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Taking the scenic road back north
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Late May, I had visited friends, completed some yard work and miscellaneous errands, and temporarily satisfied my craving for some good Mexican food. It was time to leave old Mesilla once again. But not before hitting La Fiesta Bakery on my way out of town. How can their doughnuts and pastries be so much better than anyone else's?

The fire in the Gila Wilderness was still raging, the airborne smoke obscuring the Organ Mountains that provide the scenic backdrop east of Las Cruces. Instead of taking the usual U.S. 70 to Alamogordo, I take I-25 north following the Rio Grande and historic El Camino Real, the Royal Highway that once connected old Mexico with the northern reaches of New Spain.

As I travel north, the effect of the Gila Wilderness fires diminish. Three hours later, I reach the exit to the Owl Bar, home of the world's most celebrated green chile cheeseburgers, the café and bar that in 1945 satisfied the hunger and quenched the thirst of the nuclear scientists as they prepared for history's first nuclear blast (see my columns of January 6, 13, 20, 2012).

There are a few afternoon patrons as I wander into the dimly lit bar and grab a booth along the wall adorned by historic pictures of scientists and the café during the 1940s. I order a green chile cheeseburger and coffee and stare at the wooden bar that once belonged to Agustus Halvorson Hilton in his original rooming house.

As the waitress brings my order I ask her, even though I already know, if that bar was really from Gus Hilton's original establishment. She smiles pleasantly and informs me that it was indeed - manufactured in Europe, and ended up in Gus Hilton's rooming house. She adds that some volunteers rescued it when Hilton's rooming house caught fire.

As the volunteers were rewarded with ample beverages and the wooden bar was saved, it was a win/win situation, except that Gus Hilton lost his rooming house. However, his eldest son, Conrad, more than compensated for his father's loss with his establishment of the Hilton Hotel empire. Next time you stay at a Hilton Hotel and enjoy a drink at their bar, you might recall that the original Hilton wooden bar still exists at a small but celebrated bar and café in New Mexico.

The last two times visiting the Owl Bar, I missed the proprietors, Adolph and Rowena Baca. I hope to catch them next time through for a personal interview.

I hit the road again and take the next exit through Socorro, no particular reason except memories of the many times I went through there during my 11 years at NMSU. Then its north on I-25, same river, same mountain profiles seen by the Spanish Conquistors as they traveled El Camino Real 400 years ago. It would have been hard for them to imagine the teeming city of Albuquerque, and even Santa Fe, even though it was founded in 1610, a full decade before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

Traveling north, the elevation rises from 5,000 feet at Albuquerque to 7,000 feet at Santa Fe. The lengthening shadows of the waning afternoon sunlight augment the golden brown of the desert and the brownish green of the junipers. Artists like New Mexico because of the quality of its light - the combination of landscape and altitude give that region a unique quality.

I'm not much for shopping, but there's an outlet mall I want to hit on the west side of Santa Fe. I think I can still find it. Sure enough, I take the Cerillos Road exit and stumble onto it. The parking lot is nearly deserted. I climb out of my GMC into the cool clear evening air and wander up to the Bass shoe store.

Rats. It's five minutes after 7 and it closed at 7. I debate grabbing a motel and hitting it in the morning. But I decide to push on to Espanola. Upon reaching Espanola, it's still light, so I push on through the sparsely populated northern New Mexico high country.

About 10 p.m., I reach Chama, a few miles from the Colorado border. I grab a motel, and catch a hamburger and beer at a local bar just before it closes.

The next morning dawns crisp and cool in the New Mexico high country. I grab breakfast at a local eatery and head northeast to the Colorado border. Over some forested hills, then down to, and across, the broad, flat San Luis Valley, through Animosa, and then up over some more scenic hills to Walsenburg. Then down grade along grassy ravines dotted with ranches and grazing cattle to the Great Plains and La Junta on the northern branch of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

Then it's through wheat fields and Lamar to Granada on the eastern edge of the state. Instead of crossing into Kansas I turn north on U.S. 385, known as the Great Plains Highway, skirting the eastern edge of Colorado. The temperature is in the very comfortable sixties in late afternoon. Under clear blue skies the Colorado wheat fields are majestic, turning golden, but not as far along as the Kansas wheat fields at lower elevations.

Early evening I cross over I-70, but I don't want to take the interstate across Kansas. I would rather go through the small towns. So I go a bit farther north before turning east on U.S. 36 as darkness falls. The temperature is now in the 50s, quite a switch from the high 90s of a mere 10 days ago in western Kansas.

Now on U.S. 36, I discover that it is billed as "The Pony Express Highway." I had not known that before and it compels me to look into it.

Next week: The Pony Express revisited.

- John Waelti's column appears in the Times every Friday. He can be reached at