Recently, I ran our review of American Truck Simulator: New Mexico, the first paid DLC for my all-time favourite driving game, and which adds the Union's 47th state into the game, alongside the existing California, Arizona and Nevada. Though I consider it absolutely essential, in that it really makes ATS feel like a signficant part of a country, as opposed to simply that nation's greatest hits, I found it left me feeling a little bleaker than the other states. I admired the scenery but found the settlements oppressively characterless: this was not a place I wanted to be, as much as I might have enjoyed driving through it at speed.
But I was left with a creeping sense that I hadn't really seen the best of the place, and some of the comments on the review bore that out. Specific places were named, highlights in the mingled desert, forest and mountain landscape, and, perhaps, until I'd seen them, I could not claim to have had an accurate impression of 'the land of enchantment.' So here's what I did. Each day this week, I visited one famous or otherwise revered location in New Mexico, documented it and then reconsidered how I felt about the state as a whole afterwards.
Day one: White Sands National Monument
"White Sands National Park is still one of my favourite places in the world," wrote Ushao under my review. Sure, there was much I appreciated about my simulated voyage through New Mexico, but favourite place in the world? Nuh-uh. I must have missed something big. So, the first point on my touristic odyssey was to White Sands National Monument, an expanse of rare white dunes in the Chihuahuan Desert. There is a lot of beige in ATS' New Mexico, so alabaster sands would be a dramatic change of pace.
I should note that I began this crusade at a slight disadvantage, and one which would make the trek to White Sands feel longer and more in need of a pay-off than is perhaps entirely fair. I was playing away from home, on my laptop rather than desktop, which housed a much older save in which I had not yet visited New Mexico - or even Arizona. As such, I was faced with a dilemma - start a brand new game already in New Mexico or, in order to have some starting cash and a truck of my own which I could free drive (as opposed to having to take on odd jobs first), or use the old save and drive all the way from California to NM.
I chose the latter, partly because it enabled me to free drive rather than try to moonlight during haulage jobs, and partly because it was an excuse to embark upon what was, in game, a 14-hour journey (in ATS terms, it's about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on stops). This lent the eventual arrival a sense of event that very little could possibly have lived up to. But more on that shortly.
Getting there was not straightforward even once I was in New Mexico, having driven through the night to cross California and Arizona. White Sands is not on the in-game map - because almost nothing other than major roads and cities is on the ATS map. As such, I had to cross-reference its location with Google Maps, finding my way first to Socorro in the North-West, then a few hours South to Alamogordo, then a crawl down down Route 70, anxiously checking out the windows for a flash of ivory.
I had a couple of severe accidents too - fatigue took me once, I tried to talk and drive another time, and on both occasions the engine kept stalling afterwards, necessitating heading to the nearest town for repairs. All told, the journey took me the best part of two hours.
I found White Sands.
I also found an invisible wall that surrounded all of White Sands.
It was there. It was real. It was... white. But it was kept at a distance from me, just a hint of another New Mexico, another world, another game in which I could get out of my truck and walk over to it. Instead, I just squinted at it from behind steel. If I drove any further forwards than this, my rig would simply stop moving.
Satisfaction at the completion of my task and frustration about how short-changed the pay-off was continue to war in me. Will all my days be thus? And - why would so much clear time and effort be put into modelling something that could barely be seen? This game, the very nature of this game, can be so vexing.
Still. Sand, and white. Day one, done.
Day 2: Los Alamos
This visit to the birthplace of the atom bomb went... differently than expected. So much so that I spun it out into its own post here.
Day 3: Tucamari
One complaint I've had with New Mexico - and, honestly, I don't know if the game or the actual place is most at fault - is how sterile and characterless its cities and towns feel. So, when I read this comment from Arglebargle, my heart leapt:
"Have you gone to Tucumcari yet? When I drove through there 20 years ago, it was like a bit of 1950s/Route 66 remembrances, trapped in amber. And the Neon!"
A town with a personality? Yes please! Tucumari is right on the Eastern edge of ATS' map, the end of the line (Clovis, down South East, protrudes a little further out, but you can't drive directly between them). I must confess I'd not yet been all the way out there, and the idea that there was this oasis of retro culture in the New Mexico's endless-feeling desert was scintillating.
The journey, this time, was uneventful, and all told was a very different prospect from before - I was not long out of Roswell when I began to see signs for Tucumari. That meant it would be a navigable place, not a distant lump seen from the side of the road.
I was further heartened as more and more green crept into my vision. I was, it transpired, on the road to Amarillo, although who knows when this game will incorporate Texas. There were more trees, more farms and then, suddenly, the outer suburbs of Tucumari.
But not a lot of neon. I was hoping for this:
...but what I found was this:
A few scattered roadside relics of a more Norman Rockwell time, but really only fast food joints, souvenir shops and ghosts.
A quick cross-reference with Google maps suggests it's Tucumari that's changed, rather than ATS interpreting it incorrectly. But I found a few highlights, a few diners and motels to warm the heart.
And I found a true landmark, real and recreated:
God bless ya, Tucumari. Trapped in amber? No, but a hint of what was and what might have been.
Day 4: Lake Peak
"I lived in Sante Fe for six months," wrote Blackcompany. " Hiked up Baldy and Lake Peak, and Wheeler in Taos. It’s a remarkable place. I think to this day that I left a piece of my soul there. Land of Enchantment indeed…"
I want to leave a piece of my soul in the Land of Enchantment, so I picked one of those three mentioned mountains at random and sought it out. Lake Peak was my pick, which meant back to Santa Fe. I feared that the mountain would lie in the same (mostly) inaccessible deadzone where Los Alamos should have been, but mercifully it lay to the East rather than West of Santa Fe. Again, though, there was no road to it in the game, despite the claims of Google Maps.
But, though Meer could not go to the mountain, to some extent the mountain did come to Meer. As in, I looked out of my window and there it was.
Well, it was somewhere in there. I don't know exactly what I'm looking for, but I'm just happy to see peaks and some very different topography to what has been my New Mexico norm. I wish I could drive closer, but the roads are blocked. I have searched for a gap in the invisible wall, but no luck yet.
I suspect only disappointment would await me if I did find a way, as the mountain graphics look suspiciously like a bitmap pasted over the horizon, rather than a 3D model. But I have seen a sight, and New Mexico seems more varied than it did, so mission accomplished this time.
Day 5: Sunspot Scenic Byway
"I lived in New Mexico for seven and a half years," wrote Wildman85 in my absolute favourite comment so far, "four in Clovis and the remainder in Alamogordo. There is an anxious bleakness to much of the state, a sense of the average living standard being impoverished but not quite 3rd-world and yet no way out, and an aching emptiness. It feels old-fashioned corrupt, morally-bankrupt in places like Clovis. “Hopeless,” is a word I often used there. Good people exist in New Mexico, but the sense of despair is overwhelming. You see this on the main roads, in the greater part of the towns and cities.
What you don’t see from those roads and in those cities and towns is the vast beauty the state can have. White Sands under a full moon as seen from the western cliffs of the Sacramento Mountains, the vastness of the Universe laid out above you on a dark, cloudless night near the VLA, the challenging curves of certain mountain roads in the Sacramentos and in the northern part of the state, the wild beauty of the Gila National Forest, the way the entire Tularosa Basin looks under an inch or three of snow (an exceedingly rare event), the petroglyphs left on sun-baked rocks by an ancient people, the hidden streams and springs best found on foot or dual-sport. This is the real New Mexico, an ancient land never truly conquered and one best experienced in solitude.
Clovis nearly took my life. Sunspot Highway saved it."
You betcha ass I'm visiting Sunspot Highway, or Sunspot Scenic Byway, to give it is proper title. First, let's have a little tourist board explainer:
I should say that I absolutely did not expect to be able to reach its observatories or even, really, to make it down much or any of the byway's twists and turns, but I hoped I'd find a way to at least glimpse the gateway to its fine sights. This required my first pilgrimage to the town of Alamogordo in the South-East of the state, not far from the soul-sucking nothingness of Las Cruces. Alamogordo itself had nothing much to offer either, but from there I could reach Route 82 and then, perhaps a southerly road leading towards Sunspot.
Bad news: Sunspot, or the connecting roads to it, are off-limits, and in who knows what state of existence.
Good news: I did it again. While searching listlessly along Route 82, searching for a forbidden side-road, I found a clipping oversight between two telegraph poles and kept on driving, right off into the wilds - right into where, more or less, Sunspot should begin. I figured there'd be nothing there, and sooner or later I'd hit the invisible wall again, and that would be that. Sure enough, making progress through the wilderness was agonising, searching blind for gaps in the hidden barriers, but, with a lot of patience and a lot of damage to my truck. I kept on going, after a fashion.
And then I found this:
A forbidden, impassable road, blocked off by yellow crosses, which in any other situation I could never be on the other side of. But I was. I had crossed the uncrossable. Was this Sunspot Byway? I'm not sure, but I'm confident that it's a road in more or less the same place and direction.
I cannot drive along that road: the road itself is one giant wall. But, for a time, I could drive alongside it, and find my way to views unimpeded by highways or fences or vehicles or towns or anything else that ATS usually puts in your way.
I found the single most breathtaking view I have ever seen in this game - and a view no-one was ever meant to see.
Is it the Sunspot Scenic Byway? Truthfully, I don't know. But it is my Sunspot Scenic Byway, and it is a wonderful reward.
Reader, I am still driving.
Day 6: Brokeoff Mountains
I kept thinking it would end, but it didn't. I can't drive on 'Sunspot' itself, but, so long as I'm careful, I can follow alongside it. American Truck Simulator's built-in map long ago stopped being able to track where I was, and now perpetually shows me as just a few feet to the side of Route 82, but, if this were the real New Mexico, cross-referencing with Google Maps has me thinking I'm probably in the 'rugged and secluded' Brokeoff Mountains, right on the border with Texas.
This is, in a very real way, a road to nowhere - but it is also the New Mexico I originally hoped to see, the New Mexico I overlooked in my review, and the New Mexico I have been questing for in this diary, in response to those comments that claimed I had not seen the best side of it.
If this is even halfway real, they were right. This is bliss. This is Firewatch in a truck cab: seclusion, beauty, freedom, isolation, America.
Day 7: The Afterlife
Sooner or later, you run out of road. Beyond Brokeoff lies Texas, but there is no Texas in American Truck Simulator, not yet. There is only the end of everything.
I drove alongside that road for miles and miles, in a truck that barely functioned any more. But it lasted until the end, until the place where the world stopped, and the void began.
I am still there, falling forever. And I have achieved my goal, my one true American Truck Simulator goal: absolute freedom, and the drive that never ends. See you on the road, friend.