360 miles today on the alternate route, 1846 miles so far
Dawn in the Mountains, and Dusk in a Canyon
Albuquerque is known as the hot air balloon capital of America, but we were still surprised to see a real, full-size MINI suspended from one over the parking lot of Sandia MINI at the early Friday send-off party.
Many of our new friends who had started in Monterey had left us in Flagstaff, but there were many new faces and new license plates in the crowd that witnessed the gift of a huge (literally, it was three by five feet) check for a thousand dollars given by the dealership to the local children’s hospital on behalf of Motoring Hearts.
Then the next surprise came as a squad of Albuquerque motorcycle policemen came roaring into the parking lot to escort us through the busy morning freeway traffic. There is nothing like a police escort at high speeds on and off freeway ramps to get the blood going.
With their help, the group was soon out of town and on its way to explore yet another route that can claim to be one of the best driving roads in the country. This one can be found off Highway 14 northeast of Amarillo. It's highway 536, otherwise known as Sandia Peak Highway, and curls up Sandia Peak in moderately fast uphill curves that are both fun and forgiving.
At the end of the eight mile road is a parking lot which was empty this morning until filled with our MINIs. Then a short stair climb and we were on a platform at the very top of the mountain, with all of Albuquerque laid out almost beneath our feet.
After a short time to meet the new friends who joined us for today's drive, we zoomed back down the hill to pick up Highway 14 again and continue north through the foothills on a scenic backroad into historic and picturesque Santa Fe. It is fortunate that our MINIs are small, because we headed right into the center of the old town area around the town square near the adobe cathedral. The adobe buildings now house a variety of art galleries showcasing southwestern and Native American art, but the streets are very narrow, and even our little cars soon overwhelmed the morning traffic of the little town.
Since it was getting on to late morning, and aside from the Krispy Kreme donuts at the dealership we hadn't had much to eat since getting up at five, Barry and I took the opportunity to have a quick lunch in a French creperie before getting back on the road. (Let's see, French cooking in a Spanish town for an American and an Englishman driving an English/German car. All makes sense, I guess.)
But unfortunately, the scenic hill country of Northeastern New Mexico soon gave way to the flat interstate as we banzaied towards Amarillo.
These are new roads for me, and I've finally figured out the difference in the scenery along the interstates of the southwest. Arizona is brown, rocky and flat, New Mexico is green, tree-flecked, and flat, but Texas is just flat.
After enduring the most laborious sections of construction along the highway – their approach out here is to simply rip up five-mile sections on one side of the divided highway, diverting all the traffic to the two lanes left on the other side, while they repair the first side. The locals say that the problem is that by the time they've done the second side, it's time to rip up the first side again, so there's always delay.
Nevertheless, we finally made our way into Amarillo, and after a quick shower and a meal, we were ready to head out again on this dawn to dusk day.
Our destination was Palo Duro Canyon, about 25 miles south of the city, and a place I had never heard of. Nor would I have expected to find such a geological wonder out here, after looking across the flat, flat pastures that surround the city of Amarillo.
But as we wound our way a few miles into the park, around th last bend, the earth seemed to disappear in front of us, opening up the second largest canyon in North America, surpassed only by the Grand Canyon.
With the sunset light just fading, we had time for a few quick pictures before we found our way to the amphiteatre, where an outdoor movie theatre had been erected so we could be entertained by a private screening of the new bank robbery movie "Inside Man."
This has been a very long day, with over 350 miles of driving in between a dawn party and an evening party, so it's definitely time for bed.