Forget John Wayne - this is as the Wild West gets

Adrienne Gillam visits the real Wild West - the Salt Missions at the foot of the Manzano Mountains in New Mexico
Ray's old Chevy pick-up truck bounced down New Mexico's State Road 55. We were only an hour outside Albuquerque, driving across flat, open plains. Miles and miles of sun-dried prairie were broken by nothing but cholle cacti and the occasional pinyon pine. A panoramic blue sky overwhelmed everything, dwarfing even the distant Manzano Mountains. We were on the threshold of the Estancia Basin, and my brother-in-law, Ray, had decided it was time my husband and I saw America's real Wild West - the Salt Missions.

Tucked within the flaxen-coloured landscape are volcanic salt lakes where, as early as AD1300, the Tiwa people established pueblos, trading salt with tribes on the Plains. In 1628, the Spanish arrived and established missions at the main pueblos of Abo, Gran Quivira and Quarai. These became known as the Salt Missions - or Salinas Pueblo - and today, their ruins are open to the public.

Near the base of Manzanos is the tiny, almost deserted village of Punta de Aqua, home to the Salt Mission of Quarai, and Ray's birthplace. At first glance, all I noticed was a small whitewashed chapel and a single rusting petrol pump. Hidden by the pinyon pines at the end of a gravel track stood the magnificent red sandstone ruins of the Quarai Mission.

The signs warned visitors to keep to the paths to avoid roaming rattlesnakes but there were no other tourists here. More signs informed us that the overgrown mounds near the entrance were the remains of the original Tiwa pueblo. You could just see the edge of the red adobe bricks beyond green and yellow gourds from the nearby vegetable patches.

Ahead was the church of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Cuarac, built in 1630 as the centrepiece of the Franciscan mission. Although only a shell now, it still looks like a European cathedral. It has thick, steep walls and a rectangular nave intersected by a wide transept to form the shape of the cross. Every detail was designed to inspire awe; windows were strategically positioned to ensure that the altar was constantly bathed in sunlight, and grand stone slabs covered the floor, magnificent in comparison to the tiny old pueblo homes and their pounded-earth floors.

Beyond the great church, we followed the foundations of the convento through the walled courtyard, waiting-room, kitchen, refectory and around two sunken kivas. These were the Tiwa ceremonial rooms and the mission cleverly incorporated them into its buildings.

Set on a gentle slope against a backdrop of juniper trees, a stream flowed through a band of cottonwoods and the air was scented by sagebrush. The mission grounds seemed a real Garden of Eden: it was hard to imagine the drought that forced the Tiwa and the Franciscan missionaries to flee in 1677.

Only a century later did people begin to trickle back to the Manzano region. Ray's great-grandfather was among those to establish farms and install irrigation systems in the area and his parents grew up in the village adjacent to the ruins. School lessons were given in Spanish, and the big event of the week was to ride on horseback to the Saturday- night dances in Mountainair, about eight miles away.

Mountainair - once the pinto-bean capital of the world - may not be a mission town but it is at the heart of today's Wild West revival. Its 1920's Shaffer Hotel includes colourful Native American features and the only elevator in the whole of Torrence county. And not many towns can boast Gustin's Hardware Store, with its stuffed-antelope window display or a wood-fronted Rose Bud Saloon on its main street.

We had one more stop on our loop of the Salt Missions and clattered off down an empty highway as freight trains trundled past like old-fashioned covered wagons. Herds of antelope grazed in the prairie grass, while a lone coyote sniffed at the road's edge. In this colossal space, we nearly mistook Laguna de Perro, the biggest of the Salt Lakes, for a mirage.

Like sand dunes, the plains opened up to reveal basins of turquoise blue salt water. In Laguna de Perro, not one but several lay in what looked like white chalk. Except for the information sign, little has changed on the landscape since the Tiwa discovered these lakes. I was well and truly taken by this wilderness.

We returned to Albuquerque via the small farming town of Moriarty. The land here is sold in no less than two-acre plots and statues of saints decorate lawns like garden gnomes. But after the Estancia Basin, it seemed almost crowded.

THE SALT MISSIONS

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights from the UK to New Mexico. The usual approach is to fly to Dallas on British Airways (tel: 0345 222 111) from Gatwick or on American Airlines (tel: 0345 789 789) from Gatwick or Manchester and then fly to Albuquerque. There are other possibilities on airlines such as Continental via Houston or TWA via St Louis. Through discount agents, such as Bon Voyage (tel: 01703 330 332) and Bridge the World (tel: 0171-911 0900), expect to pay around pounds 350 at present, moving up to pounds 600 or more in July or August.

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