We stayed in Albuquerque with the RV once before when we attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October of 2021. But on that trip, we barely left the Balloon Fiesta grounds–partly because there was so much to do there, and partly because the rest of the city was choked with AIBF crowds. So we decided to spend a few days in the city as we made our way toward Kansas to pick up our new rig in early May.
One night, we went in search of an authentic New Mexican dinner. We found it and “got our chile on” at the original Cocina Azul on Mountain Road in Old Town (there are now several other locations).
Of course, New Mexico is the chile capital of the world. The intense heat and rich taste of their house-made salsa rojo and salsa verde, served with chips as an appetizer, left no doubt in my mind (or on my lips) that their dishes were the real deal. And indeed, my entree–“Frank Sr.’s Combo Plate” with a brisket enchilada, brisket taco, pork tamale, and cheese chile relleno, served “Christmas style” with both red and green sauces–was delicious. Cheryl’s stacked Creamy Chicken Enchiladas were good too, but a bit too spicy for her taste.
After dinner, we walked across the street to Golden Crown Panaderia, a family-owned, old-fashioned Mexican bakery that’s been operating from the same Old Town location for more than 50 years. This Albuquerque institution, ranked as the #2 restaurant (out of more than 1,000) in the city by TripAdvisor, has been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network as well as in dozens of magazines like Gourmet and Conde Nast Traveler.
Although the bakery itself was closed when we visited, they have a new 24-hour “cookie ATM” that we just had to try. This custom-built, cashless vending machine dispenses Golden Crown’s cookies, loaves of bread, pastries, and other delicacies whenever you want them.
We had come in search of cherry empanadas, but with those sold out, we “settled” for the raspberry variety. Yum!
The next day, I spent the afternoon at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and Industry, located on the east side of Albuquerque. The museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate and the country’s only congressionally-chartered museum in its field, tells the story of the Atomic Age from early research into nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
The museum’s exhibits are arranged along a timeline, with roughly the first half devoted to early experiments with atomic fission and the Manhattan Project that ultimately led to the end of World War II.
This exhibit re-creates a lab in a small building in an isolated canyon, far enough from other buildings in the secret town of Los Alamos to contain the radiation in the event of an accident. In this lab, scientists conducted early “criticality
experiments” to determine how much plutonium or uranium could be packed into a bomb for maximum yield without making the bomb unsafe to handle. The scientists referred to these experiments as “tickling the tail of the dragon”. if too little material was used to make a bomb, it would not detonate at all. But if the scientists placed too much of either material in one place it would “go critical”, spontaneously beginning a chain reaction and causing a tremendous burst of radioactivity that would kill everyone in the immediate area. Incredibly, this actually happened by accident a couple of times during the 1940s, when the work was done with very little personal radioactivity shielding.
In just 27 months, the intense work by thousands of people at Los Alamos resulted in the “Gadget”–the code name given to the first atomic device tested. Words like “atomic” or “bomb” were avoided for security reasons. The Gadget was tested on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico. For this test, the Gadget was raised to the top of a hundred-loot steel tower, a re-creation of which stands outside the museum. Shortly after that successful test, the U.S. dropped the first atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As the museum’s timeline transitioned from early atomic weapons research to the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs and a fearsome variety of modern nuclear weaponry to more peaceful uses of nuclear energy, there was a moving overhead installation of one thousand origami cranes, created in 2020 by students at Albuquerque-area elementary schools to share the message of peace.
Outside the museum’s building, a large “Heritage Park” features numerous aircraft and missile systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including a B-29 Superfortress like the ones used to drop the first atomic bombs to a B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber. There is also the actual sail from a former fleet ballistic missile submarine that carried Polaris and later Poseidon nuclear missiles.
The following day, we traveled to Albuquerque’s West Mesa to visit Petroglyph National Monument. This monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America–with more than 24,000 petroglyphs–featuring designs and symbols carved onto basalt boulders by American Indians and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.
We chose to hike the 2.2-mile Rinconada Canyon Trail, one of several in the monument, which has more than 300 petroglyphs visible from the trail. But you have to look carefully, because signs on the trail point out only a few of the carvings. Many of the petroglyphs are quite a ways up on the volcanic rocks.
These petroglyphs represent a valuable record of cultural expression and human occupation in the Rio Grande Valley. They have deep spiritual significance to modern Pueblo groups as well as other indigenous people such as the Diné (Navajo) and the Apache. Similar images continue to have value in contemporary ceremonial life for many Southwestern tribes. A few tribal groups still know the meanings of some of these petroglyphs, while the direct meanings of other images have been lost over the centuries.
Why did the Ancestral Puebloans make their petroglyphs here? Perhaps they were associated with cultural and spiritual beliefs that this volcanic escarpment was a sacred place. Or it may have been for more secular reasons, like marking trade routes, recording a specific event, or simply communicating to others by using imagery, since the Ancestral Puebloans did not use a written language with developed letters.
The petroglyphs were created by scratching or pecking away the dark outer layer of the rock, known as “desert varnish”, to reveal the lighter-colored rock below. This process makes the drawings resistant to weathering, allowing them to be seen hundreds of years later.
Sometimes, the petroglyph carvers incorporated natural features of the rock into their art, like this face or mask that used holes in the rock to represent eyes and a mouth.
This large, flat-faced boulder holds so many carvings that it could be telling a story…or maybe it’s an ancient billboard for travelers along this route.
In the 1600s, newly-arrived Spanish sheepherders used the grasslands of these canyons and mesas for grazing their flocks. They added to the Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs, marking the rocks with images such as crosses and sheep brands. Today, these images help tell the story of the integration of Native American and Spanish cultures in the Rio Grande Valley.
Since sheep, a non-native species, didn’t exist here until the Spanish brought them to New Mexico in the early 1600s, archeologists know that this petroglyph of a grazing sheep was made after then–but was it carved by a Puebloan or a Spaniard? There’s no way to tell for sure.
And this was just one of the trails in the National Monument! There is also the Boca Negra Canyon Trail, with over 100 petroglyphs, and the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail, which boasts more than 400 petroglyphs. What’s amazing is that all of these are located mere blocks from the modern residential areas of Albuquerque. Thankfully, all of this history is now preserved for future visitors to enjoy.