By Marika Thoms
Last February I randomly submitted to stay overnight at a large landscape art piece called the Lightning Field and got in for a reservation for 2 people at the beginning of September. At this point I didn’t know who I would go with or what the trip would look like, I just knew that in a field in rural New Mexico an artist named Walter D. Maria had erected 400 metal rods into the earth, and I wanted to see it.
Lucky for me I had recently met a friend, Michelle, who had a job as flexible as mine, was up for adventure and they had just started riding around the city on a vintage VRF500. I don’t know that I would be comfortable taking just anyone on this trip, but if you are riding a vintage bike you barely touch the ground on like a boss, there is a good chance you will be fine riding a a brand new rented Harley Sportster, even in uncharted territory.
The cheapest flights were in and out of Albuquerque so that is where we would start and end. I booked tickets and reserved the bikes and started filling in a loop that would take us through the middle of nowhere New Mexico.
We flew out early in the morning and thanks to a time change, got on the bikes by the early afternoon. Albuquerque is smaller than Toronto and easy to navigate. We avoided the major highways and got straight on a very open road that headed towards White Sands National Park. I rented a cheap and no frills hotel and had planed to get there by sunset.
Right away you can feel the vastness of the sky. It was warm, dry and overcast in the distance. I don’t think I had ever been in weather like that before. You could smell the rain and see it miles in front of you without it hitting your path. It is such a relief to have your eyes free to wonder so far ahead unobstructed. We rode for an hour watching lightning flash in the distance while it was sunny above. At one point we hit a wall of rain that felt like it would transport us to another dimension, only to have it be bone dry minutes later.
Like the sky, our routes were to stretch long distances. I traditionally prefer to ride less than 300kms a day when travelling, but New Mexico is just too big. We had 7 days to make it back to Albuquerque and each day we would go far beyond that 300km cut off.
Even in this first day riding we couldn’t help but stop several times along the way. Sometimes for snacks in restaurants with decades of family history on the walls and sometimes for natural wonders like the Valley of Fires, a scorched volcanic abyss that was so beautiful I felt like we were swimming in it.
Due to these stops we didn’t quite make it in time to watch the sunset, but instead raced it from the road, which wasn’t a bad alternative.
By the time we hit the hotel we were wiped. We walked across the street to eat at the restaurant attached to the gas station. Our dinner only consisted of food that was a carbohydrate and beige, it was very American and it was perfect.
Do to bad planning on my part, you need a permit to watch the sunrise in White Sands National Park. I did not get one, which meant we slept in. White Sands is like nowhere else I have ever been. It is magical because it just appears. It is so big and yet it creeps up on you and washes you in a field of white. It can look drastically different depending on the time of day. As it was the end of summer in the desert, it was very hot, even before noon and empty. We stripped off our outer layers and explored the dunes soaking it all in. Water is pretty key here, and we would come to realize we were never drinking enough of it. The weather will dry you out without you noticing leaving chapped lips and seeking moisturizer.
After our fill of the park, we had the rest of the day to make it to Truth or Consequences. Even though it is only a 2 hour ride away, there is a lot of weird stuff to see in this end of the state and we only had one afternoon. We made the call to take a detour through the abandoned ghost town of Lake Valley which is now owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Once we left the interstate, we were left alone for the entire length of our route. Lake Valley appeared in the form of a few scattered buildings. We rode the gravel road into the town and entered one of the buildings to be greeted by the caretaker, a super friendly man who lived with his wife and dogs taking care of the property. He offered us apples from his tree, told us about Tarantula Wasps, and answered our dumb questions about living in such a strange place. We spent a fair amount of time sitting in the old church to escape the heat and made sure to soak ourselves in the town’s well water before returning to the road.
Back on the bikes we still had a few hours to go, we rode fast or as slow as we wanted through the winding range back on to a more major road that hugged the Rio Grande and into a small town with the best name. Truth or Consequences sits on geothermal water source and we booked a spot with soaking pools that overlooked the river. A great way to end what had turned into a pretty full day.
We took a walk through the town in search of dinner. Truth or Consequences is one of those places that is lucky to be just a bit too much work to get to. It’s kitschy character is made for social media but has yet to be exploited in selfies on Instagram. It is still authentic and you will have the place to yourself. I wish we had given ourselves more time here.
The next morning we got up at dawn in order to make it to the anchor of the trip on time. We had to be in Quemando by 2pm to make the art experience. It was pretty chilly riding this early in the morning, but the sun was coming and you could feel it with every minute. Never wanting to take the straight route, we detoured down a road labeled as the 107. In my brain I equated a 100 series roadway as major route. We then passed a sign that said loose gravel for the next ten miles, and after that another one and so on. Basically I had just lead my friend with only a few months city riding experience down an 80 mile long, loose dirt road that literally went down into and up out of canyons. We were in real rancher territory and if anything happened we were on our own in it. I didn’t know how long it would last for so we just kept the course. Michelle bravely following me despite her probably cursing my enthusiasm. Despite it being terrifying, it was also beautiful. I wouldn’t not recommend this route, just maybe be prepared for it. Maybe tell your friend ahead of time you will be taking their very street ready motorcycle on an off-road obstacle course, bring water and a snack, and don’t give yourself a time limit to get to the other side. Eventually the dirt turned into pavement and we were freed from our slow and cautious speed and by the time we stopped at the only restaurant in Magdelana we were ready to take a break.
Western New Mexico has an unmistakable landscape. There are no trees, the hills are far in the distance, dry vegetation covers the land in browns, golds and grey greens. Here, a series of huge white radio antennas stand searching for signs of alien life. It feels surreal enough to be riding through this landscape, the added appearance of these discs only make it more of a trip. Plus there are cows. Lots of cows.
After A Very Large Array the route put us straight through Pie Town. To use the word “town“ is generous as it is just a few cafes that specialize in selling pies on the side of the road. We picked the only one that was open and ordered the famous “Mexican Apple”. This pie included apples, green chilies and pinion. We then ordered 2 more common berry flavours, if you get what I’m not saying here.
We made it to Quemando right on time and checked in at the Dia Office leaving our bikes parked out front for the night. I don’t have any pictures of this part of the journey because there is a copyright on the entire project. This was actually part of the appeal for me. Aside from the one photo you get when you google “Lightning Field” there is not a whole lot to set your expectations to. Even the final location is secret. This is an amazing thing, to truly journey into somewhere that can't be google image searched.
I decided to respect the artist wishes, and from Quemando on did not take a photo, not even one to just have for myself. I will say that every detail in this experience had been carefully considered by the artist and the team which runs it. This in itself is a feat. I don’t want to give away what happened next in case you do it, and I can’t impress how much I hope you do. It was hands down one of the best experiences I have put myself in, and a lot of that was because I let myself be surprised by it.
So to summarize, we had a once in a lifetime experience and then the next day got back on our bikes. The day had us on our own riding through ranchers land for longer than I expected, this part was great. Just fields and fields of land forever. Eventually it ended and we hit the regular highway coming into Albuquerque. We were on time for the afternoon rush hour and found drivers to be aggressive and fast. As soon as we cleared the congestion, we found taco spot in a strip mall when we were getting gas and had the best meal of the whole trip.
Rolling into Santa Fe felt great. It’s a cute town and we had had a long day of riding which got stressful at the end. We took a dip in the pool and walked the old town looking for dinner. Santa Fe has a reputation of old charm but I couldn’t ignore the way every store glorified and profited from the stereotype of indigenous people and their culture. It was a big shock to the system thinking about the landscape we had crossed and it’s beauty being stolen and denied from those whom it originally took care of it. Motorcycle trips can be hard when you try to have it all. I think after being so far out there, we weren’t ready to come back to society just yet.
The next morning we did our best to find a side of Santa Fe we had heard so many good things about, but eventually gave up and moved back onto the route heading north to a hot spring resort in Ojo Caliente.
Michelle works in food, and was tasked with picking the restaurants. She really nailed it finding interesting and truly New Mexican cuisine for each meal. Mid day we found ourselves stopping in a huge parking lot to enter big brown doors hiding an obvious cultural institution. It was the kind of restaurant where people who are somebody write letters on government letterhead when the patriarch dies. There are oil paintings of family members and photos of men from eras gone by wearing Stetson hats smoking at the bar like gangsters. Someone’s grandma was in the kitchen and our meal was delicious.
We rode a bit more, making it to Ojo earlier than expected. Even though we were in a pretty uninhabited part of the state, the hot springs were pretty busy. It was also a really hot outside to be sitting in hot springs. We did some quick dips but couldn’t relax, so we got dressed and decided to ride to nearby Tahoe for dinner. Because I hadn’t planned on this part of the trip, we were really winging it. The ride would have us cut through Carson National Forest, and then spit us out on a road that hugged the Rio Grande where it literally looks like the earth has been spit in two, and finally across that deep divide into Taos. You can instantly feel the Colorado mountain range’s influence on Taos. For the first time we drank a good coffee. Michelle found us an amazing restaurant where we ate well and stayed for desert. By the time we got on the bikes to get home I instantly knew we would eventually find ourselves riding in the dark.
At first this was fun and inspirational with the colors of the sky so vibrant under the setting sun. But quickly we also noticed lightning and as the darkness covered above, we smelled the rain and I could clearly see that we were riding straight into it. We obviously had not checked the weather before we left, we weren’t dressed for anything cool or wet and so we had to just take it on our sleeves and do our best. Along the way nothing looked the same as it had coming in, and so it was hard to know how close or far we were from our destination. It was scary and I felt responsible for putting Michelle in this situation even though she powered through without a complaint. When we finally came back into familiar territory, we headed straight for the hot pool and let it relax our clenched muscles.
I have travelled enough on tight budgets that now I can appreciate how to take advantage of amenities. We started the day with massages before riding back to Albuquerque to return the bikes. On the way back we snaked through Madrid, a rehabilitated ghost town that was mentioned on a few “must see” motorcycle trip searches. Although we did stop for food, I would say that unless you are a die hard for the “biker lifestyle” or the movie “Wild Hogs” you can skip this as “must see”. It was as predictable as it gets, and the smallest of roadside stops we had made in the days prior were much more interesting.
We dropped off the bikes without incident, and grabbed a cab to our last hotel, Los Poblanos. Albuquerque isn’t exactly known for it’s unique hospitality scene, but I would fly back just to stay at this place. Located on the grounds of a working lavender farm, it did everything right. The rooms were packed with things to make your stay comfortable, and the location was beautiful enough on it’s own. There were peacocks on the property and bicycles to ride around on. It just felt good being there. We ate a very nice dinner in their restaurant and would have crashed a wedding that was in the in-house venue if the playlist was better.
The morning left us with enough time to sit in the sun and swim in saltwater pool and feel like we were on a traditional, non-moto vacation. We would fly home that afternoon, and I wasn’t upset it was over because it felt like such a full trip.
I really love the wide open space traveling the US can provide. With it being so easy to rent a motorcycle, it is not difficult to pick something you have always wanted to see and build a trip around it. I wouldn’t pick New Mexico as a quick vacation because it is so vast, but if you have a week, it will fill you with so many eccentric experiences and space, you will return re-energized and full of great stories to tell. I would really recommend late August or early September as the time to go. Still warm enough to prolong your summer, but not too warm to melt your patience. If you are interested in the Dia’s Walter D. Maria experience or have been to it come by the shop and ask me about it!
WHAT I WAS GLAD I HAD PACKED
- Givi Gravel-T Roll Top Motorcycle Tail Drybag
- Rok Straps
- Chippewa Womens 8" Lacer Boot
- Lee Parks Unisex Deertours Glove
- Leopard Print Bandana
- Sena SMH5-01 Bluetooth Communication System
- Town Moto Address T
- Rev’It Unisex Cyclone H20 Rain Jacket