DALTON

I always loved TV Westerns. The scenery was part of the show -- alien-looking to someone who grew up in New England -- and part of its charm.

In my childhood fantasyland, I was riding a pony along with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers over cowboy trails into the Wild West. The scenery is still there though the Tinseltown cowboys have hung up their spurs.

This year's winter escape included travel through parts of New Mexico and Colorado, which can be pretty wild indeed. We spent most of our time in New Mexico and enjoyed scenic vistas from the Sandia Mountains all the way to the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost part of the Rockies. We saw desert, mesas, buttes and arroyos from the comfort of our rental car; but there was always a chance that some kitted-out Native Americans could appear from behind the butte -- at least in our imaginations.

Where we did find indigenous people was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a fine museum in the city of Albuquerque. Current exhibits displayed information about Indian schools, a hundred years of legislation affecting the Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as beautiful examples of arts and crafts. A video presentation of well-known artist, Maria Martinez was particularly riveting. She explained her art and its origins. She also showed how she gathered rocks and dirt to grind into authentic paints for her traditional compositions.


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A day trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe along the "Turquoise Trail," a scenic byway, gave us an up-close look at how residents built their dwellings to blend with the landscape. Most homes are single-story, adobe buildings, painted in shades of beige. Due to the scarcity of water, most landscaping is also in keeping with the surrounding wilderness. Returning to Albuquerque on Interstate 25 we saw ubiquitous commercial buildings which ranged from strip malls and gas stations to large casinos on Indian pueblos.

On another road trip we traveled west of Santa Fe to the town of Los Alamos, most famous as home to the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb, and now home to a modern science center, the Bradbury Science Museum. Ascending almost 2,000 feet in the course of two hours, we were awed by the mountainous drive into Los Alamos. Rugged rock formations and steep cliffs required frequent stops at roadside pull-offs for extended admiration and photo-taking opportunities. Many of the steep slopes are free of vegetation, others are sparsely covered by low-growing Pinon pine and juniper. The dark evergreens provide stark contrast to the thousand shades of beige, yellow, and brown of the land.

Another ride took us through parts of the large Cibolla National Forest where we saw some taller evergreens and cottonwood trees, which typically grow alongside rivers and streams. Of course we crisscrossed the Rio Grande River many times, and visited the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque to look for sandhill cranes, who had already migrated. We did see lots of ducks paddling in the river, such as the American coot which has a very amusing call.

Our final trip was on the Amtrak train named the Southwest Chief, which we boarded in Albuquerque, headed to Chicago. Once we left the city, we again climbed out of the valley into the foothills of the mountains and ultimately through a tunnel under the mountains into Colorado, where we breached the Rockies on our journey east. We saw elk and acres of wilderness which had been devastated by wildfires.

The beauty of the area, seen up close and in living color, was as compelling as it had been all those years ago in black and white. And I never gave up hope of seeing the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride into sight beside the train.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.