How I Learned to Love Albuquerque

At first, I wasn’t crazy about Albuquerque. Miles and miles of strip malls, empty lots, parks with highway roar. Although the city’s Old Town is atmospheric, most of the stores sell junk, and the Old Town’s “best” café served me a greasy chili rellano with a side of canned spinach. Wasn’t canned spinach banned in 1959?

Albuquerque, New Mexico – News, Photos and Pictures » Albuquerque Journal

San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town. Photo: ABQ Journal

Fortunately, on the last day of my visit, Brad changed my mind about Albuquerque. Brad was my Routes Bicycle Tours tour guide. Even before the official start of our tour, I felt better about Albuquerque because Brad was wearing a New Mexico flag mask. I love New Mexico’s flag! The symbol on it belongs to New Mexico’s Zia tribe. Its four parts represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons of the year, the four periods of the day, and the four seasons of life.  These four elements are tied together with a circle of life. I naturally expected the philosophical context of the mask represented Brad’s approach.

Brad in his flag mask on a bridge over the Rio Grande. He and his wife moved to Albuquerque from Seattle 10 years ago and have a baby named Wyatt.

We set out peddling toward the city’s open space just north of downtown. It was sunny but not quite warm. I was feeling grateful that Albuquerque is flat since what muscles I have left have been doing more hiking and riding than biking. And hurray my thighs survived the only hill in town — to the top of a bridge over the murky Rio Grande River. The Sandia Mountains on the east, and the austere hills of the Petroglyph National Monument on the west. Cottonwood forests line the river on both sides. I caught my breath and Brad shared a little of Albuquerque’s history. The region was settled by native tribes when the Spanish arrived in the region in 1540. It’s not clear how things transpired between the two groups in the early years, although some of the ancient pueblos remain in the area (and we know how other things ended). The city was founded in 1706 and named after the Duke of Albuquerque, a Spanish viceroy. Ahhhh, I thought, that’s why I see “Duke City” on signs all over town.

Acoma Pueblo near Albuquerque is the oldest, continuously-inhabited community in the US.

Albuquerque owes a lot of its early development to the Santa Fe Railroad. The tracks were originally supposed to go through Santa Fe, but the railroad didn’t want the expense of beating a path through the Sangre de Cristo mountains. So, at the last minute, the railroad changed its plan and rerouted the tracks through Albuquerque. I got the feeling Albuquerque residents have a lot of train-pride, and might be happier if the railroad company had changed its name when it changed its New Mexico whistle stop.

That round thing at 11 o’clock is a porcupine!

From the bridge, we returned to the park and headed south to downtown. New Mexico has had some pretty strong public safety rules during the pandemic, so downtown was all but shut down, and easy to navigate. The center of the city is loaded with murals, some by local artists and some by members of the international community of mural painters. The city commissioned many of the murals, but some appeared organically last summer during the BLM protests.

Downtown mural celebrating American civil rights.

This stunning sculpture at a Tingley Beach Aquatic Park is called “Fish Globe,” and is constructed of thousands of interlocking fish-shaped pieces of steel. By Colette Hosmer.

Albuquerque is especially fun for fans of “Breaking Bad,” (me) It’s easy to find many of the places where the show was filmed and the setting is so integral to the show’s story and identity. (Here’s a really good article about this:  https://www.salon.com/2013/08/11/how_the_desert_made_walter_white/ ) We went by Jesse’s house, a drive-in where one of the big deals took place, and an office building that was the site of an interrogation. We didn’t see the tortoise carrying the head of a cartel member.

Jesse blackmailed his parents into selling him this house at a deep discount because of a gruesome murder that occurred there. Jesse was the murderer.

At some point in our conversations, Brad talked about other attractions in Albuquerque that are closed because of the pandemic, like the ancient pueblos and a dozen excellent museums, and the tent rocks at Kasha-Katuwe National Monument (I really wanted to go there). He told me about the city’s urban farms and the country’s oldest winery just north of town, and the annual pow wow.  Hearing about these places made me realize I should return post-pandemic.

Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico.jpg

The tent rocks at Kasha-Katuwe National Monument that I didn’t see. Photo: Wikipedia

Anyway, Brad lived up to the philosophical context of his mask. He loves Albuquerque and now I do too. I guess the lesson is that I shouldn’t judge a city after a couple of walks and a trip to Trader Joe’s. I guess I should know that lesson by now….Never stop learning.

24 comments

  1. Kim, too bad I didn’t dial in to your ABQ stop sooner. I discovered ABQ 2 years ago when I had free days while April was at a conference. The indigenous tribes culural center/museum/ art gallery and adjacent native restaurant just north of downtown is rewarding, amazing, and tasty! May not be open right now. Because I had an ankle sprain I took a trolley tour and saw downtown murals, an older planned neighborhood that reminded me of old Beverley Hills with curving streets & lots of trees. In 2019 there were great restaurants, lots of craft breweries, and cool neighborhoods to explore (by car). We learned that NM is amazing place for diversity and acceptance, having “married” cultures from Hispanics, CathoIicism, indigenous peoples, Democrats, plus influence of university and health centers, and state’s only class-bridbing sports teams in contemporary ABQ. I shd find & post some of my pictures when on another device.

    1. Thanks for the extra information — I know I missed a lot because of the pandemic and am hoping to return when things open up again. The Breaking Bad Jesse house, by the way, is in that Beverly Hills style neighborhood. Brad said the reason those houses look more like Los Angeles than New Mexico is that most were built by or for people who moved from LA to make films!

  2. It’s been 15 years since my last visit to Albuquerque. I hope to get there next year for an author event, because not only did I like the sites I visited last time but one of the journalists who used to work for me lives there and wants to show me even more. 🙂 I’m glad you had an enjoyable visit.

  3. I hope that “best restaurant in town” wasn’t The Shed. We have had the most delicious blue corn tortillas there and both meals were wonderful, and that’s not just the margarita talking. It took our second trip to Albuquerque to really appreciate the place and its history, so I know what you mean about first impressions.

    1. I ate at the Shed in Santa Fe! Didn’t know there was one in ABQ or else I would have gone there. Hoping to return to ABQ for the museums and the tent rocks someday….

      1. Yup, it’s in Santa Fe. I am losing my mind. Now I am dreaming of those blue corn tortillas. I’ve never actually had a meal in ABQ, although we have been there twice.

  4. You regularly regale us readers with pictures and stories of great art somewhat hidden in plain sight. I love that this chapter highlights some great people somewhat hidden in plain sight- the wrangler/tale-teller from Ghost Ranch and your wonderful bike tour guide in ABQ. Two real gems. Thanks!

  5. Querida Kim — During the years I lived in northern NM I visited Albuquerque a number of times and was never impressed, to be honest. You’ve shown me in this post sides of Albuquerque I never knew existed. Thank you!

  6. That tent place looks cool! I want to go there. I went to the candy store and a coffee shop where Breaking Bad was filmed five years ago. I’ve missed the last few of your blog while being overwhelmed with moving and VANgo. You are such a good writer. Hopefully we will cross paths

    1. Kasha-Katue (the tent rocks) should be opening soon, but check the website often because it’s going to be by reservation only and you’ll need to get a permit online. Safe travels Amiga!

  7. Thank you for the lovely write up of the Duke city! I’m glad you could enjoy it even during the pandemic. I want to mention that even though Abq isn’t as hilly as a San Francisco it’s not exactly flat either, and I’m afraid you didn’t bike to the only hill in town 😉. For instance if someone wanted to cycle from downtown to the foothills of the Sandia mountains for a hike they would be in for a 1000 climb along the ~11 mile bike ride, then the hike itself. Not a major challenge for seasoned riders but enough that I’d recommend most people take public transport so their legs are fresh for the hike, btw the city buses do have space for bicycles if someone wanted to ride from the mountains back to downtown, which is an easy and potentially scenic downhill ride.
    Abq also has a very active public art department, funded by the city govt, and there are public sculptures and murals all over the city. Many of the public art pieces are gathered in or around the zoo and botanical gardens which are near where you were biking (and as most things are better when there’s not a pandemic on).
    Maps are available from the city and local businesses that show where biking trails are and where public sculptures can be found. Hope you make it back sometime again.

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