Socorro NM was the next exit off of the highway, and where we had plans to bed down for the night.
We harbored visions of a desert hamlet, windswept and interesting, steeped in history, the air filled with coyote howls, the back streets with tumbleweed.
As we pulled off the midnight highway , we were instead met with the ubiquitous glare of hotel chains, golden arches, fast "food" signs and the usual garish clutter that makes a starry night invisible.
"Where are we?" Cathie said. "Anywhere USA" I replied.
We checked into our hotel and fell asleep.
The next morning, I decided to walk the strip, the bright sunshine dominating the sometimes bleak landscape of now unlit fast food joints and second tier motels offering " ree Breakfa & Wifi" .
On either side of this retail thoroughfare, single wide trailer homes and two room houses created ramshackle neighborhoods that ran into the desert and toward the snow capped mountains, as if fleeing the urban sprawl.
Amid all of this I found El Camino - a diner and coffee house from a time gone by, it's huge roadside sign an echo from the days when cars had fins and teenage boys and girls would "go steady".
After coffee in it's red leather and carpeted environs, I rambled further, and was happy to discover that even corporate-heavy consumerist landscapes cannot subdue a town with roots far deeper in the desert sand than anything thrust upon it in the last few centuries: the unique architecture and adobe styling developed by early settlers by necessity still informs the modern structures, and even among these, only a block away from the the grey hum of business route 25, stands the San Miguel Mission, established in 1562, and still standing tall and strong.
The missions were set up to offer a halting place for weary travelers and pioneers in search of a better life on their trek north from Mexico through the desert heat, and those that stand today serve as houses of worship for the Christian masses.
Socorro slowly revealed it's charms. The Manzanares Coffeehouse served up a good sandwich and a friendly artisan space to kick back and admire some local art or just stare out the window at a quiet plaza where life moves pretty slowly - a scene that makes it hard to imagine that just 15 miles away, in 1945, the first nuclear test explosion was carried out, setting the wheels of the atomic age in motion. These days , mining and mineralogy are what keep many of Socorro's wheels turning, with the local technical College drawing students, or "Techies" as they're known locally, from all over the country.
That's a lot of stuff going on for a small desert town, but Socorro seems to carry that weight effortlessly .
Before leaving Socorro the next morning, I made room for one more stop at El Camino. I ordered breakfast and sat at the counter with coffee and the paper. The friendly waitress seemed to be three places at once at all times, my coffee cup never getting below half full, and much sooner than expected, i was looking at a full plate of food - The Eggs Mexicano were magnificent, and set me up for the road ahead. I lingered long on the plush counter-stool, sipping coffee and soaking up the quiet steady flow of locals that came and went. When the time came to leave El Camino and Socorro behind us on the desert highway, it was with a silent mental note- get back here sometime.