Billy the Kid would have a hard time recognising Santa Fe these days. The streets were laid out way back before the 1880s and many old adobe buildings – shops, homes and such – still stand.
The central plaza’s still there as is the portico to the west where Navajo sit and sell goods. And there remains plenty of cafes and bars for cold beers, whiskies and carousing.
The New Mexican town sits just over 2000m high amid some rough territory and the Santa Fe River still flows through a settlement established by the Spanish in 1610. This was the northern end of a colonial road from Mexico City.
Wild west outlaw Billy, aka William H Bonney, would walk and gawk in wonder at galleries and shops selling magnificent artworks, artisan jewellery of silver and turquoise, quality western wear and souvenirs.
Santa Fe reeks of history and class, from the site of the old jail where sheriff Pat Garrett locked Billy up from December 1880 to March 1881, to the glorious Lucchese boot shop.
About 115km up the road in this high desert country is Taos, once home to famed scout Kit Carson and an adobe pueblo still inhabited by Native Americans after thousands of years. Kit’s cottage and the pueblo are open to visitors.
New Mexican history and 21st century culture is one colourful blend of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo arts and customs; a region first colonised by the Spanish, then, along with Arizona and California, ceded in the 1840s by Mexico to the United States after the Mexican American war.
As the oldest state capital in the US, Santa Fe also boasts the country’s oldest house and oldest church, the San Miguel Mission.
Today, New Mexico is a delight for traditional and contemporary arts and food and people watching.
In Mavericks’ top-end Santa Fe store, chasing a hatband for the new Stetson, there’s a signed photo of country singer Chris Stapleton – “yessir, he was in here last week, buying for him and his family.”
Jewellery stores here are overflowing with antique and contemporary, handcrafted pieces, artworks are spectacular and the town is forever high-end stylish from famed modernist painter Georgia O’Keefe’s museum to the Railyard District and its collection of vintage clothing shops and the ever-cool Cowgirl Café.
There’s a bunch of quality, albeit used, cowboy and cowgirl outfits and boots and hats to be considered in this part of town.
Problem: the Australian dollar is a tad flimsy so easy to pay $50 for a couple of sandwiches and two drinks. Good hotel rooms can cost. Fuel costs weren’t bad, around $370 for 3200km from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, via Palm Springs, and then back to Phoenix in a Hyundai Tuscon ($1500 hire for a fortnight).
The state of New Mexico, and on the way this time cutting back across Arizona, delights too with scenery from winding, and deep, canyon roads to long stretches of badlands along the old Route 66 with rest stop warnings about rattlesnakes.
Along this route there’s also the charms of towns such as Arizona’s Winslow where people take it easy, standing on a corner alongside a flatbed Ford and humming Eagles songs.
Scenery, historic buildings and the characters of New Mexico have long attracted songwriters, adventurers and filmmakers, from Easy Rider in 1969 to Disney’s Lone Ranger in 2012.
Be warned: the woman who owns Breaking Bad character Walter White’s house in Albuquerque to the south of Santa Fe apparently can get stroppy with tourists.
No dramas, for $2 get the map for all the Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul locations from those famed series and trip around laid-back Albuquerque and its collection of charming motels such as the vibrant El Vado. Resurrected from a 1937 establishment, this was one of the first to cater for travellers along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Americans in this south-west country appreciate the value of historic buildings and sites and highways.
And leave time for the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque’s Old Town. It’s worth every cent of admission to hear a warning rattle or three. (Along with the snakes and lizards there’s a Steve Irwin tribute cabinet.)
This time we didn’t even make Roswell, site of the fabled 1940s UFO crash or Los Alamos in the state’s west where the world’s first atomic bomb was developed and tested in the desert.
If headed to New Mexico, take a big drive through the countryside before hitting the cities and towns – just don’t forget a well-fed credit card and that Santa Fe’s altitude, and well-bred attitude, can (literally) take your breath away.
And take suitable music for the longer drives. American artist Tom Russell is recommended.
Visit newmexico.org and santafe.org