'I'll go first, because if anyone gets bit by a rattlesnake it should be me."

You've got to love a tour guide like this, and for the record, Tom Brahl got no argument from me.

We were halfway through a bumpy, dusty, adrenaline-pumping Jeep tour on private land just outside Albuquerque, N.M., where I grew up. But I had never seen my home state from this angle, admiring the far side of the regal Sandia Mountains -- a view to which only a lucky few are privy.

That was the glory of this tour, in a nutshell (pinon nutshell, in fact -- more on that in a minute). In less than two hours, my boyfriend, Patrick, and I had spotted wild horses, darting lizards, two comically large jack rabbits, ancient petroglyphs etched into volcanic rock, pottery shards and 900-year-old tools.

And not a single rattlesnake.

As Patrick and I headed out on our three-hour adventure with New Mexico Jeep Tours, Brahl was easy to spot, waiting in his red all-terrain Jeep in a parking lot at the pickup point.

"Welcome to real American cowboy life," he said, inviting us to jump in. Water and snacks were in back in an ice chest.

Friendly, chatty Brahl, a professional photographer, grew up in Kansas City, but fell in love with New Mexico after many fishing trips and vacations there. He moved to the Land of Enchantment 35 years ago and never looked back.

The Jeep tour company was founded four years ago by a former Albuquerque police officer with the spectacular name of Roch Hart. Most of Hart's tours take place on the 20,000-acre Diamond Tail Ranch, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The owner gives wide berth to Hart, Brahl and two other guides, knowing that the former cop and company will take good care of the place.

They've thrilled tourists from Japan, Australia, Portugal, Scotland and Germany, many curious about that "stuff" that desert homes are made from. Answer: stucco.

"I guess you don't need a lawn mower," one visitor told a laughing Brahl.

Recent forest fires cut off a lot of Jeep tour business, Brahl said, but by Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta time (which begins Oct. 1) he'll be doing at least two tours a day.

Tours can, and have, accommodated just about everybody: children in car seats, people in their 90s, people who use wheelchairs. "They love the sense of being out in the wilderness," he said, "particularly with the Jeep's top down."

But Brahl is happiest when he can stop the Jeep and lead visitors wearing good hiking shoes (what was I thinking wearing flip-flops?) into the hills to get within a nose-width of petroglyphs and other treasures. I was, frankly, stunned by how much freedom we had to explore, how much we were able to touch (and then put back). I held dozens of tiny pottery shards and learned from Brahl that the pretty, painted side was the inside, not the outside, of the bowls, which were sometimes used for ceremonial purposes in burials, covering the faces of the interred.

Patrick picked up a heavy hand tool used for hoeing, made from basalt. It was perhaps 1,200 years old. He wrapped his fingers around it, a perfect fit.

Longer tours wind into territory including Tejon, an 18th-century Spanish ghost town, Hagan, a turn-of-the-century boom-to-bust coal mining town, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Safety is foremost in Brahl's mind. He checked in regularly to headquarters via CB radio to announce our whereabouts. He counts only a few mishaps, such as mechanical problems with one Jeep that delayed a group of tourists' return to the city. They were delighted. A rattlesnake did lunge at him once, at dusk, and he's seen mountain lion tracks. "We know they're out there."

He's careful, too, when driving, or leading hikes, near arroyos. Thunderstorms 10 miles away can signal danger, something I remember from my childhood, when the herculean rush of water would fill stream beds in minutes. "When there's rain around," Brahl said, "we watch out."

Most travelers, though, watch out their Jeep windows for consistently spectacular desert beauty: valleys and volcanic dikes, natural springs and pinon junipers, the state tree, producing volumes of pinon (pine nuts), tumbleweed and yellow sage.

"What a playground," Patrick said. "Fantastic."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350