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Our Land of Enchantment

New Mexico introduction


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At Acoma Pueblo

We love to take a US road trip exploring one (or sometimes several) of the states, and one of the ones we enjoyed the most was our 2011 visit to New Mexico.

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted! And what delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants, and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions). We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell. We stayed in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. We saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. And as we travelled I came to think that there was more than one New Mexico.

Native New Mexico

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Taos Pueblo

There is ‘Native New Mexico’, seen best in the ancient pueblos such as Taos and Acoma, but throwing its influence over the whole state. Long before Europeans came to settle this area, native tribes lived here for hundreds of years. For centuries, these ancestral Indians lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering their food throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago, some of these groups began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, known as pueblos, while others remained nomadic. As everywhere in North America, the coming of the white settlers devastated the lives of those who called these plains and mountains home, and that too is part of their history. Today 22 tribes live in the state: Apache, Navajo, and 19 pueblo tribes (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jémez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picurís, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Kewa, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni). New Mexico’s unique character owes so much to these tribes. The cuisine incorporates elements of traditional cooking, such as the blue corn tortillas and puffed-up sopapillas. The adobe building techniques were embraced by the Spanish settlers and now dominate towns like Taos and Santa Fe. Arts and crafts thrive and are dominated by the pottery, jewellery-making, weaving and painting of the various tribes.

Hispanic New Mexico

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San Jose de Gracia, Trampas

There is also ‘Hispanic New Mexico’. Wherever you go in New Mexico, the Spanish influence is apparent. The most obvious legacy is the large number of beautiful adobe mission churches, of which the oldest is variously said to be San Miguel in Socorro (built between 1615 and 1626, but currently closed for restoration following major water damage) or another San Miguel in Santa Fe (built between 1610 and 1628, thus started earlier but finished later). Very many place names too point to the Hispanic influence: Santa Fe (the city of the Holy Faith), Albuquerque (named for the Spanish Duke de Alburquerque) and smaller places like Los Cerillos, Las Trampas, Quemado – there is even a Madrid! In particular the Roman Catholic religion, introduced by the Spanish, has had a lasting influence on the state. We were fascinated by the way in which the native pueblo churches had combined their own traditional faith with the ‘new’ one, with equal emphasis placed on their adopted saint (San Geronimo in Taos, San Esteban in Acoma) and on the natural spirits that have shaped their lives for centuries. Local crafts owe much to this Catholic tradition, such as the brightly painted pictures (santos) and carvings (bultos) of saints that you’ll see not only in churches but in galleries, restaurants and homes. And parts of the state seemed to us to be dual language, with signs commonly in both English and Spanish, and the latter language heard regularly on the streets. Sometimes you might even fancy yourself in Central, rather than North, America!

Wild West New Mexico

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Sign in Truth or Consequences

Having grown up in an era when both films and TV programmes set in the ‘Wild West’ were popular (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Alias Smith and Jones’. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, and many more) we were equally fascinated by ‘Wild West New Mexico’. Anyone who has ever watched a western has seen New Mexico, or something very like it. Vast plains, huge skies, and more cattle than people – it is not difficult to imagine a cowboy galloping over the nearest ridge, and indeed many locals still dress the part. And wherever you go, the ghosts of outlaws past will follow you, most notably Billy the Kid. We ‘met’ Billy in so many places. In Silver City, where he came aged just 13 and got into trouble from the start. In Mesilla, where he was tried and condemned to be hung in the courthouse, now (inevitably) a ‘Billy the Kid’ gift-shop. In historic Lincoln, where he escaped from another courthouse in a shoot-out. And in Fort Sumner, where he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried alongside a couple of his pals. But Billy of course was not the only outlaw. Perhaps our most memorable encounter with the ghosts of the Wild West was in Cimarron, in the bar of the St James Hotel, whose ceiling still bears the bullet holes of the many gun-fights that took place here, and whose halls are said to be still haunted by some of the victims.

Space Age New Mexico

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The Very Large Array

Bringing the story right up to date, there is ‘Space Age New Mexico’, because the state's wide open spaces didn’t just suit cowboys – they are also ideal for certain sorts of experiments, especially those involving space flight or missiles. The barren expanses at its heart, around White Sands, have seen first-hand the power of science, both for good and for bad. It is here, at the Trinity Site, that the world’s first atom bomb was detonated on 16th July 1945. Trinity is only open to the public on a couple of days a year, and I’m not sure that we would have visited even if one of these dates coincided with our trip, but we did see one of the ‘souvenirs’ of that deadly experiment, the fragment from Jumbo, the vessel built to contain the explosion, which is now on display near the Plaza in Socorro. On a more positive note, the amazing Very Large Array provided one of the most interesting mornings of our trip. Here, in the middle of the flat Plains of San Augustin, scientists study the heavens with the help of these huge radio telescopes. And if you’re interested in man’s adventures in space, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is the place to go. I loved getting the opportunity to sit in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions), and to ‘land’ the space shuttle on their simulator.

And maybe it isn’t just human scientists who find New Mexico ideal for their experiments?! There are many who remain convinced that aliens crashed on a ranch just outside Roswell in 1947, and the town has traded on the incident ever since. Whether you believe it or not, this is an opportunity to see tacky Americana at its most glorious, with ‘aliens’ on every street corner and a whole museum devoted to proving the truth of the story.

Natural New Mexico

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Fall colours in Picuris Pueblo

But the setting for all these stories, both factual and fictional, is as important as the tales themselves – ‘Natural New Mexico’. For while humans have made their mark on New Mexico over the centuries, and in a number of ways, it remains for the most part a state of wide open spaces and natural wonders. You can peer down into the depths of 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, travel mountain passes well over 8,000 feet above sea level, wander among the remarkable rock formations of the City of Rocks or the hauntingly pale dunes of the White Sands. Travelling in September and October, we were treated to displays of golden aspens and of flowers in all hues. Nearly half the state’s annual rainfall comes during July and August, and the dry dusty plains respond with a wonderful show. At lower elevations I never tired of seeing the yellows, mauves and reds alongside the road and spreading beyond in the pastures on either side. And at higher ones the vistas were often of waves of dark green and gold, the conifers and late-dropping trees setting off the early-turning aspens to best advantage.

Travelling to New Mexico

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El Paso Airport

It may perhaps seem a little odd that for a holiday spent touring New Mexico we should fly to Texas, but for a couple of reasons El Paso made real sense as an entry point. Firstly flights there from London were just a little cheaper than to Albuquerque, the only obvious alternative. But secondly, and more importantly, it suited my route planning (and route planning for these trips is always largely my responsibility!) to start in the south of the state. I knew that we would want to spend several nights in Santa Fe, and probably only one in most other places en route, so it made sense to make Santa Fe roughly the mid-point of our tour, which would have been very difficult had we landed in Albuquerque.

So El Paso it was. We flew with United, changing in Chicago where we had a five hour layover. That seemed quite long, but once we’d spent over an hour in the queue at Immigration, transferred to another terminal, and then spent a further hour in the queue to go through security, we were glad of the slack time in the scheduling. When we finally landed at El Paso it was 10.20 pm local time, 5.20 am London time, so we were pretty tired. But El Paso is a small and rather charming airport, easy to navigate and to face even when travel-weary. Furthermore we had booked a room for that night at the airport’s Microtel, an easy stagger from the terminal (less than five minutes’ walk across the car park area). Within 40 minutes of touchdown on the runway we were in our room – and there can’t be many airports where you can manage that!

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Our car number plate

We had arranged car hire for our trip with Hertz who have a base at El Paso Airport, so the next morning we walked back across to the terminal to collect our vehicle. We had to do some negotiation on arrival however as we weren’t at all happy with the car they’d allocated us, a Nissan Cube (ugly thing, with poor rear visibility and all the luggage on display however you stowed it, so not ideal for touring). But a quick discussion with a helpful lady on the counter and we were upgraded from compact to mid-size at no extra charge, with the only catch that we had to wait 15 minutes while the Mazda was brought over from another nearby lot – a small price to pay for what proved to be a comfortable and easy to drive car.

And I would defy anyone to tour New Mexico properly without the benefit of a car, except perhaps a very fit cyclist. Although there’s lots to see and do, places can be quite far apart and no public transport serves many of the most scenic routes, although in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are buses.

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Our hire car on the High Road to Taos

Plus, driving here is a real pleasure. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, as Chris nobly did all the driving, waving aside my rather half-hearted offers to help! But one reason for that refusal of help was the fact that with just one or two exceptions, the roads were quiet and the driving pretty easy. We covered just under 2,000 miles in the two and a half weeks of our trip, and that felt very manageable and undemanding. Our longest drive was about 220 miles, but most days we did around 100 and on a few very little at all.

So we have our car – it is time to hit the road!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:02 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes road_trip culture history usa science space new_mexico customs Comments (6)

Staying in Silver

New Mexico day one


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Having collected our hire car from the Hertz office at El Paso Airport we drove north along I10 towards the border with New Mexico. And talking of borders, from the road we had a clear view of the one between the USA and Mexico proper off to our left, with a lot of high fences, the Rio Grande beyond, and beyond that the houses of Ciudad Juarez.

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Entering New Mexico

Crossing into New Mexico we swung west past Las Cruces, which we planned to visit on our return to the airport at the end of our trip, still on I10. We stopped briefly in Deming for a coffee and to pick up picnic supplies. I photographed a shiny Harley Davidson bike parked outside the coffee shop – such photos were to become a recurring motif on this trip.

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In a Deming coffee shop, and Harley parked outside

City of Rocks State Park

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City of Rocks panorama

Our first proper stop was at this small but fascinating state park some miles north of Deming. If you like unusual landscapes and photogenic rock formations, this is the place for you. A group of bizarrely-shaped rocks rises from an otherwise fairly featureless plain as if they had been placed here by ancient man, but this is a completely natural construction. The outcrop was formed of volcanic ash 35 million years ago and sculpted by wind and water into these rows and groups of monolithic blocks, which are said to resemble streets of skyscrapers (hence the name, City of Rocks). Apparently the rock formations at the park are so unique that they are only known to exist in six other places in the world – but I haven’t been able to find out what those six places might be.

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At the City of Rocks [our picnic spot on the right]

This was a great place in which to enjoy the food we had bought in Deming, with lots of tables dotted among the rocks. A helpful ranger spotted us setting up for our picnic and recommended that we try a different area on the other side of the formations where the views and light would be better – they were.

Lunch finished we spent some time exploring between the rows of rocks and taking lots of photos. It’s hard to do this place justice, but I hope my panorama gives an idea of the scale.

We also went into the visitor centre where you can see a short video about how the rocks were formed. We thought about doing the nature trail through the cactus garden too, but an approaching storm made us think twice, as we weren’t sure this would be a good place to be if the fork lightening came any closer. Our new friend the helpful ranger pointed out how the rain wasn’t actually hitting the ground – rising heat from the plains turns it to steam before it can do so. This phenomenon is known as virga.

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Storm approaching

Silver City

From the City of Rocks we continued north to Silver City which was to be our base for the night. We had pre-booked accommodation at a B&B, the Inn on Broadway, which seems now to be operating under new owners as Serenity House. It looks as if it would be just as good a place to stay now as we found it to be back then, and it certainly gave us a very well-located base for enjoying all that Silver, as locals call it, had to offer.

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The Inn on Broadway

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The Hummingbird Room

Silver City was formed in the 1870s, after the discovery of silver in and around the town. It quickly became a boom town, and like many in New Mexico can lay claim to an association with the outlaw Billy the Kid. He lived here as in his teens (some accounts say he was born here, but most that he came with his family from New York), had his first job here, committed his first crime here, and reportedly killed his first man here. He was arrested and briefly imprisoned, before moving on to wreak his havoc elsewhere, most notoriously in Lincoln County.

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Colourful street in Silver

Meanwhile the silver boom faded, and with its demise Silver (as the locals call it) faded too. But in recent years the town has undergone a revival. And unlike some carefully ‘restored’ old towns it seems unafraid to mix old and new. It has become common to use cheerful paint colours to restore and revive the old buildings, perhaps influenced by the many artists and hippies who have settled here.

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Cast iron building on W Broadway

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Another splash of colour

Shops on the main street, Bullard, are an idiosyncratic mix of appealing galleries and small-town ‘not really changed since the 1950s’ shops. Residents too seem to be a mix of ageing hippies, relaxed artists working in all genres, university students and lecturers, and assorted drop-outs. We liked Silver a lot!

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Harley Davidson detail

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Bikers outside the Palace Hotel, and another Harley

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Ice cream at Alotta Gelato

When we set off to explore Silver our host at the Inn on Broadway had mentioned that the best ice cream could be had at Alotta Gelato (also now sadly closed down) towards the north end of Bullard. So when we arrived at that end of town we decided to pop in for our first ice cream treat of the holiday. And it was a treat! This unprepossessing place served only ice cream made on the premises and the guy who served us, whom I suspected was also the owner, was very helpful and knowledgeable in describing the flavours and how they are made. It was pretty difficult to choose even though the mid-size cups we selected held enough for three flavours. In the end I opted for lemon sorbet, butter pecan and sour cherry – all were good, but the lemon sorbet in particular was a belter! Chris chose mango, blueberry and chocolate – I had a taste of the latter and it was dark, rich-flavoured and totally excellent.

Refreshed we continued our wander, heading one block east to see Silver’s most idiosyncratic ‘attraction’, a ditch. Yes, really – but not just any ditch! This is the Big Ditch. Until the end of the 19th century it was Silver City’s Main Street. But around that time there was a series of floods, and one result of these was that on the night of July 21st 1895, Main Street collapsed into a muddy chasm. Businesses on its west side ‘turned their backs’ on it and started to use their rear entrances on Bullard Street, which therefore gradually became a replacement main street without ever changing its name accordingly, and the original street was never restored.

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The Big Ditch

Nowadays the chasm has been turned into a pleasant park that runs the length of downtown and provides shade on a hot day. About halfway along, on the west side of the park, you can see Warren House which is the only one still standing intact from the pre-flood days.

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Warren House

Back near the B&B we passed the town’s museum, which is in a nice old Victorian house and is apparently worth a quick visit to see the old photos of the town (especially before the floods that created the Big Ditch). Unfortunately though we spent too long taking photos in the town, and enjoying our ice cream, with the result that we got here just after the rather early 4.30 pm closing time. So we didn’t get to climb up the cupola, which our Moon Handbook said was worth doing, and didn’t get to check out the old maps (I love maps!) and a room furnished in Victorian style.

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The museum

An evening in Silver

For dinner that evening we went to the nearby Jalisco Café at the bottom end of Bullard. Unlike our B&B and the ice cream parlour, this is still in operation it seems. It occupies a row of three or four old shops and looked welcoming with an appealing New Mexican menu. It also seemed very popular with local families and was pretty busy – both good signs, we thought, although as it turned out this was to be a somewhat mixed experience.

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Chris in the Jalisco Café

On entering we found ourselves in the first ‘shop’ in the row, now just an entrance lobby with seating for waiting customers. We were welcomed and shown to a table in the middle section, where most other tables were already occupied. Our server was friendly and explained a couple of dishes on the menu, as well as recommending a good Mexican beer (Dos Equis, which became a staple on our trip).

Our meal started with complimentary chips and salsa. We had barely started on these though when our main courses arrived. Chris had chosen the chicken enchiladas with red chilli sauce – hot and tasty. I’d gone for a slightly riskier choice but it paid off – I really loved the crab tostadas and they would be worthy of a more up-market and pricier restaurant than this. Two crispy shells spread with a thin layer of guacamole and piled high with plenty of crab meat, chopped mango, red onion etc, all drizzled with red chilli sauce – delicious!

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My delicious crab tostadas

But while we were still enjoying these dishes our waitress came over to ask if we wanted dessert. We explained that we wouldn’t know until we had finished our mains, which she accepted, but she was back again the moment we put down our cutlery. Although full, we decided that as it was our first night in New Mexico, and we’d heard so much about sopapillas, we should try one. She willingly brought us one to sample – a large puffy bread with honey to drizzle inside. But she also brought the bill, and it seemed pretty clear to us that we were being encouraged to leave, especially when the now-empty tables around us were cleared and the chairs upturned on some of them.

Please don’t think we were eating late – this was at 8.10 pm (the restaurant apparently closes at 8.30 p m which seems ridiculously early by European standards but is fairly normal in small-town America). So we got the message, paid our bill and left, assuming ourselves to be one of the last to go. Imagine our surprise when we walked past the far section of the restaurant, which had been hidden to our sight inside, to see it with tables full and meals still coming out. We couldn’t help nursing a suspicion that our young waitress had a date that evening and was super-keen to get away early! Well, never mind – we had enjoyed our meal and as the night was young we headed to the nearby Buffalo Bar ...

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In the Buffalo Bar

Our Moon Handbook on New Mexico told us that, ‘Just about everyone in town mixes at the Buffalo Bar’, so we decided to do the same. This is an unpretentious-looking (and unpretentious) bar on the main drag, Bullard, towards its southern end, and still in operation today as far as I can see.

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Beer in the Buffalo Bar

When we first went in and took seats at the bar it was fairly quiet, and it never got exactly busy, but it did liven up and we had a really nice evening here. On the bar maid’s recommendation we drank, and enjoyed, a few bottles of Sierra Blanca from Carrizozo in the middle of the state – a pleasant lager which unfortunately we never saw again on our trip. Some locals came in and started a game of pool, as well as putting some coins into the juke-box – and this was just the right setting in which to enjoy their chosen Tom Petty tracks. When we went over to pay for a few tunes ourselves, as seemed only fair, another local came over and insisted on paying, while asking us what we would like – very friendly. We ended up staying well over an hour, despite being a little tired from our first day’s driving (and being still on English time). Do drop into the Buffalo Bar for a drink if you’re in Silver – I’m sure you’ll get a warm welcome too.

But despite the welcoming atmosphere in the bar, a fairly early night was required as we still had a touch of jet lag, so we walked back to the Inn on Broadway pretty pleased with our first day in New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes streets beer road_trip restaurant history weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (12)

Meeting the Mogollon

New Mexico day two


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We had spent our first night in the state in the now-closed Inn on Broadway, situated in a lovely house with bags of character (and now operating, I have realised, as Serenity House B&B). The house is over 100 years old (which I know is old by US standards, although our own home in London is the same age and we think nothing of it!) According to our host, who welcomed us, it was once home to a madam who ran a string of brothels in the area, though I noted there was no mention of that on their website – perhaps they thought it might deter some visitors?

Anyway, we had a very comfortable night’s sleep in the pretty Hummingbird Room. Waking early, as I usually do (and always on holiday) I wandered downstairs in search of the morning coffee that had been promised. I was poured a large mug and it was suggested that I might like to take it out on the porch, which I did. I was joined there by the resident cat, Midnight, who was very friendly – so much so that getting a photo was quite a challenge as she kept coming too close to my camera, and to the rather hot mug of coffee I had to put down in order to take it!

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Midnight the cat

Once Chris and the other guests were up, we had an excellent breakfast – cheese muffins with delicious chilli marmalade, fresh melon and blueberries, raisin pancakes and crispy bacon. The only sour note was introduced by our hostess who, although very friendly, spent rather too much time complaining to the whole room about a recent slightly unfavourable review on Trip Advisor. The message was clear – a better review was expected from us!

Pinos Altos

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The (closed) museum in Pinos Altos

After breakfast we checked out and drove north out of Silver City on winding Highway 15. A few miles out of town we made a little detour into Pinos Altos, a sleepy remnant of the once-Wild West. The town was founded when three frustrated 49ers stopped to take a drink in Bear Creek and discovered gold here. Word spread, as it always did, and soon there were over 700 men prospecting in the area. Roy Bean operated a mercantile here in the 1860s before moving to West Texas to gain fame as Judge Roy Bean. Today several buildings of that era remain and have been restored, including the Buckhorn Saloon which is still open for business in the evenings (but not on the morning when we visited).

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Buckhorn Saloon

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Buckhorn Saloon and old opera house

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A peek inside the Buckhorn Saloon, and a rather less well-preserved building

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Town Hall sign

The small town hall above and the fire station in my photos below are not in the town itself but on the main road just before the turning off. They were beautifully lit by the morning sunshine, unlike many of the more interesting buildings in Pinos Altos itself which were unfortunately in shadow. I guess you need to come in the afternoon if you want to capture the saloon at its best, and if you made it late afternoon, you’d be able to enjoy a drink or meal here too.

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Fire station, Pinos Altos

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Fire station sign

But we had other places to visit today …

Gila Cliff Dwellings

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The Trail of the Mountain Spirits

From Pinos Altos we drove on north along Highway 15. This is not the easiest of drives – a sign soon after leaving Silver warned us that the journey time to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is about two hours. This may seem surprising as it is only 43 miles but at the speed you need to drive this road (SLOW) it does take close to two hours. It’s worth it however, as this is really a lovely drive with lots of stunning views along the way. It is part of one of the state’s many Scenic Byways, this one known as the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. We made a point on this trip of driving as many as possible, so there will be more in future blog entries for sure. There are few places on this one where you can pull over to admire the view, however, so it was hard to get any photos this morning.

The highway ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. These were built by the Mogollon people within the natural caves high in the cliffs lining the canyon of what today is called Cliff Dweller Creek. They lived here between 1275 and 1300 AD, farming the valley floor by day and retreating to the safety of their lofty homes at night or when danger threatened. Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms in the six caves, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families. There are also structures used for storage, and signs that some were used for ceremonial purposes. What makes them special is the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings. This makes it easier to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like.

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Cliff Dwellings panorama

Before reaching the Cliff Dwellings themselves we made a short detour to the Visitor Centre. There were interesting displays of Mogollon artefacts from the caves and surrounding area, and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache who consider this wilderness to be their homeland. There was also a video showing what life may have been like for the Mogollon who built and occupied the Cliff Dwellings, but we decided to skip that and head on up to the dwellings themselves. We also bought a few post-cards and had a chat with the helpful rangers who told us a bit more about the path to the dwellings and also about some good places to picnic.

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Visitor Centre

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Memorial to Geronimo at the Visitor Centre

Outside the centre we spotted a memorial to Geronimo near the entrance to the parking area. The Chiricahua Apache chief was born very near here (‘By the headwaters of the Gila’, as the monument says). He was one of the fiercest warriors who ever lived, but he didn’t turn to fighting until after the senseless slaughter by Mexican troops of his mother, wife, children, and other tribal women in 1858. During his time as a war chief, Geronimo was notorious for consistently urging raids and war upon first Mexican and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1886 he surrendered to U.S. authorities and the Government moved him and the remaining Chiricahua Apaches out of their homeland. He became a celebrity in later life, but was never granted his wish to return to his homeland.

After checking out the Visitor Centre we went back to the car to drive the two miles to the main parking lot for the dwellings themselves. It isn’t possible to see the cliff dwellings from the road so you have to be able to walk a short-ish distance even to see them from a distance. As we set out a ranger gave us a leaflet (the ‘Cliff Dweller Canyon Companion’) and explained the walk. He also asked if we were carrying any food or drink – only water is allowed on the trail so everything else has to be left in your car. We had already eaten our lunch at the picnic area near the car park, so were fine to continue.

From the parking lot the path led across the West Fork of the Gila River, which was largely dried up when we were there (late September). It then followed a tributary stream, Cliff Dweller Creek, on a path that ascended a little, with a few steps in places.

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West Fork of the Gila River

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Along Cliff Dweller Creek

So far the walk was easy, although not accessible for anyone with real walking difficulties (we noticed that one elderly lady turned back, leaving her husband to do the walk on his own). The path was mostly shaded and there were glimpses of the cliffs above us, although not yet of the caves themselves. Looking out for wildlife we spotted a good-sized lizard, which a ranger later identified for me as a Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard.

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Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard

After about ¼ mile the path brought us to the viewpoint from where you can get a first glimpse of the cliff dwellings.

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First view of the dwellings

This is the point to turn back if you find walking difficult, as the path is about to get a lot steeper. The trail is described as being a mile in length, but we felt that it was probably longer than this, though it’s hard to judge when you’re stopping frequently – either to catch your breath on the steep parts, to take photos of the fantastic views in places, or to explore the interior of these fascinating caves. On the late September day when we were here it was also pretty hot, especially on the long shade-less descent from the caves, so in mid-summer it must be even more so.

I don’t however consider myself especially fit or accustomed to hiking, and I had a bad back on our visit, yet I did make it to the top and around the full loop without too much difficulty, so I was glad I had given it a go. The steepest part is that immediately beyond this first viewpoint – a series of steep steps winding upwards until you emerge at the level of the dwellings.

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The dwellings seen from the top of the ascent

From here it is a more level walk along the face of the cliff to cave one.

Exploring the caves

What makes the Gila Cliff Dwellings special is not their size (several other places, such as Bandelier or Chaco Canyon have bigger groupings) but the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings, and can do so if you want to on your own. This makes it easier, I think, to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like. This was why we deliberately chose to explore on our own, rather than take a guided tour.

Whether exploring alone or in a group, there are six caves that you can get a close look at on this trail, although as four and five are linked it may not feel like that many. The first one is the smallest and has very little in the way of structures, but moving on to cave two we could see some of the original Mogollon constructions. These had already been vandalised when the dwellings were first properly explored by experts, but about 80% of the original structures remained, and the rest have been carefully restored.

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Dwelling in cave two

There are more structures in cave three, which you need to climb up to. This is where you can really get a sense of the long-ago inhabitants, as you look up at the roof of the cave blackened by soot from their fires, or look out across the valley from its cool interior, as they must have done.

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Cave three from cave two

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Looking out from cave three

Caves four and five are linked, and I confess that I couldn’t work out exactly where one ended and the next began, even though a helpful ranger whom we met here explained it – the small structure to the right of my photo below, with what appears to be a window, is at the point where cave four becomes cave five. There is apparently a mystery surrounding the purpose of this structure, which is too large to have been a storage area (and in any case has sooty walls) and too small to have been a dwelling.

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Cave four, with five beyond

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View from cave five

Without that helpful ranger we would not have known to climb the ladder propped against one wall in cave five and and would have missed seeing the pictograph painted there by the Mogollon, and the remains of some corn husks on the floor below.

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Pictograph in cave five

To exit these caves we had to climb down a wooden ladder of about a dozen steps. This was the longest of the ladders but like all of them was sturdy and stable so should have been easy enough to descend. However it was in full sun and the wood had got surprisingly hot – so much so that I could barely hold it!

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Ladder from cave five, after descending, and looking up at cave six

The trail then took us past cave six, which you can’t enter, and then looped round the cliff face before descending steeply to rejoin the outward trail just before the bridge.

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Panorama of Cliff Dweller Canyon on the descent from the caves

Lake Roberts

By the time we had finished our walk it was time to leave. We needed to retrace part of the winding route along Highway 15, and drive a little distance on nearly-as-winding Highway 35, to reach our base for the night. Unlike this morning, we did find one place where we could pull over and properly take in the view.

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On the Trail of the Mountain Spirits, near Gila Cliff Dwellings

There is no accommodation at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and many people visit as a day tour from Silver City (which is perfectly possible, though it’s quite a long drive). But we wanted to have more time to explore the caves than this would have allowed for, so I hunted around for other options and found a group of cabins in a rustic spot near Lake Roberts, known unsurprisingly as Lake Roberts Cabins.

We knew this was a pretty isolated location, with no restaurants in easy reach, so we planned to make our own dinner in our small cabin. The website told us that the on-site General Store sold ‘Groceries, including canned goods, microwave dinners, and other convenience foods …Staples like bacon, fresh eggs, milk & butter … and Seasonal garden fruits & vegetables’. So we planned to buy the makings of our evening meal there on arrival. However when I had rung to confirm our reservation a couple of days before, and to enquire about the store opening times, the owner told me that although they stayed open till about 7.00 pm, he had been running the stock down as it was late in the season (the last week in September) and he would have very little from which to make any sort of meal. So we shopped ahead in Silver and when I saw how empty the shop was, we were very glad that we had!

But before eating we had time to check out Lake Roberts itself, about half a mile away from the cabins. The lake was created in the early 1960s by damming Sapillo Creek, but it nestles among the pines in a very natural-looking way, although its deep blue waters are perhaps a surprising sight in this otherwise quite rocky landscape.

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Lake Roberts

Back at the cabin we made our simple meal and relaxed. At one point during the evening we spotted a deer from our porch, although unfortunately not when I had a camera to hand.

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On the porch of Cedar Cabin

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The seating area

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The small cabin suited us just fine. We had a small sitting area with a sofa and a table and two chairs. There was a TV for watching VHS tapes only, which could be borrowed free of charge from the store, so we watched a film after it got too dark and chilly to sit out on the porch.

A kitchenette opened directly from this, with a microwave, two ring gas stove, fridge etc, and all the crockery and cutlery two people might need. The bedroom was really only big enough for the double wood-framed bed, which was comfortable enough but very creaky – when one of us turned over, both woke up! Although it got very chilly after dark, being quite high above sea level here, the cabin stayed warm all night, so despite the creaking bed we were very happy with our choice of accommodation.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:24 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes road_trip history views national_park new_mexico Comments (7)

On the Geronimo Trail

New Mexico day three


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The Geronimo Trail

With a somewhat longer drive ahead of us today we made a prompt start from our cabin near Lake Roberts. To start with we took Highway 35 through part of the Mimbres Valley before turning off on Highway 152. We were following the Geronimo Trail, another of the state’s Scenic Byways.

And of all the scenic byways we travelled during this road trip, this was arguably the most scenic, although in fact we only travelled half of it as it is split into two sections, north and south, and we skipped the northern part – there’s never enough time for everything!

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On the road in the Mimbres Valley

Leaving the green farmland of the valley the trail climbs through a dramatic rocky gorge, crossing the Black Range Mountains. It emerges at the high point (literally and figuratively) of the drive, Emory Pass. Here there is a large parking area, and although it was still quite early in the morning we were nevertheless amazed to have it to ourselves – none of the few other drivers on the road seemed minded to stop for the chance to take in this awesome vista. Here you are 8,228 feet above sea level, and the view extends east for miles. The towns of Kingston and Hillsboro can be seen below, and Caballo Lake and Mountains, over 50 miles to the east, are easily visible. On a clear day you can apparently make out Elephant Butte Dam (approximately 65 miles away) as a distant white spot, but we had quite a bit of haze and could see no further than Caballo. Even so, it was an stunning view and one we lingered over for a while.

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Panoramic view from Emory Pass

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The views from Emory Pass

Kingston

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Kingston seen from Emory Pass

After Emory Pass, the road descended through a long series of hairpin bends, but although slow it was in good condition and not too difficult a drive. Near the bottom, we were on the look-out for a sign to the former boom town of Kingston, now home to just a handful of residents.

This is officially a ghost town, although a few people live here. It was founded in 1882 after a rich lode of silver ore was discovered in the area, and became a thriving metropolis almost overnight. At the height of the silver mining boom its population outstripped that of Albuquerque by at least 1,000. Its many hotels played host to Mark Twain and to assorted outlaws: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Black Jack Ketchum, and Billy the Kid. Its stage lines served all major routes, and there were 23 saloons, 14 stores, a brewery, 3 newspapers, and an Opera House.

Today only a few buildings remain, and the Percha Bank is the only fully intact original building in the town. Built in 1884, it was once the largest bank in New Mexico Territory and at its richest held $7 million in silver in its vault. The bank has been restored and is Kingston’s only sight, but we found it closed for further restoration. A sign said it was to re-open in Fall 201, so it seems we may have missed it by just a week or so! But although it was closed, it was quite easy to peer through the windows and see its ornate lobby, the tellers’ windows and a small display of old photos etc.

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The Percha Bank

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Hillsboro

Beyond Kingston the road passes through Hillsboro, another former mining town but with more life to it than Kingston, including some nice cafes and a great little gallery. But the warning sign that we spotted as we arrived, which said we were apparently approaching a ‘congested area’, was more than a little misleading. We live in London so we know what a congested area looks like, and let me assure you that it does not look like Hillsboro! It would be hard to find a more peaceful, tranquil little town.

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Hillsboro

Admittedly in times past it would have been rather different. Hillsboro is one of New Mexico’s many towns founded in the boom times of the mid- to late- 19th century, when silver was mined in the surrounding hills. At one time its population numbered 10,000, but the town went bust when in 1893 the price of silver plummeted, and by the mid 1890s fewer than 2,000 residents remained. Unlike some towns though (including nearby Kingston), Hillsboro managed to survive, kept alive by a few gold mines in the area, and cattle ranches dotted around this wild and rocky landscape. It was for a while the county seat, but lost that status to Hot Springs (later renamed Truth or Consequences) in 1936, and with it most of the remaining population.

Today the population is just 200, and from what we observed on this lovely Saturday morning, everyone pretty much knows everyone else. But whether they know you or not, Hillsboro folk seem quick to offer a friendly greeting. We had only planned to stop for a few minutes, but we lingered. In just a short while Hillsboro and its friendly residents had charmed us. And for the rest of the trip we were to measure the busyness of a place by how ‘congested’ it was in comparison to lovely, sleepy Hillsboro.

When we drove away from the cabin at about 8.30 that morning, the thermometer in the car had read 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, some two hours later, it was reading 82 degrees, a climb of 40 degrees in just two hours, driven by not only the sun climbing higher in the sky but also by our own descent to slightly lower elevations. So our first stop here was at the General Store Café, to have a cold drink.

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Mural on the side of the General Store Café

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General Store Café sign

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Chillies drying on the porch

This lovely old building is part of a larger structure destroyed in the 1914 flood. In the past it has housed a bank, a post office, a general store and a drug store. Today it is a friendly establishment clearly popular with locals as well as passers-by like us. The interior retains much of its former character with old shop fixtures and fittings, but as it was pretty full with customers enjoying a late Saturday breakfast and we only wanted a drink, we took our orange juices out to the shady porch where we enjoyed watching laid-back Hillsboro go about its morning business.

Refreshed, we decided to explore some more. We popped into Percha Creek Traders to see if they had any nice postcards, but we found ourselves lingering for a while, there was so much to see! We found an excellent selection of local photographs, paintings in all sorts of styles, fabric crafts, jewellery, pottery and more. The sales person explained that this is a local co-operative, run by and for local artists and craftspeople. When they started there were just a handful in the area, but their members now number over 20 and they are growing all the time. Clearly Hillsboro is a place that attracts artists.

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Percha Creek Traders

Although we had only intended to look for postcards, I was also on the look-out on this trip for a picture to go in our recently decorated hallway. But what caught my eye was not a picture but a piece of what I guess you would call ‘wall art’ – a ceramic horse created with a technique known as Raku. This is a traditional Japanese technique in which the glazed piece is fired and removed from the hot kiln and is put directly into water or is allowed to cool in the open air. The result is an unpredictable metallic finish, making each piece unique. The technique has been adopted by local artist Kathy Lovell for her range of ‘Kathy’s Kritters’ (I loved the work, but cringed at the name!) We were taken by the turquoise colours of some of her horses and knew that it would be a great match for our hall, so duly bought one. We later saw some of Kathy’s work in other galleries, e.g. in Mesilla, but we were pleased to have bought our horse here in her home town. And it still hangs in our hall today!

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Our purchase

Soon after leaving Hillsboro Highway 152 reaches the interstate where we turned north for Truth or Consequences and Socorro, where we were to spend that night. Some of the views were still good, but I25 is no scenic byway!

Truth or Consequences

We broke our journey north in this oddly named small town, where we popped into the Geronimo Springs Museum – the sort of quirky place you can’t help but like, with an eclectic mix of objects covering a range of topics such as local history, geology and crafts. Checking its website I feel it must have grown since we were there, as I don’t recall it absorbing more than 30 minutes or so of our time.

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Busts of famous figures from the region’s history

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Recreation of the bar that once occupied this building

We did however learn the story of the town’s unusual name here. It was previously known as Hot Springs, named for the several natural springs in the area around the town. Its present-day name comes from the popular radio show of the 1940s and 50s, Truth or Consequences. In March 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the show, announced that he would air the programme on its 10th anniversary from the first town to rename itself after the show. Hot Springs won the prize by officially changing its name on March 31st. The programme was broadcast from there the very next evening, April 1st. Ralph Edwards and his wife Barbara adopted the town as a sort of second home, visiting during the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. The town would hold a fiesta to mark their visit with beauty pageants, parades, fishing contests, rodeos, jeep rides, and boat races down the Rio Grande. Fiesta is still celebrated here each May.

Leaving the museum we found a café for a light lunch. We had thought about visiting the nearby Elephant Butte Lake but having spent so long in Hillsboro decided to push on north instead. There was one further place which we were keen to visit before reaching our final destination for the day.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

A little to the south of Socorro lies one of the most interesting bird-watching venues in New Mexico, considered worth a visit even if you're not a ‘serious’ birder – which neither of us is. For a short while in late October/early November it becomes a focus for birding enthusiasts as tens of thousands of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, descend on the refuge and settle into their winter home. Their arrival is met with a festival, the annual Festival of the Cranes, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were in the area a couple of months earlier than this but thought that the refuge would still be worth a visit as there would be bound to be some birds whatever the time of year. We were, with a few exceptions, wrong!

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Cormorants

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Turtle

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More turtles

We were a little surprised on arrival in the parking lot by the visitor centre to see only one other car, but we figured that other visitors would be out exploring the loop drive. So we went inside, had a helpful chat with the ranger on duty who showed us on a map which roads through the refuge were open and explained that at this time of year (late September) we would be too early to see the large migrations but should see herons, cormorants and other birds out on the lagoon at the end of the loop drive. That sounded promising, so we headed out that way and were quite excited to see a large heron (I think a Great Blue) from the car as we approached, although it flew off before I could get a photo. So we parked up and followed a path that led out across the lagoon on a rather noisy metal footbridge. We got a good close-up look at the turtles that live here year round, and a more distant view of some cormorants drying their wings in characteristic pose, but otherwise it was pretty deserted, and sadly the heron never returned. Maybe a more patient birding enthusiast would have lingered longer but we decided that we would rather cut our losses, so left to explore downtown Socorro instead.

Socorro

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Capitol Bar, Socorro



We chose Socorro as an overnight stop primarily for its convenience, being a reasonable driving distance between several places we wanted to visit and at the junction of I25, which had brought us north from the Gila Forest area, and Highway 60 which we would take tomorrow.

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Our room in Socorro

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express. As with the town, so with the hotel, which we also chose for its convenient location. We have found over the years that so many US towns have plenty of good-value motels, both chain and independent, on their outskirts, but few or none in the centre. And as we like to be able to walk to a reasonable restaurant in the evening (rather than drive) that can be a challenge as the better restaurants (and bars – also important!) can be in the centre, sometimes several miles away. But in the case of Socorro I had read good reviews of the Socorro Springs Brewery and spotted that the Holiday Inn Express seemed from its address to be very near – problem sorted.

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Dog in the Plaza

Once we had checked in, we went straight out again to explore the town. Although not a major tourist destination it does have a few sights of interest. If you pass by on I25, or even if you leave the Interstate and drive through on the main thoroughfare, California Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to Socorro apart from chain motels, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, shopping plazas and gas stations. Certainly you are unlikely to realise from this superficial glance that there is any real history to the town, let alone that some of this history is on show just one block behind the modern face that it turns to the highway.

But so it is. One block west of California Street is Socorro’s Plaza, and in its immediate surroundings you can get a sense of the small pueblo it once was. The town was founded in June 1598, when a group of Spanish settlers travelled through the nearby Jornada del Muerto, an inhospitable patch of desert that ends just south of the present-day city of Socorro. As they emerged from the desert near the pueblo of Teypana, the native Piro Indians gave them food and water. So the Spaniards renamed the pueblo Socorro, in honour of the aid given to them.

They later established a mission here, Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour). But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the Piro Indians and Spanish settlers left for safer territory to the south, and without the protection of Spanish troops, the town was destroyed and the remaining Piro killed by the Apache and other tribes. It wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro.

The plaza on the late Saturday afternoon when we visited appeared to be a popular hang-out for local young people, assorted dog-walkers and other locals maybe meeting up with friends prior to evening Mass at the nearby church or a few Saturday night beers perhaps. The atmosphere was quite lively but not one in which we as the (I think) sole tourists felt out of place.

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The Wheel of History

The centre of the plaza is a small park, Kittrel Park, named for a local dentist who first planted the grass and trees here, and around it are a few sights such as the ‘Wheel of History’. This bronze sculpture, just to the north of the plaza itself, was created in the late 90s to illustrate the history of the town.

Around the edge of the plaza and in nearby streets are a number of interesting signs such as the ones in my photos, each depicting a feature of the town or surrounding area.

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Signs around the Plaza

After our stroll around the plaza we were ready for some refreshment, and found it in the Manzanero Coffee Bar on its eastern side (now renamed as M Mountain Coffee it seems). They brewed proper espresso, made some delicious iced coffee drinks, and it was the sort of place where we felt comfortable sitting for quite a while over our drinks while writing a few post-cards.

An evening in Socorro

I have already mentioned that we chose our hotel for its proximity to a promising sounding watering hole, the Socorro Springs Brewery, which appears to be still going strong. And unsurprisingly so, judging by the pleasant evening we spent here. The restaurant specialises in wood-fired pizzas, and they were very good. To go with them we naturally chose from their selection of microbrews, which was equally good – especially, I noted, the Bridgeport’s Café Negro, with its strong espresso after-taste (created, according to the menu, by infusing ‘a specialised blend of coffee with the base beer during cold conditioning’). All in all, an excellent evening!

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Socorro Springs Brewery

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Posted by ToonSarah 02:21 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes art birds beer road_trip restaurant history views museum reptiles new_mexico Comments (9)

From outer space to the Badlands, via a pie!

New Mexico day four


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Sunday morning, Socorro

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San Miguel Church, Socorro

It was Sunday, so we started the day by attending mass at the historic church of San Miguel in Socorro. Or rather, in the church’s very functional parish hall, as unfortunately the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage. It was a lovely service nevertheless, as one local couple were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary (their 65th, if I remember correctly) and a big fuss was made of them by the priest and community.

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San Miguel Church

But it was a disappointment not to be able to see inside the church, as it has a lot of history. The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, as Nuestra Señora del Socorro – Our Lady of Succour. But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south, and it wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the by-then ruined church.

According to a small leaflet about Socorro’s history which we picked up at the local tourism board, ‘There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.’

The local history website http://socorro-history.org/HISTORY/smiguel/church.html has a more detailed history and also mentions that the church reopened after extensive work in 2015, in time to celebrate its 400 year anniversary.

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San Miguel Church

Before leaving this pleasing small town we checked out one more sight. Just south of the Plaza is this odd-looking memorial.

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Jumbo fragment

This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today a number of townspeople apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range.

Magdalena

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Main Street, Magdalena

In planning our route I could have opted at this point to carry on north up I25 to Albuquerque and the northern part of the state, but their were several sights to the west that had grabbed our attention, so instead we left Socorro on the much quieter Highway 60, heading out onto the Plains of San Augustin. A few miles west of Socorro we stopped at the only real town (albeit a small one) on this stretch of road, Magdalena.

It would be quite easy to miss Magdalena, but we were very glad we had stopped to explore a little. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!

Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.

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Old bank, Magdalena

The former Bank of Magdalena sits on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the tourism website (http://magdalena-nm.com/trails-end/walking_tour.html), suggest that it has also served as a café (and possibly still does?) although when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.

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Ilfeld Warehouse

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Old lamp

Another brick building of note is the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.

Opposite the Ilfield Warehouse is at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to see this old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is on permanent display here.

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Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot

The Very Large Array

Further west along Highway 60 we reached one of the main sights that had drawn us to this part of the state. The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.

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The Very Large Array from afar

These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe. Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic.

We did the self-guided walking tour which allowed us to get really close to one of the dishes and also taught us all we ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour was free (I note they now charge $6 which is very reasonable for what you get to see), although we were invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet.

We started in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explained the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits covered some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there were some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.

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Dish at The Very Large Array

But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile, I would say, and is clearly signposted. There were a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for sure was arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. We were in luck as it adjusted its position while we stood there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.

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Getting close to the dishes

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A close look at a dish and antenna

From here we looped around to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace gives a general view of the whole array. Photos taken from here show just how tiny people appear next to the dishes.

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View from the Research Centre

Back at the Visitor Centre we bought a couple of postcards and revisited a couple of the exhibits that had taken on fresh relevance after our walk, and got some cold drinks from the vending machine.

On our way back to the main road we stopped at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.

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Our hire car near the VLA

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Railroad crossing near the VLA

Pie Town

When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across empty plains, for us the effort was well rewarded.

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Pie Town sign

The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. But the coming of the interstate (I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here) meant that the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed.

It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café, and today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival (http://piefestival.org/).

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The Pie-O-Neer Café

In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, the aforementioned windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés ...

These may not be exactly beautiful but they have a certain faded charm and are very photogenic.

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In Pie Town

We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends, but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room, which was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.

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Stop here for pies

It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, great fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon, plus an orange juice each.

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Cute salt and pepper pots

Then it was time for pie. The slices looked very generous, so we decided to share one, and of the many on display opted for cherry. We had to wait a little while to taste it however. The one negative about this café was the slow service – there was just one harassed waitress (possibly the owner) and a girl bussing tables, who helped out a bit by carrying out plates of food but didn’t seem up to the task of taking orders. With all the tables full inside, a few outside, and people coming and going all the time it was perhaps not surprising that we sat for quite a while after our eggs and bacon waiting for the plates to be cleared and our pie order taken. We were enjoying watching all the bustle, but we still had a long way to drive, so in the end I got up and placed our order at the counter, which worked fine.

Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn' Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn' Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site, and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin referred to there, which they were in the process of restoring and which was Dan’s boyhood home:

‘Dan's father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan's mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’

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DanCyn' Windmill Museum

The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’ but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside. I hadn’t read about the cabin before our visit or I might have been tempted to disturb their Sunday in the hopes of finding it now installed!

Quemado

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Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado

From Pie Town Highway 60 continues westwards towards the border with Arizona, and twenty miles down the road is the next little town, Quemado. Here the small stone Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, with its tiny graveyard, is very photogenic, from the outside at least. I would have loved to have seen the inside too, but it was Sunday and a Mass was in progress, so I didn’t enter.

El Malpais National Monument

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View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument

Quemado was the furthest point west that we came on this trip, as here we turned north on Highway 36 and branched off on Highway 117 which runs through one section of the El Malpais National Monument – the other lies further west and was a bit too far off our route. But although we were only here for an afternoon it was long enough to do a couple of short walks and to drive up to the Sandstone Bluffs to see the awesome vista above.

El Malpais is Spanish for Badlands, and you can easily see how the area got this name, as much of it is formed from the outpourings of lava from McCartys Volcano. It is bleak in a way, but also ruggedly beautiful, and that view from Sandstone Bluffs is one that will stay with me for a long while.

Lava Falls

Entering the park from the south we weren’t able to stop off first at the Visitor Centre, which is on the outskirts of the city of Grants (where we would spend the night) so we relied on the information in our Moon Handbook to New Mexico and my pre-holiday research.

Our first stop was at the Lava Falls trail-head, just inside the park, where a trail leads across the McCartys flow, the result of a series of eruptions of nearby McCartys Volcano around 3,000 years ago. Here you can pick up a leaflet about the trail. We decided against doing the full length of it as we had only limited time in the park. Although this trail is only a mile in length you do need to take your time here as the route is marked out by cairns and you have to navigate carefully, only leaving one cairn when you are sure you can see the next ahead of you.

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The lava field

But we did walk the first few hundred yards in order to really appreciate this unreal landscape. As soon as you get beyond sight of the small parking lot you are surrounded by lava and it can seem quite disorientating. The lava here is relatively ‘young’ in geological terms, having been deposited just 3,000 years ago. Even in a short stretch of the trail you can see various formations which are described in the leaflet – Ropy Pahoehoe (smooth basalt with lines like rope), Lava Toes (small lobes of lava formed when hot lava breaks out of semi-hardened lava), A’a (rough broken basalt), pressure ridges and more. As the leaflet explains:

‘Cracks, ripples and bubbles tell a more intricate story. When lava spilled out of McCartys crater, it did not just settle over the ground in a smooth, even layer. It was a dynamic force that took on distinctive features as it flowed over the land. Pressure ridges collided and cracked; collapses sunk into empty cavities; squeeze-ups pushed their way to the surface through weak spots.’

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Daisies and lava

What fascinated me more than the different formations, however, was the way in which plants had made a home in what seemed to be a totally inhospitable environment. There was no sign of soil, yet grasses and flowers peeked from every crevice, and lichens crept across bare rocks. These also served to make my photos more interesting (I hope!) as black lava alone can look very dull.

La Ventana Arch

La Ventana is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico, at 135 feet, and was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.

It actually lies not in the National Monument (incidentally, as a Brit I always find it odd that a large area of land can be called a ‘monument’, which to us is usually a statue or other stone structure!) but in the neighbouring El Malpais National Conservation Area. The arch is very accessible (just a short walk along a gently climbing trail) and is a very impressive sight, although having seen the arches in Arches National Park some years ago we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t possible to get to a position where this arch can be seen silhouetted against the sky. Well, maybe it is possible, but it would involve a lot of scrambling across a rocky hillside dotted with warning signs about not going off the trail!

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La Ventana Arch from the trail - the last photo taken at the closest accessible point

The first part of the trail was paved and could be easily followed by someone in a wheelchair. After a while however, the paving turned to a rougher stony track, but not before we had seen the arch in the distance. From here it ascended slightly but it was a very easy walk which most people will manage in about 10 minutes or so.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

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Sandstone Bluffs

This was probably my favourite of the three stops we made in El Malpais, towards the northern end of this section of the park. An easy drive on a gravel road (fine in a 2WD) brought us to a ridge of sandstone high above the lava flows. From here we had a magnificent view of the El Malpais lava flows below and the sweeping expanse of the landscape beyond. Standing here our feet were on 200-million-year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, while below us were the beds of much younger (3,000 year-old) lava that swept through and around the bluffs when McCartys Volcano erupted, and beyond lie the distant range around Mount Taylor.

There are no marked trails here, you simply park in the large parking lot and explore wherever you want to. We just walked along the edge of the bluff to get a variety of views, but you can, if you don’t mind heights and have the time that we lacked, walk further out on to the jutting peninsula of sandstone. You need to be aware though that there are no rails or walls here separating you from a very steep drop here, wherever you choose to walk.

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View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

Unfortunately, soon after our arrival here the sun decided to dip behind the late afternoon clouds, and showed no sign of revealing itself again (we were to have a storm later in the evening). This made the landscape a little flatter than I would have liked in the photos, especially my panorama shot above which really doesn’t do justice to the amazing vista. But it does give a really good sense of the scale from the tiny figures just visible on the outcrop on the right. In the distance in this photo you can see a range of mountains, with Mount Taylor towards the left-hand end of the range and Gallo Peak towards the right. Taylor was named for the 12th American President, Zachary Taylor. It is the highest point around here at 11,301 feet and is known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people, who believe it to be the home of the Rainmaker of the North. Gallo is also known as Ram Peak by the Acoma and is 8,664 feet high.

Overnight in Grants

That disappearing sun was our cue to leave the park in search of accommodation for the night. We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation in Grants and had originally intended to look for something near the centre to take advantage of a local restaurant or bar, but when we drove into town everything looked pretty quiet, late on this Sunday afternoon, and the Mexican restaurant recommended in our guidebook was very decidedly closed, so there seemed no point in staying here.

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Our nice big bedroom!

While we’re not enamoured of the motel strips found on the outskirts of US towns as a general rule, on this occasion it seemed to be the most obvious choice, and with what looked like a storm brewing we opted for a motel with its own restaurant, the Best Western. It proved to be a good choice, starting with the undeserved discount we received on check-in – the receptionist asked if we were AAA members, we said not, and she gave us the discount anyway!

Our room was one of their standard ones but was more than adequate for our needs – a good size, with two queen beds and located at the back of the building in a quiet corner. We couldn’t really hear any traffic at all here, and although we could hear the trains whistling now and then during the night, I had no complaints as I love to hear them blow. We also got a great view of that approaching storm, as a bonus!

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Stormy Grants sunset

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Chris in the restaurant

We ate in the motel’s restaurant that evening, the New Mexico Steakhouse, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. The décor wasn’t bad for a hotel restaurant either, if not particularly imaginative: faded textiles, large booths around the edge, and lots of old Western paraphernalia attached to the walls. There were saddles, stirrups, rifles, but also assorted household items such as jugs and enamel bowls – the sort of stuff we’d been seeing piled high in so-called ‘antique’ shops (aka junk no one else had a home for) but which worked well in this setting. The service was friendly, and the sole waiter coped well with a reasonably busy room. We were pleased to be shown to one of the booths even though there were just two of us, and he immediately offered to bring beers from the bar across the lobby if we wanted a larger selection than the few on the menu, which we did!

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Pollo Santa Fe

Chris decided to keep things simple and went for the traditional cheeseburger (he could also have had one served New Mexican style with green chilli). I chose the Pollo Santa Fe, a chicken breast covered with melted cheese and green chilli sauce, served with rice and beans, and in a fit of guilt at how unhealthily I had been eating, added a house salad. This latter came with a good blue cheese dressing (yes, I know I said healthy, but ...) and was a generous enough size for us to share. My chicken dish was delicious and I really enjoyed it.

We then decided on a night-cap in the sports-themed Rookies Bar which was very large and very empty – just us and the barmaid! It seemed that most of the people who’d been eating in the restaurant were staying in other nearby motels and had come over to eat here as it was probably the best choice in this rather uninspiring strip. So after one drink we left and relaxed in front of the large TV in our room before another fairly early night. It had been a busy day, with our longest drive of the trip so far.

Incidentally the Best Western seems now to be a Red Lion Hotel, and both it and the steak house restaurant get much less positive reviews than I gave them eight years ago on Virtual Tourist.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:12 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes buildings architecture road_trip history views church photography national_park science space new_mexico Comments (8)

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