no such thing as bad publicity

Los Pollos Hermanos

File under sad, but true: a fast-food burrito chain where a fictional drug trafficker runs his organization has become one of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s more improbable tourist attractions. As “Breaking Bad” finishes filming its final season in the city, the popular show has brought about a major boost to the local economy – yet it’s also creating a dilemma for tourism officials having to consider the ultimate cost of exploiting their city’s ties to a show that centers around drug trafficking, addiction and violence. (The show follows the fictional character of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth lord.) While other popular television shows such as “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld” have spawned a veritable cottage industry of location-based tours, “Breaking Bad” has provoked a pattern of drug-themed products springing up around town. The Candy Lady store recently capitalized on the show’s popularity by selling blue “Breaking Bad” meth treats – sugar rock candy that looks like the meth sold on the show. And the Great Face & Body shop developed a new line of blue bath salts called Bathing Bad. (For the record they are not the street drug known as bath salts.) Meanwhile, Masks y Mas Mexican folk art store near the University of New Mexico sells papier-mache statues of La Santa Muerte — Mexico’s Death Saint who counts drug traffickers among her devotees. (During the chilling opening of the show’s third season, a pair of cartel assassins is shown crawling to the saint’s shrine in Mexico to request some divine help.) Tourists are also flocking to sites that before the show were unknown and unimportant: the suburban home of White, played by Bryan Cranston; a car wash that’s a front for a money-laundering operation on the series; a rundown motel used frequently for filming; and the real-life burrito joint, Los Pollos Hermanos, which is a fast food chicken restaurant on the show. “It’s raised the visibility of the city,” said Tania Armenta, a vice president for the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, which created a website of the show’s most popular places around town to help tourists navigate. But whether it’s a perception tourists might come to equate with, say Ciudad Juarez, remains to be seen. Until then there’s apparently no such thing as bad publicity.

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in the eye of the beholder

Four hours ago I was in the middle of nowhere contemplating art, infinity, and my place in the universe; now I’m killing time in a suburban mall before flying home, fascinated by something called Hot Dog on a Stick. I guess art really is subjective.

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all’s quiet in quemado

Three hours due west – then south – of Albuquerque is the town of Quemado, home to the Dia Art Foundation‘s field office for The Lightning Field. It’s where you deposit your car and wait to be ferried another hour further into the desert by the caretaker. There is not much to the town; in quick succession there’s a magistrate’s building, el Serape diner, a gas station, the Largo Motel and an ATM. (This is why you make a point of stopping at the liquor store in Grants.) If you make it to the end of the road – and one assumes, the town limits as well – you’ll learn that Quemado is the Spanish word for burned. You’d be forgiven for doing a double-take and reading the word as burnt, however, because Quemado appears more than just dry – it looks scorched.

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el malpais

Ninety minutes due west of Albuquerque you’ll come upon Grants, New Mexico, a depressing one-horse hamlet if ever there was one. It’s sole redeeming feature is the only liquor store within many miles. (I bought both the red AND the white; I suggest you do, too, should you ever find yourself in or around Grants.) The town is also the turn off for Quemado, my next destination, which is another hour and a half away. The views on this part of the road trip have so far been little more than rock-strewn landscapes and truck stop casinos. Yet on the road south of Grants the underwhelming turns unexpectedly scenic – and amazingly untrafficked – as you enter El Malpais National Monument. The name means badlands in Spanish, which is an apt description given the extremely desolate and dramatic volcanic fields that cover much of the park’s area. Yet El Malpais is also home to some of the oldest Douglas Fir trees on the planet, so you’ll find the topography, at times, abruptly shifting from fallow to verdant and back again. An easily accessible point of interest is the La Ventana Arch, a naturally occurring sandstone arch. And if you have the urge to lay down in the road and have your photo taken, well, this is an ideal place to do that, too.

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journey into the west

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