Updated on May 27, 2021
Originally posted on March 22, 2021
It’s a cool, crisp spring morning in Flagstaff, Arizona.
We’d love to linger a bit longer, but we have a day of wide open spaces as well as cultural and natural wonders ahead of us.
So, it’s back onto Interstate 40 east.
In less than an hour, we reach what is described as the best preserved meteor crater on the planet.
The Barringer Meteorite Crater is six miles south of I-40 in the dry high terrain of this portion of eastern Arizona.
This gigantic hole in the ground is one of 150 identified craters on Earth. But it might be the most impressive.
Like the Grand Canyon, you have to see it to believe it.
The dry Arizona climate has kept the crater pretty much intact over the centuries.
It was discovered by settlers in the 1800s. At first, it was believed the crater was formed by volcanic activity.
In 1903, however, Daniel Barringer, a mining engineer, suggested the crater was created by a meteor. His firm, Standard Iron Company, staked a mining claim to the land. Berringer spent the rest of his life examining the crater.
He never did find the iron ore he was looking for, but in 1960 researchers confirmed his theory.
The site does contain an American Astronaut Wall of Fame at its visitors’ center. The facility has an Apollo astronaut command module as well as 1,400-pound meteorite found in the area.
About 270,000 people visit the crater in a typical year.
It’s only a half-hour down I-40 when we hit our next stop.
The town of Winslow probably wouldn’t be well known except for a song that climbed the charts in 1972.
In their hit single, “Take It Easy,” the Eagles sang “I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.”
Those lyrics have had quite an impact on this community of 9,300 people, 36 percent of whom are Hispanic and 32 percent of whom are Native Americans.
The town was first settled in 1880 by a man who set up a business in a tent along the railroad tracks. In 1881, a railroad terminal was built. The settlement was named after General Edward F. Winslow, a Santa Fe Railroad president.
The town grew as a water and fuel stop as well as a maintenance depot for Santa Fe trains. The downtown area benefitted from passengers who got off the trains and then shopped and ate.
The town was fading in the early 1970s. And then, the song debuted.
The community embraced the moment. There’s a “Standin’ on The Corner” park at 2nd and Kinsley with a mural depicting the song’s “girl in a flatbed Ford.”
A central element of the park is a statue of a man in 1970s attire that resembles musician Jackson Browne, who co-wrote “Take it Easy.” He based the song on a trip he had taken through Arizona and Utah. Browne actually stopped in Winslow in 2013 and sang the song for a crowd of 200 people.
A statue of Glenn Frey was added to the plaza in 2016 shortly after the Eagles musician’s death.
The town also has a Standin’ on The Corner festival every September.
Winslow gets 100,000 visitors in a typical year, more than a town its size in Arizona’s high desert might expect.
Some business owners say the tourists just stop and take photos and don’t buy anything.
However, local leaders say the song has helped revive the town’s economy.
One of them is Bob Hall, the chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce. Hall told 60 Days USA that visitors who come to see the park will usually hang around for several hours. They might not spend the night, but they’ll shop and eat.
He notes there are four gift shops, an ice cream shop, a brewery and a bakery that opened last year along with restaurants. All are helped by the downtown park.
“These restaurants and shops weren’t there before and now they’re here,” Hall told us.
For that and other reasons, Hall said the people of Winslow have a special affinity for the “Take It Easy” song.
“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Hall noted. “I thank The Eagles every morning as I’m coming to work.”
Besides tourism, another main employer in town is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad yard. This is a crew changing station, the only one in Arizona. Hall said conductors, engineers and other employees who live in the region arrive for work at the station. They then ride the rails to another changing station in New Mexico or to Needles or Barstow in California and then return home.
“Winslow began as and is still a railroad town,” Hall remarked.
He noted there are three medical centers here as well as a prison just south of town that provide employment, too.
Hall said Winslow isn’t looking to grow by leaps and bounds. They have a Walmart but don’t feel the need for a Home Depot or Costco. They prefer smaller, independent business owners.
Winslow has a number of historic sites.
Hall’s chamber office and the Winslow Visitor Center on 2nd Street is the former site of one of the 24 trading posts that John L. Hubbell established throughout the Southwest to encourage better relationships between white residents and Navajo tribe members. This Hubbell Wholesale Store was open from 1924 to 1948. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
Also on 2nd Street is the La Posada Hotel, the last of Fred Harvey’s railroad hotels to be built. The site was chosen because Winslow was the Santa Fe Railroad headquarters. The La Posada opened in 1930 and closed in 1957. It was used as a railroad office until 1994.
The hotel was going to be torn down, but Allan Affeldt stepped in and bought the property. It reopened as a hotel in 1997. The complex now displays the artwork of Affeldt’s wife and hotel co-owner, Tina Mion, as well as other artists.
Just east of town is the Flying J Travel Center that is home to Winslow’s 9/11 remembrance sculpture. The memorial is built with two beams from the World Trade Center in New York City that fell when terrorists flew planes into the buildings on September 11, 2001. The sculpture was dedicated exactly one year later on September 11, 2002, one of the earliest memorials that used pieces from the trade center buildings.
Hall said a city official contacted people in New York shortly after the terrorist attack, expressing an interest in a memorial in Winslow. The town holds a memorial service at the monument every September 11.
“We promised the city of New York we would never forget,” Hall said.
It’s that type of character that brought Hall here decades ago from the larger Northern California town where he grew up.
“I love the small town feeling and I love how close the people of Winslow are,” Hall said. “The town has a certain charm and that charm might not be seen when you first view Winslow, but if you spend any length of time here, you’ll find it.”
Winslow was recently presented with another source of pride.
In early March, Deb Haaland was sworn in as the country’s new Interior Secretary, making her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet-level department. Haaland, now a resident of New Mexico, was born and raised in Winslow.
We zoom back onto I-40, a roadway that we will spend most of our day on.
After zipping past the town of Holbrook, we enter the Petrified Forest National Park.
The forest was established as a national monument in 1906 and as a national park in 1962.
There are plenty of dinosaur bones here, but the park is best known for its petrified trees that lived 200 million years ago. The trees became basically frozen in time after they fell during volcanic eruptions and were swept away by waters into marshes. They were then covered with mud, ash and sediment from an inland ocean.
The ocean receded 60 million years ago and the rivers eroded 2,600 feet of sediment, exposing the petrified logs we see today. It’s estimated there are millions of trees still buried.
Native tribes first arrived to this high plateau 13,000 years ago. They began planting corn in the rich soil about 2,000 years ago. They built pit houses and then pueblos.
The first European visitors were Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Military survey groups came through in the 1850s and brought back petrified specimens. Wood workers and gem collectors then descended on the area. That led to the need for a national monument designation to protect the natural resources here.
Efforts have been made to stop the thefts. There are even legends of a curse put on anyone who takes wood from the park.
For those who believe the curse or feel guilty after taking wooden souvenirs, there are “conscience piles” around the park for people to return their stolen goods.
There’s no border crossing or exchanging of passports when you enter the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo have occupied this region for nearly 1,000 years.
Today, about 170,000 people live on the Navajo reservation, mostly in small groups scattered across the territory.
The nation suffers from high unemployment, health issues and the environmental effects of uranium mining on their land.
These issues as well as the history of the Navajo are laid out in a special Spotlight report on the 60 Days USA site.
We exit the Navajo Nation territory as we cross the border into New Mexico.
Only 0.2 percent of the land here is covered by water, the lowest percentage of any state.
This is also another high-altitude region with a mean elevation of 5,700 feet. That places it 4th among the states.
The residents here are 49 percent Hispanic, the highest percentage among all states. It’s 37 percent white and 9 percent Native American, second only to Alaska.
Oil drilling is a big part of the economy. New Mexico is third in crude oil production, behind only Texas and North Dakota.
Agriculture is also big with more than 24,000 farms on 43 million acres in the state. Cattle ranching is prevalent, too.
And cannabis may soon become an important commodity. In March, a bill was revived in the state Legislature this year to make recreational marijuana sales legal in every town. That bill, however, was left hanging when the Legislature finished its spring session without approving it. However, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would bring state lawmakers back to the Capitol this week for a special session. Her strategy worked. The bill was approved in early April and the governor signed it on April 12.
New Mexico was also one of the states hit hard early on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ground Zero for that plague was Gallup, a town we encounter just 20 miles after crossing the border.
On May 1, 2020, city residents were ordered by Grisham to stay home except for emergencies. The roads in and out of Gallup were blocked to nonessential travel and vehicles carrying more than two people. Residents from the Navajo Nation, who usually travel to Gallup to buy liquor and other supplies, were caught off guard when they tried to enter the city.
The restrictions were implemented after confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 1,000, accounting for 30 percent of New Mexico’s infections. The novel coronavirus had spread to nursing homes and homeless population. The illness had also overwhelmed the city’s medical complexes.
The strict lockdown was lifted after two weeks, but restrictions remained in place for months. Resentment toward Navajo tribe members grew as some residents in this region of New Mexico blamed them for bringing in the virus.
The pandemic abated somewhat during the summer, but the city was still on edge in August as businesses and public facilities slowly began to reopen. At that time, the Gallup area had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than any other place in the nation, including New York City.
Gallup and the rest of New Mexico shut down earlier than most states and reopened more slowly. Critics said the policies were too harsh, but Grisham credits the strategy with lowering the COVID-19 caseload in her state.
Right now, Gallup businesses are allowed to be open with capacity restrictions between 25 percent and 75 percent. Gatherings are limited to 20 people.
There were economic struggles before the pandemic.
Gallup has a population of slightly more 21,000. About 40 percent of residents are Native American. Another 33 percent are Hispanic with 19 percent listed as white.
The annual median household income is almost $53,000, about the average for New Mexico. The poverty rate is 28 percent.
The area was first settled 2,500 years ago when the Ancient Puebloans set up villages. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1540, they found a thriving Native American society.
The town was founded in 1881 as a railhead for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. It was named after David Gallup, a railroad paymaster.
The mines are mostly closed now and Gallup has become a service center for nearby farms and ranches as well as a shipping point for cattle, wool, hides and forest products.
The city has had a high crime rate for a number of years. It’s been listed as the most dangerous city in New Mexico with 1,726 crimes per 100,000 residents, far higher than the state average of 703 per 100,000.
Local activists say one problem is the number of liquor stores in town. In 2017, Gallup had 39 liquor licenses. That was about 19 licenses per 10,000 residents, much higher than most cities. The city has had a long history of public intoxication, so much so that community organizers formed a “ditch patrol” to help people on the streets who are drunk.
The city does have a Gallup Real True marketing campaign that focuses on Native American culture as well as outdoor activities in an attempt to lure tourists.
When you think of the release of radioactive material, you might think of Three Mile Island.
While the 1979 accident at a nuclear power plant in central Pennsylvania was certainly noteworthy, it was not the worst such incident in U.S. history.
That honor goes to a uranium mill in Church Rock, New Mexico, a town 15 miles east of Gallup.
It happened in July 2019, just four months after Three Mile Island.
A dam at the United Nuclear Corporation Church Rock uranium mill suffered a breach that sent 94 million gallons of radioactive waste and 1,100 tons of mine tailings into the Puerco River.
To this day, the spill remains the largest accidental release of radioactive material in the history of the nation.
The uranium operation closed in the 1980s, but the environmental damage remains today.
A 2014 report concluded that the dam breach caused radioactive waste to seep into the region’s groundwater. A review by Stanford University researchers reported elevated radiation 50 miles away. That study also stated that the Puerco River had radiation 7,000 times higher than drinking water standards. The researchers added that there has been some radiation contamination in the food supply for people and cattle. It also noted that kidney disease rates are high in the area.
Concerns about radiation poisoning from the 20 contaminated uranium sites in the region still hang over the 1,100 residents of Church Rock, which is officially a pocket of the Navajo Nation and is 90 percent Native American.
In general, Church Rock did not fare well with COVID-19 either.
However, one company in town did step up during the pandemic.
Rhino Health had begun operations in 2019 thanks to a $19 million appropriation from Navajo Nation leaders. When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, Rhino Health was the only manufacturer in the United States of waterproof, chemical-resistant rubber gloves.
Another town an hour east on Interstate 40 also made news during the pandemic.
In March 2020, the mayor of Grants, New Mexico, became one of the first political leaders in the country to fight COVID-19 restrictions when he urged businesses to defy the governor’s order to lock everything down.
Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks said the pandemic concerns were “overblown” and the government was causing “panic.”
As the virus worsened, the mayor didn’t back down.
In late April 2020, Hicks, a Democrat, implored businesses to stay open to help the city’s economy. The governor ordered law enforcement to write citations to any business that defied state orders. Several business were in fact cited and fined, including a pawn shop that was hit with a $60,000 penalty.
A few days later, the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered Hicks to obey the governor’s pandemic orders.
Hicks remained as defiant as he could. On July 4, 2020, he led an Independence Day parade down the main street of Grants despite restrictions on public gatherings.
A recall petition was filed against Hicks in August 2020.
As of now, Hicks remains mayor with his current term scheduled to expire in 2022
In its early days, Grants had a somewhat quiet history.
The initial economy centered on logging in the nearby Zuni Mountains. Timber was mainly shipped to Albuquerque.
When logging declined in the 1930s, Grants became a “carrot capital” by utilizing the area’s rich volcanic soil and the newly constructed Bluewater Reservoir.
Mining was a big part of the economy from the 1950s into the 1980s as Grants boomed from 1,000 to 12,000 residents. At its height, the Grants uranium industry employed 6,000 people and produced 63 percent of the uranium mined in the United States. At the time, Grants was known as the Uranium Capital of the World.
The town’s population has shrunk to about 9,000 with almost 50 percent being listed as Hispanic, 27 percent as white and 18 percent as Native American.
The community does have the New Mexico Mining Museum on Iron Avenue to remember the heydays of that industry.
Big Sky, the Rio and ABQ
It’s another 20 minutes down I-40 before we finally detour off the freeway for the second time today.
We head south on Indian Service Route 38 for an additional 20 minutes before we hit a community called Sky City.
This Native American village, also known as the Pueblo of Acoma, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America
The region was home to the Anasazi tribe before the Acoma Pueblo was founded in 1150. The site was originally chosen because its steep hills made it difficult for invaders to attack.
For centuries, the villagers of the pueblo farmed the valleys below with irrigation from a nearby river.
Spanish conquistadors attacked the community several times in the late 1500s, including a 1599 battle that killed 800 Acoma residents. The surviving Acoma men were sentenced to 20 years of servitude while the women and children were sold into slavery. Only about 250 survivors remained at the village.
There were other fierce battles later that century between tribe members and Spanish forces. Eventually, the tensions subsided and life resumed peacefully at the adobe.
The current day pueblo is built on top of a 367-foot sheer sandstone bluff. It takes up more than 430,000 acres. There are four villages inside the pueblo with 250 dwellings, most without water, electricity or sewers.
Both the pueblo and the mission are designated as Registered National Historic Landmarks.
We take a different road out as we head toward our final destination for today.
Highway 23 cuts northeast and takes us back to Interstate 40.
An hour later, the city of Albuquerque comes into view.
As we near the downtown area, we cross the Rio Grande.
This river is generally associated with Texas, but it actually starts at 12,000 feet elevation in the Colorado Rockies and cuts right through the heart of New Mexico before turning southeast and forming the 1,200-mile international border between Mexico and Texas and then flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
The river’s deepest depth is 60 feet, which makes it difficult for larger vessels to navigate. However, in the early 1800s it was quite suitable for steamboats to travel delivering goods and passengers.
The Rio Grande, known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico, was also used by the U.S. military during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s to transport soldiers and supplies.
Boat traffic diminished over the decades as the railroads were built, so the focus of the Rio Grande switched to agriculture and drinking water.
The United States and Mexico signed treaties over water usage and management in 1906 and 1944.
The Rio Grande Compact was signed in 1939 to regulate water rights and usage between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
About 95 percent of the Rio Grande’s annual flow is diverted for agricultural and municipal use.
Demand for this water is rising, especially in the Albuquerque and El Paso regions.
There are years when the river is flowing mightily.
Other years it’s a different story. In 2001 and 2002, the Rio Grande waters failed to make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmentalists worry those drier seasons may become more common. Climate change is affecting the Rocky Mountain snowpack and that, in turn, affects the Rio Grande much like it does the Colorado River. This year is one of those years. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District in New Mexico reported in late May that its reservoirs were only filled to one-eighth of their capacity. The district plans to release water from those reservoirs into the Rio Grande for only one month this year, starting around June 1.
Environmentalists also say the river is facing rising bacteria levels, increased pollution and invasive plant species, among other issues.
Environmentalists do point to some encouraging signs. Outdoor recreation is now the third leading industry on the river, behind agriculture and mining. And Albuquerque officials are taking steps to conserve water.
We cross the Rio Grande as we enter Albuquerque, the only large city in New Mexico.
Its population of 560,000 dwarfs the next largest town of Las Cruces with its 101,000 residents. In fact, more than one-fourth of New Mexico’s 2 million inhabitants live in Albuquerque.
Nearly 50 percent of the city’s residents are listed as Hispanic. About 38 percent are white.
The median annual household income is $55,000 and the poverty rate is a relatively low 16 percent. The average price for a home is about $210,000.
The city’s economic health is driven by a trio of industries – military, high tech and education.
Kirkland Air Force Base employs 20,000 military and civilian personnel on its 50,000 acres.
Tourism is also an economic driver.
Albuquerque is known for hot air ballooning and its annual International Balloon Fiesta held in October. The event is the largest gathering of hot air balloons in the world. The city is also home to the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, which opened in 2005 and showcases the history of ballooning. There are also a number of hot balloon ride companies in this sector of town ready to float you upward.
The Sandia Peak Tramway is also here. It’s the longest aerial tramway in the world at 2.7 miles. The tramway lifts passengers from the outskirts of Albuquerque to the 10,378-foot summit of the Sandia Mountains. The ride takes 15 minutes and the temperature can vary by 30 degrees from bottom to top.
Also just outside of town is the Petroglyph National Monument. This 7,200-acre preserve is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. It features more than 24,000 rock carvings made between 400 and 700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers.
The city was also put on the map a decade or so ago by the television series “Breaking Bad.” The show about a high school chemistry teacher who turns drug lord was set in Albuquerque and much of it was filmed here.
There are Breaking Bad tours that will take you to more than a dozen well-known filming locales. One of the more popular stops is the Twisters Burgers and Burritos on Isleta Boulevard. The dining establishment was the setting for Los Pollos Hermanos, the restaurant that was key in several seasons of the series.
Albuquerque’s locale between the Rio Grande and the Sandia peaks at an elevation of 5,000 feet has long been a popular place to set up camp.
Native Americans first came to the region 12,000 years ago, eventually planting corn and other crops along the river banks.
The first Spanish explorers arrived in 1540 and found a Pueblo society that had advanced skills in stone masonry, ceramics and arts.
Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as a Spanish colonial outpost. It was named after Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, the 10th duke of Albuquerque who was also viceroy of New Spain from 1702 to 1711. That is why one of the town’s nicknames to this day is Duke City in addition to ABQ.
Albuquerque developed as a military outpost as well as a farming community, in particular as a western sheep herding center.
In the early 1900s, Albuquerque became a haven for people with tuberculosis who used the city’s warm, dry climate and 310 days of sunshine per year as treatment for their illness.
Route 66 helped the city grow more in the 1930s as did the opening of the Kirkland base in 1939 and the Sandia lab in the early 1940s, making Albuquerque a player in the Atomic Age.
The city still embraces its atomic connections. The minor baseball team here is the Albuquerque Isotopes. The name was changed from The Dukes in 2002 after an episode on “The Simpsons” where the Springfield Isotopes consider moving to Albuquerque.
Albuquerque has a number of hometown celebrities.
One is Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the actor who played Mitchell Pritchard on the television series, “Modern Family.” Ferguson was raised in Albuquerque and was a member of the Albuquerque Children’s Theater.
Actor Neil Patrick Harris, who is known for his television roles on “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “How I Met Your Mother,” was born in Albuquerque and grew up in Ruidoso, about two hours south of the city.
Actor Freddie Prinze Jr. also spent much of his childhood here.
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, was born in Albuquerque to a teenage mother.
Singer Demi Lovato was also born in Albuquerque as Demetria Devonne Lovato.
We’ll sign off for today at this high altitude city.
Tomorrow, we’ll see a lot more of New Mexico and its connection to our country’s Atomic Age.