Thursday, April 8, 2010

DOWNSHIFTERS' DIARY: Albuquerque

After a lovely visit with family in Colorado and a day in Santa Fe, my wife and I headed to Albuquerque to visit with some long-time friends. (Note my scrupulous avoidance of the term "old"...)

Our friends moved to New Mexico a few years ago and have really embraced the lifestyle and the area, so we had some very good tour guides to show us this city.

The state of New Mexico has about two million residents; about one million live in Albuquerque. Despite the numbers, it has the feel of a mid-sized city instead of a metropolitan area.

Fat Man and Little Boy
Our first stop was the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, a great museum that details the history of nuclear energy. Given that much of that development took place during war time, a fairly large portion of the museum is dedicated to nuclear weapons: their development, use, and society's response and reaction to them during the Cold War and Vietnam eras. But there are also a number of exhibits dedicated to nuclear medicine as well as a brief mention of nuclear power.

The gift shop has a large selection of things you might expect: T-shirts, books, and other such items. But I had to bring home a truly unusual find: a lemon-yellow 1960s-era Geiger counter. While the needle moves, I don't know if it still actually works but, for $29, it's quite the conversation piece.

Albuquerque boasts a stretch of Historic Route 66. East of downtown, it's an area of cheap and abandoned hotels, empty lots, tattoo & piercing parlors, tire-and-wheel shops. Entering the Nob Hill area, however, the route regains something akin to its former glory: nice restaurants, trendy shops, places that look quite inviting indeed. As we drove through this area, I recalled Charles Kuralt's quote, "Thanks to the Interstate highway system, it's possible to drive from coast to coast without seeing anything," and thought fondly of how car travel must have been in the heyday of Route 66.

Like many southwest cities, Albuquerque has a historic Old Town. While it has its share of trendy stores, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, there's a lot to be learned about the city by ducking into the local church or stopping to read a historic marker or two.

The city makes great use of public art, from silhouettes and signs on the lampposts downtown to colorful tile along what would otherwise be bland highway interchanges. It's quite impressive, and seems to keep grafitti to a minimum.

Homage to a
fallen firefighter
Along those lines, local chain-saw artists (a term I thought an oxymoron) took to carving some trees that had been burned when fire swept the bosque - an area of vegetation along the banks of the Rio Grande - and claimed the life of a firefighter in the process. The resulting art, which is actually quite impressive, is a memorial to that firefighter and serves as a reminder of those events.

Petroglyphs
West of the city is the Petroglyph National Monument, a park where visitors can roam among volcanic rocks and see ancient petroglyphs. There is explanation available at a nearby visitor's center, but it's fun to simply roam the park and imagine a people now gone.

There are many more contemporary sights to see as well, including the Bobby Unser Museum. All in all, we found Albuquerque, New Mexico surprisingly fascinating!

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Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images

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