New Mexico Roadtrip
Remember Tuco’s office? Obviously it survived the blast after Walt annihilated its structure with a chemical bomb using mercury fulminate in order to get paid for his batch of blue.
You might see some familiar spots from Breaking Bad cruising around downtown ABQ.
Check out La Hacienda in Old Town for some proper New Mexican grub. The Enchiladas Nuevo Mexico are better than Walt’s blue crystal.
Madrid is a neat little town about an hour away from ABQ proper.
The World Famous Doghouse (where Jesse buys a gun to kick off season two)
You might find Skyler here laundering Walt’s profits while doing her best to keep up her clean-cut reputation.
Walt’s signature blue crystal found its way into Rebel Doughnuts’ newest tasty treats. Stop by and sample the goods for yourself, an ABQ mainstay.
Valles Calderas is a great view of the New Mexican countryside.
The perfect place for a cold drink and a smoke—Brenda taking in the scenery with the Rio Grande flowing behind her just outside Jemez, New Mexico.
Heisenberg’s castle (Walt, to you newbies). Looks like Walt traded the Pontiac Aztek in for the Toyota Land Cruiser that’s in the driveway.
Jemez Springs is a quaint, sleepy stop, perfect for the hungry traveler.
Valles Calderas is a great view of the New Mexican countryside.
My trip to Albuquerque was fun, with stops in Prescott, Jerome, and a trip through the Zuni Pueblo, but the fun was over and the mission had begun. The management of this fine magazine had only one thing on its mind: Meth, and the manufacture thereof. The surprising success of the AMC show Breaking Bad, with its antihero protagonists Walt and Jesse, has cast a new, sordid spotlight on the city of Albuquerque as a capital of the destructive meth trade … or at least the poster child for desperation and rash acts.
It wasn’t always this way. Despite having the gang issues that most good-sized towns are plagued with, Albuquerque is a hub for learning with the University of New Mexico a centerpiece of a vibrant city that has more architects per capita than anywhere in America. But that side of Albuquerque was not my mission, the underside was: searching for hints and signs from Breaking Bad. To be sure I had my mission covered, I resolved to try to get to every corner of Albuquerque and surrounding area, looking for the city and desert depicted in the series.
One problem. I’m only on season two.
Looking for the Paradigm
I did have an ace in the hole for this assignment—a local gal who’s lived her whole life in Albuquerque offered to show me around town. Downtown is called Downblock by locals, due to its diminutive size. We started there. Downblock is what happened when Americans decided to make a city of this old Spanish Colonial town, so it’s all turn-of-the-20th-century brick architecture; not all that appealing when I rolled through on a weekend morning.
My pal, Brenda, took me on a little cruise through some of the more interesting neighborhoods of Albuquerque, lined with trees and parkways and flanked by an array of interesting houses. The houses in the show are fairly bland compared to some of the creations around town, especially Walt’s ranch house. In fact, “ranch style” is considered derogatory around these parts. With one of the nation’s largest concentrations of architects, it should come as no surprise.
A place you don’t see often on television is Old Town Albuquerque, and that’s a damn shame. Sure, I could see the ABQ authorities being up in arms if there were images of thugs slinging meth to tourists in front of 300-year-old churches, so I guess I understand. But for me, the trip was worth the detour.
Old Town isn’t real big either, but it makes up for it in pure beauty with old exposed beams in adobe surrounded by windowbox flower gardens and lots of brickwork. There’s also a lot of art, both old murals, as well as more modern sculpture around the square that surrounds San Felipe De Neri Church. Other than finding the Doghouse near downtown, which I recognized from the episode where Jesse is dealing out in front, I was striking out in Albuquerque proper, so it was time to motor on.
Looking to the Sky (and Down)
I tried to take a tight loop around the outside of the city, which is both easy and hard. Easy, in that it’s not too hard to get out of town. While it’s got sprawl like anywhere else, Albuquerque is limited by mountains, the Rio Grande Valley, and the huge Kirtland Air Force base to how sprawly it can get. There’s also that annoying habit of states to skimp on the asphalt in this part of the world. Anywhere you go in Albuquerque, there’s the high ridge of the Sandia Mountains looking down at you, I wanted to go there, but as any self-respecting motorcyclist would do, I looked for the long way. East on I-40 wasn’t going to cut it.
Unlike most parts of the world. A quick trip to Google isn’t going to help you here with what appears to be a network of good roads twisting throughout the Sandia Mountains. This is a lie. NM-165, despite looking like a real road on Google, is dirt most of the way. Sandia Peak road, despite looking small (and possibly dirt) is actually quite nice. I spent 13 miles on 165 since it looked like a real road on the map, but it goes gravel right where it gets twisty and treacherous. While it is probably a beautiful road, I like to lean when I ride, not slide. Heading back to I-25 for the next promising road led me to NM-301. While paved, it’s an annoying mix of washboards and potholes that conspired to get me to turn around again, this time faster. It took going all the way to NM-14, most of the way to Santa Fe, to get on a good road that ended up back at Sandia Peak.
I also got to take in a popular biker and tourist destination in Madrid. An old coal-mining town, Madrid has turned to tourism to keep the gold rolling in. Artist cottages and galleries line the street, while the old mine has been turned into a restaurant. I’ve heard that the movie Wild Hogs ended here, which may have added to the biker contingent, but I didn’t care. I’m pretty sure it’s not the sort of place either Walt or Jesse would be caught dead in, so I moved on.
Despite looking like a goat trail on the map, the road up to Sandia Peak is a well-paved, relentless series of switchbacks. Zip up your jacket vents, or throw one on if you weren’t wearing one, as it’s going to get chilly. Sandia Peak sits roughly double the mile-high elevation of Albuquerque itself at more than 10,000 feet. The view of the valley is simply stunning, and so close by, as the sprawl comes right up to the base of the mountain. I probably don’t need to say: I took the freeway back that night.
My close-in explorations of the surrounding countryside were beautiful and exciting, but far too close and crowded to be anywhere Walt and Jesse might have cooked meth, so I resolved to get out a little more.
Bruise my Mind
Out in the hinterlands around town, it’s rough. The roads seemed to frequently turn to gravel. Again, a guide is needed. Perhaps a spirit animal, or, more likely, a local. Brenda was once again my guide, leading me to secluded and beautiful places, all with good roads. My spirit animal led me to Jemez.
Most of Northern New Mexico is fairly geothermally active. It may not be on the Pacific Rim of Fire, but there have been volcanic eruptions in the area as little as 6,000 years ago, which is a blink by geological standards. Much of the dramatic scenery of the area has been delivered by active volcanism and erosion, and Jemez is no different.
Cruising on US-550 out of the sprawl, I was finally seeing some places that might be good places to park a motorhome and brew up some go-juice. But Jemez was calling, so I turned north on NM-4. The hot springs around Jemez that birth Jemez Canyon not only draw the hippies to soak in their restorative waters, but also cut some deep grooves in some deep red sandstone, making for some dramatic views. The road gets tighter as it leaves the base of the hill and goes up the side of a volcano.
The town of Jemez Springs sits astride the road halfway up the hill and served as a nice pitstop, with good food served at a roadside cafe. My spirit animal tells me that a volcano is a focus of power and should be respected. I was thinking, “What better place to cook meth?!” In retrospect, that might not be what she meant.
The road grew tighter as we ascended, but something was wrong. The dry forests and sandstone, so familiar as the face of New Mexico, was altered to black volcanic rock with wetter-looking forest and a chill in the air. We’d arrived in the Caldera. The Valles Caldera, actually. This ancient volcano once spewed smoke and ash over the whole area, but is only a memory now, only really identifiable as a volcano from space.
Finishing the loop back out of the crater, it was back to the familiar red desert of the surrounding area. We skirted Bandelier National Monument, but stayed on 4, which yielded some spectacular views of the Rio Grande at a just-off-the-beaten-path vista. Despite the beauty, we were back in well-trod lands, not the sort of place desperadoes go to do their business, and far too far away to anybody’s hideout or domicile.
On the way back to Albuquerque, my spirit animal told me that it would be highly foolish to come this close to Santa Fe and not check it out, so we did. While Albuquerque very much has a big city vibe, its northern neighbor does not. In fact, all of the smaller settlements around the valley are very distinct from Albuquerque, not seeming like suburbs at all, but special snowflakes in their own right. Santa Fe is liberals and artists and lesbians … and the old Spanish capital with all the buildings that go along with that.
In my main mission, I’d failed. No drug dens or meth labs to show for the trip thus far. But in the larger sense, I’d discovered tons of good (and bad) roads and countryside. There was only one solution. Ride farther out and keep exploring. Until next time…
The Devil Says...
Want to be part of the Breaking Bad experience while visiting ABQ? There is a trolley tour available if you have three hours and $60 to burn. You can roll by all of the hot spots of BB: all of the ranch houses, Jesse’s duplex, and run-down buildings in the bad parts of town, and you may even score some blue crystal donuts to appease your appetite. Here are some of the spots you might see along the way, some we visited on our own.
ABQ Trolley Co.