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New Mexico

Jemez Trail Scenic Byway is the slow road to Santa Fe

JEMEZ SPRINGS, New Mexico — This is the wrong way to Santa Fe if you plan to set the cruise control at the legal limit of 75 mph. It's the right way if you want an early dose of sights and smells that often caress New Mexico.

The sights: two ducks rising from the cold waters of the Jemez River into a cloudless sky. The angular face of Battleship Rock that looms above New Mexico 4. Or, perhaps, the changing colors of a mesa with the movement of the autumn sun.

There is the smell of roasted pinon nuts offered by an Indian vendor or the faint scent of sulfur at Soda Dam. And, on a late winter afternoon, the musty smoke from the fireplace at Los Ojos Bar and Package Store in Jemez Springs.

On this way to Santa Fe, there is also a penetrating silence that envelops a cross-country skier who stopped for rest in the pine forests in high country. And, most of all, there is the silence of the Valle Grande, the vast remnant of the collapse of a volcano, blanketed with three feet of snow.

The slow road to Santa Fe starts north of Albuquerque at the Bernalillo exit off I-25 onto U.S. 550 west. It is an alternative to following I-25 directly to New Mexico's capital from Albuquerque, the closest major airport serving northern New Mexico.

The slow road has a name: the Jemez Trail National Scenic Byway, one of 33 such routes authorized by Congress in 1998. It can be traveled in three hours by those not inclined to dawdle among its beautiful and historical distractions. A full day is better, and a network of bed-and-breakfasts or rugged cabins are available for those who tarry even longer.

Be patient as the road crosses the Rio Grande and passes the housing developments in Rio Rancho, Albuquerque's modern-day Levittown. To the right is the new gambling casino of the Santa Ana Indian Pueblo, along with the pueblo's golf course and a new Hyatt resort.

Suburban sprawl ends quickly. Chamisa and juniper dot the arid plain and the morning sun illuminates the foothills of the Jemez Mountains. As the hills approach, so does the turnoff at the village of San Ysidro and, hence, the beginning of the Jemez Mountain Trail.

It is Sunday. Pickup trucks are parked outside San Ysidro's small churches. Traffic is light to nonexistent as New Mexico 4 heads through walls of red and orange rock toward the entrance of Canon de San Diego and the adobe village of Walatowa on the Jemez Pueblo.

The Jemez Indians arrived in the canyon more than 700 years ago. They built fortified villages on the high mesas for strategic reasons, becoming among the most powerful pueblo nations before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1541. There were 30,000 members of the tribe then; there are about 3,400 now.

The Jemez Pueblo is one of only two in New Mexico without gambling. Because of that, it either suffers or succeeds, depending on whether the context is economic or cultural. A hand-painted sign introduces a visitor to Walatowa, warning against photography, taping, sketching and other intrusive activities. The winding lanes surround or terminate at the plaza, center of Walatowa's social activity.

A crowd is gathered in the plaza. Chants and steady drumbeats fill the air while adolescents in costumes imitate deer and buffalo in a traditional dance. Families sit on stools and portable chairs to watch the performance, much like proud parents at the Little League baseball game. There is a major difference — there is no applause at the end, another important custom.

"The dance you witnessed on Sunday was a fun social dance," says Rebecca Grandbois, the Jemez Pueblo director of tourism. Visitors from another pueblo participated.

"Pueblos do these types of dances for entertainment for the people in the pueblo primarily," she noted. "Because it is not a private dance, visitors are allowed to come into the village."

The pueblo, however, prohibits any outside publication about the dances, whether public or private. There is a Web site, www.jemezpueblo.org, that provides tribal history, etiquette, pueblo landmarks, schedules for public celebrations and other information, along with an e-mail link. A relatively new visitors center near Walatowa is a recommended starting point.

Los Ojos Bar and Package Store is up the road from the pueblo in the town of Jemez Springs. Like the town itself, the Ojos is an odd-lot mosaic often found in New Mexico, with antique Winchester rifles and animal trophies on its wooden walls. Flames lick the air in the massive fireplace, while the click of pool balls mixes with the low conversations in the airy main room. A band played the night before, explaining the lingering smell of cigarettes.

There are well-worn blue jeans that have seen an honest day of hard labor and leather pants that have not. Designer sunglasses and ball caps. Ponytails on both male and female, some faces reddened by a day of skiing and others by a day at a construction site. Jemez Springs is populated by fifth-generation families and recent emigres from California and the East Coast. The nearby hot springs can be visited with bathing suits or without.

"We pander to anyone with money" is the Ojos' motto. Actually, it takes mere pocket change to feast on enchiladas stacked New Mexico style or a green chili cheeseburger with fried potatoes.

The Ojos' neighbors include other bars and restaurants, art galleries, stores, rental cabins, a couple of B&Bs and a Zen Buddhist practice center, but no gas station. The remnants of an ancient pueblo and the ruins of a 17th-century Spanish mission are a part of the Jemez State Monument nearby.

Following the Jemez Mountain Trail in clockwise fashion, the road rises after Jemez Springs toward Santa Fe National Forest. On the right is Soda Dam, a freak of nature 300 feet long that resembles an abstract sculpture. Minerals from a spring created the dam, but the Jemez River would not be completely denied. Its waters spew through a hole in the formidable structure, a fascinating study of cementlike waves, scallops and crevices.

Here and there are other points of interest, such as Battleship Rock, but they may someday be overwhelmed by what could become the crown jewel of the Trail, the Valle Grande.

"To the public, it is a paradise lost," wrote AP writer Matt Crenson in 1999 about what was then the Baca Ranch, a 95,000-acre holding of an Abilene, Texas, family. Renamed the Valles Caldera National Preserve after the federal government purchased it for $101 million, a board of trustees appointed by President Bill Clinton is discussing what to do with it.

While they decide, the public can access the panorama through binoculars at highway pullouts. Somewhere inside, wrote Crenson, "A golden eagle preens in the dazzling autumn light. Elk graze damp meadows. Fiery aspens fleck slopes carpeted with spruce, fir and ponderosa pine."

On the other side of the Valle Grande, the trail divides. Continue on New Mexico 4 and descend into Los Alamos, home to the nation's nuclear secrets; take the right fork and continue to Bandelier National Monument, which includes a visitors center and trails to Indian cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

A full day, to be sure, but an early start and you can arrive at the plaza in Santa Fe before the shops and galleries close.