How to Travel New Mexico Like David Bowie


Pump up your visit to New Mexico with some serious British glam rock vibes.

Following in David Bowie’s footsteps might rank high on a list of weird things to do in New Mexico. But given the excitement around the upcoming “75 years of David Bowie” celebrations (marking the year he would have turned 75), and the January anniversaries of his birthday and the six years since he died, it seems fitting to revisit the scene of his first film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth. (It’s worth a trip, even if you’re not the biggest Bowie fan ever.)

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December 16, 2021

Released in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the fever–dream story of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who has come to Earth because his planet is experiencing a deadly drought. But his plans to export our planet’s water supply are derailed by a newfound appreciation for sex, alcohol, television and a chambermaid named Mary–Lou. With filming locations scattered across New Mexico, the state has a starring role in the movie, which makes for a diverse Bowie–themed road trip. Here’s how to infuse your visit with the spirit of one of the world’s most iconic glam–rock musicians.

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White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park.   Photo: Raychel Sanner

White Sands National Park

Situated between the cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, this awe–inspiring expanse of powder–fine white sand, one of the world’s natural wonders, was transformed into Newton’s drought–stricken home planet. In real life, the 228–square–mile expanse is every bit as otherworldly as the film suggests. It’s the world’s largest gypsum (mineral) field, and with five different hiking trails (that range from 650m to 8km long) and endless dunes for sand surfing (saucer toboggans – perfect for taking a ride down the dunes – are sold in the park store), it’s also the ultimate surreal playground. It’s quite the experience to camp here – with very little light pollution (there are no major cities nearby), the stars are spectacular. Also, if you see any strange metal objects, don’t touch them, they aren’t a souvenir from Newton’s home planet but unexploded ordnances, as the park is next door to a missile testing site!

Fenton Lake
Fenton Lake State Park.   Photo: Joshua Mellin

Fenton Lake State Park

Newton first splashed down in Fenton Lake. But while it was his quest for water that brought him to Earth, it was the beauty of the New Mexico state park that inspired him to build a lakeside home. The filming structures are long gone, but the ponderosa pine–surrounded lake, located 7,900 feet above sea level in the Jemez Mountains, northwest of Santa Fe, remains exactly as he left it. Brush up on your kayaking skills on the lake, go fly fishing from fall through spring (the water is stocked with trout) or spot wildlife like songbirds, deer, turkey, muskrat and elk. Not many tourists make it out this far, but the lake’s alpine beauty and sense of peace make it well worth the trek.

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The movie’s expansive desertscapes were filmed just outside of Belen (Spanish for Bethlehem), a small town about a half–hour drive outside of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande. The area has attracted more than a few creatives, including the founders of the Bugg Lights Museum (an avant–garde museum for children that features everything from Christmas trees made of stuffed animals to an alien display) and artist Judy Chicago, who makes elaborate, colourful smoke performances (similar to a fireworks show) to highlight the area’s natural beauty. For your David Bowie The Man Who Fell to Earth experience, stroll through the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area. This fragile wetland ecosystem, known as bosque (the Spanish word for forest), is a wooded oasis unique to the Southwest (Newton spent much of his time wandering in the wild). You can also fall safely to Earth, like the film’s star did, with help from Skydive New Mexico.

Albuquerque Civic Plaza
Albuquerque Civic Plaza.   Photo: Joshua Mellin

Albuquerque Civic Plaza

There is heaps to do in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city. Not only is it the hot air balloon capital of the world, but it’s also home to the annual Gathering of Nations, North America’s biggest powwow, and the Sandia Peak Tramway, which takes you on a dramatic ride up 10,378 feet to the top of the Sandia Mountains where you can soak in an 11,000–square–mile view of the valley and city below. From there, you can head out on nearby hiking trails, where there are options for the novice and advanced athlete (difficulty can be measured by the increase of the trail’s elevation, which ranges from 193 to 5,977 feet). If you’re a fan of brutalist architecture, don’t miss the Civic Plaza, where a pivotal scene (when Newton meets a nefarious fixer) in The Man Who Fell to Earth takes place. While a 1990s–renovation eliminated the cubist storey–high fountain, the vibe remains in the splash pool and nearby buildings, including the WaFd Bank Building and Hyatt Regency. Consider stopping by for one of the plaza’s regularly scheduled concerts or watch parties.

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adobe buildings and blue sky
Santa Fe.   Photo: Gabriel Tovar

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is where Mexican, Native American, Spanish and Wild West cultures converge and is considered to be the mystical centre of New Mexico. Its stunning setting on a plateau at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with tactile ochre–coloured adobe buildings radiating out from Santa Fe Plaza (built in the early 1600s), has drawn generations of soul searchers and created a vibrant art scene, including the mind–bending Meow Wolf art collective. Started as an informal DIY collective of local artists, Meow Wolf’s immersive House of Eternal Return is a dreamscape set in what first seems like a rambling Victorian mansion (but is actually a 70–room converted bowling alley). Open the fridge door and you will find yourself entering a portal to a bizarre underworld, panels under the stairs lead to secret tunnels and so the startling, beautiful, madcap journey continues – through 20,000 feet of stratospheric creativity. It feels like you have fallen through the Earth into another atmosphere, a place where Newton, and indeed Bowie, would be right at home.