Having recently achieved a trip to my fiftieth state (forty-ninth admitted to the union), I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that one state surpasses all the others at having developed and maintained a consistent brand. I’ll confess that it’s been many, many years since I visited Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, South Carolina, or Minnesota—never have I visited any of these states at a point in time where I yet contemplated the sort of things I feature in this blog. So maybe enough has transpired in one of those six states to change my judgment on this, but I doubt it.
At this juncture, with all fifty states covered and forty-four of them covered recently enough, I can say without hesitation that the best branded state in the country is New Mexico.
It was in casual conversation that someone else stated what I think had been lurking in my unconscious for so long: that New Mexico has made an express purpose of looking different from other places. And how would a State manage to do this? Quite simply (and there’s a reason I capitalized the “S” in “State” in the previous sentence), by imbuing unique aesthetic sensibilities into State property: specifically the infrastructure and civic works that typically occur at a state level and under which a State funds and regulates. I can think of no better example than a bicycle/pedestrian trail on the outskirts of Albuquerque that consolidates the smartest of these aesthetic strategies.
The I-40 Trail isn’t even in itself a trail whose trajectory depends upon topography or some other natural feature; as indicated by its name, it runs alongside a busy, noisy interstate highway. It actually traverses the biggest natural feature in the area: the Rio Grande that bisects the city. Not exactly the most scenic spot for riverfront viewing, but those broad rights-of-way afforded by interstates do make a convenient path upon which to build dedicated trails; after all, in many cases, the additional land at the shoulder already belongs to the state. As long as the design affords enough separation, both at a y-axis (distance) and at least to some degree at the z-axis (grade), a bike/ped trail parallel to the interstate can be a great way to convey non-motorized vehicles quickly and with little disruption. Such trails are becoming increasingly common in urban settings. That’s precisely what the I-40 Trail offers at the Gail Ryba Memorial Bridge: the bike/ped trail occupies the land north of Interstate 40 (the primary east-west interstate in New Mexico) still part of the expansive ROW afforded to limited access highways, but just south of the private land. It’s wedged between the lanes of the highway and private residences, and the bridge crosses over the Rio Grande, which bisects Albuquerque.
The foot of the bridge consists of a juncture between different bike/ped trails: the Paseo del Bosque (which I have featured before) is a more overt greenway: a latticework of trails that occupy the primary floodplain on the east bank of the Rio Grande, which I’ve featured on this blog before. While the I-40 trail intersects this Paseo del Bosque perpendicularly, both the Paseo and the Rio Grande continue southward under I-40, as seen in the photo below. To the right of the path, on the retaining wall supporting the freeway, is New Mexico’s signature sunburst that features so prominently on its beloved state flag. already rated best state flag in the country by the North American Vexillological Association.
But the real point of interest here is that Gail Ryba Memorial Bridge, the foot of which is just a simple pivot to the right from that underpass.
It begins with an ADA-compliant ramp separating the entrance from the bridge to the primary bike/ped trail of the Paseo del Bosque, with a protective railing embellished with little iron filigree leaflets. They show up more prominently when facing southward, looking again at the I-40 underpass.
And then there’s the steeper bridge itself:
The side railings are a bright orange color, and overhead is a teal-colored arch with a frog sculpture projected forth from the central escutcheon.
I’m not sure how, at this slope, it could be ADA compliant, but I’m not necessarily a perfect judge. It looks great, at any rate.
As one ascends the bridge, it is worth noticing the little plant patterns engraved into the concrete every few feet at the margins.
In the distance, perched at the top of a bluff, some higher-income housing with expansive views of the Rio Grande.
And at the crest of this slope, where the bike/ped trail has reached the same grade as the adjacent I-40, one encounters a variety of clear aesthetic gestures, branded to align with spirit and cultural heritage of New Mexico and the American Southwest in general.
To the right, the retaining wall includes more leaflet impressions. The bench is the same rust color as the fence protecting the bike/ped trail from I-40 traffic. And so is the lighting right next to the bench—or, for the view of an entire streetlight, see the ones in the background, as the bike/ped trail stretches to the horizon. And, immediately above the point where I’m standing in this photo, another gateway arch, this time with a turtle on the escutcheon.
This crest on the trail, here on the west side of a city bisected by the river, offers a perfect vantage point to infrastructure far more commonplace in the Land of Enchantment.
The pole and stanchion that hoist those massive directional signs are typical of interstate highways across the country. Because the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is a federal initiative, it mandates a high degree of standardization. But where else in the US is the mounting apparatus that unusual beige color? This is commonplace throughout New Mexico.
And here, looking eastward back across the Rio Grande toward the more urbanized portions of Albuquerque, we see that the Jersey barrier separating the eastbound and westbound lanes gets the paint treatment too. Normally unpainted gray concrete, it’s a distinctive sandstone color here. And back at the foot of the Gail Ryba Memorial Bridge, one can see both vehicular infrastructure (the highway) and the bike/ped trail in a single photo, again revealing the carefully cultivated color palette.
Basically everything in New Mexico looks like this. The state has taken federal infrastructure and applied a coat of paint to it: streetlights, metal mounting tools, overpasses, viaducts. All of it has received specialized treatment that distinguishes from the conventional color scheme used in most of the country. I realize that other places have used custom design features to endow the infrastructure with a bit of localized distinctiveness; the I-70 portion north of Dayton comes to mind for its tributes to aviation. But this is a small, isolated spot in Ohio, not the entire state. Southwestern American aesthetics—the color emphasis or sandstone and turquoise, as well as the abstract geometery—achieved a pop culture fashion currency in the late 1980s and early 90s. I certainly remember a point as child when virtually every middle-class home had a vaguely Navajo-themed blanket or comforter. I cannot say when the State of New Mexico decided to employ the aesthetic to all highway-related infrastructure within its jurisdiction, but it’s been so consistent at distinguishing itself that, at times, the highways of New Mexico genuinely do feel like a different country.
It may seem glib to presume that paint color and a few little emblems in concrete are enough to achieve this distinction. But the aestheticization of infrastructure is often a key tool that a political entity uses to brand itself. Think of how, at least in the US, it’s often simple to tell when one has passed from one suburban municipality to another, even if the welcome sign is absent. More often than not, the simple street signs look very different: a new font, a different color to both the lettering and the background, depending on the municipality. Apply this same logic at the state level, and the State has created all the cues and signals indicative of a subculture, distinguishing it even from Arizona, the other state we primarily associate with southwestern US. Most anyone who visits New Mexico already recognizes the common adobe (or faux-dobe) housing typology, most prevalent in Santa Fe, the oldest colonial settlement in New Mexico (and the oldest state capital in the country):
But it’s everywhere in New Mexico—another reason why New Mexico looks so different from other places in the country. And, if it takes little more than a coat of paint (as it typically does with interstate highway signage) then who’s to complain?
Returning to the Gail Ryba Memorial Bridge, it’s not always this simple. The decade-old feature still looks terrific, in my opinion. The combination of unconventional engineering—this is the one and only bike/ped trail segment in Albuquerque that crosses the Rio Grande—with aesthetics (the turtle and frog might be generic sculptures, but I suspect they’re custom built) earned the engineering contractor Bohannon Huston a 2010 Engineering Excellence Award from American Council of Engineering Companies. But it also created a bit of a stir among Burqueños: it cost $5 million and the City was forthright about the emphasis on aesthetics. As a result, many locals questioned the price tag for an extension to the bike/ped trail network intended to encourage more commuters by bicycle. And the commuter counts one year after the bridge’s completion were unspectacular, albeit unscientific. Defenders of the bridge asserted that it’s the only bike/ped trail currently crossing the Rio Grande; otherwise commuters have to use busy and sometimes dangerous streets. And, frankly, the structural supports necessary for a bridge, no matter how small, are significantly greater and costlier than a similarly scaled segment of road, so it’s possible that the ornamentations and amenities along this bridge were nominal expenses in the grand scheme of things. Regardless, to an outsider like me, whose taxes did not fund this bridge, it seems like another home run for the State of New Mexico at using modest design gestures to brand itself—and, in so branding, to distinguish itself. With no skin in the game, it’s hard not to be enchanted.