PIE TOWN, NM--A day and a half is about all the vacation that a weekend can hold. You leave home Saturday morning and get back Sunday in the early evening...a short and sweet 36-hour adventure. And in this Land of Enchantment, the journey is as important as the destination. Thank goodness for that...because our time in Pie Town was reduced to an afternoon by the time driving and camping were figured in. Four of us started out in two vehicles about 10 AM.
In a nutshell, we drove south on I-25 from Albuquerque last Saturday on our way to the annual Pie Festival
. We camped out in the Sawtooth Mountains which are just to the northeast of Pie Town. Our route home continued west of Pie Town on U.S. 60 to Quemado, turning north at the stone church (NM 36) to NM 117 which winds between the lava flows and the sandstone bluffs of El Malpais National Monument. Then another hour or so back east on I-40 took us home.
The Perfect Season for Touring by Car
There are plenty of old photos from the 1920's showing families gathered around the auto drinking coffee on a lonely road, or sitting on folding chairs at card tables eating sandwiches under a tree. Well you can re-create that time for yourself right now in New Mexico. The weather is perfect. The chamisa is in bloom. The sky is oh so blue. And one other thing...if you are looking for adventure, go south.
Going south the first stop is always the Smith's grocery store in Socorro. This is because that gives us about an hour of riding in the car to remember what we forgot in Albuquerque...like ice...or coffee...or even those LCD's (little chocolate donuts). You turn west at the south end of Socorro onto US 60. The road climbs steadily all the way to Magdalena. In the time of the railroad (the grade of which is still visible from the highway), this section was known as "The Elevator." One other thing about US 60--it was known as the Coast-to-Coast Highway. It would make a great cross-country route even today.
Magdalena was founded to service the mining town of Kelly, which is in the mountains just outside of town to the south. The name comes from the likeness of Mary Magdalene which can be seen on the southeastern side of Magdalena Mountain. You have to look for it before you get to the town limit, however, because the likeness is not visible except from the east. It is a woman's head in profile...looking somewhat like the profile on the old Camay soap bars.
The Distant Pie
Sibley's Confederate Brigade stopped here on its way south after losing all their supplies in the Battle of Glorieta. The Beefsteak Trail ended in the stockyards here. This cattle trail operated until well into the 20th century. The ghost town of Kelly and the Kelly Mine are nearby. Go to one of the rock shops to see about them.
But we pressed on...east into the Plains of San Augustin. Yes, the VLA is there...and No, we didn't stop. Datil finally showed up. And No, we didn't eat here or even get gas. We wanted PIE. We climbed the rise into Pie Town and were amazed at the number of cars parked along the highway. As The Artist Ken Saville noted, it seemed like for this weekend Pie Town had become the 10th biggest city in New Mexico. Its everyday population is officially 60.
A Simpler Time
There are two legendary pie restaurants in Pie Town: the Pie-O-Neer
and the Daily Pie
. And if you wanted something with a bit more protein, the Festival itself featured Bar-B-Que as well. Everyone seemed to be having the best time possible. There were horsey rides for the kids. Horseshoe pitching for the adults. There was lots of stuff for sale. People just seemed to like wandering around and smiling. The kids kept themselves
entertained with a small old-fashioned merry-go-round. Contrasted with the midway rides at the State Fair, it seemed to harken back to a much simpler time.
Well, one can only take so much pie and pleasantness without feeling itchy for the wilderness. We took off for the Sawtooth Mountains.
The Sawtooths are not on many maps. It is a small range...a steep ridge line basically of tooth-like peaks that rise out of fairly level valleys. There are no visitor amenities such as restrooms, picnic tables, or potable water sources. But this lack of facilities has preserved it for us.
The Sawtooths are accessed from U.S. 60 by a dirt road, NM road 6A. It leads north. A few miles up there is a large cubic obelisk off to the right. Just past this and in a valley is a primitive road that also goes off to the right. This
valley is my favorite spot in the Sawtooths. It has an up close view of what is called Monument Peak with its projecting rock formation that dominates the valley. The projection has been called a sphinx head, a howling coyote, and a pulpit. Whatever it is called, it is featured in one of the paintings hanging in the Albuquerque Museum.
The valley was beautiful and peaceful all right, but we got worried that the approaching rain would leave us stranded without a way for our vehicles to get out past the low-lying valley entrance. I had already put my 4-Runner in 4WD to negotiate the muddy road getting in here. The other car, a Ford Escape, had plenty of clearance, but only 2-wheel drive. It had gone on higher ground getting in, but even that route looked to be in danger of washing out in a heavy rain.
We went up the road a piece and found a nice spot along a ridge that was higher than the road and made for an
easy exit no matter what the conditions. Actually, after about half an hour of showers, there was no more rain. There is lots of firewood in the Sawtooths, even dry firewood. And after a supper of spaghetti and Sunflower Market sausages, we sat around the fire drinking coffee and telling tales. Ginger Koning and my wife MaryAnn got out some brie and grapes. The Artist Ken Saville sipped from a green bottle of Mickey's. I just disappeared into the folds of my camp chair, thinking back to how I started camping with my family over 50 years ago.
It is funny how people approach sleeping in comfort so differently. Ginger had a big air mattress inflated by a motor which she jammed into her car and slept there. MaryAnn and I spent the night in our small mountain tent. Ken shunned any cover whatsoever and slept out "under the stars." He did say that if it started raining during the night to not move our vehicle until we checked to see if he was sleeping under it.
Camp cooking is such a joy. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, tortillas, and home-grown green chile. We went back down to U.S. 60 and back through Pie Town. It was deserted. All the cars were gone. Pies were advertised at half price from the day before. But Quemado beckoned with those great green chile cheeseburgers at the Cafe Largo.
The Black, the White, the Flat
Then north into El Malpais. We stopped at the Lava Falls trailhead. A one-mile loop trail took us through an area of collapsed lava tubes and cracked flows. Rope-shaped lava formations ran over the ground. The cracks were maybe 18 inches wide and ten feet deep. Falling into one would not be a good thing. Cairns marked the way. Interestingly, the various lava types all seemed to have Hawaiian names.
We continued on past Ventana Arch to a sandstone bluffs overlook. I had never been to either of these stops. They are really worth exploring. I think of all the dramatic landscapes here in the middle of the state: the black lava flows, the expansive and flat Plains of San Augustin, the totally white hills of White Sands National Monument further east. And then there are the beautiful mountains and mesas.
I-40 was right up the road, and we were home in an hour.