The vast U.S. state of New Mexico abounds in natural wonders—and some unnatural ones, too. We explore its treasures in the new Mazda CX-30 compact crossover

Story Jack Baruth / Photography Mark Skovorodko

It is the largest U.S. state that does not come immediately to mind, respectfully trailing the obvious trio of Alaska/Texas/California and the fabled wide-open space of Montana. There are likely still a few hundred people living today who were born before the state joined the Union in 1912, but it also holds a building that has been continuously occupied since the early 17th century. Part of it still belongs to the Navajo tribe, part of it was used to detonate the first atomic bomb, and yet another part claims to be the site of our first contact with alien life. You need a sense of wonder to make any sense of it all.

New Mexico tells a story of beauty, history and perplexing contradictions, painted on a canvas with an average elevation surpassing that of Denver’s “Mile High” airport in neighbouring Colorado. Much of New Mexico has been set aside for preservation by the federal government. Still more has simply been swept aside in the pursuit of an American Dream that often incorporates heading “out West” without including much, if any, of a stop before arriving at the Pacific Ocean.

Our goal was to get in touch with the state’s unique natural beauty and learn a little bit along the way on a road trip in Mazda’s new CX-30. And since you can’t talk about New Mexico nowadays without at least tipping your hat to the possibility of alien life, we took a moment to hear the case for why a close encounter of the third kind might have taken place in a singularly nondescript desert town more than a few kilometres from anywhere else.

The Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir (top) was once the world’s largest irrigation dam

If you need your space, in a few different senses of the word, New Mexico will appeal to you. The population is less than that of Queens or Brooklyn, but you could fit both boroughs into the state more than 850 times and still have room to spare. Albuquerque is the largest city, yet it’s still small enough for there to be just one preferred breakfast joint, the almost-famous Frontier Restaurant, across the street from the University of New Mexico campus.

A few kilometres away you’ll find Old Town, a carefully preserved area with a well-documented history all the way back to its founding in 1706. The largely original buildings are built in the adobe style from bricks of sand, clay and straw. Stucco exteriors and wooden beam ceilings complete the look. From the state’s largest city, we head south to the city formerly known as Hot Springs which, on March 31, 1950, became Truth or Consequences, after the popular NBC radio quiz show of that name.

“spacious new mexico has a population that is less than that of Queens or brooklyn, Yet you could fit both of these boroughs some 850 times into the state—with room to spare”

The host, Ralph Edwards, offered to broadcast the show from any city that would change its official designation to suit. The local politicians didn’t waste time taking him up on his offer. Edwards faithfully visited T-or-C (“Teersea” to its residents) once a year until the turn of the century. The town exists because of the nearby dam, which was completed in 1916 to create the Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande.

It was the world’s largest irrigation dam well into the 1960s, and it continues to provide both power and water to the area. The Elephant Butte itself, which really does look like a resting pachyderm, is now an island in the lake behind the dam. A recent discovery of mastodon bones in the area suggests that the climate was once very different from today’s hot, dry days and freezing nights.

It’s a short drive from Teersea to the eerie desert of the White Sands National Park. You get there via a huge freeway that seems like absurd overkill until a quick check of the map shows Juárez, Mexico directly below. The area is a focal point of trade between the two countries, and customs ports dot the landscape. Hang a left after the famous chili fields of Hatch, at Las Cruces (the locals say “Cruces” and the name indicates that this has long been a crossroads of trade) and you’ll be there in no time.

Standing in the middle of White Sands, it’s possible to forget the idea of civilization almost entirely. The strong winds erase footsteps overnight, while the 700+ square kilometres of gypsum left behind by evaporation stretch to the edge of your vision in each direction. David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth was filmed here, as was a Transformers movie. From time to time, the gate will be closed so the U.S. Air Force can do missile testing. This does not particularly bother the residents, some of whom can recall the day of the Trinity nuclear test and a brief flash of heat felt on the skin as far away as Las Cruces.

Where’s Bowie? The spooky White Sands landscape has inspired many

There are no missiles slinging across the sky on the day of our visit, just a few enthusiastic families scaling the dunes and sliding gleefully back down on sleds. A series of poles driven into the ground provides a reference point for hikes and camping trips deep into the desert. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous, some of the ad-hoc parking lots cleared out of the dunes on a daily basis are sporting futuristic-looking polished-aluminum picnic tables with built-in shields from the sun and wind.

From White Sands, there are two ways to get to Roswell. The easy way is U.S. Route 70 through Ruidoso Downs, home of the All American Futurity horse race. Approximately three million dollars will be awarded at this race, with a guaranteed million and a half to the winner. The quarter horse world takes this race seriously.

With no horses at hand other than the 186 tucked beneath the hood of our Snowflake White CX-30, we instead choose the high road through Cloudcroft. This little village sits more than 2,500 metres up, smack in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest. In the winter, it’s popular with skiers; the rest of the year, the elevation provides a welcome respite from the desert heat.

There are a thousand trails into the forest on the way up and down, hiding homes that range from tin-roofed shacks to sprawling mansions. Much of the area is defiantly unpaved, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to exceed the limits of the local tarmac in any direction.

Visitors to Roswell are met with a sign depicting an alien visitation, a theme that recurs everywhere from the saucer-shaped McDonald’s to the dozen or so T-shirt stores clustered around the sparse downtown. Seventy-three years ago, the Air Force was testing balloons for Project Mogul, a top-secret attempt to detect the sound waves from Soviet nuclear bomb tests. When one of those balloons crashed, a local farmer brought the debris to the Air Force base. The commanding officer decided to attribute the strange, shiny parts to an “alien saucer.” And that’s how the Roswell story got started…

“devil’s inkwell, so called for its algae-blacked color, is a cenote—a limestone sinkhole that collapsed and filled with groundwater over many thousands of years”

…or so we are meant to believe. There’s an entire museum on Roswell’s Main Street that argues rather convincingly that the UFO was, in fact, real. There does seem to be an unusual amount of economic prosperity in the area given its proximity to nowhere in particular. Are the aliens paying for all those impressive homes and brand-new work trucks? Or is it wealth from the oil and gas business, distributed to the roughnecks and drillers who call Roswell home? That’s for you to decide. The museum has a piece of the UFO. Its copper honeycombing suggests a technology beyond our imagination.

UFO buffs get a warm welcome at Roswell, the site of a possible alien visit in 1950

It also suggests a weather balloon with an integral antenna. No matter; there’s an entirely explicable natural wonder just a half-hour away. Bottomless Lakes State Park contains nine freshwater cenotes: limestone sinkholes that collapsed and were filled with groundwater over thousands of years. The lakes are occasionally deep, ranging from 5.5 to 27.5 metres, but in no way truly bottomless. The name comes from the inability of local cowboys to sound the depths with just their lassos.

Devil’s Inkwell is the smallest of the nine, deriving its name from its algae-blacked colour and the stone wall that encircles it, shimmering with the “Pecos diamond” quartz flakes left behind from the same gypsum that forms the White Sands to the west. It is periodically stocked with fish that swim invisibly in its murky depths. There’s plenty of camping available within sight of the lakes and just like the rest of New Mexico, the Bottomless Lakes are not what you’d call crowded.

Our trip back to Albuquerque is interrupted by a surprise wave of fog which rolls through the snow fences and across the wide, flat freeway. We disappear into it and come out the other side completely alone, surrounded by perhaps 260 clear square kilometres without a single soul in sight. Minutes later, we clear a crest in the road and find a bustling restaurant and gas station. We have to shout to be heard in the mayhem of the multiple registers and booming tractor-trailers. New Mexico is strange that way, in its counterpoint medley of solitude and intimacy. Strange, and wonderful.