Mountain Musing: A road less traveled

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—“The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost

By Wally Gordon

U.S. 60, sometimes called the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, was built in the 1920s to link the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, but since California decommissioned it in 1972, it has run “only” 2,670 miles from Virginia Beach, Va., to southwestern Arizona. It breaches the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains. It crosses plains and deserts, parallels old railroad tracks and connects ghost towns and villages, but keeps its distance from large cites except Louisville, Ky.

Along the way, it spans the width of New Mexico, from Texas to Arizona, crossing the Rio Grande and skirting the Gila Mountains.

Few know about it and even fewer use it for more than short distances. No TV series or movie has ever made it into a legend, and it has never had its John Steinbeck or its “Grapes of Wrath.”

But U.S. 60 is older, longer, a lot lonelier and a whole lot more scenic than famed Route 66. It may be the most interesting road in America.

The section of U.S. 60 in New Mexico is the subject of a new book by Dixie Boyle. She grew up in Mountainair and taught school there. An occasional writer for The Independent, she is also a U.S. forest ranger. Spending months at a time atop fire towers in the Cibola National Forest, she has lots of time to research her New Mexico world, cogitate upon it and write about it. She has used her time well, writing three books and a number of historical articles and ebooks.

forum mtmuse IMG_20150815_124214399The rather ungainly title of her new book is “A History of Highway 60 and the Railroad Towns on the Belen, New Mexico Cutoff.” Published by Sunstone Press in Santa Fe, the 138-page paperback is available at amazon.com, or via Sunstone by calling 800-243-5644 or online at sunstonepress.com (softcover $19.99, ebook $4.99).

Boyle is asking New Mexicans “to take another look at something so familiar it almost goes unnoticed,” according to the foreword by David Pike, author of “Roadside New Mexico.” This is the road that penetrates the state’s heart.

The railroad pioneered the route eventually followed by U.S. 60, proof, Boyle writes, of “the power of the railroad to bring life to what was once nothing but vacant land.” Ironically, although that railroad has disappeared from most New Mexicans’ lives, the road it spawned still surges across the state’s midsection.

Although she briefly summarizes the history of U.S. 60, Boyle is primarily interested in the Belen cutoff and its continuation to the Arizona border, a 249-mile section of U.S. 60. The Belen cutoff was built in the first decade of the 20th century from Belen to Texico on the New Mexico-Texas border as a detour from the original 19th century rail route, which, slowly and painfully, crept up the 3 percent grade of Raton Pass. In 15 chapters, Boyle sketches the history and character (often with old photos) of nearly two dozen settlements that punctuate the vast spaces U.S. 60 crosses.

Highway 60 remains an isolated route, an alternative route, the route travelers take when they want to slow down and enjoy the scenery,” Boyle writes. “Herds of elk are often seen near Pie Town and Datil and it is not uncommon to see cowboys moving cattle from one range to the other. The land has not changed that much since the Apache.”

She advises travelers, “If you are short or time and have to drive straight through, take at least 15 minutes and stop in one of the ghost towns along the route and explore the history. Take a photograph or two and observe land unchanged by the passage of time. Highway 60 might be considered one of the more lonely routes in the state, but the history of the area is fascinating and waiting for someone to stop and explore.”

Boyle repeats the famous dictum that any road “will never be the same road twice” and then asks, “Can a highway have a soul?” It’s a good question to ponder about the road less traveled by.