We depart Albuquerque and continue our westward journey along old Route 66, which, in this part of New Mexico, roughly follows Interstate 40.
Approaching Grants, the highway cuts through lava flows of El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”). The rocks are only about 3000 years old, making these among the youngest lava flows in the conterminous US. My wife Pam and I have travelled this road dozens of times. Pam always drives because the lava and the rugged beauty of the landscape distract me!
I love this stretch of road.
We could visit El Malpais National Monument, located about 40km south of Grants. It takes determination to see much of the park, and the best way is by four-wheel-drive or hiking. The 1960 Vette you and I are in for this nostalgic trip would not be well suited for that but even from the road there are good views of the geology.
In lieu of detouring to El Malpais, let’s stop at the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, near old Route 66. The museum pays special tribute to uranium mining because the Grants district was a significant producer of uranium after its discovery in 1950 by local rancher Paddy Martinez.
The Grants district yielded more uranium than any other mining district in the US, creating a booming economy and about 6000 jobs. But there was an overproduction of uranium from the 1970s through to the early 1980s, which, when combined with the dismantling of nuclear weapons by the US and Russia, led to large stockpiles.
Furthermore, the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 created a perception in the US that nuclear power was dangerous, so the nation shifted to coal-fired electrical plants. Those events, combined with the 1982-83 recession, forced the closing of the mines and mills, and the loss of associated jobs. Recently, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan, caused by the 2011 earthquake-induced tsunami, reignited the nuclear power debate.
Nevertheless, the long term demand for uranium remains largely constant, and future uranium mining in the Grants district remains a possibility. (Taken together, New Mexico and Wyoming constituted about two-thirds of the estimated uranium reserves in the country.)
Less than half of the uranium resources have been mined from the Grants district, and when major companies abandoned properties they left well defined resources that include millions of dollars worth of value added in the form of exploration and development expenditures.
Travelling westward towards Bluewater we catch a glimpse of distant tailing piles and settling ponds that serve as a reminder of the environmental contamination from past uranium mining. State, local and federal agencies in the US are addressing those health risks and environmental effects.
Concurrently some US companies are obtaining permits to once again mine uranium. While there was no regulatory framework in place to control pre-1990 uranium mining, if mining ever returns to Grants it will be controlled by much more robust environmental regulations.
The highway begins its slow ascent towards Continental Divide, the highest point on old Route 66 (2214m). Cliffs formed in the Entrada Sandstone begin to parallel the road on the north. They create a spectacular view from here all the way past the border town of Gallup, New Mexico.
Have I said how much I love this stretch of road?