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From Washington, D.C., to Europe, the travels of 2001 offer a new perspective.

December 30, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I see a man selling jumping beans, and in the background, several Americans lounging in the shade of Mexico's Sierra Madre. I see a $67-a-night, 13th century French country inn and a cave full of paintings made 25,000 years ago. I see all manner of wind-driven watercraft on the Columbia River, all types of twirling contra dancers in a North Carolina gymnasium, and a New Mexico sunset of thunderheads and glinting steel.

What I hear along with this highlight reel of 2001, unfortunately, is a chorus of authoritative voices telling us that we live in a different world now, that travel will come back slowly, that since Sept. 11 people are thinking twice before they leave the ground, or the U.S.

Still, the hope here is that what I found on the road in 2001, in old Mexico, New Mexico, Appalachia, the Virgin Islands, the north of Oregon, the south of France, the middle of California and beyond, will help steer you toward some place you'll like, or away from some place else you wouldn't.

Adding the trips up, I find about 40 road nights this year, fewer than in previous years, partly because of those stay-at-home weeks after Sept. 11, partly because I've been on a special assignment to the Calendar section for much of the last two months. Nevertheless, I have plenty of highlights and pronouncements to offer.

First, put this picture in your head: the high, flat San Agustin Plain in central New Mexico, with no buildings for miles except the log cabin at your back. The only sound was thunder. This is my best night on the road in 2001.

The sun had just dipped into a narrow slot between approaching western storm clouds and the skyline of far-off mountains, and golden beams raked across the high desert dirt and scrub.

This moment--which my wife, Mary Frances, and I enjoyed as part of a New Mexico road trip--would have been pleasant and profound enough if that were all there was to it. But between us and the vast plains outside Quemado, N.M., stood a singular piece of art by Walter de Maria (he calls it a sculpture): a field of 400 precisely spaced steel lightning rods, a mile across and a kilometer long in a rectangular grid, placed in 1977. At noon on this late June day, they had been barely noticeable. But at that moment, in the raking sun, they gleamed like a neon apparition and made us wonder about nature and order and stillness and meteorology.

Then came the dark and the lightning, and an evening of illuminating conversation with the two other couples, who had rented the other bedrooms.

This is the experience visitors hope for when they sign up to stay at the Lightning Field, operated by the New York-based Dia Center for the Arts from field offices in New Mexico, (505) 898-3335, www.dia center.org/ltproj/lf/lf.html. It remains a vivid picture partly because of the experience and also because photography is not allowed there. A room for two cost $110 to $135 nightly (including breakfast and dinner) in 2001. (The log cabin's three bedrooms are rented only from May through October, and the Dia people have all the business they can handle, so reservations must be made far in advance, beginning March 1.)

Favorite Mexican town: I mentioned Americans in the shade of the Sierra Madre. These were the expats of Alamos, which is also the jumping-bean capital of North America. I found the expats, the beans and a vital bit of Los Angeles history in the Mexican state of Sonora, about 400 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Alamos is not to be confused with Los Alamos, N.M., nor does it offer the features that usually make Mexican towns popular with Americans: no beach, no golf, no T-shirt shops. Basically, there's little to do but watch birds, wander the hills, maybe float on the Rio Mayo--and admire the colonial architecture and the fun some Americans have had fixing up old haciendas as getaway homes. (There's a house tour most weekends.) The nearest airport is in Ciudad Obregon, 60 miles northwest, and it's a seven-hour drive from Nogales, Ariz. Alamos has fewer than 200 hotel rooms.

The town dates to Spanish settlement in the 17th century. The city's population is about 8,000, and its architecture is protected by the same preservation laws that maintain the pre-20th century look of central San Miguel de Allende (closer to Mexico City, in the state of Guanajuato). Alamos does have an American expat community that goes back about 50 years, but the expats I met were mostly older or quieter than those I've found in coastal towns. Further, because Alamos' oldest neighborhood is dominated by private residences instead of businesses, the center of town is often eerily quiet. I liked the stateliness of it all and the odd L.A. connection.

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