Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding magic on America’s blue highways

Jeff Hengesbaugh, Steve Chambers in New Mexico
Columnist Joe Puglia’s friend Jeff Hengesbaugh, left, shows Steve Chambers a cannon used at the Alamo.
(Joe Puglia)

I decided to leave for Chicago two weeks before I was to arrive at our daughter Sabine’s apartment in Urbana, Ill. She was heading to pharmacy school in Chicago, and I had volunteered to bring her essentials that would outfit an apartment near the university.

“You’re driving all the way to Chicago?” a friend asked me, as though I had lost my mind.

“I need a road trip,” I explained.

It’d been almost six weeks since I scoured the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas attempting to uncover its Zen so I could write authentic scenes for a novel I’m working on. Besides, the lure of a road trip is intoxicating. Tripping on a lonesome road to secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware is an aphrodisiac.


It’s all John Steinbeck’s fault that I like to take these trips. Once I read “Travels with Charley,” I knew a force more powerful than I would rule me.

Call me crazy, but there are defined rules for adventuring on a road trip. I’d leave La Cañada before sunrise. Dawn is the bewitching hour, the most elusive time of day. One can almost catch the vampires returning to their lairs.

You can also call me finicky, but I believe a purist only travels on blue highways. Blue highways are designated on road maps as thin blue lines representing the rural roads of America. That’s where the magic can be found.

A traveler doesn’t experience the wonders of the road because of some prescribed utility; instead, it is the pursuit of gratification, which explorer Meriwether Lewis described as “scenes of visionary enchantment.” I’m not speaking of the beauty that strikes the senses. I seek a more intimate beauty, which comes from understanding the harmonious order of nature’s arts. You can experience the divine on a road trip.


I stopped in Glorieta, New Mexico, a tiny hamlet located in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There, my buddy Jeff Hengesbaugh lives in quaint ranch house along the Santa Fe Trail that he calls the Calabaza. Jeff is a research historian whose expertise in the American fur trade and Spanish, Mexican and New Mexican artifacts has propelled his acclaim as a national lecturer.

Jeff was a historical reenactor, reliving the momentous treks of the Rocky Mountain fur trapper of the early 1800s. His home, the Calabaza, is a treasure trove of artifacts. Each item has a story, from a cannon used at the Alamo to a circa 1830s rifle that belonged to frontiersman James Beckwourth.

Jeff and his associate Taylor Tomlin, along with two artisans, were preparing for the Great Southwestern Antique Show in Albuquerque. I spent three days helping them, mostly as camp cook.

From sunrise to sunset, these men attended to the smallest detail in carefully restoring the artifacts. There was always one more action necessary to perfect a 1700s frontier rifle or a chest from the 1600s. The creative process is limitless.

Tomlin, a former college professor, offered a philosophical perspective on the nature of the work. “It’s magic, doing things that are spiritual and intriguing,” he said. “It’s progress, not mastery.”

On a road trip, everybody gets a miracle. I had mine at the Calabaza. But it was time to leave. I had to see a publisher in Tulsa.

Joe Puglia is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.