel drive enthusiast, I can’t talk about this region without mentioning its roads. They are as varied and beautiful as the terrain through which they run, and the two tracks and rocky paths never failed to entertain or challenge us. Some days we would spend hours cruising down graded gravel, only to wind up on a UTV trail slowly picking our lines around boulders and ravines, while on others we would traverse deep mud holes and jungle like canyons. Every corner held something new, and each face held a smile while driving it.
Image above by Jake Quinones
I can say without hesitation that one of everyone’s highlights from this trip was spending time chatting with Jake Quinones, the owner of New Mexico Back Roads. Throughout the five days we were able to pick his brain on driving techniques, vehicle builds, recovery tools and procedures, proper maintenance, field repairs, and of course the local area. Besides being a fabulous resource, he is also just plain fun to talk to, and many evenings were spent laughing about camp stories from everyone’s pasts.
By the end of the trip I had found what I set out for, a new and brighter view of New Mexico. No longer did I envision endless miles of highways through brown expanses, but stunning vistas bursting with life, and historic sites ready to be explored. In just five days I had stared down an owl, was sniffed by a bear, sat in the wreck of a moon shine runner’s car, and learned more than I could possibly fit into five articles of this length, and that’s just my story. Everyone who visits this state walks away with something different, and as we sat around a tail gate sharing what they loved one thing was clear, New Mexico had enchanted us all.